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20170922 – On Human Nature



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The main idea here is to express author’s complete set of views on the humans and humanity, their nature, attitudes and meaning or lack thereof. In order to do that author looks at the I-YOU relations between humans, notions of self, sex, and intentionality. The second part of the book is about society’s settings such as morality, its different expressions, laws, including common law, and the range of characteristics assigned to just about everything that varies from profane to sacred. It also looks at interactions between individual and group and limits imposed on the individual by various rights, duties, and obligations and also a bit about where all these are coming from.


Chapter 1. Human Kind

This is a discussion on what humans are. Obviously they are animals, but not regular animals. Unlike others they are capable to convert their biology into cultural artifacts, so sex becomes love, generating poems and other art. Likewise human’s territorial character turns into national sovereignty, patriotism and so on. Ever since Darwin we understand how evolution made us and what we are biologically. However we are much more than that. From here author goes into the review of some specifics:

Genes and Games: This is about Darwinian population or group selection or sexual selection or any other form of selection when selected features seemingly decrease survival chances of individual.

Genes and Memes: Here author discusses memes selection as model of cultural evolution, but he generally rejects this approach due to its seeming neutrality of memes to good, evil, and overall morality. The main point author makes is that if memes relate to ideas as genes to organisms then they are pretty much irrelevant because unit of selection is a cultural artifact.

Science and Subversion: Here author discusses memes as subversive concepts like Marx’s ideology or Freud’s unconscious. He contrasts it with functional explanations, which are central in biology. However author rejects idea of a human as collection of genes and talks about a person, which is requires another dimension of discussion: religion and morality.

Laughter: Here author discusses uniqueness of human laughter, the feature no other animal possesses. His approach is that it is a dual applications tool: method of coping with realities of live that humans understand, while other animals do not, and method of communication that allows to smooth interactions within community.

The Genealogy of Blame: This is about another uniquely human feature – responsibility. It is discussed with reference to Nietzsche, Kant, Aquinas, and Locke, stressing difference between a human being and a person, conscious and self-conscious.

The Embodied Person: This is another approach to the problem of human animal and person. This comes from separation of self from non-self and its use as an object of reference, so self-attribution and self-reference becomes a primary avenue of what we think and how we act.

Intentionality: Here author discusses Dennett’s notion of intentionality, when animal acts with an intention to change environment. This allows for a more or less plausible way to predict actions of others based on one’s believe about their intentions.

Emergence and Materialism: This is author’s critic of reductionists who believe that emerging properties do not extend beyond physical properties. He provides example of art when multitude of colored spots on the canvas at some point become a recognizable picture that has meaning beyond totality of these colored spots. Similarly the key point here is that a person emerges from multitude of physical / biological features.

Person and Subject: This is about interrelation between two humans when both understand the personhood and intentionality of other. Author also provides an interesting brief on various approaches to defining what is so distinct in human condition: Language (Chomsky), second-order desires (Frankfurt), second-order intentions (Grice), convention (Lewis), freedom (Kant, Sartre), self-consciousness (Kant, Fichte, Hegel), laughing or crying (Plessner), or the capacity for cultural learning (Tomasello).

Verstehen and Faith: Finally author defines human nature in such way: we are kind of thing that relates to members of its kind through interpersonal attitudes and through self- predication of its own mental states. The study of our kind is the business of not science, but humanities (Verstehen). After that author kind of links to the need for understanding humans not only in terms of reason, but also in terms of faith.


Chapter 2. Human Relations

This is about human relations and I-YOU dynamics that generate emotions and moral norms, which to the large extent define humans:

The first person case: The main point here is that self is social product and could not exist or even emerge in complete isolation. Another point is that self does not need to conduct normal process of discovery for expression of his views and positions.

Self and Other: This is about Kant’s ideas of self-identification and notions of subject vs. object and relation to others on which all most important in the human condition is built: morality, responsibility, law, institutions, and art.

The Intentionality of Pleasure: This is about intentionality of the state of mind and human relations, distinguishing free from unfree actions, reasonable and unreasonable, and such. Here author brings pleasure as evolutionary tool that makes us to act in such way that would be beneficial for our survival and procreation. However we humans are just too smart to enjoy sensual pleasure without complications and author brings in a couple of mental experiments to demonstrate this.

Sex, Art, and Subject: This is about sex from evolutionary point of view: a bit about pleasure, something about incest, and quite a bit about sexual selection.

Overreaching Intentionality: This is about interpersonal attitudes, about giving each other reasons, holding each other to account, negotiating and maintaining dialog.

Recentering and Decentering Passions: This is about self and centering other into I, something like “I got you under my skin”. Correspondingly decentering is mainly objectification of other like in porn looking only at body while disregarding the other in this body.

Personal Identity: This is about meaning of persona. It came from Romans as a legal object with rights and duties and then was developed by Christian theologians with relation to god, god’s features and eventually into human identity with human organism and persona being philosophically different entities.


Chapter 3. The Moral Life

This chapter goes into complexity of tension that exists between our nature as individuals and demands created by our nature defined by group belonging or, in other words, members of moral community:

Deep Individuality: This is a funny peace of philosophy where author discusses his nature as human individual with knowledge and image of past, present, and future that establish his deep individuality unlike his horse Desmond’s animal individuality.

Praise, Blame, and Forgiveness: This is about various consequences of human actions that could represent specific feedback from other people or from imaginative entities like god.

Pollution and Taboo: Unlike previous point where consequences caused by action or absence of action when individual does not deserve neither praise, nor blame. This is about situation when even without any intentional action just by polluting or breaking taboo and individual could cause reaction of the society.

The Sovereign Individual and the Common Law: This is about relationship between individual and the group in regard to the law when solution to dispute comes without violence, but rather according to a set of rules:

1.Considerations that justify or impugn one person will, in identical circumstances, justify or impugn another.

2.Rights are to be respected.

3.Obligations are to be fulfilled.

4,Aggreernents are to be honored.

5.Disputes are to be settled by negotiation, not by force.

6.Those who do not respect the rights of others forfeit rights of their own.

Moral Arithmetic: The calculations here are involve balance of good and bad actions and could be highly complicated as experiments with “trolley” and such demonstrates. Author discusses here ideas of Parfit that calculation should be such that one treats his own children the same way as other. Author quite reasonably points out that own children have much more claim on a parent than others.

Comparative Judgments: This is another look at attempts to treat moral calculation as economic and reject it.

Consequentialism and Moral Sense: Here author moves on to discussing consequential reasoning, which he defines as optimistic principle that leads to choice of future good over current evil, that become considered necessary and therefore irrelevant to morality, something which was abundantly demonstrated in XX century by Nazis, Commies, and various other ideological nuts.

Virtue and Vice: Here author goes back to ancient philosophers like Aristotle in search for source of behavior and trying to find it in duty to self to be virtuous and reject vice.

Honor and Autonomy: Here author uses situation of a soldier who have to overcome whatever fear and other negatives he encounter to maintain his honor in a battle. Author discusses attitudes of Aristotle vs. Kant in evaluation of soldier’s behavior and motivation.

Mrs. Jellyby and Good Samaritan: Mrs. Jellyby here is example of somebody who cares a lot about distant people, but not about others close by, while Samaritan correspondingly cares about another individual who is close. The inference from this is that moral live is rooted in personal obligations to close by.

Rights, Deserts, and Duty: This is again about moral calculation and importance of rights and deserts in this calculation. Author also seeks here a theory of the person to link notion of the human rights to the nature. His main point here is that concept of the person is at the center of political disputes, but it is treated as a mere abstraction. Author believes that it should be treated as the complex reality with its social and historical context.

The Person and the Self: Here author counter two different concept of human person, which defining feature is either autonomous choice or life in community and find both lacking. Author seems to believe that these two contradictory approaches could be resolved if I-YOU encounter becomes center of attention, discussion, and most important, behavior.


Chapter 4. Sacred Obligations

This is about political order and how it is discussed in contemporary academic world: as supplement of morality and necessary tool to safeguard individual autonomy and assure “social justice”:

Two Criticisms: The first criticism is that our nature as organisms is not taken seriously. The second is that our obligations could not be reduced to assuring mutual freedom. Here author is trying to respond to these criticisms.

Sexual Morality and Desire and Pollution: This is about obligations related to sexual behavior including ideas of defilement related to sex and various deviations: incest, rape, and such. It is all linked to ideas of pollution and taboo and author refers to his book “Sexual desire” where he goes deep into these issues.

Piety: This refers to the second criticism and looks at the character of the moral agent who is bound by unchosen moral requirements. Author brings Rawls and Hegel to discuss pious obligations and linking it all to the family and eventually to the political order connected to it.

Sacred and Profane; Evolution and the Sacred; Remarks about Evil: This is discussion about various levels of attitude to various concepts from Evil on one side to the Sacred on another with the special attention paid to the nature of evil.

Morals and Faith: The final part is about source of morality, stating that it is different from the faith. It raises an interesting question for philosophers: quilt of existence. The final world here is actually reference to Dostoyevsky’ Brothers Karamazov and Wagner’s Parsifal whose aesthetic achievements are by far more significant than perspective of philosophy.


As it is appropriate for very simpleminded man, I do not see a lot of philosophical complexity in humans, their groups, and everything related. From my point of view humans are nothing more than analog, partially self-directing computers who poses dynamically changed semi-hardware in form of genes and who are programmed by other humans to behave in such way as to constantly search for optimal mix of selfish and self-less behavior that maximizes probability of their survival and procreation in a randomly occurring and constantly changing environment. Things like morality, law, and such are just more or less codified rules of behavior developed by a group in competition with other groups when ineffective rule lead to the group dissolution or even annihilation.


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