"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Anthropology, not anthropologists

Leave aside all the sneering about ivory towers. It seems fair to say that, in the West at least, the most contentious moral issues are really metaphysical: what is the human person and their place in the scheme of things? Among educated Europeans, exploration of that question is called philosophical anthropology, to be distinguished from the social science of the same name, which latter is how the term is typically understood in English-speaking countries. Again from a Western perspective, only two basic sets of answers are really in play: the theistic and the secular. The former is in eclipse in Western Europe even as it is still the default position among Americans. But the supervenient moral questions are still controversial. Indeed, they define the clash between what John Paul the Great called "the culture of life" and "the culture of death."

Consider this passage from The Conservative Philosopher:

There is a tendency in recent philosophy to assume that moral reasoning can be carried on more or less in isolation from controversial issues in metaphysics. The assumption is that questions about justice, rights, virtue, and vice can largely be settled independently of questions about, say, the nature of the mind and its relationship to the body, personal identity, or even the existence of God. Liberalism encourages this attitude, since it seeks a conception of justice that is “neutral” between competing religious and philosophical worldviews, and thus assumes that such a conception is out there waiting to be found. The motive for such a view is obvious: metaphysical questions are often so contentious and difficult to settle that it would be nice if we could get on in our practical affairs without having to settle them. It would be nice, that is to say, if we could decide what to believe about matters of right and wrong without having to decide what to believe about questions concerning the nature of ultimate reality.

There is one problem with the view, however: it is manifestly false. Indeed, it is so blindingly obvious that it is false that it is a marvel that anyone takes it seriously.

Consider the controversies over abortion and euthanasia. If you take a broadly Lockean view of personal identity, you are likely to hold that what is essential to being a person is the having of a fairly rich stream of conscious experiences linked by memory and other psychological factors; and if you follow most contemporary philosophers in the ways in which they would amend Locke's own account, you are likely to add that the having of various desires, preferences, and the like, and the capacity to make rational plans on the basis of those desires and preferences, are also crucial. In that case, though, you are likely at least to take seriously the suggestion that fetuses and people like Terri Schiavo do not count as "persons" and thus lack a right to life.

On the other hand, if you take a broadly Aristotelian-Thomistic view of personal identity, you are going to regard a human person as a composite of soul and body, where 'soul' means, not the mysterious gassy, ghostly sort of thing most secularists assume religious people mean when they talk about the soul, but rather the form of a living body, in Aristotle's technical sense of the term 'form'. The soul-body relationship, that is to say, is on this view just an instance of the general form-matter relationship common throughout the natural world. Now, since on this sort of view—which is, incidentally, based entirely on philosophical arguments, and not on an appeal to "faith" or revelation—anything that counts as a living human individual must, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, have a human soul (that is, the form of a living human body), it follows that there is no mystery about when the soul enters the body: it is present from the moment the body itself comes into existence. And if you add to this considerations drawn from modern biology, it is at the very least plausible (indeed, many contemporary Thomists would argue, certain) that that body comes into being at conception. It would follow, then, that the human person comes into being at conception and thus has the right to life from conception—and continues to have that right (at least if he or she is innocent of any grave offense that would constitute a forfeiture of that right) until natural death, since while the body is alive the soul is necessarily present, and thus a person is necessarily present. On this sort of view, it is an error to say that fetuses are only potentially persons; rather, they are persons who have not realized their potentials. It is also an error to say that Terri Schiavo, people in comas, and the like have lost their status as persons; rather, they are persons who have lost their ability to carry out their normal functions.

Now the point isn't to try to settle here the dispute between such competing views. It is rather to point out that it is obvious that this difference in metaphysical views entails a radical difference in attitudes about fundamental moral and political questions. The difference runs so deep that there is no way that adherents of the rival views could possibly come to any agreement about how to deal with the contentious moral and political issues in question without one of them abandoning his metaphysical position.

I said the same thing when I taught ethics years ago and usually convinced my students of it. The same goes for embryonic stem-cell research and the cloning of human beings, when the latter becomes truly feasible. I called the account of personhood militating against abortion and euthanasia the substantialist account, and the opposite the functionalist account.

That distinction explains something that I observed a generation ago and used to puzzle me: animal-rights activists often favor abortion-on-demand. They are functionalists, which means that what they consider morally significant is not what something or somebody is but rather what level of functioning the entity in question exhibits. A well-functioning adult lemur monkey is thus of greater moral worth than even a fairly well-developed human fetus. That is why a philosopher such as Peter Singer of Princeton has no qualms about infanticide but would be outraged if anybody suggested his dog be sold to the Chinese for meat.

But of course the issues are much wider than that. Indeed the future of our civilization depends on how we deal with them collectively. Theists generally maintain that morality depends on what we are as creatures of God; secularists, on the relative value of this or that sort of life from a human viewpoint. Indeed, secularists are generally moral relativists: what's right and wrong is a function not of the divine will as expressed in the nature of the human person and their place in God's scheme, but of a given life's relative fitness or lack thereof for attaining such ends as this or that collectivity of people happen to have. Scientific anthropologists, like most academicians, are typically secularist and relativistic. Philosophical anthropologists, by contrast, toe no party line; but they all see that the question of man is philosophical and religious, so that it cannot be effectively answered by natural science. The debate between the culture of death and the culture of life is really about such questions. Epigramatically, it's a debate between those who do, and those who do not, think there's a vital distinction between what's worthwhile period and immutably and what's worthwhile to us at some places and times but not others. Only our comfortable and already relativistic élites can pretend that the debate is ultimately about anything else.

I sometimes think it's natural for them to so pretend. Predicating social and political arrangements on answers to metaphysical and even theological questions would upset too many applecarts. That's why they prefer to deal with the most contentious issues without such answers. But that, at bottom, is the same problem I described on Halloween. The culture of death may end up killing us out of the sheer sloth of our best and brightest.
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