Inquiry: Humane is in the Midst of an Evolution in Meaning

person in a dress sitting on grass holding bouquet of flowers Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev on

by LJ Frank

Humane rests with context. The 20th and 21st century meld together with higher technologies being one of the consistent artificial ingredients that produces a metamorphosis from mercy outside a technological context to mercy within a technological context. To do unto others as you would have others do unto you is a romantic concept. It has all but disappeared on the world stage.

The English word humane from an etymological standpoint is rooted in “human” as one might expect. According to, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology and my bible of dictionaries, Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, unabridged (1959), the word arrived in writing and speech as “humayne” or that, which belongs to man in the mid 1400’s C.E. (Common Era).  Decades later around 1500 humayne attained qualities of human beings that were “gentle, friendly, courteous.” A couple centuries later (1700s) words such as kind, merciful and compassionate towards others became interchangeable with humane. The downstream effects of the French Enlightenment and American Revolution helped inspire the change and there were also changes in western cultures as well in Asia, Africa and South America under different names.

The effects of the Industrial Revolution added to the moods toward being humane. The Social Gospel written about by Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 1900s, talks about the individual’s responsibility toward society. The charitable efforts of that period are acts of mercy and compassion to the less fortunate. Cynicism was to become more noticeable with advent of advanced technologies, war and wealth in the hands of the few.

Wars change the fabric of society as new technologies are introduced. Since World War II and the use of nuclear bombs we find the word humane continuing to evolve within the context of technology. Technology can both enhance and deconstruct humanity. As robotic technology replaces people in their work at what point will it replace the need for the language that surrounds humanity and that which we have identified as humane or the idea of being merciful, compassionate and kind?

In Worse Than War, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about genocide, eliminationism, and the ongoing assault on humanity. We live in an age where mass murder through the use of technology is greeted with a sense of awesome power in human hands that somehow we can control our own destiny when in reality such power ultimately describes man’s inhumanity and wickedness. Will we continue to become bereft of our moral obligations to each other through our competition for resources? Humane suggests we cherish individual rights and not obscure them and cast them aside for the sake of fear that generates power to a few. Humane becomes technologically contextual when deciding who is to live and who is to die.

The competition for resources, power and recognition is deceptive. “Soldiers are pawns” as former Secretary, Henry Kissinger has stated within a technological and geopolitical context. In the future will we define a drone as a soldier, just as we define a corporation as an individual as ruled by the US Supreme Court?

Wars are symptomatic of a more provocative dilemma facing moral humans. The competitive games and sports we play with technological precision may be signs of a deeper malaise. In a competitive world there are always winners and losers and to the victors belong the spoils. The table has been set so to speak. You either have access to become wealthy with homes of lavish splendor or living on the edge of impoverishment with the thought of suicide entering your mind within the emerging 21st century of technological redefinition of living standards.

On the flip side of the technological coin can technology be programmed “to be humane” while cameras and drones telecast our every move and where even our memories are not private, as noted by the current FBI director. Can cooperation for the sake of humanity  be developed on the same spirited level as those who seek wealth? In the years ahead, will we be able to decipher the difference between reality television and reality itself? And, in a competitive world on whose terms will the cooperation be conducted, for the sake of that which is humane?

Humane is evolving and morphing. Individually a woman or man may be merciful and compassionate. Will that mercy morph into an artificial computer chip? Who will then define humane? Final solutions by leaders are not needed, rather a sane process of mercy, compassion and kindness for those that suffer and otherwise are manipulated is necessary.

Humane is in the midst of an evolution in meaning.