Monday, August 25, 2008

Questions of the Day - Human Nature

Originally posted on the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist blog.

This excerpt originally appeared in the Socialist Party of Great Britain pamphlet, 'Questions of the Day'.

One of the principal objections to Socialism is the frequently expressed claim that human nature is such that people as a whole have never acted, and will never act, in an entirely co-operative manner; that for instance, greed, ambition, cruelty and the like are fundamental human traits. It is argued that each human being will do whatever is to his own immediate advantage, regardless of the effect his actions may have upon others and, ultimately, the effect they may have upon himself. Some contemporary illustrations, some guesswork about the past and some misconceptions about the future, are then put forward as evidence in support of the contention. As soon as this evidence is examined it becomes plain that the case against Socialism on this ground, is built upon practices that are uncritically accepted as if essential for all time.

That such views should be widespread amongst all sections of the population, no matter the class or the occupation of the holders is a striking commentary on the nature of the education most people receive. It leaves them completely unaware of the significance of the changes in ideas that have occurred in the recent past, and even in the lifetime of their own generation. It should be apparent that ideas which were taken for granted as universally true not very long ago would now be laughed at; ideas such as the divine right of kings; that women were incapable of taking part in social affairs along with men; that working men were incapable of taking part in government: that the British Empire was invulnerable; and so on. Yet in spite of this, and in spite of the vast accumulation of information to the contrary, resulting from the investigations of anthropologists and historians, it is still widely accepted that the acquisition of property is the only course for mankind. That social existence is impossible without money, wages, profits, the State, frontiers, wars and all the other paraphernalia that drive us to distraction today.

When we examine the meaning usually attributed to the term 'human nature' we find that the objectors lump together under this heading acts that are today regarded as anti-social. Human nature is looked upon as fundamentally bad (a carry-over from the theological dogma of original sin), and it is assumed that people commit anti-social acts because 'they are born that way'. Many of those who put forward this view contradict it by urging that the growth of religion, or 'civilising influences', will help eradicate 'evil' conduct. However, the main things people are born to do are to eat, drink, keep warm, imitate, copulate and learn. The relations they enter into with each other at a given time to accomplish these ends set the pattern for the social outlook and the social code. Those who depart from this accepted code, although they may start the movement for a new pattern, are considered to be anti-social or criminal in great or small degree. In the course of history humanity has moved from relative simplicity in the social arrangements. It has moved from a world of isolated communities into a world of large interconnected industrial complexes. But through all the changes the fundamental characteristics of humanity have remained the same; the spur to action has been the probing and planning based on these fundamental characteristics. What people think and how they act is not the result of fundamental ineradicable instincts, but is the result of customs, regulations and inhibitions that spring from the social environment in which people of succeeding centuries have had to solve the problem of living. In other words, that people are able to think and act is a fact of biological and social development, but how they think and act is the result of social conditions. Since private property came into existence, the pursuit of riches has bred murder, cruelty, fraud, enmity and other anti-social behaviour.

The thoughts and actions of human beings are influenced by their surroundings, which include customary traditions, the education they have received, their living conditions and the other people they have met. The present social arrangements and outlooks are only temporary and are associated with social conditions that can be changed. The duke and the dustman, the millionaire and the mechanic, the tycoon and the counter-hand, the oil king and the labourer; all are separated by barriers that are artificial social barriers that have grown up during centuries of the development of property society.

Ideas are not just a mechanical reflection of technological processes. In doing things in a certain way men, over a long or short period, see methods of changing these ways that are better, or that they think are better, and it is this that leads to changes in the technological processes. In other words, the process of history is the result of an interchange between man and his environment. It is man who makes the changes; but he can only make them out of the material that is at hand and part of this material, in the form of traditions from the past, slows the pace of change.

There has been little discernible change in the fundamental make-up of man yet there have been considerable changes in social conduct corresponding to the changes in social conditions. Changed social conditions have been responsible for the changes in attitude towards acts that are identical. For example, stealing today is looked upon as a criminal act whereas in the ancient Greek city state of Sparta stealing was a virtue and was taught to the young.

A brief glance at history will reveal how great has been the change in social attitudes towards people. In the days of classical antiquity one section of mankind, the slaves, were chattels, and in the much-lauded democracies of those days they were left entirely out of account. In the Middle Ages land was the great source of riches and money-lending was frowned on. The serf was no longer a chattel, but he was tied to the land and to his lord, and if he ran away he could be forcibly brought back. In our day money is the hallmark of social standing and will buy almost everything — beauty, honour, titles and position, yet as late as Jane Austen's day, to be engaged in a trade, put a man outside the circle of gentlemen: and who, in Victorian times, would have dreamt of a miner or a boilermaker rising to the eminence of a knighthood or the House of Lords, or a relative of a royal family serving in a shop or a fashion house?

The objector will often readily agree that Socialism is a desirable system but he argues that it will be impossible to achieve because of the 'human nature' barrier. (We rarely encounter the objector who considers his own 'human nature' standing in the way of Socialism — almost always it is other people's.) It is urged that it will be impossible to get people as a whole to work together to their mutual advantage because man is selfish by nature, and each individual wants to get the better of the other, to get the lion's share of whatever is going. As to the assumption of selfishness, we would point to the thousands of people who give selfless devotion in all manner of voluntary effort including work for political parties. Let us, however, look at the matter from another aspect. In a socialist society where each would be free to take what he needs there will be no point in anyone trying to get more.

The very people who argue that the fundamental and ineradicable nature of human characteristics make Socialism impossible, are themselves often engaged in propagating reforms the object of which is to remove conditions that are believed to be responsible for certain forms of objectionable conduct — thus their own actions refute their claim that Socialism is impossible.

Finally, man's curiosity and humanity make him an essentially reasonable being: when he is free of artificial barriers he readily works in harmony with his fellows. Even within the limits of the present social order there are innumerable examples of the extent to which men are prepared to make sacrifices, even of liberty and life, in the effort to help their fellows.

The selfish, cruel, anti-social conduct that is laid at the door of human nature is really only conduct that is the outcome of systems based on private property, which compel people to engage in predatory conduct in order to survive. What else can be expected in the present social system where one section of the population monopolises the means for producing the things that are needed by all, while another section is forced to work for the privileged minority in order to obtain the necessities of life?

Once class monopoly is abolished and replaced by the common ownership of the means of living, that is, when all that is in and on the earth becomes the common possession of all mankind, people will willingly co-operate in harmonious association for their mutual benefit just because it is 'human nature' to seek that which contributes to personal well being.

Further Reading:

  • Are We Prisoners of Our Genes?
  • Some Notes on Man's Social Nature (SPGB education document)
  • After Bulger Socialist Standard January 1994 (.pdf)
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