What Does it Mean to be Human?


As humans, how we see ourselves and relate to each other, and the world, is a crucial issue of our time. What it means to be human—and more specifically, a moral being—is the particular concern of a program at the Center for Humans and Nature, supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

The Center brings together leading scholars and bright minds across disciplines to offer accessible, diverse talks and viewpoints on this topic. In its Resilient Future Questions series, the primary question “What are the connections between culture and conscience?” was posed as part of the Foundation-supported program, giving much room for interesting discussion. How do humans discern between right and wrong? How do these decisions shape our communities and cultures? How does culture influence our values? Each question in the series is answered by invited contributors, such as scholars, writers, and scientists, and readers are able to weigh in, as well.

In his response, Melvin Konner, professor of anthropology and behavioral biology at Emory University, considers why it’s good to be good. He integrates insights from various religious traditions as well as the findings of development psychology, which suggest that “empathy is in us from the beginning.”

Another answer from psychologist Jonathan Haidt pursues a different angle: how capitalism can change conscience. Haidt notes how the world is changing fast and many people clearly desire to talk with each other about what that means. He argues that within that dialogue, we must ask how capitalism itself has an impact upon our sense of right.

Konner and Haidt were recently joined by Krista Tippett, creator and host of the radio program On Being, at a roundtable discussion regarding their thoughts on culture and conscience. Videos from the event, also supported by the Foundation and held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, will soon be available online.

“It is not always clear what good means,” writes Konner. “Culture does not shape conscience only one way. But we are progressing toward a more inclusive sense of what is good. It can embolden us to build a better world.”

Other responses to the question may be viewed here.