Monday, August 10, 2009

On Puppies, Trees and Fetuses... or, What I DON'T Mean By "Weak Humanism"

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"


Christopher Long said...

This was originally posted on in a reply to the podcast posted on Socratic Politics in Digital Dialogue, I thought I would paste it here as well:

Let me press in a slightly different direction, recognizing Leigh's candid account of her own philosophical commitment to human rights. I very much appreciate the attempt to root human rights in the question of vulnerability and "weakness" in the sense I think I understand Leigh to mean. However, I wonder if our discussion remains too caught up in the legacy not of rooting, but of normative founding. I think I hear, and correct me please if I am wrong, in Leigh's position an attempt to step to the side of the question of normative founding in which certain normative judgments are legitimated by a set of normative assumptions about what sorts of beings or activities are better than others. I think she attempts to do this side stepping even as she takes a powerful stand for human rights.

I appeal to the language of rooting here because it points to the idea that the ground on which a stand for human rights might be made is determined not by the positing of an essence of the human, but by allowing decisions about how we live with and respond to one another to be nourished by a deep appreciation for human vulnerability. By rooting decisions in the soil of vulnerability, Leigh insists that we recognize the limitations of our own decision making abilities, that we address the suffering of others with humility, and that we listen attentively so as to respond appropriately to the very real ways we humans traumatize one another. I hear in her appeal to vulnerability, a deep recognition of human finitude, a recognition that, when honestly faced, can inform the way we live and respond to one another.

This approach might allow us to make ethical decisions that defend human rights and thus cultivate fulfilling lives, without requiring an unshakable normative foundation that remains in principle beyond our finite power.

Scu said...

I'm still working on my longer response (I still have a friend in from out of town), but in the meantime:

If you haven't read it already, Butler's Frames of War includes a discussion of abortion in relationship to her notion of precarious life.

anotherpanacea said...

Just a quick note: I think this is the right approach. Would it be correct to say that the 'human' for you is a category of experience, something we derive phenomenologically from the structure of experience as responsive, i.e. vulnerable, susceptible, dependent? Despite Derrida's early criticism of him, I think Levinas might be a good ally in making this case.

You seem to be doing much more 'conceptual analysis' than you're letting on, but I think your crypto-analysis is actually a good thing. Too often, continental philosophers have let historical critiques of Enlightenment humanism be the end of the conversation rather than the beginning! It's past time to push through to what we really do mean by humanity.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

This post and the discussion merit much more time than I can give it now.

But for now let me say I love the idea of a trump card in Ethical Poker (and might use it next time I teach Ethics). I think mine might be "Caution."

Does that make me a conservative?

anotherpanacea said...

Ideas Man, Ph.D.'s suggestion really invigorated the poker metaphor for me. Now I'm imagining us playing a modified version of Ethical Blind Man's Bluff: everybody's got a Trump Card stuck to our foreheads but we can't see our own. "Come on guys, seriously: do I have Civic Republicanism or is it Preference Utilitarianism?"

Seriously, though, since rights are often spoken of as trumps, I do think there's something worth exploring in the metaphor, especially if you want to appeal to the Parfit-style game theoretic political philosophers.

Scu said...

AnPan, that is truly funny.

Dr. J, When I reread this post of yours something keeps nagging me and I think I figured it out: Do you use the term humanism interchangeably with philosophical anthropology? When you say you are doing a humanism, do you mean you are simply trying to create a definition of the human? Do you see yourself, like Butler and Stiegler, trying to engage in a non-anthropocentric anthropology? I can get behind that, even if I remain skeptical of the success of such an endeavor. For me the problem is not with anthropology, but with anthropocentrism. Or to put it another way, my problem is not with The Human, but with human exceptionalism. For me, even in the mode of weakness, I cannot hear the term humanism without hearing the second term combined with the first term.

DOCTOR J said...

Apologies for the delay in my response here... it's been a busy few days!

@Chris: I worry that I'm not completely getting what's at stake in your distinction between "grounding"/"founding" language and "rooting" language. I'm not entirely convinced that any of those necessarily commits one to positing an "essence" of the human being in the way that Enlightenment humanists are criticized for doing. Of course, I agree with your characterization of the human being as "rooted" in vulnerability, and I suppose what I would say is (1) that chracterization also has normative implications and (2) I am entirely fine with the kinds of normative judgments that might follow from those normative implications. Where we agree, I think, is that the normative assumptions and judgments of strong humanism were etihcally/politically undesirable. Where we perhaps disagree, however, is whether or not normativity must be thrown out altogether.

Another clarificatory point: I think that there's a bit of slippage going on in your critique of the grounding/founding/rooting part of my project. My claim is that weak humanism serves as a better ground for defending human rights. That is a different (though not unrelated) claim from the claim that some definition/understanding of the human being ought to be grounded in vulnerability. You seem to want to call into question the way I am grounding a definition of the human, which is an entirely legitimate criticism, but I don't think I've ever really used the language of "grounding" in that sense.

So, my question back to you would be: do you think I'm wrong in my claim that weak humanism (putting aside, for the moment, whatever other philosophical problems it may have) serves as a better ground for defenses of human rights than strong humanism does? If I'm wrong about that, then I seriously fear for the future of this project!

DOCTOR J said...

@AnPan and Ideas Man: You know, I kind of came up with that Ethical Poker analogy on the fly, and almost immediately thought that it wouldn't really translate. Glad to hear y'all like it!

DOCTOR J said...

@Scu: First of all, thank so much for your thoughtful and compelling critique over on your own blog. I am in the process of preparing a response.

In the interim, however, I just want to say that I agree with you that one can do a non-anthropocentric philosophical anthropology. I suppose I think that one can do a non-anthropocentric humanism, too... but I know that's going to take a bit more explanation! I don't think there is anything about humanism that necessitates an endorsement of human exceptionalism, even though that has without a doubt been the case in the history of the concept.

Scu said...

Dr. J, thanks for taking the time to respond when you can. I agree it will take some explanation, and eagerly await your attempt.