Common Humanity

Have you ever stopped to think about what makes humans different from other primates, or just any other animal? And why do you think most humans live in cities surrounded by many more humans, rather than on an island, alone? 

Common Humanity Common Humanity

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    In this explanation, we are going to answer these questions from the perspective of common humanity as a political concept. We are also going to look at why common humanity is an important concept in socialism, and what are the consequences of common humanity.

    Definition of common humanity

    Common humanity is both a sociological concept and a political one. It's important to study it in politics because the human characteristics it highlights have influenced political decisions, movements, and ideologies throughout history.

    The definition of common humanity is a bit self-explanatory, it's a certain belief about human nature and that our 'common humanity' makes us inherently social and cooperative beings and .

    Sociology is the science that studies society. Political science is a branch of sociology, as it focuses on states and governments – the organisation and management of society.

    Common humanity is the idea that people are innately social animals and are tied together because of this tendency towards cooperation.

    Cooperation is often seen as necessary to achieve common goals and avoid conflict.

    Humans are innately social and have a great tendency to cooperate.

    So, where has the concept come from? The first recorded ideas about common humanity come from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said:

    “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”1

    Common Humanity The Greek Philosopher Aristotle StudySmarterFig. 1 The Greek Philosopher Aristotle

    Common humanity is something present since the dawn of humankind. The first hominids grouped themselves into tribes to defend themselves from predators, take care of the sick, elders, and children and hunt down big mammals, such as mammoths.

    The capacity of humans to form big groups that comprise thousands and even millions of individuals is one of the reasons that make us the dominant species on Earth.

    The historian Yuval Harari argues:

    “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.2

    An excellent example of how humankind can grow and thrive practising “common humanity” is the smartphone you may be using right now. Just imagine the engineer in California who developed the software, the miners in Congo who extracted the materials that compose the device or the workers who assembled it in China. A smartphone's production process involves the massive effort of thousands of people worldwide who don't know each other.

    Common humanity and socialism

    The concept of common humanity is one of the key concepts in socialism.

    Socialism is an economic and political doctrine which argues that the working class (the people) should own the means of production to achieve an equal society. It opposes the idea of private ownership. Instead, it promotes the idea that humans will naturally work together towards the same goal and feel rewarded by the teamwork.

    Socialism holds the concept of common humanity at its core, as it argues that humans not only have an innate social tendency to cooperate but also that, when they cooperate, humans work more efficiently.

    Common humanity is a concept that underpins socialism, but can also be independent of it. You can have common humanity without socialism, but you can't have socialism without common humanity.

    Because of humans' social nature, the concept of common humanity highlights that working together, not only means achieving a goal but also brings a social reward in the form of a deep sense of moral satisfaction. Socialists believe people are motivated to help with the aim of a “common good” rather than their wants.

    Socialists, therefore, argue that society must organise to reflect these human characteristics and focus on the public interest and the importance of community.

    This perspective is in opposition to the capitalist view.

    Capitalism is an economic and political theory based on competition, private ownership and the prioritisation of profit over social justice.

    Cooperation vs competition

    Let's now spend some time reflecting on these two behavioural traits. Following Charles Darwin's biological theory of natural selection, some philosophers attempted to apply its principles to society and politics.

    Natural selection, also called the survival of the fittest, is the process by which, because of some genetic characteristics, some members of a species can reproduce and thrive in an environment and some can't.

    This is why it's called Social Darwinism. Even though this theory has been discredited, it was used to explain and justify competition within human societies and, in some extreme cases, the social superiority of some humans over others.

    The Russian anarchist, and socialist philosopher Peter Kropotkin, argued that the competition of systems such as capitalism fostered inequality and poverty.

    Common Humanity Peter Kropotkin StudySmarterFig. 2 Peter Kropotkin

    Instead, he put forward an alternative perspective in which he argued that humans' most useful evolutionary trait was social cooperation, because:

    “The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.3

    Kropotkin did not exclude the presence of competitive behaviours in humans. However, he observed that different societies, especially pre-industrial ones, exhibited the most cooperative behaviours for the sake of survival.

    Consequences of Common Humanity

    Despite cooperation being advantageous in the sense of community spirit, work efficiency, and the economy, it can be a little disadvantageous from the perspective of the individual.

    Common humanity and individual rights

    If society expects its member to cooperate, it can provide limitations to the right to freedom. These limitations can occur when the community decides what you should work towards and how to do it. If someone chose to work independently on their aims, they would risk being prevented from doing it altogether or face punishment. Therefore, they feel the need to work in cooperation, but this then limits their freedom.

    This key difference in focus underpins individualistic and collectivistic societies and philosophies. Individualism prioritises the needs of the individuals over the needs of the collective, specifically, the protection of individual rights. Collectivism, of which socialism is an example, instead prioritises the need of the collective, the “common good” we mentioned earlier, over the needs of the individual.

    Some collectivist theorists argue that common humanity should come before individual freedoms. This view does coincide with socialist theory better. Still, to others, our freedom is the most important right we, as individuals, have.

    Some socialists, especially those who identify as Marxists, argue that if every individual connects to society through the concept of common humanity, there is no need for a state. If everyone wants to work well together with the aim of one goal, then a state controlling and ruling over society is not necessary.

    Marxism is a method of political and economic analysis developed by Karl Marx that calls for a communist revolution of the working class to overturn capitalism and replace it with communism. Communism is an economic and political ideology centred around common ownership and the absence of the state and social classes.

    However, not having a state has consequences, such as a lack of protection and order within society.

    Social democracy

    This is where social democracy comes in.

    Social democracy is a social, economic and political ideology that attempts to achieve the aims of socialism through democratic practices.

    Social democracy also holds the concept of common humanity at heart. However, rather than emphasising social equality, it introduces the concept of equal opportunities.

    Equal opportunity is a concept that focuses on the differences between humans, rather than on what humans have in common. Starting from the differences, it attempts to level these out, by providing each individual with the means to participate in social and political life on an equal footing.

    Social democracy also attempts to settle the issues raised by common humanity in relation to individual rights. Most social democratic societies include inherent protection of individual rights and welcome a certain amount of capitalist market forces. However, they also moderate the extent to which capitalism can dominate by introducing social and welfare policies to protect those in society who most need it.

    Welfare policies are government policies such as unemployment and healthcare provisions that ensure that people's basic needs are met independently of their circumstances.

    Communist thinkers criticise social democracy because, they argue, it doesn't address the fact that it is capitalism itself which causes the inequalities that welfare policies attempt to curb.

    Common Humanity - Key takeaways

    • Common humanity is the idea that people are innately social animals and are tied together because of this tendency towards cooperation.

    • Socialism holds the concept of common humanity at its core, as humans have an innate social tendency to cooperate, and when they cooperate, they work more efficiently.

    • Socialists believe that cooperating rewards humans with a deep sense of moral satisfaction.

    • Common humanity can clash with the concept of individual freedom, and social democracy attempts to balance this tension.

    References

    1. Man as a social animal - The Hindu website 2012
    2. Yuval Noah Harari: Why We Dominate the Earth - Farnam Street fs blog website
    3. Peter Kropotkin Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution 1902
    4. Fig. 1 The Greek Philosopher Aristotle (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Head_of_Aristotle.jpg) by Sergey Sosnovskiy (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sssn09/3403519465) CC-BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Common Humanity

    What is common humanity?

    Common humanity is the idea that humans are innately social and have a tendency to cooperate. 

    What is common humanity in socialism?

    Like its name suggests, socialism focuses on the 'social' aspect of community. Therefore, the innate need to work collectively that common humanity describes influences socialist theory and provides it evidence of how humanity can work together

    What are the consequences and results of common humanity?

    Common Humanity is what makes possible cooperation among humans and the capacity of humankind to form groups of millions of individuals. However, this concept is often used as an excuse for the community to interfere with the individual.

    Why is common humanity important?

    It is common humanity which allows humans to form big groups that comprise thousands and even millions of individuals and is one of the reasons that make humans the dominant species on Earth. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which famous Greek philosopher said that “Man is by nature a social animal”

    Which is a crucial ability for common humanity?

    Since when “common humanity” has been present among humans?

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