Archive for March, 2010
Jem wants to know when the whole thing about “man is just another animal” started, and thinking about it, I ended up wondering what is meant by “started.”
The simple idea has been around at least as long as there have been literate societies in the West. It pops up here and there among one individual or another at random intervals.
As an idea with a significant social following, it seems to arrive around the middle of the nineteenth century, not just with Darwin–although Darwin was useful for people who wanted to hold this particular idea–but with the rise of the pseudo-sciences in general: sociology, anthropology, some forms of psychology.
Given the tenor of the times, their stated purpose of treating various aspects of human life and behavior “scientifically” meant treating human beings as essentially material–of treating them as if they exhibited laws of nature just as rocks and atoms do.
To the extent that human behavior cannot be explained this way–to the extent that the decisions to eat too much, go to war, cheat on your wife or turn down antibiotics because you think God will save you are NOT capable of being described as illustration of fixed laws of nature, to that extent the pseudo-sciences not only are not actually sciences, but never can be sciences.
It was a scientific age.
What interests me in all this, though, is the fundamental self-contradictions of most of the people who have put forward this particular definition of the human.
The Marxists always liked it a lot, and most of the heirs of the Romantics did too–but both Marx and the children of Rousseau started out by describing the “human animal” in a way no other animal could possibly fit.
Man is just another animal, but he’s an animal born–unlike all others–tabula rasa. His behavior, her temperament–all of it is socially constructed. It’s all a matter of responses to social cues and social structures. If the social cues and social structures were changed, the human being would be completely different.
None of the people who spout this nonsense would make the same mistake about their dogs, or their cats, or even their fish. Anyone who owns a pet knows that, although environment does play a role in how that animal’s genetic inheritance is exhibited, it does not change the inheritance. Dogs and cats are not born tabula rasa. They have inborn temperaments and instincts, and no amount of training will change them. What’s more, anybody who used the extremeties of training necessary to even try would be arrested for cruelty to animals. Dogs are born dogs. Their innate “dogginess” cannot be changed by any amount of “education,” no matter how radical.
People who today spout the “just an animal” line tend not to go to the extremes of the tabula rasa. It’s been largely discredited outside schools of education, and besides, it’s become useful.
Rather, they pick and choose among possible “innate” aspects of human nature. The human being, they say, has an intense drive to procreate (not suprising, really, and probably true enough) and therefore an intense drive to have sex. Therefore, attempts to get people to have no sex, or less sex, or sex only under certain conditions (say, marriage) are bound to fail almost universally, and therefore such efforts are at best misguided and at worst dangerous. Sex is natural to the human being, and trying to get him to stop it may do him long-term damage psychologically.
The same people who give me this, however, also tend to expect to be able to train human beings out of other things–say, the “us vs them” mentality or competitiveness–that give every evidence of being just as fixedly innate as the sex drive.
Man is just another animal–but unlike other animals, his need to mark and protect his territory is not, and can be trained out of him. We can therefore get rid of war forever, and get rid of all that hierarchy stuff in high school while we’re at it.
Man is just another animal–but unlike other animals, his need to acquire and protect his access to resources is not. We can therefore get rid of acquisitiveness and greed.
In other words, most of the people who propound the idea that “man is just another animal” and that man’s differences from other animals are differences only of degree and not of kind also tend to treat entire areas of human behavior as if they are, indeed, differences in kind from the same behaivor when exhibited by other animals.
The distinction is made between those areas of behavior the speaker wants to indulge or encourage and those he wants to eliminate.
Conservatives tend to assume that competitiveness is so innate it would be ruinous to try to change it, while sexual drive is perfectly amenable to being controlled and directed, if not nearly eliminate altogether.
Liberals tend to assume that sexual drive is so innate it would be ruinious to try to change it, while competitiveness is just a matter of how you’ve been brought up, and if you’d been brought up differently, it wouldn’t be there.
Reality is probably somewhere in between–that all human behavior is innate, but that we can channel it (not change it) in was that are more advantageous to us than simple indulgence would be.
High levels of personal competitiveness, high levels of tolerance for risk, the need for physically expressed violence and for marking territory are all innate in most adolescent males, which is why the vast majority of violent crime in any society is committed by males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five.
You won’t get rid of any of that behavior–but if you can channel it onto the football field, the young men and everybody around them will be much better off.
But here again is evidence that the difference between human beings and other animals is a difference in kind, not in degree–no other animal conceptualizes the problem and then theorizes about it and then produces a body of work explaining itself to itself. A sociology that takes as its premise that the differences between human beings and other animals are differences in degree and not in kind has proved itself wrong by simply existing.
Part of what is goin on these days with this particular idea is that many of the New Atheists find it necessary for their atheism–that is, they think that if it were to be proved that there is a significant difference in kind between human beings and the rest of the animals on this planet, then that fact would make the possible existence of God more likely.
This seems to me to be no more sensible than saying that the fact that there are both inanimate and animate things on the earth makes the existence of God more likely–there are lots of examples of differences in kind among the various things that exist on the earth. It’s not an unusual circumstance.
I also think we don’t take seriously, as much as we should, the need of many people to relieve themselves of the pressures of the expectation that they “make something” of their lives–that they do things that are hard and unpleasant to them in order to become better people.
But maybe that’s an issue for tomorrow.
I have tea.
Well, let me start out by saying that if I could pull this particular rabbit out of this particular hat, I wouldn’t just enjoy reading Aristotle, I’d be Aristotle.
But let me start with Aristotle, and sort of go from there.
Jem asked, at one point, what sort of evidence Aristotle had for his ideas about what a human being is.
Observation would, I think, be the best way to put it. Aristotle had–as we all have–see both animals and human beings behave, and he was not unaware that human beings shared many characteristics with the other animals, beginning with life and death.
But it was also obvious to him that human beings exhibited traits no other animals seemed to. Language was the first of these, by which Aristotle meant not rudimentary forms of communication but the full-blown linguistic ability to invent stories, conceive abstract ideas, and devise and use complex systems of logical investigation and proof.
Beyond that, there was choice–human beings can be trained by other human beings, but they also give every evidence of being able to train themselves in reaction to or rejection of that prior training, to conceive and institute new forms of societies never seen before, to make commitments to celibacy, for instance, or extreme forms of physical training and to carry them out.
Nobody in the classical Western world would have disputed these distinctions between animals and human beings, or disputed that such differences were significant enough to constitute a difference in kind and not in degree.
The issue is not that human beings produce art–maybe a robin’s nest is an art form for robins–but that humans produce the philosophy of art. And robin’s nest, no matter how ingenious or differentiated from each other, are always nests. Human beings build houses, but also administrative buildings, clock towers, railroads, automobiles and computers.
If there was any difference between the Classical and the Christianized West all the way through the Enlightenment, it wasn’t about the status of human beings as distinctively “other” than the rest of the animals, but of the moral status of each of the individual human beings who actually existed.
For Aristotle and most of the classical West, as for most other human cultures in every place and time, it seemed obvious that there were distinctions between human beings as well as between human beings and other animals. Not every human being was an Aristotle, or even capable of understanding an Aristotle.
Therefore, if you look at Aristotle’s Politics, or at the Nichomachean Ethics, you’ll find that he stresses the importance of treating “like things like” and “different things differently,” and therefore proposes different moral and political rules for different classes of people. Women were not to be treated in the same way as men. Slaves were not to be treated in the same way as freemen.
In spite of these distinctions, however, there was never a time in the classical West when some men were considered so far above their brethren that they could do anything they liked to them–even Plato did not go that far, and Plato was the very first apostle of totalitarianism.
Even for Aristotle, human beings were always enough like each other and enough unlike the other animals that they owed debts of obligation to each other–to justice, for instance, and to honesty–no matter what their differences in circumstance or even inborn talent.
When Christianity first arose in the West, it didn’t get rid of these distinctions between persons entirely. It just widened the scope of mutual obligation. Parents, for instance, no longer had the right of life and death over their children. It was as mortal a sin to kill your child as it was to kill your neighbor, and one of the great attractions of Christianity to Greek and Roman women at the end of the empire was that it absolutely forbid both infanticide and abortion.
Christians of this era would have said that the reason we owe a moral obligation to all other human beings–not just some of them–is that we are all sons of God (not sons and daughters–even daughters were “sons,” that is, children who could inherit their father’s kingdom), and that Christ lived in each of us, so that we were commanded to treat the Christ we see in each other and not the other in his particularity.
Aquinas pointed out that Aristotle himself had in fact gotten to the point of seeing that each human being was of equal moral worth no matter what his individual characteristcs or talents, and gotten there simply on the fact that human beings were different in kind from other animals.
What interests me about all this is not so much the fact of it–to me, Aristotle’s distinction between human beings and other animals seems glaringly obvious–but the vigorous attempts of so much that calls itself “humanism” these days to deny that it’s true.
This isn’t where Humanism started. The earliest forms of humanism rested precisely on the distinction between man and the other animals, on those things that are peculiar to human beings and what they meant for the life of the human being both as an individual and in groups.
The change, as far as I can tell, comes post-World War II, at least in the humanist movements in general, and by now it’s gotten to almost absurd proportions.
And the arguments and examples given in favor of the idea that man is “just another animal” make so little sense it’s difficult to understand what they’re getting at.
Point out the things that Aristotle did, and you’ll get told that cats and dogs use reason, too, that robins build nests and beavers build dams, and that it isn’t fair to ask where the dolphin equivalent of the Cathedral at Chartres is because dolphins don’t have thumbs.
If you beat back this kind of nonsense, you get told that it doesn’t make any difference anyway, because not all human beings are capable of doing all that fancy stuff, so you can’t use the fact that humans can do it as a reason why human beings of equal moral worth.
If you say that all human beings are of equal moral worth because they all participate in–are part of the classification in which–beings like them and only beings like them are capable of such things…
Well, when you get there, people just pretend that you haven’t said it, and reiterate that not all human beings can do this kind of thing, and therefore you can’t base an obligation to treat all human beings as of equal moral worth on the fact that some can.
Over the years, I’ve come up with a lot of different explanations for this sort of behavior, because it looks so flagrantly illogical to me that it’s either got to have a pragmatic basis, or it’s a kind of pathology.
All my explanations, however, seem inadequate.
It is certainly true that if you do not believe that all human beings are of equal moral worth, and that you therefore do not have equal moral obligations to them, you can get away with a lot of stuff you otherwise couldn’t. Defining a person or a group of people as “not really human” is a time-tested method of giving yourself permission to kill them, torture them and enslave them.
There might be something of this in what is going on, especially as it relates to the old, the sick and the disabled. We see all kinds of arguments these days not only for why it ought to be possible for granny to pull the plug on herself, but for why we should be able to pull the plug on granny.
Then there are the “wrongful life” suits, where courts entertain the idea that parents did a person irreparable harm by bringing him into the world when they knew he was going to be disabled, and the pressure put on lots of pregnant women to abort when the tests indicate Down Syndrome of spina bifuda.
This seems to be half the yuck factor and half a sort of triumphant selfishness–we don’t any of us want to be bothered with all of this, and it makes us feel uncomfortable to look at it, so we just want it to go away.
Then there is the problem with expectations–if human beings are different in kind than other animals, then different things can be expected of them than can be expected of other animals.
I’ve thought, on occasion, that part of the issue here is the wish to be free of the obligations of being human. Some of those obligations are difficult even for the best of us. If we’re just another mammal, there’s no reason to expect ourselves to be particularly honest or brave or dedicated. We can relax and settle down.
The problem with that explanation is that it doesn’t seem to fit the big guns in the field who take the “human beings are just another animal” approach. A lot of them are very self-disciplined and dedicated. They’re not wallowing in gluttony and addiction. They’re spending a decade in graduate school and producing books about the relationship between religion and psychopathology.
The simple fact of the vast difference–a diference so vast that it amounts to a difference in kind–between human beings and all other animals seems so starkly obvious to me that watching people try to deny it–and get hysterical in the process, which is often the case–is literally stunning.
And I don’t know how to answer that.
But I’ll get back to the rabbit and the hat again if I have some time to post tomorrow.
And no, I don’t know where Robert is either, and he’s got me a little worried. I’ve sent a few e-mails, but no response.
He does go back to his home town sometimes, and off to do stuff, where he isn’t on the net much for a while, but he usually says something about it first.
And it’s been eight days.
So, yes, I’m a little nervous.
This is an article that appeared in Arts and Letters Daily this week-end. It’s from Slate:
I put it up because it’s a good illustration of those lines from Yeats–and yes, those were the ones I meant, from The Second Coming.
I’d never heard them interpreted as being about the Irish Rebellion before. The standard interpretation is twofold: in the short run, Yeats was looking at the rise of the great anti-Christian totalitarianisms, starting with the founding of the Soviet Union.
In the long run, he was talking about the condition of humanity in a post-Christian world.
One of the reasons the poem has lasted so long and remains so powerful is that it continues to speak to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Dostoyevski said that if God is dead, everything is permissable–and “everything is permissable” is a good motto for places like, say, North Korea.
But let me get back to the foundations of moral law.
Jem asks first what use such morality is if people violate it all the time.
But that’s like asking what use are laws against murder when people still commit murder. And people do still commit murder. Many of them commit murder without thinking it through in any way, so that the fact that a law exists does not deter them because they aren’t thinking about it. Many others commit murder even though they know a law exists, because they think they can get away with it, and otherwise don’t care.
And yet laws against murder are useful, and not just because they mean we can catch some of these people and punish them. They do, in fact, deter some people–and we can never know how many–who weigh the odds and decide that they can’t get away with it.
But much more important than that, laws against murder help to shape a climate in which we all know, instinctively, that murder is wrong. And most human beings respond strongly to the knowledge that something is wrong, and especially that something is gravely wrong.
Moral strictures against murder–which is what knowing that murder is gravely wrong is an example of–deter people from even considering murder. And probably a lot of people. Look at places where such strictures have collapsed, and the level of violence is truly astounding.
Moral law–and understanding that some things are objectively, unarguably wrong, period–is a powerful creator of cultural climate, and climate is everything.
It is neither necessary nor possible for all people to actually observe such moral law. It’s only necessary that the knowledge and conviction be general and accepted without qualification. That in itself will limit the number of acts of transgression that occur–and, even more importantly, put a limit on the extent to which such transgressions can occur in the population at large.
In other words, in those twenty centuries of stony sleep, the rocking cradle vexed to nightmare not murder, but genocide–it took a century of Nietzsche’s God is Dead and the superman is pure will to overcome the stricture, but when the stricture was overcome what you got was not Jeffrey Dahmer, but the Holocaust and the Gulag.
As to the Bible–no, of course you don’t have to take the Bible literally. You don’t have to take it at all. I’m not a believer, and it has no authority for me whatsoever.
But, IF you say “the reason I think we should do no harm is because the Bible says so,” THEN you’re taking “the Bible says so” as the basis for your morality.
IF “the Bible says so” is the basis for your moral code, then you must accept as your moral code everything the Bible says.
If you don’t, then you’re NOT basing your moral ideas on “the Bible says so.”
Which is okay, too, but you can’t have it both ways. The Bible is either authoritative or it’s not. You can’t have it both ways.
As to disagreements among interpretations–there are actually far fewer than you’d think. For close to two thousand years, there were virtually no disagreements at all among Christians in moral matters.
They’d argue about the Trinity, or whether Genesis was literal or metaphor, or the virginity of Mary. They’d even have an argument or two about marginal things like whether or not you could drink or dance.
They didn’t argue about sex and violence. Sex? Morally acceptable only within a marriage. Period. No exceptions. Adultery was wrong. Prostitution was wrong. Visiting a prostitute was wrong. Having a mistress was wrong. Having sex outside marriage in any way was wrong. Heterosexual, homosexual, it didn’t matter.
None of this depended on taking the Bible literally. Catholics do not take the Bible literally, and they do not see the Bible as the foundation of their understanding of morality. They go, instead, with “the constant teaching authority of the Church.”
And in fact that teaching authority has been pretty constant. On abortion, for instance, although the REASONS for codemning it have been all over the map, it’s been a mortal sin (the kind of sin that can send you to hell and that incurs an automatic excommunication from the sacraments) for as far back as we can trace the mention of it, going back to about the year 120.
None of this means that change doesn’t happen, but in a moral code with a settled foundation that change occurs almost always as a gradual tightening of the moral strictures rather than a loosening of them.
The Catholic Church was the first institutional body on the face of the planet to condemn slavery outright. Individuals had done it before, but institutions, religions or governments, had not.
The basis for the condemnation was the constant Christian teaching that we are all equal in the sight of God and all heirs to the kingdom of God.
And that was the basis for England’s eventual decision to try to wipe the practice off the face of the earth.
Supporters of slavery were universal. They existed in all literate societies in all times.
Opponents of slavery were all Christian, and they all based their opposition on a single particular teaching of Christ because they took the teaching of Christ to be authoritative.
But SINCE they took the teaching of Christ to be authoritative, they not only accepted a need to oppose slavery, they ALSO accepted a need to condemn any sexual activity out of wedlock.
If the authority of Christ is authoritative, it’s authoritative in both instances. If you claim that it’s authoritatve in one case but not the other, then you’re simply saying that it is not authoritative at all, you just agree with one idea and not the other.
If you have no solid foundation for what you believe, you can’d defend it. That’s what’s happening in the article I posted the link to up there.
Men and women throughout Europe think they believe in freedom of expression, but they don’t really know why they do, and they aren’t sure if that belief should hold for other people who do not accept it–but the Muslims with whom they are in conflict have no such ambivalance.
It’s not the Muslims who are pulling back. It’s the Europeans who are losing their rights to freedom of speech and press in any case where it would mean criticizing Islam or Muslim culture.
The existence of disagreement does not prove that there is no truth to be had.
It just means that some of the parties to that disagreement are wrong.
I’m going to go do stuff.
Aristotle’s evidence and the possible foundations of a non-religious but universally valid moral code tomorrow, with any luck.
Part of me wants to respond to yesterday’s commnets by pointing out that I find two of the three examples Jem gave of what she thinks are simple, straightforward harms as problematic.
On the issue of racial epithets, for instance, I’d say that morally I can’t see any excuse for using them even in the privacy of one’s own mind.
But legally–well, that’s something else again. I do not think it should ever be within the government’s power to make such speech illegal, at all, for any reason. It’s a small step from “that’s an epithet” to “that’s hate speech” and the latter is most often an attempt to suppress ideas.
That’s clear both on those college campuses that have tried to establish speech codes and in Canada, that now seems to have a hate crimes law that includes ugly, nasty, and demeaning speech. What starts out as “you aren’t allowed to say the n word” ends up as “you’re not allowed to say affirmative action admits have lower qualifications than those students not admitted under AA, even if it’s true.”
Part of that is that I don’t think “somebody’s feelings will get hurt” is a standard that should be allowed standing in any legal question. And I don’t think racial epithets are any more naturally upsetting than being called a “stupid dumb fuck,” say, and in fact in some environments may be less so.
So I’m glad that Oliver Wendell Holmes lost that argument. In case you think that “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater”–yes you can. Holmes’s declaration that you can’t is part of a dissent he wrote in a free speech case in which his side lost. The rest of the court was on my side.
But I’d have trouble with the case of the parent hitting the child, too, because short of a case of outright assault, I’d have to wonder if I was simply imposing my middle class mores about parenting on somebody of another class or culture. My tendency is to feel that parents should be left free to make any decision about their children that will not lead to permanent physical disability or death–and that any less strict standard puts us in the position of becoming a nation of Mrs. Grundys, telling other people how to run their lives.
But it’s the end of the comment that interested me the most. Jem quotes both the Bible and a sect of Buddhism to explain why she thinks we should not harm people–but that doesn’t answer the question.
Why should I care what the Bible or Buddhism think? And do you really take them as a foundation of your moral code, or is it just that you’ve found parts of their moral codes that you like?
The Bible purports to be the word of God Almighty himself, and its vision of the human (at least in the New Testament) is that every human being is a child of God and an heir to the kingdom of heaven (see St. Paul), but also an heir to Original Sin. That means that we must all love one another, yes, but that loving one another means not just not causing harm to each other in a direct way, but being careful to correct each other so that we can turn away from sin and live a life that’s right with God.
If you accept the Bible as an authority, you have to accept all of it–and that certainly means rejecting, say, accepting homosexuality as an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality in marriage (“do not lie with a man as you would with a woman”–St. Paul again), and a fair number of other things that you probably wouldn’t agree with.
With Buddhism, I’m on less firm ground, because I know less about it, but from what I do remember, Buddhists believe that individuality is an illusion, that our goal is to rid ourselves of those things in us that cause this illusion (wants, needs, desires) so that we can return to the Great All and lose our individuality–our self-ness–for eternity.
The problem with that is that the Buddhism definition of what it means to be human is in direct contradiction to the Biblical one. All parts of the Judaic traditions–Jewish, Christian, Muslim–are adamant about the central importance of the individual as something real, unique and eternal. In Christianity, our individuality is preserved into eternity by the resurrection of our bodies. Those bodies will be in a glorified state after the Second Coming, but they’ll still be most particularly our bodies.
In Buddhism, even our individual souls do not survive eternity. The “me-ness” of me is just as much an illusion as everything else.
Nobody can hold both of those principles as the definition of what it means to be human at the same time. They contradict each other.
So–what is it about human beings that means we should not harm them?
It’s still an unanswered question.
And although I think I have an answer–for me, a secular libertarian liberal in the 21st century–and I think my answer could be adopted by lots of people…
It’s surprising how many people out there don’t know why they hold the moral ideas they hold.
I’m thinking this morning that I did this once on the subject of the consent standard, and what resulted from that was that everybody got mad at me. But then, I’m not all that upset when everybody is mad at me, so maybe I should have a whack at it.
Here’s the thing: the same thing is wrong with a “do no harm” standard as a basis for moral principle as there was wrong with a “consent” standard for the same.
It’s okay as far as it goes, but it gets you into trouble almost immediately.
First, let me say absolutely that I am not in favor of doing harm to people. And I think “do no harm” is a great first principle to have.
But I think “not without consent” is a great principle to have, too.
I’m not arguing that either the need for consent or the need to do no harm is not really a morally correct point of view.
I am saying that they’re essentially secondary–not primary–principles.
The first problem is with the word “harm.” It’s one of those words that seems on the surface to be very simple, and we’re sure we understand what we mean by it–but we only know what we mean by it because we don’t examine our unstated assumptions about it.
Let’s take my favorite bugaboo case: there’s an old woman sick and in bed. She’s fully biologially functional–she doesn’t have to be kept alive on machines; her body breathes on its own and digests food on its own and eliminates on its own and all the rest of it–but she’s comatose, and the prognosis is that she will always be comatose until the day she dies.
The woman has left no instructions about what she would like to happen to her when she is in such a state.
The chances are that she will live on this way for years as long as she is given an IV tube providing her with sustenance–food and water.
What do we do now? Where’s the “harm?”
A lot of people would say that the “harm” resides in letting this woman go on living–it would be better to take her feeding tube out and allow her to starve to death than to keep her in this state, no matter how comfortable.
I feel exactly the opposite. If I am that woman in that bed, the harm, as far as I’m concerned, is in taking my life, the only one I can possibly have.
In spite of the speculations that are given with confidence on occasions like this–she can’t perceive anything anyway; she won’t feel any pain because her mind isn’t conscience to feel it–the fact is we have no idea what a person in this state perceives or feels. Several people who have awoken from decades-long comas have said that they were able to hear and understand lots of what was going on around them, including discussion about how it would be in “their own good” to have the plug pulled.
Change the situation a little, and we don’t get much farther. What if the person is in pain? What if he’s in pain and declares that he wants to die? Do we harm him by killing him, or by keeping him alive?
What if he declares he does not want to die, no matter how much pain he’s in? Do we harm him by killing him, or by keeping him alive?
And beyond the harm done, or not done, to the patient in this case, what about the harm done or not done to the rest of the community by the decision we make?
Most people would say that avoiding “harm” would mean putting the person to death (“assisting” his “sucide”) would do the least harm in the first case, where the patient wants to die, and keeping the person alive would do the least harm in the second case, where the person wants to live.
But the Dutch experience tells us that it’s not that simple.
Dutch law allows for “doctor assisted suicide”–by which they mean allowing your doctor to actively kill you–if you’re old, sick and in pain and ask for the “service.”
Repeated studies by the Dutch authorities, however, show that many doctors and nurses “assist” people who have not asked for suicide, and especially that they do so with infants born handicapped or otherwise disabled, and in cases of older people in severe pain who have refused any such assistance.
The underlying assumption is that parents are doing “harm” to their children if they allow them to be born into the world with handicaps that may be physically or emotionally painful to live with.
As for the old people–even though they say they don’t want to die, no rational person would want to “live like that” (in that much pain, that physically damaged). If they were thinking clearl, they would make the “rational” choice, so it “harms” them if we don’t make the choice for them and put them to death.
All the arguments here–for what is the “harm” and how we should define it–are internally logically consistent. They’re all valid arguments.
We can’t choose between them on a rational basis until we define what “harm” is, and to do that we have to first look at each argument and see what it ASSUMES “harm” is.
“Do no harm” is a great principle, but I don’t actually know what you mean by it until you tell me how you’re defining “harm.”
But even getting the definition down isn’t enough.
There are times when dong harm may actually be the right thing, if only to avoid an even greater harm.
Part of the Treaty of Versailles was a provision forbidding Germany from putting military defenses in its industrial sector, backed up by the promise of France to invade as soon as any such defenses were begun.
A couple of years before WWII, Germany did in fact begin rearming its industrial area. France looked at the situation and…did absolutely nothing.
It decided that war was such an awful thing, it would be too much “harm” to invade. And, besides, all countries defended their industrial sectors. That’s part of what a government does.
But here’s the thing–if France had invaded right then, Germany was not in a military position to defend itself. The “defenses” would have come down, and Germany could not have started a war, because it could not have held onto its armaments factories if such a war started.
Meaning, that if France had risked the “harm” of invasion and everything that went with it, there would have been no WWII, there would have been no Holocaust–millions of people who suffered horribly and died would have done neither.
But France couldn’t know that then. None of us can predict the future.
Frnce was operating on the principle of “do no harm,” and by doing what immediately looked like no harm, it inadvertantly caused a lot more of it.
There are lots of smaller cases of this sort of thing around us every day. If a kid is doing badly in school, does “harm” reside in failing him or in letting him pass anyway? What if he’s failing because he’s just not that bright and isn’t capable of doing the work? What if he’s failing because his home life is a horror story or drugs and abuse? What if he’s failing because his self-esteem is in the toilet and, since he thinks he can’t succeed, he gives up without trying?
What about affirmative action, in the sense it’s used in academia, where we install different standards of admission for different races? Is there more “harm” in refusing admission to a kid who has lower qualifiations but very high potential (because the lower qualifications are caused, say, by his having gone to a school that was inadequate to teach him anything), or by admitting him when he’s not ready to compete and thereby both raising the chances that he’ll flunk out in a year and increasing the conviction among his fellow students that people of “that” race aren’t very bright?
What about the other side of affirmative action–the students of Asian descent who are denied admission because if you didn’t “correct” for their qualifications there would be “too many” of them on campus? Do we “do no harm” when affirmative action policies deliberately limit the number of such students–shades of those old Jewish quotas–our campuses are willing to take?
What if having large numbers of those Asian American students on a campus raising the standards bar so much that everybody else–including the white students–starts to feel uncomfortable and stupid?
Somtimes it’s not possible to “do no harm.” Sometimes it’s a question of choosing between harms, and it isn’t always the best answer to choose the least of those.
But at the end of this, we’re back to the same old thing–WHY is “do no harm” a principle we should respect?
Why is it a bad thing to harm other human beings? Why should we not harm them if, by harming them, we can do good for ourselves, have more money, for instance, or more property, or extend the empire over a wider area?
No ancient culture had any compunction whatsoever about doing harm to its neighbors, especially if the neighbors were enemies, and the results of such harm were not all bad. Civilization has always been spread by conquest, and the areas of the world that were not conquered did not peacefully live in tranquility, but often remained stuck in illiterate, stone-aged cultures of constant feast and famine, casual brutality, disease and early death.
I said at the beginning that I actually think “do no harm” is a good moral principle to have, and I do.
But I’ll repeat, it’s a secondary one.
Before it makes sense–or can even be consistently applied–we have to know what it is about human beings that means we shouldn’t harm them.
And that’s harder than you’d think.
I’ve finally figured out what it is–when it’s rainy or otherwise yuck out, the computer lab is full of people, most of them with MP3 players that do have earplugs, but they’re playing the damned things so loud, it’s impossible to think.
I said I’d get back to the Protestants, and I will, sort of.
I was thinking about what Cheryl said, about how everybody is so desperate to be an “individual” these days, about how being “myself” has become some kind of holy grail we all have a right to, even if we’re Ted Bundy or Charles Manson. The book I’m reading by James Schall–called The Mind That Is Catholic–talks about is as people believing they have a right to their own reality, so that it’s not that people began by thinking that everything was relative to our own opinion of it and then went from there to coming up with their own private “values,” but that they started with the private “values” and took up subjectivism because that was the only way they wouldn’t have to change them.
That was a very long sentence.
There’s something here that I find a little confusing.
To go back to yesterday’s navel gazing a little, I am aware of a kind of temperament in myself that I’m pretty sure is at least partially inherited, a temperament that reacts strongly and decisively to anybody trying to tell me what to do.
I don’t get extreme about this. I’ve managed to put up with taking orders long enough to get a few degrees and to hold jobs. But there’s something at the base of me that just instinctively recoils when I feel my autonomy is being infringed upon.
If people like Steven Pinker are right, this is not a matter of my upbringing or my environment but of the biochemical inheritance in my brain, which goes some way to explaining both why there is so much of this on one side of my family (and so little on the other), and why the standard joke about Greeks is that they have to start their own businesses because they can’t work for anybody else.
But if this is something inherited, then it must have existed far back in time, at least as far back as the Middle Ages. And granted, the Byzantine Middle Ages were not the same in tone or structure as the Middle Ages in Western Europe, my guess from what I’ve read is that they would be even less congenial to people with my particular response to hierarchy.
Certainly the will to individuality must have existed in all times and places, and must have existed strongly in some people.
What I don’t know is how somebody like me would have framed the issue to herself given a Medieval vocabulary of human nature.
Ack. I’m going around and around, probably because I’m tired and distracted.
Individuality, or at least the idea that the autonomous individual is the standard for human nature, arrives in Western civilization by way of Protestantism’s insistance that every individual man was capable of interpreting scripture on his own, with a good will and the grace of God.
And it leads to things that are definitely dysfunctional, not the least of which is the constant insistence these days that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me,” as if it were a matter of opinion whether you’d die if you walked out a twentieth story window.
But I don’t want to lose the stress on individuality, either, because it seems to me that it’s given us a lot that is good.
And also that it suits my temperament a lot better than the rest of this stuff.
I’ve got to go confuse a lot of students with poetry.
One of the things about writing a blog is this: it shows you, in no time at all, how little you have to say.
When I started this, I had two purproses.
The first was to write about the things I think about and get too little time to talk about these days. I like philosophy. I like it as an exercise of the mind. I like it because it seems to me to be intrinsically interesting. If I believed in the possibility of inheriting mental habits more particular than general temperament, I’d almost say this was just my Greek heritage, coming out.
On the other hand, I know a lot of Greek Americans, and some actual Greeks, and the tendency hasn’t been inherited by most of them, so there’ s that.
At any rate, many of the things I’ve written about here are the things I think about when I’m on my own and can do anything I want. Some people collect stamps. Some people play World of Warcraft until their eyeballs fall out of their heads. I sit around and worry about how the concept of the autonomous individual provides an incentive for totalitarianism.
But I don’t do it in any practical way. I’m not much interested in What Is To Be Done. It’s the intellectual exercise I like, not the practical implementation. My father always thought I would go into politics. I could have told him from off that he was wrong.
The other reason I started this blog was just to have a place to be myself.
In a way, that’s a silly goal to have. Part of my problem over the years is that I find it absolutely impossible not to be myself most of the time. Either I’m not self-aware, or I’m too little aware of other people, but the result always seems to be large scale hissy fits in the general vicinity and declarations that I’m–well, a whole bunch of things that don’t make much sense when you try to put them together, and I long ago stop trying to put them together.
I like what I like. I like Bach and Telemann and Scarlatti in the mornings–but I don’t find them more difficult to listen to, or requiring more concentration and seriousness, than I find the music on my phone, which tends towards Alan Jackson and the Beach Boys.
I like to read good prose fiction, and the writing will always be more important to me than the content. I find a book with a “good story” where the writing is flat or worse to be impossible to get through. I can read an entire novel where nothing much happens just because the writing is perfect and the music it makes is beautiful in my head.
I see a lot of movies, most of which I’m not interested in. I’ve got children–mostly grown children, but still–and that means I get hauled off to the latest superhero movie or the latest adaptation from a comic book whether I want to be or not. Some of them I like, some of them I don’t. I really, really, really liked a movie called Moon. I absolutely hated Watchmen.
Movies I do like do not seem to have much in common. I definitely do not do the thing with movies that I do with novels. For me, movies are all about content, and if the content isn’t there I get bored. But what content? Damned if I know. If I had to pick a list of favorite movies, I would start with Apollo 13 and then include Remains of the Day, Rebecca, Mathilda, Matinee, Casablanca, and The Nun’s Story.
I don’t have any idea what that means.
I don’t like most sports. No, that’s not true. I don’t like any sports. I never liked playing them. I really never liked watching them. The best thing I’ve heard about a college lately is that Cornell does not give out athletic scholarships. The whole culture of sports thing, the towns in the South where local television stations broadcast high school football games, the fan mania and all the rest of it, just leaves me cold.
But I taught in the Big Ten, and the coaches figured out from nearly off that I did not treat athletes as idiots or automatically assume their papers couldn’t be worth more than a C because they played for the university. That meant that by my second semester of teaching, I had athletes in droves, writing how-to papers about ice hockey and observational papers about Ohio State’s defensive game. I even got them to write all that clearly enough so that I sort of understood it, at least at the time.
Erudition, education, cultural range all matter to me enormously–at the same time that many of the people who have those things drive me right up the wall. I’m repulsed by Sarah Palin and the tea partiers, but I’m equally repulsed by a certain kind of educated upper middle class twit who runs around using words like “simpatico” as if he were in a Fellini movie. Except that he would never be in a Fellini movie, because Fellini movies were always far too…muddy. Full of mud. Dirty in the sense of not washed. Think Nancy Pelosi.
I was brought up among rich people, but by and large I don’t trust them. Maybe that shouldn’t be “but,” but “therefore.” I don’t know. In my experience, what most characterizes the upper regions of the upper middle class and the lower regians of the actually rich, at least in New England and New York, is an obsessive self-protectiveness, so that there is nothing that matters so much as maintaining their particular status quo. Matters of principle, or of right and wrong, or of sheer human decency get thrown overboard in double time if something comes along that threatens their positions.
Maybe it’s like that everywhere, with everyone. I do think it’s like that in all established institutions–that institutions protect themselves no matter what–but then, these are the people who run institutions.
It drives me absolutely crazy that there is no way I can get the kind of high school curriculum I want for my sons except by putting up with these people. If I find a school that does what I want it to do academically, that puts its stress on the classical Western tradition, that emphasizes the life of the mind–well, there they are, in all their glory, showing up at parent-student meetings fresh from their morning runs and demanding Fair Trade coffee.
The Republicans had it wrong in that idiot ad about Volvo-driving, brie eating snobs. And that’s interesting, because a fair number of people on the high end of the Republican Party are the same twits as the ones I’ve been describing above, so they knew better.
I tend to like actual guys, at least for anything serious. Metrosexuals do not attract me, and neither does the kind of man who cares what the wine tastes like. Or even likes wine. Because I don’t like wine. I don’t even like fruit juice. I can drink lemonade every once in a while, and back when I drank alcohol to excess on occasion, I liked grape juice for hangovers, but other than that–eh. Why?
I figure that the one sure sign that I’m getting old is that I sometimes just get tired–not physically tired, but tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of having political arguments about anything.
When I was younger, I lived for political arguments. I could do it all day and all night, the more heated and acrimonious the better. Now I sometimes sit around and wonder why all these people don’t just shut up.
If I had a chance to do anything at all with the rest of my life–if money and commitments were not an issue–I think I would spend the rest of it traveling again, just moving from one place to the other and staying for three or four months at a time. I would like to get to Australia, finally. Mongolia sounds interesting, or did in a brochure for a trip there sponsored by my college alumnae association. A nice long time in Italy would be good, too–oddly enough, considering all the places I’ve been, I’ve never been in Italy except in the Rome airport.
And that one’s a very long story.
Okay. Melacholy, silly, self-absorbed post today.
I think I’ll go listen to music.
It’s Monday, and I’m sitting in a computer lab that is, as usual, on any day that isn’t beach weather, absolutely insane. That means I’m really not going to be able to write much that’s coherent. So I’m not going to go back to the thing about Martin Luther and Protestantism and the Enlightenment until tomorrow. The idea of the autonomous individual starts with Protestantism, too, but that’s a longer and more complicated story than I’m capable of right this second.
I just want to note two things. First, the health care bill passed. At the moment, just what is in the bill that passed and what it’s going to look like after reconciliation and executive orders and I don’t know what else is not clear, but I find myself thinking–for the first time in my life–that I really hope Michael Moore is right on this one.
Moore is one of the people who thinks that this is a sort of first battle in a longer war, and that the bill is bad enough to cause “fixes” to it soon, and most especially the fix of at least a public option, if not a full blown single payer. As the bill stood the last time I took a good look at what was supposed to be in it, there was still the problem of mandated coverage to be bought from private insurance companies that are pretty much allowed to raise their rates as high as they like. Meaning a lot of us are going to be required by law to buy something we may not be able to afford.
On the other hand, at the time that thing went to a vote, there were at least some subsidies built into it for people making up to either $80,000 or $90,000 a year, depending who you talked to. So we’ll have to see.
But I did come out of the experience of this debate with one thing: whether this bill passed or failed, I would have been completely committed to voting to re elect Barack Obama in 2012.
I’d probably have done that in any case, but I was impressed as hell by the fact that the man went out there and made his case, over and over again, in a way I haven’t seen a President do in decades.
I’d gotten so used to The Great Man Isolated In The Olympian Confines of the Oval Office that I’d forgotten it could be done any way.
I like some of Obama’s policies and dislike others, but I like the man more and more the more I see of him.
And I’ll bet I’m not the only one.
More on the Protestants, and maybe the Byzantines, tomorrow.
As I write, it is very early Sunday morning. Too early, really. Sundays are usually good days for me, but last night I just couldn’t sleep, and now I’m sort of hammering along in the way I do when I can’t stop myself from thinking nonstop.
One of the things that occurred to me is an old theme here, but not one I think I’ve spent any time to work out in detail, so I thought I’d try it.
When I first brought up the moral argument that underlies the American health care debate–the principle that we have a moral obligation to care for the sick, that if we see somebody who is suffering or dying and know how to alleiviate those things, we are morally wrong not to do it–Robert wanted to know what that principle had to do with me. It had to do with him, as a Christian, because he is a Christian. But it could have nothing to do with me, because I am an atheist.
I find this entire idea–that moral principles are dependent on religion, and that without religion no objective moral principles can be discovered–odd in ways other than that I just don’t agree with it.
For one thing, any resident of the West, either in the Classical world or in the Europe of the Middle Ages, would have found such an idea nearly inexplicable. The most important thing Aristotle and Aquinas had in common was that they understood morality to be something true about human beings that was available to all men to discover.
It’s interesting, to me, that these two thinkers–and these two eras of Western civilization–both conceived of morality on the virtue side of MacIntyre’s virtua/rules divide. That is, for both the Classical Greeks and the Medieval Church, talking about morality meant to ask what kind of person we should be, not what kinds of rules we should follow.
Aquinas was able to effect a synthesis of “Greek learning” and Christianity precisely because he shared Aristotle’s conviction that we could discover what virtue was and what we must do to acquire it “by reason alone,” as the Middle Ages put it–that is, without the help of revelation.
For the Medieval Church, the truths of revelation were few and particular: the Trinity; the Virgin Birth; the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.
The law of God is written on the heart of every man, Aquinas said, and any man who wanted to could read it there.
It’s a long way from that understanding of the place of morality in human life to the one we have now, which assumes that, without revelation, no such moral law is available to be discerned at all.
We can trace the history of that idea–that morality is entirely dependent on religion, and that without religion there would be no moraliy–to the Renaissance, although a stray thinker or two had come up with it (and being doctrinally condemned for it) in other times and places.
It was the Thomist/Aristotlean conception of virtue and morality that gave birth to what was then called “Christian Humanism,” and what we now call the Renaissance, and it was the Renaissance that gave birth to Humanism as it came to be understood until ery recently.
Humanism was first and foremost a commitment to the infinite moral worth of every human being. What followed from that was a series of obligations both to ourselves and to other people, and among those was our obligation to care for the sick and the poor.
What interests me is the fact that this understanding of the moral life–as something objective, and outside our wishes and whims, and discoverable through reason–ended on both sides of the religious divide at the same time.
For that, we have to thank (or not) Martin Luther.
Okay, maybe I’m being unfair here. I’ve read only limited work by Luther himself. What I really mean is that we have to thank (or not) the Protestant Reformation.
That Luther himself was not a fan of Christian Humanism is well documented, but what I think is much more important about Protestantism as an historical phenomenon is its narrative of sin and grace.
For Aristotle and Aquinas, for most of the philosophers and theologians of Classical antiquity and early to Medieval Christianity, man was a being who naturally longed for the good, and longed to be good. Being good was hard, so he wasn’t always successful, but most men wanted to be successful, and therefore strove to understand what it meant to be virtuous and what it meant to live a virtuous life.
For a good chunk of the Protestant reformers, man was a being so utterly depraved by the fall that he was incapable of even willing what was good without the grace of God. In fact, he was incapable of even conceiving the good. Left to his own devices, without revelation or grace, he would choose to do evil as a matter of course. His only hope was grace and revelation, and without them there could be nothing but chaos.
Maybe the idea was in the air. Maybe it was just the idea of morality as a set of rules everybody was supposed to follow that was in the air.
Whatever it was, the Protestant Reformantion’s understanding of the moral law had a lot more in common with Macchiavelli than it did with the history of the Christian Church.
It was, in fact, a complete break with the entire intellectual history of Western Civilization.
I am not, I will admit, a big fan of the Protestant Reformation on almost any level, but on this level I think its influence was largely disastrous.
The idea that we could not know what was good unless God told us, that there were no rules to the game of being human that could be discovered by investigation, quickly led to the conviction that there were no rules except success–that all that mattered was whether you won or lost.
Or, as Mr. Lombardi is supposed to have put it: winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.
And no, I’m not saying that the Protestant churches held this particular precept. It was more that they held onto a rules-based moral universe for those people who chose to remain within their communities, and gave carte blanche to the men outside those communities to concentrate on the…practical.
I’m doing that thing again where I’m not sure I’m making any sense at all, so I might not be.
For better or worse, the cultural assumptions of the Protestant Reformation have become the cultural assumptions of most of the globe.
It isn’t that we’ve all become Calvinists, or even that most of us have. But the countries of the Protestant Reformation were also the countries of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment was a period that broke decisively with Christianity on all matters of revelation while retaining the Protestant framework for thinking about morality and ethics–as rules-based, and largely arbitrary, once the truth of revelation was rejected.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to learn more about is just how necessary the one thing (the idea of morality as rules-based and impossible without religion) was to a lot of other things that arose only in Protestant cultures (science as we know it, the democratic project).
For right now, I’d only like to point out that the assumptions necessary to believe that morality must either be based on God or be something entirely arbitrary that we make up ourselves are irrational–and unscientific–in the extreme. They require that we assume that human beings, unlike any other animal on the planet, have no discernable and discoverable nature.
And that’s just to start.
I understand the attraction, for both the religious and the nonreligious, in such a view of human life and human morality. It gives the religious an automatic basis for feeling superior to their brethren–only we know the rules to make us good–and the unreligious both a blank check to do what they want in the world, and an excuse not to work very hard to be better people than they feel like being.
As a principle, however, I think it’s demonstrably untrue, and largely dysfunctional.
And it leaves us in situations like this one. A great majority of the US does in fact hold to the moral principle I started with–that we are obligated to relieve the sickness and suffering of our fellow human beings if we are able–without knowing why they think that, or even that they think it.
It therefore becomes damned near impossible to untangle the principle from its practical applications.
Instead, we have discussions like the one we’ve been having on the health care proposals now before the US conference: one side talks about doing something, the other side talks about why doing that particular something is going to be bad–but nobody comes out and directly addresses the problem:
Assuming that we have a moral obligation to relieve the sickness and suffering of our fellow human beings if we are able, what exactly are we in fact able to do?
It’s not enough to say that THEIR plan in fiscally irresponsible. You have to say what YOUR plan is to solve the fundamental problem, and to be specific about what ways it will solve the problem.
Because, for all the yelling and screaming that’s been going on in the public square these last few months, the ordinary run of human being in the United States is concerned first and foremost with the moral problem.
And he–or she–doesn’t even know it.
The Senate is likely to pass a bill I don’t like today, that I do not think will solve the problem–
But it’s the only actual attempt to solve the problem on the table, and they’re getting away with a lot because of that.
Considering my track record on Saturdays lately, I think it’s going to be interesting to see if I can get this thing written and posted without blowing it up at least twice.
So, anyway, let’s see what I can do here.
Robert says he saw the ethical question as peripheral.
I see it as absolutely central, and it was the ethical question–not the present health care proposals–that I was talking about in yesterday’s post.
Robert also says that the ethical principle applies to him as a Christian, but he doesn’t see what it has to do with me.
That implies that such a principle is valid for Christianity and for no other moral system, and with that I absolutely disagree.
The idea that every human being is of infinite moral value and, simply by existing, imposes on each of us an obligation to be concerned with his well being is just as central to humanism (in its original forms) as it ever was to Christianity.
A number of interesting questions come out of that fact–and it is a fact. One of those questions is why contemporary humanism has abandoned not only the principle, but the understanding of what it means to be “human” that it was founded on.
James Schall, one of the people I’ve referenced here a few times in talking about the idea of the university and the place of the liberal arts, says that the “problem with atheistic humanism isn’t that it’s atheistic, but that it’s not a humanism.”
And he’s got a point. Whatever is going on with the Council for Secular Humanism and most of the other humanist groups these days, it isn’t humanism as historically understood.
And that brings on the question of whether humanism as historically understood not only began as a Christian movement as a matter of historical fact, but could only have begun as a Christian movement.
That’s where it gets a little tricky. It’s certainly true that the principle has not arisen in any society except those that are Christian, but it’s also true that the principle did not arise in Christendom until Thomas Aquinas “Christianized” Aristotle.
Aristotle was not enough. Averroes–the Islamic scholar Ibn Rshd, who wrote in the Iberian peninsula in the early Middle Ages–came to the conclusion that there was the truth of philosophy and the mythology of scripture (in his case, the Koran) and never the twain could meet, since scripture was written for the ignorant and stupid, and only the wise and educated could understand the real truth that was Aristotle.
And the last thing Averroes came up with–or could have come up with–was the idea of the infinite worth of every man.
So, in the absence of trying to untangle these strands that make up what is properly humanism–Christian humanism and non-Christian humanism–I’ll leave that particular question until later.
I’ll just say that not only do I consider such a principle to have something to do with me, it was the principle on which I was raised and the foundation of the humanism I learned from people who did not believe in God, never mind in Christ, and couldn’t have.
My interest in that principle at the moment is of another kind altogether.
No matter where it came from, I think a solid majority of Americans accept it. I think they accept it without ever thinking about it, or having thought about it. They’re convinced that this is right and true. They don’t think about why they’re convinced that this is right or true.
Does holding such a principle mean that you have to be in favor of a government-run health care system?
In fact, it MIGHT mean that you have to be against it. That’s a matter of the practical reality of running such a system, and not the subject of this post.
But what holding such a principle does do is to make some forms of arguing about such a health care plan look better or worse than others.
The uninsured patient who’s losing his house because of the medical bills, or who’s losing his life because he didn’t go in to get a colonoscopy, or whose life is being shredded because his child is dying of leukemia is the seven hundred pound gorilla in the middle of the room.
His situation has to be addressed.
You don’t want a government run health care system? Fine. Tell me what you do want that will fix this problem.
The Obama initiative is coming closer to success than the Clinton proposal did because the Obama people have kept the focus directly on the seven hundred pound gorilla–
And the opponents have been talking about everything from fiscal responsibility to fascism (sorry, but most people watch television, and Obama’s face on a poster with a Hitler mustache over a swastika is what they’re seeing a lot of these days)–
But they haven’t been talking about the seven hundred pound gorilla.
No, I don’t think Nancy Pelosi gives a damn about the ethical question.
But the majority of Americans do, and at the moment, only the Democrats are making even any pretense of addressing it.
The opposition is off on a different subject entirely, and no matter how important that subject may be, it cannot substitute for addressing the moral question first.
I wish somebody would try.