So What's Wrong with Humanism Anyway?


I feel like a humanist fellow traveller because I am quite obviously some sort of humanist. Many who call themselves “humanists” support ethical positions I sign up to. A slack religious schooling has left me with a distaste for sublimated theocrats who attack secularism on grounds of cultural autonomy. The slick misanthropy of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is a turn off.  I think those in the ecology movement who believe biomass is worth dying for should act on their principles.

The default humanism that I’ve owned is (something like) a claim for the singularity and intrinsic value of human life. As John Appleby observes in his 2010 piece for the New Humanist “Man & Other Beasts”, this is defensible anthropocentrism. If humans have distinctive moral capacities like biographical self-awareness and autonomy they have a claim to special treatment:

One of the grounding principles of humanism, agreed upon by both its supporters and detractors, is some form of anthropocentrism. However, anthropocentrism is not the same thing as speciesism and while the latter may well be ethically dubious, it is not at all clear that the former is necessarily so. For example, if her apartment block was on fire, who would Donna Haraway rescue first: her dog or her neighbour’s baby? From a humanist perspective, the answer seems obvious. Yet posthumanism and some branches of animal studies would seem to advocate the dog and you don’t have to be a Kantian to find that grotesque.

Speciesism is wrong for the reasons that racism and heterosexism are wrong. They refuse the protection and recognition due to those possessing capacities like autonomy and self-awareness on morally irrelevant grounds like skin colour or sexual preference. Discriminating in favour of the baby is not arbitrary. A human baby has a claim that the dog (for all its moral or cognitive virtues) lacks because it has a distinctive capacity to acquire distinctive moral capacities.

So is my so-called posthumanism pusillanimous or just horribly conflicted?

It is preeminently “speculative” rather than “critical” (or so I’ve claimed); focused on the contingency and limits of the human rather than its philosophical integument. Still, there are certain variants of anthropocentrism to which it is opposed.

To sort these out it’s necessary to do some distinction mongering. We can refer to the claim that humans are morally distinctive entities as “Simple Humanism” (SH). Simple Humanism (SH) distinguishes in kind between humans and nonhumans by ascribing separate capacities or values. The worst accusation that can be leveled at SH is that it attributes falsely. If it turns out that protists feel pain, joy and humiliation or exercise autonomy, current programs for the eradication of Malaria will need to be re-evaluated.

The second-worst accusation one can level at SH is incompleteness. Perhaps there are capacities of equal or greater weight than autonomy or self-awareness that humans downgrade or lack but which actual or possible nonhumans such as Meillassoux’s inexistent God or Charlie Stross’ Jupiter-sized Brains might possess. In The Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle argues that contemplation of eternal truths is a higher good than the exercise of practical reason and, while humanly attainable, is characteristically divine rather than  human. So Aristotle counts as a Simple Humanist but one who hedges his anthropocentrism in important and defensible ways.

The humanisms that provide the critical target of modern posthumanisms and their precursory anti-humanisms tend to be inheritors of Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. Kant explained the possibility of a priori knowledge by proposing that human minds construct or constitute the world rather than passively represent it. Kant does not just distinguish humans and nonhumans but makes the distinction central to his theory of objectivity and value. The most entrenched versions of this modern anthropocentrism are Instrumentalism and Transcendental Humanism (TH) which assert that the agency or being of nonhumans asymmetrically depend (a-depend) on that of humans:

  • Instrumentalism claims that only humans or persons are authentic actors while the agency of nonhumans like animals or tools is constructed by or derived from the agency of humans.
  • TH claims that the objectivity or being of nonhumans a-depends on humans.

Both positions are clearly defensible. In Philosophy of Technology instrumentalism (tool function a-depends on tool use) is the one that all critical theories of technology have to flog; and those (like Brandom and Davidson) who think that intentionality is “an essentially linguistic affair” ought to be instrumentalists about the putative intentionality of nonhumans.

Likewise, TH is extraordinarily well placed to legitimate a critical function for Philosophy because it can found its methodology on mooted invariants of human rationality or experience.

However, both place humans (or persons) in the position of “transcendental organizers”: implying a fundamental dualism, which defies natural or historical explanation – an accusation leveled at proponents of human exceptionalism by thinkers as otherwise disparate as Latour, Dennett and Delanda.

They are ethically problematic to the extent that they discount modes of being, affect or agency that are not paradigmatically human or wholly inhuman.  Simple Humanism on the other hand merely asserts human distinctiveness and intrinsic worth rather than any constitutive role for human rationality or phenomenology in delineating the differences and values of others.  It is entirely compatible with recognizing the distinctiveness and intrinsic worth of nonhumans. Thus it is possible for a philosopher to be a rigorous posthumanist, a simple humanist, and not a wuss.


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