Saturday, December 29, 2012

Erich Fromm #5: Love

[This will be the last informational post for a while, after which I’ll dive right into criticism. In this post I’ll describe Fromm’s understanding of love, focusing on The Art of Loving.

I’ll also raise a few of the more important problems with his approach which I’ll discuss in more depth later.]

Love was central both to Fromm’s humanistic psychiatry and to his political vision. His approach to love stands out for its emphasis on action (and particularly his attention to epistemic practices), its insistence on a consistent and comprehensive application, and its recognition of the significance of the social context for the possibilities of loving.

What is love?

(I couldn’t resist.)

We’re often accustomed to thinking of love as a flighty emotion or a fugitive property sought and received from others. Fromm conceives of love very differently. Love, to him, is an attitude, an activity, a practice, “an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love” (TAoL, 43). Love is the highest form of relatedness to others and to the world, an active power “which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others…makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness” (19).

Loving is an act and habit of giving to the world. The loving person

gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other - but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness - of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. (23)

The loving person doesn’t give love in order to receive it, but “he cannot help receiving that which is given back to him. Giving implies to make the other person a giver also and they both share in the joy of what they have brought to life” (23). (Fromm offers the examples of teachers learning from their students and performers energized by their audience. I’m also reminded of a bumper sticker about rescue animals I read about recently: it asks “Who rescued who?”)

The need for consistency across relationships

“If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.” - TAoL, 43

The most striking contrast I can think of to Fromm’s vision of love is Howard and Helga’s “Nation of Two” (Das Reich der Zwei) in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. For Fromm, love can’t be reserved exclusively for a specific object. People are only capable of loving another person if they’re capable of loving the whole world, including themselves. Genuinely loving someone requires this cosmopolitan attitude: “If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, ‘I love you’, I must be able to say, ‘I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself’” (43).

Importantly, this assumes a shared global identity:

In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human at-onement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we are all one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core. If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive mainly the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity, the fact of our brotherhood. (44)

This quotation hints at both the strengths and the weaknesses of Fromm’s approach. His vision of love urges people to love comprehensively, focusing on our fundamental commonalities rather than our differences. In fact, Fromm at his most expansive writes about the basis of all love being biophilia, a term he coined, meaning love of life itself. But in this passage he’s talking specifically about brotherly love, which is not synonymous with biophilia and which he distinguishes from other forms of love including biophilia.

Fromm – always a fan of taxonomy – presents separate discussions of the various forms of love, a presentation which works against his positive cosmopolitan vision. He discusses erotic love, maternal love, paternal love, (infuriatingly) love of God, and brotherly love: “The most fundamental kind of love, which underlies all types of love… By this I mean the sense of responsibility, care, respect, knowledge of any other human being, the wish to further his life. This is the kind of love the Bible speaks of when it says: love thy neighbor as thyself. Brotherly love is love for all human beings; it is characterized by its very lack of exclusiveness.” (43-4)

It’s quite odd for someone to suggest that brotherly love underlies maternal love. This idea reflects a bias which leads to the caricaturing of parental love and its demotion to the realm of “the animal.” Fromm presents brotherly love as at once the foundation for and the pinnacle above all of the classes of love - the modern, rational, mature love to which we should aspire. In order to do so, he has to distort the picture, downplaying certain aspects and removing incongruent features from his presentation of the various forms of love (for example, describing “motherly love” as almost entirely focused on caring for physical needs).

Biophilia – the love of all life – doesn’t appear at all in The Art of Loving. Not only is it absent from the important classifications, surprising given its significance elsewhere in his writings, but the notion of brotherly love presented here, contrary to Fromm’s own suggestion, is anthropocentric, hierarchical, and exclusive. Fromm makes an effort to characterize it as a relation of equals:

Brotherly love is love between equals: but, indeed, even as equals we are not always ‘equal’; inasmuch as we are human, we are all in need of help. Today I, tomorrow you. But this need of help does not mean that the one is helpless, the other powerful. Helplessness is a transitory condition; the ability to stand and walk on one’s own feet is the permanent and common one. (44-5)1

This stands it above the types of “natural” love – for children, family, animals – which are presented as less mature and developed. Brotherly love is proper to and practiced amongst humans, and in particular “brothers,” with all of the connotations of that metaphorical term.

Matters are made even worse by the inclusion of a whole section on “love of God.” Fromm was not a believer and made clear that he was presenting God as an abstract constellation representing love, justice, truth, and other prominent human values. But he proceeds in TAoL (and elsewhere) to discuss love of God as though it makes sense within his framework. This is completely bizarre when we take into account his frequent criticisms of a tendency toward abstraction in our culture and how it interferes with relatedness and contributes to – actually constitutes a form of - alienation.

To suggest that people should concern themselves with loving an abstraction (especially when it’s, circularly, supposed to be an abstraction of love!2) is bad enough, but it’s most disappointing in that this section could have been about biophilia. He never does talk specifically about what a mature, reason-based relationship with other animals and the rest of the natural world would look like; and the examples of such relationships he does offer, as I’ll show, are almost always incompatible with what he writes about loving relationships with other human beings.

So there are serious problems with Fromm’s typology-hierarchy of love, his inclusion of “love of God,” and his exclusion of nonhuman love. Fortunately, he offers an extended discussion of a practical approach to love which isn’t really bound in any meaningful way to his flawed concept of brotherly love, and this model is easily expandable. This expansion of his formulation, correcting for sexism and speciesism, is consistent with the most valid and useful aspects of his thinking about love – its emphasis on comprehensiveness and consistency across relationships and its focus on patterns of action and a general way of relating to the world.

The practice of love

Fromm saw loving as an art, a discipline, an approach to life. He thought that it could be understood with reason and that we could cultivate these talents within ourselves. Again, from his perspective it was needless to work on maintaining loving relationships with particular individuals, much less to try to “find love” with a particular person, if we weren’t willing to make our development as comprehensively loving people a central part of our lives, dedicating our lives to loving.

He described some general requirements – discipline, concentration, patience, courage, determination, activity, focus, the mastery of related skills, an effort to fight alienation – that I won’t spend time on here. Most important are what Fromm considers the four basic elements “common to all forms of love”: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge (24).

Four aspects of these fundamentals are central. First, they reflect Fromm’s conception of loving in active, practical, concrete terms rather than as a passive affect or an abstraction. Second, the four have to be practiced in concert – each complements the others and constrains or counteracts their potentially negative aspects. Third, arguably all but certainly the last two of the elements are epistemic in nature. (As I’ve argued, this makes the consideration and analysis of science and faith in relation to love both possible and essential.) Fourth, despite the problems with Fromm’s hierarchical taxonomy of forms of love, his basic description of love as a practice is not exclusive; it’s open to and in fact calls for the broadest application. So it doesn’t require any reworking of Fromm’s terms to break through his biases and to expand his ideas about the art of loving to include nonhuman animals.

The first fundamental element of love is care, or a concern for others which Fromm defines and describes in terms of concrete actions. He argues, for example, that people wouldn’t generally accept the claim of a mother (of course) to love her child if she neglected the child. He offers one good illustration that starts to take us back in the direction of biophilia:

It is not different even with the love for animals or flowers. If a woman told us that she loved flowers, and we saw that she forgot to water them, we would not believe in her ‘love’ for flowers. Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love. (25)

The use of single quotes around love in this case suggests, unfortunately, that the example is simply offered to illustrate the importance of care in action rather than reflecting a real inclusion of nonhuman animals in the sphere of love proper. (He then attempts a horrible illustration from the Old Testament – the story of Jonah and Nineveh.)

Related to this is the element of responsibility, “my response to the needs, expressed and unexpressed, of another human being.” “The loving person responds,” Fromm writes. “The life of his brother is not his brother’s business alone, but his own. He feels responsible for his fellow men, as he feels responsible for himself” (26).

The third essential element of love is respect. Fromm argues that practicing respect keeps care and responsibility from shading over into domination and possessiveness. He’s concerned to distinguish genuine respect from its authoritarian connotations: “Respect is not fear and awe; it denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at), the ability to see a person as he is” (26).

Respect is fundamentally incompatible with domination and exploitation:

I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use…. Respect exists only on the basis of freedom: ‘l’amour est l’enfant de la liberté’ as an old French song says; love is the child of freedom, never that of domination. (26-7)

Last, and of great interest here, there’s the element of knowledge. Fromm recognizes a positive motivation behind some cruel, destructive acts, as when children dissect animals to study them: “The child takes something apart, breaks it up in order to know it, to force its secret. The cruelty itself is motivated by something deeper: the wish to know the secret of things and of life” (28). But, repeatedly in TAoL and elsewhere, he emphasizes that knowledge, like respect, can’t emerge in relationships of domination and exploitation; true understanding “is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself and see the other person in his own terms” (27). (As I discussed in a recent post, the history of the biological sciences provides evidence for this argument: our practices of domination and exploitation of nonhuman animals have fostered speciesist ideologies which have impeded the advance of knowledge about evolution and about animals, including ourselves.)

Developing real knowledge, the real understanding that forms an essential part of love, requires fighting narcissism and cultivating objectivity. This means recognizing and working to resist our tendency to distort our understanding of others in a manner in keeping with our perceived interests:

[T]he main condition for the achievement of love is the overcoming of one’s narcissism. The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one.

…The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one’s desires and fears. (109)

I must try to see the difference between my picture of a person and his behavior, as it is narcissistically distorted, and the person’s reality as it exists regardless of my interests, needs and fears. (111-12)

The concerns and concrete practices emphasized by Fromm as essential to loving relationships and a loving character are the fundamentals of science, and appreciating that is fairly urgent at a time when so many people want to contrast science’s so-called coldness and alienation with the alleged warmth of religion and argue that science needs to be “infused” with a spirit of compassion and care. Fromm is very explicit in TAoL about the necessity and fundamentality of the epistemic elements of love: “[L]ove being dependent on the relative absence of narcissism, it requires the development of humility, objectivity and reason. One’s whole life must be devoted to this aim” (111-12). The indispensability of humility, objectivity, and reason to love can’t be overstated, and it’s important to appreciate, especially when he launches into one of his extended mystical flights of fancy, how much of Fromm’s writing about the nature of love is actually about the scientific approach.

Fromm stresses the indivisibility of the four basic elements of love: “To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. Knowledge would be empty if it were not motivated by concern” (27). (Reciprocally, real care and responsible concern for another being aren’t possible without knowledge of their specific qualities and needs; this is a key part of Rachels’ argument for “moral individualism” in Created from Animals.) He also emphasizes that the epistemic practices of love have to be comprehensively applied:

Humility and objectivity are indivisible, just as love is. I cannot be truly objective about my family if I cannot be objective about the stranger, and vice versa. If I want to learn the art of loving, I must strive for objectivity in every situation, and become sensitive to the situations in which I am not objective. (111-12)

To have acquired the capacity for objectivity and reason is half the road to achieving the art of loving, but it must be acquired with regard to everybody with whom one comes in contact. If someone would want to reserve his objectivity, and think he can dispense with it in his relationships to the rest of the world, he will soon discover that he fails both here and there. (111-12)

No areas of belief are exempt, and I’ve written about the many problems with attempts to cordon off religion from these requirements. By the same token, no relationships are exempt. If the stress is on cultivating habits of love and a loving orientation, practicing nonloving relationships with regard to some is going to interfere with the development of these capacities.

Of course, the cultivation of humility, objectivity, and reason isn’t limited to the formal institutions or spaces of science, nor does it mean approaching our life and relationships as a laboratory. This would be contrary to Fromm’s vision. It’s a shame that objectivity is so often seen as a detachment from others and the hardhearted treatment of them as objects. That arrogant idea is the opposite of what Fromm’s saying: the objectivity at the heart of love isn’t about being detached from others, but about trying our best in practice to detach our perception of them from our own biases and perceived interests.

Fromm didn’t follow his arguments through to their logical conclusion or fully pursue their implications, was inconsistent concerning the scope of application of the practices of love, and often fell back into conventional patterns of thought that saw loving in exclusively human terms, and these problems need to be addressed. But his arguments about love in general lead ineluctably to the conclusion – as he recognizes elsewhere when he talks about biophilic vs. necrophilic orientations - that loving practices based on these four basic elements have to be given the widest possible scope, and not reserved for one species any more than for one group or nation.

In order to realize this expanded vision, we need to think about biophilia in concrete terms and to address the aspects of Fromm’s and others’ thinking that work against the expansion. I’ll be doing that in future posts.

Love and the need for social change

Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it.” - TAoL, 121-2

As I mentioned previously, Fromm didn’t see this or his other works as self-help manuals, and consciously worked to fight that potential misconception. The cultivation of a loving approach is, he recognized, “inseparably connected with the social realm” (119). He was quite plain about the fact that he saw our culture (he had a frustrating tendency to conflate “secular” culture with capitalism) as hostile to love:

[T]he capacity to love in an individual being in any given culture depends on the influence this culture has on the character of the average person. If we speak about love in contemporary Western culture, we mean to ask whether the social structure of Western civilization and the spirit resulting from it are conducive to the development of love. To raise the question is to answer it in the negative. No objective observer of our Western life can doubt that love - brotherly love, motherly love, and erotic love - is a relatively rare phenomenon, and that its place is taken by a number of forms of pseudo-love which are in reality so many forms of the disintegration of love. (77)

This being the case, “People capable of love, under the present system, are necessarily the exceptions; love is by necessity a marginal phenomenon in present-day Western society” (122). This marginalization comes with familiar difficulties and choices: how can people live by the principles of love and also make their way in the world as it is? People who appreciate the culture’s basic hostility to love can try to separate themselves as far as possible from “secular concerns,” as was the choice of “the Christian monks, and by persons like Tolstoi, Albert Schweitzer, and Simone Weil” (120-1). Or they can become cynical, arguing that “to speak of love today means only to participate in the general fraud” (120-1). But Fromm believed that loving could be practiced at the margins and in the interstices of society that allow for it – the culture is hostile to love, but that doesn’t mean there are no refuges for it.

He argued that “important and radical changes in our social structure are necessary, if love is to become a social and not a highly individualistic, marginal phenomenon” (122). This requires large-scale collective action, but Fromm was optimistic about the possibilities for change because he regarded love as “the ultimate and real need in every human being.” “That this need has been obscured,” he argued, “does not mean that it does not exist” (123). In his view, any society that failed to provide the conditions for the fulfillment of this deep, powerful need for love was doomed to fail in the long run, and movements that do appreciate this fundamental need and what its fulfillment makes possible would have a great chance at success. Therefore, “To have faith in the possibility of love as a social and not only exceptional-individual phenomenon, is a rational faith based on the insight into the very nature of man” (123).

1As I’ll discuss in a future post, this breaks down completely when he writes of erotic love. He insists that this is not a love of equals so much as a meeting of opposite poles, and even criticizes those visions of equality that reject this concept of essentialized, complementary polarities. This leads him to some of his most sexist statements as well as to some stupid conclusions about homosexuality, and is entirely inconsistent with his emphasis on loving another meaning loving in them all others, including yourself, and the shared sense of identity this brings. This sort of thinking was toned down, though not eliminated, in his later works.

2In To Have or To Be? Fromm specifically criticizes the abstracting of “love” itself.

Monday, December 24, 2012

"The Worst Noël"

(I was just mentioning that a friend gave me a gift of The French Cat, by Rachael Hale, which I adore.

She said when she saw it she thought of the link I’d sent her to one of Henri’s videos.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

He claimed what?!

I somehow seem to have missed William Lane Craig’s comments about animal suffering (his primary contention being that it doesn’t exist; no, really). Fortunately, several people, including PZ Myers and Austin Cline, responded thoughtfully.

Anyway, here’s a more recent video response:

Two aspects especially worth noting: the reference to “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations,” and the interview with Lori Marino, whose debunking of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy I wrote about last year.

Erich Fromm #4C: Human needs as generic, and their fulfillment

[The first and second parts of this subseries on Fromm’s conception of human needs can be found here and here.]

An analogy used by Fromm describing the turn to commodified leisure and consumption in an attempt to compensate for a lack of meaningful engagement with the world really drives home his argument about generic needs and how they help us to understand both our own actions and larger social problems. This so-called leisure, he says, only contributes to our alienation, since it’s “fundamentally as boring as work, only less consciously so. Work, man’s exchange with nature, is such a fundamental part of human existence that only when it ceases to be alienated can leisure time be productive” (AoHD, 274-5).

Fromm compares this unsatisfying leisure to the empty calories of junk food:

[I]n the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential faculties and paychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel ‘empty’ and unmoved on a deeper level. He ‘anaesthetizes’ this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, ‘thrill’, ‘fun’, liquor, or sex - but unconsciously he remains bored. (AoHD, 275)

He concludes that making work and leisure respond to human needs would require a transformation of our economic system, placing it in their service.

The comparison to junk food is instructive: We have a basic need for nourishment which can only be met through food, as well as other needs – uniting with other people and with our traditions and the natural world and so on - in whose fulfillment eating plays a role. We can address these needs, as individuals and as a culture, in healthy, ethical, fulfilling ways, or in destructive and unfulfilling ways. As many who’ve written about our contemporary food system have discussed, the way we eat – despite the claims of those who benefit from it – supplies sufficient (often excessive) calories1 but fails to satisfy our real nutritional and emotional needs, and is in fact harmful to ourselves and many others. The system has found a way to capitalize on an evolved weakness for foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, but that does not make this approach satisfying in any genuine, lasting way.

While we can take the comparison only so far, the generic physical need for nourishment parallels the generic needs Fromm discusses. That we eat the way we do in our society doesn’t mean we’re driven to eat that particular way, but in turn recognizing its failure doesn’t mean that no way of eating will satisfy that need or, of course, that the need for nourishment doesn’t exist. What we have to do is to distinguish effective, ethical, positive ways of meeting this need that don’t interfere with our fulfillment of our other needs (or others’ fulfillment of theirs).

“There are many answers which one can give to the problems of existence” (PoN, KL 332), Fromm argues, but not all are equally good. For any need, there can be means to evade it or its consequences or shallow and harmful substitutes for fulfilling it productively. More generally, history can be understood as the story of the ways different societies have made possible the positive, productive fulfilling of these needs or have provided empty and harmful means of addressing or evading them.

It’s useful at this point to note how Fromm’s perspective differed from Freud’s. In Fromm’s view, for example, there was no drive for destruction or death; there was a need for relatedness and effectance that, when loving, creative means weren’t available or recognized, people would attempt to escape or to fulfill through violence or destructiveness. Fromm didn’t regard destructiveness (including self-destructiveness), violence, laziness, and escapist pursuits themselves as stemming from innate drives. Nor did he regard them as lacking psychological depth. Instead, he saw them as tragically hollow and harmful attempts to meet our most basic needs or to evade the consequences of their nonfulfillment. This, significantly, goes beyond individual lives and means that societies are of great importance: they either provide the conditions for the productive and healthy fulfillment of our needs or they obstruct that fulfillment and encourage destructive and harmful responses.

Consider the alleged need for a frame of orientation – for a frame of reference and an object of devotion. This, again, is viewed by Fromm as a generic need that all people and all societies have to tend to somehow:

Unless we are crazy, or unless we repress, as some people do, and many people can do it almost completely, the awareness of the problems of existence by following compulsively a routine of escape, we are bothered with the question of the meaning of life and we need some frame of reference and orientation, which makes sense. (PoN, KL 317-323)

The need itself is universal and unavoidable – “[T]he need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfillment regardless of how this need is fulfilled” - but “[t]he objects of man’s devotion vary” (AoHD, 261). But of course Fromm recognized that “the difference in the objects of devotion,” in the ideals by which people live, is of “immense importance,” and that there were many bad religious, political, and economic idealisms in the cause of which people act in ways harmful to others and to themselves.

So religion defined generically as a “system of orientation” - Fromm had an annoying habit of trying to redefine words like “religion” and “faith” to mean something different from their generally accepted use – includes not just “theistic religion as we are accustomed to the Western world, but Buddhism, Confucius, Taoism, and in the same sense, Stalinism or Fascism because it appeals to those needs in humans, which refer to what in our culture a religion satisfies” (PoN, KL 324-331).

His claim, as discussed in the previous post, was that a “religious vacuum” in the twentieth century was exploited by opportunistic movements like fascism and Stalinism, which provided a political religion and moving rituals. In contemporary capitalist culture, Fromm argued, the religion of production and consumption provides a frame of orientation. We are devoted to serving economic growth and the “machinery of production…that things are bigger and better, that there is more and more” (PoN, KL 525-529). Like production, consumption, in a way “furthered and stimulated by the advertising people,” has “become an aim in itself. We are fascinated by the idea of buying things, without much reference to how useful they are.”

Of course, this is a poor substitute for the real fulfillment of needs, and “We find today very little pleasure in anything people buy” (PoN, KL 531-535). The worship of production and consumption serve the needs of the system, but makes for failed and counterproductive attempts to meet our own needs. Contemporary production and consumption aren’t “related to any reality that makes sense in terms of human existence” (PoN, KL 549-551) or suited to “the real and concrete human needs of anyone” (PoN, KL 562-567).

Fromm rejected the “ready-made patterns that pretend to give meaning to their lives” in our society: “to be successful, to be a ‘bread winner’, to raise a family, to be a good citizen, to consume goods and pleasures.” He claimed that “while for most people this suggestion works on the conscious level, they do not acquire a genuine sense of meaningfulness, they do not make up for the lacking center within themselves. The suggested patterns wear thin and with increasing frequency fail” (AoHD, 299).

Again, the needs themselves are generic in the sense that the specific content of our attempts to fulfill them is open. Any particular “religion” (“religions in the sense in which I define religion, namely a frame of reference, and an object of devotion,” PoN, KL 389-392) can serve this need psychologically:

Whether he believe in sorcery and magic as final explanations of all events, or in the spirit of his ancestors as guiding his life and fate, or in an omnipotent god who will reward or punish him, or in the power of science to give answers to all human problems - from the standpoint of his need for a frame of orientation, it does not make any difference. His world makes sense to him, and he feels certain about his ideas through the consensus with those around him. Even if the map is wrong, it fulfills its psychological function. (AoHD, 259)

As with religion, idealism defined in these generic terms is simply a basic and universal need we should acknowledge, not a particular trait we should admire or disdain - we “all are [idealists], and there is nothing particularly desirable about it because we can’t help it. We are driven to be.” The questions we should ask, therefore, concern the content of the various idealisms: “What are your aims? What are the goals? What are the effects?” (PoN, KL 363-366). (Of course, how well the various frames of reference and idealisms comport with reality is a key issue, which Fromm deftly but ultimately insufficiently sidestepped with a remark that all contain some fraction of truth to enable people to live in their social worlds.)

Related to this, Fromm regarded the absence in modern culture of the sort of genuine dramatic ritual previously provided by Greek drama and Catholicism as a problem (PoN, KL 395-424). He argued that a modern form of ritual, sports, didn’t connect people to anything deeper than themselves and was therefore was a weak and unsatisfying substitute for these life-and-death rituals or the dramatic displays of fascism (PoN, KL 436).2

While Fromm thought that many collective attempts to meet our needs were abortive and unacceptable, he believed that collective action to change the system was necessary. He recognized that the number of individual people able to fulfill their needs and be fully actualized in a society hostile to that project would always be small. To the extent that people tried to fulfill their needs through fascism and Stalinism, they would inevitably fail and cause harm. But Fromm didn’t see any path forward that didn’t involve major social change, and was involved with the democratic socialist movement.

Fromm believed that the goals of the socialist tradition were broadly consistent with his understanding of needs:

The common vision to various Socialists, the schools which arose in the 19th century or even somewhat earlier, was a society where man is an end in himself, where the individual citizen is active, responsible, where he lives with his fellow man in a spirit of cooperation, solidarity, and brotherly love, where he is not used by anybody nor does he use himself for any purpose outside of his own life and the growth of his personality. (PoN, KL 962-966)

He thought it was the responsibility of humanists to develop a humanistic religion, understood in his generic terms. In 1953, he discussed a paper by Julian Huxley presented at the 1952 Humanistic Congress in Amsterdam about the prospects for “a new form of non-theistic humanistic religion” (PoN, KL 1028-1037). According to Fromm, Huxley shared his belief that “we have to recognize that man has to have a frame of reference, an object of devotion, that he has to have meaning to life; we have to have an objective which goes beyond that of producing and reproducing himself” (PoN, KL 1028-1037).

As discussed in my previous post, Fromm regarded many of our activities as attempts to avoid the consequences of the alienation we suffer as a result of our lack of active and productive relatedness. Given the systemic alienation in our culture, depression is a normal condition; but many people engage in “compensatory behavior” (PoN, KL 2103-2107) to stave off the full effects of alienation. “One may state,” he asserted, “that one of the main goals of man today is ‘escape from boredom’” (AoHD, 274).

He believed that beyond the distracting and “anaesthetizing” effects of our leisure activities, we also turn to them in hopes of fulfilling real needs. So Fromm didn’t regard the products of commodified leisure, although ultimately hollow, as merely frivolous pursuits or momentary meaningless pleasures, but as abortive attempts to address our deepest needs – to be authentically related to the world or to defend ourselves against the full experience of alienation. When the defenses fail, we see the terrible effects:

People who get a depression these days are just perhaps not more un-alive and alienated from themselves and out of touch with reality than the rest of us. But we have defenses against it and they do not. There are plenty of defenses against the feeling that comes from not being alive. Our amusement industry, work, our cocktail parties, our chatter, the whole routine that we have, are all so many defenses against that terrible moment when we really feel that we don’t feel anything. That protects us from getting melancholia. There are a few individuals who are not protected, maybe because their sensitivity is greater. Maybe this state of mind, wherein they don’t feel, to them is felt in a more sensitive fashion, and therefore the defenses don’t work so well. (PoN, KL 590-596)

Similarly, destructiveness and cruelty, according to Fromm, didn’t result from innate specific drives but comprised some of the sad, ultimately fruitless, and of course damaging means by which people tried to meet their needs for excitation and stimulation. “I have dealt at such length with the organism’s need for stimulation and excitation,” he writes in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness,

because it is one of the many factors generating destructiveness and cruelty. It is much easier to get excited by anger, rage, cruelty, or the passion to destroy than by love and productive and active interest; that first kind of excitation does not require the individual to make an effort - one does not need to have patience and discipline, to learn, to concentrate, to endure frustration, to practice critical thinking, to overcome one’s narcissism and greed. If the person has failed to grow, simple stimuli are always at hand or can be read about in the newspapers, heard about in the radio news reports, or watched on television and in movies. People can also produce them in their own minds by finding reasons to hate, to destroy, and to control others. (AoHD, 272)

Destruction, cruelty, and domination, in other words, are stimulation junk food.

The need for effectance was also presented by Fromm in generic terms – as one that could be met either productively or destructively. He wrote that in

my own work since Escape from Freedom…I have emphasized man’s need for actively grasping the world and for stimulation. In the concept of the “productive orientation” this need has taken a central place as one of man’s basic orientations in the process of relating and assimilating; this orientation of “active relatedness” is the condition for mental health, while its absence, manifested by boredom, constitutes a pathogenic factor, although in milder cases it is compensated by compensatory behavior which prevents the manifestation of conscious boredom.

The need for effectance – through creation or destruction – “expresses itself in interpersonal relations as well as in the relationship to animals, to inanimate nature, and to ideas.” In our relations with “others,” “the fundamental alternative is to feel either the potency to effect love or to effect fear and suffering. Opposite as these alternatives are, they are responses to the same existential need: to effect” (AoHD, 266; my emphasis). (It's unclear here whether he’s putting nonhuman animals in the category of “others” or “things.”)

Fromm believed that our need for unity was an existential one. After birth and our recognition of separateness, he claimed, we want to return to the womb, “or to find a new situation of absolute protection and security. But the way to paradise is blocked by man’s biological, and particularly by his neurophysiological constitution” (AoHD, 261-2). Similarly, we have a need to unite with our fellow people.

Again, he saw these as generic needs that we had to attempt to actively avoid (a costly approach) or to fulfill. “[T]here are many ways of reestablishing unity” with the rest of the world (AoHD, 262), he noted, and these attempts could be divided into regressive and progressive alternatives. There are also productive and harmful classes of attempts to unify with other human beings.

Attempts at “regaining” unity that Fromm classified generally as regressive include: “symbolic dependence on mother (and on symbolic substitutes such as soil, nature, god, the nation, a bureaucracy),” “inducing states of trance or ecstasy, mediated by such means as drugs, sexual orgies, fasting, dancing, and other rituals that abound in various cults,” identifying with or worshipping “the animal” (I’ll have much more to say about this later on), and “subordinating all energies to one all-consuming passion, such as the passion for destruction, power, fame, or property.” These Fromm regarded as “tragic” attempts to regain unity by submerging one’s identity and “anaesthetizing one’s reason” (AoHD, 261-3).

(He believed that people needed to “find new roots in the world” and develop a new “brotherhood” based on reason and love. Fromm held, incorrectly, that this was the project of all of the world’s “great religions”:

Such an attempt was made in the first millennium B.C. in all parts of the world where man had developed a civilization - in China, in India, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Greece. The great religions springing from the soil of these cultures taught that man can achieve unity not by tragic effort to undo the fact of the split, by eliminating reason, but by fully developing human reason and love. Great as are the differences between Taoism, Buddhism, prophetic Judaism, and the Christianity of the Gospels, these religions had one common goal: to arrive at the experience of oneness, not by regressing to animal existence but by becoming fully human - oneness within man, oneness between man and nature, and oneness between man and other men. (AoHD, 263))

Similarly, Fromm recognized sadistic, masochistic, narcissistic, and destructive approaches and relationships as attempts to relate to our fellow human beings, to meet the need for relatedness, unity, and transcendence. Healthy ways of relating to the world, in contrast, are those that are free, independent, and loving (AoHD, 262). If these are unavailable or their development thwarted, they could become their opposites. He described this possibility (using the unfortunate metaphor of “the cripple”):

This capacity for the attraction to death is one which is given in any human being if he fails in development of what I would call his primary potentiality,* namely to be related to life as something which is interesting, something which is joyful, or to develop his powers of love and reason. If all of these things remain incomplete, then man is prone to develop another form of relatedness, that of destroying life. By doing this he also transcends life, because it is as much of a transcendence to destroy life as it is to create it.

…To be able to create life,…we need certain individual and social conditions. But even the most unhappy and impoverished man can destroy, and in destroying he gets even with his own what Unamuno calls his crippledness. You might say necrophilous destructiveness is the transcendence of the cripple, a perverse creation of the cripple, in which he destroys because he cannot create. (PoN, KL 1399-1406; my emphasis)

I’ve presented them in sequence, but as these last several quotations suggest Fromm didn’t consider attempts to meet particular needs separately. He thought our approaches to fulfilling our needs coalesced into basic “character orientations,” which could be divided into productive, ethical, authentic, fulfilling, loving, unalienating orientations (of “active relatedness”) and their opposites. This was true of both individuals and societies: individuals express particular character orientations, and societies foster or subvert them.

You don’t have to accept this classificatory notion, either in the case of specific needs or in general, to appreciate the implications of Fromm’s conceiving of needs as generic. Viewing needs in these terms means that those seeking social change “in the spirit of humanism” or societies guided by humanistic principles have to pay attention not just to the needs themselves but to the healthy and unhealthy means by which people seek to fulfill them, and work to make positive, fulfilling means possible. This notion also has implications for our individual and group relationships and understandings. It’s easy to focus on presumed differences and to assume fundamentally negative motives or drives amongst others, particularly in the case of those who are causing harm. But thinking in terms of basic needs that we all share and the different means and the possibilities for fulfilling them offered to different groups or by a culture can help us to better understand ourselves, prevent problems, and help people to grow.


1This is not to ignore the hundreds of millions of people whose basic caloric needs aren’t met in our wreck of a global food system.

2I’ll discuss Fromm’s views on allegedly positive forms of contemporary ritual drama later on. They’re shocking.

3This slipperiness in using “potentialities” in the context of discussing needs is a problem, but it’s rare for Fromm to fall into it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Erich Fromm #4B: The case for human needs

[The first part of this subseries on Fromm's conception of human needs can be found here.]

“Modern anthropology and psychopathology and psychology can show that by studying the nature of humanity, by studying the problems of human existence, one can find, with as much empirical evidence as we have for the usefulness of vitamins, that these are the aims which make for the best and only satisfactory solution of the complex problems of living and existence.” - Erich Fromm, PoN, KL 378-381

Recognizing that human needs can’t simply be asserted, and also aware (well, to some extent) of the dangers of basing choices and policy on superstition and wishful thinking, Fromm sought to develop his understanding of human needs empirically. He drew on a variety of fields and diverse forms of evidence, including - but not limited to - his own clinical experience and exchanges with others, findings in neuroscience, studies of nonhuman animals and children, anthropological and historical research, extended case studies, indications of psychological and emotional distress in his society, signs of dissatisfaction in his society, cross-national rates of destructive behavior, the attractions of popular culture, and the trajectories of political movements. For at least some hypothesized needs, Fromm addressed in depth the arguments for other hypotheses that might account for the evidence. I’ll offer a small sample of the sorts of data he viewed as pertinent.

Fromm saw evidence of the need for relatedness, for example, in the allure of popular forms of entertainment and certain forms of commodified leisure. He considered these attractions in terms of both attempts to fulfill the need and efforts to elude the effects of alienation. Even more significantly, he viewed widespread evidence of alienation itself as an indicator of a thwarted hunger for relatedness.

Our fascination with fires, car accidents, and detective stories, he suggested, reflects our desire for a more authentic contact with reality, a “chance to get in touch with death, with something dramatic” (PoN, KL 436). Our activities and pastimes, too, he saw as evidence of our wish to elude the boredom of our alienated existence: “We start to go to parties, or to play bridge, or to drink or to work, or to drive around, or to do any number of things which help alleviate boredom” (PoN, KL 826-831).

Fromm found evidence of alienation in comparative rates of suicide and mental problems. He cited cross-cultural statistics as suggesting that even contact with a terrible reality is better than alienation, and that material improvements and a so-called high standard of living are no substitutes for real relatedness:

[I]t seems to me that perhaps in certain cultures in which life is on the one hand quite comfortable, nevertheless in which boredom has developed to a large extent, one finds more cases of suicide and schizophrenia than in other countries in which there is at least more touch with reality, even if the reality is tragic, since sadness and tragedy are still easier to bear than boredom, which is nothing but the expression of an unrelatedness to the world and to love. (PoN, KL 826-831; my emphasis)

He regarded an assortment of general social problems as symptomatic of alienation: “That this is happening today on a large scale is evidenced by the increase in drug addiction, by the lack of genuine interest in anything, in the decline of intellectual and artistic creativity, and in the increase of violence and destructiveness.” (AoHD, 299). High levels of depression, especially, were to be expected in societies such as ours. As Fromm saw it, this is precisely what his hypothesis about the need for active relatedness would predict - a systemic lack of relatedness results in widespread depression: “In the sense of this definition, the normal person in our culture is considerably depressed, because his intensity of feeling is considerably reduced” (PoN, KL 590-596).

(It’s worth noting here, once again, how fundamentally Fromm’s understanding of depression – as evidence of our society’s obstructing our ability to fulfill our vital existential needs - differs from that underlying contemporary psychiatry, which views it in terms of an individual’s “illness” interfering with their capacity to adjust to and function within the society. The difference in the therapeutic and political projects that follow from these readings is immense.)

He wasn’t suggesting that alienation was the only cause of these problems, or arguing that a tragic reality is an acceptable or desirable condition as long as the need for relatedness was fulfilled. But the fact that the relatively affluent, those who bear the weight of exploitation comparatively lightly, suffer from these problems at such high rates was evidence for Fromm of the fundamental, inescapable nature of our need for relatedness.1

Fromm examined studies of animals and children and also pointed to neurological research in presenting the biological basis of the need for excitation and stimulation. He describes the research of Heath, especially

his finding that electrical stimulation of the septal area can result in an experience of active interest, such as for instance intellectual or other kinds of interest not related to the satisfaction of appetites such as sex and hunger. He quotes one instance where in the process of solving an interesting mathematical problem, activity of the septal region was found in the EEG and he believes that it is likely that the activation of the pleasure area can result from the process of taking an active interest in the world outside (in my own terminology this would be a productive interest rather than a passive-receptive one). In other words, his discoveries point to the fact that mankind’s active interest in the world outside is grounded in the very structure of the brain, and hence does not need to be fostered by extrinsic rewards. (PoN, KL 1766-1773)

Our need for psychic stimulation and creative engagement could be seen in the effects of their absence on workers and the workers’ responses. “An increasing number of people,” Fromm avers,

feel that the boredom of forty hours a week spent in working is not, and cannot be, compensated by the rewards of increasing consumption - especially when consumption itself becomes boring and is not conducive to greater activity, growth of personality, and increase of skill. There is a great deal of absenteeism and psychosomatic illness among workers, and their displeasure with work shows also in the shoddiness of many products. (PoN, KL 1676-1679)

He also recognized our need for effectance in our attraction to various popular entertainments through which we can have vicarious effectance experiences. This was “why people today are fascinated by watching any skilled work process that they have the occasion to see - the playing of Casals, as well as watching a weaver at work” (PoN, KL 1618-1621).2

Much of Fromm’s work was devoted to understanding the power of movements like fascism. He contended that in order to comprehend the allure of fascism and Stalinism to so many people, we had to grasp the fundamental human needs to which they responded, particularly the need for a frame of orientation. Nazism and Stalinism “could arise, they could assume this tremendous power and appeal, because of the religious vacuum that is growing stronger and stronger in the 20th century and which was less strong in the 19th century, when at least the moral tradition of religion was a more potent factor in the life of people than it is today” (PoN, KL 404-406). Similarly with their powerful rituals: “The Nazis and Stalinists sense that. They introduce new rituals. Undoubtedly, the success of these systems was partly based on the fact that they were capable of satisfying the human sense for the dramatic. With us, in our culture, how can people satisfy it?” (PoN, KL 441-443).

He presented the weakness of the Socialist movement in the US as evidence of these basic needs. One of “the main reasons” for the movement’s defeat, he argued, was that

[i]t appealed only to economic interests and ignored the fact that the ideal interests of man, his need for a frame of reference, his need for an object of devotion, are as great or I think greater than his economic interests are. …But the Socialist movement failed to create a sense of a new human vision, and if you please, of a new religion (PoN, KL 1023-1028).

In effect, the movement “had to fail if it were not capable of providing such a vision” (PoN, KL 1028-1037).

In fact, he made a larger, bolder claim - that the widespread adherence to totalistic ideologies, all too prevalent in his era, was evidence of the power of this inherent longing:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. Part of the answer lies in the suggestive influence of leaders and in the suggestibility of man. But this does not seem to be the whole story. Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men. (AoHD, 260)

His arguments weren’t as reductionistic as they might appear from this brief sketch. He wasn’t contending that the provision of rituals or a frame and object of orientation accounted for the rise of fascism or that the US socialist movement’s neglect of these existential, “nonmaterial” needs explained its relative lack of success. In various works he offers sophisticated accounts, consistent with this framework but not entirely reduced to it, of the rise of fascism as well as earlier religious movements.

The evidence Fromm presents for the existence of some hypothesized needs, and for their existential character, is substantially better than that which he presents for others. In some cases, moreover, he addresses alternative hypothesis in depth, while in others they’re left unexamined. So for example, his argument about the need for mental excitation and stimulation is quite involved, featuring evidence from research on animals and children and neurological studies. He also provides detailed criticisms of existing and potential counterarguments. In contrast, his evidence in support of the existence of an inherent need for a frame of orientation is fairly minimal. At one point, in fact, he concedes: “I don’t know whether I can prove it to anyone’s satisfaction. All I can say is that from observing myself, and that is where one should always start, from observing other people who seek psychiatric help, and from observing what goes on in the world, I have the impression that [people need a frame of orientation]” (PoN, KL 324-331). His evidence of a need for transcendence is pretty much nonexistent. (It seems the alleged needs that draw more from religion and the intellectual traditions that shaped his thought are less likely to be supported by strong evidence. But I’m getting ahead of myself...)

We live in a world of powerful social, political, and economic forces with an interest in shaping our understanding of our needs. Given the the unavoidable necessity of having a sense of human needs in order to work for better lives, it’s important – while respecting the perils of attempting to make universal claims about human beings and of the complexities of social research - to think seriously about the sorts of evidence for human needs that would be compelling.

This would have to come from many fields, as Fromm recognized. In fact, he worked optimistically toward the foundation of a social science institute whose goal would be “to pursue the scientific study of man in the spirit of humanism.” The project explicitly assumed “that in spite of all differences man is one species, not only biologically and physiologically but also mentally and psychologically” (PoN, KL 1454-1461). He made clear that this discussion had to be empirically grounded: “These general aims can be accomplished only if methods proper to the study of man are examined and developed. The problem is not that of choosing between a scientific and a non-scientific study of man, but of determining what constitutes the proper rational method for the understanding of man and what does not.” (PoN, KL 1461-1464; my emphasis).

In seeking to develop the scientific study of humans in the spirit of humanism, I’ll note in closing, Fromm rejected appeals to a detached, dispassionate, apolitical science:

It is often said by social scientists that one condition of scientific enquiry is the absence of any self-interested or preconceived aims. That this is a naive assumption is clearly shown by the development of the natural sciences: they are to a large extent furthered and not hindered by practical aims and necessities. It is the task of the scientist to keep the data objective, not to study without aims—which are what give meaning and impulse to his work. (PoN, KL 1466-1471; my emphasis)


1In pointing to the alienating aspects of the culture and system of the US in the 1950s and the ways in which it obstructed the fulfillment of certain needs, Fromm was surely tapping into something real, as the cultural movements of the next several decades attest.

2This can be seen in the popularity of many competition-based reality shows today, e.g., those about cooking or baking, fashion design, and so on. Fishing shows like Deadliest Catch or crime shows like CSI can be seen to combine skill (vicariously responding to our need for effectance) and immediate contact with life and death (vicariously responding to our need for relatedness and dramatic ritual).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On a Farther Shore, a biography of Rachel Carson

I'm very much looking forward to reading this. Here's the author, William Souder, talking about it on Book TV.*

One aspect especially caught my attention: Souder describes Carson's work as the turning point from conservation to environmentalism, and suggests that one new element of the latter is that it gives humans a central role. I won't know what precisely he means by that until I read the book. I'm hoping it's related in some way to overcoming speciesism.

* I don't understand why these videos aren't embeddable. Isn't C-SPAN publicly funded? Doesn't that oblige them to make the recordings freely available?

Unfortunate decision in Morgan case

Sending her to Loro Parque wasn't unlawful, the judge found.

Speciesism and the biological sciences

“The first shots revealed that despite their great differences in appearance and physiology, all complex animals…share a common ‘tool kit’ of ‘master’ genes that govern the formation and patterning of their bodies and body parts…. [I]ts discovery shattered our previous notions of animal relationships and of what made animals different, and opened up a whole new way of looking at evolution.” - Endless Forms Most Beautiful, p. 9

“The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them. Therefore, any adequate defence of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals. But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures. This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defence of human dignity is most unlikely.” - Created from Animals, pp. 171-2

I returned recently to Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo.

It’s another book I’d started long ago and put aside; turned out to be a good moment to finish it. The scientific content itself is of course fascinating and merits a recommendation (as do the images, especially the butterflies!). But reading more about discoveries in the science of development over the past several decades and how they’ve transformed our understanding of animal relationships also brought me back to several sociological and historical questions I’ve been considering, particularly concerning the connection between science and speciesism.

Looking at the intersections of science and speciesism, we can examine the relationship in both directions: how speciesist culture affects the advance of science, and how science in turn influences the culture of speciesism. I believe the relationship over the long term is a positive, even if not a simple or automatic, one.

I’ll divide this post into two (or more) parts. In this part, I’ll talk about how overcoming speciesism is good for science and science education; in the second (third, fourth,…), I’ll look at the positive contribution of science to overcoming speciesism. I’ve previously discussed the numerous reasons – psychological, political, ethical – that we should work against speciesism. (The most important and urgent, of course, is not a benefit to us but to nonhuman animals, but there are many largely unrecognized benefits to us as well.) One I haven’t discussed, but which is hinted at in Carroll’s and Rachels' work, is scientific: the capacity of nonspeciesist culture to promote scientific advances and remove barriers to scientific education.

While incorrect ideas about the effects of scientific discoveries on speciesism abound, the question of the effects of speciesism on the development of science has largely been neglected. Both James Rachels, in Created from Animals, and Carroll recognize that overcoming speciesism has been central to developments in human understanding of evolution (and biology more generally). Rachels notes that key to Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution was his ability to overcome speciesist biases, to think beyond notions of human dignity and specialness, and to be open to deep connections and continuities between our species and others.

Because his goal is to tell the story of scientific discovery in evolutionary biology and not to join a sociohistorical argument about speciesism, Carroll describes fairly unselfconsciously the speciesist assumptions that have constrained scientific practice in his discipline and the responses to discoveries that challenge notions of human specialness. He recognizes how presumptions of human or mammalian distinctiveness have shaped the approach to the study of evolutionary processes. “[W]hen I went off to study fruit flies after receiving my Ph.D.,” he writes,

some senior scientists offered their opinion that I was stepping off the edge of the Earth. Fruit flies? What would they teach us about humans or mammals? The common perception…was that the rules of physiology and development differed enormously between mammals and bugs or worms. So great were the differences, they believed that working on something like fruit flies was (gasp!) irrelevant.

They were in for some big surprises. (pp. 63-4)

The discovery that the same sets of genes control the formation and pattern of body regions and body parts with similar functions (but very different designs) in insects, vertebrates, and other animals has forced a complete rethinking of animal history, the origins of structures, and the nature of diversity. Comparative and evolutionary biologists had long assumed that different groups of animals, separated by vast amounts of evolutionary time, were constructed and had evolved by different means….

…This view was entirely incorrect. (pp. 71-2)

Carroll’s narrative of discovery highlights his wonder and awe at the simple beauty and depth of the relationships, but also his recognition of their implications for our 'species honor'. The cold reception of these discoveries in a speciesist context is registered by his use of the word “humbling” in describing their potential psychological and cultural effects: “These facts and figures should be humbling to those who wish to hold humans above the animal world and not an evolved part of it” (p. 10); “More Humbling Lessons from Fruit Flies: A Tool Kit of Body-Building Genes” (p. 65). Our observations of and interactions with other primates, he reflects, “can be as unsettling as they are fascinating,” and thinking about our relationship to them has “always raised provocative and, for some, discomforting questions about the gap between man and beast” (p. 250). (His quote from Queen Victoria in response to watching an orangutan – that she [the orangutan] was “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human” (p. 250) – captures well the cultural hostility to recognizing commonalities and continuities. Carroll's speculative description of Urbilateria, the common ancestor of all animals, concludes with a gentle teasing of the reader to “Be proud of your heritage” (p. 125).

This last he undoubtedly wrote with a grin, but his word choice and his recognition of the psychological implications of this knowledge show an awareness of the way speciesist beliefs have shaped our sense of ourselves and our value. If we didn’t live in a society steeped in speciesism, scientific revelations about our deep connections to and similarities with other animals wouldn’t be greeted with a sense of loss. They wouldn’t be humbling, unsettling, discomforting, frightening. They wouldn’t even be particularly surprising, much less resisted. They might even be welcomed.

Carroll correctly notes (p. 14) that great science is about making previously unimagined connections between phenomena, and every major development in our understanding of the natural world and our place in it has involved finding these deeper connections and continuities. Speciesism, on the other hand, like the other ideologies of oppression, rests on clear distinctions, on oppositions, on hierarchies. While it’s not possible to have any certainty about counterfactual histories, the evidence suggests that the speciesist resistance to recognizing shared features and commonalities that challenge human specialness has likely delayed the progress of the evo devo revolution and biological science more generally.

So Rachels and Carroll in their narratives allude to the positive relationship between transcending our speciesist prejudices and the advance of science. It seems to me that if you’re trying to be innovative or original in any biologically-related field, a key is to question your speciesism and related biases and to cultivate inter-animal sympathy and the recognition of similarities, connections, and continuities across humans and other species. It’s not too hyperbolic, I don’t think, to say that this effort has become almost integral to the advance of science. This is true not only strictly for the study of evolution, but also in understanding, for example, consciousness, ecology, epidemiology, and so on.

Whether or not this relationship holds for all scientific endeavors and all forms of social justice (Rachels’ discussion of the negative influence of Aristotle’s ideas is interesting and suggestive), it is the arc of biology. At every, or virtually every, turn in our quest to understand our evolution, beliefs in clear demarcations amongst animals and between humans and other animals have taken a hit. We should expect that challenging our species egocentricity and the essentialism, oppositions, and hierarchies that form part of it is necessary if we want to best advance our knowledge and understanding of the natural world and where we fit in it.

This means recognizing creationism, in all its forms, as a political movement with speciesism at its center, but also appreciating that creationism is only one very extreme expression of speciesism, which isn’t exclusive to religion. I’ll discuss the speciesism of many humanist – including radical – traditions in great detail in future posts. But generally what needs to be faced is that speciesism is not free-floating or linked exclusively to specific belief systems, but in fact the ideology at the heart of a global system and project of animal exploitation.

Carroll asks of zoo encounters: “What do the apes see when they glance toward their hairless, bipedal visitors? What is going on behind the long stare of a gorilla? What rolls of the ecological and genetic dice put us on the outside of those enclosures looking in, and not the other way around?” (p. 250). This experience wouldn’t be unsettling if our culture weren’t saturated with speciesism and if we didn’t have to try to rationalize and justify our exploitative and often cruel treatment of nonhuman animals. Gorillas aren’t imprisoned in those enclosures by nature or their genes, but by humans, based on a cultural belief that they’re separate, distinct, and inferior.

Rachels draws the larger picture in his discussion of our assessment of other animals’ intelligence and sensitivity:

It has always been difficult for humans to think objectively about the nature of nonhuman animals. …[E]ven as we try to think objectively about what animals are like, we are burdened with the need to justify our moral relations with them. We kill animals for food; we use them as experimental subjects in laboratories; we exploit them as sources of raw materials such as leather and wool; we keep them as work animals – the list goes on and on. These practices are to our advantage, and we intend to continue them. Thus, when we think about what animals are like, we are motivated to conceive of them in ways that are compatible with treating them in these ways. If animals are conceived as intelligent, sensitive beings, these ways of treating them might seem monstrous. So humans have reason to resist thinking of them as intelligent or sensitive. (p. 129)

I’ll continue to disagree with the superficially uncontroversial claim that “these practices are to our advantage” in general, that the harms caused by exploiting our fellow animals fall solely on them and not on us. But in the case of science specifically, even leaving aside the other indirect but related benefits I’ve discussed previously, I think any balance of the benefits and harms of speciesist culture tips heavily toward the harms side of the scale. The benefits of abandoning speciesism to the advance of knowledge of ourselves, evolution, and nature in general are shown very clearly in the character and context of discoveries in biological fields.

(It could be argued, I suppose, that while it’s true that this has been the pattern until now, with the discoveries of the past few decades we’ve reached a level of scientific knowledge at which speciesism has less practical effect on the development of science. I think this is mistaken, not only in terms of the continuing advance of knowledge in areas like embryonic development but even more so in areas like the study of consciousness, morality, emotions, and other characteristics often regarded as exclusive to humans.)

Carroll argues in his last chapter that the best way to encourage understanding and acceptance of evolution is to continue to promote better scientific education - a position shared, of course, by many others. While of course we need to promote basic education in scientific thinking and knowledge (including vocal challenges to faith, which Carroll doesn’t seem to recognize as particularly important), this approach fails to address the specific problem Carroll himself points to: speciesism and its important role in our system of animal exploitation. If we want to promote a full acceptance of evolution, we have to take on speciesism itself; we can’t work around it or try to accommodate or paper over it.

But what does this mean in practice? In both Rachels’ and Carroll’s narratives the appearance of this scientifically productive capacity, this ability to think beyond our culture’s prejudices, is left unexplained or presented as a happy idiosyncratic characteristic of individual scientists. And that might be true in the individual cases they discuss (though I doubt it). But given the evident relationship between transcending species chauvinism and scientific insight, should we simply wait and hope for the rare appearance of special individuals with the happy combination of scientific competence, subversive thinking, and the opportunity to pursue science, or for conventional thinkers to make fortuitous discoveries so compelling that they and others will have to accept these connections? This would not only be terribly inefficient, but fails to address the larger forces holding science back.

We need as a society to cultivate a nonspeciesist perspective. We need not only to encourage challenges to speciesism in ourselves and others in our vicinity, as well as promote a nonspeciesist vision in our educational system, but also to develop practices and systems founded on respectful, nonspeciesist principles. Most importantly, we need to fight the system of exploitation that requires speciesism for its justification and perpetuation. Scientists as professionals can become involved in this cause as they have in activism surrounding pollution, nuclear weapons, etc. Individual scientists and groups of scientists will of course continue to overcome their speciesist indoctrination through various paths or make important findings that change people’s understanding of our nature and our relationships with other animals, but there’s no reason to rely on this rather than to promote fundamental societal changes that make it far more likely.*

* Erich Fromm confronted a similar issue in his advocacy of love and the being mode of existence. Rightly fearing that To Have or to Be? would be read as voluntarist “self-help” literature rather than part of a call for radical social change, Fromm intentionally avoided the inclusion of a section offering personal-level advice. (This is described in Annette Thomson’s 2009 Erich Fromm: Explorer of the Human Condition.) It wasn’t that he didn’t think there was anything individuals and communities could do in the absence of systemic changes, or that he didn’t appreciate the rare individuals who exemplified his ideals, but he argued that to promote these goals most fundamentally and efficiently we have to change society.

Monday, December 3, 2012

I laughed so hard I cried

...and then noticed a cat looking at me with disdain.