One of the most popular and debate-inducing questions of all is “what makes us who we are?” This bit of inquiry isn’t one concocted and spread about like a virus exclusively by the teenagers who dwell in social networking sites the likes of Tumblr. Rather, determining the source of our morals, norms, temperaments, intellect, have been the interest of philosophers, scientists, social critics, and various other academic groups. Of course, we, the laymen have also found some point in our lives when we try to look back and contemplate on the events that sculpted and chipped us. Be it somewhat narcissistic, knowing what shapes the persona of a human being is an intriguing endeavor.
But why should we be interested with the inner-workings of our minds? Why should anyone care about who we are, and how we became such a person? Why should scientific communities with personnel able to construct devices that grant us electricity, flight, insight to galaxies mind-numbingly far away, invest their time and resources on such a self-centered question? There are many answers to this, I’m sure. But my personal favorite, and one that I believe is one of the most important reasons, is due to how our understanding of human nature decides how we treat our fellow man.
“To understand is to forgive,” said the mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal. And in a way, his quote is sound. It is easier to empathize and sympathize with another person once we could see the reasons behind his actions. A sort of twisted pity would come up when we hear a mass murderer’s tragic childhood story. The plots of books, plays, movies, and television shows have at times depicted a tragic villain, the ones that feel that their actions are righteous and have enough evidence to sway us slightly towards their points of view –to take a more popular example, Breaking Bad stars a protagonist whom we would’ve deemed as the main villain if we only saw his deeds, without a supplement of his personal history. Why we could care for those who hurt others and even ourselves, I do not know. Yet the fact that we have a sense of compassion for outcasts, murderers, and thieves shows that we bear a moral sense to understand why a person did what he did, before we can suitably punish, or perhaps forgive him. With a hopefully firmer understanding of why it is necessary to care about the gears that turn inside our heads, let us now consider the answers man have come up with throughout history.
Mythologies and religions have long provided us with their answer. The gods, the divine beings up in the sky have given us souls, the essence of all lives, and that each of them have been endowed with predetermined characteristics. Some people are born evil, some good, some are given talents that could never be matched by any other mortal, while others are born to be average Joes who go about their days in the mercy of gods and their champions. The problem with this solution –aside from making not the tiniest lick of sense– is that if a man has already been destined to kill, to rape, to pillage, no single person nor idea could ever possibly hope to refine him. Prisons, therapies, social-engineering programs would all be useless if who we are, and who we will be had already been decided before we were even born. Such a view on mankind induces callousness, apathy, to see those who have made mistakes in their lives as mistakes themselves. Likewise with other religious ideas, this view cannot ever be disproven, because of the magical loopholes embedded around them. However, it cannot be considered to be morally right either.
Then we have the answers of natural sciences. Genetics, our evolutionary history, and the genes of our parents influence how we would act and think. I say ‘influence,’ because other than the most die-hard genetic determinists, no scientist would ever blurt out that since our progenitors were murderers, we would one day attempt to stab someone as well. Rather, we are inclined, urged to do certain things that our ancestors have done. In fact, evidence on theories of human personalities within the scientific community continue to clash to this day. In one study, twins separated from birth were discovered to have nearly identical levels of intellect, political affiliations, taste in music, and degrees of conformity . Yet in other cases, a child from an immigrant family would adopt the accent, norms, and tastes of his peers instead of those from his parents (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature). Both of the findings suggest that our personalities are shaped by the blood we inherit from our mothers and fathers, but is sometimes more strongly affected by the social environment we spend most of our time in. As I have previously stated, the debate is still going on. Though again, we find ourselves in the mercy of factors we cannot do anything about.
Now let’s look a bit deeper into the answer concocted by social scientists. Although theories within this community vary as well, there are common themes throughout many of them: We are constantly changing individuals, as determined by the culture we find ourselves in. Who we associate ourselves with, the content of the media we are exposed to, the habits and norms of our societies, all work in tandem with one another to produce the person we are today –the challenge faced by social scientists is in finding out which aspects of society acts more strongly on us. Though more recent, the world of social academics give us another conundrum that needs to be solved, and one we have had issues with since the last two paragraphs. If we are indeed shaped by the people and ideas that flow around us, we are no more than a metal ball in Pachinko machines. We are born, then we fall into the dozens of pins around us, changing our direction and where we would ultimately end up according to their whims. Although it is bleak, social academia does have a hint of relief. Unlike the Pachinko gizmos, the pins around as are as dynamic as we are, they move from one location to another, according to the choices of their influencers –government, influential and authority figures, writers, producers, directors, etc. As such there is hope that we and the people around us can be altered to be better versions of themselves, albeit with great difficulty.
I have only discussed three disciplines whose answers I have subjectively handpicked. I have considered the popularity of each, and how influential they are on our perception of man. Of course, the choices of others will be different than mine, and they are rightfully entitled to their own opinions and interpretations. The point of this wall of text isn’t to move anyone to either of the three perspectives. What I aim to do is to illustrate that we humans are not the masters of our destinies; we are social creatures, as affected by the individuals and happenstances around us as by the thoughts and urges in our heads. No man is ever free from the clutches and caresses of his community, no man could distance himself from the blood of his ancestors. Each and everyone of us participate in a collaborative project of constructing our own, and others’ psyches. Now how does this lens on mankind affect us? If we are not as free as we think, then we should consider the implications of being trapped in such a cage, for our friends, families, and the strangers amongst us.
Whilst the chase for answers is still going on, it may be wise to ponder what we would do once we find them. How should we treat our fellow man once we know of the bricks and workers that built him? As of now, all the answers point to one most probable conclusion: We do not have free will, at least, not as much as we once thought –a humbling realisation. The humans who commit atrocities such as wars and genocides did not come to those actions by themselves. They have done so either due to their genes, the people and ideologies that surrounded them, or an interplay between the two. Whatever the absolute factors might be, we must concern ourselves with how we should act upon these vomit-inducing errors of humanity.
Imprisonment, executions, ostracisms, humiliations, have been in use to punish wrongdoers since man learned of cooperation. We use these tools to make sure that good deeds are appropriately repaid, and crimes deterred. However, when we hurt those who have wronged us, rarely do we see the penalties as a mean to stop or lessen the number of mistakes we as a species make. The phrase ‘just desserts’ captures why it is we retaliate against the violators of our well being and rights. We do so to reach an emotional satisfaction, a primal need for revenge, not for the good of mankind. We long to see those who hurt us bleed, more so than we have. The torture devices of the medieval period –the iron maiden, the wheel, the rack– are prime demonstrations for our love of seeing our enemies bathed in chunks of their own flesh. Yet if one were to try to reimplement the practice of punishment by abusing the bodies of criminals, we would call him barbaric, inhumane, categorizing him in the same place as those he brings retribution to. Why the sudden change in attitude, we might ask? An interesting speculation is that we value the lives and wellbeing of others more, due to our deeper understanding of the people next to us.
When we begin to emphasize the idea that we might not be in full control of the personalities we have, we also adopt a more sympathetic point of view. The ruthless, the cruel, they did not dream to be hated. They did not wish to be public enemy number one. Psychopaths may not understand that what they are doing are wrong, dictators often have an erroneous idea that their deeds will one day enhance the quality of lives of those he favors, so on and so forth. When we permit ourselves to relinquish the mistaken concept of ‘free-will,’ we despise our actions and thoughts less, and a similar though lesser effect takes place when we see someone else commit a devious act.
But never should we consider to create a world where all can be forgiven. Murderers and rapists still need to be put behind bars. Without the existence of steel poles and concrete walls, and the threat of being surrounded by them, crime would run rampant, and the sense of responsibility we have worked so long to build would slowly crumble away. We may, and are obliged to act mercifully to those we loathe. Yet if their freedom threatens the safety of the individuals around them, it would not be sane to let them roam without limit. The punishments we have devised perhaps need to be refined –the safety of inmates is, or at one time was, quite a popular public issue, alongside advocating against torture for information. But even though our level of compassion is rising, evil could never be seen as good, and therefore needs to be kept in check.
To understand is not to forgive. At least not entirely. Empathize and sympathize as much as we can, loathe as little as we could, for it is an emotion which demeans and corrupts us. Punish not for personal gratification, but for the safety and wellbeing of the people we love. These are the lessons which the numerous answers for “what us makes us who are?” have granted to us. Forgiveness and cruelty, like the saying goes, are best in moderation.