Confession of a Rational Animal

There’s a lot to appreciate about Aristotle’s definition of our species as rational animal. We are animals with the capacity for reason — including the all-important ability to guide our decisions and behavior through the exercise of reason. I’ve devoted much of my life to practical reason and the pursuit of excellences that enrich our lives. I think I’ve done alright.

But alright isn’t perfect, obviously. I’m constantly managing the animal in my nature, with varying degrees of success. This is why Aristotle is so keen on the self-conscious cultivation of habits: Habits serve as compensatory mechanisms, when the animal tries to get the upper hand. And it will get the upper hand, from time to time. In these unpleasant moments, all the reason in the world won’t impress the animal, which operates according to a different, primal logic. In those moments, we need our compensatory mechanisms more than ever, and it’s important to know what they are before we need them.

A case in point: The invasion of Ukraine.

This war is an unspeakable tragedy, a war of vanity and ambition that sacrifices human life and dignity — both of Ukrainians and of ordinary Russians. Don’t turn away from the devastation and horror of so many people, dead, lost, and displaced. Don’t turn away from young Russian military men and women, ordinary citizens whose lives have been put on hold, all of them treated as mere pawns in a mythical quest. Don’t turn away from what we are losing, every day that this unnecessary war continues.

I am not turning away. And this is where my confession begins.

I understand something of the geopolitical dynamics. I understand why NATO will not enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. I understand Poland’s desire to send jets, but not from its own military bases. I understand the arguments against sending forces to Western Ukraine, or using Western military might to enforce humanitarian corridors. I understand the unprecedented scope of the economic sanctions — and I understand that this pressure takes time. I understand.

But it’s my rational self that understands — only that. The animal in me rebels against practicality and prudence, against my own reasonable voices. That part of me doesn’t want to weigh the relative costs of intervening in this way or that; it doesn’t want to give sanctions time, or provide indirect defensive support, or engage in diplomacy, or avoid a direct confrontation that would surely widen the conflict. That part of me — no, II want to act, I want all believers in human dignity and the right to self-determination to stand up and act — now and decisively.

I realize that this reflection is a philosopher’s privilege. Ukrainian women and men are giving their lives to defend their right to self-determination, and their courage and determination should inspire us all. But what can we do, from this comfortable distance?

Nothing I can say will compare to the fight in which our fellow human beings are fighting in Ukraine, and nothing I can say should take away from the honor they deserve. But their fight for autonomy and self-determination is everyone’s concern. Autonomy and the right to self-determination is the exception in the history of our species. Power, class, religion, the nation-state — all have conspired at times to enforce a dominant way of life on people who want to take a different path. We can honor the Ukrainians’ spirit by taking up that challenge, every day, where we are.

Genuine pluralism is not natural for our species, and we easily succumb to the comforting fantasy that the way of life that pleases us must surely please everyone — and it is a dangerously short step from the comfort of this fantasy to the conclusion that they, whoever they are, do not know what is good for them, and must be ”shown.”

Genuine pluralism is so unnatural to us that every generation must relearn the skills and the wisdom of reaching beyond the barriers we have erected to divide ourselves. And this is where any of us can join this fight. If you value your own autonomy, if you embrace your own right to self-determination, then defend the autonomy and self-determination of others — including people who want to lead lives different than yours.

In nature, it is most often the variation of specific traits in a multiplicity of individuals that allows a species to thrive; I believe the same is true for the human spirit. The more ways of being the kind of thing we are — and the more we embrace and celebrate that variation — the more resilient our kind becomes, and the richer each of our lives can be. Recognizing this basic fact means recognizing that not everyone should be like me, if we value the flourishing of rational animals.

When we look at the members of a family, no one says that the variation of traits that constitute family resemblance reduces to relativism. The family reveals itself without a single determining feature. Isn’t that the possibility of genuine pluralism?
To be a rational animal is to be the kind of being that can choose its kind of life and community.


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