Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ohhh! The Humanity! (Part 1)

What does it mean to be a 'human'? When do we become humans? How can we tell if something is a human or not?  Are all persons humans?  When do we cease to be human? What are the elements that make up a human?  Part 2 is here.

One human or two?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the human person, made in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual.” More simply, a human has two parts: a body and a soul. The soul exists before and after the body. When a soul is attached to the body, it is a human. This view of two parts to being human is sometimes called “dualism”.

Biology science tells us that humans are “primates of the family Hominidae with a well-developed brain making them capable of reason.” A mind emerges from how the body is put together. Science's concept is that body and the mind are not two things, but one. This one thing view of what makes a human is technically called “monism”.

From some philosophical views we are told that we think therefore we are. Thinking is what makes a person different from all other matter. These ideas can be expanded to include aliens as a part of person-hood. A human then becomes just a specific type of person, in the class of thinkers.

The human within.
This small sample of the debate about the definition of 'human' is at the heart of many struggles in our society today. Abortion, the death penalty, cloning, stem cell research, and even basic freedoms are all subject to arguments raging across the planet. At the root of them is a disagreement about what it is to be human.

We develop our opinions of humanness from our own experiences. Our lives, as lived, give us a sense of being human. We examine ourselves then thrust the result upon others. From religion, science and philosophy we are given ideas about what we are. We are left to determine, each for ourselves, what we are.

Assumptions about what we are, define who we are. When we threaten those assumptions, we lose our own context. Our self knowledge allows us to interact with the world in known ways. Redefining ourselves is a a most basic threat to our self identity. Changing our definitions of what we are scares us.

Humans: all are different, all are the same.

The journey between what we think and what we will come to know requires traveling through a valley of doubt. This journey is one worth taking as it leads us to a better of understanding of who we are. In this and in several of the next posts, we will be exploring the different views of what it means to be 'human'.

Less Than Human

There is no common definition of what it means to be human. A standard meaning of human that all can agree to for all time may not be possible.  The definition of 'human' changes by time and culture. There are many ways that humans are divided into classes that are perceived superior and inferior. Sub-humans, slaves, and not-yet-humans are just some of the ideas used to define what is human and what is not.

In ancient Sparta, if a baby was considered puny or deformed it was thrown away.  Until a council of elders examined the baby, it was not a human.  Once the baby past the test it became a human.

Dividing human-ness.
The traditional Indian caste system divided the labor and power of individuals according to strict lines. Person-hood was defined people as more human or less human depending upon their origin and birth.  The rights, responsibilities and potential types of careers were determined by caste.

In the original U.S. Constitution, humanity was segregated by a value system that designated persons who were not free as being only counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation and taxation.  This multi-class system determined humans in gradations between human and property.

Nazi's described Jews, gypsies and others as Untermenschen or sub-humans.  Sub-humans did not need to be considered as having rights and were seen as a drag on society's progress.  Killing a sub-human was not murder, but rather eugenics to protect the gene pool.

Less than human?
Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide thought of Tutsis as cockroaches rather than people. Similarly to the Nazis, Tutsis where defined as pests. Pests were viewed as a contamination that needed elimination.

In each of these cases, actions based on the definition of human seemed  right and just.  The definition of what is a human allowed certain behaviors.  

Even our current culture provides us with a context for defining what we are. Our definition of humanity allows us to act with each other in ways that seem fit for that moment and place.  These older and foreign definitions of humanity seem alien to our current ways of thinking.  They should however cause us to pause and reflect and ask if our definitions are correct because they are familiar.

In future posts, we will examine humans from the biological, spiritual, and philosophical perspectives to see how this can inform us on who we 'humans' are.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog in order to follow the explorations.


  1. This was a great post! Thanks for sharing. I agree that cultures define our "humanity". I think its just a personal perspective to say what we are :P

  2. Awesome post! Adding you to my blogroll.

  3. Hutu s was a cockroach and the Nazis' pests, both less than human; Demons, and the human's aliens.