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Striving To Be Human

How can we act morally in the modern world?

by Keith Hill

2006 Ashton Wylie Book Awards, Best Manuscript Winner
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t is often difficult differentiating between what’s genuinely right for everyone and what just feels right to do.

Over the last century the human world has become a complex arena filled with competing viewpoints. Traditional religious strictures have been replaced with secular laws, ethics have shifted from God-fearing and restrictive to liberal and relativist, and multiculturalism has revealed the extent to which values are socially constructed. Yet rather than now feeling liberated from the mores of the past, many are bewildered. Seeking a solid moral centre for their life, they advocate for values drawn from familiar religious, political, cultural, scientific or business creeds.

Striving To Be Human, Keith Hill, award-winning author of The God Revolution, evaluates this situation by seeking a moral yardstick that is relevant in today’s secular, multicultural world. Using non-technical language, and drawing on the work of cultural innovators, thinkers and spiritual pioneers from a wide range of disciplines and eras, he considers how traditional religious values fell out of sync with the modern world view and weighs the new perspectives proposed to replace them.

Striving To Be Human
provides valuable insights for those who wish to understand how modern moral attitudes have developed and who seek to identify which values are relevant in today’s world.
180 pages, 6 x 9 inches / 129 x 152 mm
ISBN Paperback: 9780473192631

Keith Hill is a New Zealand writer whose work explores the boundaries between mysticism, history, science, religion and psychology. He is a three-time winner of the Ashton Wylie Award, New Zealand's premiere prize for spiritual writing.

“Hill is a writer in the vein of Karen Armstrong – a rationalist whose research has led to obvious but ground-breaking conclusions. Winner of the 2011 Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust Book Award [for
The God Revolution]. The prize that celebrates New Zealand’s forward thinkers is thoroughly deserved.” – Mike Alexander, Sunday Star Times

“Books of this calibre, written and published here in New Zealand, are a rare phenomena and this deserves to be read by all those who care about ideas, the trajectory of civilization and its future form.” – Peter Dornauf,

"An impressive and accessible introduction to a challenging philosophical topic." - Kirkus Review


This book examines the moral values we live by. In the past people tended to automatically adopt their forebears’ moral values. In the majority of cultures those values were derived from religious beliefs, written up in sacred scriptures, and given authority by religious decree. Those same religiously derived moral values continue to remain fundamental in most nations today. However, in other ways outlooks have changed radically.

We no longer accept the views of our forebears as sacrosanct. Indeed, more often the opposite applies, and we
view our ancestors’ scientific, intellectual, technological, and cultural achievements and knowledge as inferior to our own. The majority of nations today are secular, not religious. In most science, technology, and economics have replaced religion as the social and intellectual drivers. And innumerable activities, such as splitting atoms, adding up balance sheets, and developing a new medicine, are not seen as having a religiously-derived moral dimension at all.

Nonetheless, most of us continue to consider that moral values have a role to play in our lives. Our moral sense leads us to ask questions such as whether that split atom will be used for war or peace, and whether either use is environmentally or socially acceptable. We debate whether the balance sheet created by the global economy is in social debit or credit, and what balance we should maintain between the health of the environment and the health of profits. Behind each of these questions is the larger consideration of what we should collectively value. Thus even in today’s secular societies the question of moral values remains fundamental.

However, morality is also one area in our lives that we rarely examine closely. We tend to assume that the values we live by are right and true—and we’re surprized to discover that others have very different values, yet think their values are equally right and true. Only occasionally do we reflect on how we came to live by the values we profess, and where they originated from.

In addition, the world has become a complex place. Globalization and information technologies are bringing the world’s peoples and cultures closer together than at any time in human history. Today we need values that can deal with the moral subtleties that confront us in today’s complex world.

But are our values up to this task? Or do we promote values that are too crude, too ideologically-driven, too judgmental, or too out-of-touch to work? Are our forebears’ values still of value to us living in today’s world? Are moral values eternal and unchanging? Or do values have a use-by date stamped into them? And the big question behind all these questions: How can we know?

This issue is significant today because we have politicians, religious leaders, economists, psychologists, militarists, social reformers, cultural commentators, legalists, and bloggers from all walks of life attempting to sell us very different ideas regarding what is right and wrong for us as individuals and collectively. Going to war, making money, punishing lawbreakers, pursuing terrorists, righting past colonial wrongs, exploiting the planet’s natural resources, exploiting genetic technologies, addressing mass starvation and impoverishment—each of these issues raises complex moral questions. Many of us grapple with these complexities by trying to reduce what happens in the world to simple, easily comprehended formulas. But none of these questions is simple, none is easily comprehended, and none can be answered simply or easily.

We are each citizens, living in communities and cultures that accept particular
moral values. But we are also individuals. As such, we are each responsible for our own decisions. So in order to become conscious moral beings the onus is on each of us to think through, for ourselves, what moral values we should live by. In this respect, being moral requires us to become introspective, because we need to decide what our values are before we can act on them.

Aristotle called human beings rational animals. Undeniably, our ability to think through problems and to find working solutions has led to the scientifically and technologically dominated environments we have made for ourselves. But rational thought also involves thinking abstractly. And abstract thought provides us with a way to travel across time, to project ourselves into the past and future, and to see what is not present—but that could be.

Our rationality has made it possible for us to create intricate networks of thought that allow us to consider what we are, to reflect on where we stand on the surface of this planet and in the vastness of the cosmos, and to prod and wonder at what we don’t know. We can’t help ourselves. Our very ability to think rationally, which is a function of our brain’s cognitive capacities, compels us to investigate and speculate.

However, beyond Aristotle’s definition of human beings as rational animals is our tendency to spiritualize. We think of ourselves as more than just another animal fighting for a place in the world, as more than merely the product of our environment, as more than an animal that lives for a few decades then vanishes into oblivion. No matter whether the urge is innate or a socialized response to our environment, over the millennia human beings have consistently demonstrated a compulsion to conceive of transcendent values that exist beyond our animal selves, values on which we develop into moral concepts.

Obviously, our need to moralize is intimately linked to the fact that we are social beings. We don’t choose moral values in isolation; we choose them to better live with each other in the world. But our natural tendencies to rationalize and spiritualize underpin the way we moralize.

Rationality and morality are linked because it is only after weighing consequences that we decide whether an action is right or wrong. (If we respond automatically, without weighing consequences, it is because we apply the result of other people’s reflections to the situation we face, i.e. we have let others do our thinking for us.)

Morality also reflects the idea that we should live in accordance with values that extend beyond the purely biological aspects of our existence. These values are intertwined with the spiritualization of our lives. Clearly, our spiritualizing tendency reflects the process of socialization, which gives us the feeling that we exist in spheres of activity that widen progressively from our body, to our family, to our community, to our nation, to our species, to our planet, to our solar system, and beyond. Yet these are spheres which we do not just occupy and exploit. They are also aspects of our lives towards which we consider we have a moral responsibility.

The ways we both spiritualize our feelings of social responsibility, and use rational thought to establish moral values, underpins this examination of morality. While many other aspects of our shared existence necessarily contribute to our sense of what morality is and how it impacts on our lives, this book focuses on the way we philosophize and spiritualize, and how we use them both to create the moral concepts and values that we apply in our lives.

Of course, counterbalancing this view of morality is the cold, hard reality of what we human beings actually do to each other.
Human beings around the globe exhibit at best an unthinking disregard, and at worst a callous disdain, not just for their fellow human beings, but for all species of life. Indeed, many people use spirituality (in the form of religion), and rationalization (in the form of self and economic justification), as weapons with which to harm their fellow beings rather than progress our interlaced lives.

It is a commonplace that making a community and its citizens truly more moral, just, and “good” would stop much of this “bad” and its resulting suffering from occurring. Yet how can we achieve this goal? And, really, how many of us know what moral values all nations should adopt in order to
actually achieve a more moral, just, and good world?

Some argue that making the world better is just a matter of establishing the right rules and paying enough law enforcement officers to ensure our fellow citizens adhere to them. Does this then mean that morality should consist of making lists of rules and not compromising on enforcing them? Others say morality is a matter of choice, and that each individual citizen should be free to make his or her own decision on what is good or bad. Where, then, should the moral criteria come from that we use to decide what is good or bad? From ourselves? From family? From social conventions? From conscience? From God?

This brings us to the question of what should be the basis of morality in today’s world. Should we just live and let live? Or are there definite values that can help us define what truly is right and wrong?

These are all questions that are considered in this book. Because globalization is bringing all nations and cultures closer together, we urgently need to learn how to live peacefully, tolerantly, and justly with billions of our fellow human beings. In what follows I consider the ideas that underpin our assumptions about morality. I examine their development and how that has shaped our ideas about morality. I pay particular attention to morality in religious and historical contexts, balancing the idea of moral values as absolutes against relativist values and a developmental view of being moral.

My aim in what follows is to find a moral yardstick that is relevant to us today, living in the modern world, that we can use to guide us collectively into the future, as wiser, more tolerant, more compassionate, more spiritual, and more moral beings.