Making Humanity Greater Again: Self-evolving and self-perfecting

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January 20, 2021 is an important date in the history of the United States.  It could be an important date in the history of the human world.  The neo-isolationism of the previous administration was unusual even by American standards.  It succeeded in disrupting all kinds of international system from the UN and UN Specialised Agencies and WTO to military alliances and bilateral diplomatic relations across the world and, not least, the always fragile authority of international law itself.  If the new administration can resume its rightful position in the international world, it will be doing so in a world in desperate need of some revolutionary re-thinking.

The modern law of nations began after 1492, when Europe adjusted itself to the idea of a humanity which included countless peoples and sophisticated cultures and societies which were not Christian.  It began as an idea of a law for all-humanity.  Some new version of that idea is what the world needs now.  It would be a great step forward in human progress.

Pessimism is a latent pandemic in the human mind.  Fatalism is its philosophy. Given the self-made existential challenges facing humanity today, it is reasonable to doubt our ability to deal with them.  They are too great and we are too divided. And yet, unlike in the natural world, nothing is inevitable in the human world. The human world is made from ideas, and we can always change our ideas. Humanity can re-imagine itself.  We are what we become, as individuals, as societies, and as a species.

An optimistic observer can see a remarkable thread of progress in human history, including the development of the relations between states and even in international law itself.   A dispassionate historian can see that the human species has shown itself to be a self-evolving and self-perfecting species.  Some are calling it the coming of the anthropocene era in the history of the planet in which human activity has become dominant and human progress has become the normal state of the human world, set against a backdrop, of course, of countless disasters and setbacks. The remarkable fact is that we can assign a date to the start of a series of great steps forward in human history.   

In the self-evolving and self-perfecting of the human species, the sixth century BCE is the equivalent of the period in biological evolution when creatures that had lived in the sea climbed onto the dry land.  

Buddhism as a potentially universal religion. A new mastery of mathematics led by Pythagoras. The new universal philosophies of ancient Greece led by Parmenides and of ancient China in the rationalising by Confucius.  The explosion of social and intellectual and artistic sophistication in the city states of ancient Greece. The organising of the biblical inheritance of ancient Israel.

Egypt and India has been thinking universally for a thousand years before, but their societies were not intrinsically progressive.  Mesopotamia and the Minoan and Mycenaean societies of Crete had laid the foundations of sophisticated society, but they had faded.  Suddenly human beings had become conscious of their capacity for self-improvement using the power of ideas.

(Further discussion of this ‘hinge of human history’ can be found in Ph. Allott, ‘Beyond War and Diplomacy. A Giant Step for Mankind’, 60 German Yearbook of International Law (2017), 269-312, section III.)

In a later new era, Christianity and then Islam were new phenomena, universal religions in a world where religion had been essentially tribal, that is, the responses of particular peoples to the awful mystery of the universe. In the Renaissance of the twelfth century, a way was found to integrate the new religious inheritances with the rediscovered intellectual inheritance from the ancient world.

In the fifteenth-century Renaissance, we recognised the seemingly unlimited power of the human mind.  In the words of one of its heroes, we can become whatever we choose to be (Giovanni Pico della Mirandola).  In the first scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, we recognised our capacity to understand the natural world and to make use of it for human benefit.  Francis Bacon told us that knowledge is power, not only in the physical sciences but also in the making of human society.

In the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, we recognised our capacity to re-think what it is to live together in very imperfect but certainly improvable human societies. In the Industrial Revolution and the second scientific revolution of the nineteenth century, science and engineering took absolute power over the natural world, subjecting it to human desires and needs and interests.  Science and engineering bring enormous benefits to human well-being.  They also produce great evils, including weapons of war and the degrading of public debate and personal morality.

In the twentieth century we paid a terrible price for the latent inhumanity within the new humanity. Surely we may have learned, at long last, one painful lesson at least from human history.  Public evil can overwhelm public good through the abuse of public power even in well-ordered societies.  Governments can be the enemy of their own people.

In the third scientific revolution of the twenty-first century, we have discovered a new power with seemingly unlimited possibilities.  Electronic power integrates the functioning of the human mind with the functioning of machines.  Samuel Butler, a culture-critic writing in 1872 about the role of machines in the new industrial society, asked the question: ‘Are we not ourselves creating our successors in the supremacy of the earth, giving them greater skill and supplying more and more of that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be better than any intellect?’

One aspect of the human world remained anomalous.  The social self-evolving of national societies was not reflected in the international co-existence of tribes, nations and states, forever the scene of competition and conflict, and sometimes isolation, expressing the will of their rulers.

In the warring states of ancient Greece and ancient China there was a vestigial sense that there must be some customary limit to inter-state violence.  The Stoic idea of natural law, taken up by the Romans, suggested a limit derived from human reason, but reason was not likely to become a dominant determinant in the making of war.  The universal religions that might have been inherently peace-making became the cause of some of the worst wars.

With the dramatic post-medieval development of the  nations of Europe, war and diplomacy-between-wars were their only shared social processes, with a law of nations seen, not as the law of all human beings and all human societies, but as a rationalising of their better moments of self-restraint.  Emmerich de Vattel, the most influential theorist of the law of nations in the eighteenth century, said that its own self-interest is the first and last responsibility of the nation.  Something that governments ever since have been glad to hear.

Nineteenth-century European imperialism played a peace-making role, whatever its other consequences, with a limited number of dominant concentrations of external power keeping an eye on the balance of their power.  Globalisation is the new imperialism with the dominant concentrations of economic power locked in a competitive struggle leading to a worldwide social and economic inequality which seems to be structural and irreversible.

The revolutionary idea of democracy was the ideal of a society in which the common good of the citizens is the common interest of society.  The revolutionary idea of capitalism was the ideal of a society in which the making of its common wealth is a common enterprise involving all members of society.  Politics is a permanent struggle about the meaning and the realising of those ideals. The reality of democracy and capitalism may often seem to be far removed from their ideals.

Responding to humanity’s existential challenges is something that is far beyond the capacity of the age-old international social processes of war and diplomacy.  Foreign policy and international relations have been the plaything of kings and their successors in the executive branch of government.  They have always been anomalous within national politics, even democratic politics. 

The challenges now facing the human world do not respect national frontiers.  International politics must be seamlessly integrated with everyday national politics in the new fragility of the human condition.  We the people are all the people everywhere.

Every human society responds to threats to its survival and flourishing.  The human race is now facing countless threats to its survival and flourishing. The time has come to recognise the universal society of all human beings and all human societies, the society whose ideals are the common good of all human beings seen as the common interest of that society, with the making and distribution of its common wealth seen as the collective enterprise of and for all human beings. 

This is the next great leap forward in the self-evolving and self-perfecting of the human species. It is no more difficult in principle than all those that have proceeded it.

Soon after he published Utopia in 1516 Thomas More wondered whether he should have called his book Eutopia, given that he was the rival of Plato in advocating the making of a better world.  There is no reason why we should not do advanced Eutopian thinking now.  Recognising the possibility of a better world is a big step on the way to making a better world.

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