Newsletter: June 2023

[Note: I post my monthly newsletters to the blog with a one month delay. If you’d like to get them when they’re first shared, join my mailing list.]

Hello everyone, and welcome to the month of June!

I’m back in my home city of Vancouver after having spent January to April teaching at Deep Springs College in California. The mountain desert landscape was stunning but it’s nice to get reacquainted with the smell of the sea and the greens, blues, and greys of this temperate rainforest ecosystem.

Talks and Workshops

I arrived back in Vancouver in time to give a keynote address to the British Columbia Prosecution Service’s annual Crown Counsel Conference. I invited the audience to think with me about how their professional identity gave expression to their underlying values.

And toward the end of the month, I discussed Effective Altruism with the CFA Society of Vancouver. We asked whether and how we might draw any principled limit to how much we owe to others, and how we should think about charitable giving. I made a video lecture ahead of the meeting, which you can view on YouTube.

If you’re connected to an organization that might benefit from a talk or workshop on some philosophical topic, let me know!

Writing and Learning

Talks aside, I’ve committed the bulk of my summer to writing and I look forward to delving into a book project before resuming teaching this autumn. I’m also giving some time over to shorter bits of writing, like a recent blog post offering a primer on French existentialism. I plan to write a companion piece about existentialism more broadly construed later this summer.

If you’d like to study some philosophy on your own, I invite you to consider my self-guided course, An Introduction to Philosophy in Ten Dangerous Ideas. I give a brief overview of the course in this introductory video.

Happy Hour!

To keep the community connected while I’m on a teaching hiatus, I’m holding a monthly “happy hour” where people can gather and discuss some philosophical topic. We had our first happy hour on May 25th. Old and new friends (re-)connected and we discussed a proposal to lower the voting age to six.

I sent an invitation to anyone who’d enrolled in a course with me in the last year and a half. If you didn’t receive that invitation but would like to join future happy hours—no fee, no prior class experience necessary—just let me know by replying to this email and I’ll add you to the mailing list. 

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On my journey back to Vancouver, I visited some of the oldest trees in the world and some of the tallest trees in the world. California is a remarkable state.

So what is this book project I’m allegedly working on over the summer? When people ask, I usually say something vague, like “It’s about humans and animals.” In this month’s mini-essay, I’ll offer a more substantial answer.

There’s a fundamental tension in our understanding of human nature. We’re luminous beings, children of God, blessed with intelligence, bearers of rights and dignity, subjects of the law. We’re also hairless apes, the product of evolutionary pressures, compounds of organic molecules, compost-in-waiting. We’re more than just animals. We’re nothing but animals.

Another way of putting the point is to say that we’re monsters. A monster is an amalgam of different creatures. The minotaur is the offspring of an unnatural coupling between a woman and a bull. The sphinx is part woman, part lion, and part bird. Werewolves and other lycanthropes shift shape between human and animal forms. Zombies have a single human form but that form is at once alive and dead.

By this standard, we’re monsters too: part animal, part more-than-animal. We’re not very good at handling this tension.

Monsters are aberrations from the natural order. They inspire horror more than terror. Terror is what we feel when our bodily integrity is threatened. An encounter with a bear in the woods or a mugger in the city inspires terror. Horror is a response to a deeper menace. Monsters threaten not just our bodily integrity but, if I can use the phrase, our spiritual integrity. They bring together elements that should be kept apart and so threaten our sense of the orderliness of the world. If the world has such creatures in it, what sense can we hope to make of it?

It’s not nice to think of yourself as a monster. There’s a strong tendency to want to harmonize the monstrous jumbling of categories in our self-understanding. To say either that humans are radically distinct from all other animals or that they’re nothing but animals. Both of these approaches have problems.

Historically, the preferred strategy has been to lean into the more-than-animal side of things. To the ancient Greeks, our animal bodies are adorned with rational souls and this prized rationality elevates us above the other beasts—and the barbarian races. Christian theology styles us as immortal souls imprisoned in animal bodies and awaiting our final release. This theological legacy informs the secular present. Future-facing transhumanists look forward to a time when we can upload our consciousness to the cloud and live forever. As much as they style themselves as hard-headed rationalists, they’re essentially recapitulating the Christian aspiration to be liberated from the bonds of the flesh.

The idea that humans are different from and better than other animals has saddled us with a twofold legacy. First, it’s propagated a degraded image of the human body. Plato warns of the “beast within” that emerges if we allow ourselves to succumb to our bodily desires. We’ve inherited a long tradition that construes sexual desire and bodily appetites as dangerous if not downright sinful. And second, if our bodily natures are contemptible and animals are all body and no soul, then animals come in for a heavy dose of contempt. You see this contempt in the brutality of factory farming. You also see it written into our language. Witness the casual use of names for animals (swine, chicken, slug, bitch) to express contempt for our fellow humans.

Not everyone insists that humans are different from and better than other animals. A trendy modern alternative maintains that we’re nothing but animals. This anti-humanist alternative takes two primary forms.

The first comes with a heavy dose of scientific essentialism. This line of thinking proceeds from the thought that biology and the other natural sciences reveal to us what we “really” are, unclouded by the prejudices of culture—conveniently ignoring the fact that science, and the high prestige accorded to it, is itself a product of human culture. The debunking swagger in the claim that we’re “nothing but” animals doesn’t really dent the contempt for animals I mentioned a moment ago. To say that we’re nothing but animals brings us down to the level of other animals, but it doesn’t challenge the idea that the proper place for animals is indeed a level down.

A second way of insisting that humans are no different from other animals takes an ecological route. If we seem different from other animals, that’s evidence of a corruption that contrasts with the purity of the natural world. You find this idea already in the Myth of the Fall in the third book of Genesis, but it reappears in a variety of modern guises, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s story of the “noble savage” to the rhetoric of modern environmentalism. According to this view, we’ve fallen away from an originary connection to nature. Our true nature is animal nature, if only we could realize it and accept it. Animals represent not a dingy past that we’ve progressed beyond but an integration with the natural world from which we’ve exiled ourselves.

The contempt in this way of thinking isn’t directed toward other animals but toward humans. We’re the ugly brutes plundering and despoiling pristine nature. In its more extreme forms, this contempt openly looks forward to the diminution or extinction of the human race. There’s at least consistency in this view. With a world population recently surpassing eight billion, we can’t expect to return to an ecological Eden. A world with that many human beings is one in which we have to find a way of accommodating a post-Edenic way of life.

We’re more than just animals. We’re nothing but animals. I think there are philosophical problems with the variations on the stances I’ve just sketched. More important, though, are the attitudes motivating these stances. These stances toward human nature and animal nature are shot through with a mixture of shame, contempt, resentment, and arrogance. These attitudes stem from an underlying discomfort with our hybrid nature. It’s precisely when we try not to see ourselves as monsters that we conjure up an ugly self-image.

My aim in the book is to look at that hybrid nature squarely and without discomfort. I think it’s a mistake to try to resolve the tension in our self-understanding, whether in the “more than animals” direction or in the “nothing but animals” direction. Learning to examine our monstrous nature can help us to accommodate it, to learn to live with it, even to love it. Surely we can find a more affirmative set of postures than that mixture of shame, contempt, resentment, and arrogance that I sketched above. 

Nine things I learned in May
  1. The expression “laissez-faire” may have its origins in China. One plausible etymology has it that French observers of the Chinese imperial court thought (wrongly) that Chinese court officials operated with considerable autonomy. They were, as the French phrase suggests, allowed to do as they saw fit. (source)
  2. India just passed China to become the most populous country in the world. (source)
  3. It takes 3.2 gallons (12.1 L) of water to produce a single almond. (source)
  4. The first typescript delivered for publication in the United States was by Mark Twain, an enthusiastic early adopter of the typewriter. The typescript was his Life on the Mississippi. (source)
  5. The word “hello,” used as a greeting, is of fairly recent vintage and came to prominent use only with the invention of the telephone. (source)
  6. There’s a fifty square mile portion of Yellowstone Park in Idaho that’s colloquially known as the “Zone of Death” because, due to a legal loophole, a person who committed a crime there can’t be tried by a jury and so could literally get away with murder. So far this has only happened in fiction. (source)
  7. The Nike slogan “Just Do It” was inspired by the last words of a death row inmate. (source)
  8. Concrete is the second-most consumed substance in the world after water. Each year, three tonnes of concrete get poured for every person on the planet. The production of cement, the crucial ingredient in concrete, is responsible for 8% of human-made carbon dioxide emissions. (source)
  9. The syrup used to make Coca-Cola is sufficiently flammable that the truck drivers who ship it need a HAZMAT license. (source)

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