Are Humans a Virus?

Are Humans a Virus? May 19, 2019

At one of the public lectures in this year’s Butler Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs, which has focused on religion, ecology, and the environment, someone in the audience asked the speaker whether humankind is a virus (specifically referencing Agent Smith’s statement in The Matrix to that effect).

Thinking about it, I came up with my own answer: Human beings are the only species on planet Earth which has the freedom to choose whether to be a virus or not.

What do you think? In principle, while it may be unlikely, we could choose to eschew virus-like behaviors even if it meant the destruction of the human race. And conversely, we can behave in a way that mirrors how viruses spread and infect new organisms and locations, even though we have intelligence and other abilities that viruses lack.

Are human beings a virus? It is up to us.

David Hayward shared a cartoon depicting “Calvinist theology” that is directly related to this topic:

You can see the video of the last public lecture in this year’s Butler Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs, “Greening Indiana,” as well as read thoughts from my colleague Brent Hege about it, on the Center for Faith and Vocation blog.

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  • No, humans are not a virus. But we are a very destructive species.

  • John MacDonald

    I like what Schelling said: We are preeminently constituted as a species to be ethical since, by contrast, only humans can sink below animals in depravity. Kant said ethics is possible because we attach ourselves to all our actions and hence are inherently responsible for what we do – unlike people who are insane, or animals who we would not consider morally evil if they chewed up the couch. We would consider a person to be morally responsible for taking a knife to our couch because we inherently view ourselves as ethical and accountable. Even when we try cite mitigating circumstances to deny our responsibility, this just goes to show how we know we are inherently responsible and are trying to avoid it.

    Morality, ethics, responsibility, and accountability seem to be inherent to what we are. Paul talks about The Law being written on the hearts of the gentiles. No matter how vile a person may be, they still have a “circle of friends,” which may just include themselves, that they behave in a friendly or benevolent manner toward. The Golden Rule is attested to across time and culture as a Principle of Ethics/Morality. So I would say humans may choose to act/not act in a manner consistent with being “viral,” but I think in terms of what we are have the possibility of living up to being something very much more than that – but that’s free will, after all. It’s not really ‘free will’ if being a virus isn’t a possibility.

    EDITED

    • Gary

      Your argument would be even stronger if you replaced “the couch” above in you argument, with “their own young, both born and unborn”.

      • John MacDonald

        How’s this:

        Derrida cites Heidegger in his book on Schelling who in turn cites Schelling that we are preeminently constituted as a species to be ethical since, by contrast, only humans can sink below animals in depravity. In his lecture course on Kant’s practical philosophy, Heidegger cites Kant that ethics is possible because we accountably attach ourselves to all our actions and hence are inherently responsible for what we do – unlike people who are insane, or animals who we would not consider morally evil if they bit our child. We would consider a normal person to be morally responsible for taking a knife to our child because we inherently view ourselves as ethical and accountable. Even when we try cite mitigating circumstances to deny our responsibility, this just goes to show how we know we are inherently responsible and are trying to avoid it.

        Morality, ethics, responsibility, and accountability seem to be inherent to what we are. Paul talks about The Law being written on the hearts of the gentiles. No matter how vile a person may be, they still have a “circle of friends,” which may just include themselves, that they behave in a friendly or benevolent manner toward. The Golden Rule is attested to across time and culture as a Principle of Ethics/Morality. So I would say humans may choose to act/not act in a manner consistent with being “viral,” but I think in terms of what we are have the possibility of living up to being something very much more than that – but that’s free will, after all. It’s not really ‘free will’ if being a virus isn’t a possibility.

        • Gary

          I think you missed my point (on purpose). But I don’t blame you for avoiding the issue. Too volatile to handle. Both for you and me. But the obvious elephant in the room.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m sorry. I apparently didn’t get your point. Could you rephrase it?

          • Gary

            Nope.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m still not pecisely sure what your point was, since it was only one sentence, but you seem to be talking about the abortion issue.

            I was more interested in what makes something like ethics possible, not what particular moral beliefs are for a specific person. For instance, one person may ground a Pro Choice belief in the principle/example that a raped 11 year old girl shouldn’t be forced to carry the baby to term, just like another person who is Pro Life could ground their belief in the idea that unborn life is sacrosanct, and analogously if you were unfortunately involved in a car accident, you would have to live with the consequences. Under this Pro Life interpretation, a female being inconvenienced for nine months is certainly no reason to kill an unborn baby. So, we have two arguments based on conflicting values, so it becomes a matter of aesthetic choice whether you choose one point of view over another – like preferring a Cabernet over a Chianti.

            Nietzsche, in a moment of pure brilliance, also saw this was true of metaphysics. Jaco Gericke points out that: Nietzsche says:

            The answer to the question ‘What is that?’ is a process of fixing a meaning from a different standpoint. The “essence”, the “essential factor”, is something which is seen as a whole only in perspective, and which presupposes a basis which is multifarious (Nietzsche 1968:556).

            Gericke elaborates that:

            To be precise, the problem here is, in the words of Bird (2009:497) in another context, “what it is to possess a property essentially is a matter of debate.” That is putting it mildly. Included here are (very crudely summarized) Socrates (essence as common properties), Plato (essence as archetype), Aristotle (essence as genus), Porphyry (essence as species), Boethius (essence vs. existence), Avicenna (essence as quiddity/whatness), Abelard (essence as semantic feature), Scotus (essence as haecceity/thisness), Descartes (essence as principle attribute), Locke (essence as sortal), Leibniz (essence as sufficient reason), Kant (essence vs. appearances), Hegel (essence in/as appearances), Nietzsche (only (non) appearances), Wittgenstein (essence as grammar), Husserl (essence as given), Heidegger (essence as being), Sartre (existence before essence), Popper (essence as definitional fallacy), Quine (essence as accidents), Putnam (essence as stereotype), Kripke (essence as necessary properties), Derrida (“essence” vs. identity/difference), Deleuze (“essence” vs. difference/multiplicity) (see Gericke 2017).

            So, getting back to ethics, we are going to have cases where there are conflicting values regarding contradictory moral interpretations of the same event. A good example of this is the 9’11 attacks. To us, these were understood as atrocious terrorist acts. However, to many, they were not terrorism, but rather brave, noble holy acts. “Terrorism” is a point of view. The two interpretations are completely contradictory, where the interpretation of something as the worst possible thing is alternatively interpreted as the best possible thing: See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxRZTbUkks4

          • John MacDonald

            Postmodern Ethics asks us to move beyond the illusion of certainty and “Holier Than Thou Attitude” grounded in Righteous Indignation that causes us to believe our moral sentiments/outrage ought to be present in the same way in others. There is radical individuality in ethics because, in my case for example, the call of responsibility I experience in encountering the suffering widow, orphan alien, and enemy comes along with fundamental humility, since others may not hear the same call.

          • John MacDonald

            I wanted to add one thing:

            My general point is that, because we value different things differently, there are going to be some moral ideological differences, just like we have political differences.. Some issues are going to seem morally important, others morally trivial, and we are going to feel strongly about some, and weakly about others – but it seems at first that none of this implies others will or should feel/interpret the same way we do in ethical matters. But, this seems counter-intuitive, for who among us would say, for instance, the Roman citizen enjoying the sport of the Christian being fed to the lion in antiquity isn’t objectively wrong, but rather only wrong from our point of view? Perhaps the counter-intuitive nature of this Moral Relativism is itself a phenomenon not to be ignored, and may actually be pointing us in a different direction, away from Relativism. Perhaps a clue is that The Golden Rule is attested to cross culturally and over time as an ethical principle…

        • Gary

          I also think your comment, “No matter how vile a person may be, they still have a “circle of friends”… is a reasonable answer for whitewashing the obvious.

  • Christopher Bacon

    Humans may be able to choose not to act like a virus but it’s plain that most humans, from pre-history to now don’t. Don’t believe me, ask a mastodon or a Neanderthal or a passenger pigeon. Oops, you can’t.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Viruses are a kind of parasite that thrive at the expense of their host.
    Humans aren’t that sort of organism, we have a more complex way of interacting with our environment than that.

  • Nelson

    I think that to call humanity a virus is a dangerous kind of misanthropy.

  • Brandon Roberts

    depends.