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Who Is My Neighbour?

By John Scales Avery

03 March, 2016

Are we losing the human solidarity that will be needed if our global society is to solve the pressing problems that are facing us today? Among the symptoms of loss of solidarity is the drift towards violence, racism and aggressive foreign policy that can be seen in the United States. Another warning symptom is the inhospitable reception that refugees have received in Europe and elsewhere.


Human emotional nature evolved over the long prehistory of our species, when our remote ancestors lived small tribes, competing for territory on the grasslands of Africa. Since marriage within a tribe was much more frequent than marriage outside it, each tribe was genetically homogeneous, and the tribe itself, rather than the individual, acted as the unit upon which the forces of natural selection acted. Those tribes that exhibited internal solidarity, combined with aggression towards competing tribes, survived best. Over a long period of time, tribalism became a hard-wired part of human nature. We can see tribalism today in the emotions involved in football matches, in nationalism, and in war.

The birth of ethics

When humans began to live in larger and more cosmopolitan groups, it was necessary to overwrite some elements of raw human emotional nature. Tribalism became especially inappropriate, unless the scope of the perceived tribe could be extended to include everyone in the enlarged societies. Thus ethical principles were born. It is not just a coincidence that the greatest ethical teachers of history lived at a time when the size of cooperating human societies was being enlarged.

All of the major religions of humanity contain some form of the Golden Rule. Christianity contains an especially clear statement of this central ethical principle: According to the Gospel of Luke, after being told that he must love his neighbour as much as he loves himself, a man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”. Jesus then replies with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which we are told that our neighbour need not be a member of our own tribe, but can live far away and can belong to a completely different nation or ethnic group. Nevertheless, that person is still our neighbor, and deserves our love and care.

The central ethical principle which is stated so clearly in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is exactly what we need today to avoid disaster. We must enlarge our loyalties to include the whole of humanity. We must develop a global ethic of comprehensive human solidarity, or else perish from a combination of advanced technology combined with primitive tribalism. Space-age science is exceedingly dangerous when it is combined with stone-age politics.

The need for global solidarity comes from the instantaneous worldwide communication and economic interdependence that has resulted from advanced science and technology. But advanced technology, our almost miraculous ability to communicate through the Internet, Skype and smartphones, could weld the world into a single peaceful and cooperative unit. But we must learn to use global communication as a tool for developing worldwide human solidarity.

Each week, all over the world, congregations assemble and are addressed by their leaders on ethical issues. But all too often there is no mention of the astonishing and shameful contradiction between the institution of war (especially the doctrine of “massive retaliation”), and the principle of universal human brotherhood, loving and forgiving one’s enemies, and returning good for evil.

At a moment of history, when the continued survival of civilization is in doubt because of the incompatibility of war with the existence of thermonuclear weapons, our religious leaders ought to use their enormous influence to help to solve the problem of war, which is after all an ethical problem.












John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at avery.john.s@gmail.com



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