Friday, August 20, 2010

What is Man?

Apologies for the sexist title--I'm trying to sound pompous (as a hilarious joke).

Jonathan Safran Foer (see also here) notes that people in the industry talk about "harvesting" fish. (I note that people also talk about harvesting organs for transplant, so perhaps the truth is simply that people like the word 'harvesting' and not any of the speculative stuff I'm about to write.) This suggests that they think of fish as plants. Animals generally are treated (for the most part) as if they were insentient, or as if their sentience did not matter (or, in cases of abuse, as if their sentience were a cruel joke).

Factory farming, in a somewhat parallel way, doesn't allow farm-workers much of the dignity traditionally associated with being human. It's almost as if everything has moved one step down on the human-animal-vegetable scale. That's a stretch, I know, but it's not the only reason to think of modern life as somehow, somewhat dehumanized. Which raises the question of what it means to be human. What would it mean to re-humanize life?

It's tempting to think of going more small-scale: living close to work, friends, and family; eating locally-produced food; attending a small college with small classes rather than a large, anonymous university; working for yourself or a small company where everybody knows your name, etc. But I wonder a) whether this is realistic for many people, and b) whether it's possible to be much more precise about what would be involved.

In some ways the problem seems to be anonymity, which suggests that the solution might have something to do with names. I can't think what this solution might be though (beyond making sure that you deal primarily with people that you know by name and who know you). And perhaps the internet (and phones, etc.) can change the meaning of 'local', so that we don't all have to move to small towns and villages in order to live 'locally' (i.e. work with people we know, etc.). Then there are also the questions of whether there really is a problem; whether it is spiritual, economic, political, or what; whether it can be solved; etc.

Did philosophers give up asking questions like this when deconstruction came along?


  1. Yes, anonymity and something like an inability to be intimate--or personal (?), or neighborly--with others. Our relations to others (and I include myself here) too often have an awkward distance. A phrase I despise, that's relevant here, is "human resources."

  2. Yes! I hate "human resources." I have a colleague who has recommended the phrase as a way to make people feel valued. I guess the idea is that only resources could be valued, but this strikes me as extraordinarily utilitarian in the worst sense of the word. In wondering what exactly the problem is I've started to wonder whether there really is a problem at all, but I think this example is enough to show that there is. Whether it's one problem or a cluster I'm not so sure.

  3. I should have seen that too, but hadn't. I'm planning to follow that blog. Thanks. Now I'm thinking about twitter, but don't have any actual thoughts to post yet.