The Human Essence

The human essence

Ishtiaq Ahmed

We can safely assume that although each individual is unique, our survival as a species has been possible because of our ability to cooperate. We are united in our essence and not estranged

An eternal question we are all forced to pose from time to time is whether human nature is good or bad. One can pose the same question in a more philosophical way: Are human beings united or estranged in their essence? Tragedies such as the October 8 earthquake in Pakistan bring out the best and the worst in human beings. We have heard how people volunteered to help, sometimes risking their own lives, when involved in rescue operations; unfortunately some also died during such dangerous undertakings. I read how a brigadier who lost his son in the earthquake continued helping others rather than lapse into inaction or despondence because of his own shattering grief.

The Edhi Trust has as usual been active all over doing selfless relief work without ever claiming any attention or publicity. I have never understood why the Nobel Prize Committee has not recognised the efforts of Abdus Sattar Edhi to bring relief to all in need without discrimination of caste, creed or colour. That form of Islamic piety needs encouragement now more than ever before.

Everyday we see foreigners engaged in providing medical aid, food, blankets and other help. They too represent the best qualities in human beings. We should never forget their sense of duty to fellow human beings.

We have also learnt that some people have looted the properties of others. In some cases children have been sold into prostitution and women raped. To our great dismay there were reports that some bureaucrats ordered blankets and tents to be kept in military stores for our army rather than distribute them to the people in need.

The most shameful and disgraceful reaction was that of Islamic obscurants who even before the full tragedy had unfolded ח had in their enthusiasm to score cheap and vulgar points against the Musharraf regime, opined that those hit by the earthquake were facing divine punishment because they had done nothing to prevent the Pakistan government from allying itself with the Americans against fellow Muslims such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda and being soft on India and Israel.

I have, in subsequent exchanges with such utterly despicable custodians of Islam, demanded an explanation as to how schoolchildren and those several hundred pupils at a Quran school who also perished while reciting the sacred scriptures could do anything to change Pakistans foreign policy. There is, of course, no answer to give but we are told that we mortals do not understand how God works in human societies.

A problem always unexplained by such readers of GodҒs will is why God did not choose to punish exactly those who attacked the Taliban or Al Qaeda or make Pakistans foreign policies. I am sure if Allah wants he could have done something nasty to the Pentagon or White House or the presidential palace in Islamabad. Why inflict so much pain and suffering on ordinary creatures, many of whom barely managed to stay alive even under normal circumstances? The answer one gets is silence or prevarication but never an admission that when they make such a statement they start playing God themselves and that is wrong. I have yet to meet an obscurantist who ever admits having made a mistake in interpreting the will of God.

Can one speak, under the circumstances, of a human essence or nature? Or should one take a more practical approach and say that there is no innate or intrinsic, original human essence and any search for it is futile because the evidence is in both directions? Rather, each individual is unique and therefore some are bound to act out of compassion towards others. Some will exploit the weakness of others while the majority will remain indifferent or unconcerned.

Robert Wright argues that the need to cooperate is genetic and biologically rooted in us; hence social cooperation is the expression of that natural instinct. To think of human progress as a perpetual zero-sum conflict for survival at the cost of other individuals, groups and nations is flawed. Proceeding thus, he asserts that ultimately the human race can cooperate in order to achieve lasting peace and prosperity. He has aptly called his major work, Nonzero: History, Evolution and Human Cooperation.

I think such a perspective is more convincing than the one associated wrongly with Charles Darwin who never argued that the struggle for survival means perpetual social conflict. Social Darwinism so dear to neo-liberals has nothing to do with DarwinҒs theory which was based on evolution of species rather than human societies or social systems.

I would go further and assert that human nature is neither intrinsically selfish and suspicious nor altruistic and trusting, but the instinct to survive is paramount in all situations and that can be realised through trust and solidarity as much as mistrust and conflict depending on the objective situation. However, the ability to work together and use technology to cross the threshold from spontaneous, natural existence to a more civilised culture presupposes that co-operation rather than conflict has been more often the basis of social existence and indeed evolution to higher levels of productivity. All we need to do is demand an equitable distribution of social and material goods.

Even the Marxist division of classes, which presupposes coercion as the basis of class exploitation does not deny mutual dependence between antagonistic classes for the production of the material needs of society. In the Marxist era of emancipation when classes will disappear, human beings will enter into friendly and non-antagonistic relations and cooperation will be the basis of ever lasting peace and human concord. Therefore Marx was not a philosopher of conflict but cooperation in the ultimate sense.

Consequently all philosophy and religious beliefs should be judged as benign or malevolent on the basis of how ideas are used to either advance the notion of a common humankind with the same needs for respect, love and security or to preach permanent war and hatred deriving from differences of faith and colour and so on. We can also safely assume that although each individual is unique, our survival as a species has been possible because of our ability to cooperate. We are united in our essence and not estranged.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

Originally published in the Daily Times at http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=20051115story_15-11-2005_pg3_2  and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.


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