From the September 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
The idea that human beings are naturally selfish, greedy or lazy cannot survive a moment's critical thought
How often do we hear it said "It's only human nature?" And mostly about some gross piece of behaviour as if it couldn't be avoided? Curiously, it is not often said about the best things that people can do. On hearing that someone has risked their life to save another, for some reason we are not inclined to say "Yes, it's human nature." But then, none of these variations of good or bad behaviour are determined by our "nature." We behave differently in different social settings and this is evident from everyday experience. So, in explaining behaviour we must look at the social context in which it happens.
Mostly, the idea of "human nature " is a reflection of a divisive society that is incapable of creating a decent life for all its members. This failure is then rationalised as a pessimistic view that all people (mainly other people) are inherently selfish, greedy, and lazy. In its nationalist or racist mode this idea of human nature attributes various characteristics to whole groups of people. This is thinking in stereotypes. For example, people from Germany are often said to be naturally cruel, militaristic, humourless and obedient to authority. Some groups or classes are seen as culturally inferior or of lower intelligence. This becomes part of ideology used to justify domination and exploitation. And all this prejudice, none of which can survive a moment's critical thought has been used politically to resist progress. It has been used as an objection to socialism. In this argument all the bad examples of human behaviour which in the main are generated by capitalism are called upon to say that a society based on equality and voluntary co-operation is impossible.
Not genetically programmed
This prejudice is also reinforced by arguments which assert that our behaviour and our relationships result from the way we are biologically or genetically programmed. Again these focus on competition, leadership, possessiveness, aggression, social and sexual inequality and an alleged drive to be territorial but, again, all these are behaviour patterns that reflect capitalism. Ever since it became the dominant system its defenders have presented economic individualism and competition as an expression of our human nature and therefore the natural order of things. But if this were true, then throughout all history, society would never have varied. If our social arrangements were determined by our biology then there would never have been the great diversity of behaviour patterns, relationships and culture that is the real story of our past and which is evident even in the way we live now. The arguments that our behaviour is determined by our physical inheritance may pose as science but in reality they are socially determined prejudice used as part of crude political ideology.
These are some of the attitudes that were discussed at the well-attended Day School on Human Nature in London in July. The discussion also considered what we can learn from art and language in understanding the human make-up; the answers to objections to socialism on grounds of human nature; and whether we can form conclusions from needs. Also, because the subject of human nature is clouded by racism, nationalism, and vested interests, the day school considered what we can say about human nature that is scientifically based and would be true of all people regardless of culture and changes throughout history.
Toolmaking, language and thought
We can certainly define features of human nature that mark us off from other species and which predispose us to live as social beings. These act together and include the ability to walk upright, binocular colour vision, hands with opposable thumbs, organs capable of speech, and the ability to think conceptually. In combination these features led to a species whose behaviour is not biologically determined but is flexible and versatile. These physical features also led to a labour process, a tradition of toolmaking and an ability to accumulate experience socially. This meant that improvements in technique achieved by one generation could be passed on to the next who might then work out their own improvements. Computers and space vehicles are in the same line of tool development as were the improvements in flint-working technique during the long period of the paleolithic. Seen in this light, society is itself a product of labour.
It may have been that this toolmaking tradition played a key part in the development of human consciousness. The tools made by early human kind objectified the existence of the tool makers and in contemplating this they become conscious of their own existence. This reflection of their own lives in their own creations may have led to a heightened self awareness and an ability to think in an expanded timeframe of past, present and future. Language could then develop from basic references to material objects to higher levels of abstract thought which expressed a developing, more complex vision of their world. It was possibly then that humanity created ideas and culture, becoming less instinctive and more decision-making. Through this dynamic interaction between human characteristics and the environment which was essentially the labour process, humankind not only altered their conditions of life, they changed themselves. What this required was not an invariable set of behaviour patterns programmed by genetic coding but adaptability.
Predisposed for co-operation
But none of this would have been possible without co-operation. Whilst we may not say that co-operation is programmed through our genes, it is certainly predisposed by our physical make-up. It was agreed at the Day School that without co-operation society would never have got off the ground. To say that we are naturally co-operative is much closer to the truth than saying we are naturally competitive.
This is the case for at least two important reasons. Firstly, by co-operating with others through a division of labour we greatly increase what we can produce for our mutual benefit. This is not only true of the consumption of goods; co-operation has led to our enjoyment of art, music, drama, sport and all entertainment. It has led to science and our greatly expanded knowledge of the world, its systems and its place in the universe. Without all these things made possible by co-operation, life would not just be impoverished, it would be unthinkable.
But co-operation gives us more than material benefits. It is through co-operation that we develop as individuals. Our individuality grows and finds its expression in relation to others and this would be impossible in social isolation. In this process of individual growth we draw not only on personal relationships, we draw on society in general and even on the lives of those who lived in the past.
Co-operation is sometimes said to be impossible because there is an inherent conflict between self-interest and the interests of others. In fact, the reverse is true. The interests of the individual are best realised when people are working together. The best achievements of one person can enhance the lives of all people.
The Day School was discussing human nature in a political context. This became a question of which social aims and relationships would be compatible with the human make-up – those of capitalism or socialism? In this choice there can be no contest. The profit system with its power structures, corporate greed and exploitation divides humanity. It creates hate, death and destruction and starves half the world's people. Through common ownership and production solely for needs socialism will unite all people in organising and working for common interests. These are the relationships in which co-operation and all the best qualities of being human will find their full expression.