I've gotten some interesting feedback from my "Digital Dialogues" interview with Chris Long on weak humanism, including several questions about my work (and its implications) that I had not anticipated. So, I thought I'd take an opportunity here to try and clear up some things. I may need to split my response to the concerns and objections into several posts, so stay tuned...
One of the things that came up in my conversation with Chris, and also in the comments on his blog in response to our conversation, was the issue of how a philosophical commitment to "humanism" (of whatever sort) positions one in relation to the rest of the natural world, non-human animals and those beings whose status as "humans" might be debatable (like the unborn). This is not an un-anticipatable concern, but I think that my response (which was, basically, "those are not my primary questions") left many people unsatisfied at best, suspicious at worst.
First, I should say that I really do get the question about puppies, trees and fetuses, and I am not trying to evade the deep ethical issues involved there. But, as I said in the interview, I think these sorts of questions are subsequent to-- and in fact dependent upon-- how one answers the question: "what is the human?". It is only possible to ask these questions in the way they are asked if one already has some latent manner of distinguishing between the human and the non-human. So, for example, I can only ask the question: "which is more important to you, oak trees or labradors?" if I already have some tacit or explicit way of separating oak trees from labradors. It wouldn't make any sense to you if I asked about the difference in status between trees and trees, or labradors and labradors. The way that I have framed my project is by beginning with the fact that disavowing traditional philosophical "humanism" (which attempts to give some definition to "the human"), while at the same time posing questions about the moral or political status of human beings in relation to the discourse of rights or to non-human beings, involves one in a fundamental philosophical problem. One may have legitimate problems with the way traditional humanism has defined and valued the human, as I do, but that does not mean that one is not still operating with some concept of the human. What I'm trying to do is find a better concept of the human, that is, one that won't later put us in a position where we are forced to endorse or permit conclusions to be drawn that are contrary to our moral or political sensibilities.
Secondly, I think with any philosophical question one has to start somewhere. As I've said many times on this blog and elsewhere, I think that human rights concerns are one of the most important issues of our time. So, I start there. (That's not to say that I don't think that issues of the environment or animal rights are important, only that they don't strike me as the most important. I'm glad that there are philosophers out there who do find those issues to be the most important, and my hope is that the work that I'm doing allows me to recognize the importance of that other work without inconsistency or disingenuousness.) As I said in the interview, I think that the philosophical critiques of Enlightenment humanism (what I call "strong humanism") does show that that sort of humanism tends to force one into a position of disregarding or disrespecting the ethical and political concerns of the environment and non-human animals. My "weak" humanism, on the other hand, doesn't. In brief, here's how I think it doesn't...
Let's imagine we're playing a game of Ethical or Political Poker, and each player is allowed one "trump" card. (Yes, I know there are no trump cards in poker, but just work with me here.) You can use your trump card to determine how to proceed whenever your opponents play a particularly difficult ethical or political hand. So, for the strong humanist, his trump card might be something like the "Rationality" card or the "Autonomy" card. As a weak humanist, my trump card is going to be the "Vulnerability" card. Now, let's imagine that the hand we're playing requires us to make a determination about the moral or political permissability of industrial chicken farms. Obviously, the strong humanist is going to have a limited number of options at his disposal for play. Chickens aren't rational beings (or, at least, not according to the Enlightenment tradition out of which strong humanism grows), and so the poor chickens are going to lose that hand if the strong humanist opts to play his trump card. I think most of us would agree that the rest of us are going to lose out as well, depending on how rigorous our opponent decides to define "rationality."
However, if I play my "Vulnerability" card, everyone wins. Animals are certainly vulnerable to pain and exploitation, so even though I may still be playing the Ethical/Political Poker game as an avowed "humanist," I have not committed myself to ethical or political positions that cannot recognize the interests of non-human beings. That's not to say that, if the question being played were a matter of choosing between legistlation that mandates intervention in industrial chicken farming and legislation that mandates intervention in an ongoing genocide, I might already be pre-committed to the latter... but, at least, I have what I think is a more sensitive and robust arsenal of "responsibility" criteria at my disposal for deciding that question. This is the advantage of my "weak humanism" over the "strong humanism" of the Enlightenment, in my opintion.
Obviously, I don't have all the answers. So, when AnPan asked me where my weak humanism thesis leaves me on the question of determining between "weak" human beings, as is arguably the case in questions about abortion, I don't think that my position has a pre-fab answer for this. My own position on abortion is that I am both pro-life and pro-choice. That is, I generally believe that the unborn are (at the very least) potential human lives and ought to be accorded some of the same kinds of considerations that we accord atual human lives, but I think the issue is still fuzzy enough NOT to warrant overly-determinstic legislation about it, especially as that legislation impacts non-debatably "human" citizens. (Incidentally, there are all kinds of other reasons why I am against legislating abortion issues too much, not the least of which is that-- in this country, at least-- most of our legislators are neither women nor fetuses, and so are not in the best position to be making those determinations.) But the important point is that the criteria I use when determining my own stance on this issue are matters of vulnerability and weakness, that is, matters that address how to do the least amount of harm to whomever (or whatever) might be the most susceptible to harm.
To sum up, then, I don't think that my weak humanism suffers from the same sorts of critiques that are levelled at traditional, strong (Enlightenment) humanism, because what I am attempting to do is re-focus our attention on matters of vulnerability and susceptibility when we are deciding about ethical and political concerns. So, although my focus is going to be on human rights-- that is, the vulnerabilities that are peculiar to human beings-- I am also constructing a more general ethical world-view that encourages the analogous association between human vulnerabilities and non-human vulnerabilities. This is in sharp distinction, I think, to the "capabilities" or "strengths" approach of traditional humanism, which tends to restrict-- and even predetermine-- what sorts of concerns rise to the level of consideration in ethics and politics.
UPDATE: Scu over at CriticalAnimal has posted a sensitive and compelling response/critique to my interview entitled "Strong Humanism, Weak Humanism, Beyond Humanism"