Species Consciousness

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Jay Weinstein:

"Highlights in the History of the Idea The idea of species consciousness has been expressed in many different cultures and historical eras. One of its most powerful statements is found in the Ethics, written in 1677 by the Dutch-born philosopher Baruch (Benedict de) Spinoza. According to Spinoza, underlying all of the diversity that characterizes the various nations and ethnicities of the world, there is a fundamental "harmony." He believed that this harmony could be understood if we think clearly about the nature of humanity, and that it would be realized if and when people act reasonably toward one another. "Nothing can be in more harmony with the nature of any given thing than other individuals of the same species," Spinoza wrote. "Therefore for man in the preservation of his being and the enjoyment of the rational life there is nothing more useful than his fellow-man who is led by reason" (Ethics Part IV, Appendix: proposition IX).

Spinoza and those who embrace his viewpoint believe that a species consciousness is possible; in fact, they assume that it is inherent in human nature. They also realize, however, that it is not automatic. For there are many forces arrayed against it, including habit, superstition, and prevailing public opinion, that must be overcome before we can understand ourselves "under the form of eternity."1 This is an important point to remember as we consider the possible outcomes of the rapid sociocultural changes now underway. That is, if we are going to achieve species consciousness, something must be done: a program must be created and implemented to bring it about.

Spinoza chose to emphasize a program that involved a turn toward what he called "reason." This concept suggests that if one thinks about the human condition in a clear and orderly way it becomes apparent that every individual person is part of a larger, effective whole. To paraphrase the words of the poet John Donne: No one is an island. No one stands alone. Unfortunately, from a contemporary standpoint, "reason" is an outmoded term that now can mean just about anything one chooses. For example, it can be argued that it is reasonable for a person or group to commit genocide, provided that the deed is planned clearly and systematically (logically).2 Today, the program that will help us realize our common humanity must give directives that are far more specific than "be rational," even if we do understand what Spinoza really meant in his arguments against irrational philosophies and theologies.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (who lived during the era of the American and French Revolutions) was not the first writer to attempt to improve upon Spinoza's program, but he is certainly among the best remembered and most widely read. Kant believed that there exist certain moral standards - rules of right and wrong – that allow people to understand themselves "under the form of eternity." These rules are absolute, or "categorical," in that they are valid everywhere and always. In addition, such rules are expressed in the form of a command, as an "imperative," because one cannot avoid acting in the way(s) they stipulate and still be considered an ethical person.


In recognizing the importance of eternal, moral rules in the movement toward a species consciousness, Kant goes beyond the assertion that "reason" is all that is required to understand and achieve a common humanity."