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Just Another Animal

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So, now I know.

If I want to shut you up, all I have to do is start talking about saving your souls.


Anyway, Cheryl said:

>>>So – if I’m following all this, there’s something especially difficult and
unique about being human, and it’s not something we do instinctively. We need
guidance, whether we create it for ourselves or have it revealed to us by God.
These guides are many and various, and the one our particular culture (or, I
suppose the culture that spawned the British, US, Canadian and Australian
sub-cultures, which traces its cultural roots right back to the ancient Greeks)
uses doesn’t seem to be working as well as it once did. At least, this is the
case according to some of us and some commentators we have read; others would
probably argue that we are getting closer to our ideals of liberty and the
rights of the individual.

So, let’s start with this.

I think there are a number of ways in which human beings are unique, so unique that it amounts to a difference in kind and not just in degree between ourselves and even very intelligent animals, like primates and dogs.

One of those areas of uniqueness is certainly in the feeling many of us have–maybe even most of us–that we are in some way failing to be what we were born to be.

I don’t want to go into the issue of whether or not this feeling reflects anything about reality–whether or not there really is a “better” we could be–but only to note its existence.  Lots of us feel this way.  Lots of us go through life feeling as if we don’t quite measure up, don’t reach all the potential we have in the various ways we have it.  The few of us who do not have this feeling are, I think, people we don’t really want to know.  I think that may be, in fact, the definition of a psychopath.

But this distinction is a distinction in degree, not a distinction in kind–that is, we don’t measure up to the ideal definition of “human,” but we’re still human in spite of our failures, and so are every single one of our fellow human beings, even the ones born or made so disabled as to be unable to think much at all. 

We’re handed our humanness, and then feel called to bring it to fruition, and we don’t really ever manage to do that.  We all have one chance to life this one life, and we always fail to live it fully.

It isn’t just religious people who feel this way.  The earliest forms of secular humanism called on much the same interior desire in nonbelievers, and earlier than that, secular philosophers for whom religion was not a viable place to work of these issues recognized it, too. 

That’s why there are so many guides.  There’s both the Old and New Testaments, of course, but there’s also Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Kant and even Nietzsche. 

I don’t know if the guides that have served us all this time have lost their force in the new millennium.  Certainly they haven’t lost it for everyone.  There’s a religious revival going on across the globe, not just in the US and the Muslim nations, but even in self-consciously post-Christian ones like England and Australia.  Australia is home to one of the world’s biggest Christian fundamentalist creationist organization, Answers in Genesis–and I do mean creationist, not intelligent design.  Attacks on the teaching of evolution have been appearing in Britain now for nearly two decades, along with lots of agitation to allow home schooling without being required to follow the national curriculum. 

I will say, though, that fora lot of people, the Christian narrative no longer sounds true.  And it is narratives we’re talking about.  All culture is transmitted in narratives, not in formal instruction, not in sermons, not in laws.  For someone like me, stories about virgin births and resurrections of the body sound self-evidently fictional–at best a metaphor for something sensible, but not sensible as told.

It doesn’t really matter, for the purposes of this discussion, whether Christianity is true or not, or God exists or not.  What does matter is that we live in a society where those narratives are no longer compelling for many people.  And if civilization is going to survive, we have to come up with narratives we can all sign on to, even if we disagree on whether or not God actually exists.

And such narratives are available.  The biggest problem here, however, comes with a group of people–a minority in the US, maybe less so in the EU–who have declared themselves free of all narratives altogether, because they have declare human beings to be nothing special, who deny there is a difference between our moral obligations to human beings and our moral obligations to dogs.  Or whales.  Or baby seals.  Or whatever.

Like I said yesterday, nobody who says this sort of thing actually means it.  Nobody is calling on cats to learn to be morally responsible around mice.  It’s certainly in the nature of human beings tokill other animals in the hunt, just as it is in the nature of cats to do the same, but it is only human beings who are asked to act contrary to their nature.

In other words, all the people making the argument that human beings should see themselves as just another animal, in the very act of making their demand, prove that human beings are not that.  Human beings are the only animals who can be approached on the basis of morality, or who understand the concept at all.

What makes me nervous about these people, though, is that so much of their argument seems to lead to the same place:  to a kind of lust for death.

Peter Singer is the most egregious and public example of this kind of thing, but he’s hardly the only one.  I find it extremely uncomfortable to realize how many of our organizations and individuals who are self-proclaimed defenders of “human rights” seem to define those rights as largely the license to kill other human beings or themselves. 

Abortion, “assisted suicide,” euthanasia–when did rights come to be equated with this limited list of things?  I’m the world’s biggest advocate of abortion on demand–all nine months, for any reason–but none of my reasons for taking that position have anything to do with thinking that the fetus in the womb is not really a human being, or that children born disabled would be better off dead.

The best book on abortion I ever read is by a pro-life Catholic priest named James Burtchaell, called Rachel Weeping, who pointed out the obvious–if it’s morally acceptable to kill a child in the womb because it is disabled and that disability means it would be better off dead, then there’s no reason why it would not be morally acceptable to kill a child already born for the same reason.

When I first read this book, in the early 1990s, I thought he was exaggerating.  Then along came Peter Singer to suggest just that.

I think there is something about lacking an overarching narrative of meaning, one that you can invest yourself in, that brings on an obsession with death.  This narrative does not have to be religious, and it does not have to be cosmic.  People have managed to build very decent lives and to live decently with people around them on very small narratives indeed–on love of the history of stamps as well as love of country, on dedication to the art of quilting as well as dedication to the monastic ideal.

But I don’t think people live without any narrative at all, and if they persist in declaring all the available narratives null and void, just illusions with no real force or meaning, entirely relative, etc–if they insist on declaring that human beings are “just another animal” who require no special moral obligation from their fellow human beings–I think where they end is with this fixation of death, and specifically on the death of human beings.

What’s more, I think they do it without realizing they’re doing it.  They’re not obsessed with death, they say.  They want to relieve suffering (so the doctor should be able to kill Aunt Mabel if she’s in pain), or to die with dignity, or a hundred other things, and it all comes down to the same place: 

First, a world in which they exist in a bubble, in which only they themselves are really real.

Second, with killing off whatever causes them pain or discomfort.

Third, with the felt wish to kill the very fact of being human.

And now I have to go teach something.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Just Another Animal'

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  1. And they insist that any attempt to limit the effect on others of their obsession with death is an affront to their freedom as human beings while being unable to admit that a society set up their way would inevitably affect others’ freedom or even survival.

    I think I agree with you.

    What seems to happen when some Christian churches try to deal with the decidedly awkward bits of Christianity is that they start talking about how it’s all symbolic (which promptly loses some people’s interest and belief) and eventually end up with some vision of a God who is some spark inside each human and Jesus was, well, either a well-meaning preacher or perhaps just the subject of a fable based on earlier fables – and they wonder why this sort of boring wishy-washy thing isn’t really appealing to the masses! Especially when the ‘we’re all perfect just as we are because we’ve got part of God within us’ is not only very inward rather than outer directed, it also falls very flat in the face of any honest person’s knowledge that they themselves are not perfect or very God-like and aren’t even very confident about dealing with such common matters as illness, accident and death.

    But yes, many people do still find structure and meaning and faith in religion, but a great many don’t. A lot of them, in their searches, do seem to land in the everything is relative, humans are just another type of animal category. Some of the more extreme animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare) lot are really way out there on this issue.

    I feel like I’m groping a bit at some ideas that seem related. In-directed and Out-directed. Mysticism aside – and I’ve always heard that most mystics are pretty good at dealing with the outside world – religions generally seem to insist that their members focus on others. I used to think this was a pretty silly idea (charity, OK, community? ick, that means being nice to some people I might otherwise avoid!) but I’ve come to see it as core to a good life. If I am encouraged constantly to turn away from myself and towards others, maybe that insulates me a bit from what you describe in your first point, living in a bubble-world.

    From another angle, I was reminded a bit of some elementary ideas about constructivism I once studied. Our understanding is based on our interactions with the world – if we relate to other human beings and animals in the same way (or say we should) we are not going to be able to understand why other people make a distinction between killing a kitten and killing a baby (as I think Singer said was justified). I’m not sure where I want to go with this, and I’m by no means a constructivist myself. (I quite like the category ‘critical realist’.) I do think that we construct parts of our own realities even though there are also, ummm, real realities. I really should take more philosophy courses and learn the right words. And our relationships with others and social institutions are affected by our very own version of reality as well as by what the others and the institutions really are like, or need.

    As for the second point – killing off whatever causes them pain or discomfort. I think this is common, although not many people want to admit it. I read a detective story recently in which – although it was in no way relevant to the plot – the heroine mentioned her determination to be killed should she suffer or become dependent. So, she had a bad leg injury, and looks for the comfort of the knowledge she wouldn’t need to suffer because her husband will kill her or help her kill herself or stop hospital staff from keeping her alive (which wasn’t spelled out)! Of course, in the book, she heals up, solves the mystery and life goes on, but I was startled by the way nothing else mattered. Th possibility of living well even with pain or restrictions? Nah. What about providing companionship and advice to her husband and young daughter in spite of her own pain? Never mentioned. A *lot* of people react in this way to things they fear – and I think the thing they fear the most isn’t actually the pain; it’s dependence. They fear a lack of autonomy. I can see why, in a way – it can be humiliating and puts a burden on your family. But death is better than dependence? And this in a society in which some people claim dependence – that is, they figure they are owed a job, an education, an income! I don’t understand it. I prefer the idea that even a very sick person can provide companionship, or even merely an opportunity for the caregivers to care for another human being.

    And third, if being human is difficult, complicated and always risks becoming dependent on other humans, and I believe that a reasonable solution to a situation I don’t like – the sight of a disfigured or disabled person, for example – is death, why wouldn’t I want to destroy whatever makes me human? After all, if I’m only another animal, trying to fulfill my needs and wants, life is much easier and more simple!

    I don’t know if this all makes much sense. It’s mostly off the top of my head.

    And where I’ve put anything about religion in general, I probably meant to write something lit ‘major and maybe minor religions (but I don’t know much about most of them) and various non-religious philosophies”, but it took too long to type out each time.


    3 Dec 08 at 1:06 pm

  2. Jane is right. I am uncomfortable talking about souls and what makes us different.

    Intellectually I believe we evolved from animals whose behavior was governed by instinct. And I don’t believe in a personal God who takes an interest in human beings. This means I can not say “God saw that humans had evolved intelligence and discovered agriculture, so God reached down from heaven and turned off all our animal instincts.”

    Consider tolerance. A group of 10 or 20 hunter- gatherers living in a cave need a large amount of territory. (IIRC, something like 100 square miles per person.) If another group moves into their territory, tolerance of strangers is NOT a virtue. There simply are not enough resources in the territory to support both groups.

    But I am not a hunter-gatherer. I live in a city of 200,000 and we don’t have 20,000,000 square miles to live in. Things like art, literature, music, education, good medical care are only possible becuase so many people are crowded into a small area.

    For us, tolerance of strangers is a virtue.

    I would say the relious narratives provided a general cultural basis for fighting our animal instincts and developing the skills and restraint necessary for large groups.

    But a lot of people no longer accept those narratives. So what do we do now?

    Frankly, I don’t know. Secular humanism is too rational. It doesn’t reach the emotions needed to overcome instincts.


    3 Dec 08 at 4:11 pm

  3. I find secular humanism rather narrow, but I don’t think it fails because it doesn’t reach the emotions. I think emotions are a very shaky tool to use for almost anything, but particularly for overcoming instincts. Emotions are so inconstant; always changing. They can inspire people to some things; sure, particularly sudden actions (which can have long-term results). But they’re no good for the long haul. For that you need something else, logic or reason or adherence to some over-arching system of belief. Most people live in close proximity to a lot of other people, a certain number of whom are violent criminals. Your emotions might lead you to hide in your house in terror, or to arm yourself, or to ignore the danger or attack strangers you fear. But an unemotional belief in your cultural mores, your religion, your legal system are all far more useful in enabling you to live in a community with criminals. Maybe the accepted ideas on behaviour reduce the level of violence, or the legal system has developed rules that are pretty effective in keeping the worst offenders out of circulation.

    You need a lot more than emotion to build a society. In fact, I’m quite fed up with the general idea (not yours) that the main criteria for any decision is what the person making it feels about it. Calm rationality is more important.


    3 Dec 08 at 7:00 pm

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