The Conceit of the Human Species

Perhaps it is human conceit, our vanity, that most blinds us.

I recently heard of a person whose goal is to make a great deal of money so he can give much of it away. Inherent in his view was a stated desire to reduce poverty around the world. But how much of his desire and tactics emanate from personal conceit?

Many years ago, I attended a one-day conference held in the Unity Temple, home to the Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. This magnificent house of worship was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built between 1905 and 1908.

The keynote speaker, who took the stage just prior to lunch, was Satish Kumar, an elder and wisdom keeper from India. He spoke with deep conviction about the conceit inherent in the human species. He spoke of the American values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the French dictum, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” He noted how each of them were purely human-centric. They include little regard for other living systems within the biosphere.

But it was what I learned immediately after his remarks that, many years later, still leaves me unsettled, and uncertain how to live my life. Attendees at the conference were assigned to tables for lunch, and, to my surprise and amazement, Satish Kumar took his seat directly across the table from me. The ensuing dialogue was replete with wisdom emanating from a man who has lived a life of deep inquiry. Near the end of our lunch, the topic turned to how we might deal with the desperate poverty that befalls hundreds of millions of humans. When I mentioned the helplessness I feel at not being able to give enough to make much difference, he turned to me and said something I will never forget: “Roger, what you in the west don’t understand is the solution to poverty is not to give more, but to take less.”

I am certain I still do not fully understand the complexity and implications of this simple statement, but I have come to believe in its deep truth. And these many years later, I still live a life that takes far too much, leaving far too little for the millions in need.

1 thought on “The Conceit of the Human Species”

  1. Roger,
    Oak Park has many great architectural sites. I admired the Universalist Temple when living as a student in Oak Park many years ago.

    As to the thesis that a human point of view is a conceit, I would not go that far. It is not possible to have knowledge of any kind without a place-to-stand, or a point of view. We are human, and can occupy no other point of view except very imperfectly in our imagination. To be human-centric is not necessarily or inevitably to be oblivious to the needs of other living systems that share the earth with us. The American Indians as far as I understand, lived much more cooperatively with Nature. They were human-centric but in a different way than ourselves.

    I agree with the assertion that we in the West need to take less. That would go a very long way to lessen the great disparity in well-being between the average citizen of the southern hemisphere and those of us who live in North America and Europe. Granted my actions or yours, in themselves mean very little in the big picture of alleviating poverty. The beginning of a new and a better way of life has to start by example, one household at a time. And we can advocate for large scale policy changes which, when a tipping point is reached, will make a very big difference. What if Mark Zuckerberg took less of a salary (to set an example), same with Bezos, and many other well known uber-wealthy? To say the nub of the matter out loud, our practice of Capitalism, with the expectation of infinite growth, and “finance”being the only measure of performance, — deserves to be rigorously criticized, and modified. When “more profit” trumps every other value, the result is predictable, others will have less. The wealthy need not become poor for poverty to be alleviated, just more compassionate, and willing to take less.

    Average citizens like ourselves ought to join the band of proponents for a simpler, and more socially satisfying way of life. I have in mind: H.D. Thoreau, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, Annie Dilliard and E. O. Wilson.

    Appreciate your writing, and the stimulation to think more bravely.


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