Book Review: “On Human Nature” by Roger Scruton

Book Review by Ben Johnson

Source: Acton Institute

On Human Nature. Roger Scruton.
Princeton University Press. 2017. 151 pages.

By Rev. Ben Johnson

Click to order from Amazon

Click to order from Amazon
(Turn off ad blocker to work)

On Earth Day, April 22, tens of thousands of activists held the first “March for Science” in cities around the world. “Science brings out the best in us,” Bill Nye, the star of two eponymous television programs about science, told the assembly in Washington. “Together we can – dare I say it – save the world!” he said, earning the enthusiastic approval of an estimated 40,000 people. Many of the participants – in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, even in the Eternal City of Rome – carried signs saying, “In Science We Trust.”

The marchers’ slogan is misguided from a philosophical, not to mention a theological, standpoint. Science is mechanistic and analytic, not ethical and prescriptive. That makes it, at best, an incomplete guide and at worst, corrosive to human dignity. Yet increasingly, Western society turns to science as a panacea for statecraft and soulcraft. Secularists maintain that their idealized version of “science” offers irrefutable solutions to everything from contentious policy disagreements to longstanding moral and ethical quandaries. Some researchers, such as Harvard’s Marc Hauser and former National Institutes of Health scholar Dean Hamer, contend that evolution hardwired human neurological circuitry with the very notions of morality and religious belief in the first place.

Edward O. Wilson, the apostle of sociobiology, popularized this school of thought. “The brain is a product of evolution,” he wrote in his 1978 book, On Human Nature. All “higher ethical values” are merely “the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function.”

Can all human nature be reduced to assuring reproduction? Are we no more than the curvature of our grey matter and the neurological links between synapses?

Almost 40 years after Wilson, Roger Scruton explores the interplay of science and self in the first chapter of his new book, also titled On Human Nature. For Scruton, humanity is not to be found apart from our physical reality but arises from its fulness and complexity. “The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from itin something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas.” (Emphases in original.)

Humanity expresses itself above all in self-awareness, the ability to treat others as subjects and not objects, and our sense of responsibility – the moral culpability which we accept and ascribe to our actions and those of others. Persons are “free, self-conscious, rational agents, obedient to reason and bound by the moral law,” he writes. The human formula may be expressed in its simplest form as “first-person perspective, and responsibility,” a notion he explored in his 1986 book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (chapters 3 and 4).

The essence of our common human nature buds forth as a “social product,” lived out in a myriad of I-You relationships (a phrase he borrows from Martin Buber), including that of citizen of a nation. Many of these are unchosen and not necessarily preferred. Yet fidelity to these obligations, which he designates “piety,” determines our moral character. It is in these contexts that our ability to treat others as co-equal persons is exercised.

The Nature of Liberty

Those tempted to say the abstract definition of human nature is too esoteric to be of value would do well to ponder its practical consequences. Scruton writes that I-You relationships, exercised within these contexts, have created “all that is most important in the human condition … responsibility, morality, law, institutions, religion, love, and art.” Not least among these considerations is the kind of society that subsists, germ-like, within each worldview.

Biological determinism has produced Nazi Germany, the society and ideology of Senator Theodore Bilbo, and the miasma of their modern-day disciples. Significantly, Martin Luther King Jr. cited Buber in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to say that segregation “substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”

Scruton dedicates another lengthy discussion to consequentialism, the notion that the ends justify any means. Moral good reduces to an arithmetic formula: The correct decision brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people, irrespective of any properties inherent in the act itself. But its proponents, such as Peter Singer, overlook “the actual record of consequentialist reasoning. Modern history presents case after case of inspired people led by visions of ‘the best’ and argues that all would work for it, the bourgeoisie included, if only they understood the impeccable arguments for its implementation.” Since privilege cloaks their benighted eyes, “violent revolution is both necessary and inevitable.”

As a result, Scruton writes, Vladmir Lenin and Mao Tse-tung brought about “the total destruction of two great societies and irreversible damage to the rest of us. Why suppose that we, applying our minds to the question of what might be best in the long run, would make a better job of it?” Instead of learning this lesson, he notes, generations of consequentialists have “regretted the ‘mistakes’ of Lenin and Mao.”

Juxtaposed to these two systems is human nature rooted in the moral interaction of equal persons. An accusation of wrongdoing yields an investigation, not an annihilation. Mutually agreed rights and responsibilities carve out a zone of autonomy inaccessible to anyone, even the State, and expedite social harmony.

This conception of human nature facilitates a free and virtuous society. “Cooperation rather than command is the first principle of collective action,” Scruton writes. “Morality exists in part because it enables us to live on negotiated terms with others,” both accountable to the tenets of right reason. He regards the “principles that underlie common-law justice in the English-speaking tradition” as “a natural adjunct to the moral order” and latent within natural law. He explicitly names six principles:

  1. Considerations that justify or impugn one person will, in identical circumstances, justify or impugn another.
  2. Rights are to be respected.
  3. Obligations are to be fulfilled.
  4. Agreements are to be honored.
  5. Disputes are to be settled by negotiation, not by force.
  6. Those who do not respect the rights of others forfeit rights of their own.

Although he does not elaborate on the kind of economic life that flows from this, it is noteworthy that he cites Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments explicitly in this context.

The Role of Religion

While he holds these truths to be self-evident apart from any supernatural origin, he finds believers their natural repository. “Religious people … have no difficulty in understanding that human beings are distinguished from other animals by their freedom, self-consciousness, and responsibility,” he writes:

Take away religion, however, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down,’ which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. And abolishes our kind – and with it our kindness.

In four brief chapters Scruton, with characteristically elegant prose and clarity of thought, furnishes theists with an introductory grammar to defend their deeply held beliefs without relying upon special revelation. Believers, and society, are the better for it.

Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

Comments

  1. Michael Bauman :

    If this review is reflective of the book itself, the book and it’s thesis is wholly inadequate. In fact it is wholly a product of the thing it supposedly decries. It has the same foundation in Deism and secularism. Flavored still with utilitarianism and egalitarianism.

    The concept of “rights” is foreign to the Christian faith. Life is to be protected and nurtured not because anybody has a right to it but simply because God gives it and we, as human beings made in His image, are stewards of it. We are commanded to offer that gift up to God in Thanksgiving so that it might be sanctified so that God may commune with His creation and His creation with Him. We are not nor can we be autnomous.

    “Rights” always leads to the tryannical state deciding whose rights are to be upheld by the coercive power of the state and who is to be suppressed, even killed.

    Rights historically have led to Christian martyrs.

    Rather than giving a language to defend anything it subsumes us into the spirit of the age-nihilism.

    If the reviewer is correct.

Care to Comment?

*

Top