Kind and Degree

The kind and degree distinction is a well-regarded conceptual tool in biological morphology, mathematics, and logic. Think of it as a scalpel that slices a category into its components, finding worthwhile similitude and difference that clarify not only the parts but the whole (see “Stereotypes and Categories”).

Take anything that we can conceptualize. By removing it from its nesting place in external reality and holding it as an object of thought, we take it for a certain kind of thing. It is cloud, a cricket, a castanet, or a coincidence. The conceptual box that begins our consideration establishes immediately that the preliminary act of categorizing sets the limits and nature of the analysis that follows. If we begin with the box of “cloud,” and examine the sky, we will see all sorts, some soft and diaphanous, others thick and dark, but all species of the kind of thing we are looking at, differing only by degrees irrelevant to the nature of the initial categorization. But should we begin our consideration with a different and narrower kind of thing, with “storm cloud” for instance, we might find other kinds of clouds sharing the same sky. And should we begin with the even narrower category of “storm clouds that might ruin our picnic,” we will dismiss all the other kinds and observe only the one or two squalls upwind of our location, themselves differing only in degree of threat.

So in our thinking, we establish distinctions of kind by the focal length of our initial conceptual category, considering things sharing the same qualities to be of one kind different from others having other categorical qualities. That lends a real gravity to the accuracy of our initial qualifications of kind, for upon it hinges all the thinking that must follow, all directed by the intentions guiding that initial limitation of kind. And within that file, less important distinctions are noted as differences of degree, but these differences also depend on what kind of category we are examining. For example, should we examine all the kinds of thing we can think of, we will not only be here for a while, but we will be considering differences of degree so large as to render further thinking fruitless. So we are mistaken if we think ourselves entirely free to set the parameters of our conceptions of kind. For although the initial focus may be entirely the product of our own will, we almost immediately face rational limitations dictated by the usual suspects of consistency and categoricality. We may think of the concepts of “cloud” and “castanet” as representative of kinds of things, but that tells us almost nothing about their similitude nor would thinking their differences to be merely matters of degree do much for comprehending their distinctiveness. We get to begin to compose the file by our own attention, but reason must guide even that initial preference if we wish for it to be productive (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”).

Biology and mathematics make excellent use of these logical restrictions, dividing and subdividing by morphology, phylogeny, and taxonomy. These arcane distinctions are of value to the scientist and expert, of course (see “Expertise). But the specialized process is fundamentally identical to what we all use to learn from experience. We abstract a conceptual category from perception or reflection and then seek others like it and different from it. Tolstoy was thoughtless to claim that all happy families are alike, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. All unhappy families are of the same kind: they are all unhappy. Considered merely as the class of unhappy families, they differ only in the degree of their unhappiness. The difference in kind he was actually referencing concerns the causes and expressions of their unhappiness, and they are of many kinds, though a study would surely find degrees of difference in each one of those categories too.

When two objects of investigation share an equality of kind, meaning they belong in the same conceptual file, they still will claim an inequality of degree. Two whole numbers are alike in kind, yet they occupy different places on the number line. Identical twins may look alike, dress alike, and act alike, but they occupy different points in space. Both are of the same kind when considered in the category of identical twin. They will insist their differences are of more than degree, that they are very different persons, and considered as “persons,” the category of individual human beings, they are entirely correct. And that brings us to the crux of this discussion of kind and degree: its relationship to our judgments of quality of similitude and difference as preparatory to those of morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”).

Conceptually, a “person” is a unique bundle of experience, the mysterious self that occupies the one-of-a-kind called “the phenomenal I.” From within our own experiential existence, no one can question that we are unique. We freely express this as persons and rightly tell our children that of the six billion persons on the planet, no one else is just like them. From our subjective perspective, each of us occupies a conceptual category of one.

But even as we celebrate our specialness, we place ourselves in other categories that belie it. We freely associate with others, joining into groups defined by some common kind of activity: families, communities, corporations, clubs, churches, states, and nations. From the lofty eminence of the corner office, all employees at Gotrox Inc. are of the same kind, differing only in degree of service to the corporation. The phenomenal “I,” the one-of-a-kind distinctiveness of each employee, is unlikely to be the defining quality of the corporate file. We all feel the disjunction between our own felt singularity and the categories into which we place ourselves by our own preferences. From inside the self, we might find that easy attribution, that denial of particularity, to be demeaning. What else is our sense of self than a declaration to the external world that we are special? And what could be more universal than that very sense of uniqueness, that cry of the ego in a world of six billion singularities?

So the phenomenally peculiar self, even by our own estimation, experiences an equality of kind in its voluntary preferences as we go about the quotidian business of living our lives. We all place ourselves in the file of family member, friend, acquaintance, worker, hobbyist, knower, citizen, and scores of other shared preferences with other unique persons. It is true that we differ by degree in these preferences, so we can say that as workers we are especially diligent or indolent, as family members, loving or apathetic. These inequalities of degree within broader equalities of kind are in truth the key to our sense of self, but they ought not obscure the larger similitude from which they are to be derived. We ought at least to inquire whether these equalities of kind challenge our own sense of belonging in our own special file, a unique kind of thing.

Further, even if we insist on ignoring our preferences and insist on drilling down on our own felt inequality of kind from all others so as to celebrate our own splendor, we find ourselves bound to a kind of nature that seems anything but unique, that seems predictably and often empirically definable in its subjection to rules of nourishment, rest, and health within a very narrow range of functionality. To be a human in the world seems to bind us to a limited range of options. And once we bother to interrogate others’ lives, we find so many common requirements for a full human life that our attention is called to the rarity of outliers, persons who don’t seek loving intimacy, who shun developing any skills, or who spurn all benefits of community. These are persons whom Aristotle, the ultimate file clerk, chose to call either “god or beast.”

This bifocal view of our own uniqueness coupled with our common humanity highlights the bipolar perversity of the contemporary view of personhood. Beginning with the Romantic era at the dawn of the nineteenth century, continuing through the permutations of phenomenalism, nihilism, and existentialism, what is thought to be the legitimate conceptual category of kind for persons has become the experiential class of one, the uniquely lived and therefore uniquely experienced and therefore incomparable “I,” the one-of-a-kind (see “Modernism and Its Discontents). And yet part of everyone’s unique experience is an obviously shared equality of kind: the morphology of the human species. Our functional nature erects guardrails for our mode of existence that can only be breached by doing violence to it, yet that seems the clear intent of the antiheroic individualists who bridle at any hint of limits to their preferential freedom and who seem eager to prove their superiority to the common way (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist”). They see a diminishment in even thinking themselves bound to an equalities of kind at all, and they seek the exemption implied by their desire to be sui generis, mining experience for opportunities to rise up out of the file of homo sapiens, climbing the Parnassus of their own uniqueness. It is, I suppose, a tribute to the domination of morality by aesthetics in contemporary society that we seek to make ourselves into a unique work of art (see “Three Portraits“).

This aspiration has shifted subtly over the last half century (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”). Because no one can escape shared cultures and since current obsessions elevate culture as determinative, the temptation now is to limit equalities of kind to one’s own: to champion family, tribe, region, class, religious authority, or nation (see “Cultural Consensus). We must distinguish this new tribalism from a communitarian ethic that was the rule until modernism released individual agency to seek its own level (see “Modernism’s Midwives“). That effort freed Romantic phenomenalism and psychological theory to make private experience the root of all identity. By the 1970’s, postmodernism had permeated the mass culture it had originally spurned in favor of a strident antiheroism, and the new tribalism of identity politics began slicing its cleavages (see “The Death of Character”). The distance between tribe, self-creation, and cultural identity is not so great today. Beneath the effort to submerge the unique self in a pool of shared culture, we can always find the exertions of ego. The axioms of contemporary morality are unlikely to permit the communal ethos, the full submission of agency to authority, that was so common in earlier times when tribalism was institutionalized and persons submitted fully to its authority (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems). We no longer see institutions as formative and now seek every opportunity to seek performative opportunities to demonstrate proof of personal superiority fully founded upon their own uniqueness (see “Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“). So postmodern identity theory manages the neat trick of having individuals consciously recognize the impact of culture on themselves by a performative act of self-engagement. They become “woke” to its power and lend their sanction to their own partisanship, less submerging self than celebrating it. Persons may proclaim American exceptionalism with the flag; religious commitment with cross, beard, or veil; or some gnostic aesthetic that displays what is cool. Whatever the source or nature of the claim to special status nowadays, the result is a a demonstrable individual superiority.

A tribal equality of kind may still offer more than ego strokes, of course. The shared values of cultures glue persons to commitments larger than their private experience, procure common desires, and accomplish real goods. Their intentionality directs the preferences of their members to shared goals and can serve to steer the egotism of the phenomenal self into the broader streams of common consent. Two related considerations arbitrate whether the individual’s associations with these kinds of efforts prove beneficial or baneful. The first is the relative weight of private versus corporate advantage and the second is the power of opposition to bind the corporate identity.

As to the first, the mutuality of submerging the phenomenal self into some larger identity requires that the balance of interests in the equality of kind serves the corporate unit more than the self-love of its members. The “no I in team” orientation captures this requirement well, for the culture’s goals must more than equal the private strivings of group members so as to reach common ends and limit the egotism that might obstruct them. But this submission of agency to institutional authority can never be completed so long as modernist or postmodernist axioms guide persons’ preferences, so authoritarian efforts have proven both excessive and short-lived as persons first seek to submerge and then to recover their own moral agency, the yin and yang of today’s version of commitment observable in everything from corporate culture to fascism and from religious commitments to marriages. This bodes ill for contemporary identity politics as it did for the larger scale mass movements of the last century.

A parallel consideration recent history suggests is the requirement that these desired ends be defined positively rather than in opposition to competing groups, for the zero-sum game that must follow such a commitment will definitionally reject a more inclusive conceptual equality of kind. We see this zero-sum thinking in sporting competitions and in political affiliations, in class conflicts and in racial bias, in religious warfare and national identities. Its defining equality of kind structures affiliation as opposition to the other. By this way of thinking, the “phenomenal I” may submerge itself profitably into some larger intentional identity that is fundamentally different in kind from its opposition. This might prove successful so long as the initial conceptual category is clearly defined and lends itself to comparative evaluations. For instance, Americans really are exceptional. Their history and character is unique. In considering differing kinds of nations, the United States holds a special place. Its national identity is fundamentally one-of-a-kind. But that means almost nothing of itself, for every nation is unique in history and character. Swiss citizens and Cambodian citizens have just as much reason for pride in the exceptionality of their national identity, but no more. As a categorical kind of file, exceptionalism among nations is as much to be expected as felt uniqueness among their inhabitants. When persons define their cultural identifications and take pride in them, they are exercising an accurate and healthy association with something larger than themselves. When the pride is excessively personal or oppositional to other associations that are not demonstrably superior, only different, they serve only ego. This is not to say that no nation may claim superiority to another, but “exceptionality” is not the proper quality to capture it. Nor should a unique national identity blind citizens to the larger equality of kind they share with persons in other jurisdictions.  All persons are entitled to citizenship, to representative government that provides them with justice. Here is a kind of quality that does allow inequalities of degree, for some nations are more just than others, so for a country to provide exceptional justice is to mark it as more than unique, as comparatively superior in degree, though still of a larger kind: the category of just nations. Such a comparison does more than invalidate the dehumanization of the other that is always the first casualty of hostile intention. Just as finding other kinds of pursuits common to citizens challenges their felt uniqueness, so too does finding common ground among nations deconstruct the myth of jingoistic exceptionality.  It invalidates the false inequality of kind that marks tribalist thinking, reminding us that all citizens of all nations are entitled to a justice that few nations deliver. As inhabitants of their respective countries, they are all of the same kind, all citizens entitled to the same prerogatives.

This kind of exercise can be recycled with profit for our conceptual thinking. Yes, all cuisines are exceptional. They are all unique. But some nourish the human organism far better than others, so their uniqueness — or to put it negatively, their strangeness — evaporates when we place them in the conceptual category of their broader purpose as nourishment. All religion nourishes another appetite: the human need for awe. From college preparation to apprenticeships, we find both an equality of kind and an inequality of degree once we begin with the functional need for skill and knowledge. To say we are more alike than we are different is to pronounce a truism so banal as to be beneath our notice, at least until we notice how often our own desire for uniqueness seeks to deny it.

The fundamental equality of kind that is most instructive for every person on the planet is not the “phenomenal I” nor some tribal association defined in opposition to others but the species-specific functional identity that grants all of us the same kind of preferential freedom and the human dignity that derives from it (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights.”) This shared humanity is overarching because it dictates universal needs that direct the preferences of individuals and the cultures they form. The almost infinite variety of the means used to satisfy these common preferences allows each of us the means to pursue our own variety of the same good, to combine in various cultural communities that exercise a mutual intentionality to gratify them. We surely differ in degree. But we all share the morphology of our unique species. Our special nature derives not from our vanity but from our humanity.