I found myself in an interesting discussion a couple weeks back with a likeminded person at the tail end of a Facebook discussion. I can’t remember what the Facebook post was about, but as the post was coming to a close the subject came up regarding the nature of people. Are we born good or bad? It turned into a “Hobbes vs. Locke” type of discussion. I thought it would be worth blogging about because how someone answers that question can shape their entire worldview regarding politics, thoughts on laws, crime and punishment, etc…
I would imagine at this point it would be a good idea to somehow define what about human nature I would consider “good” and “bad”. I believe that at the heart of all living animals, self-preservation is what drives us. We do what is necessary to be able to take that next breath. Some would describe this as selfish, and that characterization is true, but misunderstood. The trait of self-preservation in neither good, nor bad. It just is. It is present even in the most basic of life forms. Let’s keep that in the back of our minds when we decide what is good and bad. Characteristics that would be “good”, in my opinion would be peaceful, cooperative, charitable and honest. Characteristics that would be by nature “bad”, would include violent, combative, thieving and compulsive lying. This is a short list, but it gives you the gist. The characteristics of basic human nature are designed to propel the deeper nature of self-preservation. Logically speaking, the set of characteristics that would best support self-preservation would probably be the nature we are born with.
This is a subject that I never really had to think about growing up. Long before I ever heard of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, I read “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. It was a class assignment, where the topic, “what is human nature” was discussed. The book asserts that the basic human nature is a state of savagery. At the very base of us is something that must be contained, denied, resisted, in order to live peacefully among other humans. We need a heavy handed government to do the containing, denying, resisting for us, since our nature would prevent us from doing it ourselves. Now, this is my impression of this book close to 30 years after my one and only reading of it, so if I missed some nuanced meaning, forgive me, it was my impression at the time. I can tell you that something about that did not sit right with me, even at my young age.
It seems fairly obvious to me that human beings are social animals. We thrive when we are part of a community. We are herd animals. Of course we can survive alone, but very few people try to live that way. Living in a community is built in to our DNA, from early humans to now. Communal living is safer and satisfies our need to be social. So if self-preservation is the goal and we have evolved to learn that living in communities are the best way to achieve it, which set of basic human characteristics would best complement our dealings with each other? Would having a nature that is peaceful be better than having a violent nature within a community? Would being perceived as honest or a liar be more beneficial to self-preservation within a community? I submit that we are born “good” because that is the best way to achieve self-preservation.
But what about all the people who lie, cheat and steal in the world? What about all the perpetual wars for the last several thousand years? What about all the murderers, rapists, pedophiles and bicyclists in the world? How can the nature of man be good when these people exist? The answer may be too complicated for this simpleton’s blog. I would imagine that nothing is ever absolute. People can be born sociopaths and psychopaths. Good people can make bad life choices. Bad people can choose to live decent lives because they understand self-preservation, and good people can choose to be bad for the same reason. When you look at the nature of man, you have to look at it as a whole. The vast majority of people do not steal, murder, touch children or perpetrate genocide. The vast majority of people live peacefully among each other. They trade with each other, they play with each other and they help one another. The vast majority of the people do not have to resist an urge to lie, cheat or steal because this is not a natural gut reaction. A small percentage of people who do those things have made us a little more paranoid. Even as the camera’s watch the shoppers at a grocery store, the vast majority of people are not caught stealing. This is not because they are afraid of getting caught, but because the thought never crosses their minds.
As I became a teenager and more interested in politics, I found that most self-described democrats also called themselves pessimists. They believed people were by nature bad, so laws and structure needed to be made to keep people from becoming savages. This is why the thought of a large government appeals to liberals. They just want to keep the sheep safe from the wolves. The people I knew that self-described as republicans were also optimists. They believed that left to their own devices, people would peacefully interact and therefore needed less government. I wouldn’t meet Hobbes and Locke for a couple more decades, but the theories that they so eloquently proffer are in a more simplistic way ingrained in each of us. Subconsciously, this may have played a part in my becoming a republican early on, and a libertarian later. Why would humans be the only animal on earth that has to fight its very nature to survive? It simply doesn’t make sense, therefore liberalism doesn’t make sense.
If you are a person who thinks that the nature of people is bad and we need a large government to keep the peace, let me ask you this: If the nature of man is bad, wouldn’t the large governmental structure also be created by bad people? If the bottom line is self-preservation, is that not the goal of the people who create this benevolent government? A government that is against the very nature of man, yet created by men? I will leave you to ponder…