What is the human? At first glance, this seems to be a fairly easy question. Already when we were children, we probably all had a rather clear idea about what a human being is and what is not. As adults, people normally still consider their conception of the human self-evident, no matter whether it is a biomedical or a more spiritual one. Therefore, it is usually not questioned or compared to other views. However, the line between ‘human’ and ‘not human’ gets blurry when you take a closer look at different cultures, religions or philosophical theories. An interesting example is the etymology of the word ‘orang-utan’ which means ‘person of the forest’ in Malay/Indonesian. In 2014, a court in Argentina even granted an orang-utan human-like rights.
Blurring the line between ‘human’ and ‘not human’ also works the other way around: Throughout history and until today, black people are compared to monkeys in order to demean them in a racist way – and people who have committed (or are suspected of) a serious crime are often regarded as beasts or monsters. This dehumanization establishes a kind of ‘subhuman’ category which can be used to justify measures that are discriminatory, violent and/or contrary to human rights. Thus, deeming someone ‘human’ or ‘not human’ is not only a description, but also a value judgement that entails many implications. This mechanism seems to be quite timeless, although the particular conceptions of the ‘human’ change over time. Thinking of a future shared with humanoid robots or extraterrestrial life forms, our current conception is certainly not the last word on the subject.