“Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari)Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part two

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Yuval Noah Harari has this to say in his chapter “Building Pyramids” by way of comparing the acts of imagination that lay behind the building of the pyramids and the acts of imagination that he claims constitute our idea of Human Rights:

“Homo Sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, and chimpanzees have no natural rights….A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion. Armies, police forces, courts and prisons are ceaselessly at work forcing people to act in accordance with the imagined order.”(p125)

Harari does admittedly qualify this extreme Hobbesian position by saying that belief in the objects of the imagination is also needed for the establishment of order. Once again we see the distorted results of a bi-polar characterization of the world in terms of myths and facts. What is needed to correctly describe the above state of affairs is a whole universe of discourse with large numbers of interconnected concepts possessing logical relations to each other and an Aristotelian/Kantian Philosophical psychology that will recognize imagination to be a power that principally is connected to our powers of perception and emotion but can also be connected to two powers that radically transform its function: namely,the powers of language (discourse) and reason. This latter system of concepts and human powers are behind why we believe in both gravity and human rights. There are , however, it could be argued, many more reasons to believe in the existence of human rights than the existence of gravity and whilst there is absolutely no reason to doubt the existence of the latter as a law, there may be philosophical reasons to doubt one or more of its underlying assumptions: the claim that space is curved for example for some philosophers may contain a contradiction forced upon us by a belief that space has real mathematical properties. Is this latter belief a result of the mathematical imagination? Could it be a myth? If so the bipolar division of our experience of the world into imaginative myths and real facts is otiose. What is puzzling is the fact that Harari in his determination to avoid using philosophy in the infrastructure of his argument is providing old discredited philosophical pictures of our social and political realities. Hobbes we know was passionately anti- Aristotelian for no good reason. He also talked about violence and coercion as means the state can use to bring about the order in society. The Aristotelian/Kantian picture of a man being a rational animal capable of discourse bringing about the order in society by educational processes using argument and logic is systematically undermined in this work firstly, by the simplistic distinctions of the imagined and the real and secondly, by bipolar accounts of belief and knowledge.

Echoes of the Hobbesian picture of a middle-class businessman seeking to lead what he called a commodious life are present also in the following continuation:

“It does not take much to provide the objective biological needs of Homo Sapiens. After those needs are met, more money can be spent on building pyramids, taking holidays around the world, financing election campaigns, funding your favourite terrorist organisation,or investing in the stock market and making yet more money…”(125-6)

Aristotle was the first biologist and embedded his biological theory in a philosophical theory of immense scope and complexity that included four different kinds of explanations for all physical social and political change in the world. This theory was built upon a view of man as attempting to fulfil his potential as a rational animal by the systematic and rational use of discourse aimed at shaping minds. Aristotle would have seriously criticized the need-based commodious life of the Hobbesian middle-class businessman that Harari provides a sketch of above. Bi-polar explanations may satisfy such a Hobbesian man or the man Harari claims wishes to please his wife by building a pyramid for her. It is important to note however that such bi-polar explanations are not exactly educational, i.e. they do not shape minds. Arguments and explanations shape minds in the Aristotelian universe where the ideal is the middle-class man whose mind is shaped by educational argument and discourse: for example, by the middle class man who leads an examined life that might include taking a holiday to a)further ones knowledge of the different forms such an examined life might take and b)to communicate one’s knowledge of the world and one’s culture. For Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the life of the wealthy man failed to actualize the potential of such a man to lead a flourishing life and whilst they may have agreed that imagination played a large role in his life they would have pointed to failures on the part of such men to submit their beliefs to a tribunal of rational, critical, scrutiny. Such a scrutiny may reveal a belief in myths such as that making money can shape one’s mind or that the gods are smiling upon such activity, but such myths cannot be compared to the reasons someone influenced by philosophical reasoning may give for their belief in the importance of knowledge and human rights. The distinctions between what is a good reason to believe in something and a myth, completely disappear in this part of Harari’s work. The distinction between the CEO OF Peugeot who faces the tribunal of his shareholders every quarter with his power point presentation and the leader of a political party who faces with his arguments the tribunal of critical discussion of his/her ideas every day also disappears in this bi-polar conceptual environment.

Justice and human rights are inextricably linked so it is no surprise to find Harari in his chapter entitled ” There is no Justice in History” claiming that justice is an imagined order that historically has been neither neutral nor fair. The problem with this reasoning is again that this simplistic infrastructure of history plus biology does not enable one to make historically and philosophically established distinctions between social and political structures. Harari points out that Hammurabi’s code was hierarchical, in particular in those parts of the code where the law specifically refers to the social classes of the superiors, the commoners, and the slaves. He also points to the American Constitution which although saying that all men are equal was accompanied by continuing hierarchical social practices of owning slaves. A modern political analysis would philosophically establish that the intention of the constitution was clearly egalitarian and its role was to signal to the social system that discrimination and oppression ought not to occur on the grounds of colour creed or wealth: a wealthy white Christian ought to stand before the law and ought to be viewed in the eyes and principles of the law in exactly the same terms as a poor black Muslim. This may not always work in practice because judges and juries are people who allow their prejudices to cloud their understanding of the law but this does not permit the degradation of the reasoned body of doctrine we call the law into a figment of the imagination. The problem here does not lie with the law or our concept of the law but with the individuals and social processes enforcing the law. Equating this body of doctrine with myth is confusing individual and social practices with political ideals. Laws do not work immediately on individuals and social practices, rather, they work at the pace of history which is a quicker pace than evolution but at a slower pace than many critics imagine or wish for. The American civil war was fought over the Enlightenment idea of the dignity of all men that had been argued for Philosophically somewhat later in the 1780’s and 1790’s by Kant using the idea of a moral law. The American civil war did not immediately enforce the Kantian moral law that was based on the teleological assumption that all men are ends in themselves and were, therefore, to be valued equally and respected equally. This moral law amounted to saying that they ought to be valued and respected which does not actually logically entail that they are. It does not, either, on the other hand, logically warrant the claim that there is no ground for engaging in the desired behaviour. The moral law is one of the foundations of our modern legal systems in Europe where wealthy white Christians and poor black Muslims stand accused and are subjected to the same neutral regard and assumption of innocence. Notice that I am not denying that social practices involved in the implementation of the law sometimes disobey the moral law or the intention of the laws of the land. But also notice we do not, as a consequence of our disappointment, change the law because it, as a matter of fact, is not universally applied in all cases. We attempt to correct the social processes causing deviations from its universal application, and we continue to do so sometimes with social and sometimes with political processes. Martin Luther King used social processes to force an alteration of laws that were in fact not in accordance with the moral law or the US Constitution and he used a combination of moral and religious argumentation to do so. So, one civil war and one civil rights movement has undoubtedly improved a social situation that is still dysfunctional. What we are witnessing here is the slow rate of change of social processes in accordance with the Kantian and philosophical idea of “progress”. Kant wisely spoke of a future state of affairs as the kingdom of ends” and claimed that such a kingdom would take one hundred thousand years to establish. What is occurring here is a process of change that is not evolutionary(taking millions of years) or historical(taking hundreds of years) but something in between. Such processes bear witness to the fact that the rationality of the species of homo sapiens will take a long time to fully actualise. That it was however a telos guiding our activities was never, however, doubted by Kant or by Aristotle. In the light of such considerations the title of this chapter “There is no Justice in History” is paradoxical or at the very least unnecessarily ambiguous.

Social processes may well contain contradictory activities but it is difficult to fathom how the political ideas of equality and liberty are contradictory. Firstly it is important to note that equality does not mean “equal with respect to every characteristic”: something “equal in every characteristic” to something else would be identical with that thing and the two hypothetically postulated things would, in fact, be one. The idea of equality is related to a social and a legal context. In the social context it refers to equality of opportunity and in the legal context, it refers to equality in relation to the way in which the law treats two individuals of differing characteristics(the wealthy white Christian and the poor black Muslim). Harari claims the following in relation to this debate:

“Unlike the laws of physics which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions. For instance, in medieval Europe, the nobility believed in both Christianity and chivalry. Another example is the modern political order. Ever since the French revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedom of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably shortchanges equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”(p182)

Kant did not see any contradiction once one recognizes the necessary distinctions between the absolute values of freedom and equality embodied by a moral law that respects the absolute value of the dignity of man and the relative values of a French aristocracy defending its class related privileges. Richer than..or poorer than… are obvious relative values and can best use the quantitative instruments of the mathematician and scientist to measure the differences. No such instrument can be used to measure the dignity of man which is a concept that does not behave like a variable looking for a value. The dignity of man is an ethical idea, an idea that cannot be quantified. Harari is in the above quote confusing a state of affairs with a conceptualisation of a state of affairs. The concept of liberty is not the concept of every man doing what he wishes to do. It includes, as Kant pointed out, a limiting condition related to equality, namely that we can do what we wish to do as long as what we wish to do does not encroach upon another mans liberty. There is no contradiction in such a linkage between the concepts. Such a linkage is conceptual and the very foundation of our very rational ideas of governmental authority and human rights. That there are states of affairs in which men wish for no governmental authority to be exercised over their lives is a fact but that does not make the concept of government authority a myth.