A Universalist Conception of the ‘Human’?

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.


5 thoughts on “A Universalist Conception of the ‘Human’?

  1. evw24 says:

    A response to the ‘universalist conception of the ‘Human’’.

    In the blogpost ‘A Universalist Conception of the ‘Human’’, one sentence in particular caught my attention. The sentence in question was: ‘…blurring the line between human and not human’. It struck me because the need for humans to establish a line between ourselves and animals; our obsession with being unique, reminds me that humans are inherently vain. Inherently vain when we have no right to be. We constantly remind ourselves that we possess certain ‘qualities’ such as the ability to think, the ability to reason and the ability to empathise. We think that this somehow grants us an automatic superiority to animals and other life forms.We ponder our specialness even as we destroy the environment. As we create war. As we watch our fellow humans starve in neighbouring countries and do not act.

    Due to this imagined superiority, we have become an isolated category at the top of the food chain. We feel special because we have deluded ourselves to believe that we are the product of divine creation, created in the image of God, with obligated rights over all others. When the reality is this- we are nothing but animals ourselves. Some may say this is a negative outlook on the conception of the human, and perhaps it is. However, I thought it important to inject reality into the discussion of the conception of the human. In order to reconsider whether there is a blurred line between humans and animals, or whether we do indeed have a blurred perception of ourselves.

  2. jf415 says:

    Similarly, I wanted to write a post regarding to human as well, but I guess I will respond in comment instead of starting another blog.

    “What is it that makes us human?

    It’s not something you can program. You can’t put it into a chip. It’s the strength of the human heart.
    The difference between us and machines.”
    — Terminator Salvation (2009)

    Instead of looking at ‘what makes us human’ in a cultural, religious, historical and philosophical perspectives, I am more interested in looking at it according to what you mentioned at the end of your blog – a future technological perspective.

    So what separates us from the machine? Or are we actually replicates from ‘Bladerunner’? Or are we actually living in a simulated reality like ‘The Matrix’?

    “How can we know with certainty that the world we experience is not an illusion being forced upon by another?”
    — Descrates in Meditations on First Philosophy

    Descartes believed that one must use his mind rather than sense to obtain information about the world. Perception is unreliable as way of obtaining information and the mental process of deduction is the only means of acquiring real knowledge.

    “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”
    — Westworld Season 1, Episode 2

    Just when I thought it’s the ‘awareness’, the ‘conscious’ that separate between us and the machines, Jonathan Nolan’s ‘Westworld’ seems to remind us that programs such as ‘Siri’, with simulated consciousness and ‘personalities’ already exists within the market.

    To return to your question of ‘human’, not only do I fear human’s endless pursuit of better science and technology, I believe the improvement of technology has also affected us as a ‘human’. As we slowly progress toward an age of technocracy, what defines us as human will become more and more vague.

  3. au54 says:

    from several points you have made in your post the idea which has attracted my attention the most is the way how you have showed the line between what is generally perceived as human and non-human on the example of the people who have committed a serious crimes and so that led my thoughts by the similar direction as in Naomi’s case.

    How can we find the line between human, sub-human or non-human? And by what aspects is this unclear border created? In many resources the answer to this question is usually related to the notion of consciousness. The ability to realize the existence of ourselves, to appreciate another human beings, to think about the consequences of our behaviour. And on the first sight, these arguments seem to be reasonable. But what about the situations when the consciousness is temporarily or permanently limited or does not exist at all? Do people with mental illness, serious learning disabilities or patients in the permanent vegetative state, miss something from their humanity? Of course, the concept of human rights forces us to answer the resolute “NO” to this question. But important thing is that nothing else than this (according to many arguments artificial) concept is going to protect these vulnerable people from treating them as if they would be something less than humans. Up to the certain level, they lack of autonomy, somebody else (state institutions or relatives) decides to what is going to happen with them and their bodies. If the society decides to label them as a sub-human or non-human they have nothing to do about it.

    Maybe that is what makes us humans, what makes us so different from animals. The ability to label, to pose the power to other species, to decide who is going to be human, who is going to be sub-human, who is going to be animal. Consciousness definitely plays its role, not as the key factor, but as one of the characteristics caused by exceptionally high intelligence that was given to us by nature. It could be just a coincidence that we were provided by factors which provides us the supreme position above the other species. Maybe the question of our humanity is much more biological and much less poetic than we think…

  4. ncjn2 says:

    Sarah, your perception of the human interests me on different levels. The subhuman categories you bring up are very striking. It illustrates that subjectivity with which we use the word ‘human’ and how we perceive it. We talk about equality and human rights, but do not like to classify others as being on the same level as we are, in terms of morals and values. That seems to me what you are getting at when you mention that people suspected of serious crimes are seen as ‘beasts’ or ‘monsters’. When individuals are capable of committing such vile acts, we want to be able to distinguish ourselves from them. People with the core values that all ‘humans’ possess could not possibly be capable of such acts. They must not really be human, so they are sub-human. Beasts. Monsters. That is why Donald Trump called for the death penalty for pedophiles. Indonesia already passed laws that impose the death penalty as a possible punishment for pedophiles in 2015. Another option is chemical castration, as it is in Poland, Russia, South Korea and some US states. Not surprisingly (or maybe it is), these types of standpoints enjoy a lot of public approval. Pedophilia is so extreme, so disgusting, that more serious punishments are justified in the public eye, even if this may go against our so-called universal human rights.

    Ben’s analogy of how we categorize animals is also illustrative in two different ways. Firstly, it shows that we are taught to differentiate from a young age and position different species within a sort of hierarchy, from ‘pet’ to ‘pest’. But it also implies a further comparison between human and animals. Humans are also in the hierarchy, at the top of it. And the way we put ‘humans’ in that hierarchy, versus the ‘beasts’ that have sub-human values, almost leads to more of a spectrum. From more human to less human. So where do we draw the line? Who decides when you are sub-human enough to be stripped of your rights?

  5. bg263 says:

    Childhood is such a grey area. As regards my own experience, Sarah, I share your uncertainty in speaking of the elusive sense of the ‘human’ that shaped a child’s world, especially when ‘human’ might not be the word.

    Looking back on my time in Singapore, and more specifically in a certain primary school at the turn of this century, I am tempted to say that the ‘human’ did not exist. There were ‘person’ and ‘people’ – ‘persons’ would be circled in red. There were ‘friend’ and ‘not-friend’ – the latter operated as a punitive verb in our ‘bad’ English (‘Singlish’). I was ‘boy’ and you were ‘girl’, and when science came we were ‘Man’. ‘Man’ was ‘animal’ and ‘mammal’ – like ‘dog’. But the picture book showed that ‘boy’ could get ‘dog’ from ‘Mother’ if he acted ‘good’ and even bury it when it was dead and feel very sad about it – and so it happened. If you were ‘clever’, you would know before the time was up that ‘lizard’ was ‘pet’ and ‘cockroach’ was ‘pest’ – and ‘pest’ was to be killed. For us, I think belatedly, violence was not transmitted via the ‘human’, but through all the other mediated distinctions that constituted our ‘world’.

    If ‘human’ did not exist then, how could it be ‘universal’? Were we doubly ‘backward’ – the children of ‘Asia’, and the children of ‘the West’?

    In any case, as we would find out in our adolescence, the Government did not believe in ‘human rights’ and we the people were to follow suit – we had ‘Asian Values’ ($).


    Uncannily, this remembrance harks back to the exciting ‘legitimacy’ debate we had. Perhaps the anachronistic mobilisation of a term that had yet to gain traction in a certain legal community, for which Maria took me to task, does obscure too much of what ‘really’ happened. If the analyst is the Constable rhetorician interested not so much in stance-taking as in appreciating the actual operations of the law through its language, then it is counter-productive if not misleading to furnish a claim based on an unarchived concept in respect of a specific issue (whether legal systems always presented themselves as being ‘legitimate’, which implicates the question of justice) in a certain historical period (since antiquity).

    Yet, to resuscitate Connal’s suggestion, traces of the ‘non-existent’ concept (the legal-systemic self-presentation of ‘legitimacy’) could nonetheless be found in another set of concepts in circulation (the question of the ‘rightful heir’). The discovery of the structure of the ‘trace’ (a Freudian inheritance?) could problematise the methodological presumption against anachronisms.

    To return to the question of the ‘human’ in childhood (and in mine specifically), could the ‘universal’ human be ‘traced’ to those other concepts in circulation – the ‘person’, the ‘friend’, the ‘boy’, the ‘girl’, ‘Man’ – and even the ‘animal’ and the ‘pest’? As Braidotti reminds us, horrifyingly, our posthuman condition does not lack its share of inner tensions and contradictions. What then?

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