Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Neither unicorns nor carbon-based life forms

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. ” – Aristotle, Politics
The phrase “neither gods nor beasts” has often been used to describe humans (more typically, “Men”) and the human condition. You’ll find it in progressive political works. It even forms the titles of two recent books – Elof Axel Carlson’s 2008 Neither Gods Nor Beasts and Gilbert Meilaender’s 2009 Neither Beast Nor God.

“Neither gods nor beasts” needs to go.

As for the first part: Of course humans aren’t gods. There are no such things as gods. In a situation in which everyone understood, first, that gods - of whatever ill-defined form - are imaginary entities, and, second, that these imaginary entities aren’t part of a hierarchy in which humans stand “below” them but above others, bringing mythical gods into discussions of human capacities and the human condition might possibly be theoretically useful (though I doubt it). But that isn’t the present situation or the way the god concept is being deployed.

The second part is simply false. Of course humans are beasts. We’re animals. Every single one of our qualities and capacities – good, bad, or indifferent - is entirely an animal quality or capacity. Including those we clearly share with other animals and those in which we differ from all or most other species. Including the cultural and political – that we’re cultural and political animals results from our evolved animal capacities. Our potentials and limitations are entirely animal. We’ve received no special contributions from anywhere outside of our common evolution with other beings on this planet. We’re beasts.

The “neither gods nor beasts” formulation might have made sense to those who believed in gods and knew nothing about evolution. But in this secular and scientific age, it can only serve ideological ends. It treats “human” not as a simple descriptor but as a status, elevating us above other animals. Along with this status, it grants us a false “dignity” which is refused to our fellow animals, who are now “beneath our notice.”

It damages our relationships with other animals by denying at least some of our shared condition and heritage and attempting to link us instead to some transcendent concepts or mythical beings “above” us. It harms us psychologically by leading us to see our relationship with other animals and the rest of the natural world as inherently alienated: in this view, as “in-between” beings, we don’t fit either among gods (which doesn’t matter since they don’t exist) or in our actual world (which would matter very much if it were true).

It distorts our understanding of our own capabilities and possibilities by seeing our animality in terms of inflexibility and limitations, such that to the extent that people come to understand that we’re wholly animal they believe our freedom and possibilities to be circumscribed. It pushes people to denigrate other animals as they seek to identify themselves with the qualities held to be godly or transcendent or to claim them for humanity….

“Neither gods nor beasts” is false and useless. We need to expel ideas about hierarchy and status from our understanding of the human condition, of our needs and potentials, of our limitations and possibilities, and of our relationships with other natural beings.

No comments:

Post a Comment