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The Seven Hundred Pound Gorilla

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Sometimes it occurs to me that I can never quite get to anything on time on this blog.  I’m actually pretty good about deadlines in the real world, but this thing keeps me circling stuff over and over again.

Let me start by addressing John’s contention that the Vikings built a successful society by stealing the wealth of other societies.

I suppose this comes down to how you define “successful,” but to me it sounds like saying that Susie successfully completed her calculus course when in fact she passed only by cheating her way through every assignment and test.

The Vikings, like the burglar, live lives that are not successful but parasitic. 

Think of it this way:  a productive society can exist and thrive even if no burglars (or Vikings) exist in the world.  In fact, it will probably do better if they don’t.

A Viking society, or a burglar, requires productive people to survive–if those people did not exist, pursing a course of robbery would just leave them to starve.

That is the way in which the burglar “opts for death.”  He opts for a strategy that, consistently pursued by the world around him, would leave him to starve.

He can hide that fact from himself as long as he has productive people who do the work necessary for any human beings to survive, but it’s a form of denial.   It’s neither success, nor facing reality.

Robert says that the problem with the slaveholder is not that he doesn’t face reality but that he “uses people as things.”

But using people as things is not facing reality.  People are not things.

And it does not require an axiom to that effect to know it, either.

That people are not things, that they are ends in themselves and not to be used as the (unwilling) means to the ends of others, can be discovered through observation.

We know that human beings are the creatures that do things like create Rheims Cathedral, and antibiotics, and the Empire State Building, and theoretical analyses of all these things of things.

We know that it is only by the use of his mind that a man can do any of these things, or anything else. 

Since the free and full use of his mind is man’s only way to survive at all, but also the only way to survive as a human being (that is, something capable of stuff like the above), then the one thing a human being must have is the free and full use of his mind.

That mind will differ in degree of ability from the minds of other human beings, but it will differ only in degree.  Even a child with Down Syndrome has the kind of mind I’m talking about.  A dog, no matter how intelligent, does not.

It is a moral imperative to treat each man as an end in himself and not as an (unwilling) means to your ends because this is the kind of mind he has.

It doesn’t matter if God gave it to him, or if nature did.  What is, is. 

This seems to me to be such an obvious thing–that is, that human beings are different in kind from all other living things, and not just different in degree–that I am always completely astonished when people try to argue otherwise.

Birds build nests, yes, but they don’t build the Houses of Parliament and they don’t develop elaborate philosophical systems to explain the principles of beauty in architecture. 

Cats and dogs will tend to themselves if they are wounded or sick, but they don’t discover antibiotics to cure their infections and they don’t set their own legs and they don’t develop dense scientific treatises on the Germ Theory of Disease to explain why medicine will work if they have it.

The fact that human beings have minds that will do this is just that–a fact, part of that reality that we must face if we are to live.  And the better we face it, and the more generally any society does face it, the more successful we will be, in any strict understanding of the word “successful.”

When Susie cheats her way through her calculus course, she doesn’t “successfully” pass it, no matter what her transcript might seem to indicate. 

When the con man or the burglar or the Viking raider gets a bunch of money by force or fraud, he doesn’t “successfully” survive, even if he lives to a ripe old age.   He just makes himself the enemy of the survival of everybody else and in the process removes himself from the category of “human being qua human being”–that is, he chooses to live not a human life, but an animal one.

This seems to me to be a very strong ground for moral injunctions against force and fraud–and it doesn’t even take into considerations the grounds for legal injunctions against the same.

But it all starts with admitting that human beings are unique among all other living things, and that the nature of that uniqueness must be accommodated in anything we say about them.


You know what I mean.

I understand why religious people would hold to the idea that you cannot distinguish the uniqueness of being human by looking at the natural world–making man “special” is something God can do–but I never have understood why people who call themselves “humanists” would declare the same thing.

But then, there’s another rant in that…that modern humanism is not in fact humanism.

And I’m not going to get there today.

Written by janeh

July 19th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Seven Hundred Pound Gorilla'

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  1. All right, granted that humans are unique among the creatures on this planet, and that their ‘uniqueness’, if that’s a word, is based in the kind of brain they have. I think that’s a fair argument. I don’t think it’s impossible, though, for humans to survive as humans, in human societies, without making much if any use of their brain.

    That sounds a bit harsh, but think about all the people who manage to survive and have happy enough lives – and who aren’t parasitic – without thinking about it very much. I started off thinking about pre-industrial societies, but if I didn’t choose to read and discuss ideas, there’d be precious little in my life that would require much in the way of a human brain to do. The things I do are useful, I guess – I get paid to do much of it – but I didn’t invent the institution in which I work or the tools with which I do it; someone else did.A lot of someone elses. Ditto for unpaid things.

    So I entirely agree that there’s something special about humans, but I don’t think that being human requires that we actually make a lot of use – or some specific kind of use – of our ‘specialness’.

    And the thieves and scammers and other lowlife, while in the wrong morally and legally, may be parasitic, but they are still humans and are using their human specialness. The line between them and us is often shaky, too; a true believer selling expensive supplements to the nervous or ill isn’t a scammer and may believe they are contributing enormously to society, but I think they’re more parasitic than some kid stealing a candy.

    And all except the most extreme societies – northern Native groups, perhaps, living a traditional lifestyle a hundred years ago – have enough leeway that some parasites won’t do much damage.

    You could even argue that parasites are part of the natural order – as long as their numbers are low enough that they don’t seriously damage the society, they can be tolerated.

    That’s a far cry from ‘choosing death’.


    19 Jul 10 at 7:51 am

  2. Eh.

    I don’t think it’s possible for human beings to survive if none of them are doing that unique kind of thinking–they survive at all only to the extent that SOMEBODY’S doing that.

    It took human thinking to invent agriculture. Even extremely isolated aboriginal societies survive only to the extent that somehow, somewhere, somebody was doing some real human thinking.

    As for your work–you can do it only because some people did the real human thinking to provide you with written language, then taught you to read and write, then provided you with a computer, a complicated shelter system, a climate control system (heat and air conditioning), etc, etc, etc.

    It takes a LOT of human thinking to allow a modern society to exist at all for even a single hour.

    It takes human thinking for you to know how to operate any of that machinery (try to teach it to even the most intelligent apes), to cook anything, to understand money well enough to buy groceries, and I could go on and on and on.

    And the issue isn’t whether a society can “tolerate” a few parasites–societies have always tolerated them, and we tolerate quite a few right now.

    The issue is whether a society NEEDS parasites.

    And it doesn’t.

    A society consisting entirely of productive people with NO parasites would survive.

    A society consisting entirely of parasites with NO productive people would not.

    And that’s one of the most basic facts of existence.


    19 Jul 10 at 8:06 am

  3. Hmm. Then according to this discussion, isn’t it possible for a human being, by his own choices, to remove himself from the human race while still being alive? Someone who has a functioning brain but doesn’t use it, or who parasitizes or damages the society they live in severely enough. On one hand, I hear Jane saying that a human is a human, no matter their condition or actions…on the other, Rand is saying that a human who doesn’t choose to live a human life, as she defines it, isn’t a human.

    What are the moral obligations of a human toward a non-human? What sanctions should there be toward someone who chooses a non-human life?

    Any society with a surplus of wealth, whether that’s money, goods, food or time, is going to have parasites. Some of those parasites are going to produce non-survival (immediate survival, that is) related items we value, such as art, science, and government. Others are going to produce nothing, or consume without contributing. Basically, that’s what a society striving to produce a surplus is *for*, to support those parasites, because some of them will do things we value.

    Humans and human societies can and have survived without art, science and government. But I don’t think we’d enjoy such a life very much. So I come down on the side of needing parasites and tolerating the negative ones for the sake of the positive ones. After a while parasites can become symbiotes, to the point where they are no longer recognized as what they really are. No human society really *needs* art. But as soon as people get a surplus to the point they can support artists, they do.

    And now, I’m going to go to my studio and make art. ;)


    19 Jul 10 at 11:56 am

  4. Oh, I don’t deny that to live in the modern society we need lots of people who do typically human brainwork. I’m just saying that a lot of us don’t need to do so to survive – although perhaps I’m drawing the line differently than you do. I’m saying pushing a button on a microwave (or putting something on a stick over an open fire) doesn’t require much in the way of human-only mental skills. They’re basically mechanical actions that can be picked up by imitation. No thought involved. MAKING a microwave, or serving a formal dinner and getting everything to the right temperature at the right time, now, that’s different.

    There’s something that bothers me about your statement about the two types of societies – neither of which have ever existed – being a basic fact of existence. Besides the fact that the societies are more ideas for discussion than real societies, that is. I don’t quite see how you get from that to the idea that humans must be productive, especially since actual societies manage to contain – sometimes very poorly – people who are even more expensive and less productive than the thieves – like the disabled or elderly. Not that the idea of keeping them alive hasn’t been challenged, of course.

    And I suppose it’s the narrowness again that bothers me. No one is only a thief. Even thieves may do productive work for time to time. They raise children, not all of whom become thieves; they care for their old mothers (ok, maybe some of that is funded by the proceeds of crime). So if you eliminate the parasites, you also eliminate their non-parasitic activities. It’s like those big social changes where seasonal workers lose the assistance (from common land during the Enclosures to unemployment insurance now) and , surprise, the cost of getting basic commodities goes up because the contribution of people who were seen as parasites for parts of the year isn’t there any more.

    Who knows – maybe we do need ‘parasites’ – some of them, anyway. Where do we put composers and musicians? I don’t need them for me or my society to survive. I’d hate to be without them.


    19 Jul 10 at 12:03 pm

  5. Not good enough. A LOT of lines of work–even productive work; even work you can be proud of–would result in societal collapse and starvation if pursued by everyone. But the concert violinist hasn’t “opted for death” because of that. A sane healthy society righly sanctions force and fraud, not because everyone can’t pursue the strategy, but because they are distinct even from panhandlers as not just “bad for the neighborhood,” but wrong.

    But, sadly, the slaveholder is morally wrong but not anlytically wrong to consider men things. We’re that too. We may be like the angels, but we’re also chimps with opposable thumbs. And if using men as things works out better FOR THE SLAVEHOLDER than dealing with them as men, then Rand has a legal case at best, and not a moral one. As a guide for survival on a desert island, she’s unsurpassed. It’s when she tries to extend her code to how we deal with each other that the quality of her reasoning drops off sharply.

    Does anyone remember Alfred Hitchcock? “I never said actors were cattle. I said they should be TREATED LIKE cattle.” That’s the difference between denying reality, and accepting it while pursuing one’s own interests.

    As for

    “Since the free and full use of his mind is man’s only way to survive at all, but also the only way to survive as a human being (that is, something capable of stuff like the above), then the one thing a human being must have is the free and full use of his mind.”

    That’s a classic precis of Ayn Rand–but it’s darn near circular. Perhaps spiral. Plenty of men survive in unfree states, but it doesn’t COUNT, so they aren’t really. But let’s not neglect one of Ayn Rand’s own favorites–the mind-body problem.

    Even the most degraded of human beings may have “the free and full use of his mind.” How can it be prevented? Or how can it be checked? What the serf or field hand lacks is the free and full use of his BODY–the right to do as he pleases, and the right to the fruits of his activity. And virtually none of us have or ever have had that free and full. At best we pay taxes with which we disagree and for which we may not even have been able to vote, and submit to laws which hedge about our behavior in a thousand ways. At worst we’re slaves. The distinctions are worth fighting for, but by the “full and free” standard virtually nothing was done by human beings, because there haven’t been any outside of a few hermits and castaways. Marooned pirates were completely free, but slaves helped build the Parthenon.

    And let me be fair to a philosopher I too respect. Rand knew and accepted this. Oh, she talked about state lotteries, but she never questioned the necessity of government, and that government would have to tax. Even in Galt’s Gulch there is law and submission to the law–which means obeying decisions with which one disagrees.

    “The full and free use of the mind” is a ringing philosophical battle cry–but it will not translate into behavior and policy. “The minimum of laws and taxes necessary to prevent the use of force and fraud on the population” is politics–full of hedges, compromises and uncertain choices. But that’s the real-world Randite objective, and I’m in favor of it–with some hedges.


    19 Jul 10 at 4:25 pm

  6. The Viking societies built homes and ships, farmed, had music and laws. That doesn’t sound like cheating.

    It is rational for humans to form societies and those societies need ways to control theft and murder etc. That is the social contract idea behind Hobbs and Locke.

    But Rand (and Jane) seem to think its irrational for an individual to break the social contract if he or she thinks it can be done without paying a penalty.

    I don’t think that is deducable from Rand’s premises.


    19 Jul 10 at 7:41 pm

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