Why it’s called “motion”

I can’t believe it took me so long to realise this. Aristotelians sometimes (read: often) use the word “motion” to refer to change of any kind. Thus it is much broader than how we might use the word today. It’s certainly broader than mere change in location, but even we use it in a broader sense that.

But why? Why would you call change, in general, motion? Good question.

One of the questions Aristotle had to grapple with (and which we tend to ignore these days), is how change is possible and what it is. He realised that any instance of change is the actualisation of a potential. When a hot cup of coffee gets cold, for example, what is happening is that the cup’s potential for the being cold is actualised by the coldness in the surrounding air (say). When I pick the cup off the ground and place it on the desk, I am actualising the cup’s potential to be a meter above the ground (say).

So all change involves the actualisation of potentials. But does every actualisation of a potential involve change? No.

Go back to the cup sitting on the desk. Say it’s been sitting on the desk for a while now. Its location isn’t changing, but the desk continues to actualise its potential to be a meter above the ground. (If this potential weren’t being actualised, then the cup wouldn’t be a meter above the ground in the first place!) But this actualisation of the cup’s potential clearly isn’t an instance of change.

So there are some actualisations of potentials that are change, and some which aren’t. What separates the one case from the other? Surely it’s that change involves the movement from potential to actual. That is, it’s not merely that some potential is being actualised, but also that that potential wasn’t being actualised before. So, to use fancy genus-species language, the genus of change is the actualisation of a potential, and the specific difference is by movement from potential to actual.

As a side note, since efficient causation just is the actualisation of a potential this specific difference helps us distinguish between something like state causation versus something like event causation, as these terms are used in modern parlance. (I say “something like” because the Aristotelian thinks that (1) substances are the fundamental kinds of causes, not states/events, and (2) whereas typical construals of state/event causation involve one state/event causing another, Aristotelians typically understand cause and effect as two aspects of the same state/event.)

The good of others

Previously we discussed the general notion of natural goodness, and saw that the natures of things determine what is good or bad for them. In particular, our nature as humans determines what is good or bad for us. We also saw that with humans our actions take on a moral significance to the extent that the ends or means willed in them are good or bad for us. For us; but what about others?

The answer, simply put, is that it is natural for us as humans to enter into various unions (or “communities”) wherein our well-being involves the well-being of others. We already saw a limited example of this in our previous post, where we said that “a lioness that nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness, and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad or defective.” Aristotle gives a more general statement of this near the end of part 2 of his Politics:

The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole.[1]

Once we unpack this, all will become clear.

Parts of a whole

Before we get there, we need to talk about parts and wholes (or unions) and how they relate. Well, that’s too broad: we don’t need a complete account of part-whole relations, since that can get scarily complicated.[2] We just need some basic insights. For instance, a part is good to the extent that it acts for the good of the whole. Or, to phrase this language of “ends,” some of the ends of a part are the ends of the whole.

Some examples might be of helpful at this point. First, consider parts of living things: an organ is bad when it consumes more blood than normal, thereby starving the other organs of needed resources. The same goes for parts of living things we don’t typically call “organs,” like the roots or leaves of a tree. Second, consider co-operative actions: two people are trying to lift up a car, where neither is capable of doing so by themselves. If either refuses to lift their share of the load, they are failing to be a good part of the whole. We might say that they are failing to “play their part.”[3]

In each case we see that the goodness of the part depends on its contribution to the good of the whole. In fact, we can say more about this. After all, part of the good for the whole is the good of all its parts (a good body has good organs, a good tree has good roots, a good co-operative action has good individual contributions). Since a good part is directed towards the good of the whole, it follows that it is also directed towards the good of the other parts.

A second insight about parts, which can also be seen from the above examples, is that parts, by themselves, are incomplete. Or, to put it another way, parts lack self-sufficiency the way their unions do not. Each of the organs in your body depends to some extent on the others and therefore cannot function (at least not for long) without some kind of mutual co-operation with them (that is, union with them). Similarly, neither of the people are by themselves able to lift the car, and therefore depend on each other’s co-operation to achieve their end (again, union). Because co-operating enables these otherwise incomplete members to achieve their ends, it is good for them to enter into these unions. Thus incompleteness of this kind is a mark of “partness,” and can help us identify things as parts without first having to know their wholes.

Our natural dependencies on others

So, in general, when something is directed towards an end which it, by itself, does not have sufficient power to achieve, then it is good for that thing to enter into the relevant union to achieve that end. More specifically, when something is, by nature, not self-sufficient, then it is natural (and therefore good) for that thing to become part of a whole. The point Aristotle is making above is that this is true, in particular, of humans.

We can begin to see this by starting at the smallest and most intimate type of union (or “community”) and moving to broader kinds of unions from there. Before we get there, though, we need a little set up: like any other living thing, part of what is good for us as humans is that we continue to exist.[4] But, of course, humans aren’t immortal and so we must continue our existence in a more general sense of continuing the existence of humanity as a whole, which we achieve through procreation.

Now, humans have the capacity for procreation but are not capable of procreating by themselves.[5] A man and a woman need to work together in a sexual union to begin the process of procreation. I say “begin” because the point of procreation is to produce humans, and not merely human bodies. Thus, procreation also involves bringing up and caring for our children, teaching them the skills they need (both intellectual and non-intellectual) to be good humans. The union in which the full process of procreation can take place, then, is the marital union between a husband and a wife.[6]

With the advent of children comes a broader community: the family.[7] Clearly, children depend on their parents in all kinds of ways relevant to their proper development. And given that it is good for parents to care for their children, they depend on their children’s co-operation which will usually be obedience of some form or another. The family, or household, is a community in which these needs are met, as well as various other everyday activities in which members of the family either help or co-operate in, such as “eating, [or] warming oneself at the fire, and others like these.”[8]

At a broader level, “when several families are united, and the [community] aims at something more than the supply of daily needs, the first society to be formed is the village.”[1] These broader needs might include things like buying food for eating, or buying wood for our fireplace, or some form of security, and so on. Note that when we use the term “village,” we’re using it in quite a general sense. We aren’t using it to refer specifically to one of those quaint towns in a rural area. Any collection of families united into a community directed towards more than daily needs will do. Used in this general sense, your extended family counts as a village![9]

At the broadest level we have the state (or “city”). This is “[w]hen several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing.”[1] Again, we mustn’t get caught up in the words being used. The important bit here is that the state is what we get when combine enough villages together to get a community that is pretty much a self-sufficient whole. And because it is self-sufficient, it’s natural to consider the state as the stopping point.

So, at each level we have various dependencies that are being met which cause the various members to come together as a community. There are also general dependencies, however, that apply at all levels of community: we depend negatively on other members of the communities not interfering with our achieving the goods set for us by nature, and positively on their co-operation in achieving these goods. Examples of the first kind would be our dependence on others not killing or harming us, not stealing property which we own, not coercing us into doing evil, and so on. Examples of the second would be any particular kind of assistance we need of them (which might differ based on the community we have in mind), help developing a virtuous character as opposed to a vicious one, and so on.

The good of others

Now, all the communities considered above were natural in the sense we’ve using the term. That is, it is part of our nature that we depend on others for procreation, that we depend on our children and parents, on other families, and on other villages. Even if we don’t ourselves procreate, we can’t help but form part of families, villages, and states. And even if we can’t so clearly distinguish between the various levels of communities (because of cultural or historical reasons, say), this doesn’t stop them existing and being natural for us as humans.

Since being part of these communities is natural for us, it is therefore (given our previous discussions) good for us. Recall also, from earlier, that it is good for parts to act for the good of the whole and the other parts. Applying both of these conclusions, it follows that it is good for us to act for the good of others in the various communities we form part of, as well as any common good peculiar to these communities.

Notes

  1. Aristotle, The Politics.
  2. Ross Inman, Substantial Priority: An Essay in Fundamental Mereology.
  3. You might not have noticed it, but these two examples actually illustrate two different senses in which parts can relate to their wholes. We’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now this difference isn’t relevant, since both examples also illustrate our first insight about parts and their ends.
  4. This actually follows from the general definition of life which is “the natural capacity of an object for self-perfective immanent activity. Living things act for themselves in order to perfect themselves, where by perfection I mean that the entity acts so as to produce, conserve and repair its proper functioning as the kind of thing it is – not to reach a state of absolute perfection, which is of course impossible for any finite being.” (Teleology: Inorganic and Organic, David Oderberg) In fact, continued existence is a good of every substance, but like before I restrict myself to living things. For the more general statement, see Oderberg’s paper titled Being and Goodness.
  5. “He who thus considers things in their first growth and origin, whether a state of anything else, will obtain the clearest view of them. In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue…”[1]
  6. I pretty much just lost your interest if you have an insatiable hate for conservative ethics. Well, keep reading anyway. If you’d like some further reading on these topics, I can recommend Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition (particularly chapter 4), Alexander Pruss’ One Body, and the paper in [3].
  7. “Out of these two relationships between a man and a woman, master and slave, the first thing to arise is the family.”[1] We skipped the master-slave bit, because of modern people’s propensity to misunderstand the sense it which it should be taken. I’m already saying enough “controversial” things in this post and I didn’t see any sense in adding more when it could be skipped.
  8. Aristotle says, “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.”[1] Aquinas, commenting on this, says, “among human acts some are performed every day, such as eating, warming oneself at the fire, and others like these, whereas other things are not performed every day, such as buying, fighting, and others like these. Now it is natural for men to communicate among themselves by helping one another in each of these two kinds of work. Thus he says that a household is nothing other than a certain society set up according to nature for everyday life, that is, for the acts that have to be performed daily.”
  9. “And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family, composed of children and grandchildren, who are said to be suckled ‘with the same milk.'”[1]

Natural and moral goodness

“Cats have four legs.”

What an innocent statement. Who would’ve thought that unpacking it would lead us to a system of ethics?

Natural goodness

We start by noting that statements like this one don’t tell us some quantifiable fact about cats. Rather they tell us what features a cat has by virtue of which it is called healthy or flourishing. That is, healthy cats have four legs, they eat specific kinds of food, they have tails which are certain proportions to their bodies, they have ears structured in a certain way, they procreate, etc. Similarly, it is by virtue of lacking these features that we judge them unhealthy or sickly.

These types of statements have been called Aristotelian categoricals, and they apply to more than just cats. Indeed, each species of living organism has a collection of categoricals describing behaviours, capacities, and other features which specify what it is to be a healthy instance of that species, and the lacking of which contribute to it being an unhealthy instance of that species. Depending on our mood, we might use the words “essence” or “nature” or “kind” instead of “species”, but we would mean the same thing.

Go back to my claim that these statements aren’t quantifiable facts about the natures they describe. Why did I say that? Well, take the statement “cats have four legs.” Surely this isn’t a universal statement, since some cats have only three legs. Nor is it just an existential statement that some cats happen to have four legs. Nor is it (semantically or logically) equivalent to some statistical statement about cats, like “most cats have four legs.” For one thing, it seems plausible that most cats could be unhealthy. What if, say, all but seven cats suddenly ceased to exist, six of which were three legged? Surely those six cats that were previously unhealthy do not all of a sudden become healthy, just by virtue of what happened to the other cats in existence. For another thing, most cats could share features that don’t qualify as Aristotelian categoricals. For example, it could be that most cats are some shade of grey. But whether a cat is grey or ginger doesn’t affect it’s health. Nor would the colour of its eyes, or the size of its ears (within reason), or any number of other features that most cats could share.

So if these categoricals don’t convey quantifiable facts, then what kind of facts do they convey? It seems that they specify ends towards which an organism is directed by its nature, and as such they convey normative facts. That is, in growing and maturing there “are certain ends that any organism must realize in order to flourish as the kind of organism it is, ends concerning activities like development, self-maintenance, reproduction, the rearing of young, and so forth; and these ends entail a standard of goodness. Hence… an oak that develops long and deep roots is to that extent a good oak, and one that develops weak roots is to that extent bad and defective; a lioness that nurtures her young is to that extent a good lioness, and one that fails to do so is to that extent bad or defective; and so on.”[1] To use our cat example, a cat that grows to have four legs, to have an appetite for the right kinds of food, and to be such that it properly takes care of its young (to take three possible examples) would to those extents be a good or healthy cat. And if the cat failed to have one of those features (like only having three legs), it wouldn’t thereby cease being a cat, but rather it would to that extent be a defective or bad or unhealthy cat.

The goodness conveyed by these facts has been called “natural goodness,” since it is by realizing (or failing to realize) the ends set for an organism by its nature that it is called good (or bad or defective) as the kind of organism that it is.[2]

Moral goodness

This natural goodness is a much broader notion than what we might typically refer to as “moral goodness.” To see how this goodness takes on a moral significance with humans, we need to focus our discussion from the natures of living things in general to specifically human nature.

What is it to be a human? Well, for starters, humans are animals. And like other animals, humans have the capacity to sense particular objects in various ways. What follows upon this capacity for sensation is a capacity to be directed towards or away from the deliverances of our senses, which we call appetite.

But there’s more to human nature than mere animality. As Aristotle noted, humans are rational animals. That is, humans have the capacity to (i) abstract concepts from particular instances (like abstracting the concept of “humanness” from the particular human Socrates), (ii) make judgements about these concepts (like “All humans are mortal”), and (iii) connect these judgements to draw conclusions (as in “Socrates is a human, humans are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”). We might call this capacity the intellect. It is by virtue of having intellects that we can form complex languages, engage in abstract thinking used in our various intellectual endeavours, or apprehend the good we were speaking about in the previous section.

We might draw a parallel between our various senses on the one hand, and our intellect on the other: analogous to how we see the table in front of us, we “see” the conclusion that follows from the premises or we “see” that having four legs is good for a cat. And just like our appetite follows upon our senses, so our will follows upon our intellect. That is, via our will we choose to pursue or avoid the things we “see” or grasp with our intellect. In particular, we can choose to pursue or avoid the good and evil set for us by nature. It is because of our ability to grasp this concept of goodness (and the corresponding concept of evil) and to choose to pursue it or avoid particular instances of it, that in humans this goodness takes on the moral significance that it has.

That is, like all other living organisms we humans have certain ends set for us by our nature. Furthermore, like other living organisms we are good to the extent that we realise these ends, and defective (or bad, or evil) to the extent that we fail to realise these ends. Unlike other living organisms, because of our rational capacities, these realisations or lack thereof take on moral significance to the extent that they are the products of our wills.

That our will is involved is crucial, for we cannot be held responsible for evils that are beyond our control. If Bob (a human) grew up with a leg deformation because of a genetic defect, then while this is an evil (since our natural end is to develop healthy legs), it would have no moral significance, since it was not a consequence of Bob’s willing this way or that. On the other hand, had Bob freely chosen to deform his leg for reasons completely independent of his flourishing as a human, this action would have moral significance. And this is because, in choosing voluntarily, Bob has willed an end or a means that is contrary to the ends set for him by his nature. That is, he has pursued evil instead of good.

So an action is morally good or evil to the extent that the end or means willed in that action are good or evil. We’ll explore this and related topics in upcoming posts.

Notes

  1. Edward Feser in Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation.
  2. This notion of natural goodness can be applied to more than merely living things, but we don’t need such a general notion for the purposes of this post. This business of exhibiting “ends” towards which things are “directed” is what Aristotle and Aristotelians call final causality.

An historical overview of natural law theory from Budziszewski

In the preface to the second edition of J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide he gives a brief account of the history of natural law theory (a meta- and normative ethical theory very much at home in, but not limited to, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy). I liked it, so I’m quoting it at length:

Speaking in the broadest possible terms, the natural law tradition has passed through three historical phases and is now entering the fourth.

Phase one belonged to the philosophers. Ancient thinkers like Aristotle discovered that beings have natures, and tried to develop intellectual tools for thinking about them. Other thinkers, especially the Stoics — although this idea is present in embryo in Aristotle too — suggested that the principles of these natures could be expressed in terms of laws, real laws, which were somehow the work of the divine mind.

Phase two belonged to the theologians. Jewish thinkers worked out the implications of the ancient tradition that before God gave the Torah to the “sons” or descendants of Abraham, He had already given commandments to the sons of Noah, which means to the whole human race. Islamic thinkers of the now much less influential Mutazilite school maintained that good and evil are embedded “in things”, in the structure of creation. Christian thinkers explicitly appropriated the whole philosophical tradition. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger suggested before his accession tot he papacy, in the early days of Christianity, “in an environment teeming with gods”, when believers were asked to which god their God corresponded, “the answer ran: to none of them. To none of the gods to whom you pray but solely and alone to him to whom you do not pray, to that highest being of whom your philosophers speak.” He rightly remarks, “The choice thus made meant opting for the logos as against any kind of myth”, he pointedly adds, “By deciding exclusively in favor of the God of the philosophers and logically declaring this God to be the God who speaks to man and to whom one can pray, the Christian faith gave a completely new significance to this God of the philosophers… [T]his God who has been understood as pure Being or pure thought, circling round forever closed in upon itself reaching over to man and his little world… now appeared to the eye of faith as the God of men, who is not only thoughts of all thoughts, the eternal mathematics of the universe, but also agape, the power of creative love.” In the natural law, the power, love, and wisdom of this God were united, and in the grace of Christ the capacity to follow it was restored. Here I must repeat another point from the first edition: although the thinkers of these faith communities were mindful of their traditions, they were not hermetically sealed from each other. It was no accident that the period during which the thinkers of my faith achieved their greatest insights into natural law coincided with the period during which they were intensely and simultaneously engaged with the pagan thought of Aristotle, the Jewish thought of Maimonides, and the Mulsim thought of Averroës.

Phase three was dominated by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. For various reasons — in some cases religious skepticism, in others fear of religious wars — they tried to sever the connections between religion and philosophy, between faith and reason. Their aim was to make natural law theory theologically neutral — a body of axioms and theorems that any intelligent, informed mind would consider obvious once they were properly presented, in fact equally obvious no matter what religion of wisdom tradition the mind followed, or whether it followed any at all. It wasn’t that the Enlightenment thinkers didn’t believe in God. Although some were atheists, others were Christian, of a sort. The problem was somewhat different, and it was twofold.

In the first place, they thought that one could know all the important things about man even while knowing very few of the important things about God. It was enough to work out His existence as a theorem; there was no further need to know His name, the history of His self-disclosure, His mighty deeds in history. In one way this was a regression to the Unknown God of the Athenians, to the “pure Being or pure thought, circling round for ever closed in upon itself without reaching over to man and his little world”. Yet like all apparent regressions, in another way it was not that at all; whenever we try to return to an earlier stage and reject what we have learned since then, we lose what we had then too. The problem with the Athenians was simple ignorance; they had never heard about agape. The problem with the thinkers of the Enlightenment was rejection; they had header about agape but decided that it wasn’t important. This was a kind of intellectual blindness, and it was progressive. Having lost their grip on agape, they came to lose their grasp of the logos too. Consequently, they felt a greater and greater need to make natural law theory to be not only theologically neutral but even ontologically neutral, independent of anything else that might be important. And this was impossible. In the second place, they thought that the ability of the mind to grasp the truth about man was independent of moral virtue. To put it another way, ethics was like mathematics. A scoundrel ought to grasp the virtue of purity just as easily as he grasped the Pythagorean theorem — and if he couldn’t, then perhaps that showed it simply wasn’t a virtue. Needless to say, this had a certain flattening effect on moral philosophy.

The reason we are entering a fourth phase is that the Enlightenment project collapsed. Modern man lost confidence in the possibility of an ethics that was both universal and yet somehow neutral. Some, relativists, retained the idea of ethics but abandoned the idea of universality; they thought each group has its own right and wrong. This reduces statecraft to sheer power, because someone’s right and wrong has to win and there is no way to arbitrate among them. Other, liberals, retained the idea of neutrality but abandoned the idea of ethics. They came to insist that the laws of the state must be justified in a way that is independent not only of theology and ontology, but of “one’s conception of the good”. Because this is impossible, what happens in practice is that their own views of the good prevail without challenge, just by pretending that they aren’t really views of the good.

In this nascent fourth phase, natural law thinkers are beginning to follow a different path. While retaining the idea of a universal ethics, they have abandoned the Enlightenment fallacy of neutrality. Is there a common ground? Yes, because there is a single human nature. But is the common ground a neutral ground? No, because not all views of God, not all views of the structure of reality, not all views of human nature itself are equally adequate, and some make it harder to see the common ground. The new breed of natural law thinkers also reject the fallacy that natural law is like mathematics. To see it well, one must have pure eyes, and this requires moral virtue. Here we enter, not a vicious circle, but what may be called a virtuous circle. The more adequately one has been shaped and formed by traditions and disciplines that conform to the natural law, the more clearly one can discern the underlying moral realities on which these disciplines are based.

Now let me draw some of the consequences. Future natural law philosophers will be free of the delusion that once can reason about natural law independently of how well one has been brought up, in what one places faith, or to what intellectual tradition one is loyal. Natural law theory is itself the product of a tradition, and it thrives better in the soil of some faiths than others. It may seem that this implies that the whole aspiration of natural law is a failure: that there is no universal ethics, that just because our roots suck up nourishment from different traditions, we have nothing to say to each other. On the contrary, what it really implies is that there must be a new way of speaking together. The Enlightenment thought we could speak with each other only by setting aside our traditions and regarding them as irrelevant — it was an antitraditional tradition, which could never look at itself in the mirror for fear of discovering the incoherency at its foundation. The truth is that we must speak with each other from within our traditions, because only these give us something to say to each other. As the first edition suggested, even the appeal to the generic presupposes the particular; for insight into what we hold common, we must fall back on what we do not hold in common. Consequently, rather than being divorced from theology, natural law theory must be reintegrated with it — not despite the desire to find common ground, but even because of it.

Clearly there are many thoughts to be fleshed out in the remainder of the book. I look forward to it.