"Skeleton of human (1) and gorilla (2), u...
"Skeleton of human (1) and gorilla (2), unnaturally stretched." Size: 4.9 x 5.5 in² (12.4 x 13.9 cm²) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does ‘being human’ rest on a particular set of capacities we possess but animals do not? And if it does, do this capacities somehow make us better – more valuable? – than non-human animals? These questions and others were discussed at last night’s CPC, led by Dr Chris Groves. The possession of language, the capacity to use formal systems of thought (reason in a broad sense, including mathematics and scientific methods), but also the ability to feel sympathy and compassion, are just some examples of the capabilities that have been put forward as part of the defining essence of human beings.

Dr Groves discussed a range of examples from the history of Western philosophy of atttempts to understand the meaning of being human. Beginning from Christian theology, he addressed head on the question of whether the extent of any difference between humans and animals also implies a value hierarchy. In the book of Genesis, two verses are placed close together. Verse 21 states that:

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

which seems to imply that everything living that was created is good in the sight of God, and so good in its kind – while verses 26-28 run:

Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion [râdâh] over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion [râdâh] over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

This second verse implies that there is something special about humans, that they were made in the image of God and thus had passed to them a special entitlement – to dominate and use the earth, and other living things. The Hebrew word râdâh means ‘power over’ – so dominion, related to e.g. the Latin word dominus, meaning a possessor having complete power over something. Yet the verse also mentions ‘replenishing’ the world – which has perhaps motivated some theologians to view ‘dominion’ here as implying stewardship.

But the sense of humans having, thanks to their being created in the image of God, a special relationship to (or even separateness from) nature was carried over into some dominant traditions of Western thought. The idea of the ‘great chain of being’, which dominated medieval and Renaissance cosmology, reproduced this notion, with the special capacities conferred by our resemblance to God being the know and understand the world, to grasp its hidden workings through reason (and later through natural science).

Running alongside this tradition, though, other currents of thought located human beings more within nature. Aristotle was an advocate of reason as the most characteristic and most valuable of human capabilities. At the same time, he thought that humans were a particular kind of animal. Aristotle explained biology, as distinct from mechanism, as the product of formal and final causes. Formal causes, in a biological sense, are dynamic structures which, like metabolism, govern the self-reproduction of living things. Final causes are purposes – biological systems, for Aristotle, have specific purposes – to continue in existence and to reproduce, for example. Humans are no different, but thanks to their capacity to reason, they can choose their own ends in accordance with rules or standards – some of which will enable them to flourish as the kinds of beings they are, while others will not. Humans are also political animals – if they can choose their own ends, they also have to work out ways in which they can live together as a community of ends-choosers. These characteristics together definitively separate them from animals.

This tradition is carried on in contemporary strands of neo-Aristotelian thought, such as the ideas of Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, who in his 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals argued that philosophers, in focusing on reason and its application to morality (with figures like Immanuel Kant particularly in mind here) have failed to notice two important facts about humans. First, they are animals, in the sense that they share a great number of capabilties with other living beings – from perception to emotion. Secondly, they are dependent – on their environment and on each other, lacking for a significant proportion of their lives the kind of autonomy philosophers like Kant saw as essential to being human, and also being dependent on the activities of many other humans to support them within society – and to make is possible for them to ‘choose their own ends’ in Aristotle’s sense.

Such concepts of humans as emotional, imaginative and rational social or political animals whose capacities are rooted in their animal nature are developed also by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and advocates of an ethics of care, which present characteristic human needs as multi-dimensional and diverse, with emotional connection and bodily integrity being as important as the freedom to reason.

What the specialness of humans might consist in, if it consists in anything, is therefore much harder to pin down. But the idea that humans, through their capability for abstract thought, are able to understand that they are born, that they die, and that they therefore have a biography which is located somewhere in the history of their species perhaps gives us a candidate for understanding their uniqueness. Hannah Arendt wrote in her book The Human Condition (1958) that:

The mortality of men lies in the fact that individual life, with a recognizable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. This individual life is distinguished from all other things by the rectilinear course of its movement, which, so to speak, cuts through the circular movement of biological life. This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order. The task and potential greatness of mortals lie in their ability to produce things – works and deeds and words – which would deserve to be and, at least to a degree, are at home in everlastingness, so that through them mortals could find their place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves.

Here, the possibility of biography – and also the capacity to transcend that biography, by creating things which are passed on through cultural transmission and/or memorialised – is represented as firmly separating humans from animals.

In the audience poll leading up to the event, 28 votes were cast in response to the question “are the differences betwee humans and animals ultimately trivial, or hugely important?” 18 respondents agreed they were hugely important, while 9 declared they were not. In discussion on the evening, there was a broad division of opinion between those who saw little difference, and people who saw the differences as significant, and relating to things like abstract thought and the capacity to understand the world in a systematic way, the capacity for cultural transmission, or the existence of economic relationships. Aristotle’s idea that humans are different because they can choose their own ends recieved some assent, with people suggesting that the ability to ‘be human but differently’ is something that marks us apart. But at the same time, are these differences really qualitative in nature, or just a matter of degree? And there was less support for the idea that somehow humans should consider themselves ‘special’ in some way, at least in the sense suggested by religious ideas about resembling God. Some sceptical notes were struck around the possibility of identifying anything distinctively human about us beyond the kind of body or genome we possess, given that babies and people with serious cognitive impairments are considered human despite perhaps lacking particular capacities.

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