Book Review

On Human Nature

Roger Scruton
Princeton University Press (7 Feb 2017)
ISBN: 978-0691168753

Book CoverAre humans only different in degree from other animals? Can everything we do be explained by our animal nature? Scruton answers with a resounding no in this splendid book. While not denying our animal nature, Scruton also argues that we are different from the other animals. Humans are "persons", that is, self-conscious rational agents. Personhood is inherent to humans: it is not something added on but it is also not reducible to our animal nature. 

As our animal nature is distinct from our personhood, so science can examine our animal nature but not our personhood. To use an analogy, when we examine a great work of art, we may examine the brush strokes or we may examine the enigmatic smile of the person in the painting. 

Personhood for Scruton is an emergent property of a biological being. The person understands himself as an "I". Our ability to reason and obey the moral law flows from our understanding of ourselves as persons. Science can certainly study our animal nature and offer an account of the relations between humans at the animal level: between one "it" and another"it". But science cannot give an account of the relationship between two persons: between "you" and "I". As persons, we require a different order of explanation that cannot be offered by biology. 

The human person is essentially social and much of morality is to do with how we relate to each other. The different philosophical traditions are examined including conseqentialism which is based on a calculation of the likely effects of our actions, a system he rightly dislikes. If we are more than animals - and consequentialism appears to assume we are nothing more than pleasure machines - then we need a different philosophical approach. 

What we really need, says Scruton, is the sacred in order to do justice to some of our moral emotions. If there is to be this openness to the sacred, there must be something in us that cannot be grasped by science - not even neuroscience. Science can study the brain. But we need something different in order to study the mind.

Scruton is challenging the evolutionary psychologists and the philosophical materialists. The absurd reductionism we see in Peter Singer's and Richard Dawkins's understanding of man is surely challenged. An incapacitated person is not less of a person than a healthy animal because personhood is intrinsic to our very natures, whether we are healthy or not.

Another great work by a great philosopher.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan