(I am a conformist in every sense of the word, but, curiously, I like reading about views that question the status quo. The minority view is more interesting. So I thought of writing a few posts against the prevailing individualistic, grasping, violent view of human nature but it became much longer than I expected. I have divided the posts into sub-sections and numbered them 1(a), 1(b), 2(a), 2(b) etc. But it must be remembered that the divisions between different sub-sections are porous.)
Human nature is not nearly as bad as it has been thought to be. — Abraham Harold Maslow
At the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a band of prehistoric hominids has been driven from a water hole by another clan. One of them picks up a bone and realizes that he can wield it as a weapon. He and his band use their newfound power to beat one of the other clan members to death. This violent act enables them get their water hole back and marks the Dawn of Man. He throws the bone up into the sky, where it turns into a satellite orbiting the earth.
One should examine the assumptions behind this story instead of accepting them blindly. Are competition and conflict really the only reason for human progress? The story of how we became human is an important one, not just from a scientific point of view but because it informs our beliefs about human nature. The current belief in self-interest tells us that to behave morally is to invite others to take advantage of us. It shapes what we teach our children, both at home and in the schools.
The dominant views expressed by people around us, the messages we receive from the news media, etc. shape our patterns of thought. These views influence most of our behaviors but they are rarely questioned. If, during a job or performance interview, we are asked to describe ourselves, our answer will very much reflect the dominant expectations of that time. Our appearance, self-perception, and social behaviour are entirely determined by the messages we receive. By encouraging us to expect the worst in others, it brings out the worst in us.
Research has shown that people tend to act according to what they see or hear is the common behaviour. When visitors to a national forest read signs that asked people not to steal petrified wood because a lot of people had stolen wood in the past, theft actually increased. People had concluded that since many had the habit of stealing wood, it was okay for them also to do so. Over 2,500 college students from twenty-three countries, were surveyed and the counties that had higher rates of corruption, tax evasion, and political fraud were also the countries that had higher rates of lying.
You are no longer surprised by accountants validating the books of fraudulent companies or doctors being little more than marketing agents for the pharmaceutical industry. It is common to hear people who are uneasy about the occasional side effects of economic wheeling and dealing being portrayed as namby-pambies just not up to the rigors of the marketplace. As a result of the self-interest model's influence, our bonds of trust have taken a heavy beating in recent years.
Such negative assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life. As our science enters further into the domain of the human heart and mind, we come to see our lives less in terms of joys, virtues, sins, and miseries and more in terms of chemical imbalances, hormones, good moods, and depressions — material problems which can be tackled by technological solutions, not moral challenges with which we must learn to live. As Issac Asimov said, 'The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.'
There are two contrasting views about human behaviour. One school of thought regards humankind as essentially good, and sees it as society’s task to ensure that our benevolent disposition comes to the fore. The other believes humankind to be essentially bad, and wants society to act as a police officer, to curb our evil tendencies as much as possible. One side is highly altruistic, and focused on ‘give and receive’; the other is highly egotistical, and focused on ‘divide and rule'.
The latter view has become dominant today. It results in a mechanistic, fear driven society that can be manipulated. Politics becomes a place where the strongest groups dominate and the weaker pay the costs of defeat or neglect. There is a definite correlation between what humans think of themselves and what they become. Assuming the worst about people often brings out the worst in them without their realizing it. It's a clear case of the old statement - "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist".
According to Hobbs, human life in a state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. It resulted in ‘a condition of war of all against all.’ He assumed that anarchy can be tamed and peace established if we all just agree to relinquish our liberty and put ourselves into the hands of a solitary sovereign who he called after a biblical sea monster: the Leviathan. Hobbes’ thinking provided the basic philosophical rationale for directors and dictators, governors and generals down the ages to grab power. You are often told that ‘knowledge is power’ but it is more true to say that ‘power is knowledge’.
The condition we face is much like that described in Bertolt Brecht's play, The Exception and the Rule. On Brecht's stage a handful of characters wander through a pattern of actions that show a moral universe turned upside down. What is good is made to appear evil; justice and injustice trade places. A coolie attempts to do a good deed. He is killed by his employer who sees the coolie's gesture as a threat from a class enemy. The murderer is placed on trial but is acquitted in a judgment that finds his behavior perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. In his poem The Second Coming, Yeats describes such a situation:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What matters more than the model of human nature that you choose to use is to realize that you have one in the first place, because then you have the power to question and change it. As Keynes once admitted, it was ‘a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression … The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in the old ones which ramify. . . into every corner of our minds.’ Conceptual locks are far more powerful than factual locks.
In the posts that follow, it would appear that I have over-emphasized human cooperation and under-emphasized the competitive and self-aggrandizing aspect of human nature. But the assertions about the negative aspects of human nature have become so common that it was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and human society. Individual self-assertion is something quite different from the petty, unintelligent narrow-mindedness which goes for “individualism” and “self-assertion.”
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