One Human Nature in Diversity

There are two further dimensions to take into account: human prejudice and self-regard. Conversation is necessary if we are to form a clear idea of the practical questions facing us but also so that we may bring to our attention underlying prejudices that may unconsciously misdirect our perceptions and confuse our desire to contribute to the common good. For example, if the needs of the burgeoning human population are to be met, it may be necessary for those with the highest standards of living to accept some modest reduction. But suppose this is accepted as the best policy; the fact will not of itself convince us to act accordingly. Perhaps we would prefer others to limit the size of their families. But this would be difficult in the face of conflicting religious beliefs and what many may regard as gross interference with their inalienable rights. Courteous attention to the prejudices of others and an awareness of our own will be necessary if we are to agree on and enact possible strategies.

In order to take responsibility for our knowledge and determine policies that will contribute to the well-being of the world we love, we must take advantage of what we know of the ways in which societies, groups, and communities function. How in fact are policies formed in the light of evidence? How will they best be expressed if they are to be successfully implemented and achieve maximum public benefit?

Understanding the physical world so as to devise policies that will tackle some of the environmental issues facing humankind is complex. Trying to understand society by the social sciences is, if anything, even more complex: since the researcher is a member of the community he or she is investigating, his or her capacity to be objective is in question. Peter Winch concluded that since inquiries about human nature, human relationships, and human society could not be objectively investigated “from the inside,” the social sciences were not science at all but a disguised form of philosophy (Winch, 1958). He came to believe that the best one could do when studying a primitive society was to treat it as what Wittgenstein called a “language game” or a “form of life” (Glock, 1996). Even so, it is not valueless, because it could suggest useful critical comparisons with one’s own society.

From the extremes of both positions, it is clear that with respect to the social sciences, it is even more essential than it is with the physical sciences, if that is imaginable, to work in conversation with scholars across many disciplines. A primary reason for this is not simply the problems associated with the collection and classification of data but the mutual exploration of the prejudice and underlying values of the many individuals involved in the description and analysis of a given culture or tribe. There are social scientists who believe that they are only able to speak from within the class, gender, race, or generation of which they are members; thus only a woman can understand the circumstances pertaining to being a woman, only a poor person the circumstances of those in poverty.

If true, this would leave one social scientist unable to understand the language of another social scientist talking about a different social group. However, recent work on the origins of Homo sapiens suggests that the human race, whatever its local differences and contrasting customs, is in fact one race, so a reasonably objective discussion of human nature can be developed. The confrontational dimension of social inquiry is not its essential nature. Rather, one can and should undertake social inquiry from the point of view of the well-being of humankind and indeed the well-being of the whole of creation, since humankind is a responsible aspect of what it means to be a creature (Agassi, 1974, pp. 305-16). Loving creation includes loving all humanity; justice without love will lack compassion.

The essential feature of the professional, whatever his or her discipline, is that he or she remains first and last a person—of course, a person with special responsibilities because of his or her position and experience. Hence the wise will recognize their dependence on others; be aware that potential prejudice requires open conversation with others, and integrity of judgment requires attention to clarity of language. Interestingly, Yves Congar, a peritus at Vatican II, in his discussion of the role of the laity in the Church, propounded an analogous view with regard to the clergy. He used the term “total ecclesiology” to cover all Christians, both laity and clergy, emphasizing the point that every believer, whatever his or her experience and responsibilities, remains a lay person (Congar, 1957, pp. xxvii-xxviii). All are called to live in the image of God and give themselves to the world’s well-being; there is a public language in which Christians can converse with one another, whatever their position in the community.

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