Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Stumbling Tongue talks about hang gliding. I recommend this activity. Go here. Alexis points out that hang gliding can be banal. Oddly, this is true. After soaring free in the breeze for two hours 800 feet above a beautiful ridge, one can get slightly bored and decide to land! But the two hours are happy ones indeed. The risk in hang gliding is of the same order as motorcycling and skiing, by the way.

Anyway, now this:

Human Nature

Don’t ignore it. Of course, it is obvious that certain ways of life are far beyond the limits of human nature: a bed-ridden life of heroin bliss, enforcement of female infant castration or universal monastic austerity, or living without shelter or warm clothes in the polar regions, for example. But there is also a less obvious fact that certain ways of life run counter to human nature, while alternatives to these harmonize with human nature well. A tradition is the results of lengthy empirical, trial-and-error inquiry into the details of this fact.

Radicalism often denies the existence of human nature. Mao, amongst others, said that we were blank slates on which he would program us as he pleased. But radicalism can also resist tradition while pretending to acknowledge human nature. It can acknowledge the obvious cases of ways of life that run counter to human nature and pretends that that this is enough. Don’t be fooled by this ploy. Two ways of life may seem to be equally harmonious with human nature when in fact one is far less so than the other. For example, it was perhaps not unreasonable at one time to think that communism was perfectly compatible with human nature. This is why it is wise to be conservative and presume that traditional ways of life are better until sufficient evidence to the contrary turns up. “Liberal” in the pejorative sense refers to the failure to understand this.

But there are things to keep in mind, and it is “liberal” in the positive sense to do so. First, human nature does not always determine the answer to the question of which of two mutually incompatible ways of life is better. There may be several traditions that harmonize equally with human nature but that offer fairly starkly contrasting ways of life, in the sense that a member of one of the traditions may find the others abhorrent. The traditions of China, India and Europe might be examples. This means that moderate cultural relativism is true: the legitimacy of some values depends upon the society in question, even though other values are untenable under any social circumstance.

Also, it is we who decide how to live, not human nature. It is rational to choose what is preferable to us, not to choose what fits with human nature. Adultery may harmonize with human nature better than remaining faithful to one’s spouse. But remaining faithful may be preferable and may therefore be the more rational course. Human nature is a biological system that makes the organism have certain dispositions which, when acted upon, best promote the proper biological functioning of the organism. But some of these dispositions may lead to unhappiness or injustice. Tradition is cultural, not just biological. It has located our less obvious dispositions and discovered ways of fulfilling them, but it has also given us ways of fulfilling them that may be given a coherent and unified description. When a set of ways of life cannot be given a coherent and unified description, tradition has eschewed it. “Be true to your spouse, but try to cheat when you can” is incoherent. The gene likes it, but we do not.

What remains is to examine descriptions. Whether accepting homosexuality can fit coherently into a tradition embracing male-female romance and reproduction is an example of such an issue. Whether accepting abortion can fit coherently into a tradition in which infants are dearly loved is another. Whether cloning and the use of sperm banks can fit into a tradition in which the biological parents ought to care for their children is a third.