Humanity in general or humanity in particular? An essential distinction
Human beings have a unique ability to co-operate in mass numbers, often as a result of a belief in a shared mythology — be that the nation, a corporation, a religion or a football team. We have the capacity to conceptualise the idea of a future, a place beyond the now which could be better than the present, representing unknown potential but simultaneously providing a source of purpose and meaning to life. Out of this vast expanse of potential has grown various ideologies promising a utopia of tomorrow. The stated aim is to benefit humanity in general — usually a particular group or segment in society — although it is often the case that this term is selectively defined by those who profess the ideology.
Humanity in general’s abstractness is both its strength and its weakness. The comfort of dealing in the abstract alleviates the need to confront the nuanced reality of human beings in particular, interactions which require tolerance, patience, empathy and compromise to appreciate individuals and their imperfections. Yet I would argue that the difficulty in cultivating this capacity is offset by the beauty it opens one’s eyes to, ultimately resulting in a deep and blissful feeling of appreciation and compassion for human beings. This elevated awareness and sense of The Other can facilitate an evolution or enlightenment into a higher state of consciousness, perhaps eventually transcending the human form and progressing to a care for our ecology and even non-human species. But the actualisation of each progression depends on the integration of the former level.
Mapping ‘Humanity in General’
“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” — Joseph Stalin
Humanity in general presupposes that the sacrifice of the individual in the name of the collective is a worthwhile endeavour because ultimately the ideological project is seeking to improve the lives and well-being of the individuals which make up humanity in general. Yet I have always wondered, and been aghast at, how historical political and social movements could consciously sacrifice and kill human beings — often viciously and willingly — in the name of an ideology. Is this term merely a smokescreen for underlying malicious motives? Or does its obtuseness capitalise on an inherent human psychological flaw?
“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The pursuit towards the betterment of humanity in general can be seen with the devotional belief in artificial intelligence and the drive towards the singularity. While the Big Tech Libertarians in Silicon Valley devote their attentions to hacking the inconvenience of death through their personal immortality projects, or to inter-galactic colonisation, we have the life expectancy of working class Americans decreasing, a catastrophic famine in Yemen and innocent women being terrorised and brutalised by religious fanatics in the Middle East (to name but a few global issues). Who cares about these specific human lives when we can devote resources towards a beautiful singularity of non-duality between man and machine. The inequality of not only wealth and standard of living but existential concerns is stark.
The extreme social Darwinian perspective of these projects insists that life is a brutal competition for survival and resources and that natural selection ought to run its course. This reductionism has seeped into many facets of our lives, suggesting that competition (rather than co-operation) is our natural default. Yet this portrayal represents a hijacking of Darwin’s very own ideas. In The Descent of Man, Darwin only mentions “survival of the fittest” twice but mentions “love” 95 times. He writes of selfishness 12 times but moral sensitivity 92 times. The word ‘competition’ appears 9 times, mutuality and mutual aid 24 times.
Even ideologies that propose the eventual elimination of human beings, such as anti-natalism, are framed in benign terms as benefiting a future humanity in general (or in that instance, Planet Earth). There is no hint of irony or contradiction is this clean-cut distinction between the two terms.
“All the cultural and nurtural differences that separate one human subgroup from another are superficial as compared with the underlying common human nature that unites the members of mankind” — Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes
History is full of human conflict and oppression over the most arbitrary of differences. As Adler’s poignant observation notes, we share a lot more with one another than we differ. The Right tend to be explicit in their segregation and conceptualisation of humanity in general, as being exclusive to one particular race or sub-group of humanity due to the Right’s propensity towards an ethnocentric perspective on life. The Left, on the other hand, tend to be more covert and portray apparently benign intentions. But the Left have fared no better themselves in identifying ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups — be that land owners in Maoist China, political prisoners and intellectuals in the Soviet Union, political enemies of the Red Brigade in Italy or racially ‘impure’ Cambodians slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. Ideologies can force good people to do very bad things.
Caution and vigilance are required when interacting with any “-ism” that promotes prejudice or an ideology (capitalism, communism, anarchism) as a blanket answer to our problems. We crave certainty in our lives and these “-isms” apply an absolute, black and white framework to an infinitely grey world. They absolve people of engaging in critical and independent thinking by offering a blanket solution or explanation to deeply complex phenomena. As more and more people adopt an integral perspective on life through intellectual and spiritual enlightenment and evolve to higher and higher levels and states of Being, I believe that these “-isms” will lose their weight and be reserved for the annals of history.
I would contend (and maybe I am being overly naive) that the significant majority of people could never express any learnt prejudice when confronted face to face with someone who they propose to despise, especially while looking them directly in the eyes. For I do not believe that we are born with any innate prejudices. Whilst this does not necessarily imply that we are a ‘blank slate’, most hate would appear to be learned and socially conditioned. There is something in the makeup of our moral constitution that intuitively senses that we ought to follow The Golden Rule — treat others as you would wish to be treated.
Relevance in 2019
Amongst its many ills, social media has bred a toxic environment due to its lack of direct human contact and engagement. On a recent podcast, Douglas Rushkoff told the poignant story of how images of detained refugees at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers on the Southern Texas border had been flooding the media accompanied by the usual numbness we experience such events with. But then an audio emerged of a child crying in one of these detention centers, and it compelled viewers into an enhanced state of outrage. The tactile sensation of the crying was too much for our collective psyche. It indicates that our innate biological propensity for caring and compassion is our natural state of being, not one of conflict and trolling.
I am a deeply idealistic person. A Romantic thinker. I love entertaining and considering grandiose, abstract ideas about humanity in general. But as Martin Heidegger noted, “moral speculation is puny compared to moral action”. That is why, in some sense, the home carer or the nurse or the ordinary person on the street who unthinkingly treats people with dignity and respect equals — or perhaps even surpasses — the moral speculation of pious professors, political revolutionaries and public intellectuals. We must balance the abstractness of caring about humanity in general with the realness of interacting with and improving the daily and banal (although I would say very interesting) lives of ordinary people: representing humanity in particular. This is the true test of one’s morals and ethics.