Friday, 14 April 2017

If we view people as apes, they'll behave accordingly: a review of Sir Roger Scruton's "On Human Nature"

I've spent the last few days in Scrutopia, reading and writing a review of the latest book from the undisputed GLP (Greatest Living Philosopher), On Human Nature. As I point out in my review, it's a sort of companion piece to his 2014 work, The Soul of the World,  which I reviewed here. Based on a series of three lectures delivered at Princeton University, it's a much shorter and more accessible book than its big brother: I suspect the "I-I", "You-You", "subject-object" stuff is a bit off-putting for many readers, and there's far less of it this time round. Anyway, here's a sneak review of the review (if you spot any howlers, please let me know):

On Human Nature, Roger Scruton, Princeton University Press, 2017, £17.95

Does the fact that human beings are self-conscious - rather than merely conscious -  represent an unbridgeable gulf between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom? Or does it - as evolutionary biologists contend - just mean we’re a bit cleverer than other creatures, but still essentially one of them? That’s the starting point of this rich, accessible little book, which is both a companion piece to, and a distillation of, Roger Scruton’s majestic 2014 work, The Soul of the World.

According to Scruton, the binary choice presented by scientific reductionists like Richard Dawkins - brainy ape v. something special - is a false one: we are both. Viewed as “human beings”, we are indeed talented animals, but seen as “persons”, we are something quite different. Unlike animals, persons are “free, self-conscious, rational agents, obedient to reason.” The person is “an emergent entity, rooted in the human being but belonging to another order of explanation than that explored by biology.”  The idea that “selfish gene” theory somehow explains humanity simply won’t do: it might explain how we got here, but not what we are. Exploring the evolution of the human animal doesn’t allow us to understand the human person - any more than describing the process by which Wagner came to compose the Ring Cycle “explains” the work itself. In fact, evolutionary biology can’t even account for the fact that ours is the only species to have created music and art - activities which confer no obvious evolutionary advantages.

As a result of self-consciousness, human societies are not simply groups of co-operating animals: “…they are communities of persons, who live in mutual judgment, organising their world in terms of moral concepts that arguably have no place in the thoughts of chimpanzees.” When a chimp does something, we can only provide a causal explanation - i.e. x happened to the chimp, which caused the chimp to do y. By contrast, we are aware of ourselves as rational agents responsible for own actions, and capable of providing reasons for our choices - and we assume the same is true of everyone else. This isn’t a trivial difference - it’s a vast chasm, on our side of which exist moral concepts such as sin, evil, responsibility and guilt, along with notions of rights, duties, honour, sanctity and piety, which, again, are hard to explain away as mere evolutionary adaptations. (Scruton’s discussion of sexual morality - in particular the “ethic of pollution and taboo” which encompasses the universal horror of incest - is particularly thought-provoking.)

On a lighter note, the writer suggests that our unique ability to make judgments explains why we are the only creatures capable of genuine laughter. We are, he claims, typically amused by the contrast between aspiration and achievement - in other words, things that “fall short”. We can coax animals to the verge of judgment, and therefore of amusement, but “…by getting to the verge they reveal how wide for them is the chasm that human children will cross with a single stride.”

But - laughter aside - does this assault on the distinctiveness of the human condition matter in practice? I suspect it goes some way to explaining the willingness of many to excuse (and in some cases to celebrate) mob violence in the the wake of some supposedly provocative incident such as the death of a black suspect during an arrest: the policeman who killed the suspect is treated as a rational, self-conscious agent, expected to furnish reasons for his actions, while “protesters” who use the suspect’s death as a pretext for a riot are demoted to the status of irrational animals who simply couldn’t help reacting the way they did. It strikes me that same double standard is often applied by left-wingers who criticise the response of the Israeli authorities to terrorist attacks, while justifying the terrorists who have somehow been “forced in to it”. It might also explain the vogue for describing Islamist terrorists as having “been radicalised”, which implies that they had no choice in the matter.

It does seem perverse that scientists, utilitarians, and philosophical materialists, having supposedly raised the status of mankind by removing God from His throne, should then proceed to downplay mankind’s uniqueness. For Scruton, it’s not so much the loss of faith that’s the problem, as the loss of the religious view of life - of the religious “posture” which “provides another kind of support to the moral life.” Without this, he asserts, “Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism… makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic.” The evidence is all around us.

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