Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Rabbits Out Of Hats

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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.

Written by janeh

March 28th, 2010 at 5:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Rabbits Out Of Hats'

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  1. I’ll take “relieved of obligations” for $50, Alex. Being SELF disciplined isn’t the same as being willing to submit to an external discipline. Some of the all-time great monsters were hard-working, scholarly, and sometimes showed considerable physical courage. What they weren’t was willing to submit to a moral code which placed them under some obligation to all other human beings–even the smelly ones, and the ones who couldn’t form interesting arguments.

    One piece of evidence is that the “just another animal” argument tends to come and go a bit. None seem to stress the obligation one primate has to another, for instance. Heinlein pointed out–I believe it was reprinted in EXPANDED UNIVERSE–that the young males of a troop of baboons climbed trees and kept a lookout for the big cats while the rest of the troop slept. He said it made those baboons more “moral” than a number of human philosophers who felt no such obligation toward their community.

    He observed elsewhere that the basis of all morality was “women and children first!” but that adult male philosophers continued to search for any alternative system.


    28 Mar 10 at 4:59 pm

  2. Although I’m familiar with the premise the man is just another animal, what’s the origin of this? Evolution? Hinduism, Buddhism? I know about PETA and Vegans, of course. I don’t agree with this theory either but would like to know where it came from.


    28 Mar 10 at 9:18 pm

  3. This is a guess – but I’ve always assumed the ‘just another animal’ idea emerged from a kind of fuzzy combination of some basic ideas about evolution and, of course, a rejection of any religion. If all species developed from the same amoeba, they must all fit in the same general category, especially if you don’t think some outside factor (like God) might account for humans being special.

    Of course, this does rather assume, as Jane points out, that the person holding these views has not actually looked at the way various animals interact with their environment and noticed that humans do so in significantly different ways than any other animals. Or, for that matter, that it’s quite possible for beings to be in one category at a more general level of classification and different ones at a more specific one, so it’s possible for humans to be both animals and different from other animals in some ways.


    29 Mar 10 at 6:00 am

  4. I’ve always thought that the “just another animal” comes from evolution and comparative biology. We test drugs on animals and and assume that if it works on a dog or a mouse, it will probably work on a human. We find that a certain brain structure in a cat is involved in visual perception and assume that is true of the corresponding part of a human brain.


    29 Mar 10 at 2:31 pm

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