On Common Humanity

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A reflection on the Prashna Upanishad

As communal creatures, we live in complex, interwoven societies that are dependent on trust to function. However, I want to understand why, at an ethical level, humans should not attempt to maximise their benefit at the expense of others. To do this I believe we must examine what makes us human, and from this common thread extrapolate a base upon which to build a universal ethical framework.

The first concept of humanity we shall examine is the human as an animal. This logical deduction has attracted many materialists and biologists throughout the history of natural science. Our physical body has obvious linkages to the rest of the animal kingdom: we require sleep, food, drink and desire security and reproduction. We are reliant upon the processes of respiration, circulation, digestion and metabolism to maintain our bodily forms. If our corporeal form is cut, crushed, burnt or punctured we will feel pain and – if the damage is significant enough – we will die.

However, if we attempt to extrapolate our nature from the world of animals, we would find a world filled with the darkest of human impulses: theft, rape, murder, slavery and tribalism. Throughout history, these actions have defined the world of animals, the world of instinct, and if we were to base our ethics upon the law of the jungle, then we would find ourselves pursuing the ethics of the tyrant, the usurper and the parasite. So, if naturalistic fallacy undermines the idea of deriving humanity from the zoological and biological domains, perhaps we should look to psychology.

The human mind is in itself a mixture of genetic potential, logical faculties, emotional response to stimuli and a reservoir of memories and experiences. By using this magnificent tool, we employ reason and engage in social intercourse. Our personalities, those attributes which make us an individual, are drawn in the invisible ink upon the canvas of the mind – a unique assemblage of emotions, beliefs, thoughts and behaviours.

But once we attempt to base our ethics upon the psychological phenomena peculiar to humanity we come to another impasse – the constructive nature of personality. Each mind is a mess of inborn instinct – drawn from the biological phenomena of the species – and layers upon layers of acculturation and conditioning – in Sanskrit, the term would be samskara. The lattice of overlaid beliefs, prejudices, rituals and routines forms an outer cladding, like the flesh of a peach, wrapped around the hard seed of evolutionary instinct. As such, to derive an ethical system for humanity from this conditioning would have to draw on numerous cultural traditions which have condoned torture, mutilation, slavery, cannibalism and child abuse: things which my conditioning finds abhorrent and incompatible. Thus, if a common thread of mind is unable to provide fertile soil for common humanity – perhaps we must look to the soul.

This is the point where we reach the realm of the metaphysical. If there exists something beyond the physical, a soul or spirit that animates the physical, then there can be said to be a commonality of humans, as well as all other living things, by their spiritual equality. If the soul is perishable, the destruction of another soul would be akin to snuffing out oneself, involving the self in the destruction of kin and kind. If the soul is immortal, then there lies the plausibility of metaphysical punishment or reward for our mortal actions, a transcendent framework which guides our common humanity. If the soul is a part of a greater whole, which upon physical destruction returns to the common singular, then any attack on another is an attack on the self.

However, here we once again come to an impasse. There is no empirical evidence that we can draw on for the soul. Although there are reams upon reams of revelatory and religious experiences that we could argue provide evidence for the soul, the nagging fallibility of the mind and senses undermines my trust in this position. In essence the existence of souls must be based upon faith – otherwise, the search for common humanity and the associated universal ethical framework must be abandoned as a futile. As to whether I accept or deny faith in spiritual transcendence I must retreat into scepticism, lay aside the question and return when I am surer of my thoughts.

Original text

the Prashna Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Prarthana, 2013


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