The chapter presents a theory of abilities. Abilities are taken as the distinctive possessions of living organisms and of what are here referred to as “responsive beings.” Abilities are important to us because they are what enable human beings to bring about intended changes in the world and because, if we include such elementary capacities as seeing, hearing, feeling, and recalling memories among our abilities, all human satisfaction comes through the exercise of abilities.
General Characteristics of Abilities
It will be recalled that “abilities” are to be thought of as capacities for doing certain things or for responding to conditions in certain ways. These capacities are to be understood as existing currently and being currently available to be exercised. They are not aptitudes or talents or potentials that might be realized at some time in the future. It is also to be understood that various levels of proficiency are associated with abilities. Being able to do something is not always the same as being able to do it well.
The abilities of individual human beings consist of all that they individually are able to do: the physical feats they can perform, what they can read and write and say, the types of questions they can answer, the sorts of problems they can solve, the explanations they can give, the impressions they can make on others, the effects they can have on the opinions, actions, and abilities of others, etc. A person’s abilities include but extend beyond what are normally classified as skills. As is discussed at greater length in the sections entitled “Virtues” (pages 70 ff) and “Abilities for Conducting One’s Life” (pages 76 ff) of Chapter 5, a person’s so-called “character traits” and the manner in which one manages and conducts one’s life can also be thought of as products and manifestations of certain types of abilities.
The Biological Perspective on Well-being
An understanding of how abilities contribute to
well-being can be gained from a biological perspective. Abilities can be thought of as pertaining not only to human beings but also to other species of animals, to all forms of plant life, and to one-celled organisms. Thus deciduous trees have the ability to extend their branches toward the sunlight, to cease nourishing their leaves in one season of the year (causing the leaves to change color and drop off), and to send forth new growth in another season. One-celled organisms have abilities that continue to be studied and described by microbiologists. Abilities then are capacities to respond to external or internal stimuli or to external or internal conditions. Well-being can be seen as a matter of flourishing and functioning fully, a natural result of an appropriate and healthful environment.
How abilities contribute to well-being can be determined in part using the methods of zoologists and botanists. Zoologists study the physical characteristics, habitats, and patterns of behavior of various species of animals. They learn how their ways of securing food, protecting themselves, and rearing their young improve their chances of survival. They learn about patterns of interaction between members of the same species. In the case of social animals, zoologists learn about divisions of labor, patterns of cooperative behavior, and the types of messages employed in bringing about such cooperation. Similarly, botanists determine how the structural characteristics of various forms of plant life and their responses to particular conditions enable them to flourish in some environments and not in others.[i]
It should be noted that well-being is not just a matter of survival. It is a matter of flourishing, of hardiness, of vigorous growth, of resistance to disease and other pathological conditions, and of being able to maintain some level of security. At the high end of the evolutionary scale, well-being tends to be more and more an actively created state of affairs rather than being environmentally furnished. For human beings, due to the global scale of their interdependencies, an ideal state of well-being would be a condition in which there was a broad sustainable expansion of abilities among individuals and groups equitably distributed throughout the whole of humanity.
Dependency on Resources, Assistance, and Positions
Of critical importance to any notion of “equitable distribution” is an understanding of the conditionality of abilities. This involves recognizing the factors on which abilities are dependent.
Many abilities of individuals depend in part on the resources that the individuals have at their command. Farmers need land and tractors in order to grow crops. Tradesmen need the tools of their trade. Thus whatever goods and services are needed by an individual in order to be able to fill his or her appropriate productive role in society count as needed resources. This is not intended to suggest that persons have a right or an entitlement to unlimited resources. What is claimed is that human
well-being is dependent upon everyone having access to appropriate resources. The appropriate resources are those needed to enable the individual to live a characteristically human life. This entails pursuing a course of acquiring and exercising abilities that will allow the individual in adult life to fill, and function fully within, an ecological niche utilizing his or her aptitudes.
What a person is able to do may be constrained by the types and amounts of assistance the person is able to obtain from others as well as by the types and amounts of resources he or she can command. Of course, one may be able to obtain assistance from others by paying them. One also may be in a position to grant future favors to others, and this circumstance may be a source of power for the person. It is also possible for a person to be working toward a declared goal to which others are willing to give their assistance without being paid or materially rewarded.
However the assistance of others is secured, the availability of that assistance may add to one’s abilities. As with resources, there must be certain kinds and levels of assistance available to a person to enable him or her to fill a particular ecological niche.
In addition to there being some abilities that are dependent upon appropriate kinds and amounts of resources and some dependent upon appropriate assistance, there are abilities that are dependent on holding a certain kind of position or office. Thus one cannot manage a division of a business firm unless one has been appointed to that position. One cannot legally perform brain surgery unless one has been licensed by the state and accepted as a neurosurgeon by a hospital.
Holding a particular position or office normally means having access to certain resources and forms of assistance. Holding a position or office also normally entails being obligated to provide certain types of assistance to certain other office holders.
As with resources and assistance, appropriate offices need to be available to persons who need to hold those offices in order to function fully. It is to be expected that there will be competition for many offices. To alleviate antagonism, three measures are necessary: (1) awarding of offices on the basis of the abilities already possessed by the candidates, (2) rotating persons through offices, and (3) ensuring that each office carries with it only the minimal powers required for the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.
Well-being and Abilities of Groups
To fully understand how abilities are related to
well-being and to doing good, it is necessary to think of abilities as being possessed by groups as well as by individuals. The abilities of a group are determined in part by the abilities of the group’s members and in part by how well the patterns of communication within the group enable the members to coordinate their efforts.
Human well-being is affected and shaped by each person’s relationships with other individuals, his or her relationships with various groups, the abilities and
well-being of these and other groups, and the well-being of multitudes of other species of plant and animal life. Each category of workers, craft, and profession within the human population and each nonhuman species can be thought of as occupying a certain ecological niche. Well-being is a matter of functioning fully within an ecological niche. For human beings, well-being also involves sharing in a common life of intellect, emotion, spirituality, and moral consciousness.
Abilities and Actions
There is a reciprocal relationship between abilities and actions. The actions of an organism or a group are made possible by the abilities of that organism or group. The actions manifest and demonstrate the abilities. Abilities are acquired by a trial and error process of attempted actions. The first attempt at an action is often faulty. Repeated tries tend to bring about improved performance. The acquisition of abilities begins when an organism first begins to take form. Thus as an embryo develops by cell division from a single fertilized ovum it continually exercises and expands its capacities. This exercising of abilities and acquisition of new abilities continues through birth, through being young, through adulthood and whatever metamorphoses occur, and through declining old age. Repetition of actions brings about more than just increases in proficiency. Repetition in varied circumstances brings gains in flexibility of application of the ability. By varying the way the action is performed, different effects are achieved and the ability is broadened.
Thus actions are formed out of abilities, and abilities are formed out of actions. The acquisition of abilities is called “learning”, and the word “learning” has, in fact, no other meaning. Actions are brought about by the “exercise” or “use” of abilities, and abilities are learned through practice. Higher learning is the acquisition of higher abilities, abilities that depend upon and are built out of more elementary abilities. One negative aspect of academic learning arises from the fact that it largely consists of learning to employ certain concepts, theories and principles in discussions rather than in actually making decisions and determining responses to real problems. Discussion is of course necessary to clarify issues. But to the extent that academic life and practical life are content to be divorced from each other, both suffer.
Structure and History of Development of Abilities
Abilities have a structure and a history of development. The structure of any one ability can be thought of as a diagram showing that ability as being composed of more elementary abilities. One can think of combining several of these diagrams to show how some group of high level abilities depend upon one or more levels of more elementary abilities. Different structures of this sort could be assembled for different purposes. Each person and each group presumably has an interest in understanding their own abilities and the abilities of the persons and groups with which they have significant contact. Actually constructing a diagram of abilities would involve having a way of identifying the various abilities that are to be represented. In ordinary speech, abilities are identified either by a name, such as “arc welding”, or by a phrase such as “COBOL programming for financial applications” or “able to _____”. The amount of detail that can be put into a diagram of abilities is largely determined by what is known of the history of development of those abilities. Histories of development can be of various kinds. Usually one is interested in how a certain ability or group of related abilities was acquired and utilized over a given time period by some individual or group of individuals. One normally wants to know all that can be known about the desires that motivated the actions and about how successful or unsuccessful the actions were in bringing about the desired results.
Acquiring Knowledge of Consequences and Taking Responsibility
As just mentioned, actions have consequences. An important aspect of an ability is choosing the proper times and circumstances for using the ability. Making the right choice involves: (1) being able to recognize the features of a situation that determine the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a possible action, and (2) being able to foresee the consequences of the action. Foreseeing the consequences involves noticing what consequences have occurred in the past under varying circumstances and under varying ways of tailoring the performance of the action. Knowing not only how to do something but also when to do it and how to fit the doing of it to the requirements of the situation has a name: competence. Competence also often involves being able to estimate times and costs, to manage operations, and to deal with the unexpected.
Abilities can be divided into two categories. In the first category are abilities to recognize, differentiate, and assess. In the second category are abilities to act. The next section is concerned with appraisal of situations (the first category), and the one section after that is concerned with acting.