BBC Radio 2 and being human

I have been wondering what I would say if asked to contribute to the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine Show mini-series on what it is to be human. I suppose I would begin by assuming that one is trying to see the difference between humans and animals. One angle, then, would be to say that we are moral: a large can of worms, that. But what else?

Wouldn’t one next say that to be human is, uniquely, to have a level of consciousness – of brain-power – which requires us each to make the best of those attributes.

So far, so motherhood and apple pie.

I think the bit that I could add to this sort of discussion is, as it were, the right-wing one. Neatly, one could say that the ordinarily animal expectation is to behave with due respect for authority: the pack, herd, flock and all that. But humans have a tricky relation to authority. We construct edgy contracts with it. But we also, perhaps, have a unique obligation to the libertarian. Self-actuation is the unique human attribute, as Ayn Rand and plenty of others have stressed.

So to be human is to understand the merit of originality, risk, and creativity. It is to be entrepreneurial whether in business or artistry. But it is also – a little contrariwise – to care about the invention and maintenance of institutions – those vehicles of authority and obedience which alone stand a chance of satisfying our need simultaneously for order and freedom.

I can go further. I am interested in the idea that the desire to be spiritual is the mark of the highest sort of human. When one has got beyond being economic, psychological, emotional and intellectual, is there something more? I am inclined to think so, but know that such thoughts hover on the brink of nonsense.

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Publication date

16 October 2013