Thursday, August 30, 2007

"It's What Makes Us Human"

Sometimes, when one person is gaily expounding the virtues of her chosen course of life or study, or two people are hotly expounding the shortcomings of eachothers', someone will reach for the "it's what makes us human" defense. The idea seems to be that there is an intrinsic value in doing the things that make humans distinctive. This kind of argument is especially common with respect to cognition: we should value thought, the argument runs, because it is what separates us from mere beasts.

Sometimes the word "human" is meant to pick out a set of stand-alone goods (eg. a rich emotional life; concern for others), and the speaker furnishes independent grounds for thinking that these really are goods. But sometimes the claim really seems to be that a trait possesses value solely in virtue of it making humans different from other species.* Is this claim reasonable?
*And sometimes people will exploit the ambiguity for rhetorical effect, trying to benefit both from the validity of the first claim, and advantage of the second claim (which consists in not obviously requiring any additional justification).

At first glance it looks a bit fishy. Suppose that a highly intelligent race landed on the moon and started interacting with us. Surely the presence of this race would not persuade us that cognitive excellence was no longer important, and that we should aim for the newly-distinctive trait of cognitive mediocrity. It seems odd that the presence or otherwise of another race could impact on our value system in this way.

However, of there is fishiness here I don't think it is a very solid fishiness. Most of us can appreciate the reasonableness of a country taking pride in its distinctiveness. Distinctiveness means standing out; it is a step away from anonymity. People value their "sense of identity."

Sure, distinctive national traits (superb cuisine, great landscapes etc.) are valued in themselves, because they guarantee citizens a good meal in that country, or a great view. And it would be easy to conflate this kind of value with the value of distinctiveness. But people are not just proud of their national excellences. They are also proud of their national quirks, their eccentricities, things that are hard to see as excellencies in themselves.

For example, in New Zealand we are proud of the Kiwi, a small flightless bird with a silly beak. If we found out that some other country also had a kiwi, we would feel uncomfortable. And if someone were to come along and kill off all our Kiwi, we would feel this to be a crime not just against Kiwis but also against New Zealanders.**
**Is this a reasonable feeling? For the sake of argument, let's say that it is. But it would be great to hear anyone else's thoughts on this.

The situation is more complicated than the above paragraph suggests. After all, a "sense of national identity" would not mean much if it were held by only one person. Our instinct to form groups is just as strong as our instinct to demonstrate the uniqueness of our own group. But it remains true that distinctiveness is a strong impulse. If the instinct is reasonable, then distinctiveness can constitute a reason for a country to favour a trait. Whether or not, in the final weigh-up, the value of distinctiveness overrides the value of togetherness, is something to work out carefully in particular cases.

But why should the same lines of argument carry over to the case of an entire race of people? Well, why not? They arguments seem to apply as well to the case of a family as to the case of a nation. In this case, I think, the onus is on the skeptic to show that there is a salient difference between countries and races, such that the blithe assumption of continuity is unwarranted.

In saying that, it's worth emphasising the relative weakness of the "distinctiveness" consideration. As noted above, one can't say in general whether distinctiveness or togetherness will carry greater weight. And the intrinsic value (or intrinsic disvalue) of a trait can easily override either of those considerations (cf. the case of cognition). In summary, it's OK to draw on the "it makes us human" defense, but it should be seen in context; it is not very convincing on its own.


Richard said...

I take you to have defended personal pride in being distinctively human. But does that extend to criticizing others who focus elsewhere for their sense of identity? (I wouldn't think so. It seems a merely subjective value.)

Still, I think it's reasonable to expound the value of rationality as "what separates us from mere beasts". This is because there is intrinsic value to being a person (whether human, Martian, or whatever). This distinguishing trait is not merely contingent like the others you discuss. New Zealanders can exist without kiwis, but a mindless person is a contradiction in terms.

Mike B said...

I didn't mean to pick out any particular trait as distinctively human. I assumed that certain traits are distinctively human. I wanted to address the claim that these traits gain value by virtue of their distinctiveness.

Yes, I agree that there is intrinsic value in being a person. I would emphasise the intrinsic part, to separate this claim from the claim that personhood is valuable simply because it is a point of difference.

The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Belief in the awesomeness of kiwi is, indeed, entirely reasonable.