JR'S Free Thought Pages
On Human Nature
by Johnny Reb
“Capitalism is the theory that the worst people, acting from their worst motives, will somehow produce the most good”. – John Maynard Keynes
“The North American Indian had never fully grasped the principle of establishing private ownership of land anymore rational than private ownership of air and water, but he loved and respected the land with a deeper emotion than could any proprietor.” - JR
Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker notwithstanding, there is as yet no good reason to accept an all-encompassing final theory of human nature. Among scientists and philosophers, the jury is still out on the nature v nurture controversy. Certainly no one today who accepts the theories of modern biological science can reject the importance of genetic and hereditary factors in determining who we are. But surely that cannot be the whole story because if it is we’ll be compelled to accept a predominantly deterministic understanding of human behavior in which individuality, free will, personal responsibility and cultural influences are mere chimeras. As both Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould have pointed out, the problem with human nature is that humans would appear to be at once both intensely genetically determined while at the same time much more than this because of our cognitive complexity and the ever-increasing multifarious influences of culture and technology. British political philosopher John Locke who was the originator of the “blank slate” idea, died over three centuries ago in 1704. But it still has its advocates. The major 20th Century proponent of blank slate theory, behaviorist B. F. Skinner, had his own disciples and students eventually turn away from such ideas. Skinner, in a famous debate with Noam Chomsky 50 years ago, had his behaviorist theories exposed as seriously flawed, not only in the debate, but in a book review by Chomsky of one of Skinner’s major publications, Verbal Behavior.
Although I can provide neither compelling evidence not argument for the notion that we are determined more by nurture than nature, this is my bias. How we become who and what we are and especially how we perceive and treat others is based on my own intuitions, thoughts and experiences rather than hard scientific evidence, of which there is no overwhelming volume for either position within the nurture v nature debate. In other words, it’s my contention that how we are nurtured and what we are taught are the predominant factors in determining whether we become community based compassionate and sharing individuals or atomized and selfish hyper-competitive sociopaths. For example, when you find a dog that is mean spirited and behaves badly to other sentient beings you usually only need to determine how that dog was cared for as a puppy. I think in the majority of cases this principle can be equally applied to humans.
Oddly enough, like many other misplaced cultural beliefs, theories about human nature have unfortunately been and continue to be intimately entangled with religious doctrine - specifically that of Christianity. It’s my contention that the generally accepted guilt-ridden Christian doctrine of “original sin” has been one of the primary and unassailable negative forces that have promoted a temperament of human beings that induce them to act irresponsibly and immorally, behaving in ways that are harmful to a both themselves and a civilized society. How often have we heard: “Human nature is just this way or that way”; but most commonly due to religious indoctrination we hear the mantra, “people are just naturally sinful" or "people are naturally selfish and greedy.” We’re informed, especially by those in the business and religious communities, that it's just “human nature'” to want to engage in competition, one-upmanship, to get one over on everybody else. In fact, these are not necessary qualities that are part of some fixed and unchangeable "nature" of human beings but the result of Biblical literalism and free market laissez faire folklore. Unfortunately, the widespread belief in the theological dogma of “original sin” has also been generally accepted within the secular culture, leading to a societal self-fulfilling prophesy. These human inclinations are not only a function of religious indoctrination but a reflection and extension of the production and social relations of the corresponding conservative capitalist culture as a whole, including the political rule, of a system - a system that convinces and compels people into acting in a certain manner. The notion of “sin”, as I have indicated, is a strictly doctrinaire theological notion which by definition is considered “a violation of one of God’s divine commands”. But it’s also a notion void of substance, relevance and scientific validity since, by default, God does not exist. The insidiously effective scapegoating of human nature that claims we are only motivated by covetous, dog-eat-dog, individual self-interest, providing the rationalization for predatory behavior in our capitalist culture of greed, has little or no supporting evidence.
Not surprisingly the Christian notion that we are born “sinful,” selfish and acquisitive lends credibility to the capitalist system as the only viable socio-economic system. So why fight it – it’s a dog-eat-dog world? Although we have been told by some Christians in the past that we ought to “love our neighbor”, that “love of money is the root of all evil” and “the poor shall inherit the earth”, these supplications have throughout history and more powerfully in recent decades, become whispers in the cacophonic gospel of greed and the rants of televangelists who now tell us that “God wants you to be rich.” Sadly, both capitalism and Christianity have become ideological partners, instrumental in the widespread acceptance of presuppositions on how we ought to raise our children in preparing them for the stark reality of an atomized competitive world of exploitation of both the environment and other humans.
Even if this negative pessimistic view of human nature is accepted or even true, why would we not want to at least try to modify people’s behavior by teaching them the sorts of civic virtues that would make it a more civilized and humane world? Instead, we promote the standard creed and people are thereby consistently and continually thrown into competition and even hostility with each other, both by the conscious policies and actions of the conservative ruling class and by the underlying dynamics and workings of the capitalist-imperialist system of exploitation. Since their inception, state-chartered corporations have had such an insatiable appetite for capital exploitation that they set off the vile imperialistic colonization boom and slave trade that has sustained capitalism for centuries - the effects of which are still being felt today. Market economies, as they expanded across the world through imperialism and colonialism, have vigorously absorbed or destroyed other local economies based on cultural and economic models antithetical to the capitalist one. Watching the steady stream of harsh economic news, it's hard to escape the feeling that we're watching a 600-year-old pyramid scheme finally collapse, and we regular working stiffs, including wage earners and small businessmen are the ones who will be stuck with the bill. As I write, Bernie Madoff received his punishment but this sociopathic vulture was just a cog in his wheel of an economy that in itself was a massive Ponzi scheme.
Under such an oppressive global system, even to get a mind destroying job in order to have the means to merely subsist, one is thrown into competition with other people. Sales people are forced to work under commission schemes that discourage cooperation even within the company that employs them. It’s no coincidence that people who work for minimum wage at sweatshops such as Walmart are referred to as “associates”, an Orwellian term designed to perpetuate the notion that your mundane job has status and you are working as a team, and to assuage the reality that you are a wage slave. People who have lost their jobs and homes now shell out thousands of dollars to attend seminars on how to take advantage of the misfortune of others who have also lost their jobs and homes. If you think of your house as an investment used to leverage your way to a better socio-economic milieu rather than a home, there's no reason to care about the neighbors who live on the same block unless they contribute to your bottom line. Of course this state of affairs isn't really news to anyone who's ever picked up a copy of Adbusters, read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, watched the documentary The Corporation or read other works of social-economic commentary like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed.
I would argue therefore that the real competitive marketplace and where real risks and market discipline take place is in the trading in human flesh in the employment market and workplace, not among voracious entrepreneurs. Wage earners are in fact reduced to commodities and through the machinations of the capitalist system this happens in many other ways as well, as it has in previous systems founded on exploitation, domination and oppression of the many by the few. Having a huge supply of workers in order to drive down labor cost by competing with one another has always been the primary objective of the business class. Immigration of cheap labor to undercut the gains of labor and unionization has been the most recent way of dealing with the problem of labor cost for the business class. No one needs a Marxist scholar to inform us of this. Now these same conservative interests that promoted the influx of cheap labor in the first place are complaining about the itinerant immigrant laborers who they claim are milking the system. Yet many employers contribute to this perceived problem by paying cash under the table to these same “illegal aliens.”
These aforementioned practices have characterized human society, not throughout human history, but only since the time that early tribal communal societies had been the prototype and in which private property, profit and acquisitiveness were not culturally inbred norms. Native North American societies, for example, were arguably quasi-anarchist and their religious outlook was based on the idea that all living things had “souls”, were of equal value and that the world was “created” for all insofar as no one individual had a natural right to own property, exploit others within any given community or own more possessions than any other. Rather than greed and competition, at least within their own tribes, cooperation, sharing and a sense of community promoting the common good were the ethical standards. This is not to say that tribes did not compete with one another when resources were scarce and basic survival was at risk. But this communal ethos of mutual aid gave way to and were supplanted by the conquering genocidal Christian Western European societies based on egoism and individualism, the monopoly of wealth (and the means to produce wealth), as well as the monopoly of political power and the intellectual life, by a very small sector of society.
Karl Marx, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, tells us that “the real nature of man is the totality of social relations.” This draws from, and concentrates in a profound way, Marx’s analysis of how, in any given set of circumstances, people in a society enter into relations with each other in order to meet the material requirements of their lives. These relations of production are in turn historically determined and accompanied by certain social relations. They are not chosen freely by the people who enter into them, but are, at any given time, and in any particular society, primarily determined by the character of the prevailing productive forces such as resources, technology and the knowledge base of the people within that society. Arising on the basis of the modes of production that embody the prevailing relations of production there exists a superstructure involving forms of political rule, institutions, ways of thinking and culture that stem from and reinforce the underlying relations of production and the corresponding social relations. Furthermore, and of crucial importance, Marx showed how the development of human society does not consist only in incremental evolutionary change but is driven forward by the constant dialectical interplay between the forces of production and the relations of production, and between the economic base and the political-ideological superstructure.
To a great deal, all this is concentrated in Marx's terse formulation taken from his The Poverty of Philosophy: “All history is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature." And, accordingly, what seems "natural" in one era seems very unnatural in another. Marx made this statement regarding the future of communism - that in some future era, it will seem as ridiculous and outrageous for one person to own one part of the world, as it now seems for one person to own another person. But for thousands of years, it did not seem at all ridiculous and outrageous, at least in terms of the viewpoint of the ruling class and the ruling ideas in society, for one person to own another. Slavery was in fact the driving force behind early capitalism and colonialism. Some people have presented compelling arguments that it still is the driving force behind capitalism, especially when you consider the expectation of surviving on minimum wage and frequent periods of unemployment. Perhaps when we consider the obscene salaries and bonuses raked in by corporate executives, what is needed is a maximum wage. All these things have been deemed “natural” and acceptable, even by those oppressed by the system - it was often deemed "in accordance with human nature" or “God’s will.” “That’s the way it is” as the song by Bruce Hornsby informs us.
In today’s world, when human society has moved to a point where the capitalist mode of production has largely taken hold and the idea and practice of some human beings owning others and exploiting them, outright slavery is not in accord with the accumulation of profit by the “enlightened” capitalist. But capitalism needs a class to exploit that is not literally enslaved and because of the movements of capital and the way in which different capitalists compete and proceed through competition to accumulate more wealth, there are times when it is in their interest to lay off workers. If you buy a slave and you don't get back your initial investment, plus an incremental added value, you will be in trouble on the balance sheet. If you get rid of that slave before you've made back what you've invested in buying the slave, you've lost on your investment. But if you are a capitalist, you don't pay in one lump sum to own somebody - you pay them by the hour, by the day, by the week, or whatever, and as soon as it's not profitable for you to employ them in this way, you let them go and you're not responsible for them any longer. You haven't laid out an investment in advance to buy them, which you have to recoup by working them for a certain period of time. So it's not profitable, generally, under the capitalist mode of production - wherever it has more or less thoroughly taken hold - to buy and own people as slaves, to have considered them as chattels and exploit them in that manner. It's more profitable to be able to hire them and let them go, and have them be more mobile, free to be employed or discharged according to the dictates of market forces. Therefore, according to the "human nature" that corresponds to the contemporary capitalist mode of production, slavery doesn't make sense and is contrary to what's good and right and natural.*
* It is true that capitalism has been able to make use of, and integrate into its overall process of accumulation, exploitation that is carried out in "pre-capitalist" forms, including not only feudalism but outright slavery. It is also true that some forms of slavery continue to exist in the world today and that, in an overall sense, the results of this form of exploitation feed into the overall process of capitalist accumulation, especially on a world scale. But this manner of exploitation is not characteristic of capitalist production and exploitation as such, nor is outright slavery openly advocated and defended as "natural" ("in accordance with human nature") in capitalist society.
All of this is an illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as "human nature" in the sense of some unchangeable essence of human beings (which, however, just happens to conform to whatever, at the time, embodies and serves the prevailing forms of exploitation and oppression). Just as there is no such thing as sin, there is no such thing as "human nature" in the sense in which this is propagated by the dominant class and popularized through its institutions of rule and of molding public opinion. Existentialism, at least the strain espoused by Jean Paul Sartre, I find liberating – a philosophy of freedom and personal accountability. Sartre, writing in German occupied France while working with the French underground, differed from Marx in holding that our nature is not determined by societal constraints, or by anything else. Purpose in this short life is your purpose that must be created and forged for yourself and not that of a non-existent tyrant in the sky or anything else, including the capitalist notion of shopping until you drop dead. Every individual has total freedom in deciding what to do in their lives. It is axiomatic for Sartre, as it was for Nietzsche, that we inhabit a godless universe - a commonsense view, given the paucity and feeble quality of any evidence for the existence of any deity - so that there is no god-given spirit that is distinct from our corporeal selves, and can exist before or after or outside of our earthly lives and provide us with a fixed human nature or transcendent meaning. The “authentic person” provides these things for himself via his own creativity, intelligence and passion. Sartre coined the well-know phrase “existence before essence”, denying the fixity of human nature. We are “condemned to be free” Sartre tells us and I think he put it this way because so many violate their authenticity as persons by handing over their intellectual and moral autonomy to someone or something else, primarily religion, socio-economic and political ideologies invariably espoused by ruling elites. Existentialism is a liberating philosophy of personal responsibility. Sartre’s view is consistent with most anarchist philosophers that anything imposed from an external source, whether God or the State is illegitimate, in “bad faith” and inauthentic. No one died to atone for your “sins” so you are forced to account and accept personal responsibility for every choice you make, moral or otherwise.
Another common evasive strategy is to claim that one was “only following orders” like the Nazi thugs at the Nuremburg trials or ignorant buffoons like George W. Bush who claimed that God instructed him to invade Iraq -lame excuses advanced in order to exonerate all manner of abominable behavior, ranging from the Holocaust to the humiliation and torture of Iraqi prisoners by the US military. These are well-documented crimes, whose perpetrators defend their actions on the grounds that they were only cogs in the wheels of a nefarious superior authority. Sartre insists that orders can never cause us to act against our will: they only have the force or authority with which the agent himself invests in them. The agent always chooses to assent or disobey, to resist or to acquiesce. Several of Sartre’s protagonists in his novels and plays struggle with the dilemma that they chose to obey orders which they felt they ought to disobey, and yet to which they freely and culpably assented. To lie to oneself about the exercise of one’s own freedom and moral discretion is Sartre’s definition of bad faith. So, it flows from Sartre’s first principles that we are embodied consciousnesses, alone in a Godless universe, characterized by freedom, destined to act autonomously and by our own volition, and to be wholly responsible for our actions and therefore open to moral judgment on the basis of them.
The anarchist needs no one to tell him how to think, what he ought to do or how to create a meaningful life. Paternalistic authorities, particularly religion and the state, foster a dehumanized mindset in which people expect bogus authorities and elites to make decisions for them and meet their needs, rather than thinking and acting for themselves. When an authority expropriates the right to overrule the most fundamental personal moral decisions, such as what is worth killing or dying for as in military conscription or abortion for example, human freedom is immeasurably diminished.
Human beings do have certain qualities as a species, broadly defined, including the capacity for rational thought - a relatively high level of consciousness and ability to synthesize concepts - which distinguish humans as a species. But one of the things that most distinguishes human beings including their ability to think is their plasticity: the ability to change with variable circumstances, and to change circumstances by consciously acting upon them. This is, perhaps, the most essential quality that distinguishes human beings from other animal species.
The notion of an "unchanging human nature" is completely spurious, and the idea that people are naturally selfish, for example, is nothing but another empty tautology. As Marx and Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto this amounts to nothing other than saying that, with the domination of the bourgeois mode of production, the dominant thinking and ways of acting will be in accordance with the dictates of the bourgeois mode of production. As the Manifesto also rightly puts it, the prevailing ideas of any age are invariably the ideas of the ruling class - and these ideas are spread and have great influence not only within the ruling class itself but also among other sections of the population, including the classes most brutally exploited and oppressed by that ruling class. The ruling classes not only control the flow of information, they also write the history and control the past, thereby controlling the future as well. From era to era in human history, and this is true of our modern era of capitalist and corporatist domination, when there are periodic uprisings of mass struggle people undergo great changes in their ways of thinking about their place in the economic hierarchy and of how they relate to one another. In a basic sense, this is, and can only be, temporary and incomplete, as long as there is not a successful revolution and subsequent radical quantitative and qualitative change in the society as a whole. Nonetheless, especially in circumstances of great social upheaval and struggle against the established order, people go through great changes in their thinking and their way of relating to each other. If this were not so, revolutions would never have occurred and the dynamics of social interaction could never be changed.
It is vitally important to awaken people from their complacency and intellectual sloth, to understand their oppression and to therefore struggle, fearlessly and forcefully, against all authoritarian systems, including organized religion and the elitist anti-democratic oligarchies masquerading as democracies in all their multifarious forms - and especially against fundamentalist monotheistic obscurantism and absolutism and its political manifestation as Christian and Islamic Fascism not only in North America, but throughout the world. Externally manipulated, massive belief systems and closed systems of thought, including religious dogmas and political ideologies, tend to override the unconscious, pre-reflective, neurobiological traits that should bring us together. All religious and political systems are human constructs, primarily attempts at all-encompassing salvation plans for humanity. They all have their advantages and shortcomings but the total endorsement of any one of them has, throughout history, led to misery and destitution for the vast majority.
I have long believed that state run constitutional democracies are an intricate façade conceived to hide the true nature of the world we have allowed to be constructed around us. After centuries of various forms of oligarchy, from feudal or tribal fiefdoms to divine right kingdoms to religious empires to secular tyrannies like state capitalism, fascism, and communism, so-called "democracy" has been perfected as the ultimate smoke screen for keeping the masses in the working class silent, docile, atomized and productive while the real rulers of the world go about their business. It’s the perfect antidote to the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism and freedom that we have been deluded into believing we enjoy. It is not often that the smoke clears and we get to see the truth. But even the credulous among us get a glimpse of the truth such as when civil liberties were suspended by Pierre Trudeau in 1971 during the “Quebec Crisis” by invoking the War Measures Act – appropriately referred to by Tommy Douglas as using a sledge hammer to kill a fly, our corporatist dupe Premier Gordon Campbell and his vicious attack on working people with the fascist Bill 29 and, more recently, when the need for a seamless corporatized environment for the 2010 Winter Games (fun and games for the rich and famous) overrides the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that our oligarchs and wealthy elites can attend the sporting events without a hitch, events not in the least affordable by the masses.
What we need to achieve through the course of the overall struggle for a legitimate democracy is a vision that is effective thoroughly and consistently in convincing the vast majority of citizens to take on the pillars of oppressive oligarchy and finally overthrow them through the anarchist transformation of society. In order to achieve a viable democratic alternative to exploitive corporatism, practically and theoretically, will require working in an ethical and honorable manner with people from diverse segments of the social and economic strata, including progressive religious groups. These people must be won over and it does not necessarily entail giving up their religious beliefs provided they are distinctly and genuinely democratic and consistent with a culture of caring, sharing and mutual respect.