Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
In many of my letters I have failed to remark my debts with the great philosophers I have stolen my ideas from. I am a kleptomaniac of ideas. Ideas are precious and I can’t but steal them whenever I have the slight feeling of having mastered some of their intricacies. I also think that good ideas must be of public dominion and not of private property, both to enrich the public as to undergo public scrutiny. Even if the aim of these letters is not to develop a systematic philosophical thought, and careful quotation of academic personalities would have weighed too much on the humble purposes of my philosophical adventure, I believe I might have been too parsimonious in avoiding to reveal the sources of “my” ideas.
Hence, I would like to start by telling you the story of how I abandoned the belief in humanism, thanks to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, from whom many of my thoughts (especially those related to destiny and realism) are derived.
Once I got rid of the belief in God and in supernatural entities, I was often asked what I was believing in instead. My usual answer was that I had no comparable belief to the faith in God, but if I had to pick necessarily, I would have said human shared intelligence and morality. I inadvertently adopted the humanist motto of the “homo faber”, the man who builds his own fortune, coming from the philosophy of the Renaissance.
The idea that Man could dominate over fortune and nature, within certain limits, seemed promising to ground a new set of values, emancipated from religious ones. However, I was soon faced with new problems. How can we value nonhuman animals, plants, ecosystems and natural resources if we do not lead them back to the tyrannical power of human abilities? And if they are all subject to human domination, what can grant that human beings will treat them well? If human beings have the power to deliberate on the life and death of other species, and are not subject to any supernatural power themselves, what will grant that humans will act as to preserve nature, rather than destroy it by means of exploitation?
Going back to God was not a solution for me, but luckily, I found a valid criticism of humanism in Thomas Nagel. Nagel thinks that the reasons on which we act are facts independent of our subjective interests and to follow them means to leave behind subjective motivation and conform to objective statements about what is good and right. To put it differently, Nagel believes that there is no way to ground morality or, in this case, respect for nature, starting from egoism. If you say that saving the planet is good for human beings to prosper, instead of being-good-period, you will be led back to an unsolvable conflict of reasons: exploiting the planet is also good for human beings, mass killing of animals satisfies many superfluous needs of humans and uncontrolled deforestation can help economies. Of course you might argue that if you finish unrenewable resources, then you will suffer economic loss, but again, is that a good reason to save entire ecosystems? Don’t we really have better reasons than that?
Nagel thinks we do, and the reason is simply that nature is valuable independently of human selfish interests, no matter of which political party. If we understand ourselves objectively as beings among others, we find a realm of objective and logical relationships between natural entities and obligations that are not grounded on being beneficial for us, but rather on their being valid independently of our arbitrium.
Not only shall we develop a self-conception of being obligated by objective facts, but we are also obligated by our evolutionary origin and material nature (understood objectively). This is a thought I borrow from Christine Korsgaard, who herself draws ideas from Aristotle. According to Korsgaard, we share our appetitive and vegetative identity with animals, and since our identity is normative to us, the same identity we find in animals does also obligate us. But why not go all the way down to plants and microorganisms? Our identity belongs to our evolutionary history as a fact about life on this planet and our “identity with nature” is a source of obligation independent of our self-interest.
We can think about it as a kind of godless religiosity. Discover values in nature because we belong to it (not because we need it) and be obligated by nature’s wonders and “worship” them in all their forms. Nature is the source of value, and the humankind shall be devoted to it, not the other way round.