Upon being exposed to some particularly ghastly event, some particularly inhuman action, most people experience a form of horror, a combination of revulsion and shock. Emotionally, we find it disgusting and mentally, it is incomprehensible.
Whether it is people chopping up their lifelong neighbors in Rwanda or someone holding women captive and abusing them for years in a house in Cleveland, these occurences are felt as alien to the ordinary lives of most people. The particular examples don’t matter, there is a seemingly endless supply of these occurences if one is attentive to them.
And yet, despite the pervasiveness of the inhuman, they are not, as I suggested, representative of the day to day lives of most humans. Most of human being is simply a carrying on in this world, a negotiation of one’s happiness project with the contingencies of the world.
While there is no shortage of cruelty in the world, humans are not essentially Hobbesian nasty, brutish creatures, impulsed towards a struggled of each against all. People aren’t naturally filled with hostility towards other humans.
That’s why we experience shock and disgust at atrocities, because they are felt as contrary to normal human life, as exceptions to our common expectation of the world. Indeed, we use the term inhuman because these actions are seen as gross aberrations of our understanding of what it means to be human. People who perform these acts are regarded as “monsters”, human bodies that behave contrary to their humanity.
Our common vision of the human, then, is the opposite of “monster”. To be human means to be a human body that lives in a human way. I believe “a human way” would be broadly understood to mean in a state of co-operative co-existence with other humans, involving mutual regard, goodwill, empathy, and concern .
To the extent that this is indeed generally understood would mean that this idea of the human is not an ideal to which we should aspire, but an expectation of how the world should be. I think it is also a reflection of our inner experience: “this is what I am (or mean to be) as a human”; the cruelties of the world are felt as foreign to our being. That is, our idea of the human is related to how we feel ourselves to be.
But while the world may not be nasty and brutish, neither does it live up to our expectation of co-operative co-existence. You might say that the world is constantly disappointing us, in iways small and large.
Our vision of the human is like a collective self-image, but it isn’t a photographic rendering, not an image derived from observation and analysis. Rather, I think it is more like an image of our better selves, a representation of how what we are when we are being as we would like ourselves to be. It is how we sense ourselves to be in essence, uncorrupted by the exigencies of the world.
This shared imaginary of the human is the self-projection of the encompassing community of all homo sapiens. Its utterance of ourselves to ourselves is an existential claim regarding the status of human organisms. Beyond that, it is an expression of intent, intent towards the world, of how we mean to be in the world and also intent for the world, an assertion of how the world should be for us.
Our conception of ourselves as human evokes an archetype we juxtapose our lives against. The dissonance we feel between archetype and actuality can inspire us ttowards becoming the human we see in ourselves.
Our thought of the human doesn’t envision the human as an autonomous, self-seeking, rationally calculating independent agent. If it means anything, to be human means to be in common with other humans, all humans; a being with and being for. It means being aligned in a positive stance towards other humans for a mutually beneficial existence.
To be human, then, is not to regard other humans as objects to be utilized for one’s own benefit. Rather, the human way is a striving to live together harmoniously on this planet. It involves valuing all humans, seeing their dignity and worth, and being concerned for their well-being.
The human way is a passage that awaits our exploration, an open invitation to realize our better selves. To follow it is to welcome all humans as fellow voyagers on our journey towards what we might become.
- Towards a World of Our Wishing
- Human Together