Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Common Humanity


This is responding to the following age article http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/09/21/1095651283197.html but is also relevant to discussions about internation relations, religious tolerance, as well as attitudes towards minority groups.

An excellent book on this topic is "A Common Humanity" by Raimond Gaita, a Melbourne-based philosopher who has written quite a number of books. He tells several stories about events in his own life and Australia's history, highlighting the need to see all humans as being at least morally equal.

While some people believe in moral relativism - the idea that your morals are flexible, and are set by your experiences and the surrounding culture - most people don't question the absolute nature of some fundamental principles. Most people in the world recognise that a stable society is necessary, but beyond that they recognise basic tendencies in the human soul for love, affection and relationship. This is not to say that all humans are always angelic, corrupted only by outside influences, but rather the suggestion that certain feelings are fundamental to being human.

The most basic rule of society is that groups are stronger than individuals - that working together, far more can be accomplished than by each working alone. In this way, the strong are better off for having the help of the weak. It is humanity's ability to work cohesively that has proven their success. Were it not the case, we might still be living in a feudal system. In fact, we might never have come down from the trees. "The Naked Ape", a book by Desmond Morris, tells the evolutionary story of how early humans became the dominant form of life on the planet, overpowering creatures far more individually powerful to do so. They did it not just by being smarter, but by applying that intelligence as a group.

Each and every person in the world is better off when divisions between "them" and "us" are not so readily made. Would that it were so easy.

I recall a story told to me about an experiment. A group of some forty or fifty people were divided arbitrarily into the "blues" and the "reds". They had no reason to be fractious towards one another. Yet, when the researchers irritated individuals - by putting them through team-unrelated but unpleasant thought experiments, the attitudes of those people towards the other team became angry and bitter.

Revenge is also directly wired into our psyche. Revenge actually brings pleasure, in just the same way as achieving something good. New Scientist covered this in a recent article, for which I unfortunately do not have the reference. But you can believe me.

It seems then that we have a battle to fight from the get-go in order to prevent the benefits of a morally level playing field from being set at a tilt by human instincts for forming isolationist groups and seeking revenge against the very people that can help them - the weak, the minorities, the criminals (against whom victims very often want revenge), and the unknown.

The safest policy is not to defend our group. The safest policy is to find a way to bring our groups together.


Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Just putting in a link to another blog entry I thought was neat.


9/21/2004 11:56:00 AM  

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