May 4, 2015: Philosophic Foundations – What Defines “Human”?

Philosophers have spent a great deal of effort attempting to define humanity. It used to be tool use, until chimps were found to use tools. Possessing a moral compass has been a long standing definition, until other primates were found to display morality in their sense of fairness, aid to the sick, and sharing. Language, mathematics, religion, and brain size have all been considered. Though it’s begun to look like other mammals have what might be termed a rudimentary language, and even lemurs can count, though so far as we know, they can’t solve differential equations. Elephants appear to revere their dead in “elephant cemeteries.” Dolphins have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any species on earth. None of this is to say humans and other animals are the same, only that we share the same or similar traits.

For the purposes of this blog - and political philosophy - the question, what defines human? is more about what fundamental characteristics humans do have, regardless of whether other creatures share these or not. From these fundamental characteristics come the kind of society that strives to be in accord with what humans are, a society grounded on a political philosophy built on that definition. If, for example, humans are naturally wicked or unruly, a strong arm model of governance should be employed. So said Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in his favoring of a monarchy. But if humans are naturally good, then shouldn’t they be able to govern themselves? So asked John Locke (1632-1704) in his preference for democracy with its stress on the individual (individual liberty, rights, equality). Get the definition wrong, and a mess is made – a society that forces real humans into unreal molds.

Until recently, religion, as well as natural law and morality, played such a large role in the human definition, one finds it inseparable in any survey of the past. Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) argued religion is not a requirement to discover natural law, nor then its antecedent, the human definition. [1] Right reason is enough. In Rothbard’s refutation of David Hume’s (1711-1776) “demolition” of any objective capacity to know human nature (the root of modern day social relativity), it becomes clear that, of course, passions command motivated reason, but not right reason. Hume did not distinguish. Maybe he didn’t know when he said reason is slave to passion. (Was only Hume exempt from this “fact”?) Motivated reason – quite popular outside the sciences and engineering – is a type of reason that rejects evidence in disagreement with what is already believed. In other words, lip service as the appearance of reason. American politicians, talk radio, and television are experts in this method. On the other hand, right reason restrains the individual from an act they could otherwise gain from - the application of which had a name called virtue.

However, in Rothbard’s analysis, and my own, there are unstated assumptions: that religion really is separable from the human definition, that “unassisted” reason (without revelation) is possible, that at its heart, right reason differs from motivated reason. While I agree with Rothbard, that religious inspiration is not a requirement for the human definition, these assumptions remain. Historically speaking, this subtraction of religious reference is new. Outside of the invention of agriculture, this separation may be the biggest change in the human condition. And it paves the way for the next biggest change: the separation of morality by modern economics.

In the practical day-to-day arena of America, religion and traditional morality were disconnected from the definition of ourselves along three parallel routes. First, our Enlightenment-influenced Founders demanded government be morally neutral in order to avoid imposing a morality on individuals. Gradually, Americans would assume the people themselves were to be morally neutral. This was not intended, but bound to happen in an individualist State. (Of course, moral neutrality is not neutral as it selects against prevailing moral standards.) Second, and for good historical reasons, America’s Founders expressly parted their government from religion by separating church and a state sponsored faith, though colonies at that time still funded their favored denomination. Third, the Founders demoted religion from fact to opinion, but an opinion that became an individual “right.”

Prevailing moral standards at the time of America’s Founding came from Christianity. According to Louis Dumont (1911-1998), Jesus emphasized empathy as central to humanity. [2] Recognizing the potential for error, we should then strive to be selfless. Jesus placed emphasis on what I’ll term here as spiritual morality, degrading the material world of the here-and-now in favor of a world beyond. “For what has a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” [3] But seventeen hundred years after Jesus, that “next biggest change in the human condition” arrived in the form of Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) Wealth of Nations. [4] Smith claimed that selfishness is central to humanity - a paramount interest in self-preservation, why not give into it? So long as we create a set of rules to play by, each can pursue their own self-interest by a new type of morality, of “private vice serving public good.” Smith reversed the Christian teaching by elevating the material world of here-and-now, seeking physical comfort for the greatest number of people. And it worked. Smith’s capitalist economy thrived in an atmosphere of “moral neutrality” and individualism.

It’s clear that traditional morality and economic morality are in opposition: selflessness vs. selfishness; empathy vs. “greed is good,” as Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) clarifies in his work that so influenced Smith. [5] Hence, the most profound self-contradiction in Western civilization, which is generally Christian and simultaneously capitalistic. (To point this out in public America risks condemnation from our political Right as though it were an assault on Christianity or, perhaps more sacred, capitalism.)

From Smith eventually arrives the notion that material wellbeing is a realization of social justice, not that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This change in the human definition changed our ideology (according to Dumont) and thus our actions from an ideology once based on “man’s relation to men,” now “man’s relation to things.” It might be predictable that at this transition the individual accelerates their separation from others via control of the natural world, achievement, displays of materially defined success, etc. As such, true communities disappear. After Smith, the plodding pace of individualism becomes a sprint, eventually to trample traditional communal life with its many duties and responsibilities that we moderns view as positively stifling.

So what is the fundamental nature of humans? First, we should accept that late modern humans of the West are a walking contradiction. We want love and independence, belonging and autonomy, someone of extraordinary measure to look up to and equality that guarantees no one is better than anybody else. Even our laws represent this confusion. In the US, Affirmative Action favors African American, Hispanic, and Native Americans (one line of my heritage). Simultaneously, Equal Opportunity Employment states no one shall be discriminated against (or favored) for any reason. It's a recurrent conundrum for those who pay attention at their monthly diversity training when both laws are lauded as pinnacles of American fairness. (To note this contradiction in public America risks condemnation from our political Left, as though it were an assault on political correctness.)

The compensation of these contradictions produce what Chantal Delsol (1947-) terms “black markets.” [6] As Delsol writes, “The figures [our essence] of human existence are again [emerging] in spite of their illegitimacy [by late modern norms]. Ban the economy and the black market will blossom. Decree that religions are obsolete and you will have sects. Deny that human beings seek the good and the ghost of the good will appear surreptitiously under the guise of correct thinking.”

Black markets strive to balance our psyche. Modernity is filled to the brim with just such contradictions. Why? I submit it is because our definition of the human being has been distorted by a natural evolution of ideals born with Enlightenment philosophy of the 1700’s. Those ideals were established to deny arbitrary abuse of power by the king and the Church. What Enlightenment defined as liberty, equality, and autonomy have become something dramatically different.

It serves us well to look back at what the great minds defined as central to us. Socrates emphasized virtue, Plato knowledge, Aristotle our political nature. Kant notes morality. For Kant the source of morality comes from reason. Kant’s is a practical morality applicable to the faceless multitudes of strangers we deal with in business. But biology dictates we are social before we’re born. We don’t choose it. Physically and emotionally we are connected, utterly dependent on that first elemental society, mother and child. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both had a mother. They did not arrive on earth fully armed in defense of their individual rights. Individuality is naturally secondary, not primary.

This biological determination defines the human as a social being, therefore moral, and echoing Locke, therefore good, with all that implies for governance. (As with Enlightenment offerings, this definition is necessarily brief, begging questions like, Why is there crime? Why are there wars?) It is from nature that the template of humanity is born. We are social, as are other species: flocks of birds, herds of buffalo, schools of fish. Each seeks out others for companionship, safety, resources - society. An expression of social yearning, not social contract, as though we could initiate or dispose of our social nature with an agreement. Compare this to Mandeville, who said the only reason people form society is to satisfy material desires. And - prefiguring Marx – that morality was invented by moralists, philosophers, and politicians to make man social.

Morality, born of social bonds, does not exist in a fictional universe of one. (Take that, Libertarians – for whom I once voted.) In a world occupied by more than ourselves alone, universal moral codes have their place as an obligation on the individual. Aspects of individuality relinquished to the Good, not merely the good of all, but for the Self if that Self expects to flourish. To deny our biologically determined social nature and the morality that comes with it through modern hyper-individualism is to float us on moral water, seen so clearly in America, Left and Right, where erratic indignation and sentimentality serve as guidance.

If human social nature is prior to individualism, not just chronologically, but biologically, shouldn’t we rank aspects of individuality in accord with this reality? Not to make the individual disappear, but to rank the individual in a larger picture. Such an idea might have created a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The individual dare not be dismantled as the individual is forced to do in totalitarian regimes of socialism, communism, or blind nationalism leading to another “righteous” war. We can’t remake moderns into ancients and expect to make a better world. We’ve got 30,000 years of human examples to examine, with social systems more, less, or not the least in accord with human nature. Like notes that exist but not yet composed into a great musical composition, somewhere out there is the answer we’ve searched for from the moment humans expressed their condition in those ancient caves of France and Spain. By comparison, it’s relatively easy to find errors in a system, much harder to find a solution. If it were easy, after thirty millennia, we’d have found it. “A tall order,” as we say in America. Tall, as in stratospheric. Let’s see what we can find. Until next time: the first Monday of July, the 6th, 2015.

[1] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2002
[2] Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx, University of Chicago Press, 1977
[3] Mathew 16:26
[4] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 1776
[5] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 1705
[6] Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, ISI Books, 2003
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Published on May 04, 2015 12:25
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