Monday, December 3, 2012

Defining human flourishing

What constitutes human flourishing?

Some respected thinkers including noted biologists, other scientists, and philosophers (e.g., Richard Dawkins) believe that reproduction is the most basic function of all life.

I disagree. The reproductive drive presumes an impulse to preserve one’s life, which I believe is the most fundamental impulse of all life forms, whether as simple as a single cell amoeba or as complex as a human. Plants send roots toward water and leaves toward the sun in order to flourish. A drowning person struggles to avoid drowning.

Exceptions to the universal impulse to preserve life are noteworthy for their rarity and for the attention that we give to them. One such exception, suicidal individuals, generally belongs to one of three categories. Those categories are the mentally ill (e.g., the pathologically depressed), the person protesting injustice (e.g., a Tibetan lama protesting Chinese occupation of Tibet), and the person for whom life has become an intolerable burden (e.g., the terminally ill experiencing uncontrollable pain). Another exception consists of species that mate then die. For example, this is true of some species of black widow spiders. But the exceptions are so rare among the almost innumerable quantity of living things on earth that the exceptions are anomalous rather than negate the argument.

A number of principles emerge from the axiom that the preservation of life is life’s most basic impulse:

·         The requirements for preserving life (food, water, air, clothing, shelter, and healthcare) are essential.

·         That which enriches life – for example, beauty, freedom of association, free speech, etc. – are also important.

·         The interdependence of all life confers value, from a human perspective, on all other life. One of the great contributions of ecological studies has been to increase human awareness of the interdependence of all life. The newborn human is totally dependent upon other humans to preserve her or his life. Developing the ability to preserve one’s own life requires years; even in adulthood, no adult human can realistically exist without help from others (nobody grows/harvests all of their own food, produces all of their own clothing, etc.).

·         Admittedly, the value of life can vary greatly between and within species. Yet, valuing all life justifies respect for life as a basic ethical principle.

·         Respect for life entails a commitment to preserve life (help others obtain life’s essentials) and to enrich life (help others to do the same).

·         The interdependence of life and respect for life together lead to reciprocal altruism, i.e., I respect life in the expectation that others will treat me with the same respect.

In sum, human flourishing consists of respecting life through a reciprocal altruism that preserves and enriches one’s own life and that of others. The full spectrum of human flourishing embraces physical health and well-being (live as though you will have your body for 150 years), mental/emotional health and well-being (cultivating relationships that sustain, enrich, and stimulate), and spiritual health and well-being.

The human spirit is an emergent property linked to the human body and the mind that emerges from that body. The spirit is most clearly observed in humans but has visible roots in other life forms and consists of at least six components: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, creativity, limited autonomy, aesthetic sense, and the ability to love/be loved.

Advent is a season of expectation and preparation. In what way do you expect to flourish this next year? What preparations are you making to achieve that flourishing?

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