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What is Human?

Monday, March 24th, 2008
Posted in Reflection by Joel Gross

What is human? What does it mean when we say people, mankind, or human being?

Differing answers to this question has been the source of endless conflict and strife over the years. The actions that have resulted from this have been anything but theoretical; abortion clinic bombings, abortion (if fetuses are human, than the United States has been murdering massive amounts of it’s own people), concentration camps, hate crimes and genocide.

I don’t have the answer to this question, but I am going to try to name and discuss some of the various theories that I’ve had or I’ve observed other people to hold on this topic. The implications that follow from these theories are enormous, ranging from stem cell research to artificial intelligence to gene therapy to abortion to selecting what color eyes (or skin!) your baby has. Thinking on this topic just raises more questions for me:

  • Are fetuses human? If not, then at what point do they suddenly turn human?
  • Would a robot that was as intelligent as humans and had their physical capabilities and emotions be human?
  • Would an artificially constructed man (Frankenstein style) be human? If not, could corporations build millions of these and put them to work as slaves?
  • Are medically brain dead people human? Are severely retarded individuals?
  • Who can be killed? Animals? Vegetables? Old people? Bums? Babies? Jordan?

How do we decide what is human?

The Social Contract: The social contract theory on what is human holds forth the idea that human’s have banded together in a societal group, and this group gets to decide what is human. The social contract is flexible and is determined by whoever holds power in that society. In America, this means that most everyone (except fetuses) is allowed in and the only way to get thrown out is to commit a horrific murder (death row). Problems with this theory arise when harsh dictators like Saddam Hussein or Adolph Hitler come to power and decide to cast out political/tribal opponents and kill them at will. The Social Contract theory is the one that is practiced all over the world and has been for most of history. The following theories attempt to approach the question from moral perspectives, generally based on logic or religion.

Religion: “God”, whomever that may be for the group of people in question, determines what is human and what may be done with said humans and what their rights are. Generally, this theory has been massively abused since it’s birth. The Amazon’s sacrificed virgins to the Sun God, Islam declares jihad on infidels and Christianity “encourages” faith through conquest (The Crusades, Iraq War 1 & 2). Scary, but definitely the second most subscribed to theory after the Social Contract theory (perhaps even more so in earlier civilizations).

Conscious Theory: Human beings that are self-aware are human and have certain inalienable right. According to this theory, artificial intelligence & aliens would be human while fetuses and severely retarded people would not be.

What do you guys think? Any other theories I missed or answers to the questions I raised?

3 thoughts on “What is Human?

  1. I would argue that if practices good hygiene and can avoid reliance on physical violence for communication, than it can be quantified as human. (Sorry Joel) :-) Actually, I would say that we use science to determine what is human. What is a viable human? What is a valuable human? What is a worthwhile human, are really the questions you are attempting to ask.

  2. What about if evolution takes a next step and we end up seeing some humans with giant brains… do we call them something besides human?

  3. If natural selection allows for the genetic advancement of some feature, so be it. Last I checked, when there is enough of a change in certain genetic identifiers, it ceases to be the same species… Does the same genetic makeup, just with a higher tendency towards larger brains make it inhuman? Probably not… Give it enough time and a more exclusive breeding environment, maybe…

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