31 January

Essence of the Matter

Our last TMI blog post ended by critiquing propaganda thinking, in which we assent ‘uncritically to widely held beliefs’, before offering a closing defence of discursive thinking, whereby ‘the reasonable questions of those who nevertheless hold fast to unreasonable conclusions are integrated into rational discourse’. To put some flesh on the bare-bones of these claims it is worth revisiting the unreasonable conclusions previously discussed regarding Peter Singer’s curtailed account of the right to life of human persons and how it concretely plays out in today’s deracinated public discourse.

When discussing euthanasia on the Australian current affairs programme Q&A, Peter Singer put forward his view that if you ‘are so profoundly retarded that, though you may be able to suffer, you don’t see yourself as living a life and aren’t even capable of a relationship’ with others, you therefore have a ‘lesser right to life’ because simply ‘being a human being is not the morally decisive thing’. The prominent Anglican theologian and political commentator Phillip Blond objected to the argument first by some oblique references to its dissension from ‘common sense’ and the history of the ‘moral tradition’ and then by arguing that ‘human life is more valid than any other’ because ‘human beings can suffer more than any other form of life’ since they ‘have knowledge of their death’, including all those who are ‘profoundly damaged’. Now, since the latter claim is indeed ‘factually false’ for particular children born with severe brain damage, as Peter Singer went on to argue, all we are left with in response to Singer is Blond’s initial argumentum ad populum.

The irony is that rather than defending the classical ‘moral tradition’, then, this kind of fallacious reasoning brings the tradition into disrepute and it leaves untouched the problematic aspects of its rival traditions. This is because Singer’s claim puts its finger precisely on the problem of modern philosophy’s reduction of essences to a bundle of actualized properties. The only way to see why simply being a human being is indeed the morally decisive thing, is for us to return to the moral tradition’s rich account of the essence human nature. This account freely admits that when we turn to nature, we see that humanity exhibits a dizzying variety of ‘accidents’ (commonly referred to today as ‘properties’): some of us have red hair, others are blonde, most of us can see, whilst some are blind, a few of us are 7 feet tall, others only 5 foot and many of us are capable of conceptual reasoning, while, sadly, some with severe brain damage just aren’t. But the tradition still wishes to go on to ask: if this is so, and there remains so few essential properties that are visibly instantiated in all human beings, then what gives human nature its formal unity? The answer, quite simply, is that some of these accidents are relevant to human flourishing and some are not. So the ability to see or reason is a perfection of man, whilst blindness or brain damage is a defect that frustrates this natural perfection. Scholasticism, therefore, distinguishes between ‘proper accidents’ (e.g. ability to see, reason, walk, talk etc.) as opposed to merely ‘contingent accidents’ (e.g. normative variations in hair colour, height etc.) which are not perfections necessarily flowing from the essence of man. Now, this means that even those human beings without a capacity to reason still have a rational nature – analogously we may say that just because a person becomes infertile it does not follow that they no longer have a ‘reproductive system’; such a change cannot be substantial because many of the system’s parts will still be able to cooperate towards the same final end even if defective parts ultimately frustrate its actualization. Therefore, since natural rights flow from our nature and not from our capacities, it follows that because all human persons have a rational nature they must also all have an inalienable right to life.

Of course, this brief metaphysical account of the issue can and must be extended to give a full account of rights as well as essences, but what is important to note here is that we cannot get anywhere unless we choose to wade into these waters. Modern political philosophy is built on the wrongheaded attempt to bypass metaphysics because it was seen as a source of interminable disagreement. Aside from ignoring the fact that past Christian, Judaic, Islamic and Pagan thought reached profound agreement on many metaphysical issues, this aversion to the subject only leads to society kicking the can down the road and leaves today’s political discourse looking in all the wrong places to solve its perpetual ideological conflicts. It is critical, therefore, that advocates of the moral tradition redirect society’s gaze towards these foundational issues. But, as the above case demonstrates, our own frequent capitulation to the propaganda speak of today means that it is very often adversaries of the moral tradition who do the best job of pointing us back to the essence of the matter.

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