What Defines “Human,” ‘Cuz If You Get that Wrong, Everything’s Screwed Up

A crazy man shaking his head back and forth in a blur
Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

Philosophers have spent a great deal of effort attempting to define humanity. It used to be tool use, until chimps were found to use tools. Possessing a moral compass has been another definition, until other animals were found to display morality in their sense of fairness, aid to the sick, and sharing. Language, mathematics, religion, and brain size have all been considered. Though other mammals have a rudimentary language, and even lemurs can count, so far as we know, they can’t solve differential equations. Elephants appear to revere their dead in “elephant cemeteries.” Dolphins have the largest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any species on earth. Defining just what defines “human” is bound to get a little tricky.

From whatever that definition is, people build societies that strive to be in accord with what they think humans are. Early in a civilization, people seek to base their society on a political philosophy wedded to that definition, even though that definition and its associated philosophy will become forgotten or a little hazy. If, for example, humans are naturally wicked, a strong-arm governance should be employed. So said Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in his favoring of a monarchy. But if humans are naturally good, shouldn’t they be able to govern themselves? So asked John Locke (1632–1704) in his preference for democracy with its stress on individual liberty, rights, and equality before the law. Get the definition wrong, and a mess is made — a society that forces real humans into unreal molds. Like the seven-decade experiment that cost tens of millions of lives, starvation, and wars in Marxist-Leninist Russia.

Until recently, religion, as well as natural law and morality, played such a large role in the human definition, one finds it inseparable in any survey of the past. Historically speaking, the subtraction of religious reference is new. Aside from that colossal shift in the human definition brought on by the Agricultural Revolution, this separation from religion, and for so many, may be our biggest change. (Of course, the city, State, Empire, and Industrial Revolution all rank right up there.) In the practical day-to-day arena of America, religion and traditional morality became disconnected from defining who we are by three parallel routes. First, our Enlightenment-influenced Founders demanded government be morally neutral in order to avoid imposing a specified morality on individuals. (Though we should recognize that moral neutrality is not neutral as it selects for and against competing moral standards: a court-centered system of justice versus “an eye for an eye,” for example.) Gradually, Americans would assume the people themselves were to be morally neutral. This was not intended but bound to happen in an individualist State. Second, and for good historical reasons, America’s Founders expressly parted their government from religion by separating church from a state-sponsored faith, although colonies at that time still funded their favored denomination. Third, the Founders demoted religion from fact to opinion, but an opinion that became an individual right to have. At this same time, the way was being paved for another big change: the separation of morality from economics as elaborated by Louis Dumont (1911–1998) and his From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology.

Prevailing moral standards at the time of America’s Founding came from Christianity. Per Dumont, the emphasis Jesus placed on empathy was seen as a defining aspect of their view. Though incomplete in its application, it set the tone with constitutional allowance for expanded moral inclusion. Central to this Christian view was a striving to be selfless. Jesus placed emphasis on what we might term spiritual morality, degrading the material world of the here-and-now in favor of a world beyond. But seventeen hundred years after Jesus, a big adjustment occurred thanks to Adam Smith’s (1723–1790) Wealth of Nations. Smith submitted that selfishness is central to humanity — a paramount interest in self-preservation, so why not give into it? So long as we create a set of rules to play by, each can pursue their own self-interest by a new type of morality, where “private vice serves public virtue.” Smith reversed the Christian teaching by elevating the material world of here-and-now, seeking physical security and comfort for the greatest number of people. And it worked. Smith’s capitalist economy thrived in an atmosphere of “moral neutrality,” individualism, and limited selfishness. The human definition changed.

It’s clear that traditional morality and “economic morality” are in opposition: selflessness vs. selfishness; empathy vs. “greed is good,” as Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) clarified in his work The Fable of the Bees, which so influenced Smith. Hence, among the most profound self-contradictions in Western civilization: still generally Christian, simultaneously capitalist.

From Smith eventually arrives the notion that material wellbeing is the realization of social justice, not that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. According to Dumont, this change in the human definition changed our ideology and thus our actions. From an ideology once based on “man’s relation to men,” to “man’s relation to things.” It should probably be predictable that at this transition the individual accelerates their separation from others via achievement, control of the natural world, displays of materially defined success, etc. As such, true communities disappear. After Smith, the plodding pace of individualism becomes a sprint, eventually to trample traditional communal life with its many duties and responsibilities that we moderns view as positively stifling.

So, what is the fundamental nature of humans? Nobody knows. But biology dictates we are social before we’re born. We don’t choose it. Physically and emotionally, we are connected, utterly dependent on that first elemental society, mother and child. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both had a mother. They did not arrive on earth fully armed in defense of their individual rights. Individuality is naturally secondary, not primary.

There have been hundreds of experiments based on utterly different definitions. Compare the perfect weirdness of Sparta with hippie communes. Where are those models now? It gets even more complicated when we recognize that late modern humans of the West are a walking contradiction. We want love and independence, belonging and autonomy, someone of extraordinary measure to look up to and equality that guarantees no one is better than anybody else. Even our laws are self-contradictions: the equality of Equal Opportunity Employment versus the race preferences of Affirmative Action. The compensation of these contradictions produces what Chantal Delsol (1947-) terms “black markets.” As Delsol writes in her Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, “The figures of human existence are again [emerging] in spite of their illegitimacy [by late modern norms]. Ban the economy, and the black market will blossom. Decree that religions are obsolete, and you will have sects. Deny that human beings seek the good and the ghost of the good will appear surreptitiously under the guise of correct thinking.” Black markets strive to balance our psyche.

Modernity is filled to the brim with these kinds of contradictions. Why? Is it because our definition of the human being has been distorted by the evolution of ideals born with Enlightenment philosophy of the 1700s? Those ideals were established for good reason, but what Enlightenment defined as liberty, equality, and autonomy have become something radically different. A topic Patrick J. Deneen excavates with petrifying implications that we summarized here from his book, Why Liberalism Failed.

Or could the human definition be so nebulous because ever since the Agricultural Revolution dislodged humanity from 60,000 years as tight-knit hunter-gatherer communities, that every new political philosophy, every new religious dogma, every ideology, all were a patch to fix what we broke without knowing just what it was we broke? Each fix lays over the last one with new problems generated, to be countered, balanced, ameliorated. By now, 400 generations from the agricultural upheaval, and we haven’t an experiential clue of what the human condition was like when for 2400 generations it had been that of hunter-gatherers.

It is from nature that the template of humanity is born. We are social, as are other species: flocks of birds, herds of buffalo, schools of fish. Each seeks out others for companionship, safety, society. An expression of social yearning, not social contract, as though we could initiate or dispose of our social nature with an agreement. Compare this to Mandeville, who said the only reason people form society is to satisfy material desires. And — prefiguring Marx — that morality was invented by moralists, philosophers, and politicians to make man social. So, biologically, we can affirm that humans are social beings, who thus require morality (a social characteristic), and echoing Locke, humans are good — potentially at least — and with all that implies for governance. (This definition is necessarily brief, begging questions like, Why is there crime? Why are there wars?)

Morality, born of social bonds, does not exist in a fictional universe of one. In a world occupied by more than ourselves alone, universal moral codes have their place as an obligation on the individual. These are aspects of individuality relinquished to the Good, not merely the good of all, but for the Self if that Self expects to flourish. To deny our biologically determined social nature and the morality that comes with it through modern hyper-individualism is to float us on a moral foam, seen so clearly in America, Left and Right, where erratic indignation and sentimentality serve as guidance, not communities and their human reference.

If human social nature is prior to individualism, not just chronologically, but biologically, shouldn’t we rank aspects of individuality in accord with this reality? Not to make the individual disappear but to rank the individual in a larger picture. Such an idea might have created a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. The individual dare not be dismantled as the individual is forced to do in totalitarian regimes of socialism, communism, or authoritarianism. We can’t remake moderns into ancients and expect to make a better world. Lenin and the French Revolution tried that. We’ve got 30,000 years of human examples to examine, with social systems more, less, or not the least in accord with human nature. Like notes that exist but not yet composed into a great musical composition, somewhere out there is the answer we’ve searched for from the moment humans expressed themselves in those ancient caves of France and Spain. Or are we condemned to civilization’s rise and fall because we can never fix what we broke?



Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com

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Brett Alan Williams

Physicist / artist / author writes about science & religion, art & culture, philosophy & politics with an edge. On Medium, Goodreads and TheFatherTrilogy.com