Whatever your origin myth, there is an over-arching concept that defines humans. We are members of the animal kingdom and share the common characteristics of animated life. The purpose of human life is the same as the purpose of any other form of life on this planet and, presumably, beyond. That purpose is to make more human life. We can, and most do, identify individual sub-purposes for our own lives. For all species, however, the concept of propagation involves more than a simple reproductive strategy. It also involves manipulating the environment to make it more hospitable for future generations. Even the earthworm burrowing into the dirt is constructing shelter and a place to safeguard new life. The roots of plants break up the earth to allow their seeds to take hold and grow. Species develop camouflage, teeth and claws, venom, and a myriad of other techniques all designed to assure the production and sustenance of new life.
For humans, the most sophisticated of animals on this planet, part of that innate reproductive strategy has resulted in an inexorable push to improve the human condition. The individual purpose of each human, to generate wealth, to care for the helpless, to feed the hungry, to discover cures for disease, to shepherd a flock, provides gratification and comfort to us. For me, life would be individually pointless without a service component. For others, there are equally important individual concepts that give their life meaning. But as we look at ourselves through the prism of history we can see the erratic, sometimes bumbling, often conflicting, forward movement to improve the quality of human life. We have certainly suffered some significant setbacks along the way, but always the long view is forward.
I do not see, even in this optimistic view, a universal morality. While there are certain behaviors we can generally agree to be “good” or “bad”, even the most basic principles such as those expressed in the 10 Commandments are relative. Thou shalt not kill comes with a whole host of exceptions and caveats, as does honor your mother and father and every other guiding principle. The Abrahamic tradition does not hold exclusive right to moral thought. The Upanishads, the teachings of Buddha, the spiritualism of the First Americans and virtually all other attempts to explain the mysteries of the universe and to order the behavior of humans are attempts to improve the ability of our children to survive and grow in an ever-changing world. The ability to recognize conflicting ideas and to synthesize a creative thought, the ability to examine one’s own behaviors and affect change, the concept of individualized thought…these are the elements of critical thinking. This is not new or modern. It is what humans have been doing since we’ve been humans. The ability to convert a rock into a sharpened tool to skin an animal is critical thinking at its most elemental. Socrates claimed, and I support the idea, that the unexamined life is not worth living. Following any set of rules without considering the alternatives does not move us forward. It locks us into the past with an unhealthy reliance on the rule giver and a resistance to change, even in the face of a newly discovered truth.