What does it mean to be humane?

Hi everyone,
I’m a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at a Buddhist graduate school, so when I geek out, I geek out on these question about human beings. What is a human being? What is a human being for? Also, what does it mean to be humane? Its perhaps easy to assume that we are talking about the same sets of values, assumptions, assessment tools, etc when we use terms like human and humane, but I’ve learned through studying multiple systems of western psychology, working in mental health for 20 years, and working closely with Buddhist scholars and teachers that there are many nuanced ways to define or describe what human and humane mean, and that these different definitions/descriptions have real impacts on how we behave in the world.
I’m interested in what people think and interested in challenging us to think as deeply about what a human is as we think about solutions to “inhumane tech.” Our solutions are enriched when we have a more enriched appreciation of the “problem.” Also, what makes tech inhumane or dehumanizing and what are the possible meanings of these terms? Again, I don’t think we need to land on operational definitions of humane, inhumane, etc that we must all agree on, I’m just curious about what people think and how they experience humanity and inhumanity, what is humane and what is inhumane, etc.
So, what do people think? What is a human, humanizing, and what is humane? What is dehumanizing, anti-human, and inhumane?


Well… my short answer to this is that people have free access to at least the lower 4 levels of Maslows hierarchy of needs. But that might be a little too much clinical talk for the forum;)

Hi healthyswimmer,
a society that provided people with food, shelter, safety, clothing, belonging, and esteem would indeed be very humane, maybe even some higher level of post-humane and somewhat enlightened if we truly took equity and dignity seriously.
So when we are talking about humane tech, are we talking about tech that advances us towards increased access to Maslow’s first 4 levels of needs? Is that the aim of humane tech? Or is it something else? I don’t intend to blab on or be a pest or anything, I’m sincerely curious about what different people think about this stuff.

@Dan_Rubin thank you for bringing this up!

Humane can mean compassionate, but it is also rooted in the strange concept that humans are better or privileged compared to other things, the false ideas that humans are somehow “good” or at the “center” of all existence. We are not at the center of the universe, we are just one tiny part of a massive evolutionary branch. We are on one planet located in some tiny branch of the universe. Almost all people hold these false self-concepts as being true, but I believe they are as dangerous as any bad ideology.

Most people have a flawed worldview where being “more human” will fix problems actually created by humans being themselves. Being human is merely part of being an animal. We exhibit the same characteristics in our quest for food, mates and power as our other animal cousins, we cooperate and compete, we’re compassionate and sinister, and everything in between. Our human ability to reason hasn’t changed our behaviors enough, even the most intelligent humans very often exhibit despicable behavior at the same level as our other animal cousins.

It’s our unique ability to grow and share wisdom that sets us apart, and it’s our responsibility to use this power for good.


I agree with @free that thinking of ourselves as the most important life form on the planet is detrimental to us, other forms of life, and the environment. As Naomi Klein said, the earth is dying and we are helping to kill it. Central to this destruction is our benighted belief that no other forms of life are equal to ours.

Going back to Dan’s question, which is focused on humankind, I’d like to share this scan of two pages of Franklin Foer’s book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Though this section is about Facebook, what Foer says here applies to Apple et al.

We’ve gone from being hunter-gatherers to being hunted-gathered–and by our own kind. In Big Tech’s insane quest to create an artificial mind that is better than the human mind, most of us are just sheep to be shorn of our data.


@Dan_Rubin to be more specific- a world in which people need to stare at screens in order to function & where places in which people usually seek social contact like cafes and libraries etc… Are filled with catatonic non responsive folk- well this interferes with humans sense on belonginging. In my field this woud be considered a serious public healh issue affecting humanity.

It really depends on the type perspective you are looking for. Humanity’s disconnection from what makes it survive, eachother, is what brought me to this forum.

Perpaps, in my opinion, this topic is broader than can be fairly discussed in one topic in an an online forum. Would make awesone face to face conversation though!!


Yes people need to be more interconnected for good, to solve the problems of the world.

Because we can share our wisdom, people are different than other animals. We have a special responsibility to use this power for good, an obligation. Our ability to share and grow wisdom frees us in a way no other animal on Earth can be free.

It’s up to us to create a world that’s more democratic, more open, less corrupt, fairer, cleaner, safer and so on. People have shown that we can solve problems like this in the past, even if in the last few years it seems like we’ve been moving backwards on some of these issues. Yes we as people can be cruel like other animals, but also we also have the ability to grow and share wisdom which other animals can’t do. At the same time our biologic nature makes us interconnected in a way that technology will probably never be. So we are in a unique position to do something good.

Like other animals (but unlike machines) people are easy to manipulate and are controlled by emotions. We’re beholden to our moods, hormones, how hungry we are, our health, or developmental history. Our brain chemicals and emotions determine our “logic”, and then afterwards we use reasoning to “rationalise” decisions that were actually made by our emotions. Things that we’re absolutely sure we’ve logically decided for ourselves actually are not that way at all but depend on the inputs to our biologic system and the resultant emotional states. Many things have a lot to do with how much glucose we have in our systems, we’re a lot nicer right after lunch. For example judges deciding if prisoners will be released on parole agree most of the time if it’s right after lunch, but almost none of the time if it’s the end of the day and they’re feeling low on energy.

Humans also have an innate animal ability to see one’s own tribe as better than others, while seeing everyone else as a potential enemy. This causes racism and greed (as in technology entrepreneurship), and also makes our own racist and greedy biases invisible to ourselves. But at the same time oddly enough this is all due to the same brain chemical that cases us to take care of our own families and tribes so well. The difference is who we consider to be in our tribe.

So what can we do? We can promote the idea of all of us being in one tribe, one human family, one Earth, one universe. If we can associate all of humanity or the Earth as being our own tribe, especially in the minds of technology’s developers, then that way of thinking would solve most of the problems of “inhumane” technology.

So I suggest that we could try some kind of “one world, one tribe” campaign. There our goal is to make people think of all people and all the world as one tribe all working together toward a common goal. Given brain chemistry, our biological instincts, our reliance on emotion for reasoning rather than logic, this could help to manipulate people to do good, create good technology, build a better world.


Nice, really enjoyed your post.

Human? Good question. It takes quite a bit to answer that question, not just from a historial perspective, but also from a multi-cultural perspective.

Most spiritual movements agree that we are souls using bodies. Some state that animals (mammals?) are individual souls using bodies as well. (Thus excluding hive-conscious based species like bees and termites from the “one soul, one body” group.)

In that light or from that point of view killing a human or killing a mammal is on the same level: you interfere with the capacity of a soul to experience life on this planet and thus commit a “crime” aka bad karma.

You just need to check how different cultures and era treated animals to see how the definition of human varies. Go into a kosher slaughter-house, a halal or a Christian and ask why they kill animals in the way and with the ritual they do. Then ask Jains or Hare Krishna adepts why they remain vegetarian. Ask a Catholic priest why they remain celibate and eat any meat, drink any alcohol or smoke tobacco and ask a Hindu why they are vegetarian.

My background is in Computer Programming, worked for a Software house in Dutch Agriculture and turned vegetarian because of what I have seen on the farms and in the slaughter houses that I had to visit.

Humans exist on so many levels of awareness that it is virtually impossible to give a “once size fits all” definition. You are probably aware of the works of Ken Wilber, an American Philosopher who wrote “A theory of everything” and then 40+ more books. The way he describes humans is a bit beyond Maslow’s famous pyramid. And yet it is still a limited, temporary vision of what it entails to be human.

“At least, do no harm” is commonly accepted as a temporary translation of the Hippocrates Oath. Unless you understand the full scope of the variety of humans, you cannot live up to that oath, being a technician or a medic.

And even then, throwing in reincarnation, which is a concept for some and a reality for others; some souls are way more sensitive than others, have memories of Golden Age or Paradise that others consider fairy tales. Meaning that a new Mercedes Benz or the latest iPhone may be paradise for some and the depth of hell for others.

I quit computer programming in 1988, just could not work on destroying humaneness anymore. Then what? Figure out what that means, to be human. As a technician I could not imagine how a simple rose could have been programmed in all its functionality; it made me search for the Designer, the Creator of life. which mindset is so advanced that it can design and program a rose, not even an animal or human.

Searching that way it turns out (in my experience) that Science and Spirituality (and Art) all talk about the same thing. That humans are on top of the food chain, at least on this planet in what we call the visible realms and a bit beyond. That we are indeed, as not just the Bible claims, created in God’s image.

This means that the “we” we are talking about is not the physical manifestation, but something generally referred to as “soul”.
It also implies the French expression “Noblesse Oblige”. If you are on top of the food chain you carry a responsibility for all given to your care.

Having said that, humane tech can never be a “one size fits all” solution.
A butcher with a sharp knife harms less than a butcher with a blunt knife, so tech that provides butchers with the sharpest possible knives is a tiny step towards a more humane butchering of animals. That kind of tech of course is only needed in a society that considers butchering animals for food a “humane” and thus acceptable thing.

In the same line of thinking creating cell-towers and mobile phones to control the minds of the masses may be a humane thing if the alternative is total anarchy.

All depends on your first memories, on the base-line awareness of the soul, throughout its sometimes many lives. If your first memory is Christian or Buddhist, you have had a first life with already violence and meat-eating and hierarchical governance going on. That would be your perfect state, your version of paradise. In that case humane butchering can be a step forward towards that initial paradisical state.

If however, your first memory is of a life with no harm, no violence, peace and harmony amongst all sentient beings, then the question of humane tech becomes a totally different ball game. (That time is referred to in the Bible as “before the flood”, or Golden and Silver Age in Hindu scriptures, no doubt many more descriptions exist, “Dream state” for the Aboriginals?)

Modern days ask for integration of the male and female versions of reality. For tech to become more female based would already be a big step in the right direction. Adding a number of dimensions to it might very well be asking too much too soon.

But we can always dream.


Thank you everyone for your sharing your ideas! I appreciate the themes of our humaneness being based on we relate to each other and other living things. I would argue that part of being humane is to recognize that there really is no such thing as an individual human being. We are social and exist in the context of relationships. Most importantly, we need relationships where we feel emotionally safe and accepted. Without relationships, human babies die, or at best, go insane. I also appreciate the current findings in neuroscience which show that there is no “self” in the brain. In fact, the brain seems to be a collective that act more like a community than an individual. My training in psychotherapy, cognitive science, neuroscience, and Buddhism bias me towards this view that we individualism is at best a illusion that helps us function in the world in certain ways, and at worst, a delusion that causes us to be confused, lonely, mentally ill, dehumanized, or destructive.
So my sense is that being humane includes recognizing that we are interdependent, and not in some kind of shiny metaphysical way, but in every physical and conceptual way that exists. Humans need other humans to survive and thrive. Tech that is humane is “pro-social” and brings out the best in us in terms of empathy, compassion, cooperation, collaboration, healthy competition, play, anything that make us more interested rather than less interested in relating to each other.



Exactly. The question then is who is in your family, and who is the enemy? That’s apparently the way we people work, we protect our own and fight against others. Everyone has enemies, unfortunately, all people biologically seems to have a hard-wired bias against otherness, this is something based off of evolution. If we can teach people to believe in all people, not just their own “families” or own groups, then that would be a tremendous step in making people logical and fair, and more ethical than other animals with whom we share the same survival instincts. These survival instincts of fight against otherness worked well for us when we were less civilised, but now they are working against us. I think this is something every person should be taught, that they need to put their mind over their biology, so they can think clearly and fairly and not be driven by raw emotion to make selfish decisions as people currently do.

If I say, we should care equally for the stranger around the world as we would for a stranger in our own neighborhood, most people would say no way. Even if you tell them it’s the logical thing and fair thing seems most people will say no, they will let their biology and emotions control them instead of simple reasoning. However if we make this a well-known idea, I have no doubt that we can teach people to respect all other people in the world as equals and as part of one big family.

This is the root of technology problems. Developers, marketeers, entrepreneurs are working like their customers on the other side of an internet connection are the enemy and are to be exploited. If only they would consider that everyone they connect with is part of their own people, they would never do the terrible things they do.


Every breath older I become- the more I believe what you said here. I’m a leader another non-profit and I’ve recently decided it’s not necessarily how efficient we are- but that we worked as a group. I had to let go because the board was falling apart. So I let go and just listened and even did things incredibly inefficiently just so we could function together. The board is in one piece now again- so I learned something. Anyways… thx for your contribution to starting this dialogue.


Thanks for the inspiration! This is an excellent thread. Yes yes yes. Let’s do it!

We should all be asking ourselves this regularly: Does my tech/product/service make the world feel more like one big family?

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A. Why not start with a dictionary definition? Merriam-Webster provides two definitions for “humane”;

  1. marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals:

  2. characterized by or tending to broad humanistic culture // HUMANISTIC :

The first meaning of “humane” allows us to include considerations about animals. Some thinkers indicate that ethical concerns in the West have widened to include animal rights (e.g. Peter Singer) and the relationship with Nature (environmentalists).

B. I don’t think we should use “human” as a synonym for “humane” -although one of the several dictionary meanings given to “human” that is “representative of or susceptible to the sympathies and frailties of human nature” comes close to “humane”.

C. Do we want to use “humane design” as a synonym for “ethical design”?


I’m all for “compassion” as a synonym for humane. I think we need to emphasize being concerned with the suffering of others. That sense of warmth and connectedness is essential. It’s what “inhumane” tech lacks and degrades.

I like these definitions, @Alejandro

I would say: No. I think of humane as being broader defined than ethical. E.g. some app can be completely ethical, but still have usability, accessibility and even unforeseen negative health issues that can be mitigated by Humane Design.

Oh, and in that same light ‘compassionate’ is also not a full synonym for humane, I think, @Dan_Rubin.

But maybe I am stretching the original meaning of ‘humane’ with this (though from the part of the definition “consideration for humans or animals” this should not be the case).

I’m way too much of a newbie to dwell into these topics but I’d like to give it a shot and share a thought or two I had while, and after, reading this compelling discussion.

Mostly, I’m thinking about humility and the quest to impress. I’m curious about the action spectrum between these opposites. To me, it sounds like a humane person would choose the first over the latter, but probably it’s more about some sort of balance. On one hand, if we don’t make an impression on anyone we’ll hardly build the relationships we need in order to strive and rejoice; on the other hand, if we’ll never embrace humility we’ll eventually reach a point where the quality of the relationships will decline…

It’s a gift to be able to reason, because with clear thinking it’s possible to question whether something we could do, is actually worth doing or not. Doing things just because we can doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good idea to act towards those things. Maybe, doing things just because we can—without thinking about the consequences, has lead us to where we are now: at high levels of laziness, loneliness and short-term goals

@Free wrote about how we set ourselves high as a species and this is where I think humility is much needed: we need to accept our place in the world, which maybe is just a random species that happens to hold a hell lot of responsibility towards the various ecosystems—since we know how we should take care of those.

Wisdom is transferable and it may be that what is enough to live well has already been said for a long time; it’s time to put it into practice but, as we live in a culture in love with technology, it seems to me that innovation after innovation, levels of complexity were added to the global moral progress.

Does some of this make any sense? :thinking:

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@aschrijver some months ago I remember this conversation- alas I can’t find it though. I remember talking about ethics and us bumping into not merging definitions. I have no opinion at this time but just referring to the previous conversation.

Yes, certainly makes sense. Your statements remind me of a wonderful Medium article in which the author identified the three things he likes most about people: humility, empathy… Can you guess the third? It surprised me.


The Medium author says these things make people irresistible to him. This sounds reductive, but I nevertheless found it compelling that he chose these three.

I would add to them loyalty and honesty.

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Really interesting, I’ll check out the article, thanks for sharing!
And yes, loyalty and honesty are also “irresistible” qualities to me… Maybe what makes them such, as with humility, empathy and curiosity, is the rarity to which they’re found in people.

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Hi Oscar,
when you talk about humility vs quest to impress, I think you are talking about intention and motivation, which is an important piece of being humane, however we might define it. When I yell at my kids because they are about to wander into the street and I need to get their attention, that is very different from if I were to yell at them because of being in a bad mood. So, yes, motivation is as aspect of being humane.
I also agree that our tech can get in the way of our wisdom, our ability to live well. It seems that we can easily confuse living well, which I see as being deeply engaged with our values, with living through our tech, which gives us tremendous power but can disengage us from our values.
Thinking abut what you said about have more humility about our place in the world, we can be very impressed with ourselves as we interact with tech, but how might we feel about a cat who preferred to chase virtual mice on an iPad over chasing real life mice? If it is grotesque for the cat, and what point is it grotesque for us? I’m thinking about perspective, noticing when we’ve lost touch with our values and devolved in some way, and knowing how to come back into our values. Maybe being humane involves having perspective and having skills to confront & correct ourselves and others when perspective is lost.

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