This is a big post for a big topic, but bear with me – it’s worth it.
It’s the perennial question “what is human nature?”
Are we able to live together peacefully and in harmony with each other and the world around us or are we doomed to be governed by our baser selfish instincts – to cheat, lie, steal and dominate others to get what we want at their cost?
It’s an interesting question because where a person stands on this one underpins what futures they consider possible for the human race. In other words, is a society based on principles of cooperation and fairness possible – or will we always require a state of some sort to keep us in check and playing by the rules? Can we be trusted or will we always be tempted towards cheating?
The question is interesting also because really it holds a mirror up to the questioner themselves, revealing their underlying prejudice and general disposition in life; optimist or pessimist?
It’s so easy to cherry pick one’s own personal selection of human history’s highlights into your very own ‘best of’ to prove a point but more often than not it really just says more about the specific person asking the question than it does about the wider group of people who’s nature the question generally concerns.
The more prevalent position (at least that I come across) is somewhere on the more pessimistic end of the scale. Interestingly, it seems to increase into middle age until declining in very old age when people take a step back and are more reflective – rather than caught up in the heat of life’s day to day struggle. Often this person uses their years of experience as further evidence that it’s in fact an ongoing realisation of truth, ‘a wisening’ that allows them to see reality more clearly than a young naïve person with a head full of optimism – often terming themselves “realists” (the dead giveaway that someone is a pessimist).
In reality we almost all have reasons to be jaded after weathering the hardships that life throws our way and so it is easy (maybe even seductive) to let oneself narrow the view and slip into seeing only humanity’s rap sheet. There’s certainly plenty there to look at from times gone by – the greed, the cruelty, the violence, the hatred, the oppression, the selfish exploitation in all spheres of life over the ages and so on. It’s all there today as well – the rampant individualism and selfishness that pervades modern consumerist societies, depletes the world’s natural resources, in the race to get more, have more, be more at any cost. Get ahead, make a million, focus on the short term, squeeze the developing word to keep the wealthy west wealthy. Feed the poor into the furnace of capitalism to keep the engine running that drives up the productivity from which the middle and upper tiers profit. There’s a lot to be angry at, sure – a lot of very condemning evidence.
I used the word seductive before for a reason. I think this kind of pessimism can be seductive in some ways because it let’s you off the hook a bit, because if that’s how the world is then I tell myself that there’s nothing I can do about it, and thus it removes any responsibility from me to actually do anything about it. It’s not my fault and it’s not my problem in any broader sense. “Life sucks, just deal with it” becomes the de-facto position. Or in other words, “life will be like this no matter what I do, so I may as well just look after myself” which of course only contributes to the original problem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The alternative can seem too overwhelming however, too frightening to face and thus anyone that sees things differently is labelled naïve or wilfully blinkered to the bad reality out there because (following the usual argument) unless you can show how to cure all the world’s ills – or prove that all the bad things don’t actually happen all the time – then they’re position still stands and they are right. Bad things happen, therefore the world is bad, people are bad and we just deal with it. If that’s wrong prove otherwise.
On the other hand, the optimist will point to the triumphs of human civilisation, the spectacular advances in thought, science and technology that have led us (among other places) to the moon – combined with the breathtaking capacity for love, compassion and artistic expression that hints at the potential for transcendence. With this filter in place we can see humanity as a shining beacon to life as we know it, the pinnacle of evolution in our ongoing path to physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth.
We are capable of so much, and yes while some of our most lauded achievements have been created on the backs of the oppressed, the product of their toil and effort – we still have this amazing capacity to create, to innovate, to be altruistic and to empathise with even other species than our own. To possess a consciousness that is wondrous in not only it’s very existence but also it’s possible (as yet largely unknown) potential.
So what is it? Rotten to the core and only capable of altruism when it serves our needs – or largely good creatures with a bright future of hope ahead? Are we more like the chimpanzee (clever and playful but also warlike, capable of great violence and cruelty) – or the bonobo (intelligent, caring, more cooperative, more peaceful, more sexual, more empathetic and gentle). Both are genetically similar to us to roughly the same degree (though the bonobo might be a fraction closer). Which end of the spectrum does our nature really sit on?
Really, the answer is ‘both’. It’s obvious in a lot of ways but no less significant or worthy of examination because of it. It’s easy to say “there’s a bit of everything” and just move on when in fact this point is a rich and deep vein of truth that yields interesting results. Interesting because once you accept that in reality it’s all there – we are capable of both extreme acts of cruelty and extreme acts of compassion – then you have to ask well what pushes a person or group along the scale? What determines whether a person will act to their better nature or their worse one? Now we really get to the nub of it.
It’s a kind of nature vs nurture debate, but a bit broader in some ways because rather than examining the specifics of a particular person’s characteristics and how they develop, we are looking at the larger pressures and influencing factors that push a person to one end of the scale or another – which will be expressed through their individual characteristics.
We have thousands of years of case history with our civilisation to examine and an ever growing window into our collective soul and mental experience to inform us and really what it’s telling us I think is that most of what we learn about how to treat each other and behave in the world is taught to us.
Clearly the circumstances under which we are put have a huge influence on how we behave – the more desperate our situation the more extreme our self-preservation takes over. It’s not really very complicated but it’s simplicity is seemingly deceptive to a lot of people because this fact shows us that when the converse is true (and we are well cared for, loved, spared of great trauma, fed well, treated with respect and compassion, taught to love their fellow humans, encouraged to be cooperative and given the opportunities we need to grow and prosper in life) people are generally found to be happier, healthier, more generous, empathetic, altruistic and less aggressive to their neighbours.
Now I need to put a disclaimer on that statement above because while I am making a connection, I am not saying that having this kind of situation is a precondition to having these qualities.. That would imply that you have to be rich to be nice etc – clearly not true. My experience in fact is that often the poorest and most disadvantaged are the ones that display the most amazing acts of generosity and kindness.
What I am actually saying is that when you remove the reasons for people to compete against each other, when you lift the boot off their back a bit and treat them fairly and with respect then change their behaviour. Once again, a simple truism that few would dispute but an important building block in where we are going with this. (Yes there’s a point!)
It’s the world that’s warped and perverse – specifically the system by which we ‘run’ things is nonsensical. The capitalistic globalised economy and (at it’s real core) money is what causes the inequalities, and what causes one hairless monkey to be set against his brother or sister to compete for this imaginary resource in order to access the basic elements for survival. This basic idea underpins everything. For many around the world, without money you can’t eat, you have no shelter, you cannot provide for or protect your loved ones. This is an existential threat and thus many of us are constantly involved in a sort of deferred life and death struggle all the time. If we don’t play the game, get a job, get a better job and get some money, build some financial security etc then we could end up going under.
People will do all kinds of things to stop that happening. The stress and fear of it causes all kinds of behaviour, and when you add in the element of a human’s need to establish status then it warps a psyche on a whole bigger scale. How many homes are broken or violent places a result of these factors? The pressures of money, or not having enough, of fear at losing what you have, at the worry over or loss of status associated with it. I know that domestic violence is obviously a little more complicated and nuanced than that, but I’m saying that if you removed those financial pressures, then people are now far better able to cope and their capacity to deal with the built in concerns of being a living person in a relationship or community a lot better.
The fat is that we actually CAN grow the food that we need sustainably. We can harvest and produce the water we need sustainably. We can build sustainable shelters and generate clean energy. That is the fundamentals taken care of. Money (and the status, power, influence etc) that it brings is what plays to our greed, causes us to compete rather than cooperate. It is money that we invented that has taken over our lives and subjugated them to it’s will – literally. We denude our environment and exploit our own limited resources, persecute each other and live lives tainted with stress and fear all because of this imaginary stuff that we actually don’t need.
I am often struck by hearing children (who have usually been brought up to recognise a moral code- taught right and wrong), who can’t work out why the world is the way it is. Why do people have wars, why can’t people share? Why do these adults not play by the rules of right and wrong that these children have been taught? Why isn’t the world simple? We laugh and pat them on the head but they are fair questions. Are we hypocrites?
The world is only what we have made it. We can make it something else if we wanted to. We invented money, we can un-invent it. What is the purpose of governments, or countries and economies if they don’t actually make our lives better as a civilisation/species? If these things have outgrown their usefulness and now hurt more than they help then why not change? Why do we really need money? We don’t.
A system of living based on mutual cooperation and respect where each individual is taught to be peaceful, considerate and take responsibility for themselves and for caring for the world around them – is not only possible, but actually the only way we’ll survive in the long term. It’s not unrealistic, and it is not precluded by our nature. We can organise things another way, one that plays to our strengths and maximises human happiness and meaningful existence. It doesn’t require we live primitively or that we abandon the progress of science and technology – far from it.
If we chose to, we could imagine a world that incentivises harmony and cooperation. One where mutual benefit is sought rather than at the cost of another. History (if you look for it) also provides examples of this. There are places in the world (even today) where societies work together to live well and resolve problems, and it works.
We can find a way that works for us, and it doesn’t need a centralised government, doesn’t need politicians and some supreme nanny to tell us how to act and punish us when we are naughty – and most certainly doesn’t need money. It just needs people to focus on what matters and forget about what doesn’t.
This isn’t a roadmap yet, but this is a rough sketch of where (I think) we all want and need to get to. Many of us dispute whether it’s possible but I say the evidence is all there that the answer is a resounding yes.
You don’t have to be a hippy and live in a yurt to want or benefit from a world focused on peace, freedom, meaningful prosperity and cooperation. Our civilisation needs resilience and it needs to lift it’s head out of the sand and rediscover how to live sustainably on this planet – not only because it’s a noble principle but because if we don’t then one day we will drive ourselves into extinction.
What do you think – doomed to repeat our mistakes or capable of building something more?