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Personhood as a Part of Natural Order

Aristotle referred to human beings as zoon politikon; Hobbes stated that “man is a wolf to man” (De Waal 3). Throughout the course of human history, the greatest thinkers of their times argued about what human nature stands for. As seen from the statements of Hobbes and Aristotle, they were designed to characterize a human being without isolating them from their animalistic aspects. In other words, while humans are often seen as juxtaposed to nature and its forces, they are always perceived as indistinguishable from nature and obedient to its laws and rules.

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Modern biology promotes the perspective that human personhood should be perceived as a part of the natural order, whereas some philosophers deem these two concepts incompatible. This paper argues that human personhood should be taken as an essential part of a human being that has evolved over time due to the need for survival and serves to provide the necessary conditioning to the instinctual behaviors of people clashing with their more primitive desires.

In the work called “Morally Evolved”, Frans De Waal opens with a discussion of social contract theory and its criticism presented by Hobbes as an unnatural act. The author states: “there never was a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors—a long line of monkeys and apes—we have been group-living forever. Free and equal people never existed” (De Waal 4). In other words, De Waal questions the evolution of morality and civilized society arguing that the group structure has always been a prerequisite for the appearance of a more advanced social structure.

It is important to notice that De Waal’s point of view is based on the belief that equality has never been a distinctive feature of any human society, neither before, nor after the establishment of the social contract. In fact, the whole concept of social contract theory assumes that at some point in history humans used their intelligence to organize themselves in a society with its leaders is criticized by De Waal, who emphasizes the “obligatory gregarious” nature of human beings (4). This claim means that the need for survival is seen as the force that united humans in groups as a group has more resources, and can protect itself better. Moreover, De Waal emphasizes that humans a biologically predisposed to be a part of society as “our bodies and minds are not designed for life in the absence of others” (5).

The author refers to the natural desire for social interaction that everyone experiences at some point in their life. In other words, De Waal’s idea of human nature is based on the fact that we exist to interact with other people, we have always lived in groups, and that is why social contract as an intelligent decision to organize a society in order to avoid never-ending conflicts in a “homo homini lupus” kind of society does not make much sense to De Waal who rejects that idea of a human being as a solitary survivor.

The Veneer Theory states that all the behaviors referred to as moral are unnatural to the selfish human beings dominated by their animalistic nature. These behaviors are characterized as “veneer” because they are superficial and exist to cover up people’s violent animalistic nature for the purpose of keeping a position within the group, adopt socially accepted behaviors and shift personal manners to become more suitable for life in a society. Developing an argument that humans have been social throughout their entire history and evolved from social monkeys, De Waal automatically disagrees with the Veneer Theory and states that morality has been in place in human society since the beginning of times but in various forms.

For instance, at first, the animalistic nature used to dominate over the rationalism can be assumed to have been reduced to very basic behaviors such as not attacking the children of the tribemates. However, one may theorize that eventually these principles evolved and became more sophisticated. That way, the rules such as not killing one’s peers or not stealing their property appeared. These rules may have started as simple regulations of the inner dynamics of the groups designed to help avoid their fragmentation, but at the same time, they can be seen as the basics of moral judgment – the quality that today differentiates humans from non-human animals. The fact that they have been the practice throughout the entire human history confirms their essentiality to human nature.

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In reference to De Waal’s argument, Korsgaard agrees that the Veneer Theory and its statement that human beings are naturally self-centered and are motivated only by the pursuit of egoistic values. However, Korsgaard also maintains that even though the Veneer Theory is false, De Waal’s conclusion that human personhood is a part of our evolved nature is wrong as well. She states that morality as a very special and ubiquitous element of our nature and claims that a creature as “richly social” as a human being should not be characterized as solely self-centered (Korsgaard 99-100).

The author refers to the hierarchy of needs of human beings stating that apart from accumulating material goods people have such desires as self-actualization (Korsgaard 101). The author brings up the tight connection between the individuals within a society and notes that the realization of some of the higher needs of human beings is impossible without the cooperation or interaction with the other people. In contrast to the idea of the veneer performance regulated by the need not to be expelled from the society, Korsgaard points out that morals lie deep inside human nature not to limit and control their animalistic instincts but to provide it with means helping to relate to the other individuals (101).

Korsgaard compares humans and animals to establish “the extent to which animals are moral or proto-moral beings” (105). The author believes that moral judgment is present in the behaviors of animals even though their actions do not always fit in human standards of morals. That way, Korsgaard rejects De Waal’s conclusion that human personhood is a part of our evolved nature expressing the opinion that “human beings seem psychologically damaged, in ways that suggest some deep break with nature” (104). In other words, she suggests that human personhood is not a naturally evolved feature.

Forming my own perspective on this argument, I am inclined to agree with De Waal. Korsgaard has some rather strong points, and it is difficult to speak against her technique of persuasion as she mentions that the juxtaposition of humans and nonhuman animals justify the immoral exploitation of the latter by the former. However, I believe that the exploitation itself together with its horrific outcomes is the confirmation of the animalistic nature of human beings as the source of the evolved personhood. To be more precise, driven by the most basic instinct of any being – the desire to survive, humans began to develop tools that eventually became more and more complex. Over time, everything became a tool – water, air, earth, metal, fire, animals, and humans.

Besides, the humans whose survival was secured started to use tools to fulfill other, less basic needs, such as self-actualization and affiliation, for example. That is why animals (just like all other things humans turned into tools) are used in such spheres as science, medicine, beauty, entertainment, fashion, and food. Finally, the natural sociality of humans and the strong desire to fin in the society maintains the exploitation and immoral treatment of animals. For example, many individuals who would like to become vegan and protest animal farming are limited in the abilities as the society dominated by meat-eaters fails to provide the dieting alternatives for them.

To conclude, attempting to survive, humans were to clash with nature as a source of multiple dangers and use tools to secure their lives. Human personhood and moral judgment evolved as people needed to maintain more harmonious and powerful societies. Some basics of moral behaviors and choices may exist in nonhuman animals, and so does the capacity to use tools to achieve goals. However, both of these behaviors are at a lower level than that of human beings. In general, animals (just like humans) are motivated by the same needs – to stay a part of a group and to survive, and that means if some other species turned out to be on the highest stage of evolution, it would have the same immoral tendencies to the excessive abuse of resources. That way, the immorality of humans does not disprove the fact that our personhood is a part of our evolved nature.

Works Cited

Korsgaard, Christine. Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2006. Print.

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Waal, Frans de. Primates and Philosophers. How Morality Evolved, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2006. Print.

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