I published this article recently. All comments gratefully
WHEN WILL HUMANS BE HUMAN?
ARNOLD A. McMAHON
We have traveled to the moon. We can email anywhere on the
globe and it will be there in a millisecond. We can fly
almost anywhere in the world in 24 hours. Medicine can now
save lives that once would have been lost. We have
smartphones, computers, self-drive cars.
Yet, are we more human? Are we more kind, more generous,
more wise? Will we be an inspiration to future generations?
Every day that we wake up, in every corner of the globe, in
rich countries and poor countries, we hear of wars and
famines and rapes and murders and thefts and all manner of
human atrocities, both large and small. In 2012, at least
437,000 people were murdered by their fellow human beings -
an average of 1,200 per day, 50 an hour, almost 1
every minute. Every day, how many acts are there of
unkindness, selfishness, meanness, stupidity, slaughter,
suffering, how many lies, how many acts of cruelty?
Yes, there are many acts of kindness, of bravery, of
treating each human being with the dignity that each one
has. We may never know whether the daily acts of goodness
outweigh the daily acts of evil, but even if they do, there
are far too many of the latter in this world. Will the day
ever come when there will be no unkindness, selfishness,
meanness, stupidity, slaughter, suffering, lies, cruelty?
Or will such a day never come? Are humans inherently flawed?
Is it a hopeless quest?
One thing is certain. If we believe it is not possible, then
it will not be possible. On the other hand, if we believe it
is possible, it may never happen, but at least it leaves
open the door to its possibility. The mountain is steep, the
valley is deep, but without hope, we will never conquer that
This then raises the question of what lies at the heart of
all these brutalities, and then, the question of how do we
make sure that such brutalities do not occur.
It is not easy to compress the answer to these questions
into a few lines of prose, but that does not mean that we
should not start to think about what we can do to make this
a better, happier, more peaceful world. I suggest one
starting point here.
We have the ability to reason. I do not mean the
rationalization of a bias, but the ability both to form a
clear set of rational principles and the ability to follow
them. For example, does each person, however flawed, possess
an inherent dignity that should never be violated?. And that
if we do violate that inherent dignity, are we
undermining our own humanity? Is this something that should
be inculcated in our children from the earliest moments in
their lives? Is this the most important thing to teach our
children, more important than math and science and
The answer is clearly yes for a multitude of reasons - both
principled and pragmatic. Is it to the advantage of the
world to have children growing up to be mean, cruel, bitter,
selfish, dangerous, murderous? History abundantly answers
that question, and yet we fail to acknowledge and appreciate
This training in reasoning has to begin from early
childhood. Both in the home and in school, in society and in
our entire culture. It has to be the most important
part of educating a child. In our rush these days to educate
children to get jobs in the
technological/scientific/financial/medical/legal world, the
emphasis on reasoning in all areas of life often takes a
distant back seat or is even non-existent.
Put another way, ethics has to be at the core of all
education. Without it, disaster looms in all sorts of ways.
For example, as scientists knew that the creation of nuclear
weapons could destroy the whole of humanity and the planet
on which we live, they should have said to politicians that
they would not make such instruments of death. Instead, we
now have a nuclear stockpile in the world that can destroy
the planet 100 times over. So, if we do not get it right the
first time, we still have 99 more chances to do so.
“It will never happen” we console ourselves. Yet history
abundantly teaches us otherwise. At the end of the 19th.
century, the “civilized” world thought that war was a thing
of the past. Yet within a few short years, the first brutal
war of the 20th. century erupted because an archduke was
assassinated. And it was the so-called “civilized” countries
that tore each other apart. In the Cuban missile crisis, we
came very, very close to a nuclear confrontation. There are
many areas of conflict in today’s world where a nuclear
conflagration could erupt and engulf everything.
The grounding of all human beings on certain fundamental
ethical principles is the biggest single weakness in our
current global educational system. All human beings possess
an infinite worth which can never be sacrificed on the altar
of material progress. We have a precious little planet, and
we are blessed to be able to live our lives on it. Let us
not destroy this gift.
I found this to be a very interesting article that raises a
wonderful question, What are the minimum standards
that qualify us to claim our humanity? Simply having a
human body does not satisfy the condition. The author
implies a certain ethical standard is necessary to claim to
be human. These are important points and of paramount
concern. Maslow said only one in a thousand is a
self-actualizing human being. Thoreau said only one in
10,000 is a real human being? What are the minimum
"ethics has to be at the core of all education". Well said.
The whole of humanity would seem to be in need of a kind of
re-education. We've wandered far, but like you say, if we
can remain mindful of the potential to progress, we have a
chance to correct the course.
Mr. McMahon's article is moving and poignant. It raises
fundamental questions which should be uppermost in our
minds. But the issue of how to properly educate our children
in ethics is a complex one, for many reasons.
Plato taught that virtue cannot be taught. It can be
exemplified certainly, but all of us are aware of how it can
also be pretended. We often act to appear virtuous to our
fellows or to our children, but what is the motive? "No
action can be considered moral," said William Prescott,
"where there is no free agency. Where the routine is
rigorously prescribed by law...the law, and not the man,
must have the credit of the conduct." Theosophy teaches that
motive is the crucial question in deciding whether or not an
act is truly moral, truly in accord with karmic law, or not.
This cannot be determined by externals.
Many of us were raised Christian and even went to Christian
private schools. We had the ten commandments drilled into us
and the sacrificial life of Jesus, who died for our sins,
graphically displayed and spoken of repeatedly. Yet, as H.
P. Blavatsky pointed out, the fundamental teachings of
Christianity actually undermines ethical conduct. The
doctrine that a new, separate soul is born with each life
and a single life determines our eternal salvation (or
damnation), along with the doctrine of vicarious atonement,
actually encourages a fierce form of selfishness that we see
operative in Western civilization. If we believe we are
separate, we shall act for the separative self. If we
believe we can confess our sins and be absolved of our wrong
doing without consequence, we lose a sense of responsibility
for our actions.
In the Key to Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky states that it is
only the teachings of Karma and Reincarnation and their
underlying doctrine of Unity, that establish a proper basis
for ethics. These are teachings which even the uneducated
multitudes can readily understand because they are in accord
with our innate sense of justice. The soul rejoices when
they are taken up as objects of study, says W. Q. Judge,
because they accord with the truths of Nature...which is our
inner nature. At the same time, their deeper metaphysical
aspects and corresponding philosophy will give the greatest
minds their widest scope.
As Judge also pointed out, the deeper we see into the truths
of nature, the more our actions will want to be in accord
with that perception. Moral and ethical sensitivity differs
from one man to the next and can and should evolve as we
evolve. Ultimately, no written code of ethics will suffice
to guide. The intuition and the voice of conscience must be
awakened so that each may be a light unto themselves.
Thanks, Kirk, for your thoughtful and reasoned reply.
1. Yes, ultimately, the teacher has to be genuinely ethical.
Ones words must flow from and match who one is. That does
not undermine the claim that ethics are objective. For
example, it is never right to molest a child. If one abides
by this law only out of fear of being imprisoned, one is
acting according to what is ethical but one is not being
2. Yes, selfishness is incompatible with being ethical. We
are of one warp and woof. We are all in the same lifeboat
together. This puts an incredible task on our shoulders. We
should always be aware of how far we have to travel to reach
that goal of being completely ethical. If any readers have
reached that goal already, please let us know.
3. Yes, the good news is that there is an ethical dimension
to reality. That makes reality truly wonderful. It is my
contention that our educational system (family, formal, etc)
must see that this is the most important thing we do and
Nicholas, do you have any thoughts on the following.
If our buddha nature lies at the heart of reality, some ask
how such a peaceful entity can be at that heart, given, for
example, the explosive force of such things as the Big Bang.
They say that a lot of violence exists at the heart of the
P.S. Something to think about. If earth was condensed to the
same level as in a black hole, the diameter of the earth
would be 7/10 ths of an inch. Then we would all be