What it means to be human

What does it mean to be human? There are few questions more basic but also more difficult to answer. So, let me start as all answers to hard questions must. With a story.

An artistic representation of Australopithecus africanus. The Australopithecines may have been responsible for the deposits in Olduvai Gorge and Koobi Fora in East Africa. They may also have begun the long process of 'becoming human'.
Meet Australopithecus africanus. An early human (Creative Commons).

Yesterday, I sat as countless numbers of students before me have sat. In an exam room, writing about the difference between Oldowan humans and modern chimpanzees. You’d think it’s obvious: of course there’s something that makes us – us! – different from our primate cousins. But that’s precisely the problem: there isn’t much to tell us apart from chimpanzees. Not much at all.

See, brain size isn’t really all that. Whales and elephants beat Homo sapiens, and would trounce our Australopithecene forbears – the ones whose remains can be found at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, using Oldowan tools. (Hence the name, ‘Oldowan humans’.)

Neither is intelligence. Just as any primate has to assume that the future will resemble the past in order to make more-or-less any decision whatsoever, modern humans (us, that is) have to make the same assumption. We don’t have any special insight into why A causes B. We just see A, then B. And we put the two together. Just like chimps.

There are, however, a couple of interesting differences. One is that chimpanzees, when they scavenge for meat, for instance, tend to consume the meat as they go. But our human relatives at Olduvai didn’t exactly do that. They seemed to bring some meat back to a home base, where they butchered it and consumed it communally. Humans, perhaps since the Oldowan, have shared their food more than chimpanzees have. Both chimpanzees and humans empathise with their blood relatives (‘kin altruism’), but humans are inclined to also empathise with people who reciprocate gift-giving and food-sharing (‘reciprocal altruism’).

Another difference is that humans struggle for more than just any position in society’s status hierarchy. They struggle for what you might call ‘equality’. While chimpanzees exist in communities structured by a hierarchy at the pinnacle of which are ‘alpha males’ engaging in polygamous and generous subsistence relations, humans for at least 200,000 years (not quite since the Oldowan, 2 million years ago) have existed in mostly egalitarian communities. Thanks to hand-held spear technologies, the weakest human could kill the strongest. This produces a lot of competition between humans determined to counterbalance anyone who gets out of their place and aspires for alpha status. That’s why it took until the domestication of lots of plants and animals and rises in population size in the last ten millennia alone for, first, chiefs to redistribute surplus produce and, then, narrow elites to appropriate such produce to subjugate the interests of the majority to the interests of the oligoi (the few). Until recently, humans were not used to oligarchy. Now, oligarchy is the very air we breathe.

That might not be a problem, of course. If oligarchy, or rule by the few, helps to maintain productivity in developed agricultural and industrial societies, perhaps it’s inevitable. It might even be in the collective interest when productive capacity reaches a certain level. Perhaps this is why humans have tolerated oligarchy in the vast majority of complex societies for the past couple of millennia. But the future might not exactly resemble the past. Conditions might change. If they do, and oligarchy becomes a thing of the past, how could we evaluate whether the society we create after is any better than the society we created before? Perhaps we could look to how different societies satisfy our interests as human beings.

But what are these interests, you may well ask? Ultimately, natural science won’t tell us. Because though we can learn from archaeology (the study of the past from its material remains) and bio-anthropology (the study of humans from a biological perspective) plenty about what humans are like, we can’t really learn what we should be like. But what is can sometimes shed light on what should be, as it might suggest what humans are naturally inclined to prefer, all other things being equal. And here’s what I’d prefer.

I’d prefer if humans could freely choose what to do with their own time. You might say: wait a minute – don’t we already have that freedom? We can surf the net, play video games, watch sports, play sports, take up the guitar, learn a language, and do whatever the hell we want to do in our free time. But that’s precisely the problem: it’s called ‘free time’. Ever wondered what the rest of our time is? That’s right: unfree time. And what’s unfree time, at heart? That’s right: slavish time.

All the time our preferences about what to do with our own time aren’t satisfied, we’re participating in a form of slavery. This slavery might be temporary, and it might even be made with our willing consent. We might accept some slavery as necessary for greater overall freedom or interest satisfaction. That’s exactly what humans in the past have seen as necessary to do. And who could criticise them? But times have changed, and so should we. Productivity is higher today than at any period in human history. The capacity we have for making most jobs automated means millions of people may soon have time they once used for meaningless work freed up for something else. How would you like to spend that time? Whatever your answer is to that question, maybe you’ll be a bit more confident about the next: Would you like to have the choice?

But as we’ve seen, the freedom to choose what to do with your time is not the only human interest we share. We also share an interest for recognition. Recognition of our equal dignity as human beings. Misrecognition takes the form of status depreciation, where some are misrecognised as less ‘worthy’ than others. Take the example of the ‘meritocracy’. It’s an intrinsically misrecognising project. It seeks to recognise some people – the university-goers, the job-winners, the top dollar earners – as worthy, and others as unworthy, of dignity. No matter how many good or bad functions the idea of ‘meritocracy’ performs, at its heart it is misrecognising of equal human dignity. I wonder what non-agricultural humans would say about that. Maybe we could ask.

The third interest we share may date back to the Oldowans themselves. It’s the interest to participate in, and contribute to, a larger community of reciprocal, not just kin, ties. A community that benefits you and benefits from you. A community that serves you and you yourself serve. A community that involves you and you involve yourself in. A community with rights, and responsibilities.

The last interest is freedom itself. And it’s the most elusive and most precious interest of all. To use Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, this freedom is not freedom ‘to’. It’s freedom ‘from’. But freedom from what? Not coercion – that’s already minimised by the first interest, to choose as much as possible what to do with your own time – but manipulation. When you’re manipulated, you’re instilled with preferences which go against your interests. That’s bad, and that’s ruled out by this last interest.

So, there you go. What does it mean to be human? It means to have interests, and to hope that they will be satisfied, and that power will not be exercised in a manner which violates these interests, which include the interests to:

  1. Satisfaction of your preferences about how to spend your time on Earth;
  2. Recognition by others of your inherent dignity as an equal human being;
  3. Community which involves you and in which you involve yourself; and
  4. Freedom from arbitrary manipulation of your preferences.

‘Wait!’, I hear you cry, ‘Isn’t this last interest totally unnecessary?’

‘How so, dear reader?’, I kindly inquire.

‘Well’, you steadily but firmly begin, ‘If influencing preferences is only ‘manipulation’ when it goes against your interests, isn’t manipulation ruled out by interests (1) to (3) (satisfaction, recognition, community)? Isn’t interest (4) (freedom) an add-on that makes your elegant trinity of interests a rancorous rhombus of a theory?’

I see. Well, if you so desire an illustration, here’s one. Imagine you are totally satisfied. Your dignity is recognised, and your community is participatory and inclusive. Production is high enough to make oligarchy unnecessary anymore. Your interests (1) to (3) are fully satisfied. But in this imagined world, let us also imagine that you are not really you. In fact, you are inside a modern Matrix, controlled by a supercomputer which programs your every move, and the movements of everyone and everything around you. But at least you’re happy.

That’s the problem. Even when your interests for happiness, recognition, and community are satisfied, you are never really human unless you are also you. To be you, you cannot be a floating Boltman brain in a space-time anomaly, or Mario rescuing his princess in a Nintendo video game. You need to be, well, you. Real you. Free from arbitrary manipulation of your preferences – and of everything else, for that matter. To the greatest extent possible – that is to say, up and until the point where your need to fulfil this interests conflicts with your fulfilling your other interests. All four interests matter – but they need to be balanced off each other in order to satisfy them all, to the greatest extent possible. Sometimes interest (4) will need to be scaled back a bit to allow for interests (1) to (3) to be satisfied, and vice versa.

What is power? It means the influence of some people over other people, especially when this influence over preferences and force over behaviour violates one or more of your human interests. When power does violate these interests, it constitutes what Steven Lukes calls ‘power by domination’. But when it doesn’t violate these interests, it’s just power. Necessary power. Because however much we may wish to be free, we also need to have our other interests satisfied. And sometimes, that requires a balance. Between freedom, on the one hand, and satisfaction, recognition, and community, on the other. Balances are not utopias. But they are not dystopias either.

Perhaps the balance we are looking for, then, is not impossible after all. It just involves hierarchy, or necessary power, without oligarchy, or power by domination. But neither is it going to happen without an awful lot of action. And what better way of encouraging action than hope?

That is what it means to be human.

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