It will make the exposition of the ethical theory of “doing the most good” easier to understand if an overview of the theory is presented first. That is the purpose of this chapter.
This book suggests an approach to reaching agreement as to what is worth doing, what goals to choose, and what resolution of disputes to settle upon. It sets forth a practical and objective criterion for evaluating various possible ways of doing good and shows why living and working to do the most good by this criterion gives the life of an individual or a group the fullest possible meaning and purpose and yields the greatest possible satisfaction. Thus it leads to a new understanding of what constitutes a “good life” and what constitutes a “well-ordered society.” The evaluation criterion is intended to be usable by informal groups, public and private organizations, business firms, and governments as well as individuals. The approach provides an understanding of a moral order involving all “responsive beings”, meaning all individual beings, groups and systems that process information to create behavior. This moral order includes all living things and all computerized entities.
We begin by looking at some important terms whose meaning is usually quite vague.
The words “ability” and “good” are perhaps the two words in the English language whose meanings are least precise, with “well-being” also ranking high in ambiguity. Other modern languages provide no better terms. Hence there is a danger that any discussion of abilities, well-being and “doing good” will produce nothing but confusion. There is, however, a way of escaping this danger, and that is to adopt a clearer and more specific notion of abilities. The concept of “ability” that is needed is of a capacity for doing a more or less specific or describable action. This action can be thought of as a type of “response” to a type of “situation.” The actions are thought of as being subject to being observed and described. The abilities are to be thought of as being capable of being inferred from the observations.
Let us consider some examples. The abilities of a normal adult human being in industrial society would include abilities to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel tactilely; to breathe and eat and drink liquids; to walk, run, dance, and perform tasks of manual labor and physical dexterity; to talk, understand speech, read, write, sing, draw pictures and diagrams and solve problems in arithmetic; to remember and describe past events, scenes, stories, and items of general knowledge; to drive a car, operate a variety of types of equipment, machinery and household appliances; to take care of clothes and personal hygiene, dress appropriately, and do the things that show a regard for health and safety; to hold courteous conversations, reach agreements, and keep promises; to hold a job, handle financial affairs, and function as a member of a household, a family member and a citizen; to express anger and affection and to make his or her friends laugh or listen; and to show some degree of thoughtfulness and dependability. The capacities of a particular person would include his or her particular skills and abilities displaying various personal qualities such as abilities to remember and fulfill certain obligations and perform certain functions and abilities to make other people feel comfortable and at ease. Also included would be abilities to produce particular effects on people generally or on particular people.
Certainly not all of these kinds of information are of interest concerning everyone. The first point to be recognized is that each person–and also each of many social groups–has myriads of abilities. The second point to be recognized, although it may be recognized and appreciated much more gradually, is that it is very worthwhile and valuable to identify and recognize the particular abilities, in oneself and others, that have produced interesting or significant effects.
We have now begun to form a certain concept of “abilities.” Let us turn next to “well-being” and “doing good.”
Well-being is a state of having the abilities, or being able to acquire the abilities, needed to cope with one’s environment. Well-being is also a state of functioning fully or being able to move toward a state of functioning fully. Doing good consists of contributing to the well-being of others through the exercise, maintenance, and expansion of one’s abilities. The exercise, maintenance, and expansion of abilities is the way intended changes are made in the world and the way one gains a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. These statements apply not only to individual human beings but also to groups of human beings and to subhuman individuals and groups, although in the latter cases intentions and emotions are formed somewhat differently.
Coping with one’s environment is an open-ended proposition for persons, groups and nations. Hence well-being is a perpetual challenge, for which mutual help is needed.
Much more remains to be said about abilities and how they relate to well-being and doing good. The theory developed here is rather elaborate, and it will aid our understanding to look at a summary of the theory’s main points before encountering a detailed exposition of it. The main points are given below. Justification for the assertions made will begin in the next chapter.
Abilities are capacities for doing particular things. Abilities are manifested by actions. Actions are the result of exercising 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 (as an embryo or otherwise) and continues through declining old age.
Thus actions are formed out of abilities and abilities are formed out of actions.
Human beings and other living things have abilities, capacities to generate various responses to external and internal conditions based on information reflecting those conditions. (Again, the “abilities” of an individual organism or of any group of organisms are to be understood to consist of what the organism or group is actually able to do. Thus abilities are distinctly different from aptitudes, intelligence or “promise”.) Abilities are acquired over a short or long period of time, are retained and often broadened and strengthened for a short or long period of time, and then are lost when death or some injury or some type of metamorphosis occurs.
Biological evolution has involved an evolution of intracellular structure and chemistry and of cell function, an evolution of internal organs and systems (such as digestive systems and nervous systems), an evolution of species, subspecies, and varieties, each with its own repertoires of abilities and patterns of behavior, an evolution of relationships within and among species in different physical environments, and an evolution in the types of ecological communities (such as pine forests, grasslands and stands of moss) that have existed. Biological evolution has also involved an evolution of abilities, of interactions, and of interdependencies and thus has been a “co-evolution” in which the course of development of each species has been affected by the course of development of many other species. The species that exist today have taken their present form through eons of interaction and ecological adjustment.
What has emerged not only from biological evolution but from the course of human cultural evolution and human recorded history has been an unrelenting expansion of abilities. In the case of wolves, for example, it can be imagined that the way packs have been formed (now formed anew each winter), the hunting techniques that have been used, and the ways hunting activities have been coordinated have evolved over perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.
Biological evolution has involved not only an evolution of types and behaviors of individual organisms but also an evolution of types and behaviors of groups. This evolution has produced groups of living things that are, as groups, able to act in some coordinated or organized way and consequently may be said to possess certain abilities. Ant colonies, wolf packs, tribes of Australian aboriginals, and Rotary Clubs are examples of currently viable types of groups.
In higher mammals the transmission of patterns of behavior from generation to generation is brought about more and more by learning through imitation, through being taught and through discovery and is less and less dependent on genetically transmitted instinct. Imitation, being taught and discovery produce much more flexible patterns of behavior. Abilities are acquired much more gradually, but far richer repertoires of abilities become possible.
The brains of mammals differ in two important respects from the brains of reptiles and lower animals. First, the brains of mammals have a component called the “limbic system” which is less elaborately developed in reptiles. The limbic system is the part of the brain that produces emotions (or, at least the stronger primal emotions) (Sagan 62-9). Second, in higher mammals, including humans and other primates, the limbic system and the reptilian portion of the brain are surrounded by a relatively massive component called the “neocortex.” The neocortex produces representations of visual and auditory data and constructs representations of movements and spatial relationships from this data (Sagan 69-76). The neocortex evidently also constructs representations of the abilities of the organism of which it is a part and of other organisms. The neocortex and the limbic system jointly analyze objects and situations and produce qualitative and quantitative assessments. These assessments involve both dispassionate classification and feelings about the importance or unimportance and satisfactoriness or unsatisfactoriness of the matter at hand.
Any physical change that can properly be called an act or action of an organism or of a responsive entity (such as a group or a robot) is produced by some kind of response system, consisting of several components. One component is a receptor which detects and classifies the condition prompting the response. Another component can be thought of as a catalogue of appropriate responses for the various classifications of conditions needing a response. A third component of the response system is a control mechanism which continually receives a picture of the current condition or situation from the receptor, finds or constructs the most appropriate response from the response catalogue, and transmits a description of the selected response to a fourth component, the effector. The effector, as its name indicates, has the function of executing the commands of the control mechanism, thereby producing the selected response. As a result of repeated trials, adjustments may be made in the receptor’s classification system and in the catalogue’s associated responses.[i]
It seems safe to assume that early in evolutionary history responses were quite simple, consisting of single “triggered” responses to certain kinds of conditions. As evolution progressed, the receptors became more discriminating in their powers to detect and then to classify and measure conditions while the catalogue of responses and the control mechanism’s powers for matching responses from the catalogue to the receptor’s classifications and measurements became greater.
Eventually, there was a continuous tracking of changing conditions and continuous movement in response. The analysis of conditions and the formation of responses became more and more elaborate and came to employ more and more criteria. The response system eventually became a feedback system, continually making corrections to reach a predetermined goal or an optimal outcome.
It is quite likely that the earliest living things had a separate response system connected to each mode of sensing. Only later on were there organisms that could compare information from two or more sensing sources (sight and smell, for example) and use the combined information in choosing a response. Still later, organisms came to have multi-level response systems, that is, response systems that were composites of more elementary response systems. Eventually these response systems became self-correcting. Living things acquired a capacity to adjust the operation of their receptors, control mechanisms, and effectors, and to improve their performance by trial and error.
Abilities are distinctive of “agency”. A much higher level of abilities is possible for actors or agents that have capacities for representing and remembering their past actions and other past events and for being guided by these memories in choosing later actions.
Abilities can be recognized. The strength and success of relationships is highly dependent on the reasonably accurate recognition by each person or group of the abilities of the other. How well or poorly things are done can be recognized also. The identification of abilities needs to involve an effort to identify inabilities and inadequacies so that remedies can be found.
Enjoyment and satisfaction come from the exercise of abilities, at least in human beings and higher mammals. Some kind of sensing of approaching-a-goal and goal-reaching must occur in lower forms of life also. In human beings the enjoyment and satisfaction are relatively greater when they exercise abilities: (1) in which they are proficient, (2) that are comprehensive or require more subtle discrimination, or both, (3) where there is a greater element of purpose and rationality, especially where done as part of an intelligently conceived plan for reaching a clearly desirable goal, (4) where there is social approval of the purpose and the standards of excellence and where the relevant aspects of the action can be discussed with others, (5) where the consequences of the action can be reliably predicted, (6) where the ability contributes to a larger ability, and (7) where done as part of a planned course of acquiring and exercising abilities.
All of these “ingredients for happiness” are important for assessing what is worthwhile and what constitutes doing good.
Human beings and other mammals have faculties for recognition of qualitative features. These faculties can be trained to notice and to distinguish qualities by seeing examples, without the qualities themselves having to be described. People can learn to make judgments responsive to the training they have received about what is clever, interesting, funny, beautiful, helpful, important, morally right, etc. (A “faculty” can be thought of as a physiological structure or set of structures of the body, the nervous system or the brain that enables an organism to possess a particular set of abilities.)
Human emotions play a role, not very well understood, in forming value judgments. If a person values honesty or athletic ability or great musicianship, it is, in part, because of the successes and failures the person has experienced in life. One’s emotional feelings about honesty or athletic ability are affected not only by one’s immediate experience of honesty or dishonesty, athletic skill or shortcomings, but also by how those experiences are mediated by culture: by language, by beliefs, by stories (fairy tales, legends, folk lore).
Emotions are influenced by thought. The emotions that one feels about various objects are available to our consciousness, but the factors and intermediate results of the evaluative process that created a particular emotional feeling are not available to our consciousness. One can try to reconstruct one’s feelings about an object by asking oneself how he or she feels about various related objects, but one often ends up not being able to explain one’s emotions to one’s own satisfaction, or, when one tries, to the satisfaction of someone else.
By habitually analyzing situations and one’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions in terms of the factors referred to as “ingredients for happiness” above, particularly if these matters are discussed frankly with someone else, one can develop an ability to make better use of one’s emotions in helping one form judgments and make decisions.
Knowledge is reliable information. Aside from knowledge about past actions and past events, knowledge is the content of instruction or training about how to respond to various situations. Often this instruction is phrased in terms of how to achieve certain objectives.
Knowledge is reliable when the instruction produces a reliable ability to bring about desirable foreseen results. A set of beliefs constitutes knowledge if the beliefs provide correct guidance on how and when to perform certain actions in order to bring about certain intended consequences.
What Alasdair MacIntyre and Richard Rorty, among other philosophers, call “practices” can usefully be thought of as configurations of abilities, which, in the course of their development, generated their own “vocabularies”, their own bodies of knowledge (understood as defined immediately above), and their own standards of excellence. As Aristotle observed, any kind of apprenticeship involves learning to do certain things well and at the same time learning to distinguish good workmanship from poor.[ii]
Perhaps in many civilizations significant numbers of people have had uneven apprenticeships, learning a diversity of things from a diversity of teachers. These people have had to piece together vocabularies, bodies of knowledge, and standards of excellence for themselves. And often, we may suppose, their work has been little understood by their contemporaries.
Occasionally one of these self-taught persons will make some quite astounding discovery, causing what Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty would call a “revolution”. This gives rise to the need for conversation, as Rorty points out, to bridge the gap created by this discovery and its entourage of new vocabulary, skills, and standards.
Similarly, cultures, subcultures and ways of life are usefully understood to be configurations of practices, and thus more complex configurations of abilities, with their own history of development.
What is good is what promotes the expansion of individual and collective abilities among responsive beings, especially abilities for helping others and most especially abilities for helping those who are otherwise disadvantaged. The “leverage” to be gained by augmenting abilities to help others, especially the disadvantaged needs to be mentioned somewhere. What is bad is what is damaging to the accomplishment of this purpose.
The expansion to be sought is one that promotes the acquisition and strengthening of abilities of individuals and also promotes the combining and organizing of the abilities of individuals to create collective abilities. For groups of individuals there are two objectives to be sought. The first objective is for the group to acquire the characteristics of personhood: to act on the basis of the knowledge it has gained in the course of acquiring and exercising abilities, forming and testing hypotheses, seeking an understanding of principles with others, and becoming an intelligent and morally responsible agent. The second objective is to improve the quality of work life within the group so as to promote the good of the members of the group–i.e., their ability to guide the acquiring and exercising of abilities within and among themselves, their own bildung.[iii]
This concept of goodness has a naturalistic foundation. Both the principle of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) and the natural consequence of learning from experience and being able to communicate and to transmit what has been learned lead to a natural expansion of abilities. When human beings or other responsive beings reach a level of self-knowledge to have this understanding of their own well-being they can begin making a conscious effort to avoid some of the pain and suffering–and possible self-destruction–that natural selection (i.e., unenlightened and unrestrained conflict) by itself might bring.
Although the primary focus of the discussion here is on human beings (and usually adults) there are occasional references to “responsive beings,” mammals and organisms in order to bring out certain relationships. First, through evolution human faculties and abilities have developed out of the faculties and abilities of lower forms of life. Second, the transmission of human culture from generation to generation mirrors the training of offspring within most species of mammals. Third, the relationships between species are mutually helpful even in the case of predators and prey. Fourth, the well-being of humankind is dependent on the vigorous flourishing of many other species. All forms and species of life have a natural tendency to change in ways that expand their abilities to deal with the situations individuals normally must face during their lifetimes. Fifth, the arguments put forth here rest only on the assumption of a world populated by beings having abilities to respond to external conditions, conditions created in part by the actions of these “responsive beings” at least some of whom have abilities to think abstractly and to communicate with each other. Thus ethical principles having some resemblance to those developed here must apply to any form of intelligent life.
The arts have a special contribution to make to human well-being by suggesting to human beings new ways of seeing the physical world in which they live, their ecological and biological environment, their social and cultural environment, and potential that human beings have to be more fully human, more creative, more dedicated and more effective in improving the quality of life for humanity and other species.
Abilities need to be understood not only in terms of the actions a person or group is able to perform but also in terms of the effects the person or group is able to produce. Thus the arts can be regarded as a certain set of abilities for producing certain kinds of effects. The abilities grow, and the producible effects grow in number and kind.
Religion in its original sense of tying or binding a person conscientiously to a way of life has a special contribution to make to human well-being by inspiring people to put forth their best effort to being an exemplary human being and not to be disheartened by failure. Religion in this sense has no need to be dogmatic or to give undue credence to any set of beliefs. Religion, like the arts, can fulfill a social function.
[i].The simplified picture of response systems given here and in succeeding paragraphs is derived from a cybernetic theory of learning proposed by Karl W. Deutsch in his paper, “Mechanism, Teleology and Mind.”
[ii]It is clearly part of Aristotle’s thought in Section 1 of Book II of Nicomachean Ethics that learning to do anything well involves practice and habituation. In Book IV he emphasizes the good judgment and sense of rightness that accompanies any form of virtue.
[iii]The German word bildung means learning, education, or refinement conceived as a formative process.