Digital Dialogue 07: Humanism

By August 10, 2009 June 21st, 2018 Digital Dialogue Podcast

In episode seven of the Digital Dialogue, I am joined by Leigh Johnson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis. She is working on scholarship related to human rights and what she calls “weak humanism.”  In the podcast we discuss the meaning of this term and the whether we need to appeal to a sense of commonness to ground claims of human rights.

Leigh is also a prolific and compelling blogger at:

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  • Great dialogue, Chris and Leigh!
    One question: in your discussion, I wasn't always clear why we'd want to reject a strong humanism. Certainly, in the past, "capacity" humanism has been associated with exclusion and oppression. But as Leigh points out, those moments of oppression and exclusion often look to us, today, as failures of the Enlightenment humanists. It's like they made a simple error. If we were mathemeticians, we'd correct the error without necessarily rejecting the theory. We do this sort of thing with the ancient philosophers all the time.
    So we'd say: yes, deliberative capacity, rationality, and autonomy are part of what it means to be human, but we shouldn't see failures in these regards as inhuman, but rather as evidence of other traits of the human: susceptibility, vulnerability, mortality, and interdependence. The result would be… would we call it "strong-weak humanism"? Maybe just "humanism" full-stop.

  • I will let Leigh defend her use of the term "weak humanism" here, but I appreciate the concern behind your comment here.
    I have often thought it important to retain a notion of humanism and even subjectivity if these terms can be reformulated in ways that neither give ontological and ethical priority to the human over all other ways of being nor operate as foundational or normative ultimates that legitimate forms of domination and oppression.
    I would look forward to Leigh's thought on this though.

  • Scu says:

    I found this discussion very interesting. I have a brief comment about it over at my blog,… but I hope to formulate a longer one later. I also want to thank Leigh Johnson for making public her ongoing work, I know that often is made risky in the academy, but I appreciate it.

  • Dr. J says:

    It’s a good question, Joshua, and I’m glad you asked it. In the conversation with Chris, I think I just gestured generally toward “20th C. critiques of Enlightenment humanism” without really drawing out the substance of those critiques. I’m not sure there is adequate space to do that here, unfortunately, but I can at least make a slightly-less-general attempt to explain what’s wrong with “strong” humanism.
    [I had to split this response up into several comments. Apologies in advance.]

  • Dr. J says:

    Mainly, I think the focus on human strengths (as the basis for a philosophical humanism) has more of an inherent tendency toward exclusion than a focus on weaknesses does, because it sets the bar for qualifying as a "human being" quite high and because the criteria for making those judgments are hard to divorce from the deep, social-ontological struts and girders that form the architectures of injustice. This is not a particularly original insight, and I think history has proven it to be true. One way of interpreting that history is, as you point out, to simply claim that (Enlightenment) humanists practiced humanism “badly.” I am inclined to believe this interpretation is at least partially true and, for that reason, I am not primarily trying to advocate a complete “rejection” of strong humanism. My position is that strong humanism—whatever the nature and origin of its faults—is not the best philosophical basis for defending human rights. So, even if we practiced the purest form of it, there would still be something missing from the human rights discourse that has grown out of it.

  • Dr. J says:

    In fact, I think strong humanism is far better at securing things like property rights and some civic rights (like citizenship), where the sorts of qualities and capabilities that are emphasized in strong humanism have more of a bearing on the rights being accorded. But I think “human” rights are chiefly designed to protect human beings when all of those strong qualities and capabilities are, for the most part, irrelevant. There is an exponentially greater moral and political force in claiming that we should not torture because that practice involves exploiting a fundamental and universal human weakness, I think, than in claiming that we should not torture because that practice is inconsistent with the respect we ought to accord rational, autonomous beings. The kind of Kantian respect that animates so much of Enlightenment humanism is useful when I have questions about how best to interact with my neighbors and their stuff, but considerably less compelling when I am already disinclined to see my neighbors as fellow human beings (which is, arguably, the situation we are dealing with in the case of most human rights violations).

  • Dr. J says:

    I ought not torture because torture causes pain and capitalizes on a vulnerability that I share with my victim. In a sense, it’s a matter of lowering the bar of the criteria we use for determining who deserves “humane” treatment. It is definitely harder to meet the strong humanist criteria of exhibiting rationality and autonomy than it is to meet the weak humanist criteria of simply being vulnerable to pain and exploitation.
    So, to be clear, I am not saying that we should disregard all of the central descriptive claims of strong humanism, but only that when it comes to providing a philosophical defense of human rights, we get more out of the prescriptive claims that weak humanism’s descriptions generate.

  • I'd like to distinguish two questions, here:
    First, what is the best "basis" for human rights? You've suggested that 'strong' humanism fails in this regard because it tends to deny us the protection of rights at those moments when we are most in need of them. However, here I think we have to differentiate 'capacities' from exercises of strength, just as the historical humanists did for white men. For someone like Aristotle, moral desert and political protections seem to flow from actually exercised excellences. For the Enlighenment humanists, I'm not sure this is true: we can usually catch them in a self-contradiction when they discuss non-whites and women.
    On a Kantian view, for instance, we are all often failing to be autonomous, but it is our capacity for autonomy that warrants respect. Kant makes it clear that the exercise of the capacity for autonomy is highly contingent on external factors, which is why he emphasizes education as well as the pedagogical aspect of the rule of law. We can't always make ourselves autonomous: we need others for that. (This is one reason he rejects revolution except in certain circumstances: we need laws, even unjust laws, to be fully autonomous.)
    In modern human rights theory, we say that we ought not torture someone because their strengths are actually quite vulnerable: you can turn an intelligent, witty, loving man into something that cannot think, appreciate humor, or feel and express love. This is, I think, what Chris meant when he talked about our vulnerabilities as strengths: a fine tuned instrument is much more susceptible to breakage than a more common one.
    The second question, which I think it distinct from the first, is what is the best way to advance the widespread support for human rights? For instance, the best argument against torture isn't philosophical, it's practical: it doesn't work! I think this is a distinct question because, as you point out, there are facts of social experience that tend to blind us to the humanity of some others. Here, I reluctantly turn to Richard Rorty and John Rawls. Rorty argued that -no- definitional work around the word 'human' can ever force us to see the deservingness of another being. For that, only stories will suffice: we have to be made to see the world through that person's eyes, to imagine ourselves in their place. It doesn't matter if those stories emphasize strength or weakness, because what the stories do to us is simply to force us to include those others in our moral community. (This is almost exactly the same thing that Kant recommends in the Metaphysics of Morals and the Anthropology.)
    Once within our moral community, I think the Rawlsian intuition pump of the original position does the rest of the work. One problem that you've been ducking is about scope: the dreaded "cows and trees." Stories can make us sympathise with anything: I have a friend who stopped eating fish after seeing Finding Nemo. What we need from philosophy is a check on our intuitions in the other direction: it can't make us stop torturing, but it might be able to keep us from devoting too many resources to the protection of any one thing. See, for instance, the controversy surrounding the snail darter and the Tellico Dam.
    We also depend on philosophy when we need to weigh vulnerabilities against each other, as in the abortion question. Fetuses seem like the weakest possible subset of humanity, utterly dependent.on the mother's body and susceptible to the mildest of injuries. Leigh, the one question I're really like you to show your hand on is this one: does a human rights based on human weakness change the calculation we make when a individual decides to have an abortion? Does it change the calculation when a society determines when and how to limit the rights of mothers over their own body? Rawls's original position gives me an answer to that, in a way that allows me to consider both strengths and weaknesses, and weigh them against each other within a comprehensive institution of rights-protections. I think that's the bar set for any competing humanism.

  • DoctorJ says:

    Joshua, before I try to proceed with a response, I want to get clear on what you're asking in your last paragraph. Are you effectively asking me whether or not I think that the right to abortion is a "human" right? Or are you just asking me whether I think "weak" humanism presents more problems for deciding *who* counts as "human" in the case of end-of-life and before-life issues?

  • Well, I think I'm trying to get answers to both of those questions. Here's how I understand it:
    On traditional humanist grounds, we distinguish the mother's right to choose from the fetus's right to life either (a) because the fetus is dependent, literally not viable outside the womb, and thus not fully human: this was the original Roe v. Wade standard, or (b) because a fetus's needs do not trump the woman's right to cultivate her capabilities vis-a-vis autonomy and self-determination: this option is usually associated with Judith Jarvis Thompson. Weak humanism seems to deny both options. Is that your intention?

  • Actually, Leigh, it occurs to me that I may have misread or misunderstood you. You may be thinking of human rights as more basic than this…. After all, "human rights" has become a sort of catch-all for many different kinds of claims. I myself am never sure how far down the Universal Declaration of Human Rights I feel comfortable going: the last 10 seem more aspirational than absolute, and though I share that aspiration I do sometimes worry that we're muddying the waters by equivocating between them.
    Perhaps you feel the same, only moreso? Do you see Weak Humanism as a justification for only the first 11 articles of the UHDR? If so, then my question about abortion would be irrelevant or implicitly answered.

  • Brunson says:

    Leigh –
    It seems that this demarcation problem comes out in utilitarianism as well in accepting that the moral good is at least the absence of pain and that animals obviously feel pain. Mill of course appeals to the traditional view of humans possessing higher faculties, but part of Josh's point is that your weak humanism wants to set that sort of appeal aside (not deny it, necessarily, but focus on other aspects). I guess I just wanted to raise the specter of the main alternative to Kant, and was wondering if 20th century utilitarians offer material for you project (sorry, I haven't listened to the podcast yet – I'm in the office).

  • DoctorJ says:

    Brunson, I only just say your comment. I'm inclined to say that the contrast of utilitarianism and deontology (of the Kantian sort) is a fasle distinction. That is, they are both using the same basic concept of the human. The difference between them, of course, is how one goes about judging ethical/political questions.
    So, I guess I would agree that IF a utilitarian adopted my version of humanism, s/he would arrive at ethical/political judgments closer to mine (on the basis of his or her utilitarian calculus). But I don't think a standard utilitarian would be operating with my conception of the human.

  • I am really glad to see the dialogue that has emerged in relation to this episode of the podcast. I am happy to hear Leigh articulate her position more fully here. I am also impressed by the caring and careful tone of the discussion, all of which helps support Leigh's work and furthers my own interest to cultivate living dialogue on important philosophical issues.
    Let me press in a slightly different direction, recognizing Leigh's candid account of her own philosophical commitment to human rights. I very much appreciate the attempt to root human rights in the question of vulnerability and "weakness" in the sense I think I understand Leigh to mean. However, I wonder if our discussion remains too caught up in the legacy not of rooting, but of normative founding. I think I hear, and correct me please if I am wrong, in Leigh's position an attempt to step to the side of the question of normative founding in which certain normative judgments are legitimated by a set of normative assumptions about what sorts of beings or activities are better than others. I think she attempts to do this side stepping even as she takes a powerful stand for human rights.
    I appeal to the language of rooting here because it points to the idea that the ground on which a stand for human rights might be made is determined not by the positing of an essence of the human, but by allowing decisions about how we live with and respond to one another to be nourished by a deep appreciation for human vulnerability. By rooting decisions in the soil of vulnerability, Leigh insists that we recognize the limitations of our own decision making abilities, that we address the suffering of others with humility, and that we listen attentively so as to respond appropriately to the very real ways we humans traumatize one another. I hear in her appeal to vulnerability, a deep recognition of human finitude, a recognition that, when honestly faced, can inform the way we live and respond to one another.
    This approach might allow us to make ethical decisions that defend human rights and thus cultivate fulfilling lives, without requiring an unshakable normative foundation that remains in principle beyond our finite power.

  • Brunson says:

    I think my point is that utilitarianism from the beginning lends itself to a reconsideration of humanism because it bases moral consideration on sentience rather than 'rationality' – this is part of what undergirds Mill's extension of the franchise to women, opposition to slavery, etc. – so the dichotomy between Kant and Mill may not be entirely false. More practically, it seems that your emphasis on vulnerability resonates with elements of utilitarianism and so the debates within that stance (Singer being an obvious figure) could be used to hone your own perspective.

  • Scu says:

    I have a longer response up at my blog,
    I wish I knew how to synthesize my comments better into the discussion(s) happening here. But posting my own blog posts seem like the best idea right now.
    Thanks again for everyone in this project.

  • DoctorJ says:

    Chris, I want to post a response to your comment here, but every time I write something more than a paragraph long, I get an error message that says that my comment is too long and I need to break it up into separate comments. I see that others are able to post long comments here. Can you help me?
    (Real answer to come…)

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