Your worth to humanity

032 January 2, 2015 -- (asphalt)

We often consider ourselves to be exceptional1, in the sense that we have unique qualities which cannot be found in any individual. Moreover, we are built this way, this feature is what separates the individual from its society and we might even say that it is useful in the Darwinian sense, i.e. people with useful exceptional traits are much more likely to survive. In all fairness though, most people have two strands of DNA, two hands, two legs, two eyes, a pair of lungs, one heart and one brain, which is anything but exceptional.

Having said that, I'm inclined to believe that the reverse line of reasoning also holds: given an abstract, spherical human, there are those qualities which hold the essence of his or her humanity and which make them anything but exceptional. Now, given a concrete human, say, you, what are these qualities and how many of them do you possess? Uncoincidentally, the philosophical domain called humanism2 studies such aspects as human nature, agency and rationality, and so the thought of discussing such already well-established concepts is far from me.

I will instead provide you with the following thought experiment. Imagine that a day from now a so-called apocalypse comes and everyone dies; that is, everyone except you and a handful of children, enough to repopulate the Earth. Other than that, the planet itself remains mostly in the same state as the day before, so you have access to mostly everything, so the initial conditions for the survival of civilization aren't all that bad. All you have to do is educate the children and help them become humans in the true sense of the word: agents, not animals, people who will lead the new humanity to its prosperity.

Given this rather bleak context, you would have to ask yourself, what are the qualities that make you human? You obviously need more than what's now called "general knowledge": language, philosophy, history, geography, mathematics, physics, you need to have a grasp of all these. It's not that you need to know them3, but you need to understand as much of them as needed to ensure that future generations will use them the proper way, so that they will be able to distinguish technology from magic, virtues from vices, humans from animals. We've fallen into the dark ages before, but this time it'll be quick, so how much of the human civilization can you carry onwards? How much of the homo universalis is there in you?

In other words, what is your worth to humanity?

  1. Just like everyone else.

  2. Yes, I am discussing the branch of philosophy, not the belief system, not the political doctrine. These may be relevant in other contexts, but not here, not now.

  3. I hate to break it to you, but it is in fact precisely that.