The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy

Marjorie Grene

On Some Distinctions Between Men and Brutes

Ethics, 57 (2), Jan. 1947, 121-127

EVERYONE appears to agree nowadays on the need for a revaluation of human values; but some think we must for the first time set man into his proper place in the whole of animal nature, while others are certain we need to reaffirm his special place outside the sphere of the merely natural.  Whether the problem is one of abstract metaphysics or practical pedagogy, this issue is involved.

Perhaps a re-examination of some of the historical alternatives may, if not answer, at least help to clarify the question.  Put at its crudest, the current opposition seems to be something like this: on the one hand, it is said that, like other philosophic theories of the past, the traditional cleavage between man and nature is the result of overabstraction so gross that the principal facts of the case are overlooked or actually denied.  The considerable, in fact, central, role of impulse, habit, and the irrational generally is denied in favor of a reason which actually men are most infrequently seen to exercise in its purity even in the abstruse fields of logic or mathematics, let alone in the tangled and pressing concerns of their daily existence.  Of course, every theory of human nature includes its account of feeling and emotion, but the objection in the main is that traditional theories treat feeling as something bad to be suppressed rather than as the real driving force it actually is: a force morally indifferent in itself but operating for good or ill under a variety of circumstances.  On the other side such biological treatment of human nature is said to eliminate any standard of good or evil by which to discriminate one use of emotion from another.  If men are not distinguished from brutes by some unique character which itself supplies a standard of value, then, it is thought, no end is left for human endeavor, nothing remains but the Hobbesian sequence of appetites and aversions in which no need or appetite can be criticized as bad or harmful.  As a result of this lack, every excess of cruelty and sadism is sanctioned; and, in the resulting war of all against all, the good and decent elements in human nature - which under ordinary circumstances can be observed to exist equally with the bad and brutal ones - are swamped by the more violent impulses thus dangerously unleashed.  The practical result is the stasis of Corcyra or Europe under the Nazis; the theoretical result is the ideal tyrant of Thrasymachus or the leader-principle of the S.S. man.  Both sides see evil practical consequences from the alternative view: the one in the suppression of fruitful and progressive impulses, the other in the loosing of brutal drives which by a natural process suppress the better ones.  But, quite apart from the moot question of the effect of any philosophic theory on anybody’s practice, the principal charge philosophically seems in both cases to be one of inadequacy: because men are described as different from other animals or because they are described as like them, the facts of human nature as common experience reveals them are falsely reported.

The charge of inadequacy is justified on both sides, I think.  In historical terms: the Cartesian separation of men and brutes is wrong - but not every distinction between men and brutes is essentially Cartesian (though personally I suspect that every honest Christian one is so, unless, like the Kantian, it renounces its own metaphysical foundation); the Hobbesian identification of the desires of men and brutes is wrong,


but not every theory that makes men similar to other animals is Hobbesian.

First, as to the Cartesian distinction.  Certainly the theory of “brutism” is, judged by the criterion of adequacy, one of the most fantastic theories about anything anywhere in the history of Western thought.  To think of the animal body as a machine with, in man, a completely incorporeal yet communicating entity mysteriously attached raises all the insoluble and unnecessary problems of interaction that everyone has been pointing out for three centuries.  As a. result, human psychology is either absurdly or merely conventionally described - the latter, e.g., in Descartes’s pallid recapitulations of Senecan morals to the Princess Elizabeth, a subject which obviously interested him not at all.  For orthodox principles of morality could be automatically deduced from his metaphysics and physics, and there was no problem about it - since, in fact, a decent Stoic-Christian morality can easily be fitted into any simple dualistic account of reason and the passions.  But if human nature is superficially dealt with in the Cartesian account, the unfortunate remainder of animal creation receives infinitely more flagrant mistreatment.  The experience of the owner of two tournebroches who visited Port Royal can be duplicated by anyone who has ever had a dog, even a fairly stupid one (see S. Alexander’s posthumously published essay, The Mind of My Dog), or for that matter by anyone who has had any acquaintance with any of the higher mammals.  On the one hand, there seems no reason to hold that the very similar facial expressions, for example, which are thought to denote certain feelings in human beings do not express any feeling in other animals.  And, on the other hand, the dissimilarity in the thought-processes of other animals suggested by the absence of speech is amply offset by striking similarities in other behavior patterns associated with processes of inference - see the example of the tournebroche or, if you want more up-to-date material, Köhler’s apes.  It is not too sweeping a statement, I think, to say that no theory which makes human thought and feeling differ toto coelo from the thought and feeling of other creatures can ever be accepted by anyone who has had any ordinary experience of animals at all; there are simply too many facts the theory has to ignore or at least fantastically to reinterpret to make them fit.

Of course, attacking poor Descartes for his brutism is beating a very dead horse.  Descartes’s philosophy is not one of the eternally recurrent Weltanschauungen but a peculiar synthesis suited to a very special time and place: a synthesis which outside the atmosphere of seventeenth-century French theological circles - or, better, seventeenth-century French Augustinian theological circles - does not synthesize at all.  But there are two reasons why more organic theorists of human nature can still relevantly attack a theory as obviously dead as Cartesian dualism.  The influence of that view in modern thought runs so wide and deep that even as staunch a phenomenalist as J. S. Mill can unquestioningly differentiate the permanent possibility of feeling from the permanent possibility of sensation, though nothing in the phenomena as he views them could justify such a distinction.  Even more important, it can be fairly maintained, I think, that the Cartesian theory of human reason and animal nature represents the core of the Christian tradition and that the Jansenists were quite correct in so accepting it.  Certainly, the disagreement between Descartes and the Thomists on the relation of thought to sensation and of the knowledge of mind to that of body (as represented in Objections I, II, and VI) was a very genuine disagreement.  But stitching an Aristotelian theory of knowledge into the interstices of a Christian world view does not in the least alter the fundamental necessity for any orthodox Christian position: that animus must be radically different from anima, that the single respect in which man is made in the image of his maker must be entirely separate and distinct in him from everything bodily.  In some medieval accounts of the


human soul [1] one feels that the transition from the finest animal spirits to the mind itself is so gradual that one can imagine animus as the rarest and subtlest portion of the anima; that is what Descartes himself suggests when he runs over the things he had “imagined” himself to be. [2]  But though such an identification may make things easier for the lay imagination and furnish charming matter for the artist, theologically and philosophically it is surely most dangerous; and no serious Christian theory would dare admit it.  In short, a Christian world view demands an Augustinian-Jansenist-Cartesian conception of the relation of mind to body and human to animal nature, and the importation of pseudo-scientific phraseology from the Philosopher about the way of knowing mind and nature can serve only to obscure, not to eliminate, that necessity.

Even the apparently noncommittal view of Locke on human reason is still Cartesian and depends explicitly, moreover, on a divine sanction.  If we still believe in the Jeffersonian revision of Locke’s law of nature, we have unfortunately no logical or rather metaphysical right to do so unless we take the Cartesian world and its all-wise maker with it - or unless we have an alternative account of man and nature from which the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is equally deducible.

But if Hobbesian psychology is really the exclusive alternative to the Cartesian-Christian conception, our philosophical as well as practical situation is pretty desperate.  For if Cartesian brutism does less than justice to the common facts of animal life in general, so does the so-called selfish system to our common experience of human feelings.  Hobbes himself admits the test of his philosophy is in our own hearts [3] and, while we may find there the fears and expectations he describes, we find too much that for their sake we are asked to explain away.  In his definitions of the passions Hobbes gives cursory treatment to such feelings as “kindness,” for instance; but they have, of course, no motive force, not even, as in Hume, for mere moral judgment, let alone as sources of action.  Some kindly feelings, for instance, gratitude, Hobbes even describes in such a way as palpably to contradict the facts, or at least to omit important and relevant parts of them:

To have received from one, to whom we think ourselves equal, greater benefits than there is hope to requite, disposeth to counterfeit love; but really secret hatred…  For benefits oblige; and obligation is thraldom; and unrequitable obligation, perpetual thraldom; which is to one’s equal, hateful.  But to have received benefits from one, whom we acknowledge for superior, inclines to love; because the obligation is no new depression; and cheerful acceptation (which men call Gratitude) is such an honor done to the obliger, as is taken generally for retribution. [4]

Or in the treatment of family relations, for example, Hobbes, of course, takes no account of any natural ties of affection but indicates simply the obligation to obedience on the part of the child toward whoever nourishes it:

For it ought to obey him by whom it is preserved; because preservation of life being the end, for which one man becomes subject to another, every man is supposed to promise obedience, to him, in whose power it is to save, or destroy him. [5]

In Behemoth, when he presents himself with the problem of a man ordered by the sovereign to execute his own father, there is indeed some suggestion in the way his interlocutor puts the question that such a man might feel some hesitation in obeying.  But the basic question, whether there is such a thing as filial affection, is hedged; and the answer is made that, after all, the order is unlikely anyhow, and if it is given it must be obeyed only if decreed as a law rather than as a special order having refer-

1. See, e.g., Hugh of St. Victor De medicina animae.

2. Meditation ii.

3. Leviathan (Everyman ed.), Introduction.

4. Ibid., chap. xi, p. 50.

5. Ibid., chap. xx, p. 105.


ence to a particular person. [6]  To be sure, Hobbes can, if he likes, explain away the kindlier passions to his own satisfaction; but if each man’s introspection is really the test of the correctness of the theory, then there is strong evidence against it somewhere in the experience of most of us.  Granted, with Hume, that the gentler passions are weaker than Hobbes’s basic fears and appetites; they are there nevertheless in some measure, as each of us can verify.  And, what is more, no system of education could induce them if there were not some spark in us for such habituation to work on.  The same argument - that used by Hume in the “Enquiry” against egoism - is valid against Hobbes’s political psychology.  Perhaps many of us act like Hobbesian men all the time, and all of us most of the time; but many of us admire actions Hobbes would condemn as foolish, and a few even practice them.  And, though Hobbes would, of course, account for such admiration or practice as the consequence of hearing or reading seditious doctrine, such miseducation would not have taken effect were there not something in men’s natures to respond to it.

Nevertheless, Hobbes’s inadequacy is not the result of an equation of men and brutes or a failure to distinguish human reason as a unique directive element distinct from animal passion.  In the first place, Hobbes does distinguish men from other animals, and much more shrewdly than the Cartesians.  Strauss seems to think the basic Hobbesian distinction is contained in the observation that man alone among animals is vain or proud; and the reference to pride as the basic human passion, he thinks, invalidates Hobbes’s mechanical account as a consistent system. [7]  If, however, one takes the Hobbesian philosophy of motion at its face value, interpreting the relation between Hobbes’s philosophy of nature and human nature, for example, as Tönnies does, one may take as fundamental the distinction of the Leviathan: brutes and men reason, with prudence, from effects to causes; men also, in science, from causes to effects.  The latter type of ratiocination, starting from definitions, depends on the invention of language, which makes man if not different in kind from brutes at least an infinitely cleverer brute in the techniques of satisfying his animal wants.  This distinction, unlike the Cartesian, may be amply confirmed by observation of animals as well as of men.

But not only does Hobbes himself make a clear distinction (if not two distinctions) between men and other animals; the inadequacies of his system can be largely eliminated even in a philosophy which stresses the similarities of various species, namely, in Hume’s moral philosophy.  The examples Hume uses to show such likeness, especially in the chapters on pride and humility and love and hatred in animals, [8] are admittedly very weak; for he seems to have confined his observations principally to barnyard fowl, who are surely among the species least endowed with thought and feeling.  But his illustrations can be bettered without altering the basic analogy which is fundamental to his whole system of knowledge and morals.  It is an important part of the evidence for his theory of mind that it explains a wider range of phenomena, namely, animal and human, than any other.  In fact, it is, Hume says, only another hypothesis accounting equally well for animal as well as human thought and feeling that could, by the rules of empirical evidence, be said to have equal probability with his own.  Yet Hume, stressing the likeness of men and brutes, takes full cognizance of the benevolent aspect of human nature, giving man’s limited generosity place beside his more self-centered feelings.  Sympathy is not, to be sure, by any means the primary motive force for most human action; but it sometimes functions as motive in the direct form of kindness or

6. English Works, ed. Molesworth, VI, 227.

7. Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford, 1936), chap. ii, passim; cf., e.g., De cive, chap. v, art. 5: “[HHC: Latin not reproduced].”

8.  Treatise, Book II, Part I, sec. 12, and Part II, sec. 12.


benevolence and serves in its weakened (because generalized) form as the source of moral judgment.

What is mistaken in Hobbes, one concludes, is not the equation of men and other animals but the reduction of both to mere motions.  One is no better off with men and brutes made mere machines than with the Cartesian world of machines and incorporeal minds to observe them.  One is no better off with a nature dead through and through than with a dead nature and a live reason mysteriously functioning in it.  The selfish system is the logical result of a thoroughgoing mechanism in which motions to and from, that is, appetites and aversions, in the individual body are the only possible passions.  On the other hand, Hume’s use of any and all given feelings as data, with the flexible range of imaginative association operating on them, allows the admission of much wider data and more inclusive treatment of them and, therefore, a much more adequate account of the variety and range of human character and feeling.

Perhaps, then, by the ample inclusion in our data of the gentler as well as the more violent feelings, we may produce a description of human nature that will give a sufficient basis for moral judgment without recourse to a supernaturally implanted reason.  As a matter of fact, Hume’s ethics has descriptively, I think, a high degree of adequacy; moreover, despite the current rejection of Hume’s atomic psychology, the pragmatic philosophy seems to me in the main an attempt to restore Hume’s position - with a good deal less precision than Hume achieved.  But, despite its competency to describe more varied phenomena of human nature than most ethical systems, Hume’s morals has two serious drawbacks.  First, a question may be raised about the adequacy of its metaphysical basis - and again the same doubt would apply to its contemporary descendants in the philosophies of pragmatism, since, despite the rejection of Hume’s atomic theory of mind, his fundamental position is maintained: i.e., the reality of universals is denied. But, of course, if Peirce’s critique of nominalism or Plato’s refutation of Protagoras in the Theaetelus should be correct, such a philosophic basis would be mistaken, no matter how adequate the conclusions presumably deduced from it.  That objection, however, goes far beyond the range of this discussion.  More immediately relevant is the objection raised by Hume himself: in a letter to Hutcheson he suggests that, should the universal existence of the moral sense fail to be confirmed in experience, his and Hutcheson’s ethics would collapse. [9]  Explicitly, of course, pragmatism stresses the relativity of value-judgments rather than the simple uniformity of human feeling Hume relies on.  But Hume certainly in his emphasis on custom and habit takes equal account of the variation in such judgments; and, on the other side, modern pragmatism as an ethics still implicitly demands a simple faith not so unlike the eighteenth-century one: a faith that really everyone is at heart an awfully nice fellow.  Neither Hume’s system nor modern pragmatism gives us any defense when we meet with individuals or groups who are definitely not in the least nice fellows and whose philosophy of human nature is not at all nice either.  In the polite circles of eighteenth-century Edinburgh and Paris or in the bigger-and-better heyday of our roaring twenties the mere description of human good nature may have looked very charming; but in Plato’s generation, for instance, it was clearly not enough, and it is just as clearly not enough in this one.

Yet a return to the Cartesian distinction with its absurdity and artificiality is no satisfactory escape.  Are there other traditional ways out to be inspected?  Plato himself, faced with a not dissimilar moral situation, could distinguish something unique in human nature as a source of moral standards and. at the same time see a continuity in the whole range of animal nature.  In the metaphor of the many-headed beast, the lion and the man, for example, [10]

9 Letters, ed. Grieg (Oxford, 1932), I, 40, No. 16.

10. Republic 588B.


the likeness and difference are equally pointed.  So are they (with greater emphasis on the continuity of animal life) in Diotima’s account of the urge for immortality. [11]  Or, in the myth of the Phaedrus, for instance, the soul throughout the universe has a uniform function, but human souls have a unique insight that puts them high in what is nevertheless presumably a continuous hierarchy:

For the soul that has not seen the truth will not come into this (i.e. human) shape.  For a man must understand what is spoken according to form, bringing together what comes from many perceptions into one by means of reasoning. [12]

Moreover, in several of his accounts of human psychology, Plato indicates that the passions which men presumably share with beasts are something to be controlled, not extinguished - and that, as the theory of the [HHC: Greek not reproduced] suggests, reason itself never operates without the motive force of passion accompanying it.  So again, as in Hume, we may recognize the continuity of animal nature and acknowledge the importance of feeling in men - but with the recognition of the unique element in this most godlike of animals, the element which should control the brutal aspects of man’s nature however seldom it may, in fact, effectively do so.  And, certainly, Plato, unlike Hume, does not fail to supply a sufficient metaphysic to support his moral system.  But again there are at least two major difficulties in the way of taking Plato’s psychology as the solution to our problem.  For one thing the metaphysical foundation of Plato’s ethic eliminates any but a strictly intellectual standard of morality; and an ethic which allows no virtue distinct from intelligence is simply too uncomfortable for use by most ordinary mortals.  One can so define wisdom as to eliminate really clever bad people; but to eliminate good, kind, decent stupid or at least simple-minded, unintellectual people is, I should think, rather too much for most of us.  But the principal difficulty in Plato’s account of men and animals is in the metaphysic itself on which it rests: despite the enormous spread and influence of something called Platonism, I suppose there has never really been a Platonist and never can be.  From the unlucky Dionysius on, every supposed follower of Plato has been infinitely less elusive, more stock and settled and therefore dead than the creator of the dialogues himself.  Some few people have the gift of illuminating Platonic metaphysics (most have not) - but it is not a doctrine to be taken over and imposed as a solution on our particular problems.  We may or may not find indefinite depths of suggestion and illumination in the dialogues - set, for instance, Diotima’s discussion mentioned above beside Hobbes’s bungling treatment of the family - but there is no Platonic system in the framework of which we can neatly put man into his place in nature and feel satisfied that our moral standard is provided and our problem solved.

The question remains: how can we retain a sense of man’s uniqueness sufficient to provide a standard of value that can hold in the face of the relativity of human feelings and judgments, yet without resorting to the implausible and barren conception of a Christian-Cartesian soul split off from all natural kinship?  One more suggestion may be found in Kantian morals - where man is acknowledged to be an animal (in fact, from the cognitive point of view he is nothing else), yet at the same time when looked at morally something radically different.  In a review of an Italian work on evolution [13] Kant declared himself in sympathy with the conception that man has developed from and is biologically akin to four-footed beasts; but he uses the evidence in a peculiar way.  Moscati had suggested that certain disorders of the female reproductive system result from an upright posture obviously lately and awkwardly assumed.  Kant declares this confirms his view that, while we are animals, we are

11. Symposium 207A f.

12. Phaedrus 249B.

13. Werke, ed. Cassirer, IV, 437.


botched, bad animals - and our purpose in life is therefore something different from the satisfaction of our animal needs.  So Kant could accept, I should think, a thoroughly physiological interpretation of human behavior and still find that, though all this be true, there is something more.  The ethical situation remains what it is, at a tangent to the natural or biological explanation, complete and self-sufficient though the latter must always appear.  Kant’s teleological language in talking of human action (what Nature intends with us, etc.) is puzzling and his whole puritanical account of man’s character most lamentable and one-sided: what less loveable creature than the misanthropic philanthropist he so admires?  Nevertheless, the general conception of men’s complete animal and yet nonanimal nature is, if one may take it out of context, most suggestive - as is the second and least abstract formulation of the moral law: “Treat every human being always as an end and never as a means.”

But, of course, it must be said that, despite the ostensible division of morality from metaphysics or theology, Kant did have a supernatural faith, and a most austere one, to sustain his sense of duty; and without that support most of us, I suspect, have difficulty in discovering in its Kantian purity the moral law within on the presence of which the whole system admittedly rests.  So we come back to the question suggested by our glance at Hume and Plato:

Can an ethical system really stand on its own without an adequate metaphysic; or what acceptable metaphysic can justify the ethical standard we wish to support?  That is a problem far beyond the scope of this discussion, but one on which it looks as if the question in hand must ultimately depend.  Short of its treatment, one can merely point out some of the factors that make our present perplexities about human values something a little better than a Hobson’s choice between the Hobbesian machine-man and the Cartesian-Christian separate and immortal mind.