Thursday, May 30, 2013
The Animal At Odds With Itself
Aristotle wrote two fundamental books about the human being: the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. I have long thought the two works are based on contrary assumptions. The one proceeds on the assumption that the human thing is the action of an individual person. The other proceeds on the assumption that the human thing is the action of a regime or a political community. So which is it? Is the human thing the individual or the group?
I think that the answer to that question emerges precisely from the fact that Aristotle found it necessary to take the two points of departure. The human thing is the dynamic relationship between the moral person and the moral/political community. It is in that dynamic relationship that one sees most clearly what the human being really is.
The current issue of The New Atlantis has four pieces on “the evolution of human nature”. I just finished two of them: “The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson” by Whitley Kaufman and “Moderately Socially Conservative Darwinians” by Peter Augustine Lawler. Both are well worth reading and both confirm at least this much of my view of the human thing: to say what we are is to describe a tension or even a conflict between two distinct modes of being.
Kaufman takes issue with E. O. Wilson’s argument that
our best chance at understanding and advancing morality will come when we “explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.
Kaufman presents the weakness of Wilson’s biophilia. This is the idea that we should love the earth and all the beings who live on it. I think that this is not a bad idea at all. Gratitude might be the better part of piety. I agree, however, that Wilson has not done the hard work necessary to turn biophilia into a coherent ethical position.
The problem is that Wilson seeks to bring about a revolution in ethics without doing ethics — that is, without making any prescriptions, only predictions. He has painted himself into a corner: biophilia in his theory can only be a personal preference, not an objective value.
What interests me here is the tension that Kaufman identifies in Wilson’s work. On the one hand, Wilson
celebrates the infinite capacities of man to increase knowledge, breathlessly predicting that “humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate.” In On Human Nature, he holds that our biological tendency for aggression and war will be “brought increasingly under the control of rational thought.”
That makes it sound like we are more or less in control of ourselves and capable of taking some measure of control over human nature and nature in general. On the other hand
Wilson’s reductionist commitments lead him to insist that free will is only an illusion. Though “some philosophers still argue [it] sets us apart” — and one would have to include Wilson among these philosophers! —nonetheless free will is no more than a “product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action.” So Wilson is at once a moralist… and a moral determinist, holding that moral decisions are causal and impulse-driven rather than rational and free. He cannot resist trying to have it both ways: we are free and determined; rational and instinctual; autonomous and mechanistic…
Not surprisingly, Wilson is unable to reconcile these contradictory conceptions of free will and human nature, the humanistic and the scientific. But it is, in a way, a tribute to his breadth of mind that he recognizes and embraces both of them, in contrast to the prevailing trend in evolutionary ethics towards simple moral determinism and nihilism.
That seems to me to be right. The human being is at once a physical being, composed of organs, cells, and molecules that obey physical laws, and a moral being capable of freedom. No one has yet escaped from the problem that presents.
Peter Lawler focuses on a tension that is closer to the one I pointed out in Aristotle. On the one hand there is the position that seems to originate with Descartes.
Sophisticated Americans these days think of themselves, or at least talk about themselves, as autonomous beings — free from old-fashioned social restraints, and free even from the limitations of nature. Men and women both feel free to define who they are for themselves, without being saddled by the imperatives of their biology, their bodies.
That is the position of radical individual autonomy, divorced from nature in general and biology in particular.
Lawler presents a sympathetic account of the Darwinian alternative, as argued by Larry Arnhart, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson. Human beings are animals. We are conditioned by our biological nature to be selfish but also to seek to belong to larger groups.
Darwinians think of our cultural evolution as an extension of our natural evolution, and they see both as having an equally social and biological foundation.
Wilson sees members of our species as much more like bees and ants — the insects that he studied during his distinguished career as an entomologist — than even our fellow primates. These insects achieve their unrivaled social cooperation, which includes a complex division of labor and shared responsibility for taking care of the young, through robotically perfect obedience to social instinct; these instinctual traits define what Wilson and other entomologists have termed “eusociality.” We human beings much more consciously employ our intellects in the service of social instinct to reach our own heights of cooperation. The social intelligence of human beings — the self-aware animals with complex speech — leads to a tension between the selfish desires created by individual-level selection and the social impulses created by group-level selection, a tension that hardly exists for the instinctively self-sacrificial eusocial insects.
Lawler is wrong to say that the tension between individual interest and collective interest “hardly exists” for the eusocial insects. In fact it is pervasive and must be managed in a variety of ways. Honey bee workers can lay their own eggs and will tend them, unless the queen polices the system by eating them.
The Darwinians, I am surely among them, think that human beings are by nature political animals, as did Aristotle.
It is true that we are selfish and struggling by nature. But, as [Haidt] argues in The Happiness Hypothesis, we are also “hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger.” The only thing that gives us a sense of purpose worth dying for — that saves us from what would otherwise be our lonely and self-destructive personal obsessions — is the group, or our relations with members of the group. We cannot live well without knowing that there is something that makes self-sacrifice significant. We are unable to achieve what the bees and ants have — complete instinctual self-surrender. But our happiness is still fundamentally about having the “right relationships.”
Again, this seems to me to be right. The individual human being presents itself as both autonomous and part of a larger whole. We are selfish and selflessly committed to others. We are persistently at odds with ourselves and that is what we are.
I highly recommend Lawler’s essay. He believes, I think, that human beings are more than animals. He takes the possibility of the immortality of the human soul more seriously that I do or than Aristotle did. I would only add that human beings are at least animals. Our animal nature contains the fundamental tension that drives so much of moral and political philosophy.