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)
  • Beyond capitalism – making everyone count (2008)

    From the August 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Under capitalism most people don’t get the chance to develop their capacities.
    The current organisation of the world, capitalism, is such that exclusivity governs all areas of life. Inherent in the system is the principle that there shall be winners and losers, employed and unemployed, rich and poor, haves and have-nots. The polarities of capitalism drive a minority to ‘the top’, the vast majority to ‘the bottom’ with a swirling mass somewhere in the middle endeavouring to stay as near the top of that mass as they are able. Life like this is a non-stop competition to hold place or to progress and definitely to prevent regression. The individuals working to maintain their own and their families’ existence are not responsible for this polarity but they very likely either accept it, buy into it or feel that they have no influence over it and so remain passive about it.

    To take education in a reasonably prosperous country as one example: the system may stipulate universal, free education for eleven years with additional options for those judged to merit them. Whilst initially appearing to be a fair and impartial situation with equal opportunities for all, in reality the parents’ economic situation has an enormous impact on the quality and level of education their children will receive. Income determines the areas in which families can afford to live.

    Low income families tend to live in more run-down areas with fewer facilities available in the schools and communities. Generally students of schools in these areas don’t ‘perform’ well according to published league tables of levels of attainment and examination results. As a consequence the expectations of students at these schools tend to be reduced, it may be more difficult to recruit quality staff and so the cycle continues.

    Higher income families tend to live in more spacious accommodation, tend to be more participatory in activities that support the schools and the community and tend to involve their children in a variety of extra-curricular activities. These more affluent areas produce schools which perform better in the league tables, have more students gaining places for higher education and are comprised of families which have sufficient income and motivation to support those who could be seen as potential wage-earners for an additional four or more years.

    Those with significant income often choose the option of private, fee-paying education with the expectation of smaller classes and better examination results giving better and wider choices of higher education. It’s likely that at all demographic levels parents will espouse their wish for their children to do well, even if the expectations of outcome at the opposite ends of the divide are as different as their incomes. Expectations and aspirations are mostly adapted to what are seen as realistic according to the circumstances. These artificial restrictions which have people believing that there can only be so many winners, and therefore many losers, are divisive to society.

    This means that by default many students are receiving less than the best education. Many students who would thrive and do very well in a different, more favourable environment have a much reduced chance of achieving their potential. If the options and opportunities aren’t available to all at a similar level then society can be seen to be restricting the individual growth of its members, denying them reaching their full potential. And by doing this it is potentially restricting the growth in all areas of human endeavour, restricting the achievements of humanity collectively.

    As each individual becomes more valuable to themself through self-development so, too, are they capable of being more valuable to others and to society in general. To deny anyone the opportunity to achieve may deny all the opportunities that their achievement may have presented them. A society which encourages all its members to achieve their full potential, with self-determined goals, is a society mature enough to celebrate all its individual and combined talents.

    Communities, societies are collections of individuals; the world itself is an agglomeration of societies which have more in common with each other than they have differences. Fundamental values, social values are generally shared within localities, values of family and community which bind people together. Economic and political considerations in the current world set-up are aspects which people necessarily seek to utilize to benefit themselves and their own within their own codes of morality. Community values can be more important to members of those communities than are the values espoused by political parties which are perceived as being handed down, prescriptive and distant from reality. Community values are their own. Individual communities know they understand their own needs, requirements and agenda better than do the planners in faraway offices. In so many situations the interests of governments, whose policies are removed from the realities on the ground, do not coincide with the interests of citizens.

    One very apparent phenomenon in this ‘age of globalisation’ is the growing homogeneity of groups or sections of people as they become more and more assimilated into the world order. With increasing frequency more and more people are doing, reading, hearing and listening to the same things, having their hopes and fears directed to the same objects. Although this could be useful in terms of raising awareness of the whole world and its affairs questions abound regarding the value to individuals in being subsumed by the power of the capitalist market and its trans-national corporation’s brands. Reducing all (all who can pay) to the same pattern of mediocrity is a long way from offering all the opportunity of self-realization. ‘Dumbing down’ of citizens by whatever means is the antithesis of self-realization. In no way will ‘dumbing down’ help to realize parents’ aspirations for their children or any individual’s aspirations for themself. A ‘dumbed down’ citizenry may be more pliable and easy to control but will not further the development of humanity.

    An illusion of choice
    In many areas affecting their lives people realize that there is no real choice, only an illusion of choice, a choice between unwanted, unwelcome options presented as the only alternatives. Throughout the ages humanity has sought and achieved advancement motivated by desire, passion and a will to produce something better, to succeed in their aspirations. If not to succumb to the tendency of appearing to be stamped out of a series of similar moulds humans will continue to endeavour to claim more involvement and more choice in increasing numbers of spheres.

    Lack of meaningful choice in national elections and the realization that politicians of all persuasions are failing to represent voters has resulted in steadily declining numbers presenting themselves at polling booths. The last general election in the UK saw a very low turn-out and recorded the lowest percentage of the electorate’s votes for the winning party in many a long year. It is the system itself, not just a particular party, that is out of favour with the electorate. In the present electoral system not voting is both making a choice and not making a choice. If the alternatives on offer are unacceptable then no valid choice has been offered and the process can only be perceived as a sham. Voters, non-voters and reluctant voters all require different alternatives from those on offer.

    When the majority does not recognize the authenticity of the government and what it stands for in supposedly representing them (which they don’t, as revealed by election statistics, i.e. more people don’t vote for the winning party than do vote for it), when they don’t hold the same opinions and sets of values, it is quite clear that the system is not of the people. Many voters feel a fundamental compulsion to exercise their ‘democratic’ right but even a mandatory voting system wouldn’t ameliorate the problems of the electorate having little they can positively support. The system goes against the majority of its electorate and cannot be said to be representative. The interests of governments don’t coincide with the interests of citizens. Policies are removed from the realities on the ground. In the world at large there is an increasing tendency of governments to strengthen their powers over the individual thus weakening the power of the individual voice and collectively weakening the electorate. This situation is directly opposed to that of individuals being free to seek self-determination and places them firmly outside the bounds of participatory democracy.

    One of the greatest challenges presented by a majority who agree that the system is not serving their interests is that the general public is overly complacent and has become accustomed to following diktats with rumblings and grumblings in place of searching questioning and although they agree on this fundamental aspect they have difficulty in coming to terms with the idea of a totally new paradigm (socialism) and are reluctant to investigate or even contemplate the unknown, preferring to live with the devil they know, even though their perception of socialism is probably based on negative misconceptions and prejudice. The arguments against doing something radical about a system that is doubtless failing the vast majority are seldom based on considered evidence but more likely on conventional wisdom, a.k.a. received opinion or on prejudice which is simply opinion without foundation. It is normal to feel challenged when one’s opinion is put under scrutiny especially if it is apparent that the opinion has no substance.

    Received opinion may have some validity, it may have its foundations in truth but as often as not it is part truth and part fabrication or exaggeration. Sometimes it is accepted as truth because it has been handed down by others considered to be more knowledgeable, experts or those who work in a particular field, in which case their credentials, their evidence and their agenda (he who pays the piper calls the tune) need to be scrutinized before accepting their word. Credentials can be granted (and accepted) mistakenly. A well-known figure may be knowledgeable in their particular field or a celebrity may be very popular in the entertainment sphere or sports arena, however this doesn’t validate their opinions per se. What needs to be scrutinized are the motivating factors behind their opinions and the sources of their information.

    To create more opportunities, options and advantages for ourselves and our children the general populace has to be actively involved in all processes, not compelled to be passive onlookers. People will only get more of what they want by being more involved. This entails all individuals having total access to and involvement in all areas which impact upon their lives including the freedom to participate, in the knowledge that their voices will be heard. For that we need to go beyond capitalism.

    The highest human achievements can only be realized when, first, all basic needs have been met and, second, the individual has the freedom to pursue their objectives without hindrance or restriction from any source. As for the first, basic needs such as sufficient food, uncontaminated water, adequate shelter and access to education and health care services are an option denied at the moment to the majority of humanity and the dignity of the second is the prerogative of a tiny minority.
    Janet Surman