Human distinctiveness

Essential acts

The key is Aristotle’s idea that there can be objective purposes in nature.  For example, one can hardly deny that it is meaningful to make statements like “the heart is for pumping blood”, and that these statements make no reference to any conscious mind, i.e. the above does not mean the same thing as “I like for my heart to pump blood”.  It means that there’s an idea, “blood-pump”, that is unique in allowing us to make sense of the heart.  In the same way, “reasoning animal” is an idea that allows us to make sense of the various facets of human nature.  The important thing here is that there’s a distinction between a thing’s precise state, on the one hand, and the essential idea it embodies, on the other.  A heart doesn’t have to pump blood very efficiently to be a heart, and a man doesn’t have to think very well to be human.  They just have to be structured to do these things to such an extent that one could say that these purposes are what they’re objectively “made for”.  In fact, we expect essential ideas to be much clearer in the more fully developed organisms or organs, rather than in the transitional types.  What a thing is essentially, though, depends on what we’re calling its essential idea, rather than its precise state.  Here is the crucial point:  the former can change discontinuously even if the latter changes continuously.  Two organisms might be physiologically very similar.  One is designed for activity X but does it in a very rudimentary way; the other is not designed for X, but has organs that perform something very similar to X while in the process of doing something else.  These organisms may be so similar that a single mutation can account for the transition from one to the other.  They would nevertheless be essentially different beings; they would belong to different species.

The transition point between doing something poorly and not doing it can be very difficult to determine.  This does not necessarily mean that it isn’t there, though.  It may be just an indication of our lack of perceptiveness.  For example, just about anybody could tell the difference between how a professional swimmer swims and how someone who can’t swims will just flail around in the water.  That’s because the professional swimmer executes the ideal form of swimming very completely and precisely, so it’s easy to make out what he’s doing.  The movements of the non-swimmer have no guiding reason at all.  We can, however, imagine transitional states of increasingly poor and inefficient swimming.  At some point, casual viewers would think that a very poor swimmer is just moving his limbs at random; an expert on human swimming might still be able to make out a degree of organization that’s giving the poor swimmer some locomotion.  As we get closer and closer to the transition point, one would have to be more and more perceptive to make this out.  For sufficiently special cases, perhaps no one alive could tell whether or not swimming was going on.  This may only reflect our mental limitations, however.  It doesn’t mean that there’s no sharp transition in essences, still less that the clearly different behaviors of the professional swimmer and the non-swimmer are really the same, after all.

The human quality

What about humanity, the really important case?  Is it plausible that there’s a difference in essential idea between human beings and other animals?  We generally think that our intellects set us off from the lower animals.  The biologists, however, have been gleefully pointing out to us evidence of animal intelligence.  They claim that our mental superiority is only a matter of degree, not one of kind.  If this were true, it would prove that there is no distinct human essence.  If human beings are a distinct kind of thing, there must be something qualitatively different in how we think.  A greater degree of animal intelligence wouldn’t matter for philosophical purposes.  Aristotle claimed that the distinctive human activity was abstract thought, i.e. the ability to apprehend universal ideas.  He believed that this activity was essential to humans, i.e. that a human being as a whole is manifestly made for contemplating abstract ideas.  He also thought this type of thinking is qualitatively different from what animals do when they think.

4 Responses

  1. I learned something useful from my favorite radio jocks last week: dignity is the capacity to take responsibility for one’s actions. It makes sense. Dignity is worthiness. It is, ontologically, a measure of a being’s ontological cash value, of its efficacious power; and power directed by a will informed by an intellect (as happens when one takes responsibility) is focused and efficacious in a way that mere physical power is not. The dignity of the soldier is greater than that of the grenade, for the soldier disposes of far more efficacy than the grenade, despite the fact that, as deployed in battle, he may dispose of less potential energy per unit time than the grenade.

    Dogs clearly take some responsibility. My dog Rosie is capable of lying, and of shame at the way she has behaved. Otherwise, the utterance, “Bad dog!” would have zero meaning to her, or therefore to me. It would mean nothing intelligibly different than “Good dog!” or “Squirrel!” And, meaning nothing different to Rosie, none of these utterances of mine would affect her differently. But they do. She responds appropriately to my utterances, if not intelligently.

    But this is very far from saying that she is equal in dignity to me. For, because I can comprehend my actions vis-a-vis the world far more completely than she, so I can take a more informed responsibility for my actions. The more comprehensive the information of my actions, the more efficacious they are, and the greater my dignity (and my liberty).

    My dignity as a man, then, as different quantitatively from hers, is ipso facto different qualitatively, in just the same way that possessing $10 is qualitatively different from possessing $1,000,000.

    The bottom line: a quantitative difference just is a qualitative difference; for quantity is a quality. Where the quantitative difference is trivial, it is negligible; where not, not. It all comes down to a judgement of importance. The difference of intelligence between me and Rosie puts us in different categories of things, just as the difference of mass between Jupiter and Sol puts them in different categories. Categories are porous, to be sure, so that taxonomies are bound upon close examination to look somewhat adventitious, in one way or another; but if categories were not real, there would be no membrane to have the pores, no way to arrive at the conclusion that the boundaries are somewhat arbitrary. You can’t say that things are close to each other, or similar, without implicitly admitting that they are truly and fundamentallyh and essentially different. Again, it all comes down to a judgement about how important those differences are.

  2. […] on human evolution actually is.  Of course, this says nothing about what our position should be.  I believe that speciation by natural selection is compatible with a realist position on forms (because […]

  3. Wise and holy St. Thomas Aquinas once said the following in relation to why men walked upright:

    “An upright stature was becoming to man for four reasons. First, because the senses are given to man, not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life for which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge. Hence, whereas the other animals take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex, man alone takes pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake. Therefore, as the senses are situated chiefly in the face, other animals have the face turned to the ground, as it were for the purpose of seeking food and procuring a livelihood; but man has his face erect, in order that by the senses and chiefly by sight, which is more subtle and penetrates further into the differences of things, he may freely survey the sensible objects around him, both heavenly and earthly, so as to gather intelligible truth from all things.”

    “Secondly, for the greater freedom of the acts of the interior powers; the brain, wherein these actions are, in a way, performed, not being low down, but lifted up above other parts of the body. Thirdly, because if man’s stature were prone to the ground he would need to use his hands as fore-feet, and thus their utility for other purposes would cease. Fourthly, because if man’s stature were prone to the ground and he used his hands as fore-feet, he would be obliged to take hold of his food with his mouth. Thus he would have a protruding mouth, with thick and hard lips, and also a hard tongue, so as to keep it from being hurt by exterior things, as we see in other animals. Moreover, such an attitude would quite hinder speech, which is reason’s proper operation.”

    The differences are not only in mind, but in physical form.

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