April 22nd 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The populist wedge: political disaffection comes to Australia

EDITORIAL Human Rights Commission needs to start afresh post Professor Triggs

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals' soul searching too painful to publicise

ABORTION Law condones the act as it criminalises the image

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump makes calculated response to Syrian atrocity

CHINA No easy way to reverse malignant one-child policy

FOREIGN AFFAIRS French election may determine Eurozone fate

ECONOMICS The taxing of companies: a clarifying perspective

PHILOSOPHY Rights bereft of obligations: or, Socrates versus the pig

MUSIC Classical colours: Mozart's fusion of opposites

CINEMA Beauty and the Beast: A fairytale of true enchantment

BOOK REVIEW Santamaria: a man against the tide

BOOK REVIEW The teen they would have made queen

Heartening response to readers' survey

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Rights bereft of obligations: or, Socrates versus the pig

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, April 22, 2017

In Homer’s Odyssey, we have an account of Odysseus and his men making landfall on the island of Aeaea, the home of witch-goddess Circe. After drugging most of the sailors, she turns them into pigs. Fortunately for them, Odysseus, with the help of the god Hermes, is able to restore them to their human condition.

Later authors, Plutarch among them, have presented an alternative scenario, where the humans transformed into pigs do not wish to return to their form as humans but are content with their lot. And, of course there is an important philosophical question here. Leaving aside the fact that most pigs are slaughtered for human consumption, why is the life of a human better or more desirable than the life of a pig?

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, right, in his well-known work, Utilitarianism, was adamant that it was better to be an unsatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Now it was particularly important for Mill to establish his thesis because the whole force of the utilitarian argument rests on “the greatest pleasure for the greatest number”. This was the basis for moral choices.

A “piggish” human might very well gain greater pleasure from immersing himself or herself in the “animal senses” than from striving for the higher things in life. Mill argued that because humans were rational animals, both reason and conscience would not allow them to live the life of pigs. In other words, humans could readily see that some types of life were better than others.

Why did Mill pick Socrates as his example of a human life? We know from Plato’s Dialogues that Socrates regarded the life of the mind as hugely superior to the mere animal life of the senses. But why?

Mill does not elaborate, but it is clear that Socrates believed in the immortality of the soul. In the Phaedo, the condemned Socrates goes to great length to establish the immortality of the soul and he further opines that tending to one’s soul is far more important than tending to the body. He speaks out against suicide because he is adamant that we cannot do as we please with our souls – they belong to the gods.

Now, of course, Mill rejected any form of religious argument in his writings on moral philosophy, so his choice of Socrates as the ideal human life is somewhat paradoxical. Without any religious motive, on what specific basis is a life of “lower” pleasures to be rejected? Mill would argue that simply because we employ human reasoning and have something called a conscience, we will automatically reject a lower form of life. But surely, this is just an assertion?

Søren Kierkegaard brought home the subjective nature of the assessment in his famous work, Either Or. What Kierkegaard demonstrates is that the choice between the “higher” and the “lower” life is not the choice between good and bad; rather, it is the choice whether or not to choose in terms of good and bad.

The inadequacy of Mill’s approach is everywhere apparent today. In an age when “equality” is vigorously pursued (as part of Mill’s great liberal dream, one might add), my moral choice is as good as yours. It smacks of elitism to suggest that the Socratic way of life is superior to that of some couch potato who spends his day watching TV shows like Married at First Sight and subsists on take-away and fizzy drinks.

And so, in the name of “equality”, we have seen over the past hundred years or more, but especially in the last decade, a process whereby higher human aspirations are replaced by lower ones. The results, as modern writer Ryszard Legutko points out (The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies), have been enormously destructive of the traditional ideals associated with the term “a good life”:

“The growing vulgarity of form was particularly striking, especially in the last decades, moving away from sophistication and decorum. A liberal-democratic man refused to learn these artificial and awkward arrangements, the usefulness of which seemed to him at first doubtful, and soon – null. He felt he had no time for them, apparently believing that their absence would make life easier and more enjoyable.

“In their place he established new criteria: ease, practicality, usefulness, pleasure, convenience, and immediate gratification, the combination of which turned out to be a deadly weapon against the old social forms. The old customs crumbled, and so did rules of propriety, a sense of decorum, a respect for hierarchy.”

And yet, modern liberals still insist on what they call “the dignity of the human person”. What, precisely, comprises this dignity? Here again, Legutko provides an accurate analysis. As he rightly points out, the traditional notion of the word “dignity” implied certain obligations. One earned dignity by acting in accordance with certain community expectations or by reference to the religious notion of imago Dei – a human as being made in the image of God.


Dignity had to be maintained and tended, lest it be lost or lowered. But, in our era – Legutko believes the change can be traced back to the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – the word dignity took on a new meaning:

“Since the issue of the Universal Declaration dignity has no longer been about obligation, but about claims and entitlements. The new dignity did not oblige people to strive for any moral merits or deserts; it allowed them to submit whatever claims they wished, and to justify these claims by referring to a dignity that they possessed by the mere fact of being born, without any moral achievement or effort.”

Now, of course, the framers of this modern view of dignity give no specific reasons as to why all humans have this dignity. How could they? It is simply asserted. Like comets that drag other material in their wake, this new concept of dignity was eventually accompanied by a whole raft of new “rights”. And that is the situation we find ourselves to be in today.

But how strange that this new dignity is so very selective. There are loud cries for the “right to die” but very few for the “right to live” on behalf of unborn infants. The foetus has no dignity. There are assumed “rights” to gender change and sexual orientation but a distinct absence of any “right” to exercise one’s religious beliefs in the public square.

In short, there is a “right” to just about everything except those traditional notions of what it meant to be a human being and not a pig.

And yet the new “rights” are advanced as proof of our moral superiority over those ages that came before us. Never have we had such faith in the ability of unaided human reason to chart our course into the future. It is a dangerous course. In his Inferno, Dante places Odysseus (Ulysses), with whom I started this short essay, in hell. He is there because of his arrogance or, more accurately, the wrongful use of his intellect. He insists on a second adventure into the unknown, when his proper duty is to stay home.

We moderns think it a bit harsh that Dante should place the hero Odysseus in hell. But the virtues of ancient Greece are not the virtues of Christendom. Humility and self-abnegation trump pride, fame and cunning, and this is the reason for Odysseus’ fall. He condemns himself by his own speech, for he overlooks the real reason why a human life is more worthy than the life of a pig:

Greeks! You were not born to live like brutes,

but to press on toward manhood and recognition!

With this brief exhortation I made my crew

so eager for the voyage I could hardly

have held them back from it when I was through.

Inferno, Canto XXVI

The imagined second voyage of Odysseus and his men ended in disaster for him and all of his sailors. We can only hope that, having left the harbour of Tradition, our own journey into an increasingly uncertain future does not end the same way.

The modern “rights” activists, though, are eager for the voyage.

All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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