The idea of an equal world

It is only by daring to dream that human beings have achieved much more than what was thought to be naturally possible

Updated - December 23, 2018 03:28 pm IST

Published - December 23, 2018 12:15 am IST

I have heard educated people make statements like this: “Why should one get worked up about justice; after all, life is not fair.” Or this: “Why should we strive for socio-economic equality; there is no equality in nature.” Or even this: “That (whatever ‘that’ may be) is the way biology (or nature) is!”

These statements are made by people who consider themselves hard-nosed and intelligent, and who, if they have intellectual pretensions, are usually reacting against some perception of the excessive social constructivism of the academic past. But excessive social constructivism of the past or not, these are deeply flawed positions.

Let us put them in a different context. Some people say, “There is no point in living, because we are all going to die one day.” But they do not take a gun and shoot themselves, which is what they would do if they really meant it. And, the reason they do not shoot themselves is that they know, in some dark corner of their minds, that death need not make a mockery of life. In fact, it can add meaning to life — by making it limited. Life matters more because it is going to end. If we were to live endlessly, we would effectively have no life — as Bernard Shaw shows in one of his plays, the ‘immortals’ are socially, emotionally and intellectually bored and petty.

Nature and biology

One can go further: the mark of human greatness is the ability to make life matter despite death. This can be done in various ways, ranging from excellence in different fields to excellence in living a good life. Life matters because it is not endless. A good life does not happen naturally; we have to work towards it. It is also in that sense that justice and a degree of socio-economic equality matter. They do not happen naturally, but that is exactly why they are important for human beings.

Human beings are strange animals: their nature is in excess of given biology. We have arms, not wings, and still can fly. But biology itself is not as limited as people make it sound. Just look at the ways in which life has adapted and continues to adapt, even if this has taken thousands of years: forms born and bred in water have learned to live on land, and vice versa. This does not mean that biology does not matter: after all, you need a brain to think.

To return to the matter of flying, if human beings had kept flapping their arms, they would never have managed to lift their feet off the ground. So, yes, human beings cannot fly by flapping their hands; that’s biology. But human beings can fly by using various contraptions — but that is also biology, for it is the human brain that devised these contraptions, and it is also beyond any given biology, any given nature. It is in the nature of birds to make (‘natural’) nests, and it is in the nature of human beings to build (‘artificial’) skyscrapers: we are talking of very different kinds of ‘nature’ here.

The human mind allows for possibilities that the human body does not permit. The execution of these possibilities might take time, but their imagining is crucial. In that sense, there is a direct line running from riding dragons, flying chariots and our own Ravana’s ‘vehicle’ on the one side to the actual glider and airplane on the other. There is also a direct line running from the bark-and-leaf clothing of the caveman to those ‘suits’ that enable human beings to trek across the Arctic and hop around on the moon.

Overcoming limits

To imagine is to be able to overcome the limits of any given biology and any given nature. This is particularly true in the case of ideas, for even Leonardo da Vinci’s attempt to imagine flying vehicles did not lead to airplanes: translating ideas into physical achievements is not always possible. It takes time, and it might never happen in some cases. But once it has been imagined, the possibility is there.

In that sense, the fact that human beings can imagine justice and a degree of equality makes these ideas not just desirable but also possible. If other animals cannot imagine them, so much greater pity for them: after all, other animals do not wear clothes or build skyscrapers either.

One can even argue this about god as a moral construct. It might or might not be that god made human beings. But once human beings imagined god — as a just creator and sustainer far beyond human comprehension and yet a perpetual object of human aspiration for betterment, happiness, justice, goodness, kindness, etc. — god effectively came into being. We can refuse to believe in god, but can we refuse to believe in the possibilities that ‘god’ signifies? As another year of possibilities approaches, this might be good to ponder.

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