For most of the history of Western moral and political thinking, teleological notions held sway. For beginners, teleology revolves around the claim that some things have a natural end, aka a telos, or “final cause.” The end of the heart for example is to see to it that the body receives the nutrients contained in the blood. Where something has an end, it also has a function; it’s function being to produce its end. So again, the function of the heart is to pump blood so that it may fulfill its end of providing nutrients to the body. Furthermore, where a thing has a function it has certain features that allow it to perform its function. These are the virtues or excellences of the thing and it is the possession of the excellences or virtues that make an item a good one of its kind.

Politics was traditionally conceived of as the study of the good for mankind, ethics as the cultivation of virtue. This general framework held sway for 2000 years through Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages, where it perhaps attained its finest elaboration of the work of Aquinas. Strands even survived into the 20th century.[1] However, Aristotle tried to apply teleology to physics, and so his explanation for why, say, fire rises, was that it was the end, or final cause, of fire to go up. His explanation for why stones move downward when you drop them was that it was the final cause for stones to move downward. In other words, it was not much of an explanation. Rejection of final causes paved the way for the magnificent success of atomism and Newtonian physics as they swept away the teleological approach which had dominated for millennia. The movement of objects could now be explained by natural forces and laws without having to refer to final causes at all. As Hume writes:

“all causes are of the same kind, and that in particular there is no foundation for that distinction, which we sometimes make betwixt efficient causes, and causes sine qua non; or betwixt efficient causes, and formal, and material, and exemplary, and final causes.”[2]

This scientific revolution and its banishment of teleology was then applied to the understanding of humans: the individual self became a kind of atom with its own energy in the form of desires, politics became the study of the interactions of another kind of particle known as classes. Teleology was hunted out of place after place until the faculties of the mind as well were thought of not as having functions and purposes, but mere dispositions to act under certain circumstances—to produce behavioral “outputs” in response to sensory “inputs”—the way a physical object has a disposition to behave when acted upon by external forces.

But with functions and ends also went excellences, virtues, and goods. It then became the task of moral philosophy to find a place for value and morality in this new world consisting merely of atoms subject to natural forces. At first it seemed as if physics might provide a model.  Just as physical bodies were subject to laws of nature, it was thought that the human will might be subject to moral laws of nature, or laws of reason. Kant’s view of human reason as legislating universal laws is the purest elucidation of this idea. Since reason works on universal principles, moral rules thus became a kind of law of nature in the form of universal rights. What exactly our rights were was always the subject of disputes both intellectual and military. How do we come to know what our rights are? Are rights a scientific discovery? A metaphysical insight? A rule of reason? Merely utilitarian? Why hadn’t anyone realized this before? These questions were never satisfactorily answered. Also troubling was that atoms are not the kind of things that are good or bad, and no combination of them seems to add up to values. To put it in Hume’s terms, no matter of fact or relation of ideas can produce a value.

Well, it was thought in reply, if the universe has no values, at least we do. Thus utilitarianism treated all our desires equally and thought that we ought to seek the maximum satisfaction of our desires.[3] However, without a standard of goodness other than that something is desired, utilitarianism was unable to differentiate between good and bad desires such as, say, the desire that others suffer.

The model of the inherently free, self-governing, isolated, monadic self existing in a universe governed by universal rights is the essence of liberalism. Somewhere in between the self down below and universal rights up above lay culture, which came to be understood as an evil that ought to be thrown off as it merely serves to limit the freedom of the self. Ones cultural heritage, ones faith, ones family traditions, ones local attachments and affections all became imposed impediments and limitation to the free exercise of ones autonomous self-fulfillment, the true meaning of life.

Although modern philosophy claimed to eschew teleology, it was never quite able to do without it whenever it came to understanding matters of morality. For example, Kant himself speculated about the ends and function of nature, thinking that “no organ is to be found for any end unless it be the most fit and best adapted for that end” and that “the true function [of reason] must be to produce a will which is … good in itself” [emphasis mine]. Locke speculated about the “end of matrimony,” (specifically looking at nature’s ends in other animals in order to understand human behavior) and “the end of civil society.”

Just as it seemed the last vestiges of teleology had been wiped away from Western thought, it has made a comeback in recent decades. See “The modern philosophical resurrection of teleology” by Mark Perlman for a nice history of this revival and an overview of the various positions on the issue. The main issue was that it seems clear that biological items such as hearts do in fact have functions. This is as much a natural phenomena as the things studied by physics. Biology is focused on understanding the functions of the kidneys, the liver, mitochondria, etc., and how these things go about performing them, as well as the reasons why they sometimes fail to perform them. There still remained the problem of understanding which of all the things something can do are its function? Why is it the function of the heart to pump blood rather than to make a “lub-dub” sound?

For my money, the Enlightenment came to an end in 1984 with the publication of Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories:  New Grounds for Realism.  Here, Millikan killed off the final remnants of Descartes with her attack on “meaning rationalism,” revived Aristotelian realism about substances, and explained how teleology fits into the natural world.  According to Millikan, to have a feature as a “proper function” requires that the item was copied from previous ancestors (the way our genes are copied from our parents’ genes for example, or that manufactured items are copies of a prototype or blueprint) and that it was selected as opposed to objects lacking this feature because it did this thing. And so a hammer has driving nails as a function because it was its ability of previous hammers to drive nails by possessing some particular shape and hardness that caused this hammer get its shape and hardness through our copying these features in manufacture. Similarly, hearts have pumping blood as their function because it is due to that fact that its ancestors pumped blood that has helped account for proliferation of the genes responsible for making hearts.[5] The possession of a proper function is a purely natural fact of the matter as to whether an item possesses such a history.

To understand something’s function then is to understand why it keeps getting copied or reproduced:  what has it done that accounts for its continued reproduction?  Modern philosophy’s great oversight was its failure to include history as a feature of objects along with primary and secondary qualities.  (I sometimes wonder how things would have been different had Descartes held a bird in his hands instead of a piece of wax.  He would have had to try to account for the fact that the birds wings and feathers seem to have a function, but he would have been unable to have accounted for this (he probably would have concluded that God put this notion in him)).  This approach has the additional benefit in that it allows us to understand where classical teleology went wrong. Atoms, rocks, fire, chemical compounds, planets, and the like do not possess a history of selection and copying and so do not have functions.

It is clear to me that with teleology once again philosophically respectable and rightly understood the Western liberalism which grew up around the rejection of teleology is doomed. The main reason is that the cracks in the pillars of liberalism are now so deep, and the foundation so undermined, that the only reason the entire edifice hasn’t come crumbling down is that there has been nothing on offer to replace it. No one believes in the traditional liberal view of the self, no one really believes that utilitarianism is correct, nobody believes that universal rights are a priori moral principles, and everyone believes the nihilistic replacements that have been offered–post-modernism, emotivism, deconstructivism, multiculturalism–are even worse.

The reason Christians and secularists get along so well in the, whatever it is we are calling ourselves this week, is that we both accept teleology.  This blog is primarily about in what ways modern teleology can do the work it once did for Aristotle and Aquinas. In short, my argument will be that in place of utilitarianism which sought to replace nature’s ends with human ends, virtue ethics will once again be the name of the game (see here.)  In place of universal values, local historical contingencies will be respected. Instead of demands for abstract rights, claims will be resolved on the basis of social functions and their attendant virtues.  Instead of seeing oneself as an isolated monad, we will see ourselves as a part of a historical tradition. Instead of rejecting culture, tradition, and heritage, these things will be seen as ones identity, great inheritance, and moral guide.  I argue for these points in the succeeding posts.

[1] For a discussion of this history see Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
[2] Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1, section XIV.
[3] Mill of course did try to separate, unsuccessfully, between higher and lower pleasures, the former of which was to receive greater consideration.

[5] See Millikan’s “Propensities, Exaptations, and the Brain” in White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.