Socrates commanded, "Know thyself."

Sunday, November 15, 2009
One thing I like about writing the Soldier-Citizen-Sapien blog is the opportunity to explore these three named and nested identities as an exercise in formalizing my thoughts. Ultimately, I hope the work I do here begins to shape an ethic that I can refer to, and that others can as well.

Now I'm talking about ethics, and I'm talking about identities, and tonight I'm talking about nature. Human nature. When I say the word "Sapien" I am referring to the human identity. It is the broadest of the three that I work with here at S.C.S.

Tonight I'm going to explore the identity of human nature and some ethical implications. There will be some references to the giants who have done a bulk of the intellectual heavy lifting in this arena, but I think I've stumbled upon something extra that I want to point out.

The question that was originally asked in ancient times was "what is it that made humans different from animals or and trees and other parts of nature?" The explanation I'm about to make will be sloppy in representing Aristotle, but he did some excellent work in tracking down and categorizing the natural properties that all living things have.

Plants are the most basic lifeforms, capable of growth and adaptation and finding ways to nourish itself. These are the essential life processes. What plants lack is sensation and habit. Their nature is very static.

Animals are capable of all the life processes of plants, but they also have sensation and the habits I mentioned before. I think of this as the animal instinct. It can even be argued that animals have a mind, or that they have memory, or even dreams.

Similarly, humans have all the life processes of plants and animals, but they are also endowed with reason, or rational thought. This unique thing is what separates humans from animals and vegetables. It is the singular identifying attribute of a human. It is the human identity.

Here's one tricky thing about reason (I'm just going to call this thing reason from now on). It does not sustain anything physical or natural. It is not a typical life process. I suspect it is what gives form to the immortal human soul. I suspect that it is the thing that God put in humans to make them "in His image," because God Himself is Reason.

In the game of nature, survival involves calibrating these life processes to the conditions around you. Going back through the species again, a seed will either arrive in appropriate conditions to become a tree, or it will not. If its life processes are configured appropriately for the conditions, it will flourish. If they are not, the seed will not succeed. Animals are the same, but because they can actively influence their conditions through migration, competition, or industry, they seem to have enhanced processes by which to dominate their environment. They have fiercer claws and teeth or nimble hands or the ability to build dams. But the same natural rules apply for animals. If a species does not have the right configuration of competencies for survival, it will go "the way of the dodo bird" and become extinct. The instinct of every thriving or surviving species is perfectly matched for its conditions.

But left in the state of mere nature, don't we humans seem pretty ill-suited for survival in the harsh conditions of nature? Look at our soft pudgy pink flesh and our lack of claws, teeth or hide. Our young are born toothless and sightless and incapable of walking or fleeing until almost a year old. We cannot forage or feed ourselves for quite some time past that. If only equipped with our natural endowments, we'd probably have been killed off long ago. We do not seem matched for the nature's violent conditions. But what we do have is reason and that has allowed us to observe cause and effect, make logical associations, and master the sciences. Thus we have developed a means of survival other than natural animal instinct.

Jack London wrote about the conflict between humans and nature. His story "To Build a Fire" is about a man who makes a hike in the Alaskan wilderness with his dog. The story demonstrates almost perfectly how I want to compare the rational nature of humans and the instinctual nature of animals. Most importantly, it demonstrates a particular problem with human reliance on a rational nature. Ultimately, that it is fallible, and that animal instinct cannot be.

There is a critical moment in the story where the man and his dog fall through some ice and get their feet soaked in some of the shallow water that was beneath the ice. Both resort to their individual survival techniques to deal with the problem of soaked feet which in the environment could lead to mortal peril. The dog falls into the snow and begins licking away the ice that forms immediately on his legs, and then bites at the ice between his toes until it is removed. The dog doesn't even know the reason why he does this. If he did not do this he would be dead, and if his sire and grand-sire and so on had not done this they would be dead too. All the dogs who did not do this in the Alaskan wild would have died long ago.

The man in the story also deals with the threat of frostbite that could lead to immobility and death by exposure. But he understands what is happening because of his rational mind. He knows that it is eighty degrees below freezing temperatures, and he is savvy to the techniques that humans have used to conquer the harsh conditions of Alaska. He attempts to build a fire, and he knows all the right things to do to sustain one, but the conditions thwart him when his fire is extinguished by falling snow. He attempts to run to restore circulation but does not succeed. He dies in front of his dog in the snow. The dog flees after his master's death, and survives.

The dog survived because he was suited to the Alaskan wild. Humans are unfit for these conditions naturally, but can overcome them with the fruit of their intellect and rational thought. Even the man in the story acted with perfect knowledge of what to do, but was still thwarted by nature. I think this means that even though humans can have perfect God-gifted rational thought, the actions that follow from it still may not infallible in the sense that the action will be inappropriate for the conditions, no matter what they do.

So here are some of the implications of this identity. The human identity:

1. Humans are the only creatures capable of causing their own destruction. Knowing what we know about the human species and our wretched unsuitability for nature's conditions, yet making the choice to try and overcome these conditions with technology or social design, we must accept the consequences for what happens. This is a fundamental of human morality. Our ability to rationalize and choose, makes us responsible. Animals do not make rational choices. They are what they are. They will either survive or not, and it will not be because of anything they have done. They cannot be held responsible for their own destruction. Our responsibility is what makes us different from the animals and is the source of a human being's moral value. My Sapien identity treasures this responsibility and recognizes that every human being shares the same responsibility. The duty of the Sapien is to respect and treasure the moral worth of other human beings and to grow into the responsibility of making decisions that will not lead to the destruction of another human.

2. If anything is responsible for preventing the destruction of any part of nature, it must necessarily be humans. Who else is capable of taking responsibility for the rest of nature? No other part of nature has the capacity to deliberately make choices about what survives and what does not. Everything else but the rational mind is part of nature and is indifferently subject to its harshest judgments. The Sapien recognizes that responsibility and volunteers to be the custodian of the rest of nature. This may involve the protection of a species or an ecosystem with many species, but the Sapien acknowledges the role is has assumed, and enjoys the responsibility.

There is more to explore about the Sapien part of my ethic. I look forward to dealing with it as I proceed in my writing. For now I look forward to what my mind will discover with these implications in mind.



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