Anthropology is the study of what it means to be human. Some of the factors that have been offered as distinguishing characteristics of humans include language, religion, and social laws. Evolutionists, such as Charles Darwin, believed that humans are similar to animals, although incrementally more intelligent due to their state of evolution. But claiming such incrementalism is not enough to prove it, and finding the genes responsible for language, art, music, politics, literature, economics, religion, taxation, and mathematics—just some of the things uniquely found among humans—will prove to be daunting. However, I will not make the question that complicated, because there are indeed humans who do not exhibit some or all of the above. Their language may be primitive, or they may not be even able to speak. They may not practice any religion or pay any taxes. Does that make them not human? There is also a sense among us that humans should be described not by what they are but by what they should be. By that criterion, we call some human actions “inhuman”.
In this post, I will offer a simple definition of humanity, namely that a human is one who understands two ideas—choice and responsibility. Humans indeed have a greater symbolic ability relative to animals, but even more importantly, humans have the judgment of truth, right, and good. The capacity to judge what is true leads to language and the pursuit of knowledge. The capacity to judge what is right leads to social organization and the norms of right and wrong. The capacity to judge what is good leads to art, music, poetry, and dance.
Animals, on the other hand, do not have the capacity to judge truth, right, and good. And by the absence of those capacities, language, knowledge, social organization, moral behaviors, art, music, poetry, and dance are also missing from the animal species. By this definition, those humans who have a better judgment of truth, right, and good, are more human compared to others. Others in whom these judgments are diminished are closer to animals. The possession of a human body, therefore, doesn’t completely identify humanity. It is the development of the judgments of truth, right, and good that determines which individuals should be considered humans, and more or less human.
Table of Contents
- 1 Choice and Responsibility in a Child
- 2 The Genesis of a Man-Child
- 3 The Role of Logic in Choice Making
- 4 Free Will is Free and Not Free
- 5 Guna and Karma
- 6 The Science of Choice
- 7 Judgments in Sāńkhya Philosophy
- 8 The Focus of Consciousness
- 9 The Soul and the Science of Choice
- 10 The Role of Meanings
- 11 The Meaning of Human Being
- 12 Higher and Lower Human Beings
- 13 The Highest Class of Human Beings
Choice and Responsibility in a Child
All children want many things during their childhood, but they don’t understand the concept of choice very well. A child, for instance, will ask for many toys in a toy shop, and a parent might tell them that they have to choose which toy to buy. Then, when the child has obtained the toy that she or he desired, the parent might also tell them that they have to show their gratitude and repay the debt incurred due to the toy by eating their food, sleeping on time, or doing their homework. In other words, parents teach children that they cannot get everything; they have to choose something. They also tell children about responsibility and accountability—if you take this, you have to give that.
Most children don’t like these two ideas. They resent the fact that they cannot get everything—”Why can’t I get all the toys I want?”—and they might throw tantrums in order to get what they want. Similarly, most children don’t understand the necessity of repaying for what they get by working, obeying their parents, etc. Children don’t realize the connection between their choices and the consequences of those choices.
As a child grows up, he or she is expected to learn about choice and responsibility—you cannot get everything so you have to choose what you want to take, and once you have made that choice, you are fully accountable for the consequences of making that selection and you have to bear the consequences all by yourself. The relation between choice and consequence—i.e. which choice leads to which consequences—constitutes a science, which must be known to enable the child to make the right choices, after knowing their true consequences.
If you don’t know the relation between choice and consequence, you are likely to make the wrong choice, and therefore everyone must be educated about the true relation between a choice and its consequences. Children must learn that they have the freedom to make choices, but that their choices are not totally free because they lead to consequences, and having made a choice, one has to bear the consequences.
The Genesis of a Man-Child
Many children grow up not understanding choice and responsibility. As adults, they still want everything but they are not prepared to work to get it. They are afraid of commitment because they are unsure if they will truly want something once they see its full consequences. They love the freedom, but they don’t want to have to choose one among the many possibilities—as a result they remain indecisive and squander the opportunities presented to them. Even if a particular path is chosen, the indecision may cause the person to revisit their prior decision resulting in paralysis by analysis. When the consequences penalize them for their choices or indecision, they tend to blame others for the problems caused by their choices. They like to live in a paradise in which they can get everything without working for it, and obtaining those things would not only be easy but will also not reduce their options in the future—they hope that they can change their decision and course at any later time.
The man-child is one who hasn’t understood the nature of choice and responsibility, namely that you select from the available alternatives (and hence you cannot get everything), and once you have selected, you must be responsible for the outcomes. Just because there is a consequence to every choice you cannot avoid making those choices—you are compelled to choose something. But once you are compelled into a decision—and you make one—you are also responsible for it. In other words, indecision is not an alternative, and the consequences of a decision can’t be avoided.
The Role of Logic in Choice Making
These two ideas are called non-contradiction and mutual exclusion in logic. If you have the alternatives of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, then non-contradiction means you can have either vanilla or chocolate flavors, not both. Non-contradiction in this case is a rejection of both. Similarly, because you are hungry, you must eat. You cannot say that because your preference is for mango ice cream (which is unavailable) you will remain indecisive about the available alternatives, and therefore die of hunger like Buridan’s Ass. Mutual exclusion in this case is the rejection of neither, because you are compelled to make a choice (often because we fear death or other painful situations).
In one sense, growing up simply means being rational. You have to stop desiring both and neither. Growing up as an adult means you are forced to choose, and once you choose you preclude the other alternative, and thereby become irreversibly responsible for the decision you have made. You cannot remain indecisive because indecision is also a choice—with its own consequences. And whenever you make a choice—including that of being indecisive—you must bear the outcomes graciously: you cannot say that since I was forced into a situation where I had to make a decision in which all the alternatives afforded to me were undesirable, therefore I am not responsible for my previous decisions.
Denying the existence of the force that compels us into some particular choice is ultimately the denial of mutual exclusion. This force puts us at different crossroads in life and compels us to make a choice. Furthermore, the alternatives are mutually contradictory, because one road goes to the East while the other goes to the West. You cannot—logically speaking—go both East and West. Hence, the idea that one could simultaneously walk on all the roads is the denial of non-contradiction. Getting contradictory things at once is not a valid choice.
Free Will is Free and Not Free
We are forced to make choices, and due to that force, choosing itself is not a choice. This force appears in our lives as limited and constrained situations in which we might not like any of the alternatives, and we might therefore wish that we did not have to choose. The force of the situation is simply that it affirms the necessity of choosing. And yet, because the alternatives are mutually contradictory, we cannot choose everything that the situation affords. Not choosing any alternative, or choosing mutually contradictory alternatives are both denials of choice. In that sense, even though a choice is forced when we don’t like the alternatives, it is not a denial but an affirmation of choice. Similarly, just because we cannot choose contradictory things simultaneously is not a denial but an affirmation of choice.
In a simple sense, our choice is constrained by logic. Mutual exclusion means we must make a choice (we can’t use neither as the excuse for remaining indecisive), and non-contradiction means we must pick one of the contradictory options (we can’t use both as the excuse for wanting everything). Seen this way, logic can be derived from the nature of consciousness: we begin not in logic but in consciousness. We understand that consciousness makes choices, and the choice cannot be neither nor both. Accepting neither or both is a denial of choice. Effectively, just because we are not allowed the neither and both options doesn’t mean we are denied choice; it rather affirms the existence of choice. Logic and choice are thus not contradictory notions; in fact, logic and choice are completely identical.
Guna and Karma
In Vedic philosophy, the force of circumstances due to which we are compelled to make a choice is due to karma—it puts us at a crossroads where we must pick an alternative and not choosing anything is not a valid option. Similarly, the alternative paths meeting at the crossroads are often mutually contradictory due to guna—it creates a world of duality in which everything is defined through opposites.
Thus, we are forced to make some choice due to our situation—karma—but we can choose something from the contradictory alternatives due to our personality—guna. Both guna and karma can act automatically because the situations are automatically created and the selection of the alternative can also be automatically determined by our personality. And yet, the soul has the free will to control his guna and choose different alternatives, in the same given situations. Thereby, the guna and karma do not fix the soul’s destiny, due to its free will.
Vedic philosophy describes how guna creates karma and karma creates guna. When we make a choice by guna, we create a consequence called karma which puts us in a new situation that forces us to make a new choice based on the guna. The soul is constrained by the cycle of guna and karma—forced to make a choice, and then forced to enter the consequences of the previously made choices.
The idea of guna and karma is not esoteric philosophy. It is a very simple idea—our situation limits our choices but doesn’t eliminate them; depending on what we choose in a situation, our further situations improve or worsen. We have no control over the present situation, but we have control over what we choose in the present situation. By that choice, we have control over future situations. The connection between present choices and future situations is the law of karma. The actions performed to get better future situations are called dharma.
The Science of Choice
Karma constitutes the principle of mutual exclusion (I have to choose, and the choice cannot be neither), whereas guna constitutes the principle of non-contradiction (I have to choose, but the choice cannot be both). The material world is logical not in the sense that it preempts choices, but in the sense that choices have consequences. Our inability to escape choice and our inability to choose everything defines logic. This science of logic only tells us that we cannot choose both and neither. It doesn’t tell us what we will choose.
When choices are the foundation of the principles of non-contradiction and mutual exclusion (i.e., what we call logic), then we can add the judgments of good and right. The good is that which we find pleasing—e.g. I want to eat mango ice cream because I like it. The right is that which will lead to consequences that we will find pleasing. Thus, logic itself necessitates two additional kinds of judgments—of good and right—in addition to the judgment of truth (which involves non-contradiction and mutual exclusion) when it is based on choices.
Therefore, choices need not be outside science. Rather, logic is the description of the nature of choices (mutual exclusion and non-contradiction), why we make those choices (the nature of pleasure), and how those choices are constrained (by their consequences).
The logic that deals only in truth is incomplete; by this logic, you can begin with assumptions and derive the outcomes, but you cannot decide which assumptions I must begin with. Also, you can logically derive multiple conclusions from the same assumptions. The choice of assumptions and what conclusions we derive from those assumptions depends on what I consider good. Then, if you have taken a certain deductive path, you will naturally be forced into conclusions that are not entailed on other paths. Your choices are right if you end up with conclusions that you like. Truth, right, and good are inalienable aspects of logic if logic describes choice and consequence.
Judgments in Sāńkhya Philosophy
Sāńkhya describes three ‘internal instruments’ that perform the three kinds of judgments. The intellect is the instrument for judging the truth; the ego is the instrument for judging the good; the moral sense is the instrument used to judge the right.
What is truth? That which is possible here and now for me. What is good? That which I will like to choose. What is right? That which I prefer as an outcome. The crucial departure from current logic is that the truth is a possibility. It is restricted, so choices are not arbitrary. It exists because we can choose one among the many possibilities. It is not completely free because there are consequences.
We begin with the judgment of truth, or what is possible. Then we enter the judgment of good, or what we would like to do right now. Finally, we progress into the judgment of right to determine what is good in the long run. Factually, everyone wants to do the pleasing thing right now. They refrain from those things only if they become painful over the long term. And the pleasing thing we can do right now depends on what is possible. This progression from truth to good to right is presented in Sāńkhya as the hierarchy of the instruments of judgment.
The ego (the judgment of good) is higher than the intellect (the judgment of truth), which means that I cannot decide what to do simply based on what I like. I must prior determine what is possible. That possibility is determined by the intellect. Once I know the possibilities, then I can choose one among those possibilities depending on what I like. Similarly, I will not choose to do what I like to do (even if it is possible) unless I’m sure that it is good in the long run too. Thereby, the moral sense (the judgment of right) is higher than the ego.
This hierarchy appears in the fact that what we consider pleasing is constrained by morality, and what we consider true is constrained by what we find pleasing. To satisfy our ego, we can reinterpret the world by choosing one of the many possible interpretations of the world. But each interpretation has consequences, that we may not like. The freedom to reinterpret the world is constrained by moral outcomes. Hence, we must not interpret the world the ways we like right now because they will push us into displeasing outcomes later on.
The Focus of Consciousness
Even as these three instruments exist in everyone, by our choices we can prioritize one judgment over another. For example, we can choose to do what we find pleasing right now, and disregard its long-term adverse effects. In a world with a twisted morality—e.g. that pursuit of my happiness is the highest moral principle—all consequences of choices are ignored. Instead, choices that seem pleasing right now are preferred. For example, we choose to interpret reality around us in ways that please us right now. That leads to undesirable outcomes over time, when we come aware of the immorality of the choices we made previously, although the outcomes are unavoidable now.
The presence of the instruments of judgment doesn’t necessitate their use. That use is also a choice. In short, we can make choices after considering the truth, right, and good, or just considering the truth and good, or just considering the truth and right, or just considering the good. Which considerations are employed before making a choice also constitute a choice, and they are affected through its focus.
In essence, the world we observe is open to interpretation. We interpret it in ways that we find pleasing. But that freedom to interpret is not always true, because there are moral consequences of each interpretation. Some interpretations lead to better outcomes than others. If we don’t understand that choices have consequences, and we treat our choices as the freedom to whatever we want, then our instruments of judgment are either dysfunctional or not being used. The result is wrong choices, with bad outcomes, followed by their correction.
This is, hopefully, an intuitive description of what I mean by the ‘science’ of choice—the judgment of truth, good, and right.
The Soul and the Science of Choice
The three kinds of judgments correspond to the three aspects of a soul—sat or eternity, chit or knowledge, and ananda or happiness. The chit or knowledge corresponds to all that is true; it is reflected in our material intelligence by which we judge the truth. The ananda is the pleasure-seeking tendency and corresponds to all that we consider good; it is reflected in the material ego by which we become selfish and desire different things in this world. The sat is the morality or the sense of right; it is reflected in the moral sense.
When choices are immoral, then eternity becomes temporariness. That is, we relate to different realities temporarily. Our association with the body, family, friends, employers, wealth, etc., becomes temporary. Instead of pleasure, we undergo suffering. And instead of knowledge, we are overwhelmed by confusion and ignorance. Thereby, the soul is covered by a reality contrary to its nature. The soul’s nature is eternity, knowledge, and happiness, but it is covered by temporary associations with things it doesn’t understand which are the causes of its misery.
To return to its nature of eternity, knowledge, and happiness, therefore, the soul has to revive the use of truth, right, and good in its choices.
The Role of Meanings
Below the three types of instruments of judgment, is the mind that gives the world meaning and the senses that perceive the world.
The eye sees the shape and size, and the mind interprets it into a meaning—this shape means such and such. The intellect then judges if the meaning is true, the ego judges if the meaning is good, and the moral sense judges if the meaning is right.
While reading this text, for example, your eyes sense the shapes of letters. The mind gives these shapes meanings. The intellect judges if what you are reading is true. The ego decides if what you are reading is pleasing. And the moral sense determines if you should keep reading it, or whether I should have written it at all. If the meanings did not exist, then the judgments of truth, right, and good also will not exist.
Thus, Sāńkhya draws a distinction between Puruṣa and Prakriti. The Puruṣa is the soul who judges—truth, right, and good—by choosing to use the instruments of judgment, or choosing different criteria for truth, right, and good. The Prakriti is that which is judged—the text with meaning—along with the mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense that are used to give the text meaning and judged to be true, right, and good.
Thereby, the soul is just choices, but it feels that it has no choice because the choices have been memorized and automated in matter as a result of habituation of previous choices about the nature of truth, right, and good. The consequences of previous choices are also automated by nature. Due to this automation, the Puruṣa comes under the control of Prakriti and feels helpless, although it can control Prakriti.
The Meaning of Human Being
With all this background, we can return to our question: What is a human being? It is a person who is not overwhelmed by material control. He knows that he has the power of choice, but it is limited by possibilities and governed by consequences. Therefore, he chooses the truth, right, and good over the falsities, immorality, and suffering, subject to the constraints exerted by the present situation, with the aim to increase the truth, right, and good in future situations. By such choices, he shapes his destiny. On the other hand, if a person believes they have no choice, they also don’t believe in their power to shape their destiny. They cannot even see the distinction between matter and the soul, and the power in the soul to choose one among the many possibilities in the world. Such persons are considered animals.
In simple words, if the distinction between soul and matter is seen, then the person is human. Otherwise, he is an animal. That distinction can be seen in varying levels of clarity. For example, if a person says that he can clearly distinguish between truth and propaganda, and he prefers truth over propaganda, then he has some realization of choice. Similarly, if a person says that he can change his habits because some habits are good and some are bad, then there is an even greater realization of choice. Finally, if a person says that he can distinguish between right and wrong, and he prefers to do the right thing over the wrong thing, then he has an even greater realization of choice.
Animals don’t exercise a choice. They do things not because they judge the truth, right, and good, but because they are preconditioned by their bodies and minds to act in predetermined manners. That doesn’t mean that they are unconscious. But it means that they cannot choose to selectively focus or defocus on different experiences in their minds and bodies. Animal life means the non-use of choice and human life means the use of choice. By choice, humans can change their destiny. And due to its absence, animals cannot change their destiny.
Higher and Lower Human Beings
Once we understand the distinction between humans and animals, then we can extend the criterion to distinguish between lower and higher human beings. A lower human being is one who understands that he can shape his destiny by his choices, but doesn’t understand which choices lead to what kind of destiny. He has to be guided by a higher human being who understands what types of choices lead to what kinds of destinies, somewhat better. The highest human being is one who perfectly understands the different destinies entailed by different choices. Such a person is perfectly qualified to guide the other persons on the laws of choice and consequence to shape their destinies.
Thus, in an ideal society, those who understand the relationship between choice and consequence perfectly, are given the highest stature to guide those who understand these consequences somewhat lesser, who then guide those humans who don’t understand the connection between choice and consequence, although everyone accepts that there are choices and consequences that shape the human destiny.
A society where everyone is given equal status, regardless of their understanding of the connection between choice and consequence, is a confused, misdirected, and hopeless society. Under the ignorance of the connection between choices and consequences, they commit numerous mistakes, suffer endlessly due to those mistakes, and remain helpless to change their condition. However, since everyone is given equality as a birthright, they never seek guidance from those who know the connection between choices and consequences.
The Highest Class of Human Beings
The highest class of human beings devote their life to understanding the highest truth, right, and good. When we choose the false, bad, and wrong, we enter a life that is temporary, miserable, and ignorant. When we choose the truth, right, and good, then we enter a life of eternity, knowledge, and happiness. Thus, all choices are not equal because they have different outcomes. The highest class of human beings are those who pursue the perfect truth, right, and good, because by their choices they are destined for eternity, knowledge, and happiness.
That highest truth, right, and good is God. God also has choices, but His choices define the nature of truth, right, and good. God’s choices are without responsibility because they are the definition of truth, right, and good. God doesn’t have to follow truth, right, and good, because whatever He chooses is truth, right, and good. The soul’s choices, instead, always entail responsibility. Hence, the soul has to follow the truth, right, and good, as defined by God’s choices. In simple words, when the soul is subservient to God, then it is true, right, and good.
Therefore, the highest class of humans are those who are completely devoted to God. They have no independent idea of truth, right, and good. They accept God’s choices as the definition of truth, right, and good. They have accepted the supremacy of God’s choices.
In this way, we can delineate the differences between different classes of living entities. Those who cannot shape their destiny by their choices are categorized as animals. Those who can shape their destiny by their choices, but don’t know the precise relation between choice and destiny, are lower human beings. Those with a better understanding of the relationship between choice and destiny are even higher human beings. Those who know that the definition of truth, right, and good is God, and have completely surrendered to Him, are the highest human beings. But God is even higher than them, because His choices are themselves the definition of truth, right, and good.