Humanism after Darwin (short & frivolous post)

Let me confess right away, I’m a “humanist” – my heart leaps, my mind exults, whenever I read phrases like:

“one should treat humanity in oneself and others always as an end and never merely as a means” (1)

'Humanitas' signifies “man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality’” (2)

“humanism is an attitude [suffused by] the conviction of the dignity of man, based on both the insistence on human values (rationality and freedom) and the acceptance of human limitations (fallibility and frailty): from this two postulates result – responsibility and tolerance” (3)


Humanism, in this interpretation, takes the ambivalence of the human condition fully into account: on the one hand we are but a product of a chance combination of genes. Our deepest emotions, our loftiest thoughts are nothing but chemical interactions and electric charges in our brain cells. We are driven by our selfish genes in the struggle for life. And we are amongst the feeblest creatures of nature – a mere gust of wind or a banal bacterial infection can wipe us out.(4)

And yet, on the other hand, as human beings, we have feelings beyond our primal survival-urges, we can reflect on our condition, we are endowed with sensitivity, reason and empathy.
Therefore we cannot merely hide behind biological or cultural determinism – we can observe and sense, we can learn, we can reflect: so we can and have to take up responsibility for our lives.

And we may not exploit others for our needs, nor physically or mentally hurt or humiliate (5) them - should they be in our way, or should they be in our view too different from us, or too fallible or too frail: because we know that ultimately the other is a self too, who at the very least shares with us a common human vulnerability and sensitivity that our empathy asks to spare.

So no, I don’t in the least see how this humanist attitude of responsibility, tolerance and empathy should be threatened by the findings of genetics or of neuro-science. Humanism is not about the adulation of the Human Being as some perfect metaphysical divinity, humanism is on the contrary very pragmatic in its acknowledgement of our limitations as well as of our possibilities. The materialist basis of our being does not take away the fact that we have these 'feedback systems' - reason, sensitivity and empathy - that create our responsibility towards ourselves and others.

Speaking of “reason”, “sensitivity” and “empathy” as the foundations of this humanist attitude, I hope to avoid being caught in the fallacious dualism of “emotions” versus “ratio”. A dualism that may be obsolete (6), now that is shown that 'good' decision- making involves both emotions and ratio. And what matters, is how 'we' (we = our self-reflective feedback-systems) deal with our emotions, what we do with our rational intellectual capacities. Both emotions and ratio can be used for evil ends.

So this is where the humanist moral imperative enters: the imperative of respect and responsibility towards ourselves and others, a call to summon up whatever grace and dignity we can muster, even when defeated, even at death (7).

(and this is where trumpets should blaze, violins should swell, a choir should burst out in a Beethovenian ode!)

But so, though I don’t at all see positivist science as a menace for Humanism – I fear some moral interpretations of Darwinism and of economic rationalism do pose a threat.
We all know that we are creatures governed by selfish genes that are bent on their survival & reproduction. We all know that in the end only those traits and genes survive, that, well hum that survive, at the expense of other les well adapted, less aggressive variations.
We all know how economics got hold of this “survival of the fittest” principle and of the rule of self-interest to posit a Rational Man and a system of “laisser faire” in which the sum of all these individual pursuits of self-interest in the end produces the best results, as if directed by an “invisible hand” . We all know now that utopian state controlled economics did not work.

And so, yes, evolutionary biology and classical economics alike wrestle with the problem of “altruism”. Altruism! Moral Values! Shock! Horror! The menace of Irrationality!
Indeed, how to explain altruism, how to explain morality in a conceptual framework which posits the selfish struggle for life or the maximization of self-interest or profits as the ultimate driving forces? Self-interest as the one principle that guarantees the most efficient system to arrive at the best results, so the one and only principle that any rational person should heed.

Oh yes, biologists and economist alike are at great pains to find somewhere some selfish reason for altruism - not a year goes by without another theory showing how display of some altruistic behavior might be good to attract potential mates (because it’s a sign of abundant strength, or of good caring skills for off-spring), a theory that therefore can unmask altruism as yet another ploy of the selfish gene. And ah the relief when yet another economic theory shows that “trustworthiness” is nothing but a good strategy to optimize economic interactions and thus to maximize wealth – so yes, yet again rational enlightened self-interest at work!

And here, as a humanist, I disagree. I object to “rational behavior” being exclusively claimed as a utilitarian strategy. I don’t accept that taking a moral stance would only be acceptable if there’s a utilitarian value to it, be it in biological survival terms or in economic profit terms. I object, in the name of humanism, in the name of the humanist concept of human dignity and responsibility. Maximization of wealth is not the only end. I even dare say that for a humanist not even sheer personal survival is the only end … not at whatever price. … not when human dignity, of ourselves or of others is at stake (8).

Empathy may well have evolved as a useful social skill to help along the selfish gene – but now it also presents us, sensitive and pensive humans, with a responsibility that goes beyond the mere self-interest. There is man’s amazing “ability to step out of the food-chain”, to have an altruistic “affection for his fellow creatures of chance’s kingdom”. (9)

So I’d like to conclude with a quote from Richard Dawkins ( the evolutionary scientist par excellence), from his book “The selfish gene” ( the Darwinian book par excellence) :
“We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”.

(trumpets, violins, choir!)


Edifying quotes & notes (so please, do read them!)

(1) yes, this is one of Kant’s famous categorical imperatives!
(2) Erwin Panofsky in “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline” (a 1940 essay collected in “Meaning in the visual arts”
(3) Ibidem
(4) Paraphrase of Pascal’s pensée : “L’ homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui ; l’univers n’en sait rien. Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée »
(5) On human vulnerability to cruelty and humiliation as a shared human condition that we always ought to be sensitive to, I would like to quote Richard Rorty in ”Contingency, irony, and solidarity”. RR is so post-modernly relativist that he shies away from admitting the existence of any universal values, but he does accept this physical and moral vulnerability of the human being as a universally shared trait. I’m happy to quote him at length, so as to prove that postmodernism does not need to preclude humanism!
So here goes: “The idea that we all have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty, to make human beings equal in respect to their liability to suffering, seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that […] the ability to feel pain, is what is important, and that differences in vocabulary are much less important. […] Metaphysicians tell us that unless there is some sort of common ur-vocabulary, we have no “reason” not to be cruel to those whose final vocabularies are very unlike ours. […].
The morally relevant definition of a person, a moral subject, to be “something that can be humiliated ”. [Our] sense of human solidarity is [thus] based on a sense of a common danger. So [we] need as much imaginative acquaintance with alternative vocabularies as possible, not just for [our] own edification, but in order to understand the actual and possible humiliation of the people who use these alternative vocabularies […] . What unites [us] with the rest of the species is not a common language but just susceptibility to pain and in particular to that special sort of pain which the brutes do not share with the humans – humiliation."
(6) As far as I am aware of the findings of neuro-science as they get reported in the popular press, it seems that “emotions” and “ratio” collaborate far more in judging and deciding than traditionally was posited. For instance, there’s the case of a man whose brain got damaged in an accident. The damage was done to a part of the brain associated with the emotions. After this accident the man was no longer able to take decisions: he could analyze a problem, draw up long lists of determining elements and of arguments for and against – but he could no longer reach a decision.
(7) This is a paraphrase on some sentences out of Fay Weldon’s “Letters to Alice” . I can’t right now locate them exactly, ….maybe a fine reason to read that book again! I remember it as so erudite and moving a plea for the reading of novels as exercises in empathy and in the finding of moral significance, + its’ an excellent introduction to Jane Austen . Someone who made it all through the Richard Rorty footnote, will have noted note that RR too pleads for the widening of our empathy (through, amongst other things, the reading of novels).n
(8) of course the smart Darwinian can here suffice with a single smug remark: being a humanist then does not seem to be such a good survival strategy amongst the selfish, so in the end these naïve humanist variations will simply get extinct. Euh.Well. Should anyone have a suitable retort, thanks for sharing!
(9) Richard Powers in his “The Goldbug Variations”


5 comments:

Phoenix said...

now that was fantastically frivolous!...despite my frightfully limited powers of comprehending anything that smells remotely of the profound n cerebral, I am happy to inform ye that I did get it. :-D

seriously tho, the self is involved and conscious in every waking moment of its being, then can we ever be truly self-less or negate the self? maybe when asleep, since that's when the subconscious and its buddies are bringing the house down?

And no, I am not on anything, if you really must know. :-}

ffflaneur said...

Oh, phoenix , I’m sure you don’t have to be on anything to have your sub-conscious bringing the house down!

And you’re right: no escaping from the self and its selfish needs & urges (*) – but if we all could already acknowledge that “the other is a self” too, might that not prevent a lot of cruelty & suffering?

(*) what does work for me – no hallucinatory substances, but the immersion in something that’s better than me: music or art. At the best of times: a few amazing moments without any wanting or worrying – the mind and the senses filled completely with that music, with that painting – but perhaps those are very selfish moments indeed : having completely withdrawn from the world’s demands

Phoenix said...

ah, see, so you really can't abandon your self, can you? :-) Maybe its when you are being selfish that you are being truest to your self?
I agree, though, empathy is all about acknowledging and treating the other as a unique self too. Wish people would copy and paste this in their mindset the way they do email forwards/memes.

p.s. * a long walk/trek, the rain, lolling on the beach, connecting with Dame Nature or at times just idle people-watching does it for me...not much, really.:-D
Music used to be really important...left it behind at some corner. Hope to retrieve some day. :-)

ffflaneur said...

oh yes, the rain - absolutely the rain!!! the senses filled by rain ... soothed by a soft steady drizzle or swamped by a violent downpour.

(and it's musical too, rain - so dear phoenix you're not completely lost to music!)

Phoenix said...

touché.
guess I'm currently more partial to the organic/primal sort then...:-D