Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Hume’s Atheism And God As Nature

The ‘freethinker’ Anthony Collins is said to have commented on Samuel Clarke‘s Boyle Lectures on the existence of God that “it had never occurred to anyone to doubt the existence of God until Clarke tried so hard to prove it.” (noted in John Clayton’s Reason, Religion, and Gods: Essays in Cross Cultural Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, pp. 314.) I was reminded of this “mischievous” remark yesterday afternoon during my philosophy of religion class, as we discussed David Hume’s ‘Of Miracles‘–which carries out a systematic epistemic debunking of claims for the existence of miracles– for at one point a very bright student asked: Professor, what exactly were Hume’s views on religion? Was he an atheist? (This was her third encounter with Hume this semester, whom we had encountered before in two extracts from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions–against the argument from design, and a statement of the problem of evil.)

Hume scholars will recognize quite readily the can of worms being opened by such a query. (Googling ‘Was Hume an atheist?’ should provide some hint of the dimensions of said can.) Here, I just want to make note of a provocative remark that Philo makes in his rejoinder to Cleanthes in Part VII of the Dialogues–as part of the refutation of the argument from design:

How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being whom you suppose the Author of Nature, or, according to your system of Anthropomorphism, the ideal world, into which you trace the material? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle?….If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humour which it is impossible ever to satisfy.

It seems to me in these closing sentences that two claims are present: a) Hume suggests that ‘rational’ approaches to proving the existence of God are destined to fail in that they push beyond the bounds of experience and thus, transgress the limits of what can be known or claimed to be true, and b) if there is a referent for the term ‘God’ then the most reasonable thing would be to identify it with the ‘principle of order [of] the present material world.’ The former reasserts Hume’s empiricist biases in metaphysics and epistemology; the latter, more interestingly, supplies another conceptualization of the term ‘God.’ (Hume’s further claim that ‘the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better’ suggests that the longer the chains of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion of God’s existence, the more susceptible they will be refutation.)

So for Hume, the best way to make sense of ‘God’–the only kind of ‘God’ whose existence we could reasonably claim to believe in–is as the principles that underwrite the sensible world we experience. The laws of nature, for instance. God, then, is not the Author of Nature, God is Nature. If ‘atheism’ is defined as the rejection of the standard theistic conception of God as all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful–then Hume was an atheist.

Lessius and the Fear Theory of Atheism

The ‘fear theory’ of the origin of religion is sometimes traced back to Democritus and Lucretius; it may be found too, in David Hume‘s Natural History of Religion. In its most general form, mankind conjured up God and the gods when made aware of its fragility in the face of nature’s capriciousness and power, its inevitable, painful and slow death. The seventeenth century Catholic theologian Leynard (Lenaert) Leys (latinized: Leonardus Lessius) who enjoyed a long, productive and influential career at the University of Leuven, although perhaps most famous for his 1605 treatise De justitia et jure (On Justice and Law) ‘that went through more than twenty editions in the 17th century alone’ provided an ingenious response–of sorts–to it. It does not amount to–and certainly does not intend to be–a refutation of the fear theory; it presupposes the existence of God, so it does not form part of the dialectic dedicated to the task of establishing such claims. Instead, it applies a converse version of the fear theory to atheism and thus seeks to ground its proponents’ claims in their own particular psychological pathology.

In his De Providentia Numinis et Animi Immortalitate, Libri Duo Adversus Atheos et Politicos (On the Providence of the Deity, and the Immortality of the Soul, Against Atheists and Politicians), which contained some arguments from design–fifteen in all–for the existence of God, and was translated in 1631 into English as Rawleigh: His Ghost, Lessius explains atheism thus: Man seeks to deny religious belief because secretly he accepts its teachings and fears the terrible penalties that will accrue to him on Judgment Day because of his sinful, dissolute life. Afflicted by this agonizing fear, unable to reconcile himself to its terrifying finality and perhaps unable to change his sinning ways, he conjures up atheism and its associated doctrines, notions which deny the existence of God. This lack of belief in a Supreme Being then, relieves him from his fear by getting rid of the cause of that fear.

(The targets of Lessius’ polemic are not particularly notorious. He relied on lists made by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Claudius Aelianus and identified, among others, the following:  Diagoras of Melos and Protagoras; Theodore of Cyrene and Bion of Borysthenes; Lucian; and besides Democritus and Lucretius, Epicurus.)

Lessius’ theory–while certainly a clever bit of work–is false. It is so largely because: a) arguments against the existence of God are quite as successful as they are–via their refutation of positive arguments for that claim–and show belief in the existence of a Supreme Being to be lacking any rational foundation; and b) in sharp contradistinction to the prima facie plausibility granted to the fear theory of theism by the oft-expressed fears of the unknown by the faithful, it relies on ascribing a wholesale ‘false consciousness’ to atheists.


1. Michael J. Buckley, Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism, Yale University Press, 2004, pp 30-33.

2. S. N. Balagangadhara, The Heathen in his Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion, Manohar Books, 2013, pp. 159.

Babies and Personal Identity

As a professor of philosophy I have taught personal identity several times; almost always in introductory classes; mostly via John Locke, David Hume, and the Buddha, and by relying on standard examples in the literature (the Ship of Theseus for instance). Invariably, I begin my class discussions of  personal identity by saying something along the lines of, ‘We are used to pointing to a photograph and saying “Hey, that’s me when I was three years (or six months or six weeks) old” and our listeners will believe us in most cases. But what is it that licenses such a claim? The entity we are pointing to doesn’t look exactly like us; it sure doesn’t behave like us; its physical composition is entirely different. So what gives?’ And then, we’re off and rolling. Brain transplantation, teleportation, and the movie Big (among others) follow. I have much sympathy for the ‘forensic’ aspects of personality that Locke alludes to, and for Buddhist and Humean no-self theories, and some of my students, gratifyingly, do cotton on to what it is about these theories that is simultaneously insightful and perplexing. Teaching personal identity allows me, most pleasurably, to delve into topics that are the most close to our hearts but which are often condemned to the margins in the more rarefied regions of philosophy; it is where metaphysics and ethics come together.

These days as I spend most of waking–and sometimes half-awake–hours with my almost-seven-weeks-old daughter, I’m reminded–again and again–of that introductory example of the baby in the photograph. I am aware of her changing, rapidly, all too rapidly. I marvel at her transformation from just-more-than-fetus to infant, as pounds and inches add on, as she starts to respond to more environmental stimuli like sound and light and touch, dishes out ‘social smiles’ when confronted with the cooing expressions of her father, mother, and aunt, and emits sounds, which in the grand imaginations of a hopeful parent, are not just stifled cries but genuine attempts at communication. And I wonder what she will ‘turn into,’ what she will ‘grow up to be’, what she will ‘become.’ I try to extrapolate, sometimes, from her current features, to what she might look like a year from now or even later. I speculate about the friends she will make, and how they will ‘transform’ her so that the girl who leaves home in the morning for school will come back a ‘different’ one in the afternoon.

These speculations run out soon enough, and I urge patience on myself. For I am dimly aware that the girl I play with now, whose crying sometimes almost reduces me too to tears, will not be the ‘same’ girl years later. The one I play with now, who has a nickname I dare not share for fear of being considered soft in the head, will be replaced by someone else. That other girl will look at the gigantic collection of photos her parents put together and perhaps say the same thing: ‘Lookit me – I was kinda cute, wasn’t I?’ She’ll be right, of course. But for now, I want to make sure I make the most of my limited time with this special guest, one who will soon be replaced by another one, as yet another stage of the inevitable process of ‘her growing up’ comes to be.

Note: Here is a post in which I describe a childhood thought experiment with personal identity.

David Coady on the Need for an ‘Applied Epistemology’

David Coady‘s new book What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology To Contemporary Issues (Blackwell, 2012)–by making vividly clear the importance and the significance of epistemology to politics and political life–may well be the most important and interesting book on epistemology in recent years; anyone interested in the control of the flows of information, their influence on our politics, and the role of normative models of reasoning and knowledge acquisition in enforcing political ideology should read it. In particular, Coady’s analysis and writing–tightly argued, clear, and rigorous–reaches a fine rhetorical and polemical pitch in Chapters 4 (‘Rumors and Rumor Mongers’), 5 (‘Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists’) and 6 (‘Blogosphere and Conventional Media’), which are described as ‘unified by two closely related themes, the importance of free public channels of communication and dangers of overcredulous deference to formal authority.’  That description should provide you with a hint of Coady’s unconventional take on the topics covered in these chapters; even if you aren’t an academic philosopher, you owe it to yourself to read them to have well-established preconceptions shaken up. (And to enjoy a  rather entertaining take-down of Cass Sunstein.)

Today, I’d like to provide a brief introduction to Coady’s book, and then, in the next few days and weeks, follow-up with some extended analysis of the chapters mentioned above.

In the preface, Coady says that while the study of ethics has been transformed in recent years ‘by addressing contemporary social and technological issues, the study of espistemology remains quite abstract and ahistorical.’ Such an underdevelopment and narrowing divorces the study of knowledge from the practical conduct of our lives. In particular, for us, situated at this point in time:

The information revolution and the knowledge economy have radically changed the way that we acquire knowledge and justify our beliefs. These changes have altered our epistemic landscape as surely as the sexual revolution and breakthroughs in reproductive technology have changed our moral landscape. The latter changes provided a good deal of the impetus for the applied turn in ethics, but the former changes have so far failed to result in a comparable turn in epistemology.

As Coady notes, to do applied epistemology will be to return to the ways in which epistemology was done in that period of philosophical history–the time of  ‘modern philosophy‘–which established it as a primary philosophical concern: David Hume‘s argument against belief in miracles was a blow struck against the idea of the Bible as a source of knowledge, a political move if there ever was one; John Locke‘s argument for religious tolerance was based ‘partly on the grounds that no government can be sure that the official religion is correct, which means that no government can be sure it is not persecuting the true religion;’ and John Stuart Mill argued, in particular relevance to our modern times, that ‘since no person has infallible access to the truth, we are most likely to converge on the truth in the course of debate sustained by laws protecting free speech.’

Belief and action are inseparably bound; politics is a form of action (most simplistically, putting political beliefs into motion). Citizens and philosophers alike have known and acted on these connections for as long as man has been a political animal. In recent times, political philosophy seems to have forgotten these considerations when it has come to providing critical analyses of the epistemological issues arising from developments such as the Iraq war. (Did we ever have good evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction?) Coady’s book should help set political philosophy back on track by making it pay closer attention to what should be a central aspect of its question-asking and answering.

Note: Examples and quotes drawn from ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-3.

The Question Asked, Inquiry Begins

Classes for the 2012 spring semester ended last week. And with that, I completed ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College. (I’m well aware that I have yet to complete grading for this semester but for now, I’m trying to put that thought out of my mind.) When I first started, in the 2002 fall semester, I taught in both the computer science and philosophy departments. Since January 2010, it has been all philosophy, all the time. In these ten years, I think I’ve learned a great deal from my students. (I’ll let them tell me if they think I have contributed in any way to their learning.)

I’ve learned, most importantly,  that almost any question asked by a student is gold: a chance to elaborate, embroider, embellish, and expand a philosophical theme. The question is not an interruption, one to be dispensed with efficiently and quickly, before I get back to the business of teaching; answering it is the main act. The question is a clear and visible sign that thought has been provoked; it deserves attention, care, and thoughtful nurturing. In answering a question, further avenues for exploration open up; new thoughts are prompted, which might in turn provoke more questions, more interaction. (In a teaching observation conducted this past semester, I advised one of our adjunct instructors, who had shown some signs of haste in his answers to student questions, that he needn’t worry that the class was being ‘held up.’ Rather, he’d do better to exploit the opportunity to slow down, and examine the issue at hand in greater detail. The student had not thrown a spanner in the works; the student had, instead, kickstarted the engine.)

So nothing quite improves my classroom experience like the answering of a question: I find my knowledge of the material tested; I discover that I can be creative in the construction of examples that will aid my explanation. This latter aspect is especially valuable. Teaching can often be physically, emotionally and intellectually draining work; the spur to creativity that a question provides is a bracing tonic. I find nothing quite as exhilarating in teaching as finding out that in answering a student’s question, I myself have acquired a deeper understanding of the material. (A stellar example of this came during a Logical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence class some eight years ago; as I answered a student’s question about how a proposition was to be expressed in predicate logic, I suddenly realized that I understood WVO Quine‘s classic paper ‘On What There Is‘ just a little better. My sense of pleasure in this enhanced comprehension was so pronounced that I almost broke off mid-sentence to try to digest it.)  In particular, questions that are directed at passages in the assigned reading invariably enrich my encounter with a text previously considered familiar; I was stunned by the depths I discovered in David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion every time I was asked for clarification by the students in my Spring 2010 Philosophy of Religion class.

None of the observations above should be surprising; after all, all inquiry is the attempt to answer questions.

A Bad Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage

I would have scarcely believed it possible, but a few short hours after teaching the naturalistic fallacy in my Philosophy of Biology class, I was exposed to an argument–from a professional philosopher–that, roughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon. This resistance then, has nothing to do with religion, God, or the divine sanctification. Rather, it is the scientific thing to do: resist gay marriage because it is against evolutionary demands made on us as a species. This means that active disapproval of homosexuality–societal and legal discrimination for instance–is an expression of a biological instinct and should not be condemned as a moral failing.

The outlines of this argument should be familiar to most folks. It has been made time and again and despite having been spectacularly debunked, it rises again and again, like a zombie, or your favorite refusing-to-die cinematic ghoul.

What this argument attempts–and fails–to do is derive a proposition with normative import from a set of propositions that are purely descriptive. This–as David Hume pointed out a long time ago in his A Treatise of Human Natureis an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to bridge the is-ought gap:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

This fallacy manifests itself in the current situation as follows. There are biological facts about us: We reproduce, we pass on our genes, various reproductive strategies are adopted, some work better than the others (in securing more offspring to whom we can pass on our genes). This much can be ascertained by observation and measurement. But what should  we do on noting these observations? The proponent of the argument noted above, wants to derive the following: Those reproductive strategies that work ‘better’ are ‘good’, and therefore should be encouraged, should be praised. The rest should be condemned. (Marriage, it will be noted, has been admitted as a successful reproductive strategy; this is a matter of empirical assessment and could well turn out to be false.)

But whence ‘better’, whence ‘good’? Why is ‘reproductive success’ a moral good to be sought? What is the source of that valuation and why is it allowed to override other values in the derivation above? Might we be allowed to admit other values in arriving at an alternative conclusion? Like, for instance, a more tolerant society is a ‘better’ society than one that isn’t? But then, we would be opening up a debate–conducted within some broad ethical and moral frameworks–on valuation, which is precisely what our protagonist didn’t want. He merely wanted the straightforward elevation of reproductive success to the preeminent moral value without further debate.

The tireless proponents of the so-called evolutionary arguments against same-sex marriage forget that efforts to read normative judgments off the historical workings out of the evolutionary process have as much difficulty in bridging the is-ought gap as any other species of argument. Calling upon biology here is not the scientifically sophisticated thing to do; it is merely to reveal one’s ignorance of the limitations of evolutionary explanation.