Part I is here.

The Revival of Teleology: Functions as Selected Effects

Virtue ethics went out of favor when modern philosophy eschewed the teleology upon which it rested (see my “Teleology and the Dark Enlightenment”). But teleology has undergone remarkable comeback in recent decades in philosophy, sparked by the publication of Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories, in 1984. (Find an article called “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 is its function? Hearts do lots of things: they squish when stepped on, they freeze when put in liquid nitrogen, they take up space in the chest, they have a mass, they make “lub-dub” sound, they pump blood. Of all the things hearts do, what is special about pumping blood?

The modern approach to functions is called the “selected effects,” or etiological, or teleofunctional approach. According to Millikan, to have a “proper function” requires that the features of an item were 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 they were 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–not that they squish when stepped on, or make a “lub-dub” sound–that has helped account for proliferation of the genes responsible for making hearts. 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 what effect its ancestors produced that explained why these features keep getting copied or reproduced. To put it more simply, you can think of an item’s teleofunction as what it was selected for. 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.

As Plato and Aristotle said, the virtues or excellences are the features of a thing that allow it to perform its function. The same account can be given of the etiological functions we have been discussing. Having naturalized function, we have also naturalized virtue. As I mentioned, the etiological account of function focuses on certain features that are reproduced because they historically produce some effect. The structure of the heart is reproduced each generation because this structure has historically been selected for their ability to produce the effect of pump blood. The features of computers are reproduced as they roll off the assembly line because these features can process information. Shoes possess the features they do because these features are good for hiking, or running, or look fashionable (whatever the function of this particular kind of shoe is.) These features selected for reproduction because they historically produced their selected effect are the virtues or excellences of the item in question. Thus, the possession of virtues is just as objective a fact as any other natural fact. (There are philosophical arguments that something normative like a virtue can not be natural properties, but they are wrong. See John Post’s important book From Nature to Norm.)

Strangely, although both teleology and virtue ethics have made a comeback in recent decades, no one to my knowledge has managed to put the two of them together. (Fillippa Foot comes close in Natural Goodness, but chickens out.)  That is the aim of this current series of posts.

Biofunctional psychology

What we now need to do is apply the etiological framework to understanding psychology. I said in Part I that I agree with Plato that virtue involves controlling the appetites and emotions, but I have also agreed with Hume that reason can not produce any action. How can a make these two views compatible? The first step is to present a modern, biological view of psychology which profits from the contemporary view of teleology I just outlined.

Biofunctional psychology looks to understand psychological states—beliefs, desires, intentions, feelings—the way a biologist looks at hearts, livers, and kidneys. That is, it looks to understand what it is these mental processes do (or better yet, what their ancestors did) that has proven to be evolutionarily advantageous.

The same approach I outlined above when discussing the function of hearts can be given to the understanding of psychological states. For example, take hunger. What does the subjective feeling of hunger do for the organism that benefits it? The answer is that the function of appetites like hunger is to get the organism to perform a certain behavior–food procurement in this case. Other psychological processes can be given a likewise functional understanding. The function of emotions such as fear, for example, is to produce certain behavior; to seek safety in this case. The function of beliefs is to be combined with other true beliefs in order to form new true beliefs in the process of inference, and ultimately to be invoked by desires in guiding them in successful actions. The function of desires is to produce the conditions of their own fulfillment. Notice that the function of all psychological states is ultimately to contribute to successful behavior; beliefs are supposed to be true because it is by being true and representing the world in an accurate way that they may invoked by desires as useful guides for behavior. (Those interested in biofunctional psychology should read Millikan’s White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice.)

Even though it is the function of psychological states is to produce certain behaviors, we do have the ability to resist, to some degree, the behaviors that our appetites and emotions are designed to produce. I can resist acting on my hunger, at least for a while, and someone like Ghandi who is fiercely dedicated to a cause can resist it for much longer periods. What allows us to do this?

Social emotions:

There is another class of emotions that we can call the social emotions. For example, does a solitary animal like a bear feel loneliness? I doubt it. They at least don’t display any behavior that would indicate they are distressed by their solitary life. But herd animals like sheep or goats become very agitated when isolated. Humans are similar in that we experience social emotions like loneliness, anxiety, and fear of exclusion. Our long evolutionary history as social creatures has built into our psychology a wide range of social emotions. These emotions are designed to benefit us in our relations with other people.

Take bravery, for example. Soldiers almost universally report that what motivates their bravery is their regard for the opinion of men in their unit. It is not some rational calculation as to whether they are in a situation that ought to be feared, as Plato says. They do not want to let down their squadmates and bear the social consequences. This regard for the opinion of their squadmates allows them to overcome the urging of their fear in acts of bravery. (Sometimes the fear proves to be too much and they neglect their duty. This is why the military always must punish deserters. If their fear of danger proves stronger than their fear of ostracism, then fear of the firing squad will have to be even stronger.)

So this is the function of the social emotions, to produce behavior that is beneficial in our relationships with other people. But what’s more is that the social emotions are designed to resist the appetites. In the soldier example above, the fear the individual felt was resisted by the concern for the good opinion of his squadmates. Our long history as social animals has shown that our relationships with others is often (though not always) more important that the immediate satisfaction of our appetites and emotions. Nature has given us the social emotions in order allow us to restrain the emotions and appetites in social situations where it is beneficial to do so.

And so this is the way to square Plato and Hume. Virtue is indeed the controlling of the appetites and emotions, but it is not the reason that does the controlling. Hume is right that reason alone can not produce or prevent a behavior. But he ignores the necessity to control our appetites in order for virtue to flourish. What controls the appetites in the case of social virtues is not reason but the social emotions which are designed to control the appetites and emotions in order to produce mutually-beneficial cooperative effects on others.

Social virtues:

Putting these threads together allows us to produce an account of the social virtues. There are virtues other than the social virtues, but I will be emphasizing the latter. For example, take someone who resists his fear to make a risky business decision. I don’t wish to enter into a semantic discussion as to whether this really counts as bravery or whether some other term such as “nerve” is more suitable. There are a whole host of these immediately useful virtues such as practical wisdom, intelligence, frugality, determination, and so on. I am going to restrict myself to discussing the social virtues.

Social virtues are the resistance to an appetite or emotion in favor of producing an advantageous effect on other people driven by the social emotions. So social bravery is the resistance to acting on one’s fear driven by the desire to produce a favorable, or avoid an unfavorable, reaction in other people. Our concern for our reputation and fear of the harmful consequences of developing a negative reputation–ostracism, alienation, enemies, and the like–drive us to resist doing what fear is prodding us to do.

We will apply this framework to additional virtues in part III