To Be Human
Updated: Jan 31
We think we know who and what people are – mostly because we don’t think. Just as a fish doesn’t think about water, we tend not to think about human nature and society. But our expectations of human nature are not necessarily shared by people in other times and places. We have universal, intrinsic traits as a species, it’s true, but those traits are always shaped by culture. And one of the most powerful things a culture does is pass on assumptions about the obvious elements of identity: nationality, gender, age, and class, for example, and what these mean and how people are to act given them. But people absorb from culture something even more important. Who are we? As humankind, I mean. What motivates us, and what is our purpose? It is important to dig into our unconscious preconceptions about our nature because they direct all our choices in public and private spheres. Education, governance, family, vocation, even clothes and architecture are based on what we believe about ourselves.
The metaphors we use for ourselves and our activities reveal our assumptions. Our Western culture doesn’t have just one conception of humankind. There are several metaphors concerning what human beings are like; I’ve listed six. These six may seem to be contradictory or even mutually exclusive; however, since they are held subconsciously, an illogical mixture of several or all metaphors sways most people. Each view has some truth to it, but do any of them completely encompass human nature?
Human as Cog
Lives there a man with aught inside
Who hath not felt a surge of pride
To be a part of this great scheme,
A humble cog in this machine?”
(Barcalo, Edward J. “When Men Work Well.” The Rotarian September 1937: 31-32. Google Books.)
Human as Cog equates people and machinery. People acknowledge it when they talk about what makes someone “tick.” The industrialists and efficiency specialists of the last 150 years ordered their world by it. Since the Industrial Revolution, we are intoxicated with machines, the assembly line, economies of scale, just-in-time provisioning, and the most awe-inspiring of all, computers. Schools are factories, students are commodities being produced. Doctors and mechanics both spend their diagnostic time bent over computers. Plants and animals raised for food are run through assembly lines by technicians; even gardeners talk about, not planting, but “installing plant material.” Brains are computers, programmed with information; and if they can’t be programmed quickly and consistently enough for us, we just replace them with actual computers and think we’re better off.
According to the metaphor, human beings may be cogs in a larger machine, or they may be a self-contained mechanism. Either implies that their existence is strictly material and their purpose is work. If the work is physical, the metaphor is often a factory assembly line; if mental, the central image is the computer.
We have not stopped to think as we applied to human beings techniques that worked for manufacturing (at least as long as fossil fuels hold out): are we machines? Do our minds work in binary code? In the earlier days of the Industrial Revolution, it was an obvious and deeply felt view, but many people nowadays are growing disillusioned by the Human as Cog metaphor.
Even so, Human as Cog affects many aspects of society. Schools are designed to replicate the sort of efficiency that works in factories. “Outcomes” are measured quantitatively, in standardized tests, in production numbers, and Gross Domestic Product. Quantitative analysis is not wrong in itself, but when we embrace Human as Cog, we often reject those aspects of ourselves that can’t be measured in a mechanistic, quantitative way.
So improving educational excellence is equated with improving educational technology; children are given laptops when they should be given laps. Farming by the Human as Cog idea tries to force the land to accept the same economies of scale that seem to have worked in industry, whether or not it enables long-term, sustainable use of resources. Businesses treat workers as interchangeable parts and think that’s the only way to be efficient. Efficient – that word is best used for the workings of a machine that has minimized friction and maximized energy use. Is it really appropriate for people?
There is some truth in Human as Cog. People were made to work, as a machine is. A machine is complex, as human beings are. Sometimes people or societies break and need to be repaired, just as a machine does. But the metaphor falls short. Machines don’t have relationships or love one another. Nor can everything about the human condition be repaired by the great Mechanic in the sky. There is more to mankind than just the work that society wants done. Life is more than energy, and death is not just the off switch. Besides, there is a logical conundrum: how can people explain themselves by means of a machine that they themselves have made when that machine, which they are supposedly like, cannot itself create another machine from scratch?
Human as Cog doesn’t satisfy, and art is filled with human expressions of dissatisfaction. T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone, The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, the legend of John Henry – these all refuse to see humankind reduced to a mere machine.
Human as Chemistry
If people aren’t mechanical, maybe they’re chemical. Certainly chemicals work in people to create feelings of happiness or sadness, hunger or satiety, exhaustion or energy. People whose chemistry is imbalanced cease to “be themselves.” Manufactured chemicals can alter feelings and perceptions. The words change over the generations, but when people explain or excuse behavior because of nerves, neurasthenia, hysteria, or the vapors, they are accepting this view of humankind.
There seems to be some truth to this point of view, too. But how far are you willing to go? Some scientists, like B.F. Skinner, have insisted that the whole of the human person, physical as well as what seems to be mental or spiritual, is merely a product of chemical impulses. There is no mind or conscience, only reactions conditioned by evolution and environment, over which people have little or no control.
Surely that’s too reductionist and does not reflect the complexity of our experience and history. Human beings have mind and conscience, as well as some sort of free will and power to choose. But however despicable this point of view is, it’s hard to refute. It’s easier to claim that the mechanical image is wrong; people are obviously not just mechanical bodies, since they also have minds. But if the mind itself is just a result of chemical balances or imbalances, how can we use the mind to argue for a different understanding of man? Of course, the same argument can be turned back on Skinner and his ilk: if what they are saying is true, then why should anyone listen to them? They can’t be claiming any actual insight or creativity; they are just having some chemical reactions.
Sometimes a metaphor can be tested by taking it to its logical conclusion. Read Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange, if you can stomach them. Those books deal with and challenge the view of humanity as just the substrate of chemical manipulation. Their answers, however, may not be the alternative you want.
Human as Careerist
“So, what do you do?” It’s the first question asked in social settings. You are what you do – in your career, of course, not in your spare time. “Spare time” itself is a telling concept. Your spare time is the tiny, unimportant residue of freedom left when your career is done with you.
Human as Careerist pops up often in education these days. The directors of educational policies don’t exclaim with Hamlet, “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!”
No, this is what they say: “Providing a high-quality education for all children is critical to America’s economic future. Our nation’s economic competitiveness and the path to the American Dream depend on providing every child with an education that will enable them [sic] to succeed in a global economy that is predicated on knowledge and innovation. President Obama is committed to providing every child access to a complete and competitive education, from cradle through career” (From the “Guiding Principles” of President Obama’s education policy).
Like Human as Cog, this view grants humankind value according to output. People exist to the degree that they contribute to the economy. The goal of society’s investment in individuals is competiveness and success for the society. Educators and politicians who advance this view do seem to care about people, in that they want them to get good work and provide for themselves. But what is their plan for those people who are not now or never will be competitive, successful, and critical to America’s economic future? Do they have any intrinsic value?
I don’t even want to suggest what this view looks like when taken to its Final Solution, but you can read in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength about the N.I.C.E’s attitude toward the unemployed and elderly — the “undesirable element” of society. (It might interest – or worry – readers of Lewis to know that Britain does currently have a N.I.C.E.: the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence calls itself that. Don’t bureaucrats ever read books?)
Human as Consumer
Want to show how much you care? Use this credit card, and part of what you spend will go toward earthquake victims/veterans/orphans/charity of your choice. Worried about the economy and wondering how you can help? Buy something, ideally something expensive. Need to change your life? Pay for this program/book/video course/makeover.
Human as Consumer is the most widely evident presupposition in the industrialized world today. According to it, any need humankind might have can be satisfied by spending money and owning stuff. If people don’t have enough money to buy stuff, they can charge it. People who live where there is little money and no credit don’t even count, because if to be human is to be a consumer, the primitive and marginalized can’t be entirely human.
Someone pointed out to me recently that schools no longer teach home economics. Now they teach “Consumer Science.” Instead of learning how to make a home, food, clothes, or anything else useful or beautiful, students are taught how to buy them. According to this view, it is more important to know how to pay bills than to create something.
This view affects our economic decisions and foreign relations, too. It we see ourselves primarily as consumers, we will do what we can to ensure cheap, varied goods to consume. But when we do that, we lose jobs overseas, damage our environment, and participate in unjust production practices. If we saw ourselves as makers rather than consumers, or as links in the chain of nature, we would make entirely different personal and national decisions.
Of course people do and must consume things, but is it as a consumer that we were made? This is an insidious view of mankind. Most people wouldn’t say that Human as Consumer is fundamentally correct, but they still take it for granted. It’s hard not to. Unless people are fanatically counter-cultural, they can’t distance themselves from advertising, labeling, signage, and other tentacles of the all-consuming beast.
A limited but very challenging view of an alternative society founded on something other than Human as Consumer can be found in Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. I recommend that you read it, but I’m hesitant, after what I’ve just said, to suggest that you run out and buy it!
Human as Citizen
Only extreme libertarians and followers of Ayn Rand deny that individuals have an obligation to the wider society. Most people are happy to acknowledge that obligation and the need to be good citizens. But is that all they are? Is their relationship to the state the highest good? Is patriotism the greatest virtue?
One society founded deliberately on citizenship as the highest good said this. Read it carefully; don’t just let key words pluck an emotional response. ”The principle of all sovereignty rests essentially in the nation. No body and no individual may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from the nation. Liberty consists in the ability to do whatever does not harm another; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no other limits than those which assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by the law.” In other words, there is no higher good than the nation, and mankind derives meaning from its relationship with the state.
This quotation is from the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Revolution both preceded and followed that document.
Interestingly, modern American society seems to be equally motivated to rebel against this view and to accept it. Like PeeWee Herman, Americans like to think of themselves as rebels and loners; they have to follow their hearts, be true to themselves, be rugged individualists – because that’s what citizens of the greatest nation on earth are supposed to do. Too few people ask themselves what they must do when the claims of conscience and citizenship conflict.
Human as Child of Nature
This view holds that mankind is inherently good, and all problems are imposed from outside. Just let people do what they want. Relax. Get everything out in the open. Buck the system. Stick it to the man.
I once interviewed the parents of a kindergartner who were considering sending their daughter to the school where I was teaching. What is your philosophy of child-rearing? I asked. “Well,” said the father, “we’ve believed that our daughter would one day want what was right, so we’ve never said no or stopped her from doing what she wanted.” I looked at him blankly for a moment. He went on, “It’s not working.” Well, yes.
This assumption underlies the sexual revolution and all the technologies and laws devised to enable it. It underlies the emphasis on “following one’s heart” and scorning social pressure to behave in certain ways. Most perniciously, it encourages intellectual dishonesty and doubling down on ineffective behavior, because it can’t acknowledge the presence of evil or the inherent flaws in humankind that laws and society were designed to reign in.
Human as Child of Nature is a powerful view in our culture, but of all of the preconceptions it seems the farthest removed from common sense. The essential goodness of people and things isn’t generally evident to clear-sighted people. Even Candide, in Voltaire’s novel of the same name, eventually told the optimist Pangloss to shut up. Still, this view has some truth in it. People were created to be good, and there are ways that society corrupts human nature.
In fact, all six of these metaphors are partly true. Partial truth is what makes them so powerful. But partial truth ends up being a distortion, even a lie. These views can’t all be true, and none of them is entirely true. In unconsciously embracing them, we have created a tangle of assumptions that have shaped the inconsistencies of our laws, our interactions, our education, and every other aspect of our society.
We human beings need to know more completely who we are and what our purposes are. Once we do, here’s the challenge: How would government, schools, families, religious institutions, vocations, dress, architecture, entertainment, and food be different if everyone really, in the depths of their being, believed a different view of humankind?