A Most Peculiar Animal

Though philosophy is usually considered a more high-brow, ivory-tower kind of discipline, it is something everybody practices, whether they do so intentionally or not. Accordingly, philosophies that start out among the elites in the academy always have a way of filtering down into popular culture—even if their formulations become a bit rough in the transition.

One of these is the idea that humans are just another kind of animal. We have some capabilities (e.g. analytical thought) in greater quantity than other animals, while some of our other capabilities (e.g. sight or strength) are markedly inferior to those of other species. The upshot is that while our technical specs might be different in quantity, there is no qualitative difference. Many philosophers contend that the peculiarly human concerns about notions of “higher” things like morality, truth, or beauty are merely the dressing up of the same concerns any animals have. Logical Positivists, for example, contended that when a man says “it’s wrong to murder,” all he really means is “don’t kill me!” Though he seems to be referring to something outside of himself when he says “wrong,” it’s merely a sublimated expression of his own personal desire not to be killed—a desire shared by nearly any animal. Critical Theorists likewise made it their business to reduce what had been considered objective considerations to the mere subjective preference of a particular species.

Though both of these movements are more-or-less defunct a century later, bits and pieces of their thought have nevertheless become commonplace in the public consciousness—even in arenas that are often known for their vacuousness, such as pop music.

Of course, pop music being what it is, these ideas most often find their expression when it comes to sex. The popular refrain of the 90’s, “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” is probably the most obvious example, but it might be more beneficial to look at a song with a bit more narrative. In It’s Only Natural by Better than Ezra, the song’s narrative voice tells a story about a woman who abandons that voice’s bed in shame when she hears her father’s approach. The voice then chides her for this behavior in the chorus: “Don’t fight it if it feels good / You hide it, but you never should / Don’t listen to the voices in your head / What are you and me but monkeys in a tree? / It’s only natural.” Like many 20th century philosophers, the message is that the higher concepts of things like chastity, purity, and sexual morality that most of human civilization has recognized can (and indeed should) be abandoned for the sake of pleasure. After all, humans are just another kind of monkey, and monkeys do not concern themselves with sexual morality. They simply do what feels good.

Anyone who ponders this suggestion should eventually notice a rather glaring peculiarity. In the view of the narrative voice of the song, humans are apparently the only species of monkey that have to be convinced to act like monkeys. After all, I have never heard of any evidence to suggest that a monkey’s ‘monkeyness’ is purely the result of a social movement among simians. Monkeys may not concern themselves with sexual morality, but this is hardly because some monkeys convinced the others to set aside their outdated rules!

Perhaps the suggestion that sex is only natural for us humans is true. Nevertheless, even based on the song itself, this is not the end of the story, for shame at having illicit sex is also only natural for us humans. Indeed, shame in general is so natural to us that the narrative voice of the song basically shames the young woman into not feeling ashamed! Though the song tries to communicate a message of “follow your heart” in order to be free of our society’s restrictive inhibitions, it does so by adding different inhibitions. In essence, it advises ignoring the heart just as much as it advocates following it. It has to, for the woman’s heart is in conflict with itself. This is the ultimate problem with following your heart—your heart is full of all sorts of contradictory feelings and inclinations. It is fundamentally incapable of guiding itself. Many suggest that this is solved by following only the strongest of our heart’s inclinations. But paradoxically, putting all of your feelings into a cage-match in which the sole victor guides our behavior would be more accurately characterized as not following your heart, for far more is repressed and rejected than is followed.

Thankfully, even if you only consider alt-rock bands from the 90’s, there is more sophisticated music out there. I have, for example, been a fan of Toad the Wet Sprocket for decades now (writing that just made me feel remarkably old.) As songwriters, their topical interests have always been broader than pop music’s usual selection (the last girl, the current girl, or the next girl). So when they sing about us being mere animals in a bonus track for their forthcoming album (I received an advance download for Kickstarting it), their interest is less about sex than it is about a broader humanism.

At its core, Friendly Fire tries to be an expression of human unity. It categorizes intra-human ideological conflict as “friendly fire;” the idea being that in hurting one another, we’re only hurting ourselves. But instead of learning this, we choose to “believe” instead. Thus, the song also includes humanism’s usual anti-religious overtones: “Get up off your knees / Don’t bow your head anymore / Raise your voice to sing / One song true enough for us all.” Religion is seen as a divisive element responsible for much of the “friendly fire” of human conflict. It makes us see enemies where there are none because no religion is true enough for everyone

The new basis for unity that the song suggests is that we’re all beautiful animals. We all come from the earth (not the sky) and there is therefore no real separation or difference between us. But is this song really true enough for us all?

As the song implies by calling us animals, that we all come from the earth removes not only the separation between humans and other humans, but the separation between humans and animals as well. This does cut us off from the ideologies that divide us, for animals have no ideologies. However, that’s not all it does. It also inadvertently cuts us off from the ideologies that unite us, for animals have no ideologies. Animals don’t need to find a song true enough for them all, nor do they have any concept of themselves as beautiful. They neither have nor need any epiphanies about biological or evolutionary relationships to modify their behavior, and unity is not generally a big concern.

Being a part of nature, on its own, does not provide any basis for unity. Nature has, after all, has been quite accurately described as “red of tooth and claw.” Though the chorus reiterates that you “can’t trade one life for another,” many animals survive their environments only because they do precisely that. This is normal for animals. One might try and sublimate this into an inspiring story of the circle of life or the beautiful fragility of ecosystems as many species live and die in a delicate balance, but all that does is sublimate violence and death. It may label that violence as friendly fire, but it removes the stigma of the label—we are left without any basis for thinking that friendly fire is actually a bad thing.

The insurmountable problem with seeking unity on these terms is not found in a departure from human nature, but in an indelible part of it. Intrinsic to human life is judgment—the very thing that discerns good from bad and right from wrong. Whether it’s a woman judging illicit sex to be shameful, a man judging feelings of shame to be shameful, a priest judging an unbeliever as an infidel, or a humanist judging a priest as divisive, humans always judge. Every plea from postmodernism that judgment be abandoned is accompanied by judgments about why this ought to be so. Every progressive band that seeks peace does so because they judge peace to be good and conflict to be bad. Every liberal who chides someone about “forcing” his morality on others is nevertheless “forcing” his morality on others, for chiding is an act of moral judgment. Despite their best efforts, humans cannot escape judgment or the making of judgments, and yet the very act of judgment is fundamentally divisive.

This is where secular humanism falls apart, for if we must judge, we must have a basis on which to judge. “Unity is good and division is bad because _______.” The blank must be filled in. Humanity itself cannot be this basis, for this is the same humanity that rapes, murders, pillages, and lies. Neither can humans invent this basis, for we all seek to invent different ones and would need something uninvented to help us choose between them. In short, human unity can only exist when we all acknowledge a common foundation.

Secular humanism needs a foundation external to humanity, and yet it cannot admit to one’s existence without abandoning the “secular” modifier. If no religion is true enough for everyone, then humanism isn’t true enough for anyone. Our bare similarities with animals simply will not do.

The only coherent forms of humanism are the religious forms—the ones that can view human nature as something good that has been given from outside and which ought to be conformed to. It is only on such a basis that we can distinguish human nature in the sense of “what we observe humans doing” from human nature in the sense of “what humans ought to be.” And yet, this is an aspect of human nature (in both senses) that is entirely alien to other animals.

Indeed, as an animal, humans are so peculiar that one wonders whether “animal” is really a helpful category to place us in. It seems rather like saying that a Ferrari is a peculiar kind of bicycle.

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2 Responses to A Most Peculiar Animal

  1. Wilson says:

    Your argument is based on a false premise.

    The whole premise is: If a man is an animal, what is wrong with murder and rape?

    There is a simple and intuitive answer to that. There is a bit of a moral difference in killing an ant or a mosquito and killing a pig. When you take away, offspring of a deer, cow, pig or monkey, they cry out loud, some animals like bear even attack back as well. How do you quantify the emotions of a dog, towards its puppies? There is an obvious moral difference b/w killing your pet dog and killing an insect or a pet spider. It moans out loud when it feels pain, despairs when it knows it is being killed, it feels joy when it sees its master, it feels love towards it puppies. This is not sheer sentimental drivel, but animals do feel emotions at a deeper level and once you stay with them a few days, killing them is not as easy as killing an ant even if there is no legal or divine punishments for it. So what keeps a man from killing his pets on a whim or cruelly treat them? There are many who do it but far more people take care of their pets.

    I am not saying animals should not be killed per se. I eat a lot of meat as well. There is a moral difference b/w killing animals for food and killing for pleasure. There is a lot of nuance to this whole argument as well. Some food for thought in my opinion.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks for your comment, Wilson, but I’m afraid you haven’t actually understood my argument. My premise isn’t that if humans are animals than rape is ok. It’s that making divisive moral judgments is wholly natural for humans–just as natural as sex, rape, violence, etc is for animals. There’s therefore no basis for postmodern unity to be found in the contention that humans are merely animals.

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