Thursday, April 29, 2010

Our place in nature

I am a humanist, which is to say at least two things: I've spent more than half my life in the humanities; and, while I don't know that we always get the right result, I believe that moral questions must be addressed from the human perspective—after all, there is no other perspective we can successfully take. (This is not to say either that only humans matter or, in the style of secular humanists, that religious values cannot be discussed or considered.)
But the right kind of humanism cannot be that sort in fact exhibited by those who claim to be religious (and often deride humanism) but demonstrate in many of their beliefs an inheritance from the Enlightenment and its immediate intellectual forebears, namely a vision of humans as divorced wholly from the rest of nature. I call this, too, a kind of humanism inasmuch as it replaces a presumed God of creation with a God of humanity. If that's not humanism of a sort, it's hard to know what it is.
Consider two fonts of this sort of view: Descartes and Kant. In his dualism, Descartes endows humans with a mind. He is at pains to distinguish this from the soul (the anima that animates all animals). He goes out of his way to deny this mind is shared at all by the (other) animals. Here, in a new way, we are separated from the rest of nature. Nature is simply a mechanistic body devoid wholly of mind, while we are minds. Of course, we have bodies, but this is not essential to us.
In Kant's conception of the human being, we are defined by two characteristics: our will and our reason. It is these two things that make us what we are and it is their lacking in the natural world that makes that world morally irrelevant. The natural world, the phenomenal world, is deterministic and unreasoning. Only we are free and reasoning and only as we are conceived in the noumenal world, not the world we sense. And, for all the sublimity with which Kant enchants the natural world, this is nothing more than a power to create an effect in us.
I'll not delve too deeply into the consequences these views have for treatment of nature and animals. But,  it should be obvious that on such views, nothing can be wrong per se in any treatment of the non-human world, except as it affects humans. Torturing a dog like Heathcliff is wrong not because of the dog's suffering, but only because if might lead to insensitivity to human suffering.
Rather the pervasive problem is in seeing us as divorced from nature. This contrasts an older tradition—that tradition against which Descartes rebelled—that sees humans as ensconced in nature. Even Plato for all his hatred of the physical world, sometimes hints that the physical world's other inhabitants might have a deeper connection to us; or, at least one might infer this from some of his considerations of metempsychosis. Surely Aristotle, in his views of the souls we share with other living things: the vegetative and animal—and in his tying together of form and (physical) matter and placing us between, but sharing in the natures, both of God and the animals, places us as much more firmly in nature. This is a theme mirrored in the Stoic belief that all living things share in a piece of the fire that permeates the Universe as well as the ancient and medieval mindsets in which humans can learn moral lessons from natural history and bestiaries.
I'm not just being an old codger here nor am I arguing that animals stand on the same level in moral consideration as we do—I am, after all, claiming to be a humanist, to place humans first. But there is something disconcerting about having to argue with University students who firmly believe that "All humans are animals" is false; with people who tell me that something ought to be done about the birds—the parrots, the hummingbirds, the eagles and hawks, etc.—on campus, because they have the temerity to defecate on car hoods; to watching student overcome with disgust and fear at the lizards, possums, raccoons, mice, rats, etc. that come up from the canyons on the side of campus (it's lucky they don't see the coyotes in the daytime); at having students strenuously deny the possibility of natural selection less out of religious conviction that out of concern over human dignity; and, at having those students who accept evolution conversely claim that because we are a different species, we may exploit all the rest of nature.
What am I claiming? Just that a view of humanity that sees us as apart from nature is an impoverished one, impoverished in its appreciation of the natural world—not just in zoos and botanical gardens—as a good in itself and impoverished in its appreciation of what we are as part of that same nature. To see ourselves as angels trapped in bodies is as wrong and harmful as to see ourselves as merely clever pigs. Perhaps we need a return to the Great Chain of Being—in a modified form—to see our place in relation to and in nature.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How we live now

Reason requires discussion. Socrates knew this. 
Discussion requires listening. 
We no longer—in the political realm, in the classroom, in our personal lives, in our so-called social networking sites—have any interest in listening to anyone not ourselves. 
Thus, no discussion, thus no possibility of reasoning, thus no possible improvement, as opposed to mere change, in our doxastic states.
We only yell at one another, and there is nothing social about this.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Liaisons, oh my!

Last week, I finished reading Choderlos de Laclos' Les liaisons dangereuses (in translation, of course). And, though I couldn't help picturing Glenn Close and John Malkovich while reading—Keanu Reeves, luckily, did not appear on my mind's stage—I found the story much more delightfully nasty and amoral than even the movie was. With the translator/editor (ParmeĆ©), I found myself questioning whether the military officer and later Jacobin was really portraying a debauched aristocracy for our righteous indignation or for our envy, but mostly, I found myself thinking that for all the ways in which the epistolary format allows for an omnipotent narrator or, rather, the omnipotence of the reader—leaving aside how all the letters are to have been collected together—we should all be grateful that other structure of the novel quickly displaced this one. Reading hundreds of letters may have been imaginable in a much earlier age, but (sadly?) it is no longer to our taste. The repetition of salutations and closings alone is enough to drive one crazy.

Days of silence and lost voices

Last Friday was the annual Day of Silence, the day when gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, etc., and allies are asked not to speak in order to make clear how their voices so often go unheard. Now, I believe that I have opined on the strangeness of this before—among other things, it seems strange to me that I, of course, have to speak on such days while well-meaning straight allies can take a stand against an oppression they have never felt by refusing to speak in class: I don't have the option of being silent—but the bigger problem with the very concept of a day of silence is the way that it addresses a problem by exacerbating the same problem.
Contrast a day of silence with walkouts. Take, for instance, the idea of a day without Mexicans popularized in southern California. Such a walkout makes an impact. It does this by addressing the way the presence of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (and other Latin Americans) is ignored by replacing it with absence: you don't see us when we are here, notice us when we are not and are not doing the jobs you need done! This was also the old strategy of homemakers going on strike: you think I do nothing, wait until I do nothing!
A day of silence, it seems, should work this way, but it differs importantly. In a walkout, there is valued work that goes undone and so is missed. It is only in its absence that the presence is noticed. In a day of silence, the very claim is that the voice (not merely the work or the presence) of a group is ignored and undervalued and so the response is to not speak. But, if the voice is not valued or noticed, to withdraw it is to acquiesce to that very ignoring and disvaluing. 
But why doesn't its absence in this case draw attention to its presence? I think because gays and lesbians and transgendered people are never going to be a large enough group or a concentrated enough group in any university or college or other institution to be missed on one day. (Sure musical theater might disappear without gays and the LPGA might cease to exist without lesbians—of course, I am kidding—but this is not like the effect on agriculture or construction that would be felt if we really did deport everyone with a questionable immigration history.) 
So what is better? If there is too little recognition of speech and voice, put so much voice and speech out that it cannot be ignored. Make them pay attention; don't be silent.