There are no significant facts about human beings
By Charles Foster
A few days ago, at dinner, I sat next to a well-known literary biographer. As you’d expect, we fell to talking about the biographer’s obligations, and as you’d also expect, she said that the biographer should be neither advocate nor prosecutor – indeed should strive to keep herself out of the book as much as possible, aiming for objectivity. I heard myself saying that, worthy though this aspiration may be, it was so obviously doomed to failure that it probably wasn’t worth trying. When I reviewed that conversation later, I squirmed. On re-reviewing it I think that the response was right. And here’s why.
There are no significant facts about individual human beings. Or, to wrap it up in philosophese, a human has no qualities which partake of factness sufficiently to make it sensible to treat those qualities in the same way that one would treat, say, the weight of a brick or the length of a stick. Yes, I have physical and chronological dimensions, but in themselves they don’t indicate anything very significant about me. If you told me your date of birth, I could say how long, according to the conventional metrics, you had been alive on the planet: but so what? Your cells age at a different rate from anyone elses, and neither of us knows with which juggernaut the mischievous universe has planned to flatten you, or when. ‘You are as young as you feel’, you will say, and who but you knows how you feel? No one at all thinks that significance lies in the mere accumulation of years, or the mere number of inches from the ground to the top of your head. Where does it lie, then? In the events that fill the years? They, or their corollaries, are the interesting parts of biographies. But what are the events? Yes, a few people have lives marked significantly by their association with undoubted facts: leave the undoubted fact of the double helix out of a biography of Crick or Watson and there would be a serious gap; but even Crick and Watson were infinitely more than their Eureka moment and its prologue and epilogue.
I can know, in a scientific sense, almost nothing about myself. I have no real insight into my motives or influences. I say that I have views and desires, but I have no way of saying whether they are really mine, rather than parroted. It’s immensely unlikely that I’ve ever had a remotely original thought. Nothing that I say is mine really is: my genes and my preferences are all bequests from unnamed and unnameable donors. Those close to me probably know me better than I know myself. At least they constantly surprise me by telling me things about me that I would never have suspected, or never had the psychological ability to identify or acknowledge. But, although their view of me is more accurate than my own, it’s still woefully incomplete and distorted.
I know very little of my children. I know less of my neighbours. I suspect that what I think I know is deeply inaccurate.
What should all this agnosticism mean for the way we think? And in particular about how we do moral philosophy? Four immediate thoughts:
1. We should approach humans with awe
The Judaeo-Christian tradition insists that humans are made in the image of God. God, in that tradition, is unknowably vast. Unknowability and vastness generate a vertiginous awe whenever we look at God and they should, by extension, generate a similar awe when we look at creatures moulded in his/her/its image. You don’t have to accept the notion of the Imago Dei or any other theological principle to conclude that human beings should be viewed this way. You just have to be baffled. I’m unfathomable, you’re unfathomable: stand back in wonder, confusion and reverence.
2. We should be suspicious of any philosophical systems or notions which purport to know things about people
If it’s neat, it’s wrong. Take the hegemony of autonomy in modern philosophical discourse. It views human beings as simple bundles of clearly identifiable preferences –or at least, if it’s not that dogmatic, sees respect for those preferences as the light which guides the ethical ship easily into the most foreign and outlandish of harbours. I’ve criticised that position at length elsewhere: there’s a short, polemical example here. For the moment it will do simply to say that I have no idea what it means to say that ‘I’ have a preference. Which ‘I’ are you talking about? The doting father? The doubting son? The selfish careerist? The self-mocking hypochondriac? The lover of utilitarian calculus? The lover of waves, woods and beer? I oscillate wildly between these and many other identities. And I’m a simple soul. Goodness only knows what it means to talk about the preferences of a Shakespeare or a Joyce.
All that can be said is that we are stories. Ethics is the business of trying to make the stories good ones. We can and should argue about whether ‘good’ means anything, and if so what (try looking, I suggest, in a communitarian account of dignity): but a good story isn’t necessarily one suffused with normative sweetness and light.
3. Our ethics should be communitarian, not atomistic
This follows from the ‘Which ‘I’?’ comments, and from the observation that objectivity is impossible. If we’re stories, the teller is part of what we are. The medium and the message are, if not indistinguishable, entangled. Part of what I am is part of what you say I am. And (here’s the ethical bit) part of what I should be is what you say I should be. My boundaries blend indistinguishably with those of the other entities in the nexus in which I exist and of which I consist.
Anything approaching a faithful account of a single human life will be composed of tales from many tellers. Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet has the right idea.
4. Beware the lure of reductionism
Those who think that we can identify significant facts about humans are in, or edging near, the reductionist camp. That’s a grim place to be, and no serious philosophy goes on there. Indeed over its gate is the sign: ‘There is no sophos to love, and in any event love is a boring set of chemical reactions.’ Of course there is a difference in principle between identifying facts about humans and concluding that the facts are all there is, but in practice the line between saying ‘there are these facts, and they are incontestable and definitional’ is close to nothing-buttery.
Which brings us back to the question of biography. There’s nothing remotely reductionist about the books or the philosophy of the biographer with whom I ate dinner. What I’d ask of her, I suppose, is:
(a) an acknowledgment that she is as much of an actor on the stage she erects as is the subject of the biography; and
(b) an acknowledgment that this is an inevitable and wholly desirable consequence of the way that human beings are.
The sticking point, I suspect, would be the ‘wholly desirable’ part of that formulation.