A Girardian Thought Experiment, Part I--What Is It To Be Human?

The law school I attended had (as still has) a professor of criminal law named Paul Robinson.  I didn't have him for first year criminal law, but a number of my close friends did.  One of his big areas of research in criminal law involved the idea of moral intuitions.  Criminal law, and other areas of law for that matter, have often taken on a rationalistic and technical character, in which you attempted to come to the "correct" legal regime through the application of pure reason.  Professor Robinson believed that this approach tends to de-emphasize and de-legitimize our basic moral sense of what is just--a basic intuition that is often a more reliable vehicle to achieving justice than our hyper-rational structures, especially when that intuition is "crowd sourced" and incorporates our collective wisdom.

I was thinking about Professor Robinson's ideas while reading this essay by Rachel Held Evans.  Evans writes about the dilemma that pro-life Christians face during this election.  On the one hand you have Hillary Clinton, who is a supporter of abortion rights; on the other hand, you have Donald Trump, who claims to support abortion restrictions, but there is substantial reason to believe he is not serious about this, and is otherwise awful in manifold ways.  My views on this topic are pretty clear, so I completely understand where Evans is coming from, in attempting to defend the intellectual space where someone who is pro-life would vote for Clinton.

But the other thing Evans raises is the precise contours of being pro-life.  More specifically:

While it would be easier to debate one another if reproductive issues fell neatly into black-and-white categories of right and wrong, good and evil, most of us recognize this is simply not the case.  The fact that a woman’s body naturally rejects dozens of fertilized eggs in her lifetime raises questions about where we draw the line regarding the personhood of a zygote. Do we count all those “natural abortions” as deaths? When does personhood begin—at fertilization? implantation? the presence of brainwaves? the second trimester?  There is disagreement among Christians about this, (and historically, even among evangelicals), so is it really my place, or the government's job, to impose my beliefs on people of all faiths and convictions?

And here is where Professor Robinson's notion of moral intuitions comes in for me.  Particularly if you are steeped in the Catholic branch of the pro-life movement, there is the idea that this question must be seen as all or nothing--if you don't defend the personhood of the zygote, you will have no basis for opposing abortion under any circumstances, or even no basis for defending bans on infanticide (an argument made, for example, by Professor Camosy).  But I think this flies in the face of a basic intuition that many people have.  For the reasons that Evans points out, most people do not treat a zygote is indistinguishable morally from a newborn child, or even from a third trimester fetus.  I would argue there is a moral intuition there, some sense of what is right and wrong without necessarily being able to coherently articulate the precise boundaries.

So, let's run with this moral intuition.  Taking our cues from Evans, we begin with the intuition that an undifferentiated zygote is not the same as person has been born.  That doesn't necessarily mean that there are no moral restrictions on what we can do to this zygote, but it does mean that we can treat the zygote as categorically different from that of born people.  On the flip side, other than philosophy professors, no one that I am aware of seriously advocates for the moral justifiability of infanticide.  We all have a collective sense that a child who comes through the womb is a full member of the human family with a full set of human rights.  In between those two poles, we have an ambiguous space, where we will disagree over where appropriate lines can and should be drawn.  Some people think that most or all of this space should be protected, others believe that women should have full freedom to terminate the pregnancy up to birth, and most fall somewhere in between.



If that is our basic paradigm, is there a way to "put some meat on these bones"?  In other words, can be come up with a set of principles that support that moral intuition?  Can we engage with the philosophical absolutists who insist that our moral intuition is built on sand?  I'd like to sketch out some tentative ideas along these lines, drawing on the work of Rene Girard.  I know, I know, you are shocked that I am going to draw on Girard, but I think that his work is useful here because he approaches the question of "what does it mean to be human?" in a different way from most religious thinkers.  This is because, in large part, he is one of the few religiously-oriented thinkers that takes seriously the fact of human evolution from our primate cousins.

Along those lines, one of the bedrock principles of moral and legal analysis is that the category of living beings labeled "humans" are treated differently from all other categories of living beings.  This scheme requires us to have some sort of yardstick for determine what is a human being and what is not.  One way of approaching this question is from a purely biological point of view--i.e. there are certain purely physical traits that distinguish human beings from other forms of life.  But this approach raises two polar problems.  On the one hand, there is a significant amount of diversity in biological traits among the set of living beings we generally call humans.  Human beings come in all shapes and sizes, colors, and capabilities.  We have to be very careful that we don't exclude certain groups on the basis of biological traits, as was once common to do with humans of African descent, to pick one notorious example.

On the flip side, in the grand scheme of things, we are not all that different biologically from our close cousins in the animal kingdom.  If you are working from purely biological traits, I think there is a non-crazy argument that higher primates, like chimpanzees and bonobos, are so similar to human beings that they should be put into the same taxonomy as human beings.  More to the point, once you start selecting traits as markers for humanity that are designed to excluded higher primates (like, say, speech), you will find that you also exclude segments of what everyone would agree are human beings.  After all, gorillas can communicate via sign language just like deaf or mute people--if lack of speech rules out gorillas, it also excludes the deaf and/or mute.

Again, I think it is valid to argue that our definition of "human" is too narrow, or that we should expand the "protected class" of living beings to include primates or dolphins or whatever.  But, for purposes of this discussion, let us hold to our original objective--how to we distinguish between human and non-human, and on what basis?  Doing that biologically/genetically, which is how all of the pro-life discourse approaches the question, is really problematic.  What they end up saying is something along the lines of "human beings are those living beings who are derived genetically from other human beings."  But this, of course, is circular--it ends up being the famous argument about pornography, which is that you know it when you see it.

Girard offers a different approach--humanity is defined not by its biology, but by its society and socialization.  For Girard, we separated from our primate ancestors and became human at the moment in which our capacity for imitative memesis advanced to the point where we could take meaning from the exclusion of the scapegoat.  Someone killed a member of his or her own clan, and the clan put meaning on the death of this person.  Once this occurred, all of the members of the clan became knitted together in the web that we call human culture, both forming it and being formed by it.  At this point, the clan became humans (this also, in a Girardian context, is the true moment of Original Sin).

As a result, a human being can be defined as a living being who forms and is formed by human society--what Alison called the "Social Other."  From the first moment of birth, our personality is being formed and shaped as a result of this complex interplay of memetic desire; likewise, our desires are forming and shaping the people around us.  Everything we do, and our entire sense of who we are, is a product of our complex interactions with this Social Other.

By contrast, even our highly advanced primate cousins are not part of and formed the same Social Other that homo sapiens are.  They have complex social interactions and structures, but they do not exhibit the same process of forming culture on the backs of the scapegoated victims.  We have no indication that chimpanzees have the same process of the Sacred that both binds and bedevils human beings.  We could be wrong about that--we may find that higher primates or other advanced forms have social processes that are similar to our own, which would require a radical rethinking of our relationship to those beings.  But, for now and based on our current knowledge, I think it is safe to say that our culture and sociality is the thing that makes us categorically different from every other form of life on Earth.

If our society and the participation in that society is the thing that defines humanity, then the relevant question for looking at the abortion issue is "when do we become enmeshed in human society?"  When do we start being formed by and forming the web of human culture?  It seems to me that the answers to this question line up rather nicely with the moral intuition sketched out above.  I'll sketch that out in part two.  

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