Our understanding of human nature

Noam Chomsky on our implicit understanding of human nature1:

[A]ny stance that one takes with regard to social issues … assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. That is, if you suggest things should be reformed in this or that fashion and there’s a moral basis for it, you are in effect saying: “Human beings are so constituted that this change is to their benefit. It somehow relates to their essential human needs.”

The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It’s more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much. But if the study of humans were ever to reach the point of a discipline with significant intellectual content (and we’re very far from this), this concept would have to be understood and articulated.

If we search our souls we find that we do have a concept, and it’s probably based on some ideas about the underlying and essential human need for freedom from external arbitrary constraints and controls, a concept of human dignity which would regard it as an infringement of fundamental human rights to be enslaved, owned by others, in my view even to be rented by others, as in capitalist societies, and so on.

  1. From Language and Politics, 2004.

You can drink on your porch

In a moment of clarity — or pronouncing the obvious — the Iowa Supreme Court overturns a lower court decision, and affirms one’s right to drink on their porch:

If the front stairs of a family home were always considered a public place, it would create “absurd results” and make it a “crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito” or even grill with “bourbon-infused barbecue sauce”.

Naked in papal regalia

David Zubik, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, on the decision to file charges against a CMU student who paraded naked in papal regalia:

[T]his is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that freedom of speech and freedom of expression do not constitute a freedom to dismiss or disrespect the beauty of anyone’s race, the sacredness of anyone’s religious belief or the uniqueness of anyone’s nationality.

It seems like a fairly strange conclusion to reach, given that the student faces misdemeanor charges for indecent exposure, not impiety. Moreover, CMU President Jared Cohon announced that the University wouldn’t take any disciplinary action, and that while “many found the students’ activities deeply offensive, the university upholds their right to create works of art and express their ideas.”

I think this is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that respect can’t be legislated — and even if it could, wouldn’t it lose a big part of its meaning?