Thursday, July 17, 2008

A bioethicist who finds human hierarchy in all the wrong places

Dag and I recently had a conversation touching on the nature of hierarchy. So when I read today in the Ottawa Citizen the following comments from Margaret Somerville on the nature of hierarchy (hat tip: Catfur), I thought it might be useful to say something about this fine example, from Canada's most famous bioethicist, of how contemporary mainstream academic thought tends to locate such basic human questions as the nature of hierarchy.

My goal will be to point out what is ignored by the present mainstream ways of thinking, as it appears to me as a student of Generative Anthropology which is a new way of thinking, developed by Eric Gans, that has yet few followers despite, to be frank, its superiority (as its students attest) as a way of thinking about the human.

Margaret Somerville is addressing the controversial awarding of membership in the Order of Canada to the abortionist, Henry Morgentaler, an award which Somerville herself was denied for being too controversial, given her opposition to same-sex "marriage". Here's what Somerville writes:
We seem to have a great need for hierarchy and recognition, but the practice of awarding civilian honours such as the Order of Canada raises a host of difficult issues

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the awarding of the Order of Canada to Henry Morgentaler, the question arises: Are citizen honours a good idea?

First, however, in the interests of transparency, I want to note I'm in the somewhat unusual position of having been both given such an award and, 17 years later, refused one. It's an open question whether those experiences qualify or disqualify me from weighing in on this issue, but here goes.

We all like to be recognized and the urge to establish hierarchical structures is almost certainly programmed into our genes - it's a survival mechanism, a psychobiological phenomenon that, as the new field of epigenetic research is showing us, may well be activated by certain environmental triggers that physically change the genes involved.

Over the years, I've mused on why most of us react as we do to "famous" people. I keep thinking they're just another person and it doesn't make sense. But, like many others, I've found it "special" to meet such people. We seem to need them to be "famous" and they oblige. Part of the explanation might be that we vicariously experience their fame - we feel some of it rubs off on us. Citizen honours are a mini-fame - most of us notice the person in the elevator or on the plane with the Order of Canada snowflake on their lapel and wonder who they are and what they did to merit it.

We can take the millennia of monarchies, dictatorships and empires, as well as social structures used by other animals (my cats eat their shared meals in their order of hierarchy and become distressed if I intervene to try to change that), as evidence that the basic or default position is hierarchy. That means egalitarianism, for instance, as implemented in democracy, is the exception and has to be worked at if it is to be maintained. Tragically, many examples supporting that fact can be pointed to in our contemporary world.

So do citizen honours interfere with egalitarianism? Is putting letters after one's name obsolete - or even harmful to society as a whole - a relic of the age of monarchy and its various trappings? Is it an example of the "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" principle, that is, an unjustified power grab? Does awarding OCs endorse a philosophy that some of us are superior to others of us?

Margaret Somerville " Questions of merit:

The most important thing to note about Somerville's comments is that that since she concludes "that the basic or default position is hierarchy" she can't seriously explain herself and her own moral intuitions: why does she even think of making her cats' lives more egalitarian? Why is democracy such an exception in human history, as she claims? Why do so many people today care so deeply about equality?

Somerville comes to her assumptions about the "default position of hierarchy" because her cats have a pecking order, and on the fact of monarchies, dictatorships, and empires. But these hierarchical institutions are all the products of agrarian societies, which have only existed for five to ten thousand years, unlike the more ancient and much longer-lived hunter-gatherer societies that are ruled by a collective ritual and myth that no one controls or dominates but that evolves communally in some way.

Somerville wants us to believe that our democratic instincts are something very new in history and hard to sustain. But are we moderns really the discoverers of some idea - equality - so radical and unheard of in human history until recently? Can anyone who notes how deeply felt today are our moral intuitions of some fundamental human equality - how deeply passionate (not only) the left is about such matters - really think this is simply the discovery of some Enlightenment philosophers, a few hundred years ago, or maybe of Christianity, a mere (in the lifetime of the human species) two thousand years ago?

It's oh so tempting for moderns to think that they have discovered something rare and profound in the way of justice, as if the key to a whole new way of being in the world were unveiled by our genius, just recently, thanks to some heroic revolutionary. Notwithstanding that we are continually refining and deepening our understanding of ourselves, I think it's a great delusion to believe in unprecedented discoveries and revolutions.

In the thinking of Generative Anthropology, it is by reflecting on the nature of human language that we come to see how our intuition of equality is one of the most basic qualities of human language itself. And for GA, symbolic language is the defining quality of the human, that which distinguishes us from the animal world.

Whatever our differences in the material world, whatever our differences in social status, language only works when all members of the community share in it. We are not divided by nature into camps of listeners and talkers; everyone who uses language must be potentially both. Language only works when we are all willing to exercise free will and sign off on, or refuse, the shared meanings we accord to arbitrary collections of sounds, gestures, or letters.

Keep in mind , for example, that one of the first thing an infant learns to say to the mother on whom she is almost entirely dependent for survival, is "no"! That is a bold assertion, at such a young age, of both difference and moral equality.

No matter how nasty a tyrant may be, he cannot overcome the thought in those he rules that he IS a nasty tyrant. He must insist on obedience to his intentions and meanings. He must insist, because we could refuse, if only we had the courage. So where does this thought that he is an evil tyrant come from if hierarchy is our "default position"? Why shouldn't we just accept the tyrant as readily and unconsciously as cats accepting their order of dominance and submission?

And one thing any student of history can tell you is that throughout the entire history of hierarchical societies there have been at least some people who have had some sense of injustice at inequality. (I would not say the sense of injustice in the past was ever as strong as it is today in our more egalitarian times but this is a paradox I will leave aside for now.)

Personally, I wouldn't argue that our common sense of injustice is always reasonable. Hierarchy can definitely serve collective purposes: in organizing a society in ways more complex than the equalitarian hunter-gatherer society, a hierarchical society becomes better able to create wealth and to defend itself in warfare. In the modern world, differences in wealth often reflect a return on investment for the risks people have taken in creating opportunities for others, without knowing in advance that they would be rewarded in the marketplace for trying to create wealth and opportunities for others.

But notwithstanding that our sense of injustice at inequality can be irrational, there is no doubting how strongly this sense of injustice can be felt. The powerful intuition that human equality is somehow fundamental to our nature cannot be seriously denied.

Defenders of freedom (which is often in tension with our moral intuition of equality) need to realize this and not attempt to escape the issue with lazy arguments about our cats. We have human language, and hence the intuition that comes with sharing equally in the signs of language, precisely because at some point in our past the animal pecking order was no longer sufficient to keep all our proto-human forebears in line. The alpha "dog" was losing control; the order of the pack was breaking down... a new kind of order, specifically human, had to emerge... or so begins the powerful hypothesis of Generative Anthropology.

Animal hierarchies are notably different from human ones. Animals relate to each other in one-to-one relations of dominance and submission. The alpha dog does not have to get up on his hind quarters and address all the other dogs as a communal whole, convincing them why it would be better if they didn't all gang up and turn on him. Rather, he only needs to address his immediate rivals for alpha status. Images of dogs playing poker with each other are strictly for human consumption. Only human culture is structured as a relationship between a sacred centre and a collective periphery (in poker, the sacred centre is the pot, or the winning hand).

A human king must be in continual conversation with his subjects, lest they do gang up and turn on him. Whatever the attempts to defend monarchy in terms of a theory of the divine right of kings, we are all susceptible to the revelation that the king is just a man who should be brought down to our level. On the other hand, the reason we all are interested in fame and we are usually keen to have some of it "rub off" on us is that we all know that there is something sacred in human affairs that we are all more or less equally interested in. We all want to use celebrities in our conversations with each other. We all want a piece of the sacred action. It is precisely our desire to share in the signs and things that we make sacred that leads us to create more and more social differences, and hence some hierarchies.

We create signs of difference that differentiate one human from another; but we do this so that these signs of difference may circulate widely, that we may all be empowered by their use and transformation. Give Morgentaler the Order of Canada, if you will, but be assured that this will only renew the debate on abortion. Liberal elites can't settle the issue by declaring Morgentaler a national worthy; rather they can only make clearer the sacred stakes in the battle and thus add fuel to the debate, as we in Canada have seen in recent days.

Finally, to attempt to explain human culture by reference to "epigenetic" research is to commit a serious category error. Human culture cannot be measured discreetly in the laboratory. It is the product of history, of a complex evolution by which we have periodically renewed and reworked the first ever memorable scene where a sign of language was shared equally by all involved.

Empirical research into human nature means little on its own. It must be adopted by an overarching theory of the human. The empirical is subject to the theoretical because we are ultimately ruled by our shared language and our freedom to use it in ways complex and paradoxical. Theory is the attempt to understand the shared but contested scenes of language, religion, and culture. And that is why we need ethicists, to theorize what maximizes the human good. And we will always need them, for there will never be a day when science and facts simply rule us.

Somerville cannot understand herself as a fan of democracy and equality because she takes for granted the language with which she makes her claims about the world. She does not make fundamental the question of how it is that she only understands herself and the human world through shared cultural representations that exist, not anywhere in the material world, but only in a transcendent domain.

This is the kind of thing that a modern "scientific" thinker is afraid to discuss. Transcendence?

But seriously, an idea has no material reality; it has no permanent presence in anyone`s brain or in any other material thing (a book, as a material thing, is only a collection of printed symbols). We find the idea, somehow, when our brains, firing neurons in ways we can hardly begin to understand, are able to associate words (by associating sounds or letters, images or gestures, etc.). When our brains are not making these associations, where does the idea reside? Well, it is hard to get our heads around it, but frankly the idea only really exists in some domain above or among us. The existence of this transcendent domain is a mysterious fact of our humanity that only religion, and not yet science, has tried seriously to understand. In other words, religion is a form of anthropology yet superior to anything produced by "scientific" anthropology.

The hierarchy of human culture is somehow built on top of our animal past that was no doubt hierarchical in the way of Somerville`s cats. But there is quite a divide between the world of cats, or any animal pecking order, and the world of kings and peasants. And we can only understand that divide by understanding how humans made it through the use of language and representation. We build on top of our biology by creating differences in language or culture. And every cultural difference begins as a basic distinction between a material thing, like a cat, and a transcendent word, like "cat". Human hierarchy is not simply or largely based on biology, but on the basic difference between things and representations, the difference between the material and the transcendent.

When we use language, we make a difference, but not in the material or biological world. We create difference in the symbolic world of representations. Yet even as we make a difference in this transcendent world, a difference that will allow us to distinguish one human from another as being more or less central to whatever it is we are representing, we all share equally in using language. Thus, difference and equality go hand in hand. They are both defining, or originary, qualities of the human. This is the fundamental paradox of the human that Generative Anthropology begins to explore.


margo somerville said...

Thanks Truepeers, your contribution is excellent. I realized that I could be seen as a genetic reductionist for the way I framed my argument and thought about explaining that, on the contrary, I reject genetic determinism and also recognize the equallly important role of culture in forming us as humans, both individually and collectively, in all aspects of our being.

Rather,I see genes as a necessary substrate (a tool or instrument like a TV or radio that allows us to receive input)not as determinative of our ideas, values or beliefs. I've explained this elsewhere, but writing for newspapers has necessary constraints.

As well, as I discussed in my 2006Massey Lectures (The Ethical Imagination)I'm a strong advocate of the concept of transcendence and its importance.

I see hierarcy and egalitarianism (as is true of many other opposite traits or approaches) as needing to be held in what I would call "creative tension", not as in the past, and even the present,being allowed to result in "destructive tension". And adjusting the balance between them is not a one-time event but an on-going process.

Having said that we still have to choose what is the basic presumption from which we operate (the default position)with respect to hierarchy and egalitarianism and my guess is that it's hierarchy with egalitarianism being an advance created by civilization. But I could be wrong. Humans seem to have a basic instinct not to kill each other (despite horrible examples to the contrary) and that might be an indication of the opposite - we don't harm those we see as like ourselves.

Thanks for your input, it's very valuable.

Margo Somerville

truepeers said...


I feel a little sheepish now that you've dropped by. Obviously I used you to make a point, knowing that a few off-hand comments in the paper can't seriously sum up your way of thinking. Thanks for clarifying this.

But there is a common default in our culture today to look for genetic (or "epigenetic") explanations for complex human cultural phenomena. A few years ago, there was even a book declaring the discovery of the "God Gene". This is the kind of "thinking" that is my target. We all have a God concept, whether we believe in him or not. It reflects our experience of the sacred and paradoxical nature of language, whether He exists or not. When it comes to God, we shouldn't just doubt that genes are not determining belief or not; they have absolutely nothing to do with it beyond the basic physical requirements for a person who can experience language in a communal, historical, setting. It is the experience of this shared human setting or scene, not the individual biology, that gives us our concept of God

Thanks again. Being something of a celebrity must be tough because so many people want to use it in their conversations with friends. You do us all a service in being such a person. That you will engage with us here shows your egalitarian and free spirit, wherever it comes from!

Eowyn said...

"In the wake of the controversy surrounding the awarding of the Order of Canada to Henry Morgentaler, the question arises: Are citizen honours a good idea?"

What a wonderful statement. Opens up much good debate.

It begs the question: WHY do we even assign "citizen honors?" In my view, it's because we want to honor those who advance the human progress; but how do we arrive at that conclusion?

Margo Somerville said: "I see hierarchy and egalitarianism (as is true of many other opposite traits or approaches) as needing to be held in what I would call "creative tension", not as in the past, and even the present,being allowed to result in "destructive tension". And adjusting the balance between them is not a one-time event but an on-going process."

Yes. It is dynamic tension that propels the engine of human progress forward.

Margo Somerville says: (M)y guess is that it's hierarchy with egalitarianism being an advance created by civilization.

Again, yes. But I would go a bit further. Have you ever heard of the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon? Basically, it posits that information has increased exponentially, since the days when Jesus walked the earth. (

There's a further train of thought that sees not only the inevitable progression of hierarchy/egalitarianism, but why, and when, and how. Plus the added benefits of physical and chemical proof. AND the side benefit of proving to us Christians (and all others) that an almighty and loving God knows and loves us. (

I'm talking peer-reviewed, scientific stuff. Very cool.

Dynamic tension -- that is the basic template of humanity, thinks me. I'd have to ask Ms. Somerville for a nod, but that's the way I see it. How else to explain the political and cultural polarities?

Anonymous said...

Hi Eowyn, consider yourself as having "the nod".
Margo S.