The short answer is a resounding ‘NO!’ The long answer takes a bit longer to formulate, but here goes. Humanity does have redeeming features, or virtues, if you like – of course it does. The human species is a very creative bunch. Humans created the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the buildings which are now the Zimbabwe ruins, the rock paintings in Africa and other continents, and ethereal music, such as Léo Delibes’s ‘Flower Duet’, from his opera, Lakmé – music so ethereal it is hard to believe that a human being composed it.

This is not all. Human beings are capable of kindness and love, and acts of kindness and love – although, observing the behaviour of some, you’d be forgiven for seriously doubting this – as the many charitable acts that take place around the world towards other people, and towards animals, on a daily basis, demonstrate. In some individuals this is so pronounced that they become known as ‘saints’ – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who loved all of nature so much that he spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister. I have known a few people in my life who would pass as ‘saints’ of sorts because of their irrepressible kindness, and I am sure that goes for many of us.

BUT – on the other side of the scoreboard there are the opposite of redeeming features, the vices of humankind. And I cannot, for the life of me, see any sign that the redeeming features, or virtues of our species are anywhere near to reining in, let alone eradicate, these vices. Quite to the contrary – the vices are definitely winning, if one is honest with oneself, and if you look carefully around you; not only in your immediate vicinity, but globally.

What I mean is this. I am sure that most of us can name a bully or two, or a mean-spirited person of either sex in our family, or at work. But look further afield if you want to understand my claim that, on the whole, the virtues of humankind are not sufficient to prevent the vices from continuing their destructive work. Think of the many women and young girls in the world who are abused by men, sometimes as sex slaves, and sometimes in this capacity while being drugged to ensure their docile cooperation. Or think of the thousands of people who have been, and are still, persecuted because of their sexual orientation, their race, or their religious convictions. Or the other way round in the latter case, where fanatical religious convictions impel some people to wage terror campaigns against others. Or think about the exploitation of poor people by the wealthy, such as the workers from Eastern countries who work for a mere pittance in cities like Dubai and Doha.

But let me be more specific. Take, for instance, the blustering (but dangerous) fool in North Korea, as well as his counterpart, the other blustering fool in the US – not merely because of their irresponsible war-talk endangering the whole of humanity. That too, but something that is never even mentioned – and this goes for many other fools across the world, too, including some in Russia, in South Korea, and in NATO – is that, every time some or other military exercises are conducted, and when missiles, or nuclear devices are tested, the toll it takes as far as myriad life-forms (in the sea, for instance) are concerned (which counts as ‘collateral damage’) is immeasurable. See what I mean?

Human beings are so obsessed with their own blind lust for power that those with power don’t show an iota of concern for other living creatures on the planet, or for other people, really. When the US conducted 23 nuclear tests at (the inappropriately named) Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, culminating in the detonation of a 15 megatons hydrogen bomb in 1954 (which was so powerful that it actually vaporised three of the twenty-three islands comprising the atoll), one cannot even begin to imagine the degree of destruction of natural habitats in the vicinity accompanying these tests. But no one ever mentions this – what counts is the accumulation of weapons capable of destroying the earth many times over. The US and Russia each has more than 4000 nuclear weapons at their disposal, and they have the cheek to complain if other nations aspire to nuclear status. Don’t get me wrong: every ‘nuclear state’ is one too many. If humans were the rational creatures they claim to be, they would voluntarily destroy all nuclear weapons.

These vices far outweigh the virtues on the part of humanity – and besides, if you doubt my word, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, which here consists in the obvious fact that humanity’s virtues, such as they are, have been quite unable to stop the kinds of things I have listed here from happening. The virtues are completely powerless against the vices; witness the current pope – Pope Francis – frequently appealing to the leaders of the world to heed human suffering, or to stop worshipping money, or to start doing something concrete to slow down global warming. To no avail. And we call them ‘leaders’?

The tug-of-war between virtues and vices seem to be more conspicuous than one sometimes thinks, judging by the way it gets thematised in popular art, specifically cinema. Just to mention two popular films in which this occurs, take the remake of the classic 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) and the recent Wonder Woman (2017). In the first of these a representative of an alien species arrives on Earth to coordinate the ‘Ark’ rescue of specimens of all living creatures in light of the imminent destruction of the planet by the aliens. Why? Because humans have neglected their duties to their planet and its inhabitants egregiously, and they have to pay the price.
However, the female protagonist, a scientist, persuades the alien visitor that humanity is not all bad, by taking him to see a friend of hers, in whose company the alien can discover some of the virtues I listed earlier, such as heavenly music. Convinced, the alien calls off the destruction of the human species to give it another chance.

Do you think this is warranted? I don’t. With the world facing an increasingly uncertain climate future, logging companies are forging ahead with the cutting down of ever-more trees in the priceless rain forests, destroying the lungs of the planet as well as habitats of wild animals. In Brazil, the current president seems, by all accounts, to be one of the greatest culprits in this regard as far as granting permission to do so is concerned.

The second film referred to, the 2017 rendition of Wonder Woman, similarly opts for optimism regarding the human race. After discovering that the ancient god, Aries, is behind the First World War, Diana (Wonder Woman), engages him in a fight to death. At one point he tries to persuade her to join him against the human race instead, so that, together, they can restore the earth to its original paradisiac glory, the way it was before humans started devastating it. With her new-found love for a human, Steve Trevor, fresh in her mind, she refuses, saying that this is not all humans are capable of. As in the alien movie, she wants to give them another chance, so she destroys Aries instead.

Again, such optimism is completely unwarranted. No matter how much one highlights human virtues such as those alluded to, they simply do not match the vices that are slowly but surely destroying this once pristine planet. Everything considered, the redeeming features of our species are simply not enough, or strong enough, to defeat the vices. As guardians of the beautiful blue planet (as seen from space) we have failed dismally in our duty. We truly do not deserve to survive.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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