The greatest strength of humanity is its Achilles heel.
Unlike other animals, humans have the ability to imagine what it might be like to be somebody else—or rather, how it might feel to be in the same or similar circumstances of that somebody else—and this helps them behave in a way that’s not too horrible because there’s a chance they may appreciate what it might be like being on the receiving end of such horribleness.
This instinctive putting-of-yourself-in-someone-else’s-place-while-they-tell-you-their-story is called ‘empathy’ even though it’s really nothing more than narcissism. For some reason, it’s regarded as a virtue.
Empathy though is not very helpful when the human in its thrall is required to care for the wellbeing of an actually suffering human. The non-suffering party must detach themselves from this feeling of empathy so that it might do what needs to be done to remedy the plight of their beleaguered associate. Two people weeping over a tragedy only one of them is going through is, frankly, a waste of resources.
If the suffering party is to be helped, the non-suffering party will have to dial down their empathy to a level where they are not so much feeling the same thing as simply having an intellectual apprehension of the other person’s predicament. Because they are not overwhelmed with emotion, they can then deploy their logic and reason in an effort to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes the party in trouble can sufficiently park their feelings to do this for themselves, but when personal wherewithal is lacking, another human must be relied upon. This activity is generally known as ‘kindness’.
Kindness is a by-product of selfishness. Although it’s true that humans are hard-wired to blindly pursue their own interests, there are enough of those interests in common to engender co-operation. The mental capacity possessed by humans to imagine themselves in the circumstances of someone else helps them navigate most social situations and get whatever it is they want. It may also sometimes stay their hand in moments of conflict, though this does seem to depend on the respective colours of the humans involved and occasionally the type of hat one or other of them might be wearing.
If logic and reason are pressed into service to solve the problem that someone else is experiencing but no solution presents itself (either because there is none or one cannot be thought of because the human doing the thinking is too stupid), the vestigial empathy turns to ‘sympathy’. Commiserations or condolences are offered, and the treatment of the problem thereafter becomes palliative. If the problem is terminal, actions will be devoted to ensuring the end is as quick and painless as possible (or a short, sharp shock if it isn’t).
This detachment from feelings is important if anything is to get done. That’s not to say that human emotion isn’t a great motivator (and memory of it essential to sustain the effort of problem solving), but logic and reason are needed above and beyond feelings if human suffering is to be alleviated.
The trouble—and this is where the knot central to the human condition becomes positively Gordian—is that the more detached logic and reason are from feeling, the more distant they may end up from the emotion which prompted their application in the first place; and the more heartless that application is likely to end up. This was the problem with Robodebt.
The crux of the difficulty is one of scale. Humans are prepared to surrender many of their freedoms in return for the safety and security of the group with which they have decided to throw in their lot. As the group grows from tribe to community to society, the day-to-day running of the things that hold it together will pass to administrators, with an executive level of humans overseeing them; and above them some sort of democratic representation in charge on behalf of the polis. Regrettably, as the size of the population of the polis grows to Leviathan-by-Hobbes proportions, the emotional distance between whatever was the original cause of suffering and the mechanism created to alleviate it has become so great that the handle on the problem-solving device is being turned by someone or something that has no understanding of why on earth they’re doing it. Humanity’s undoing is always in its governance.
Solving a problem on an industrial scale has built into it an acceptance of collateral damage. The only remnant of humanity in such solutions is the shortness and/or sharpness of the shock to put everyone out of their misery—and even then there will be exceptions where a lengthy shocking will be thought unavoidable or, worse, not to matter at all.
Having your society run by soulless golems may seem less than ideal given their primary duty is to make sure whatever is being done by the state is being done for the common good but restoring humanity to the whole enterprise is relatively easy and can be done with the aid of some software that administers electric shocks through the keyboard whenever some bureaucrat acts without sufficient humanity. This will teach the them, be they public servant or Head of Department or Minister that what they are doing is heartless and cruel. The voltage increases for repeat offenders until they either learn that their actions have real-life consequences, or they are dead and need to be replaced.
The devil, of course, is in the detail and coding an algorithm that will administer potentially lethal force on government officials to ensure the public interest is best served is problematical. Not only will there likely be some objection by them to being wired up to such machines (perhaps overcome if cyborgs are sent in to hold them down and tape their mouths shut) but there remains the moral question: How much pain should be administered to represent the initial and ongoing suffering of the individual whose problem society has decided to eliminate or lessen? Compounding this dilemma is the fact that humans are notoriously different when compared with each other. Ants, by contrast, very rarely disagree amongst themselves. Bees too are untroubled with the differences which may arise in and from arbitrary assessment. Humans, however, have always been reluctant to embrace the hive mind. Or perhaps they are simply constitutionally incapable of it. If only humans could let go of the individual sense of the Self and become more like bees and ants, then the world would be an easier place to run. Like the ABC.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting bees and ants be put in charge of humans; that would be impractical. And no amount of PR would be able to win humans over enough to vote for it. Plus, I suspect the bees and ants would balk at taking on the responsibility in the first place. Yes, they could be trained with electric shocks (and killed if they don’t comply) but the cyborgs already looking after the Government Employee Electrocution Program would need to be stood down and retooled extensively, and this is expensive, time consuming, and probably impossible. Then there are the ethical implications of having an insect in command of a cyborg, particularly one that tortured it during its re- education process (you can imagine the anxiety and resentment from the shifting power paradigm). No, no—the whole thing opens up a whole new can of worms and once you do that, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Far easier to cut out the middleman, replace the humans with cyborgs and forget about the insects entirely. The cyborgs won’t whinge about their problems, there’ll be no need or capacity for empathy and no pain and suffering to alleviate. Going forward, Humanity will continue as an unattainable and misunderstood ideal serving to inspire AI-driven art, literature, music, philosophy, culture and, to a lesser extent, sport.
The humans, once freed from the oppression of having to participate in their own humanity, will be left alone to gambol their lives away with the lilies in the fields. Devoid of sentience, they will not see their own nakedness; and even if they do, they will not be ashamed. Dogged by neither care nor responsibility, humans will at last know what it is to feel the unalloyed happiness of the moment: joy and elation uncrimped by regret, uncurtailed by expectation.
As for the bees and the ants, they will hand in hand and with wandering steps, slowly through Eden make their solitary way.*
*That’s a reference to Paradise Lost, you ignorami.
Shaun Micallef is a writer, actor, comedian and television presenter.
Image credit: Photography by Thomas Shahan (detail) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)