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Review: Roger Scruton’s “On Human Nature”

“The result is a thoughtful and nuanced book that testifies to both his theoretical and exegetical talents, solidifying Scruton’s legacy as the most talented conservative writer of his generation.”

Introduction

The late Roger Scruton’s 2017 book On Human Nature is a sequel of sorts to his earlier, 2014 work The Soul of the World, which was a similarly panoramic take on virtually every topic of philosophical importance. Based on a series of lectures given at Princeton University in 2013, the subsequent book is more accessible than its counterpart. Scruton’s tone is ruminative and, at times, even conversational, entirely eschewing the occasional shrillness that undermined other works. The result is a thoughtful and nuanced book that testifies to both his theoretical and exegetical talents, solidifying Scruton’s legacy as the most talented conservative writer of his generation. This is not to say it is without problems, given that Scruton’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. He sometimes settles for what are taken as “common sense” views on metaphysical and moral problems that seem to permit no resolution—when the more consistent approach might just be to concede that we do not yet have an answer. Moreover, this tendency to rest on settled possibilities for conservative purposes evades the possibility that the only way to solve these problems might be to turn to radical solutions.

What is Human Nature?        

See in what a state I am! Weep with me and weep for me, all you who feel within yourselves that goodness from which good actions come. Those of you who have no such feeling will not be moved by what I am saying. But do Thou, 0 Lord my God, hear me and look upon me and see me and pity me and heal me, Thou in whose eyes I have become a question to myself: and that is my infirmity.”

– St. Augustine, The Confessions

As the title indicates, Scruton’s book concerns itself with what it means to be a human being. More specifically, he seeks to uphold a venerable conception of the individual as being both a part of the material world and, in some sacred senses, transcending it. This outlook also extends to human relations and ethics and is juxtaposed against all forms of strict materialism. This includes the naturalistic reductionism of the human being by figures like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett; the moral consequentialism of Peter Singer and Derek Parfit; and various forms of militant atheism.

Scruton’s argument is that we are indeed material beings seen from a certain angle. Our bodies—including the brain—are composed of matter. Those we love and care for are also composed of matter, and the feelings we have for them emerge from immeasurably complex neural processes. But all of this does not mean that what we are is reducible to matter. Scruton invokes Hegel’s well-known arguments about how quantitative change can eventually become so dramatic that it brings about qualitative transitions. Just like if one adds enough grains of sand together it eventually becomes a heap, once a material being becomes sufficiently complex what it is cannot just be explained with reference to the constituent matter. This is especially important in explaining why it is that each individual understands himself as being more than just another idle collection of matter. Unlike rocks, television sets, or Dave Rubin’s thinking, beings see themselves as subjects who take an intentional position in relation to the world. In other words, we see ourselves, others, and perhaps the world as being meaningful in a deep way and consequently care about our actions. This sense of selfhood in relation to others gives each thinking being a distinct essence, which is not present in other material entities. Scruton helpfully expresses the point with reference to non-human animals:

“Water is stuff, so too is gold…Its essence lies in the stuff from which it is composed, and its being this thing rather than that is simply an accident of its history. Other items in our world are thing essentially; the paradigm being the animals. My horse Desmond is a particular horse; although he is composed of various stuffs—water, flesh, blood—he is essentially this thing and on ceasing to be this thing he ceases to be…Desmond is more of an individual than a stone, since if you divided a stone in two, you still have the same components of the universe—only the arrangement has changed: two bits of stone rather than one bit. But if you divide Desmond in two, you don’t just replace one bit of horse with two bits. You lose the horse.”

Human Relations and Ethics

This critique of reductionist materialism is not purely theoretical. Scruton contends, rightly, that it has moral consequences. When we look at thinking beings as purely matter (without recognizing the individual essence that makes them what they are), it is a short step to dehumanizing everything that makes them unique. When Desmond the horse is chopped in two, the world is “ontologically the poorer” for having lost him. This is compounded when we lose a human being, whose cognitive complexity is many leagues above Desmond’s, which means that we are even more unique and, thus, irreplaceable. For Scruton, this explains the deep connection we have with others and the sense of tremendous loss that occurs when someone we know dies. In the conclusion of the book, Scruton reflects on the religious experience of meaning as articulated primarily in the Judeo-Christian tradition. While he stops short of arguing that God exists in the strict sense, Scruton applauds religion for symbolically reflecting on and expressing this conviction about the transcendent value of life, as well as the tragedy of its needless loss. This is also why religions imposed such strict obligations on individuals—many of which we resent and dismiss today as mere prejudice. Scruton’s chief example is sexual mores. While often castigated as puritanical and misogynistic, Scruton argues that sexual mores expressed the notion that one is to treat a partner not just as an object for gratification but as an individual in himself or herself. At its most erotic connotation, sex is to be a mutual engagement with another a person—which breaks us out of own myopic subjectivity and puts us in touch with the Other. One of the problems with, say, pornography is that it dissociates sexual desire from the real engagement with the Other and reduces it to mere physical gratification.

For instance, when faced with a choice between saving my child or saving two other children, a strict consequentialist would likely insist that the latter is morally required. This seems intolerable to Scruton, as it does to many other moral theorists.

This concern for depersonalization is also at the root of Scruton’s moral and political critiques of consequentialism, which he sometimes—somewhat bizarrely—seems to take as being at the foundation of modern political calamities. Consequentialists like the utilitarians tend to be concerned purely with aggregated happiness and suffering, while being largely indifferent to people as individual persons. This dissociation is necessary for consequentialists to treat morality like a science, with actions weighted mathematically by how much pleasure they generate or pain they prevent.

Scruton is at his weakest trying to object to this line of thinking. He sometimes invokes a deontological position focused on rights and individual autonomy to push against it, and that does, indeed, seem to be the correct step to take. At other times, he argues that consequentialist dissociation abstracts away from the concrete interpersonal relations that make life worth living. For instance, when faced with a choice between saving my child or saving two other children, a strict consequentialist would likely insist that the latter is morally required. This seems intolerable to Scruton, as it does to many other moral theorists. However, Scruton also concedes that there are many occasions where it is wise to think like a consequentialist and make difficult comparative judgements. When it is appropriate or not is never settled; it appears to be little more than a gut feeling on Scruton’s part. His primary bone of contention is against figures such as Peter Singer or Derek Parfit, who want to insist that consequentialist reasoning suggests we have vast obligations to the world’s poor that are not being met. Given the resources available to help them, we should redistribute from the wealthy to the poor on a grand scale.

Scruton offers the weak rebuttal that we cannot be sure that—in the long run—such exercises will genuinely make people better off. But this is pretty thin stuff; as Singer repeatedly points out, there are typically very clear cases where we can make a tremendous difference through redistribution. In Singer’s 2015 book The Most Good You Can Do, he observes that for $10, a person in a wealthy country can inoculate a child against deadly diseases. This not only ensures the child’s survival but also prevents the extraordinary pain his or her family would go through watching their son or daughter die from a preventable illness. Given this, it seems very difficult to argue that the wealthiest are morally entitled to spend that $10 satisfying their own needs, rather than helping the child in another country. Scruton might object that such thinking involves endless and abstract calculations that run very counter to common sense. But, Singer and those sympathetic to his thinking rightly point out that it is frequently the case that morality entails doing things that run counter to common sense. This is all the more true when common sense just stipulates that we gratify our own desires and ignore the bigger problems of the world. Indeed, one might turn Scruton’s own reasoning against him by observing that if he truly thinks all life is sacred, there is something macabre about ignoring preventable suffering simply because many think “out of sight out of mind.” The same type of problems emerge when Singer pushes against the reasoning of John Rawls, who argued that impartial reasoners behind a veil of ignorance would choose to distribute wealth to better the least well-off. Scruton contends that no one actually lives behind a veil of ignorance, as though Rawls or any Rawlsian was unaware of this. The point of the thought experiment is precisely that many people do not think this way but should, if we were being truly reflective about what is required for a just society.

Conclusion

The biggest problem with On Human Nature is more abstract and cannot really be blamed on Scruton. His insistence that we are both material beings and—in some senses—more is highly appealing and does indeed capture an important dilemma that has been floating around since at least Immanuel Kant. While the explanatory power of scientific materialism makes it very compelling simply to reduce the human being to another kind of matter in motion, it is irrevocably true that each of us—as a person—does not just see ourself as matter in motion. We adopt an intentional stance towards our life and the world around us, which, in turn, provides a sense of meaning to our actions. This has a direct relation to the sense of ourselves as free individuals who are responsible for what we do. If it turned out that we were simply matter like rocks or trees, then we would have little reason to think what we were doing was free—and that our actions really mattered because they flowed from our agency. One does not get angry at a thunderstorm for injuring a woman; and, if all we are is another form of matter, it would be nonsensical to get angry at a bunch of flesh and blood hurting another. But while it is indeed extremely difficult to escape the sense of being more than just matter in motion, the alternatives seems to be appealing to some form of ontological dualism, which I do not think is tenable today. Scruton stops short of embracing this position by saying that what the mind (and so ourselves) is happens to be something different from matter. But, as framed in On Human Nature, that seems to be the only available solution to give Scruton the outcome he seeks. I think a more interesting alternative would be to embrace the position of David Chalmers, who argues that what we need to do is not appeal to the old conception of the person as somehow transcending the empirical world. Instead, the scientific mindset might need to expand to consider how there is more to existence than simply matter; but this must be done in such a way so as not to commit oneself to metaphysically grandiose or untestable conclusions. This seems to be the correct route to take, though how to even begin thinking through those questions is an issue I will put aside.

None of this detracts from the substantial pleasures of Scruton’s book. On Human Nature is a beautifully written paean to a deep soul who embodied what is best in the conservative tradition. Restlessly curious and sweeping, it should be of interest to anyone interested in dialoguing with eternal questions of great importance to us all.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof

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