In this section we look more closely at how individuals and groups function. We look more closely at the complementary nature of abilities to appraise situations and abilities to carry out selected actions. We take note of the fact that the abilities of individuals are made possible in part by the way the individual’s body is structured, while the abilities of groups are made possible in part by the way the group is organized. Then we give attention to the ways actions are classified and how these classifications tend to shape our understanding of abilities, well-being, and doing good. Finally, we discuss the dimensions of expertise.
A stimulus and a response are not normally discrete events. Rather, situations usually change continuously, and responses typically begin smoothly, involve one or more continuously performed actions, and then end smoothly. This smooth motion is typically controlled by a feedback system. In barest outline, a feedback system consists of receptors, which sense the condition to be corrected, effectors, which perform the corrective action, and a control mechanism, which receives information from the receptors, determines the discrepancy between the current condition and the goal, and sends signals to the effectors to reduce the discrepancy. The feedback system continues to operate until the goal has been reached and is reactivated whenever the condition needing correction recurs.
Most kinds of organisms have feedback systems that control various internal processes, such as digestion, and others that enable it to perform functions relative to its environment.
Many organisms of even moderate complexity are able to pursue multilevel goals. For example, an organism may be able to move its legs so as to move forward and maintain its balance and also be able to direct its motion toward food that it sees or smells. Parts of the body are performing local functions while the body as a whole performs global functions. In higher organisms some global functions may be cascaded; tactical moves may serve a broader strategy.
All of these remarks apply to groups of organisms as well as to individuals. In order for the group or the organism as a whole to function properly the various parts that perform local functions must communicate information about what they are doing to the higher level control centers. The higher level control centers, in turn, must transmit new goals and revisions of goals to the functional components. As one moves up the evolutionary scale or moves to more complex organizations, the number of types of “functional components” increases and the rules governing communication between these components become more complex.
The bodies of higher animals are composed of many different kinds of cells, such as bone cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, gland cells, and red and white corpuscles. Some cells propel themselves from place to place. Others are joined together to form tissues, which in turn are joined together to form organs. The nerve cells exist in bundles that make up the peripheral and central nervous systems. Each type of cell performs a special function, and the organs and other aggregates of which cells are a part also perform special functions. Each type of cell has its own typical life span of youth, maturity and old age. Some of the cells that make up a portion of tissue may break away from that portion, migrate to a nearby area, and join with other cells of their kind to form a new or repaired portion of tissue. Each cell individually has various capacities for responding to its external environment, and each cell and each higher level component of the body plays a role in creating the responsive capacities of the organism as a whole. Each cell, each bodily organ, and each complete organism has receptors which sense certain external conditions and instigate the formation of a response. Certain external disturbances cause sudden discrete reactions, such as the “knee-jerk reflex”. Most external conditions, however, bring about smoothly started and smoothly terminated responses, controlled by feedback systems which produce continuous adjustments.
Human beings can learn to ride bicycles. While a person is riding a bicycle a variety of bodily functions are being carried out without any conscious control being exercised. Breathing and the heart rate are being regulated. Perspiration is released to regulate the body temperature. The semicircular canals of the inner ear enable the cyclist to maintain his balance. Occasionally he may give attention to maneuvering the bicycle or to choosing the route to follow, but otherwise he is free to think about his friends, or the international situation, or what he will do in the weeks or years ahead.
Not only do separate parts and systems of the body function independently but parts of the brain also function in a nearly independent fashion. The brains of the higher mammals have three components: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. The reptilian brain provides the basic machinery for controlling reproduction and self-preservation and for regulating the heart, blood circulation and breathing. The limbic system is the source of all emotions. The neocortex, in human beings, supports oral and written language skills, symbolic and abstract thought, the representation of spatial relationships, planning and imagination. Each of the three brains has its own memory and can acquire or perfect abilities through trial and error (Sagan 51-79).
The reptilian brain surrounds the top of the spinal column. The reptilian brain in mammals is nearly surrounded by the limbic system, which in primates, dolphins and whales in turn is nearly surrounded by the neocortex. Not only do these three brain components perform separate functions and, to a significant extent, control separate activities but the brain is also divided into right and left halves or hemispheres. These hemispheres receive messages from and control opposite sides of the body. To some extent they also support separate functions, although the division may be somewhat different in different sexes and different individuals.
In a somewhat analogous way groups are made up of individuals. Different individuals have different degrees of freedom to migrate and to change their roles within the group. In all but the smallest groups of human beings, people are divided into groups of three to ten persons each, typically, each with a distinct function. Where groups are sufficiently large, hierarchical organizations are formed, often with several specialized decision-making functions within the control centers at the top. And there may be such hierarchical organizations within other hierarchical organizations.
In terms of the distinction made earlier between abilities to recognize, differentiate, and assess and abilities to act, we see that both kinds of abilities exist and are coupled together at many different levels. Goal setting and the achievement of goals by means of feedback systems occur at many different levels. We see also that appraisal of situations is done both at discrete levels and as a multilevel activity. This is true also of the carrying out of actions.
Actions and abilities may be classified in many different ways. Commonly they are classified according to what is produced. In economic terms we often classify what is produced as being either a good or a service, and we have elaborate schemes for classifying both goods and services. Goods, generally, are either material goods that are physically useful in themselves or they are useful for the information they contain or for their aesthetic qualities. Services, generally, are either related to the production of goods or other services or they relate to the care of persons or other living things.
An important category of human abilities consists of abilities to interact with others effectively. Generally, this means being able to have desirable effects upon others that ultimately help to bring about substantial achievements. Interacting with others in this way is a way of serving them, because it helps them be more effective human beings. In relation to the terms “goods” and “services”, this would count as an ability to provide services. It might consist largely of being courteous and showing respect. It might be a matter of being pleasant and having interesting things to say. An important way of being pleasant is to be attentive to what others say and how they act and, in that way, recognize certain of their abilities. If a person or a group has an ability to have beneficial effects upon others consistently, it would count as a virtue, or a combination of virtues, as discussed in the section, beginning on page 70, on “Virtues” in Chapter 5.
It will contribute to our overall understanding of well-being and doing good to think of goods and services as including what we might call “social” goods and services as well as “economic” ones. Thus we include products and actions that are beneficial, whether or not they could be sold for money. Our understanding of the word “beneficial” is that it refers to something that contributes to the lasting expansion of abilities, usually the abilities of some person or group of persons.
From another perspective, all actions are movements (movements of physical matter, of the body or parts of the body, or of persons or other living things), and all abilities are abilities to bring about such movements. We expand our abilities by learning to bring about more and more complex movements. One class of abilities consists of abilities to bring about changes in our material environment: to manufacture, assemble, plow, pour, polish, break, trample, wash, bend, mold, etc. Another class consists of abilities to communicate: to make gestures, to speak (moving the vocal chords), or to write (moving the hand or the fingers of both hands). A third class employs other bodily movements: athletic activities, dancing, and the basic biological functions of feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction. A fourth class involves abilities to consistently exhibit certain qualities of behavior such as particular virtues. This fourth class of abilities, which may be called abilities of conduct, are discussed in the section on “Virtues”, beginning on page 70 and the section on “Abilities for Conducting One’s Life”, beginning on page 76, both in Chapter 5.
Our classifications of abilities may seem one-sided, or pollyannaish, in that they provide a vocabulary for identifying ways of doing good but none for ways of doing harm. This one-sidedness will be corrected in due time. Specifically, the section on “Self-Disablement and Harming Others” (pages 66 ff) in Chapter 5 will deal with the ways of doing harm to oneself and to others. However, it needs to be recognized that the vocabulary available to us (including the phrase “goods and services”) carries a positive, forward-looking bias because that is the direction of human aspirations and concerns. The general perspective that is being argued for here is that doing good is the proper mode of responding to the world that we human beings find ourselves in. Doing harm according to this perspective is pathological and is misdirected behavior. The proper response to bad behavior is to try to deter repetition and to also try to help those who have behaved badly to acquire the abilities that will enlarge their capacities and their readiness to do good. The abilities of each person and each group to discourage bad behavior and to encourage good behavior are among the abilities that need to be expanded and strengthened. The basic claim is that: (1) there are natural directions in which abilities can be expanded and in which they will be mutually reinforcing, and (2) there are other directions that are naturally destructive and self-defeating. There is thus an objective difference between what is good and what is bad, although discerning between them is often difficult, both in hypothetical cases and in real ones. It is precisely the development of powers of discernment, of learning to distinguish what will be helpful from what will be harmful and how to actually carry out helpful actions that is the natural vocation of every person, of every group, and of humankind as a whole.
We need to aim, of course, not just at doing things but at doing them well. Associated with each basic ability to perform a particular kind of action are two dimensions of expertise: proficiency and competence.
Proficiency has to do with meeting standards of excellence or craftsmanship and being able to perform the action efficiently.
Competence involves not only being able to do something but also being able to take responsibility for what is done. This means being able to foresee consequences and, with reasonable assurance, perform the task in such a way as to bring about the desired results and avoid undesirable consequences. This requires a more sophisticated appraisal of the situation and a greater knowledge of, or ability to ascertain, what is desirable.
Competence requires an ability to estimate costs of performing the action as well as foreseeing other consequences. These costs are typically amounts of labor, materials, and money to be expended and amounts of time to be taken for completion of various subtasks. There may also be risks of injury, to the performer, to the “customer,” and to others, to be estimated.
Competence often involves the abilities to be discussed next.