One more on universals

I’d intended to leave the question of universals – of nominalism and realism – behind after two posts. But two things have prompted one more look at the subject. The first is a piece by Vincent Torley on Uncommon Descent about Early Darwinists and racism, which coincided with some remarks I made on my first thread. The second is an essay by Stephen J Gould on the historical contingency of human equality.

Gould argues, rightly of course, that the idea of human equality and the biological evidence are in harmony: though equally rightly, he says that the latter does not entail the former. Nevertheless he affirms that, for him, “I cannot imagine a decent world that does not treat the most profoundly retarded person as a full human being in all respects, despite his evident and pervasive limitations.” Does a world in which Downs syndrome and spina bifida are routinely screened and its sufferers aborted count as “decent”? Gould is no longer around to ask.

But he goes on, in characteristic Gouldian “contingency” mode, to point out that human equality is a historical contingency. What would it have meant if Autralopithecines had survived into our times? Would we have exhibited, enslaved, eradicated or shown kindness to them?

Now theologically, as well as biologically, the question is moot: by the providence of God there is now only one race of men on earth, and it’s pointless speculating about what-ifs – except when they can instruct us about what-is, which I think this one can. But let me start by saying that if human equality is historically contingent, so is Gould’s (Marxist) egalitarianism. Within a century or so before Gould, in his own country, other humans were being exhibited, enslaved and eradicated, and whatever the specific justification, the underlying motive was that they were not of the same kind as “us”. It was a question of universals. It would be optimistic to assume that any of us, had we be born in the nineteenth century, would have been exempt from the racism of the time – even showing kindness would not, in all likelihood, have been the kindness shown to an equal. And I am also confident that few of us would have considered we weren’t in a decent world because of it. It is naive and arrogant to assume that today’s highest values will, because they have become beyond question to us, prevail in a century’s time – why, it’s even possible some of them may be considered criminally wrong.

Let me propose a thought experiment slightly different to Gould’s. My fantasy is that, in the wake of the discovery of Homo floriensis bones in Indonesia, we actually came across a small, but thriving, population of them living in the hills. They turn out to be reasonably friendly, intelligent – even able to learn to read. But they also turn out to be a separate branch of the hominin tree, separately descended from Australopithecus and definitely of a distinct species. They can’t interbreed with us …

…. Although in fact, being the enlightened people we are, we don’t try that particular experiment, but decide to abstain from exhibiting, enslaving, eradicating or even patronising them. I know I’ve departed from Gould’s likely outcomes, but this is a fantasy, right? They don’t even, in my story, succumb to nasty infections. Instead, after two-way discussions we accord them true autonomous status as a species, even withdrawing political and legal juristiction from them. The first independent species state is non-paternalistically declared – in fact, they are bright enough to understand the concept and agree to live separately but cordially with H sapiens.

Some interesting discussions then ensue about whether they are eligible for membership of the United Nations, Obamacare and so on – but they decide for themselves that they are the only true people, and that we are bright, but to be classified as “wild beasts”. Nevertheless, some lucrative trade occurs, for they happen to possess rare minerals used in electronics.

Some social interchange occurs too: some of them even gain special scholarships to universities and prove quite capable of gaining PhDs, which they put to good use back home in improving health, developing history and hobbitology and so on. But after awhile, humanity begins to realise they have some odd behavioural differences. For a start, they spurn contraception, but control population by eating small children, which they justify rationally on the grounds that this is when the meat tastes best: and for them, both contraception and abortion have profound ill-effects. Females, too, are treated as chattels, and sold for meat, should their mates die. Worst of all, homosexuality is a capital offence.

Now, my question is whether there are any universals applicable in this situation. Are the “civilised nations” going to boycott or sanction the Hobbits, as they are prone to if Russia, India or Uganda fail to promote gay rights? Are they going to try and teach them better, if morality is a purely human construct, and humanity a purely historical contingency, now shown to have exceptions? Is our set of standards better, if our sole way of judging is that it’s what we happen to have arrived at in 2014? (It is really as random as that, if you consider the current British news story about paedophilia being considered a civil liberties issue by progressives in the 1980s – another thing I’m old enough to remember, since I was criticised as reactionary for opposing the lowering of the age of consent.)

Well, we might decide to live and let live – but what if a PhD student brings his daughter to the USA to eat – in private, of course, so as not to offend our primitive sensibilities? I can imagine some other complications, too. For example, supposing we weren’t talking about H floriensis, but a race of ET humanoids technologically more advanced that us, wishing to settle here? Or suppose instead the Hobbits had a strong sense that we are of the same genus and therefore one flesh, descended (as their legend says) from one primordial couple, from whose scattered line would come a man who would teach them the right way to live? Would we consider them human, or insist on their apartheid?

Well, it gets complicated, doesn’t it – which makes one very glad that there aren’t groups of hominins or aliens wandering around and challenging the status quo – or maybe even challenging our progressiveness by holding to a deeply traditional morality and saying it is a universal truth.

My point is that, but for historical contingency, these issues could be more than hypothetical, and they would involve grappling with the reality, or otherwise, of non-material universals. But as I pointed out above, the very same issues have occurred, and do occur, in real history within the last centuries and even decades. What is man? What is his nature? How then should he live? How should he act towards other men? The great thinkers mostly couldn’t deal with these without grappling with universals too.


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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10 Responses to One more on universals

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Interesting fantasy, Jon; I hope to see some good discussion from this.

    If intelligent aliens from other worlds discover us, how might such interactions occur? Our family has been enjoying a science fiction series called “Babylon 5” which does a deeper and better job (than Trek generally does) imagining society complete with religious, political foibles in a futuristic context exploring similar questions to these that you raise.

    But back on your challenge … I can give examples that aren’t even hypothetical. What about animal cruelty? Missionaries in Haiti are often disturbed to hear the frantic squeals of a live pig being roasted on a spit over a fire. Apparently it tastes better if you let it die slowly while it is being roasted. (Can you imagine PETA on such a scene?) And I don’t imagine such a situation is all that isolated. Does cruelty become okay if the entire culture approves? What about other cultures surrounding them (us). Does an even broader cultural “ruling” trump a local culture within? And what if our culture did not qualify as the “broader” one numerically speaking? Should the “kinder” social mores always trump the crueler ones? And if so, why? I can propose answers, but again … I hope this provokes discussion from others.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Glad you found it stimulating, Merv. Presumably Hobbit babies are also tastier cooked alive, so there’s a refinement on my story…

    My first reactions to Haiti… First, why should it be any of our business at all? I submit, only because we are of one blood, one nature, one “image of God” perhaps – all universal categories that, we feel, override genetic difference (which are pretty minor it’s true – but then one could argue that 98% of genes shared with chimps might give us a stake in their cannibalism too). “The Family of Man” universal also trumps the differences in culture, history and so on: and that would be even truer if we were talking babies rather than pigs. So just as we would consider babies in some sense “our” children, so we consider the welfare of their animals, in some sense, part of our responsibility. They do wrong – we feel involved. Not the same if lions eat their cubs.

    Following from that fraternity comes the conviction that these guys, at root, share the same nature as us – another universal. In other words, they have the same ability to reason, to empathise, to good AND to do evil that we do. So despite their different circumstances, we believe they could, maybe should, have different attitudes – we are one in some universal essence with them.

    “Should” follows from “could”. Rightly or wrongly, we feel that their treatment of animals is deficient – that there is some kind of universal morality. We might say that it is relative, that it is the business of each culture etc – but the fact that we still gag at the thought, wonder at their cruelty etc shows that we see morality as a universal. The fact that we might work out reasons for different outworkings of that moral law (and so maybe justify the pigs) doesn’t alter that. For example, cruelty is bad, but perhaps they say animals can’t suffer pain, or are reincarnated paedophiles that deserve punishment: the universal remains in place.

    We might even say that they have become so degenerate (or are so primitive) that their very human nature is debased: that too presupposes a universal that can become corrupted, or await its full emergence.

    Then comes accountability – all the above universals stir us to action, and that, at one end, could mean a painful prioritisation of Haitian autonomy at one end. Or it might lead to discussion, education, evangelism, legislation or even punishment: in 19th century America, the universal of human dignity was one reason for overriding the universal of human life and fighting one of the bloodiest civil wars up to that time. Britain bombed Hamburg and Dresden on similar considerations a century later.

    Incidentally, those examples show that even a majority cannot “decide” universals: the wars were fought on the basis that the enemy was wrong. Incidentally, the universality of evil in humanity – foolishly disputed by some now but the one indisputable doctrine of Christianity according to G K Chesterton – shows that not all universals are either divinely instituted, or immutable. But sin, nevertheless, is a universal, which is why it needed a universal solution in Christ.

    Accountability not a 1-way street, of course. If I were a Haitian pig-sticker, I’d ask my US missionary why in his country they waterboarded people repeatedly without criminal charges – at least their pigs suffered only once, and kept the family alive.

    Which leads me finally to the importance of recognising the universals we employ, and so critiquing them. Future generations will have to marvel at the cultural imperialism of the west, that changes its morality, in particular, on an almost monthly basis (partly on the basis that there is no objective morality), and then imposes it on the rest of the world as eternal truth.

  3. Lou Jost says:

    This is an interesting fantasy for secular people as well. In fact I don’t think it is a fantasy at all. We do have somewhat intelligent relatives living here on this planet. How should we treat them? Should kinship be important, or should a being earn a place at our table on his or her merits? And why do we think it has to be our table and not theirs?

    • Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

      Good point on our presumption about whose table it is. We think of ourselves as the seekers who either find or are found by other aliens. But rarely do those of us with European ancestry imagine ourselves as the “evaluated” instead of the “evaluators” or as the people who must enter into somebody else’s context instead of obligating them to fit into ours.

      As regards our other intelligent relatives, none of them (that we know of) are capable of any cultural exchange with us at peer level. As others have pointed out, there are no chimps, dolphins, (or mice –with due apologies to D. Adams, or to the Rats Of NIMH) in meetings or internet chat rooms right now carrying on any similar discussion. Of course this is me obligating them to enter into our context in order to be seen as equals. But it isn’t for lack of trying on our part when we discover that the contexts accessible to primates or dolphins is just too limited to carry the burden of our full range of thought and idea.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Agreed that exchanges won’t happen at peer level, but that might have been true of Flo as well. People who have spent lots of time with chimps or gorillas have interesting things to say about the exchange.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Yeah – the point of using Hypothetico florensis was to posit a relationship that is intrinsically bilateral. The aliens, indeed, took the communication initiative themselves and we had to respond.

          Some people may approach chimps or dolphins to try and communicate with them – usually, though, by seeing if they can be taught by us. Nobody expects chimps to send a delegation to negotiate with us about their rights.

          In the context of the column, nobody tries to suggest that they should be taught a better level of morality, or punished for not following it: it is assumed that ape or dolphin nature/essence is different from ours.

          That’s why those cases are less thought-provoking for this subject than the case of the communicating, but obnoxious, species… or even of the obnoxious human pig-stickers or rhino-exterminators. Where resides the universal that makes them obnoxious … or maybe the reverse, from their point of view?

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Can we all (Lou?) at least agree that there even is / should be a universal basis that transcends all human cultures? I use ‘human’ as shorthand for any communicating species that is self-conscious enough to have at least minimally peer-level exchange with us — thereby excluding dolphins, chimps, etc … but in the spirit of this fantasy including Flo.

    I.e. I know you, Lou, won’t agree about God being the source of such universals, but can we at least agree that a basis for such universal moral consideration is necessary, wherever one tries to derive it from?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      I think the problem is that human/moral universals pose a problem for materialism that, so far, has not been overcome satisfactorily. So the issue tends to get fudged to avoid confronting it seriously: deny the existence of universals, but argue for particular truths against their opposites on the basis of their universal truth. And slam philosophy for pointing out the inconsistency in your reasoning.

      But at the other end of the scale, materialism also must have problems with universal physical laws. Where do they exist, and what are they, since they cannot possibly be material?

      As Ed Feser currently points out Aristotelian concepts don’t have this problem – for the laws are just manifestations of the natures of the material things in the universe. But then one has to explain those universals – and Aristotelianism also inevitably points to a First Cause outside matter. That’s why materialism is facing big problems in the philosophy departments now – especially big because a majority of philosophers still cling on to their native materialism.

      But my posts have not been written to challenge materialism at all, but theistic nominalism, which is more or less inevitable if nature (and evolution) are granted autonomy. How can material secondary causes produce immaterial universals (really an analogous problem to how it can form immaterial mind or spiritual capacities)? Conclude they can’t, and one is back with Aquinas’ contention that natural forms come diectly from God, and having to back-pedal from an independent set of secondary causes.

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    It does indeed appear to be a problem that defies any solution from the materialist (except to insist there is none.)

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi all

    An interesting post from Ed Feser on universals in relation to a recent NYT article in which the difficultly of defining “life” from characteristics as taken to deny that life “really” exists. The same essential(!) argument, you’ll see, as the reductionist use of gradualism to question there is such an “essence” as humanity.

    I found the A-T concept that characteristics arise from a thing’s nature, rather than defining it, instructive.

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