Sunday, February 13, 2011

Humans Live According to Reason, Right?

This is Part 1 in a 5-part series from a chapter of Rocco Buttiglione's book Exiting a Dead End Road: a GPS for Christians in Public Discourse, published by Kairos Publications in Vienna, and edited by Gudrun and Martin Kugler. The book can be ordered here.

Rocco Buttiglione is an Italian Christian Democrat politician and an academic. He is a professor of philosophy and political science at Saint Pius V University in Rome, and member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. From 2001 to 2005 he was minister of European affairs, from 2005 to 2006 minister of culture. Since 2008 he has been a vice president of the Camera dei deputati, one of the two chambers of the Italian parliament. In 2004 Mr. Buttiglione was nominated for a post as European Commissioner but did not succeed due to a campaign of radical political groups opposed to his Roman Catholic views.

Rocco Buttiglione on Human Freedom

What is freedom? At a first sight the word freedom seems to indicate a space void of any external intromission. The etym dom, that we meet in other words like king-dom or the Latin domus means a space determined by a border. The word "free" characterizes the absence of an intromission. We can also find the etym dom in the Latin word dominus, the lord. The space in which all external intromissions are excluded is the space where the dominus, the lord, exercises his will.

The phenomenon of freedom seems then to imply on the one hand the absence of coercion, the absence of a foreign will. On the other hand we define freedom in relation to an interior will. An animal is free when it can roam without the restraint of a chain according to the interior impulse of his instincts that exercise in it the function of the will. Shall we say of a human being that he or she is free in the same sense?

In the case of man the issue is a bit more complicated. We are inhabited by many impulses and drives and instincts. We possess as personal beings, nevertheless, a specific capacity that is called will in the proper sense of the word. It is a sense different from that we use when we say that a dog is free. A dog is free when it is not enchained. We all know, however, that we can control a dog also without a chain. We can train the dog making use of its instinctual drives so that it responds to our will even better than if it were at the chain. We can manipulate a dog. Is a manipulated dog still free? Here we usually do not make a distinction between a free dog and an unfree dog. We rather make a distinction between a domesticated dog and a wild or feral dog. We think it corresponds to the nature of a dog to be domesticated and therefore a domesticated dog is, in one sense, more free than a dog without a master. A dog needs a master who takes care of it because it cannot take care of itself. If we think about a wolf instead of a dog our conclusions could be different. We wouldn’t describe a wolf as an animal that can be domesticated. We rather speak of a tamed wolf, which seems to indicate that it corresponds more to the nature of a wolf to be savage than tamed. We have here introduced the concept of nature.

The way in which a being can be free strictly depends on its nature. A dog is free under conditions that would make a wolf unfree. This concept of nature is not strictly biological. Biological drives and presuppositions are here very important, however there are other factors that are equally relevant. Biologically a wolf and a dog belong to the same species but they are different because of a different historical development.

Shall we consider human freedom in the same way in which we consider the freedom of animals? In one sense yes, in another no. For man as well as for all animals to be free means to be able to act according to nature. We cannot say what is human freedom without considering human nature. Human nature is different. Not only from the nature of any other animal species but from the nature of all other animal species considered together. The difference is so great that in one sense only of man we can properly say that he/she is free. Let us see why.

Man’s unique freedom

Like all other animals, man has in himself instinctual drives that incline him towards action. We feel hunger and then look for food. We are afraid and run away from the source of our fear. We are angry and attack those who make us angry. We feel sexual desire and try to copulate with the subject of the opposite sex that arouses our desire. But is this an accurate description of the properly human form of behavior? No, it is not. Other animals behave in that way. Humans do not. At least humans do not always act like this.

Whilst we all feel the instinctual drives of other animals we are also subject to another law, the law of conscience. We ask ourselves questions like: is it good, just, proper, correct, to act in this way, to follow the pressure of our instinctual drives? Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no. Humans have a moral conscience. They are really free when they obey the inner voice of moral conscience and are not subject to the absolute preponderance of their instincts. Human nature encompasses a quest for the moral good that is foreign to mere animal nature (even if some forms of behavior of higher animals might bear a certain similarity to humans).

The first one to discover and describe this typical form of humanity was Socrates. He describes the world of values and, in particular, within this world, the value of the good.

Let us make one example, let us consider the sexual instinct. Max Scheler has described how the animal drive is directed towards the sexual organs of the other. The animal concentrates on its own urge and wants to discharge it. With humans it is different. Humans consider the form of the body of the other and are attracted not just by the sexual organs but by the beauty of the form. There is a moment of unselfish purely esthetical admiration in typically human sexual attraction.

Scheler continues to describe the phenomenon of eye contact. Through the eye one lover is introduced into the personal intimacy of the other and appreciates the other not just as a body but as a person. That is not enough. Human love has not only a distinct esthetic but also an ethical dimension. I do not only consider my pleasure but also the pleasure of the loved one. I wish to receive pleasure but also to give pleasure. Moreover, I am interested in the true good of the other. I take a responsibility for this true good and subordinate my personal satisfaction to this responsibility. Is it good for her to have a sexual relationship with me? Would her personhood flourish or be impoverished in this relationship? This question cannot be answered without considering not only the couple of the two lovers but the general environment in which they are set. Would, for example, this act disrupt her (his) relationship to other persons, spouse, children etc…?

All these considerations enter into a properly human love relationship, giving it an esthetical and ethical dimension that is missing in the purely animal drive. We want, of course, satisfy our drives -- but in a way that is compatible with our human dignity and enhances it. We see a world of values and know that our lives would be qualitatively different if we remain faithful to this world of values. We know also that we have to subdue our drives to the world of values. In the center of the world of values stands the value of truth. There can be no world of values without truth.

Try to ask the question: does she love me truly? If her love is not true it is not love at all. A false love is no love. No value is valuable if it is not true. The world of values (the properly human world) is animated by the search for truth. This world of values is not given to us all at once. It manifests itself step by step and we have to follow its unfolding investigating at the same time the sense of our human experience. Truth and good and beauty are the ordering principles of the world of values and they determine what the proper conditions for the satisfaction of our instinctual drives are. St. Augustine calls the faculty to order the world according to the principles of truth, good, beauty and wisdom. We could call it also reason. A human life is a life led according to reason. (Read more here.)

I like what Buttiglione says, but I can anticipate the argument of David Hume fans that what motivates humans isn't reason but our passions.

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