Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can destruction be good for something?

It is good for a mouse to occupy a limited region of space: if a mouse were cat-sized, it would be incapable of excellent engagement in many of its characteristic behaviors (scurrying around in narrow passages). If time is relevantly like space, we would expect that there be things for which it is good that they occupy a limited interval of time--i.e., it is good for them to die, or at least good for them to die in a particular way. (It is good for a mouse to be spatially bounded--but only certain kinds of spatial bounds, those delimited by healthy skin and fur, are good for the mouse.)

One category of things whose destruction is a part of their flourishing is things whose purpose is to give rise to something else. For instance, sperm and egg are destroyed in giving rise to a zygote, and that it is their flourishing to be destroyed in this manner. But that's not the only category. It may be a part of the flourishing of a skin cell that it perish in order to make way for a newer skin cell. Both of these categories are subsumed in the category of things directed at the good of something other than themselves.

But I think human beings are not like that.


Helen Watt said...

I don't think I'd agree that dying after a mouse-typical lifespan is good for the mouse itself - though it may be good for other mice who might like its nest, a chance to have more baby mice etc. Why would life stop being beneficial for a mouse that was healthy enough to live extra-long?

Isn't it part of the definition of a living whole or organism that it has its own internal good in the form of life or 'functionality' as well as successful actual functioning? We identify some things as functions and others as dysfunctions or diseases according to whether we think they are good for the organism in some sense - and similarly, we identify the animal as still alive because it still has the good of functionality to some extent.

Admittedly, we might have to tell some story about amoebae whose function is to reproduce by splitting. Splitting may kill the amoeba but there is also a sense in which the amoeba benefits from successfully achieving its reproductive function (though it won't be around by the time that functioning is complete). Maybe we should just say that the organism benefits from reproducing even though it is harmed to a greater extent by dying. (Not that it matters much for amoebae!)

When it comes to sperm and ova and skin cells these are obviously living parts not living wholes - so can we really say they have a flourishing at all as opposed to the human being who successfully grows new skin and successfully reproduces - in the latter case, to the benefit effectively of future humans as well as that person and his/her reproductive partner. (Again, there may be harms as well as benefits eg if a pregnant woman's overall health is affected but in itself, successful reproduction is a benefit as is reproductive health.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Would it be good for a mouse to be a meter in length? It seems that it's good for a mouse to be within a certain range of sizes and shapes. But if this is true spatially, why isn't it true temporally as well?

On my view of time, your question comes to: "Why would extending into the future stop being beneficial for a mouse that was healthy enough to live extra-long?" But one could ask the parallel spatial question: "Why would extending into the north and south stop being beneficial for a mouse that was healthy enough to be extra-long?"

Of course, there are practical problems with a mouse that's a meter in length. For instance, I assume the digestive system would need modifications. But likewise there are practical problems with a mouse that's 100 years old, and modifications to various things would be needed to support this.

Here's another way to get at the point. Just as it is good for an organism to be in a specific range of 3D shapes, it is good for an organism to be in a specific range of 4D shapes. Most organisms have a 4D shape that is small on its lower temporal boundary and large on its upper temporal temporal boundary, for instance, with particular species-specific rules governing how the 3D cross-sections of that 4D shape vary with the time dimension. Well, if only some 4D shapes are good for an organism, then probably only some 4D *sizes* are good for the organism. And, in particular, why should it be good for a mouse to have an infinite 4D size, extending infinitely far into the future?

Helen Watt said...

I suppose I don't see space the same way as time here: the continued presence of the animal in any shape or form has a significance the size of the animal lacks. True, a vast great mouse is lacking some good mouse-like features, but better huge than dead... And I can't see any point in either the mouse's physical expansion or the mouse's longevity at which the defining feature of any organism - the presence of an internal good in the form of 'functionality' where functions are identified precisely as good not bad features for the organism - could cease while the mouse remains an organism. A mouse's heart is no better, no more functional, for being huge (and worse as less mouse-like, I agree) but a mouse is better off if the heart goes on beating or at least, being able to beat so the mouse is still functional and still there at all.

Also, I know you separate humans from animals in what you say about immortality, but even with humans, there may be some aesthetic sense (for example) in which our earthly lives have a more pleasing shape if we go out in a blaze of glory in our prime. That doesn't mean we don't have an interest in every additional bit of life, even if it does spoil the aesthetic shape of our lives as a whole.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Here's a thought. One of the activities that have value to humans is the aesthetically pleasing wiggling of fingers (in rhythm, say). The more fingers one has, the more of that good one can have. Of course, it's a very small good, and the returns are diminishing--wiggling thirty fingers is scarcely more valuable than wiggling twenty. Still, having more fingers does allow one to engage in more of that activity. Thus, the person who has 15 fingers has a good in virtue of the extra five fingers that the person who has ten does not. But the person who has 15 fingers also thereby has a bad: they have hands that are not of the proper shape and size for human beings.

What about those of us who have ten fingers? We have the good of hands that are in that respect of the proper shape and size for human beings. We lack the good of being able to wiggle the five fingers we don't have. But that lack isn't a bad, since the good of being able to wiggle the five fingers we don't have isn't a good *due* to humans, and only the lack of a *due* good is a bad.

Similarly, then, perhaps a mouse that lives a century has more of certain goods of mouse life: it gets to reproduce more, enjoy more slices of cheese, etc. But it could also thereby have a bad: it has a life that is not of the proper shape and size for mice. If so, then the death of a mouse at the right age for mice to die could be a good for the mouse in that it ensures the proper shape and size of life for the mouse. This death deprives the mouse of many goods in life, but since these goods wouldn't be *due* to the mouse, it also wouldn't be bad for the mouse to die then.

This picture does justice to the idea that there is a proper diachronic shape to a life just as there is a proper synchronic shape to a life. It also does justice to the idea that death does deprive an organism of good, and hence that the organism, if it is responsive to reasons, has a reason to seek to avoid death, for the sake of the goods that death deprives it of, just as the 15 fingered person has a reason to seek to avoid loss of the supernumerary fingers. But on this view the death need not be *bad* for the creature, and there is an important respect in which living longer would be bad for it--though that bad might be outweighed by the goods that could come with that life.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But I think that for humans the proper shape of life is infinite.

Helen Watt said...


I think there's a 6-fingered pianist in Gattaca! Yes, the fingers might be instrumentally good but are not part of the person's overall health or human-type functionality (so it wouldn't necessarily be wrong for the person to remove them - though the fingers themselves are functional and the person is better off even in health terms with functional extra fingers rather than gangrenous ones, that's true).

More life means or can mean 'more of the same' for the whole organism. More fingers does not mean 'more of the same' for the whole organism - it means more fingers, so the organism changes and not for the better in terms of overall health, whatever good spinoffs there may be in terms of aesthetic activities like wiggling and playing the piano...

As I see it life enables good activities but is not just about good activities - the 'good of life and health' ie good functionality is about the tendency to act where action itself need not be occurring. The good of the mouse's life doesn't reduce to good activities like running about, reproducing and eating cheese. The mouse could be frozen and motionless and still alive and that would still be somewhat good.

Which is not to say that successful functioning as opposed to functionality does not benefit the mouse - it clearly does. But the mouse also has a reason to avoid death because it is good for mice/all organisms to exist at all. That is what makes an organism an organism, ie a living whole - the fact it has a good of its own. This is not only about the goods that could come from life; it is about the good of life itself, seen more in terms of the tendency to act than in terms of achieving the act.

I'm not sure how to reconcile such an 'overall life-and-health' good with any conflicting good of having a shorter life, especially as mice that are reasonably long-lived we would tend to approve of, not see as lesser mice.

Certainly with humans we might speak of a glorious death (let's say, a self-sacrificial death) - there's a sense in which the sacrifice would benefit the person, which wouldn't however mean that the person would not have a life-and-health-type interest in continued life, simply as an organism let alone an organism of a special kind. There are other interests than life-and-health-type interests, after all.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I do think that our differences here come down to a different view of time. You talk of "existing at a time". On my view "existing" is something that happens in the first instance unqualifiedly. You and I exist, dinosaurs exist, my great-great-grandchildren exist (assuming they will come into existence) etc. Existence is good.

But to "exist at a time" is simply to partially occupy that time, just as to "exist in a place" is to partially occupy that place. Thus, you and I exist simpliciter, dinosaurs exist simpliciter and my great-great-grandchildren exist simpliciter (assuming they will come into existence). And that's good. But while you and I partially occupy 2017, neither dinosaurs nor my great-great-grandchildren occupy 2017.

But then just as it need not be good for an organism to occupy a particular place (say, a place unsuited for it), it need not be good for the organism to occupy a particular time (say, a time unsuited for it).

Here's a question for you: On your view, organisms have a life-and-death interest in their future existence. Do they also have a life-and-death interest in their past existence? Am I less fortunate because I don't exist in 1900?

Helen Watt said...


Yes, you're right - I think we have different views about time (sorry not to engage properly with the 4D picture). For me, what's bad about dying is precisely that the entity stops existing, having come into existence and existed for a bit. The mouse has failed to benefit any more: if there was a graph of 'mouse benefits' it just went down not up.

We're not, and shouldn't be, indifferent to things getting worse not better - the fact the mouse once existed is a nice thing, but there's now a certain loss to the universe (albeit a very minor one) because the mouse and the good of its life to itself is no more. Whereas if the mouse (and the dinosaurs etc) still exist in a sense, why does it make sense to note that life got worse for them, and that they then ceased to have any life at all?

In answer to your question, I'm a necessity of origin person (in terms of time and space, not just in terms of particular gametes) so can't see it as possible for the mouse to have existed a decade before it did, or for me to have. So imagining I lived a decade ago is like imagining I'm a mouse: fun to do but there was no me there to benefit and could never have been.