|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, January 08, 2013
'Humanism,' wrote H. J. Blackham, 'proceeds from an assumption that man is on his own and this life is all and an assumption of responsibility for one's own life and for the life of mankind - an appraisal and an undertaking, two personal decisions. Less than this is never humanism.'
Coming from the first director of the British Humanist Association, and author of Humanism, the Pelican Original (1968) from which the above is taken, this seems authoritative enough. Challenging enough, too, when you think about its implications - which, of course, Blackham spent the rest of his fine book doing.
One that he missed is hidden in the phrase 'the life of mankind'. When we read that today, of course, we immediately politically correct it to 'the life of humanity', but we probably have much the same vague mental image as Blackham may have had in 1968, something like a blur of National Geographic pages flicking past, maybe the UN flag, the Earth from space, babies in Africa, suits in Manhattan, lab coats and microscopes ...
Whatever it is, it's wrong. Because 'the life of humanity' surely includes future humanity, and future humanity is much, much bigger than we think. Even if we never go out into space on any large scale, and merely send out machines to beam us solar energy, ward off asteroid impacts, and explore, and the human population stabilises at ten billion or so (or whatever anyone, Greens apart, considers a stable population) we're still talking about vast numbers of human lives over the next thousand years, or ten thousand, or hundred thousand, or million years ... and why stop there? Some species have survived almost unchanged for tens of millions of years. There's no reason in principle why we shouldn't be among them - or, if we aren't, having some cultural continuity with our successors. Nor is there any reason, in principle, for our civilization to collapse.
Taking responsibility for that is a big, scary deal. We're living in the very early days of human civilization. And that's just the start. If we relax the constraint of most of us staying on Earth, to imagine the future of humanity we have to go out on a clear night and look up.
Now try taking your proportionate particle of responsibility for that.