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John Hare’s God’s Command, Section 4.4.2, “Good Roots and Good Wolves”

summary by David Baggett

Hare admits that we should accept at least one central point from Foot and Hursthouse: there is a natural goodness that is conducive to the good life, or simply the good for both animals and plants. The roots of an oak tree are an example, which play a part in the life of the tree: they obtain nourishment. It matters in the life of the organism, and its absence would be a defect. This is an example of an Aristotelian categorical. Goodness in the roots is their ability to carry out this contribution to the life of the organism. We can deduce this goodness from this ability. Hare says this is an acceptable form of deductivism. This is not yet moral goodness, however.

RMH resisted any sort of deduction like this. But if we were to accept the notion of a primary goodness for, say, a tree, what would it mean to say a tree is good? We could say that something is good means one is drawn by it and to endorse the claim that the thing deserves to draw one in that way. Aquinas said goodness belongs to everything that is, and degrees of being and degrees of goodness are coextensive. So here would be a way to think of a tree as good: a tree is good because goodness belongs to everything that is. Another picture of goodness involves every kind of life created by God being good. Yet another, less theist, account of the goodness of, say, an oak tree says goodness consists in the range of features possessed by mature oaks that are flourishing, and this goodness is what the oak is aiming towards. (But this language of “aiming towards” is the language of final causation, and, while it is true that we make use of it continually for organisms, in both lay and professional talk, it is not clear whether it can be validated within the strict terms of the biological sciences.)

Can we make sense of the idea that animals have more value than plants in general, though this may not be true in all cases? Yes, Hare thinks, if there is value in the things animals can do that plants can’t. There are of course dangers with such a hierarchy, but Aristotle could be right about plants and animals and wrong to deny that all humans have the same basic value. On Hare’s view, all humans have the same basic value because they equally receive God’s call, not because they are now equally capable of valuable activities.

Even if we can give an account of the goodness of a tree, though, this is not what Foot was talking about when she said that the roots have a “function.” Foot tried to tie function to features that have to do, directly or indirectly, with self-maintenance or reproduction. Even so, the plants are in competition with each other, and not only with other species; there are strong specimens and weak, and just as many weak as strong. There is no deduction from a particular plant’s typical performance to its doing well or from the typical performance at a time for the set of members of a species to the species doing well.

Hursthouse has a corrective to this, conceding that on occasion it’s indeterminate whether an individual x is overall a good x, and that even an individual perfectly endowed in every relevant respect may still not live well given its circumstances. Survival, reproduction, pleasure or absence of pain, and the well-being of our social group are the natural ends against which we can measure whether some human life is a naturally good life, she claims. Hursthouse and Foot admit that these are value-laden and not simply statistical. But the picture leaves us without a way to say why some dispositions to pursue these four ends are good and some dispositions to pursue these same four ends are not. Even with plants, the result of Hursthouse’s corrective is to make the primary good of the oak frustratingly indeterminate.

Now we move to non-human animals. Foot characterizes a free-riding wolf as defective. RMH had resisted such deductions. What’s at issue here is the distinction between what Foot called “primary” and “secondary” goodness. A particular kind of pig or horse is useful to humans, for eating or riding, and this is secondary goodness. But the question is whether there is a kind of goodness for the pig or the horse in itself. RHM denies that ‘horse’ is a functional word like ‘screwdriver’ is. But Hare says this doesn’t show that there isn’t a primary goodness of horses. So far, Foot’s right.

A complication, though, is that RMH’s examples were of domesticated animals, which have been bred so as to serve human uses. Foot’s examples were of wild animals, the wolf and not the dog. For Foot, defect or natural goodness in an individual is relative not to the actual environment of the individual (like a zoo), but to the normal habitat of the species. Hare sees many difficulties here.

But the main case for the present chapter is the free-rider wolf. Is it defective? One reason this is important is that the cooperation of wolves is the kind of thing de Waal suggests is a precursor or requisite of human cooperation. On Hare’s view, in light of the contingency of the adaptiveness of a trait, there’s no determinate answer to the question of what the good incidence of the trait is within a species. The basic problem here, as Hare sees it, is that what Foot called Aristotelian categoricals work much better with an essentialist conception of species, like one Aristotle operated with.

Hare concludes that, in light of all this, we again need modesty about whether there are determinate answers in many cases to questions about whether an x is a good x, and indeed about the very notion of a species, since the different modes of classification are in part determined by different interests of ours. None of this bodes well for deductivism.

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