Challenges to our ideas of humanity – Fellows’ seminar by Ingolf Dalferth

23 November 2023

“Who and what we are as humans has always been a controversial question. People disagree not only about the is of humankind (what humans are and do), but also about the ought of a humane humanity (how to live as human beings),” said Ingolf Dalferth of the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. “Often the two questions are mixed and then ethical or religious answers are given to scientific questions or scientific answers to ethical or religious questions. My book project takes a different approach. We all exist as humans – and what that means is debatable. But we can all live our humanity in one way or another, human or not human. We must distinguish between scientific and technological questions about human beings (concepts of humanity) on the one hand, and ethical and religious questions about the humanity of human life (ideals of humanity) on the other.”

STIAS Fellow Ingolf Dalferth during his seminar on 16 November 2023

“The first question – what we are – can be answered relatively independently of culture, the second – who we ought to be – is answered differently in different cultures,” he continued. “Both are important when it comes to the question of humanity, but neither can be adequately answered by looking only at what human beings can do, but by considering the challenges humans beings face today. Only if we address the challenges of the second question will we also have a future as human beings in the sense of the first question.”

Dalferth pointed out that answers have usually been sought by contrasting the human with the non-human (other animals), with the more than human (the divine), with the inhuman (negative human behaviours), with the superhuman (what humans will become), or with the transhuman (thinking machines). He explained that transhumanism is about overcoming our dependence on nature, enhancing our capacity to merge with technology and join forces with machines (man-machine hybrids). This is in contrast with eco anthropology which is embedded in nature and the totality of life, and is about the body, emotion, empathy, compassion and the capacity to suffer. He explained that Humanity +, the largest transhuman organisation, advocates ethical use of technology “with the goal of people being better than well.”. But he noted: “What is ethical use of technology and what is better than well”?

“Humans have never existed without technology,” he added.  “This capacity has pushed us forward. Other animals adapt to environments, but humans adopt and shape environments to their needs.”

He explained that in the Jewish and Christian traditions humans are positioned as rational animals with intelligence or reasoning distinguishing us from other animals and relating us to the divine.

However, being a rational decision-maker should not be confused with being a human person. Rationality is not the private property of humans. We are capable of rationality, but so are other animals, from which we differ only in degree.

“Morality requires that actions can be attributed to actors as the result of a genuine decision, and therefore genuine freedom. We are not free when we are under the compulsion of another or when we are driven by our desires, needs and wants,” he explained. “On the contrary, we are then dependent on what we desire and are under the power of what we need or want. To be truly free, what we do must emerge from us – not from us as entities in the world, but from us as the place of our first-person perspective. We are persons because we live and act in first-person perspectives.”

He said that from the perspective of the third person, our actions cannot be seen in their free, first-person character. But from the perspective of the first person, we know that we are their actors and must therefore take responsibility for them.

Responsibility and trust

Dalferth focused in some detail on two aspects – that of personhood and responsibility and of community and trust.

“We need ideals to understand what human life is about,” he said. “Humanity concerns factual questions about existence and norm questions about how we want to exist.  We are not responsible for existing and being human, but we are responsible for how we live.”

“Without trust there is no community, without community no person, without person no responsibility and without responsibility no humanity,” he said.

He noted that people tend to be known through their function and roles in society. Narrative and perspective underscore our understanding of who someone is. “Narrative is essential but never tells the whole truth. Either because we don’t want to or can’t.”

He pointed out that according to German philosopher Immanuel Kant morality is something we must live up to. A human has a duty to become a moral person and a responsible person must belong to a community of moral persons. However, as individuals we must accept that we are not responsible for everything – we live up to some but not all our multiple responsibilities.

“Moral responsibility is our responsibility to other human beings and moral principles apply universally. It’s not about group belonging – it’s about putting humanity above group interests,” he explained. “It’s an absolute duty to act humanely.  But actors cannot be held morally responsible if they cannot act freely.”

Relating this to community Dalferth noted: “Before I can be an I, I must be a you. We take moral ownership of activities as members of a community of persons committed to moral principles. As Ubuntu tell us, we should never act in way that dehumanises others or ourselves.”

Turning to trust he noted that without trust there are no social relationships.

“Trust is a fact of life but so is breach of trust.” He explained that social experiments using games testing trust have shown a tendency to change our perceptions of trust depending on who we think others are. “People place trust before distrust when dealing with persons, but distrust before trust when dealing with organisations.”

He also emphasised that trust in God falls into a special category because it requires us to go beyond what the facts may support and “losing trust in God means running away from a certain religious way of life – the whole view of life changes. Belief in God is not just one belief among others. It’s all or nothing.”

Challenging times

Dalferth believes that the current and future world faces many challenges including the biological challenge to human distinctiveness; the technological challenge that seeks to overcome the limitations of our biological nature by technical means; the anthropological challenge that there is no unity of humanity that has not emerged from a multitude of diversities; the cosmological challenge that we are completely insignificant in the universe; and, the theological challenge of arriving at a view of humanity by comparing humans to the divine.

“We may end up with a way of being human that is not related to being human today,” he said. “Also, what it means to be human today is often contradictory in different situations. Cultural plurality is an important feature of our reality and there are cultural divides in what is seen as good.”

“Against the backdrop of these challenges, I seek to explore the possibility of an idea of humanity that is sensitive to cultural differences and can adapt to different cultural contexts without prioritising one view against others.”

He also suggested that we should move towards a challenge-based approach. “Focus not on what we can but what we must do to survive the challenges we face. If we do not take into account that we live in a finite world our ideas of humanity are lacking.”

“There is no one answer to the question of what humanity is,” he concluded. “But we need a political structure that allows different moral conditions but still allows us to live together peacefully. The moral debate will always be plural while the legal structure of a country must make it possible for people with different moral and religious convictions to live together in peace. We need a legal framework for society that allows these distinctions in real life.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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