Friday, July 17, 2009

Man, the [adjective] Animal

Omissions, corrections

Aristotle may have gotten a lot wrong, but I have to join MacIntyre in recognizing the Nicomachean Ethics as presenting a fundamentally sound way of approaching ethics. This is why I was profoundly disappointed by the way After Virtue dismissed the discussion of human nature and human goods found in book 1 of the NE. MacIntyre points out (rightly) that it is neither practicable nor desirable for a modern to accept Aristotle's teleological biology, but fails to offer any sort of replacement or updated biology--the tradition takes on the role that the biological teleology had.

This is a serious error. Aristotle did not open his discussion of ethics with a discussion of human nature for no reason and at random. He clearly and distinctly understood that a discussion of human goods has to begin with what humans are--if humans were something else, what is good for us to do would likewise be different. I am strongly tempted to generalize this and say that all ethical systems begin with, are underpinned by, and presuppose some particular view of what humans really are. Figuring out whether this claim holds up would be quite a challenge, but if it does, I think that it might elucidate in a yet clearer way why modern moral debates are in such disrepair--e.g., why it is so difficult to find a compelling reason to prefer utilitarianism over deontology or vice versa. But I digress.

In doing a bit of research and reading for this post, I was gratified to find that MacIntyre has changed his tune on this topic. In the introduction to his latest book, Dependent Rational Animals, (Thank you, Google Books!) MacIntyre falls back from this error, and outdoes himself in correcting it, spending the next 150 pages or so sketching out the philosophical importance of understanding that we are, in fact, animals. (And animals dependent on others, frequently subject to pain and illness) I regret that I have not yet found the money and time to acquire and read this book.

The various Paganisms each have their own approaches to answering what sort of thing a person is, and there are significant variations along with commonalities. Not all of these answers are equal; some are quite insightful, and some are thoughtless and perhaps even a bit dangerous.

The task of laying out exactly what humans are--what makes us distinctly "human"--is by its nature quixotic. Even to ask the question is to commit to certain epistemological and ontological ideas that could easily come under question. And while many of the aspects and faculties of humans are obvious and not very controversial, their relative ranking of importance to the human constitution (if there be such a thing) and how they are related to each other and to the whole are not at all obvious. And perhaps especially depressing, nearly every attempt to date to answer the question of what a human is has been astoundingly narrow, universalizing aspects of a particular culture to all humans.

Nonetheless, I would like to take this task in hand and give at least a broad answer.

We're Animals

I think MacIntyre is right in exploring the philosophical implications of our "animality." For millenia, philosophers have downplayed this aspect of ourselves, but it almost disappears from the philsophical consciousness of the West in the modern period. For Descartes, all bodies extended in space and time were passive, only reacting to external action, either fr0m other bodies or from mind. Animals, he believed, utterly lacked mind, and were nothing more than complex machines.

Still later, Immanuel Kant went even further, going so far as to say that all true ethics must be grounded in an understanding of personhood that has absolutely nothing to do with what kind bodies we have. What is moral for a human is the same thing that would be moral for space aliens, computer intelligences, or spiritual beings like angels.

Such short-sightedness is appalling, but not to be entirely unexpected. After all, preceding the modern period was the Medieval period, in which the Christian cosmology dominated the world. In the creation of the world, the animals were made on the fifth day, and humans on the sixth. Only to humans were given the gift of souls and eternal life, and the world would someday be destroyed and remade to give the righteous humans a place to live, while all animals would perish. In the wake of a milieu so pervaded with human exceptionalism, it is not surprising that Aristotle's simple observation, that man is an animal, was given little place.

Like on the Discovery Channel

Few thinkers have given due attention to this most fundamental aspect of ourselves. Even speaking about us as "embodied" is misleading; it almost implies a subterranean suspicion that we are in fact fundamentally disembodied, that we only have bodies, and are minds, in a kind of Cartesian dualism. I know of only a few modern thinkers who have given due consideration to it, particularly Merleau-Ponty (with whom I am less familiar than I would like). John Gray's Straw Dogs, for all its faults, is grounded in a keen awareness that we are animals.

Even so, when the awareness that we are animals arises, it is always with the consciousness that there is something different about humans, something exceptional. There is always some adjective. Man is the rational animal, the social animal, the spiritual animal. Man is the game-playing animal or the laughing animal. Man is the tool-using animal.

The adjective always refers to our advanced mental abilities, our perception and logic, our complex social arrangments or the subtle spectrum of human emotion. This is the realm at which morality, for the most part, operates. Advanced moral capability is at the very least part and parcel of our sociality and rationality. But we must be careful. All too often, in our moral reasonings and social negotiations, we forget entirely that we are animals--or at the very least, we fail to come to terms with some of the implications.

The whole range of implications is too broad for this post, which has already grown too long, so I will narrow my focus. I first want to clarify one thing that is not an implication: the importance and value of our cultural creations, philosophies, religions, and so on. Art is no less beautiful, the transport of mystic insight no less significant, that they are done by animals. We need to rid ourselves of the idea of "just" an animal. The Darwinian discovery that we share our ancestors with the rest of the living world ought not tell us that we are less valuable; rather, we ought to recognize that the plants and animals around us literally are (however distantly) our cousins, aunts, and uncles and treat them accordingly.

The implication I want to focus on is that we must take seriously that humans are just one element in a larger ecology, that we occupy an ecological niche and depend on the web of life to sustain us. If the virtue of justice is to be considered as giving to each his due, there is much that is due to the non-human world. Without necessarily advocating for their position, I want to point out the deep ecologists as an example of one way to work out this revised understanding of justice.

But how does this relate to Paganism? How can a polytheistic or earth-centered religion work this out? I'll see if I can put the pieces together in something like a coherent way in the next post in my series on MacIntyre.


  1. Just wanted to drop by and say I'm really loving your writing of late. This kind of discussion is incredibly important, and it is so refreshing to see another person in the Pagan community taking up these ideas.

  2. Hey, thanks.

    I'm writing as much as for my own benefit as anything else, but I'm glad someone else finds some appreciates it.

  3. Hi Hylo - just a quick note to say You're not me ;-) (Vox Day thinks you are, but he should know, you write much better).

    I live here:;act=ST;f=14;t=5752