Saturday, February 09, 2013

Why does Aristotle have to be so bad on human nature?

Yesterday I finished up my discussion of Aristotle in two of this semester's classes. I am sympathetic to much in the Aristotelian tradition. So, I always try to make him appealing; there is a lot to say in favor of his ethical theory and his theory of the soul comports much more with modern thought and scientific accounts of the place of humans in the animal kingdom than theories of much more recent thinkers. In short, I like him a lot. And, I think he has a lot to offer my students.
But, if we are going to talk about Aristotle's view of human nature, we have to talk about the dark side of his view, too. This is a thinker who thought that women—being men who hadn't fully formed—and "natural slaves" were not fully in possession of reason, the distinguishing mark and telos of humans. Because of this, they can never be fully happy—those men who are capable of such happiness thus have obligations to take care of and correctly utilize women and these slaves and to give them as large a share in human happiness as possible—and we have to say that they really aren't fully human or that they aren't and can't be flourishing humans. That is a sort of elitism that is deeply troubling.
And, this raises two problems: one general and pedagogical and the other more specifically philosophical. 
The first one is how to talk about thinkers or figures who—having had the misfortune of having been born human—were deeply flawed. It is hard to talk about any historical figure let alone a philosophical one—it is the job of philosophers to have opinions—who doesn't have truly horrible skeletons in his or her closet. How can we honestly present them without having the negative parts of their views overshadow the main thrust of their ideas in the minds of students new to their thought? 
The temptation is to gloss over those bumps. At least, I know that is my temptation. But at some point, either during the class or after, at least one student will discover that Heidegger unapologetically joined the Nazi Party, or that Socrates praised Sparta—and that is wasn't quite the same city as that portrayed in 300—or that Mill seemed to favor imperialism, or ... some other view that it was too uncomfortable to cover in class. And, they will wonder then whether there is any point in thinking about them and why exactly I hid it from them. I am assuming that at least some students will continue to think about what we've discussed; that may seem optimistic, but this rare optimism has been borne out in the past.
I don't have a solution, other than to honestly present the warts and try to tease out, with the students' help, whether we can separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes, we are able to, sometimes we are not; in either case, some pedagogical purpose might have been served.
The second problem has to do with giving accounts of human nature, so it is both a more narrow question and one with broader implications, i.e., it matters even if we don't spend much time behind a lectern. Since it is probably more important, I have left it to last and will have less substantive to say about it; such is my way. 
Aristotle, like quite a few philosophers, focused his account of human nature—of what is essential about us, what separates us from the rest of the animals—in the faculty of reason. We have reason and the other animals do not. Of course, others have placed that difference somewhere else, whether in language, abstract thought, or someplace else. A problem with any such defining characteristic, apart from a merely biological one, is that it will admit of degrees: some people are more capable of reasoning than others, some people gain only rudimentary language, and so on. If our account of humanity—or personhood, to make it clearly not just biological—ties it to some characteristic that only humans have what does that say about those humans who don't have it or who have it to a lesser degree? In other words, can we give an account of human nature that doesn't end up, as Aristotle's does, being a graded account of that very humanity? How can we make it work—as most surely we must—that even those who don't share to a very high degree in reason or communication or even emotionality—are still fully human and fully persons?
There are a few strategies that have been tried here. One can say that even the person who does not, in fact, share in the capability or characteristic still has it potentially. How that is supposed to work I never quite understand. If I lack a capability and it is, in fact, impossible for me to develop that capability, the fact that my conspecifics have it doesn't mean that I have it potentially. I don't inherit a potential talent for musicality from the fact that some humans have it; yes, it is a characteristic of the species, but not of this member. 
Alternatively, one can try to solve this problem by adverting to souls or spirits. Of course, there are important problems with that as a philosophical move, but let me point out just one. Since I have no evidence of any souls except for maybe my own, the existence of souls will never tell me of a difference between humans and any other animals. I have as much reason to think that my dog has an immortal, or merely mortal, soul as that my partner does, unless I am basing my judgment of soul possession on some other characteristic, but then we are right back to our initial difficulty.
So, the question becomes whether we can give an account of humanity that captures all humans but excludes the animals or whether we are stuck with one of what seem to be two equally unpalatable options: a graded approach even within the species that counts some humans as more human than others; or, the view of Peter Singer and others, that we can make no important distinctions between all humans and the rest of the animals on which we might be able to base, for instance, moral considerations.

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