On human nature

It’s commonly asserted that humans are inherently selfish beings. Thus, a system that harnesses our selfishness while providing benefit to society at large (as the current arrangement of society purports to do) is the only correct way to organize the world. Any other way is doomed to fail because it would go against human nature. The profit-motive based on competition is it. There is no alternative.

“It’s human nature to be greedy.”

Yeah… I’m always perplexed when I hear statements like that. I’ve often argued that human nature allows us to be just as selfless as selfish. And I might just be crazy but it seems apparent that the existing arrangement isn’t working so well. So instead of using greed as the foundation of things, maybe relying on an opposite trait – say, compassion – would be a better way to go about it.

It turns out that the debate over human nature may actually be much more on the side of compassion, rather than being a tie with greed. In A People’s History of the World Chris Harman argues that for more than 90 percent of our existence, humans have lived in classless societies whose survival required anything but greed. It was cooperation between individuals, not selfishness, which allowed bands to continue to exist. So if anything, it’s “collective values” that made their way into human nature. Harman quotes anthropologist Richard Lee as saying the following:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted…sense of community.

That’s all.

Hopefully this post comes off as a bit uplifting, in contrast to the last few I’ve written.


11 responses to “On human nature

  • Will

    Confucius: “human goodness by nature”

  • Duncan Farthing-Nichol

    Greed is not the most useful word for describing human nature, even if one agrees with the sentiment. Self-interest is a more illustrative and accurate term. If self-interest demands that a person take all that they can for themselves and deprive others, then we have actions that line up well with a common definition of greed. However, if we need to cooperate to survive we are still basing our decisions on self-interest or “greed”, but not in the conventional sense of greed. The fact that we used to live in classless societies doesn’t mean that self-interest was subordinated to compassion; it could simply mean that self-interest required different strategies for its realization.

    • Umair

      But what would a “deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism” have to do with self-interest? Certainly where self-preservation is of interest, it would be difficult to find self-interest subordinated to compassion, but at a stage comfortably beyond self-preservation it very easily can be.

      • Umair

        Ah, and I should add: if we’re chasing “self-interest” to a degree that disregards concerns of self-preservation in the medium and long-term, then it’s safe to say that it’s greed that currently reigns and not self-interest.

  • Christian Medina

    One of my favorite examples used against the notion of human nature as self interested is War. Many quote war as the ultimate expression of individual self interest. However, empirically speaking war is completely the opposite. It is one of the most cooperative affairs out there. Cooperation between soldiers and self sacrifice are two traits of war.

    Human nature is not selfish and it is not selfless either. Human nature is discriminatory. Not in the racial sense (although sometimes it can be), but in the sense of how we define “us” and how we define “them”. (this can be done in terms of race, class, gender, nationality, rational/moral standing, taste in music, family among others) We are compassionate towards what we define as “us” and we are greedy and selfish towards those that we define as “them”.

    Now one disclaimer, I’m not making a “ought” assessment, I’m making an “is” one.

    • Umair

      I kind of don’t want to say this, but I think the examples you used actually provide support for the idea that human beings are solely self-interested.

      I don’t think anyone would argue that human beings are self-interested in a strictly and absolutely individualistic sense. And that’s the sort of position you’re attacking. Aligning ourselves with communities/nations, or those with similar interests could be seen as a way to extend our self-interest, perceived or real. The idea that we can be compassionate towards, or self-sacrifice for the benefit of, only those with whom our interests are aligned — those who are “us” — has a shallow, even self-interested, tinge to it.

      Having said that, I don’t believe that humans are capable of only being self-interested.

      What I wanted to get across in the post was the idea that human nature is inherently good. That “humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted…sense of community.” Such is true regardless of whether we see others as “us” or “them”.

      The Chinese philosopher Mencius gave a great example to support this view (at least according to his Wikipedia page: http://bit.ly/eRGx16)
      “To show innate goodness, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel ‘alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]…'”

      In the end, though, there’s no way to conclusively prove anything here. As Chomsky says about these sorts of things, it’s not as if we’re dealing with science so it really just comes down to where one’s hopes lie.

  • Xun Zi

    I think you should finish your ideas. Rise above laziness. Addendum!
    Then I will lay the ground for a rebuttal.

    • Umair


      I think I feel alright with what’s here, especially now with what the comments have added. There are a couple of other things I’ve been thinking about putting down, but I think they might ruin the feel-good vibe I’m trying to get across. … laziness is still definitely playing a part, though.

      I’m sorta worried about this coming rebuttal.

      P.S. I had to look up what addendum means.

  • Elmira R

    Let’s talk about a situation that really puts human nature to the test, and questions it too. Wars.Think of the concentration camps and the barrack chiefs. Their horrendous acts wasn’t just out of compliance and fear of authority but rage and the release of their inner evil.

    A Kleinian perspective explains the evil human nature as follows. “Every self is inherently evil, murderous, genocidal. However, almost every self has the potential to subordinate these innate tendencies to an innate tendency to love and care for others. Indeed, it is the inherent evil within us that gives the powerful need to make reparation for its energy”

  • Elmira R

    Maybe a short anecdote would be of help. Laks explains in his book ‘music of another world’ the strange story of Albert Haemmerle, a barrack chief, who took an interest in a young charming Pole. Unfortunately, their love didn’t last as the young boy left him for another camp VIP. He was of course crushed.
    How did he get over it? well, his rage had 2 very opposite manifestations.
    He took out his revenge on the prisoners in a record-beating massacre, ignoring the warning of camp authorities.
    One would think that, given the role of the camp orchestra in his relationship, which I’m not going to go into in detail, the camp orchestra would have suffered from this too.
    But no. He didn’t take it out on the camp orchestra. Instead, he took refuge in their sentimental melodies and romances.
    Going back to Klein, “almost every self has the potential to subordinate these innate tendencies to an innate tendency to love and care for others.”
    (I didn’t really show the extent to which Germans loved and adored music, but just take my word for it.)
    How can people who love music to this extent, be at the same time capable of committing so many atrocities on the rest of humanity?
    It’s not the ‘arrangement of society’ that forces people into compliance. It’s about the evil within humans that, when not subordinated to love, can propel human behaviour.

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