The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the sixty-sixth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Eric Wiland.
Colonies and the Common Weal
Some ant colonies thrive. Others don’t. In many cases, myrmecologists can tell us what it is for one or the other to obtain well-being — although, like Tolstoy’s quip about the unhappiness of families, I’m guessing each struggling ant colony is suffering in its own way.
If economists were to theorize about the well-being of ant colonies, they would likely proceed by first calculating the well-being of each individual ant in the colony, and then adding up the results to arrive at a measure for the well-being of the colony as a whole. Or perhaps they would average the results. Either way, they would study the well-being of ant colonies by first studying the well-being of ants, and then doing some math.
There seems to be something right and something wrong with this approach. It would be weird to think that the well-being of an ant colony has nothing whatsoever to do the well-being of the ants constituting the colony. Could there be a thriving colony all of whose members are unwell? Unlikely. It does seem like the well-being of the colony has something to do with the well-being of its members.
On the other hand, what it is for an ant colony to be well off is not just for its individuals ants to be doing well. The colony can thrive (or fail to thrive) in ways that don’t register merely on the level of the individual ants. Sometimes, a particular ant might do better for itself by harming (or at least leaving) the colony. At other times, the well-being of the colony might not be great for its current members, but the colony achieves something for a not-yet-existing generation, thereby doing well for itself. Ant colonies might last longer than any ant who is a member of it. It sometimes almost looks as if the ant colony is itself an organism with parts, both spatial and temporal.
I’ve recently become interested in analogous questions about human beings. What is it for a group of human beings (e.g, a polis, a labor union, a family) to be well off, and how does this relate to the well-being of the individuals who constitute the group? Lots of philosophers now study groups, but no one really studies what it is for a group to be doing well or badly. Lots of philosophers now study well-being, but they all focus on the well-being of individuals. It’s weird that there’s this lacuna in the literature. How should it be filled?
I can think of four basic ways the well-being of a group might be related to the well-being of the individuals in the group. There’s the economic way mentioned above: figure out the well-being of each individual in the group, and then apply some mathematical function to the tally. I call this the functional conception of group well-being. The well-being of an ant colony, on this view, essentially depends only upon the well-being of its ants. [Metaphysicians, take note of the word ‘essentially’ here. I’m not talking about efficient-causal dependence.]
We might instead think that there’s just no such thing as group well-being, that groups just can’t be better or worse off. Only individuals can be well or ill. I know of no one who explicitly endorses this view, but Jordan Peterson has recently written some things that seem to imply it. Call this the eliminativist conception of group well-being. On this view, ant colonies are the wrong kind of thing to be better or worse off.
You might also think that the well-being of a group floats entirely freely of the well-being of the individuals constituting it. Whether a group is well off, then, would essentially depend entirely on matters other than the well-being of the individuals in the group. Perhaps the group’s well-being depends upon achieving its mission or upon its longevity. This seems to be what many anti-totalitarian theorists presume and thus worry about. Call this the independent conception of group well-being. On this view, the well-being of an ant colony in no way essentially depends upon the well-being of its ants.
Finally, you might try to interpolate between the functional conception and the independent conception. Suppose that the well-being of a group essentially depends in part upon the well-being of the individuals in the group, and in part upon other stuff. The well-being of a group, then, would bear a complex relation to the rest of the world. Damaging the well-being of some individual would then damage the well-being of the groups to which they belong, but a group’s well-being can also depend upon things other than the well-being of its members. Call this the partial conception of group well-being.
Which of these four conceptions is true? I am unsure. But I suspect that each conception accurately describes some groups. Groups vary widely in their structure, and this might shape how the well-being of a group relates to the well-being of its members. This, however, is just a hunch. But if this is right, then thinking about well-being can help understand the different forms of groups there are.
An even more interesting question, I think, concerns the direction of possible dependence between the well-being of a group and the well-being of its members. Recall that economists presume that the well-being of a group depends upon that of its members. Maybe so. Call this bottom-up dependence.
But we should also consider the other direction. Perhaps the well-being of an individual depends (in part) upon the well-being of the groups to which they belong. If this is so, then when the groups you belong to do better, you thus do better. If this describes ant colonies, then when an ant colony suffers, all of its members thereby suffer too. Call this top-down dependence.
I’m not sure whether there really is top-down dependence. And I certainly don’t know whether the well-being of an ant essentially depends upon the well-being of its colony. It surely causally depends upon all kinds of facts about its colony, but does it essentially depend upon the well-being (as opposed to some other feature) of its colony? I’m eager to know.
Dr. Eric Wiland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He is the author of Reasons, is working on a book about advice, organizes SLACRR, and goofs around with an upright bass.