Monday, December 8, 2008

To Be Distinctly Human

I was intrigued at the path the debate in class took last Thursday. It would seem that a distinctly Human trait would be something that, if not easy to find, would at least be easy enough to agree on. This was not the case, as we had a solid block of time dedicated to merely deciphering the points of the sides of the argument. On the one hand, some believe that life, in and of itself, is the most fundamental thing that allows an individual to be human. On the other side, some believed that freedom is the distinctly human trait which, if removed, would diminish one's humanity.

What is distinctly human about life? Are we any more alive than the plants and animals that inhabit the world around us? Or is it possible that they are, in some way, functional and yet not “living” in the sense that humans are? The technical definition of life is “A condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects.” The specific signs of life are threefold: growth through metabolism, reproduction, and adaptation to one’s environment. Surely humans cannot be unique because we are alive, so there must be something special about how we live that sets us apart from the rest of the organisms on this spacious blue planet. What could this intangible quality be?

Humans are obviously very different from other forms of life on the planet. We wage war, we have sex, and even end our very existences whenever we deem it appropriate. So what dictates human action and motivates us to do the things that we do? It must be freedom, or something like it. Some of the worst punishments imaginable to us involve bondage, imprisonment, and death; all of which are limitations of our freedom. These punishments are most despicable because they take away the very thing that we need to be human; freedom.

Some may say that in order to be free one must be living, however it is not life in and of itself that gives us any measure of freedom or satisfaction. Truly there are situations (such as a prolonged coma or lifelong slavery) in which a person would rather exert their freedom to end their own existence than continue on in a manner where their situation is limited. In the context of life, human’s cognizance of their truly wretched conditions can be enough to compel us to end the suffering. This is even extended by us to the animal kingdom in the form of putting animals to sleep as a form of consolation should their ailments become too great. What would humans be without freedom? We would be yet another simple life form on this planet with basic instincts and a very rudimentary awareness of their surroundings, but without ambitions, inspirations, or a unique drive to understand that which is beyond the limits of our reason. Also, we wouldn’t have as much sex.


claire said...

I would think that if anything at all counts as the essence of humanity, freedom is pretty close.

To go off on a vaguely relevant nerdy tangent, I'd say freedom (or possibly merely the illusion of it) requires only consciousness and some sort of intelligence- so it's possible for non-humans to be "human" (metaphorically speaking) as well.
Like (hypothetical) aliens!

Colin said...

I agree. However alot of the traits that we consider to be anthropomorphic are just manifestations of a free will that we give to animals or non human beings.

smiga said...

Im having trouble characterizing freedom as "distinctly a human trait", because wild animals are free. Wild animals fight and have sex just as we do. So is it the definition of freedom that sets us apart?

Omair Khattak said...

I think that in A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess hits the nail on its head in writing that "When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man." Speaking to Dev's statement in class on Thursday, i agree that the "essence" of a human is best explained by the faculty of free will. I also agree that this that it is an absolutely polar relationship to inhumanity; that freedom is an on or off switch, and when freedom is off, freedom goes, and with it, so goes the humanity of the (now) object.

Since you brought up sex, would S&M fetish be considered a breach of humanity? As I understand it, through select accounts from friends and episodes of House, on one end the act of sex is that of becomes that of a struggle undermined by trust; the partners engaged in the act only go so far as their partner(s) willingly concede. But then there is also the Eurotrip bondage club fetish side of things where morality goes off the deep end.

So i suppose penetration without consent is indisputably inhumane but what about the first case; what about when the goal is to reproduce through otherwise less conventional means, abusive means? Is this consensual lapse of humanity into bouts of aggression? Or it, plainly put, inhumane?

Because, if it is indeed inhumane, I'm taking the next girl that's out for blood to the Hague!

I'm just kidding, though. I'll take it any way I can get it.

Just kidding.

Joy Henary said...

I was actually thinking the same thing as George while I was reading this. Animals do have sex and carry out certain actions as do humans, some more than others. I do agree with the principle that freedom qualifies a human more so than just an actual beating heart and lungs being filled with air. But this freedom must be something more than simple ability to roam like animals. So what actually separates from the beasts of the field and birds in the sky? We discussed this a great deal in class, but is this freedom that makes us "human" just the ability to voice our opinions and ideas or is it something deeper? Is freedom something that actually allows us to progress rather than be held down by chains of the past in the same mind of thought?

Richard Phillips said...

I think in class we jumped to freedom as the essence of humanity rather quickly. Don't get me wrong, I do think its a good essence. But it seems to me we could add more. The classical definition of humans as rational thinkers has its merits. It tends to get pushed aside because it was so widely abused. But I'd like to throw out there that we can say that humanity is essentially free and rational. We don't make our free choices based on coin flips. I tend to agree with Aristotle that choosing implies a sort of reasoning.

I think adding rationality does eliminate the problem of distinguishing us from other animals. Animals are free to choose some things. My dog freely chooses where she sleeps and when she eats. I assume its a free choice because I imagine she could choose otherwise, she could sleep somewhere else or eat at a different time.

However, she isn't rational. My dog has no sense of ethics, no understanding of mathematics, in fact, she's probably not even self aware. And that's where we truly differ from animals.

MVP said...

I agree with Richard's clarification of freedom by adding the rationality clause. From what we know, animals aren't rational actors. They are incapable of self reflection. Unless there's some secret library that the animal kingdom uses that we don't have access to. That would be sch-weet. Regardless, I understand that life is not anything distinctly human in and of itself, but I feel like there is something intangible to be said or accounted for in the very presence of life in our bodies. I suppose what bothered me in class was the idea of restricting every possible freedom except for the mind and the heart as a way to take away our humanity. I feel like this brings us close to the limit of what may define humans, at least politically, but at the end of the day it is the life that is required to have that "cogito ergo sum." So when we restrict all freedoms except that which is required to live, is that not proving that the first essence of a human is life, and everything else comes after? I am more than willing to concede defeat if someone can explain to me why the first essence of a human (and yes, I suppose we are disregarding Sartre and existentialism for the sake of the argument, unless you desire to prove it existentially) is freedom.

Cause in my eyes, it's still "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Please don't dismiss this as just a rhetorical device- I feel like I've brought enough to the table that represents a coherent argument and I would very much desire a strong response in return.

Also: I don't feel the reasoning provided by "restrict everything except my body and mind and I'd rather I be dead" is sound enough unless you want to make a case for pain as the essence of humans, something far too convoluted and contradictory to elucidate upon any further.


Dev Varma said...

I feel that when we (by we, I mean we Existentialists) use the term freedom, we don't simply mean a lack of determinism. What we mean by freedom is man's ability to consciously (or should I say conscientiously) choose our actions and (as I commented on Jesse's Homewrecking blog) our motivations for those actions. Because really determinism cannot truly be escaped. Someone can always make the brain in a vat argument (which is trite, I know, but the illusion can sometimes seem inescapable).

Colin said...

Ah, a point of clarification. Aside from the bonobos monkey, we are the only animals that FREELY choose to have sex. Also, we are the only animals who FREELY wage war on one another.

Colin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin said...

Also, I would disagree with Richard's point, people often times DO NOT act rationally, it is - as Dostoevsky precisely puts it - our most "advantageous advantage." Humans can actively choose to act in an irrational way or in a way that is not conducive to our personal self-interest (ie generosity).

Richard Phillips said...

I would actually say that humans don't act irrationally. When we err, or act against our self interest it is because of an error in judgment, not an error in our reason. Or in the case of generosity, it is because we see some good greater than our own self interest.

And if someone does act genuinely irrational I would say that there is something inhuman about it.

Colin said...

Then by your own standard, the mentally ill are not humans. There is no definitive way for you to tell if someone has an error in their judgment as opposed to reasoning. If people were always rational then the world would have very limited freedom, and people would only act in a rational way that could be predicted, hence undermining the argument that people are free at all.

John Duncan said...

“Humans are obviously very different from other forms of life on the planet. We wage war, we have sex, and even end our very existences whenever we deem it appropriate.”

I will agree that suicide, or even self-inflicted pain, seems to be uniquely human – but sex and war are definitely not. I get your point though. I had not really considered this angle of the argument for some reason while we were discussing this in class. My argument was that life is the only thing that if taken away makes us non-humans. I had not thought about the fact that life in itself is not a uniquely human trait either (despite how simple of a concept as that is.)

Despite that, I am not sure that I can buy that freedom is a trait which, when taken away, makes us nonhumans. I don't feel that a prisoner is a nonhuman. Sadly, I obviously have no idea what a uniquely human trait would be.

Maybe Duncan MacDougall's tests proved what he thought they did and humans have a soul. Maybe, as he said, we have souls and other animals don't. Either way, saying that being free is either uniquely human or an intrinsic part of being human does not really sit well with me.

MVP said...

Just a small aside- War is a distinct human construct- no other species, save for perhaps ants, wages war. Even then, it is limited in scope in comparison to the wars that humans wage against each other. As for sex, that's more vague.

Regardless, I must concur with the notion that simple loss of freedom does not make us less human. Such qualitative properties are, in my opinion, flawed.

John Duncan said...

Are you arguing semantics? Animals clearly fight over their 'turf'. Look at Beta fish or at wolves, or a million others. It seems to be true especially in the case of wolves because they even team up together to protect their territory.

Am I missing something here? How would you define 'war' because I've been researching it a bit tonight and cannot find any solid evidence that war is uniquely human. I know it is human defined (like all other words...) but I am pretty sure that violence is a human construct.

MVP said...

Right, they fight over territory, but that is not a "war" per se. Kenneth Anderson's abstract from his TImes literary supplement states "His conclusion is that although both ants and humans engage in warfare, and although ants do so as a genetic adaptation, war among human beings is a cultural adaptation (and a late one at that) to ecological conditions of resource scarcity."

Anyway, yes, in a sense I am arguing semantics, but it was to elaborate upon the cultural significance of war.

I am assuming you meant violence is NOT a human construct.

Bit of a tricky subject still, but less vague than Colin's "sex for fun" point. I think what Colin is trying to distinguish, both in love and war (hah, what a line), is the difference between genetics and culture.

Octo-hobo said...

Back to the S&M comment, I would just like to point out that these practices do not make someone any less human. These are consensual acts and the Eurotrip thing is a rarity in our world.

It may be a cultural divide, but to practitioners it is not considered abusive or aggressive - it is passionate and is dependent on trust. I assume you all have your own fetishes that could also be considered unnatural or even disgusting to an outsider, but it's what makes you happy. Think existentialist; it's your own damn morality so what the hell does it matter.

Sorry for the tangent. And if anyone else wants to take someone to the Hague, can I film that? Ha.