Human nature – born selfish or capable of more?

The question of human nature is a central one I think. It underpins the question : are we capable of having a better world than the one we have, or are any alternatives doomed to descending into chaotic/oppressive amplifications of the worst aspects of our character? In short, are any efforts to live in a better world going to be undermined by our greedy and selfish nature?

Do we need rules to restrict us? Do we need governments to exert control so that we might be safe from ourselves and one another? The state would most certainly like you to think so.

These are hugely important questions as they underpin almost everything else that or world is built on and are – in essence – the justification for the system we have now and for preserving the status quo. We have been told that this is the case for many, many generations – it is the received wisdom of the ages – but is it really true?

Firstly, I do believe we need rules,  or maybe rather we need principles, morals and ethics to guide us and serve as ‘social glue’, but I do not believe we ultimately need governments to tell us what to do, to exert control over us, or ‘protect us from ourselves’. Granting a few people power over others is inherently ‘problematic’ in my view – especially people that are as flawed as any (and perhaps through their desire for the position) more so.

But is it a necessary evil? Do we actually need the guiding hand to steer us on the straight and narrow? The iron fist to strike us when we transgress? Is the power of the state needed to be our shepherd and ensure that it’s flock is safe from itself and others? Without it could we rise to be our better selves – liberated – or would we descend into selfishness and greed? It’s divisive.

I have to be up front here and say that I don’t have proof either way, however I start from the position that people are inherently good, not ‘evil’ and that it is almost always circumstance that brings out the worst in the human spectrum of behaviour. Nurture over nature – but I concede that this a belief, not a fact. Nevertheless I believe it to be true and my experience of the world supports it – despite any suffering I have encountered, not because of it’s absence. It is belief to be sure, but is the opposite view any less so?

I have not done any experimentation or testing on this, nor am I aware of studies that have (though they may well exist). But perhaps just as illuminating, what do you think they would say? if you wanted to think about it in evidential terms what do you believe (from your own experience) the statistics might tell us? (If someone was to do this kind of analysis, and you trusted statistics). What does your gut tell you the result would be? I suppose it depends on the question you ask.

If you asked “how many people have broken a law in their life?” Then I suspect the world would be full of criminals. Bad, naughty people! However if you asked a slightly more penetrating question like “how many people consistently and deliberately act in a way that they know causes harm to another?” then my bet is you’d find you have an extremely small part of the population.

People make mistakes, people are driven to do things they often don’t like through a (perceived or real) lack of choice, but it is pretty rare I think to find people who choose to do ‘bad’ things they know are ‘bad’ when there is another ‘good’ option they feel they could choose as easily. That’s my experience of the world anyway (and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit over the years).

I do believe the capacity for doing bad is of course there in our nature, but the world I see out there continues to surprise me with just how ‘good’ people can be – even those living in the worst socio-economic conditions – and occasionally how horrible others can be when living even in the best.

Doesn’t that contradict what I said above? Maybe on the surface it seems that way, but we have to remember that when I say ‘circumstance’ or ‘nurture’ I mean the sum total of a human being’s experience in life, not just the socio-economic situation they find themselves in.

Rich people abuse their children too, scar them emotionally and going to the best school can be just as traumatic to some people as going to the worst is for others. People can grow up to be filled with all kinds of negative emotions (hate, shame, fear etc) regardless of where or how their family lives. The opposite is also true. Some people can appear to have ‘nothing’ in the material sense, but humble you with their warmth, their compassion, their generosity and their kindness – I’ve seen and heard this time and time again.

So the first (perhaps obvious) thing to draw from that is that a person’s socio-economic situation or background is not a deciding factor in and of itself. So what’s wrong with poverty then? Well, lots really. Not least is the fact that more often than not it creates conditions that foster (often for good reason) hate, fear, envy, outrage etc.. as feeling trapped, exploited, robbed of basic rights etc can cause all of these negative feelings and more.

A person’s sense of self worth may perhaps turn out to be a more important factor in deciding how likely they are to act ‘badly’ than anything else. At any rate, it is in this sense that I think about circumstances causing the majority of negative behaviour.

The second thing to draw from the above statement is the reminder that how much stuff you have is meaningless in terms of how truly ‘happy’ you are. Many people recognise this (at least superficially) I think, but still we all want more money, a better home, a better car, that new gadget or whatever. Now that in itself is a dense and multi-layered topic around the dreams and lifestyles that we are sold, the things we are cunningly (and sometimes not-so) told to buy, and all kinds of questions of culture, identification and even just trying to prosper with the hand we’re dealt.

But for the purposes of this post, let’s just say that human happiness has nothing to do with having stuff and draw a line under that for now while also agreeing that human nature has the capacity for both good and bad, the light and the dark, but that – put very simply – (I believe) human nature is bent and warped by the experiences we have.

That isn’t really a very controversial thing to say I don’t think. Surely we all accept that process don’t we? Things happen to you that change the way you see the world, other people etc, and also therefore change your behaviour to those things.

If we accept that, then it seems to follow (in my opinion) that actively creating conditions under which people are more likely to have extremely negative experiences can only turn out one way. I argue therefore (for reasons that should be rather obvious – or if not, are outlined in other posts) that the current system we have (let’s call it capitalist, because it is) is a hugely negative force in making the world a worse place both directly by the vast scale of the poverty it creates and also more subtly by perpetuating (or even growing) the incentives for people to behave badly to escape from or compensate for the brutalising they have often endured as a result.

Right now, today, on the streets of some Mexican towns caught in the grip of spectacular violence as a result of the war on drugs, the value of a human life is around USD$85.
I don’t know the price of a human life in Congo, Brazil, Guinea or Guatemala.. but there are bound to be places where prices are similar or even lower.

People are being paid that money to take another human life. All of those dreams, thoughts, feelings and possibilities extinguished. Welcome to capitalism. This is what people do to get money. A few bits of paper who’s actual value is entirely conceptual. They want money to eat etc but really they also want to have status, to be a big shot, to be seen as successful, to be ‘worth something’.

For that they will accept a few fictional pieces of paper they are told will be worth something to someone else and they will take the life of another human being. Someone they probably don’t know anything about. A person who was someone’s baby once. Someone loved that person. If you imagine someone you loved and what they mean to you , I doubt the value you’d put on that loved one would be a monetary price – and certainly not one that low. But the truth is if someone wanted your loved one dead in these kind of places, that’s how much they’d be worth. How do you feel about that?

What kind of system does this? How can someone defend capitalism when you reduce it to this? I know it’s an extreme example – the price of a human life – but that’s the world we live in. Your life has a price too. Different people in different places value it differently to be sure, but it does. Corporations will weigh up a myriad of factors in deciding what you’re life is worth when their products or services have a potential to cause harm or death. How much to spend on safety has more to do with how much it will cost them if you’re killed in law suits, brand damage etc, than you’re worth as a living human being. They don’t actively want you dead (we hope!) but truthfully past a certain point, your life lost is a cost they’ll bear if it means that they don’t lose more money then they have to and can continue to maximise profits. (Which let’s remember are also entirely fictitious). Insurance companies clearly have to put a value on life. A dollar value. A dollar that exists only as a consensually held illusion of worth. An abstract idea of value.

Some may think this is just the way things are, the sad cruel reality of life. But it’s our reality – the one we created. And you know what? We can create another if we choose and that is why I’m writing this blog. Because we can have better than all this and the first step is to getting there is to recognise what that better way might be.

So getting back to the central question at hand and the thing that underpins whether many believe non-state run world to be possible; human nature. Is it fundamentally streaked with selfishness, greed and desire for power over others or is it capable of altruism, compassion and/or living in harmony with others?

It’s all well and good to talk about the wonderful qualities of our character and balance it by eliciting shock with the worst depths that money can tempt us to, but haven’t experiments in the past provided us with strong evidence that self-government or ‘communist/anarchist’ style alternative systems simply don’t work in the real world? Aren’t people just ultimately too selfish and greedy? Don’t the experiments with communes that failed in the 1960’s prove that? And don’t even the few exceptions of self governing communities that do persist (Mennonite societies etc) prove the rule by surviving only through rigid laws and strict hierarchies?

Firstly, on religion based self governing communities I think that the rigidity and insularity of these (mainly religious based) groups are there because to follow doctrine requires a monopoly of thought (one right way) and therefore prohibition on alternatives. If you want to know what I think about fundamentalist rule you can read my previous post.  Second, even if and when they are not strict or fundamentalist in any way, these communities need strong defences against ‘the other’ in order to endure. The capitalist world is insidious in a number of ways and if you are trying to essentially compete with it – as these communities are forced to do – you have to be strong and organised, or have some other defence against it. My view is that in a world without money or states this rigidity becomes redundant.

What about the hippy communes in the 1960’s that were all about free love – no capitalist/traditional power, gender, relationship or societal roles – didn’t they all collapse because people were just inherently lazy, greedy or selfish? What about the [insert other similar experiment conducted over the last 100 years here], that’s compelling evidence isn’t it?

In a word, no – I don’t think so. The evidence is (in my mind) often confused or ‘tainted’ by the experimental conditions. Many point to people given opportunities to self govern and failing (such as these communes which all apparently fell apart due to quick class stratification and unequal gender roles and participation etc) and say “ah hah, see? There you go” as they dust their hands and walk away, presumably thinking to themselves “There’s that question answered then”.

But to me this misses the point entirely. Did they fail because people are actually inherently selfish and/or ‘bad’ / incapable of self government? I would argue instead that those people (and possibly even a large number of people today) fail in this kind of situation because they carry so much baggage of the current system with us. We are products of it. Unfortunately you can’t wave a magic wand and suddenly change people’s cultural expectations and world view. What this sort of experiment really does is it highlights the question of not IF a world without money and state is possible, but rather is it possible NOW – with our current expectations and ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. And that is a fundamentally different question.

We bring a lot of baggage with us, societal roles, gender roles, concepts of status and worth. Capitalism warps us in ways that we often don’t realise. The lens through which we view the world, the value we place on things, it is all affected. Few of us are able to see past it so easily, or kick the lifelong expectations or habits we’ve picked up about our place in the world.

Perhaps for us to have a realistic alternative a common recognition of what’s truly important is necessary. That seems to be the basis for the alternative communities that exist today all around the world. There are many examples of communal and ‘off-grid’ living that seem to be doing ok because to be a part of it you have to share the ethos of those you live with form the outset and be mature enough to participate in a communally minded way – the way of that particular group.

[Once again, I feel that in a world without money or state this artificial division of us/them is redundant. People will naturally gravitate towards others of compatible mindsets but the reality will still be that we are all different individuals ultimately  wrestling with the same struggles who are interdependent on one another].

Those commune situations are always going to struggle to work if someone goes ‘cold turkey’ from a wage slave to having nothing they ‘have’ to do to survive. I mean that if you have to work  for decades doing things you don’t like just to make money and suddenly you don’t have to do anything, you might just want to do nothing. Now that’s not very helpful to others, but one can empathise with the sentiment. If the people from the neighbouring village have been scorning you and your family for generations and suddenly there are no more governments, no more money and you are asked to cooperate with these people – there might be friction.  It is not an overnight thing. Like children, an education needs to take place, a recognition of one’s new place in a society.

This is however a ultimately a question of how we might transition to a better world without money or a state – not whether human nature is capable of allowing us to live and work together in harmony and to mutual benefit. It is also a question I am wary to delve into too much just yet. It’s tricky, and a whole other debate.

Anyway, I certainly don’t suggest we all have to grow dreadlocks and live in communes. That puts people off (and if I’m honest) myself included, however in a post-capitalist, post-state world we wouldn’t have to. We could live in whatever configuration or proximity to others we thought worked best for us along a spectrum of individualism vs communalism. We would no doubt live in communities in a similar way to what we do now, though with fewer of the traditional limitations I’d imagine.

But we’ve seen examples of if not working, but has it actually worked anywhere? Yes in fact it has. There are tribes in Papua New Guinea that were found to practice a pure form of anarchist communism, there are several native tribes of a number of regions – many unfortunately unable to defend themselves against the invading foreigners. Not because their way of life was inferior, but because of geographic location (I think Jared Diamond’s Gun’s Germs & Steel is a good book on this topic).

One notable example of a land that functions on principles that are similar to what I talk about is the pacific island nation of Anuta – whose guiding social principle is not individual ownership of property but instead..

Concern for others is the backbone of Anutan philosophy. ‘Aropa’ is a concept for giving and sharing, roughly translated as compassion, love and affection. Aropa informs the way Anutans treat one another and it is demonstrated through the giving and sharing of material goods such as food. For example, the land on Anuta is shared among the family units so that each family can cultivate enough food to feed themselves and those around them.

There is a lot that is truly amazing and wonderful about the way of life on Anuta, however it is not entirely unaffected by western capitalism and (historically) western religious influence and it’s remote location has thankfully acted as a buffer to prevent the outside from eroding too much of the balance that they have struck. We don’t all need to live just like the Anutans of course, but they have something they can teach us. They serve as a reminder of what (given the right circumstances) is indeed possible.

They recognise the truth that we are all interdependent, connected both to each other and the environment that supports our life. I would imagine that in a world without money we’d naturally group together for support and find great benefit in doing so. The incentive would shift form the individual ‘me’ to the collective ‘we’ with the realisation that it’s the same end game for us all and that the things we truly value (love, happiness, family, compassion, freedom, dignity, respect etc) are the same across all people and the best thing of all – they are renewable resources – providing the right circumstances for the best of our nature can be allowed to flourish.


They call me an Anarchist

About defiantidealist

There are no rules save the ones we make for ourselves. We can have any world we want, and this one is what we have chosen. To change it we must simply choose differently. Remember the system is fragile. Every civilization is only three meals away from anarchy. We can make it better. All we really need is that powerful dream to aim for, and the courage to defy those that say it can't be done.
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