August 11th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Doctor-patient privilege dies with My Health Record

EDITORIAL By-elections reflect disenchantment with major parties

CANBERRA OBSERVED Longman result may force PM to rethink policies

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS No question about it: the Don is in charge

ENERGY Lower electricity price a fantasy

EUTHANASIA Vulnerable will be victims of Leyonhjelm's deadly bill

LITERARY STUFF Atlas Mugged

PHILOSOPHY On human nature

CULTURE AND SOCIETY The shadow of that hyddeous strength

FICTION A Scent of Musk

MUSIC Globalised Music

CINEMA The Equalizer 2

BOOK REVIEW ADF as modern peacekeepers

BOOK REVIEW The men who built up a great tradition

LETTERS

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PHILOSOPHY
On human nature


by Brian Coman

News Weekly, August 11, 2018

One of the most remarkable things about the current cluster of debates concerning moral and social issues – the status of marriage, gender identity, euthanasia, and so on – is the rapidity with which they have risen not just into public prominence but also to an assumed legitimacy as matters very much open to debate.

In fact, many such issues have moved beyond the realm of debate and anyone who now questions the legitimacy of the current consensus is ruthlessly put down. They are dictates to be obeyed from an all-powerful state. What in the recent past seemed beyond argument in one direction, is now beyond argument in the opposite direction. How did this all come about so quickly?

One answer frequently given has to do with a decline in religious belief. But this, I think, is not sufficient to explain the phenomenon.

In the first instance, the rate of decline in religious belief is hardly consistent with the rapidity of the attitudinal changes in question. Moreover, the moral issues involved have not been the exclusive province of religious belief. Since the 18th century at least, the secular state has operated with a secular moral philosophy whose view on marriage, euthanasia and many other of today’s contested moral issues was broadly similar to that of traditional religious believers. As Christopher Dawson has correctly pointed out in his masterly analysis (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture), our secular age in the West has, whether consciously or unconsciously, inherited much of its moral framework from the era of Christendom in Europe.

And so, I think we must look elsewhere to find an explanation for this new phenomenon – this rapid change that comes close to a complete inversion of the traditional moral order. Now, it is the case that new ideas never arise ex nihilo as it were. They are, in a sense, like Aristotelian potentialities that are inherent in the nature of things. There is always some underlying philosophical idea or philosophical climate that allows them to germinate and grow – to become actualities.

One such modern idea is the notion of the fluidity of human nature itself. I include here, under the term “human nature” both biological and psychological aspects. Since the time of ancient Greece, it was always assumed that human nature comprised a set of characteristics that, although they might express themselves to varying degrees in different individuals, were, nonetheless, a constant set of potentialities. When Socrates famously maintained that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, he naturally assumed such an examination would be applicable to all humans, not just to himself. In other words, there were immutable standards against which the question of worth could be assessed. Importantly, such potentialities operated within defined limits.

And again, before the time of Christ, Roman playwright Terence famously said “I am human; nothing human is alien to me”. This traditional notion, to use a well-known formulation of Vincent of Lerins (5th century AD), was “believed always and everywhere by everyone”.

Upon reflection, such a view was, and still is, necessary for any permanent application of an ethical order to human behaviour. We are still wont to say, upon hearing of someone’s misdeeds, errors or shortcomings, “ah well, that’s human nature for you”. In other words, we have some preconceived idea of what constitutes human nature, even when considering its shortfalls.

Upon further reflection, the constancy of human nature is an absolute requirement for religious belief – certainly in the case of the three Abrahamic religions where Divine Revelation enters human history and sets out a plan for the proper conduct of a human life. It could not be otherwise. If human nature changes over time, the very Decalogue itself becomes like a modern university exam paper: “There are 10 topics, attempt any four” (or, perhaps more aptly, ‘choose a topic of your own choice”).

If our human natures have changed over time, then any historical account of what constitutes acceptable human behaviour must also change. Suddenly, all human behaviour is relativised. There are no moral absolutes.

The other victim in this new conception of the human is history itself. One reason that Plato’s account of the death of Socrates still moves us so much today is that we can directly relate to his position and choice. We can, so to speak, inhabit his mind some two and a half thousand years later.

Great historian G.M. Trevelyan most eloquently outlined our link to the past in this way in his autobiography:

“I take delight in history, even its most prosaic details, because they become poetical as they recede into the past. The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like a ghost at cockcrow. This is the most familiar and certain fact about life, but it is also the most poetical, and knowledge of it has never ceased to entrance me, and to throw a halo of poetry round the dustiest record that Dryasdust can bring to light.”

But the assumption that we can, within a wholly secular setting, change human nature to our purposes is a very popular idea today. In 2011, Stephen Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist, published The Better Angels of our Nature. We humans, he claims, are becoming much more peaceful as a species. In other words, our very nature is changing.

His book was widely praised and, in 2013, he was invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. The idea is, perhaps, that the human social order, very much like a biological organism, learns from its mistakes and adapts accordingly. So then, doing your own thing is a very healthy enterprise indeed, for it supplies that variety so necessary for continued change, such change always being viewed as progress.

Lest the reader here think I am drawing somewhat of a long bow, I direct him or her to a popular book, published in 2000 by that well known evolutionary biologist, Paul Ehrlich, and entitled Human Natures. The plural here is especially important because Ehrlich maintains that human cultures throw up an assortment of human natures, such that natural selection operates at a social not a genetic level.

Readers probably do not need to be reminded that this same “expert” predicted that global overpopulation, dire shortages of food and oil, and so on would occur long before the year 2000.

Allied to this belief in our ability to “design” human nature, as it were, is an all-out attack on what I will simply call “Tradition” – a set of principles designed to enrich human life. In recent times our local university, here in Bendigo where I live, produced a large advertisement that adorned our city buses and read “La Trobe University – Proudly Untraditional”.

At about the same time the University of Sydney ran advertisements which extolled the virtues of “unlearning” – that is to say, of ditching all of the hard-won principles and achievements of what used to be called Western civilisation. We must, among other things, “unlearn the truth”. A backgrounder for this ad (I found it on the university website) suggested the need “to be brave enough to question the world, challenge the established, demolish social norms and build new ones in their place”.

In this last quote, you should take particular note of the suggested need to “demolish social norms”. In fact, our traditional concept of human nature consisted exactly of such social norms. Note, too, the supposition that we can build new ones – a new conception of what it means to be a human being. This is Nietzsche on steroids.

The other observation to make concerning this all-out attack on “Tradition”, as I have indicated above, is an assumed equivalence in the use of the words “change” and “progress”. All change is regarded as progress. I remember, from my days as a public servant, being advised, by the then minister for our department, to “embrace change”. It was, at the time, a conceptual difficulty for me. I could readily imagine embracing my wife, but not a change.

The idea that change could be retrograde seemed not to enter the minds of our masters at that time. In any case, “progress” is an ideology, not a sort of given evolutionary trend in history.

Mind you, in the popular imagination, the idea of human social evolution gained a good deal of traction with the publication of bestsellers by the likes of E.O. Wilson and his fellow Darwinian fundamentalists. Indeed, the idea of a human psyche “evolving” towards some “omega point” was the philosophy and theology espoused by Jesuit scientist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who still has some followers today.

Those who know their evolutionary theory will, of course, point out that evolution is a two-way street and the Dodo was an unfortunate example of “progress” in the other direction.

But perhaps it is a belief not so much in the perfectibility of man, but rather in the perfectibility of techniques for managing “the crooked timber of humanity” – psychological counselling, education in “living skills”, drug therapies and, of course, direct medical intervention (as in the case of sex-change operations).

Indeed. it is worth noting that a good many of the attacks upon the traditional social order have been facilitated by advances in technology – in vitro fertilisation, embryo transplants, hormonal treatments, abortifacients and so on.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago, the supposed human “conquest over nature” turns out to be a conquest by some humans over other humans using nature as the instrument. It has now gone a step further because it is increasingly obvious that both technology and that other modern entity, “the market”, have essentially attained a life of their own. We no longer “master” them; they control us.

Each night, the television news bulletins comment on the health of the market and nervous investors are entirely at its mercy. “Big data” dictates that you must upgrade your computer every few years, even though you have no wish to do so. In our town, elderly pensioners are told that they must upgrade their telephone to the NBN, even though they have absolutely no need for any of its supposed superior benefits.

So, this is freedom?

No-one can know how the future will unfold but, to anyone who believes that history does have lessons for us, it strongly suggests that the present trajectory with its exponential rate of social change cannot lead to any sort of sustainable human society. Our best hope is to continue to oppose that which we believe to be socially, politically and morally wrong, and foster, as best we can, the sort of education of our children and grandchildren that will best arm them to rebuild a proper and enduring sense of what it means to be a human being.

No doubt, we shall meet with increasing oppression by the apparatus of state. We might take heart, though, by recalling the response of Dr Johnston, when he was threatened (in this case, with actual bodily harm) by one of his contemporaries: “I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.”




























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