Thursday, August 06, 2009

"Weak Humanism" Interview on Digital Dialogues

I recently had the good fortune of doing an interview with Chris Long (Penn State University) for his "Digital Dialogues" philosophy podcast discussing my work on "weak humanism." (You can listen to my interview here.) I've been working on the Weak Humanism manuscript all summer now, so it was a welcome respite from that work to be able to actually talk to someone else about it. I hope that readers of this blog will give it a listen and feel free to ask questions or provide feedback here. Chris Long also keeps a blog related to the Digital Dialogues series, and I'm sure he would welcome discussion there as well.

I'm a big fan of Chris' new undertaking, and encourage you all to subscribe to the Digital Dialogues podcast through iTunes by clicking here.


anotherpanacea said...

Loved the interview, Leigh. You were great.

One question: in your discussion, I wasn't always clear why we'd want to reject a strong humanism. Certainly, in the past, "capacity" humanism has been associated with exclusion and oppression. But as you point out in your interview, those moments of oppression and exclusion often look to us, today, as failures of the Enlightenment humanists. It's like they made a simple error. If we were mathemeticians, we'd correct the error without necessarily rejecting the theory. We do this sort of thing with the ancient philosophers all the time.

So we'd say: yes, deliberative capacity, rationality, and autonomy are part of what it means to be human, but we shouldn't see failures in these regards as inhuman, but rather as evidence of other traits of the human: susceptibility, vulnerability, mortality, and interdependence. The result would be... would we call it "strong-weak humanism"? Maybe just "humanism" full-stop.

DOCTOR J said...

Great question, AnPan. I'm working on an answer... but, in the meantime (and if you don't mind), can you post this same question on Chris' blog? I think he wants to encourage discussion of the podcasts there, and I want to support him in that effort.

I'll post my answer in both places, too.... it's coming soon.

DOCTOR J said...

Mainly, I think the focus on human strengths (as the basis for a philosophical humanism) has more of an inherent tendency toward exclusion than a focus on weaknesses does, because it sets the bar for qualifying as a "human being" quite high and because the criteria for making those judgments are hard to divorce from the deep, social-ontological struts and girders that form the architectures of injustice. This is not a particularly original insight, and I think history has proven it to be true. One way of interpreting that history is, as you point out, to simply claim that (Enlightenment) humanists practiced humanism “badly.” I am inclined to believe this interpretation is at least partially true and, for that reason, I am not primarily trying to advocate a complete “rejection” of strong humanism. My position is that strong humanism—whatever the nature and origin of its faults—is not the best philosophical basis for defending human rights. So, even if we practiced the purest form of it, there would still be something missing from the human rights discourse that has grown out of it.

In fact, I think strong humanism is far better at securing things like property rights and some civic rights (like citizenship), where the sorts of qualities and capabilities that are emphasized in strong humanism have more of a bearing on the rights being accorded. But I think “human” rights are chiefly designed to protect human beings when all of those strong qualities and capabilities are, for the most part, irrelevant. There is an exponentially greater moral and political force in claiming that we should not torture because that practice involves exploiting a fundamental and universal human weakness, I think, than in claiming that we should not torture because that practice is inconsistent with the respect we ought to accord rational, autonomous beings. The kind of Kantian respect that animates so much of Enlightenment humanism is useful when I have questions about how best to interact with my neighbors and their stuff, but considerably less compelling when I am already disinclined to see my neighbors as fellow human beings (which is, arguably, the situation we are dealing with in the case of most human rights violations). I ought not torture because torture causes pain and capitalizes on a vulnerability that I share with my victim. In a sense, it’s a matter of lowering the bar of the criteria we use for determining who deserves “humane” treatment. It is definitely harder to meet the strong humanist criteria of exhibiting rationality and autonomy than it is to meet the weak humanist criteria of simply being vulnerable to pain and exploitation.

So, to be clear, I am not saying that we should disregard all of the central descriptive claims of strong humanism, but only that when it comes to providing a philosophical defense of human rights, we get more out of the prescriptive claims that weak humanism’s descriptions generate.

Christopher Long said...

I really appreciate your discussion here. I appreciate too, your copying the discussion over to my blog. I wonder if there is a way to consolidate some of this discussion to somehow allow it to appear on multiple blogs (anotherpanacea, readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore, and Socratic Politics in Digital Dialogue) without having to cut and paste. I think the Intense Debate plugin might be a possible solution, but I will look into it. For now, however, thank you both for conscientiously copying your comments to my blog and for your early support of this project.

anotherpanacea said...

I think it's impractical to try to centralize debate in the comments section of a blog. It's probably better to use linking and trackbacks for this kind of thing: so perhaps Leigh's long comment would have been a second blog post, and my response would have been a blog post as well. I'm happy to have this conversation with you two back at Digital Dialogue, but in generaly it seems a little... old-fashioned? The great thing about the internet is that the medium affords much less "place-centrism." Links can carry us back and forth effortlessly, and so long as your site has good "trackback" notices, readers will see the blog posts as comments leading them to explore other sites.

Wherever we do it, I'm enjoying the back-and-forth. I look forward to your thoughts!

Scu said...

I have a longer response up, if you want to look at it

I want to again thank you for your generosity of thought. I hope you see my comments as coming from a place of thinking that your work is both serious and important, regardless of whatever disagreements I may have.