Humanization and Dehumanization

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To humanize is to engage with the human. In many instances this involves actions or constructions to accommodate the limits or needs of human beings, as in the "humanization of science and technology." While science and technology have themselves been extolled as humanizing the world, they have also been criticized as in need of humanization—that is, as dehumanizing. Indeed, it is the negative concept that is in more common use and has emerged to play important roles in at least four areas: psychology, theology, art, and social criticism.

Psychology, Theology, and Art

In social psychology dehumanization is defined as the process by which one person or group views others as not worthy of humane treatment. The dehumanization of enemies is common in personal conflict, civil strife, and warfare—and in the case of large-scale warfare perhaps even unavoidable. Extreme dehumanization leads to crimes against humanity and acts of genocide such as the Holocaust, where even technicians and other "innocent" German citizens were culpable in the dehumanization of victims. There are two types of dehumanizing agents here: those who actually commit the crimes and those who passively conform and silently witness them. In both cases, the act of characterizing others as less than human may serve as a coping mechanism to dampen the psychological effects of mass cruelty. The use of dehumanizing names to disparage others is not confined to extreme or fringe situations, however. Such disparaging language can also be found in mainstream elements of society including laws, magazine articles, and scientific journals (Brennan 1995). Research in conflict resolution and peace studies promotes techniques for the rehumanization of enemies (Stein 1996).

Psychological analyses of dehumanization have described it as a process by which individuals or groups project their own faults onto opponents. Dehumanization in this sense is thus a generalization of the scapegoat phenomenon (Girard 1986), which plays an important role in Christian theology. Moreover, in part because of the Enlightenment claims for the humanizing character of science and technology as opposed to the dehumanizing character of religion, religious and theological discussions have developed extended arguments for religion as a humanizing factor in human affairs. For example, Barbara Rumscheidt (1998) argues that the development of socially engaged Christian faith communities can counteract the dehumanizing effects of globalizing capitalism.

Two specific religious contexts in which the question of humanization has taken form are in Marxist-Christian dialogues and liberation theology. In both these cases the problematic of scientific and technological development is also important. For example, the roots of liberation theology stem in part from industrial development in Latin America, which benefited some but marginalized and impoverished others. Subsequent ecclesiastical developments addressed the question of how economic and technological modernization can promote genuine human progress for all.

José Ortega y Gasset (1925) used the concept of dehumanization to characterize art in the early twentieth century, which by abandoning traditions of romanticism and realism, deformed reality and shattered its merely human aspect. In avant garde art, all that is real, natural, and human is purged in favor of purely artistic elements—which, for Ortega, is actually a good thing. Dehumanization in this context is an aristocratic revolt against the industrial massification of culture, an effort to break through to a higher form of civilization, anticipating subsequent notions of post- and transhumanization.

Criticizing Science and Technology

Ortega was also one of the first philosophers to address both the humanizing and dehumanizing aspects of technology. For Ortega technology is an integral part of being human, but by overwhelming human beings with means to transform the world modern technology can undermine the more central human attributes of imagination and intentionality. As if reflecting Ortega's notion, social criticism of science and technology has tended to bemoan both unrealized possibilities and popular acquiescence to inertial trajectories in technoscientific development. Indeed, according to Carl Mitcham (1984), the question of humanization is one of the most broad and synthetic themes in the critical examination of technology. In what ways, and to what extent, do science and technology promote or obstruct human well being? In terms of the individual, this is an ethical question; in terms of social institutions it is a political one.

Three key arguments for science and technology as humanizing forces are as follows. First, science is a natural expansion of human knowledge that promotes material progress as well as intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. This dual humanizing quality of science was famously portrayed by novelist C.P. Snow's "two cultures" argument, in which scientific intellectuals are viewed as more humane than their literary intellectual counterparts.

Second, science has a normative structure that reciprocally reinforces democratic principles and practices, according to sociologist Robert Merton, scientist Michael Polanyi, philosopher Karl Popper, and others. Since the Enlightenment, the structures of the republic of science have often been presented as models for civil society.

Third, technology humanizes by freeing human beings from disease and other burdens of nature. Economist Julian Simon, for instance, has been an outspoken advocate of the view that technology has increased human prosperity and well-being and will continue to do so as long as humans are allowed to freely develop and deploy it. A collateral argument is that computers and artificial intelligence humanize not just nature by placing it under human control but the world of artifice as well by overcoming the limits of machines and making them more human-like.

In opposition there are also three key arguments for science and technology as dehumanizing forces. First, scientific knowledge is said to alienate humans from the natural, organic, or lived experience. Behaviorist psychology and rational actor theories in the social sciences reduce humans to bundles of calculations and reactions. More generally, Edmund Husserl, in analyzing how the sciences interact with the "life world," warned that modern science arose on the basis of a great forgetting of the immediate, which played out in a parallel amnesia in the human sciences (Rajan 1997).

Second, technology creates an artificial world that is even more burdensome than nature. Some versions of this argument lament the spiritual disease and the feelings of anomie and powerlessness engendered by the modern, Western world (for example, Montagu and Matson 1983, Ryan 1972). Technology has increased the tempo of life to a frantic pace and the massification of production processes and media images produce the foreboding by Ralph Waldo Emerson that "Things are in the saddle,/And ride mankind." Indeed social theorist Jacques Ellul argues that technique has shifted from success in the material world toward a broad spectrum of human activities from education to politics, art, and even ethics—each of which it transforms into a technical process aiming at some form of efficiency. For radical educational theorist Paulo Freire (1970), such dehumanization becomes perfected when it is welcomed rather than shunned, and rehumanizing begins by raising consciousness of one's less-than-human existence.

Third, the conquest of nature and the transformation of the social world leads to the conquest of human nature—and thereby its destruction. This argument, as advanced, for instance, by the literary scholar, novelist, and lay theologian C.S. Lewis, has been revised and deepened by, among others, intellectual historian John Hoberman and science policy philosopher Leon Kass. For Hoberman (1992), the use of drugs to enhance performance raises fundamental issues about the structure of human activity and the connection between performance and effort. For Kass, "Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and neuropsychic 'enhancement,' for wholesale redesign" (2002, p. 4). What is most disturbing about this situation, which was foreshadowed in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), is not the lack of freedom or equality, but the dehumanization and degradation of people who choose "nothing humanly richer or higher"—a fate that may emerge in regimes of individualist democratic consumerism more than totalitarian control.


As this third critique of technology demonstrates, judgments of both humanization and dehumanization are necessarily based on visions of human nature. They are related to notions of humanism that likewise involve assessments of the character and influence of science and technology. As such, the concepts of humanization and dehumanization fail as primary ethical concepts for the judgment of science and technology, although they often figure in popular discussions as summary presentations of more fundamental views.

Cultural and philosophical visions of human nature can even create fundamentally opposed understandings of humanization and dehumanization. For example, some philosophical anthropologies envision humans as radically circumscribed by the limits of mortality and futility. From this perspective, dehumanization may occur when such limits are drastically altered or surpassed. Other treatments of human nature characterize humans as self-making beings with unbounded potentialities. From this perspective, the imposition or voluntary submission to certain limits could be regarded as dehumanizing acts.


SEE ALSO Critical Social Theory; Dignity; Human Nature; Human Rights; Weil, Simone.


Brennan, William. (1995). Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives. Chicago: Loyola University Press. Examines the use and effect of disparaging language in several contexts.

Freire, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Seabury Press. Presents a radical educational theory that criticizes the "banking" model of education and argues for a reduction in the teacher-pupil dichotomy.

Girard, René. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. French original 1982.

Hoberman, John M. (1992). Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport. New York: Free Press. Explores social and philosophical implications of enhancement therapies in sports.

Kass, Leon. (2002). Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity. San Francisco: Encounter Books. Presents a "richer bioethics" to deal with issues of humanization and dehumanization raised by biomedical technologies.

Mitcham, Carl. (1984). "Philosophy of Technology." In A Guide to the Culture of Science, Technology, and Medicine, ed. Paul T. Durbin. New York: Free Press, pp. 282–363 and 672–675. See especially the section titled "Toward a Synthesis: The Question of Humanization," pp. 339–344.

Montagu, Ashley, and Floyd Matson. (1983). The Dehumanization of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill. A cultural critique that articulates the psychological and social ills produced by modernity.

Ortega, José y Gasset. (1925). La deshumanización del arte. Ideas sobre la novella. Madrid: Revista de Occidente. English translation: The Dehumanization of Art: And Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Rajan, Sundara R. (1997). The Humanization of Transcendental Philosophy: Studies on Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. New Delhi: Tulika. An analysis of the problematic of humanization and its consequences for science, language, and philosophy.

Rumscheidt, Barbara. (1998). No Room for Grace: Pastoral Theology and Dehumanization in the Global Economy. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans. Offers avenues of action for religious communities to transform dehumanizing economic realities.

Ryan, John Julian. (1972). The Humanization of Man. New York: Newman Press. A cultural critique that diagnoses causes of dehumanization and offers an alternative way of life to humanize modern society.

Stein, Janet Gross. (1996). "Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution." In Managing Global Chaos, ed. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, pp. 93–111.