Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Human Nature

My Liverpool-based comrade James Moffatt recently posted on my two interlinked pet topics/hobby horses - the 'human nature' argument against communism, and the relationship between individual self-interest and solidarity. Though I'd like to have seen some 'selfish gene' Dawkins in there, the article is a great read, and full of interesting perspectives. I know James put a lot into this piece - even going so far as to write it out on A4 first - so give it a go and make sure he used his time well. Here are the first few paragraphs, followed by a link:

Arguments I see time and time again against left-wing politics is that “human nature will get in the way” or “it ignores human nature”. Recently I’ve even seen this argument trotted out by people on the left, that any future system must “take human nature into account”. It’s fairly clear what is meant here without asking too many questions. Human beings are selfish. Human beings only work in their own self-interest and that this is natural. But I believe this to be wrong. This blog post will hopefully explain why.

The complexity of this subject has seemingly always been acknowledged but the approaches of philosophers, scientists and economists have varied widely over the centuries. The ancient Greek approach held that destiny played a large role in human nature as every human was thought to be in some small way divine.

As time went on, this metaphysical view of human nature fell out of vogue and philosophers began to rely more on observation of human tendencies. Thomas Hobbes had a particularly pessimistic view of human nature as fundamentally violent. Following this, Rousseau held that there was no predestination involved in human nature. He believed that morality was a natural possession of human beings and that the construction of institutions, language and concepts such as justice are a necessary development from this, and that further to this, the importance of government and commerce had undermined liberty.

Later, following general acceptance of Darwin’s ideas on evolution and natural selection, an idea built up of nature in general being a brutal and violent struggle pitting individual against individual in a battle for survival.  The complexity of Darwin’s idea was frequently and erroneously boiled down into soundbites like Darwin’s unfortunate yet metaphorical “Survival of the fittest” and (retrospectively) Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Inevitably this was applied to the economic, social and political ideas of the day. Indeed, this narrow view of evolution seemed to reaffirm the class divisions and economic inequalities of Victorian society.  A society divided by class and deeply uneven in economic terms suddenly had a basis in reason, a scientific justification.

Darwin himself knew, of course, that this was a gross oversimplification and had anticipated such misunderstandings by pointing out in The Origin of Species that his phrase “Survival of the fittest” was more metaphor than an attempt to distil evolution into an easily digestible soundbite.
Click here for the rest of the article.
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