by Hartley Dean
22nd May 2020

In what is called the ‘21st’ century, the human species is under ever greater threat from trends of its own making: from geo-political instabilities and the accumulation of destructive armaments; from environmental degradation and climate change; from the inherent unsustainability of global financial and market systems; from the corrosive effects of enduring poverty, systemic inequalities, social divisions and exclusion.

The ‘cognitive revolution’ that first set homo-sapiens apart from other species occurred somewhere between 300 and 700 centuries ago, but it is only in recent centuries that a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and Nature has developed (from which indirectly, it might be argued, the currently prevailing Coronavirus pandemic is just one outcome). 

Philosophers, theologians and scientists have speculated about the basis for humanity’s supposed dominion over Nature and the significance of human life, about how to define needs and what constitutes personhood. One of the most persuasive, yet neglected, analyses of such questions may be distilled from the early writings of Karl Marx and his anthropological account of ‘human essence’  the unique constitutive characteristics of the human species. Marx is better known for his incisive and enduring critique of capitalism and his unrealised vision of what might succeed it, but the innovative roots of that critique may be better understood in the context of his radical humanism and his concept of human ‘species being’. 

We may identify from Marx’s writings certain essential characteristics, which he attributed to the human species and its mode of existence: consciousness, work, sociality and ‘human development’. These characteristics not only define the human species in relation to other species and in relation to the natural world, they also define each member of the species as a generic being. They define what is needed to be human and they are closely interdependent. Human consciousness may be understood as a form of sentience upon which uniquely human action or what we call work depends, since such action has purpose and meaning to the actor. Human consciousness also entails intersubjective awareness – or sociality on the part of members of the human species as to their selfhood and identity in relation the natural world and to each other as vulnerable and interdependent social beings.  

Human characteristics are not invariant, but dynamic and historically constitutive of humanitys existence as a species. Thus, there is a fourth overarching human characteristic, namely, humanity’s historical developmental context. The everyday lives of humans as individuals are historically situated. As history unfolds, socially constructed human needs and the way they are experienced in which they are met or remain unmet are subject to change and development, to the advantage of some members of the species, but often to the disadvantage of others. The effects can be humanising or dehumanising. 

Though definitions of human ‘consciousness’ are contested, it clearly relates to a uniquely dynamic relationship between thinking and being. It depends on self- and inter-subjective awareness as a basis for knowledge, understanding, reasoning and communication. It is generated, developed and sustained through learning and education (whether formal or informal), which are or can be essentially humanising. However, highly instrumentalised forms of schooling and education, far from developing the human personality can serve to oppress the powerless. Ideologically motivated teaching and instruction can misinform and distort understanding. Cultural, social media and populist political influences can stunt intellectual engagement and can be essentially dehumanising. For example: rote learning can suppress creativity and imagination; indoctrination to extremist religious or political beliefs can morally corrupt; reactionary social constructions of ‘common-sense’ can close people’s minds. 

Though ‘work’ has become largely synonymous with wage labour, the term should rightly extend to all forms of socially meaningful activity; to learning, to caring, to creative endeavour, to purposeful social and political involvement, whether paid or unpaid. Work in this sense is essentially humanising; it is the essence of the species’ metabolism with Nature; it is what human beings do. It is a need that may be served through labour market policies and social security systems, but also through a spectrum of measures that foster, nurture and sustain everyday human activities and creativity. But social and economic policies and the effects of market forces can render the work performed by many human beings exploitative, alienating, and/or inherently precarious. The importance of some forms of essential human activity goes undervalued or unrecognised and, in the process, those who perform it are dehumanised. Despite temporary ‘post-emotional’ manifestations of community appreciation, there remains a systemic and in many instances gendered blindness towards the moral value and the skills of those who work in menial, uncongenial or lower status occupations; and towards the inestimable importance of quotidian and unseen labours of love. 

Human sociality is distinctive since it has developed beyond instinctive collaborative behaviours in small group situations and is rooted not only in practical interdependency between species’ members, but also in uniquely conscious processes of mutual recognition that extend from loving intimate relationships, to group solidarities, and to respect for the shared needs and rights of distant strangers. Caring between members of the human species is premised on moral reasoning and has ethical as much as practical significance, whether it is organised within families or communities, through professional health and social care or by state welfare provision. The historical parameters with which human caring has unfolded have been subject to continual change and the current crisis, perhaps, casts new light upon them. But the culturally determined behaviours and socially constructed institutions that may humanise us can sometimes become dysfunctional and dehumanising, for example, through gendered relations of power; through social divisions between dominant and subaltern classes and ethnic groups; through the stigmatisation of nonconforming minorities or individuals. 

To be human is to belong to a historically developing species; a species that makes its own history. Human needs are not given, but purposeful and dynamic. They are continually adapting in response to scientific advances, cultural changes and economic forces, and especially so in times of crisis. These historical effects have hitherto been ambiguously progressive, working for the betterment of some and the alienation of other species members: they can be to varying degrees humanising or dehumanising. Human beings are defined for good or ill through the fulfilled and unfulfilled needs of the species, as these historically develop. Reflecting on human need in these perilous times, we might perhaps reframe our understanding of what precisely it means, and what is needed, to be human. 

Hartley Dean is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics.


Understanding Human Need, 2nd edition by Hartley Dean is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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