Archives for posts with tag: human nature

There is a fairly cynical worldview out there called Psychological Egoism. What this means is that every human action, regardless of how altruistic, can only be motivated by some kind of personal gain. A common example is the story of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, saving a pig stuck in some mud, and then explaining afterward that he would have been bothered all day had he left the pig stuck in its predicament. It’s probably not a factual depiction of history, but it gets the point across.

Some go further than the uncomfortable feeling one might possess if they had not rescued a pig in distress. Complete self-sacrifice, such as throwing oneself onto a grenade in order to save one’s peers, has been argued to be selfishly oriented as well. The story goes that the person is of such a disposition that the life they would have led had they not sacrificed themselves would be less agreeable than death. It is a selfish act because they choose for themselves the less painful of the two options. The introspection and regret would have been too much, and so to avoid that personal suffering, they selfishly kill themselves, saving everyone else.

Charming, right? Such a lovely mentality.

I want to take a different approach. Since those who argue for humanity’s inherent selfishness look to the altruistic paragons in order to tear them down, I’m going to look at the most selfish behaviour, and see if I can’t argue that it is inherently selfless. Since I want to look at the worst of the worst, I will of course be examining the Trump family.

The Eric Trump Foundation’s charity golf tournament, which raises money for children with cancer, falsely tells its donors that 100% of their donations go to charity. Eric Trump alleges that his father Donald allows them use of his golf course for free, when in reality, the Trump organization charges them for everything, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars “donated” by unsuspecting philanthropists. Surely this must be a selfish act!

Eric Trump connives and takes advantage of cancerous children for the sake of his family. He has no interest in himself, but spreads the wealth that he steals from charity to the people he cares about most. He would risk his name being dragged through the mud, vilified for his deeds, in order to bring in extra money for the only people that matter to him.

Now you might think, the Trump family already has enough. As president, Donald is seeking to eliminate the only taxes that he appears to have to pay! Surely they do not need the extra cash. Yet I expect that the Trump family believes that they would make better use of any funds given to them, bettering the world by making sure that those who best know how to utilize money are the ones given the opportunity to do so.

Those who routinely decry taxation as theft, who would rather spend less on the property tax on their vacation home, do so because they believe that they know how to spend their money better than some government. They believe firmly that the world would be better off if they had the choice on whether the money they earned sends poor children to school or buys a second vacation home, rather than have that decision made for them.

The natural human lifespan necessarily requires altruism. Leaving a legacy, preparing a dynasty, we as individuals always leave this mortal coil, which means that a portion of our life is inherently dedicated to who and what we leave behind, but let’s say that Donald Trump was not going to bequeath his vast wealth to his children when he dies. Let’s say, after he has stolen so much from so many, he burns it all, rather than dispersing it to anyone, loved ones or otherwise. This would obviously be because he believed that the world would be improved without this money in it. Why else would he burn it if he didn’t believe the world would be better off?

Every act we take is based on helping the ones we love (even if it negatively impacts others), and improving the world based on the personal standards that we hold it to. Even if others might disagree on those standards, we cannot help but abide by our own.

Perhaps you might think my examples far-fetched. The Trump family is a difficult sell as decent human beings of any sort. Yet my story is just as plausible as the soldier jumping on a grenade for selfish reasons. We can come up with speculation to justify or betray any behaviour.

In all honesty, there are certainly selfish behaviours, just as there are selfless ones. Trying to confine the complexity of humanity into one is just as absurd as confining it to the other. How we judge and perceive the actions of others is more determined by what story we are willing to tell. If someone perceives every action as selfish, I believe that speaks greater volumes about the accuser than it does about our human nature.

Advertisements

Since pop culture seems to generate page views, I’m going to make a reference to a graphic novel that is almost 30 years old, but don’t worry because it has a film adaptation from only six years ago. I am nothing if not topical and relevant here at Blog for Chumps. I refer of course to Watchmen. If you haven’t read/watched it in the time that it has been around, then I sincerely doubt you care that I’m about to spoil it for you.

Anyway, the premise is that humanity is about to kill itself. It’s set during the Cold War era, and it is assumed that America and Russia are going to nuke the shit out of one another. This story is actually super philosophical in its telling, and each character represents a different outlook on human nature. However, the unifying principle is that mankind is a savage beast, and the characters can only act with that principle to guide them. The Comedian embraces the savagery, and revels in the chaos and violence that naturally occurs in society. Rorschach uses the savagery against itself, hoping to use fire to quell the flames. Ozymandias realizes that nothing can actually stop the barbarity of humanity, and so he devises a plot to use it to secure peace: he utilizes the Us vs. Them conflict mentality and creates an outside hostile force (how he personifies that force depends on your medium) that unites humanity against it. Hilariously, the character representing God is only ever a puppet of the government or the ego-maniacal power monger.

Must we accept this basic premise, though? Are we naught but savages? There is a theory that says that life is not based upon conflict but on symbiosis. Natural ecosystems function because each individual species plays a specific and significant role in its upkeep. Predators and prey can never overwhelmingly succeed over the other because of a mutual need to survive, and so when life is in balance, they don’t. Even human beings are covered in tiny microorganisms which call us their home, without whom we would perish pretty much instantly. If life is based on symbiosis, then interdependence would be our natural modus operandi instead of conflict. Human beings today, and throughout history, attempt to reject this natural way of life, and this is why we live in conflict both with the world and ourselves. The basic premise of Taoism teaches similar ideology of not straying into discord by maintaining our natural selves. There are also many examples of pre-civilization humans and aboriginal tribes who lived in harmony with nature and were able to function on egalitarian basis, and it was only with the advent of agriculture, and therefore the accumulation of wealth, that humanity began its downward spiral into jackassery.

I mean, this might make it seem obvious that a communist revolution would ultimately lead to peace and goodwill among men. Get rid of accumulated wealth, and the discord will disappear. However, I don’t think it’s as easy as that. As early as Plato’s Republic have people been aware that material wealth leads to corruption and oppression. Possibly even earlier, I don’t know. That’s just the earliest book I’ve read that mentions it. If we knew of the problem over 2500 years ago and it still seems to be around, perhaps it hints at our natural disposition towards it.

I was once told that capitalism was a relatively recent construction, and therefore its hold over society was not as tenable as our one percenters would try to assure us that it is. It’s true enough; Wealth of Nations only came out in 1776, and deregulated Capitalism 2.0 was only as recent as Reaganomics. But if you recognize capitalism as the relationship between politicians, wealthy business owners, and everyone else, you would realize there have been rulers, aristocrats, and plebeians since the dawn of civilization, and the only differences throughout history have been how those three groups interact.

Capitalism is power over others gained by the acquisition of monetary wealth. In Soviet Russia, power was gained by political clout. In medieval Catholicism it was measured in spirituality. Throughout most of history it has been measured in the quantity of land. Hell, even in high school power over others is based on popularity; the accumulation of social status. We seem to create hierarchies in all aspects of our social culture, at every period in time, which lends credence to the argument that there will always be some form of oppression in our midst. Even if we somehow manage to create an egalitarian, harmonious society, all it would take would be one individual to disrupt and fracture it and the cycle would begin anew. As much social progress as Shah Akbar created as the ruler of India or Caesar Augustus in Rome, it was only a few generations before it all went to shit.

Niccolò Machiavelli points out that the goals of the aristocracy are always to increase their lot in life, and the goals of the people are simply not to be oppressed, to live out their lives unencumbered by the machinations of the elite. It is up to the rulers to decide how that dichotomy will play out, and rulers are not always good ones.

Is human existence as simple as a dualism between two factions to be refereed by an overseeing body? The proletariat and the bourgeoisie is but one example, but there are many. Criminals versus law enforcement. Men versus women. Young versus old. Black versus white.

In Ancient Greece, we coined the word ‘barbarian’ which meant someone who wasn’t Greek. ‘Barbarian’ comes from the strange ‘bar-bar’ language that outsiders would speak. This xenophobic blanket term carries on even today, when we have words like the pejorative Yid to denote someone of Yiddish descent, or Chink to ridicule the speech of the Chinese with their strange ‘bar-bar’ language. Nigger simply means black, making something as trivial as the tint of one’s skin to be one of the most significant aspects of their lives. Even my titular ‘savage’ comes from a slur for the “uncivilized” natives that European explorers found in the new world.

This Us versus Them dualistic conflict is of course overly simplistic. There are always players on the fringes that choose not to be involved, or barter for cooperation, or switch teams, or whatever, but it seems that majority of people in one group with their own culture, mores and beliefs will inherently reject or oppress those in another. These groups could be class, race, religion, gender, sports team, gaming console, favourite Quentin Tarantino movie…

Gay marriage was just legalized in the United States, and yet, the acceptance of Muslims is decreasing at an alarming rate. From my own experience, I saw this:

The views expressed in this image are not necessarily shared by the author of this post.

 

 

 

 

 

about a month ago walking down the street. We can all think that love will conquer all until we realize that that puts us into conflict with those who disagree, and there will always be those who disagree. Even relativism assumes absolutely that relativism is the proper method of thought.

This… this is why I’m cynical. Do we really need a Them to unify us as an Us? Machiavelli tells us that the quickest way to unite warring factions within a city is to attack it. Well, warns us, really; this is told in the context of whether or not it would be a good time to invade. Does that make Ozymandias correct? Is world peace only achievable by some outside, imminently hostile and powerful force? Bertrand Russell in his book The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism points out that a discrepancy in wealth is tolerable so long as everyone has enough. Is that really the best we can hope for if no egalitarian society is possible? Must we be satisfied with “good enough” if the perfect utopia is truly unattainable outside of more conflict?

Charles Eisenstein is a contemporary thinker that is a proponent of the “life as symbiosis” argument that I explained earlier. He argues that we don’t rape and pillage our neighbour not because of the laws in place that tell us we shouldn’t, but because we naturally are against that type of practice. Which again is true, for most people, but there will always be exceptions and it is those exceptions that have to be regulated in order for society to function as best as it can; be it a rapist, a capitalist, or an inquisitor. Life may be symbiotic and interdependent in nature, as the example of a functioning ecosystem clearly shows, but that does not mean that the species within that ecosystem will necessarily exude that characteristic. Typical prey animals without a predator will without fail over-consume to the point of self-caused extinction (you could argue that humans getting rid of the predators would make it our fault, but we didn’t force the deer into overpopulation once all the wolves were gone), and that could just be the perfect metaphor for our human achievement. Maybe the reason early tribes were equitable societies was because they had predators to keep them in line, and now we’re just unhunted squirrels hoarding our nuts because we’re biologically-inclined to think that the winter frost is on its way.

I am not one to endorse biotruths of any kind, so please keep in mind that my last few examples are conjecture at best.

Nietzsche describes human nature as the Will to Power; Freud describes it as the Will to Eros/Thanatos; Sartre, the Will to Freedom; Frankl’s Will to Meaning; and Schopenhauer’s Will. Each thinker in their observations of humanity makes valid points towards the disposition of our being, and in all likelihood a single Will to Anything is probably untrue. Human beings are complex, if nothing else, and an amalgamation of many of their ideas is probably closest to the truth. Even if one drive is stronger in one individual than another, those drives will always exist. Is it possible to overcome them, however? Could we potentially evolve, if not biologically, then socially to the point where regulatory bodies keep our less desirable natures at bay? Is it even a worthwhile goal to stymie ourselves in such a way?

I’m not really sure this post has much of a point outside of venting my cynicism to hopefully subjugate it to my Sisyphean idealism. It’s not really working. We are naught but savages, and I think the best we can do is recognize that aspect of ourselves, and work it into whatever world peace plans we come up with. Anarchy is clearly out.

There is a fairly common belief that part of the basic nature of humanity involves some amount of selfishness. That, instinctively, people will look out for number one, and when it really counts, will leave their fellow man behind. This allows things like Capitalism and Liberalism, with their heavy emphasis on individuality and striving to raise oneself over others, to become bio-truths. When the paradigm of the day declares selfishness to be a part of who we are, the exploitation and oppression that arise from it become even more difficult to fight and overcome. If one despot is overthrown, for example, another will simply take his place as that is how our basic chemistry makes us.

Is it true? Are we naturally selfish? I am but a humble blog writer with no relevant credentials, but I would disagree with this assertion. The belief that we would naturally be selfish is based on the idea that self-preservation would allow our ancestors to make sure they weren’t eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. They only had to outrun the person they were with to survive, after all.

It is of course impossible to know for certain what makes up our biological impulses compared to what is nurtured into us, but I believe there is evidence even today that disproves selfishness as a part of our nature. The easiest place to look to see if self-preservation prevails is a place where human beings are being threatened with death every day. So let’s look at war.

The book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman tells us that the utmost fear of a rookie recruit going in to battle is the fear of dying. However, the greatest fear of soldiers who have seen combat is letting their comrades down. The conditioning of soldiers is intended to strip them of their humanity until they are unfeeling killing machines, and this typically works. However, basic instincts would remain, and what we see by those who have faced the opportunity to either embrace their allegedly selfish nature, or stick with their friends, is that they almost always stick with their friends. Those who are ignorant of the ways of war maintain the selfish fear of personal death likely due to the common cultural belief that we are inherently selfish individuals, but those who have lived it show that the true instinct lies in our connection with others.

This phenomenon doesn’t just appear in war. Parents on welfare will frequently go without food so that their child will be able to eat. When the situation becomes dire, it seems that our instinct is to take care of those that we love, not abandon them in order to save ourselves.

So… cool? Most people associate selfishness with “bad” anyway, so why am I bothering to disprove it as a bio-truth? Because when we see it as a part of who we are, it seems almost necessary that greed and corruption permeate all levels of our culture. To strike back becomes futile, and the common trend is to join in and try to survive as best you can. We even have philosophies based on selfishness that are wildly successful. To achieve happiness, don’t change the world, change the way you look at the world. Reality is based on our perception and experience, and if one focuses solely on the way they perceive things, they would be able to achieve whatever they want: within the realm of their own existence.

But our reality is not the only reality. Each reality shares an interconnected dependence on all the realities of all the individuals around it. Think of it as a a lake, and every action we take is a stone dropping into the water, creating a ripple. If everyone throws in a stone, each ripple overlaps with all the others, influencing the pattern on the surface. We are not individuals, we are individuals within a community, and to ignore that is detrimental to both the community as well as the individual.

So if our basic instinct is to embrace our love, why is there selfishness? The entire premise of Grossman’s book is to look at what enables one human to kill another, and I believe the conditions that allow us to kill allow us to perform all manner of terrible things upon each other, and I look at this premise more in depth in my blog post here. I also believe that what we call empathy, or our ability to perceive the experiences of others through our own personal lens (oftentimes to the detriment of that other) allows us to act selfishly without recognizing the consequences of our actions as damaging to others.

How do we fight the selfishness that appears to be overpowering our culture? Foster the interconnected in our communities, listen instead of assume, disable the conditions that perpetuate both figurative and literal violence, and above all else know that deep down we are creatures of love. Expand the circle of that love to include more than just family and friends, and a difference will be made.