Time and time again, I have been struck by the importance of anthropology—the question of who/what we are as human beings—when engaging societal issues. Who are we? What does it mean for us to do ‘well’ and ‘flourish’? Is there an identifiable purpose for our existence, and, if so, what might it be? Whether one tries to think about artificial intelligence, the value of art, the objectives of economic endeavour, the nature of medical care, or the contributions of politics, to name but a few, the answers to these questions will, undoubtedly, form part of the bedrock of your ideas. Just to mention a couple examples: If human intelligence is reduced to processes, our development of artificial intelligence will mirror this; if we do not see work as integral to what it means to be a human being, we might push for unbridled automation or see a far-reaching hedonism as a good goal; if we are not meant to honour other human beings, why do we altruistically care for them?
Often, the importance of anthropology unfortunately is not properly acknowledged or seen as a primary point of discussion, before one faces the issues of the day—but we should. I am not trying to argue for a kind of anthropocentrism though. Recognising that we must have a clear idea about what a human being is, is not the same as placing them at the centre of the universe. For example, for me, human beings were created by God, so they were meant to live on this planet. Because of this, they have irreducible dignity and have a responsibility to care for creation. These are some of the basic premises about humanity that guide my every thought about societal questions.
So, in short, I would humbly suggest two things: for everyone who is active in the public sphere to be aware of their own anthropology: who do you say that we are? Second, when dealing with a knotty professional issue or policy proposal, to wonder: what kind of understanding of the human are we working from here?
20 APRIL 2023 | by Dr JJ Knecht