Human Nature

 As I make progress on this book, I grow increasingly doubtful that it will ever be published.  It just seems to me to be such an unusual kind of book, and so at odds with the agenda of most publishers, that I cannot quite conceive of it ever getting into print in any traditional way. But perhaps many people feel that way as they work on long writing projects.  
One concern I have is the imagined audience.  As I’ve mentioned before, I envision this book as recording what I would hope to be able to tell my daughters as they finish college.  I try to write in a way that I believe they would be able to understand, if they put in a little effort, and at the same to to make it clear why that effort is worth expending.  I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded in this, or if I have correctly assessed the capacities and interests of a college senior today.  
Nevertheless, I persist.  
Here is one of the short chapters from Part II. This is not one that appeared in the original outline I posted a few weeks ago. I’ve added some chapters, cut others, as I’ve worked through the various arguments.  
This one seems to me particularly important.  To avoid the common postmodern argument that any position is merely subjective, so there is no arguing for one ideological position against another, it is essential to recognize that, pace Nietzsche, interpretation does not go all the way down.  
This should give an indication of the length and level of difficulty of the short chapter that make up Part II of the book.  Any constructive feedback would be appreciated.  

 

Human Nature

There are generally two broad approaches to human nature popular today.  

One is to assert a rigidly determined human nature, the result of evolution, written in our genes at the moment our species first evolved on some Paleolithic plain.  Evolutionary demands can then account for our every behavior, from child rearing to video-game preferences, from our taste for sweets to our tendency to violence.  Of course, as we saw in discussing reductivism in Chapter 2, there is always an out.  Our every behavior, up to and including our impulse purchases on the internet, are as predictable as the sunrise because they are irresistibly forced by the instincts of our stone-age ancestors.  But we can always, with that completely free and unconstructed mind the reductivists always have recourse to, understand and manipulate these irresistible tendencies for our advantage—provided we are one of the special few who have such a mind, a mind completely free of all social, cultural, and biological determinations.  (Of course, advocates of this position do agree that they also have the same instinctive programming as the rest of us; it is just that they also have this un-programmed higher intellect that allows them to rise above their instincts.)

The other approach is to claim that there is no human nature at all. All of our supposedly inherent tendencies are actually learned from our particular culture.  As the existentialists would put it, for humans existence precedes essence: we have no essential nature, we have only the kind of “natural” tendencies we produce in ourselves.  For the existentialist, and for the social constructionist, the goal is to abandon our conditioning and self-consciously choose the life we want.  But how exactly are we able to do that, if we are socially constructed? And how could we decide what kind of a life it would be best to want, anyway?

Of course at this point many sociologists and social psychologists would want to insist they have solved this problem: they engage in the perennial nature-nurture debate, in which we endlessly try to figure exactly which of our behaviors are a result of biological necessity and which are caused by our personal experiences.  This debate, however, is exasperating and never goes anywhere.  One reason is the failure to notice that in any given phenomenon under debate there are both Mi and Md causes at work.  We can’t decide whether something like your musical ability is genetically determined or learned, because those are the wrong terms in which to discuss such things.  We cannot say musical ability is genetic, in the way your eye color is, because it is not a thing passed down from parents but a capacity that inheres in all members of the species—it is more like having eyes than having an eye color.   And we cannot say an individuals passion for music is “learned,” because the definition of this term in psychology and education refers to things trained into us by rote, like teaching a dog to sit, and certainly the social determinates of someone’s passion for music are mostly outside what would count as “learning” to the psychologist.  

So let’s set aside the tired old nature-nurture terminology, and figure a better way to address the problem of whether there is anything that might count as human nature.  I am going to take an Aristotelian approach to this problem, and ask: What kind of a thing is it that a human animal is? That is, metaphysically (in the sense we defined that term in chapter 2), what is it that a human animal is attempting to continue being, in resistance to all contingent external forces?  Aristotle offers two suggestions, which have been widely cited but not widely understood: humans are social animals, animals “of the city”, by which he means not just that humans, like bison, are gregarious, but that we are animals that create a city, as social organization in which to live together; and humans are “zoon logikon,” or animals of the logos, meaning something like thinking and reasoning in language.  If we accept these both as true, what would we have to assume is the basic nature of the human being to do in the world? What would it need to go on doing in order to continue to be a human? The answer I hope to arrive at is quite minimalist.  It won’t include most of the things listed in a book on evolutionary psychology, for instance.  On the other hand, it will be much more constraining than the approach of most existentialists and social constructionists.  In order to get at my answer, then, I want to work dialectically, and begin by coming to an understanding of exactly why these common approaches to the problem fail. 

What kind of things, according to the evolutionary psychologists, are hard wired into our natures since cave-man times?  Consider one example from the book Evolutionary Psychology: a beginner’s guide.  The authors of this book suggest that when looking at “lonely hearts advertisements” we can see how our present day mating behaviors are completely determined by our Paleolithic origins.  Men, they find, are interested in attractiveness and youth, while women are interested in wealth and status.  The argument is that this is perfectly explained by the need to successfully reproduce the species in our cave-man stage.  Women who are young and attractive are more likely to be fertile (if we assume that signs of fertility and health are what we mean by attractive), and men who have more resources will better provide food and protection during the child-rearing years.  Makes sense, right?  Most people are immediately convinced by this, it seems.  Evolutionary psychology is enormously convincing to undergraduate college students.

But is there really any correspondence between modern day career success and primitive abilities to hunt successfully?  Is the interest here really survival of the child, or the comfort and affluence of the woman?  And can we really suggest that cave-men mated only with women that seemed likely to produce healthy offspring?  Does that even seem at all plausible?  In addition, is it likely that early members of the genus Homo lived in fierce financial competition with their neighbors, as we do today?  Perhaps the survival of the child may have depended on the cooperation of the entire band, not of the individual?  Why would we assume that the instincts of Homo Habilis, for instance, evolved in a social climate very much like our modern capitalist society, with a focus on monogamy, competition, and individualism? Yet if we don’t assume this, the entire theory falls apart.

Or consider another example from one of the major promoters of evolutionary psychology today, Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism Is True, he argues that road rage can be explained by our primitive need to stand up for ourselves.  Anyone who “stole your food, stole your mate…you needed to teach him a lesson”(31).  Perhaps, again if we assume a primitive world in which we are all competitive possessive individuals.  Or, perhaps not even then.  Is road rage really of the same nature as defending your share of food from a greedy tribemate?  Think about what people get into road rage about.  For instance, I’ve had many people become passionately enraged with me because I tend to stop at yellow lights.  Countless times I’ve had drivers hitting their horn, screaming obscenities, flipping the finger, because I stopped at a red light they planned to run—and after the light turns they often pass me illegally screaming in anger.  Is this situation in any way similar to stealing their mate?  

This is a case of a common rhetorical strategy I think of as the cow and the boulder.  From a distance, and in bad light, if we squint, a cow and a boulder are both big brown things out in a field.  So we can say that they are in some sense the same kind of thing. But you cannot make a wall out of cows, or cheese from a boulder.  Similarly, we can find some vague way in which road rage looks a bit like something a caveman might have done to survive; but that similarity is found at the cost of forgetting anything of real use we might learn about a more thorough examination of the kind of thing road rage really is.  

On the other hand, we can point to all kinds of forms of life people have adapted to and endured, and suggest there must be no such thing as human nature if we can live in such diverse cultural conditions.  But again, this ignores the many situations which human beings could not tolerate, which they would rather die than endure.  Not just conditions like slavery, but even our own current American way of life.  The dramatic increase in drug addiction, use of psychiatric medications, and suicide that have occurred in recent decades should be sufficient evidence that we are not infinitely malleable beings.  There are some basic needs that must be met, and by  blindly asserting that we have no essential nature at all we are failing to examine exactly what those might be.  

So let’s take a closer look.  What, for instance, might be the real cause of road rage?  Perhaps the powerlessness we feel at having to adapt to a way of life we did not choose, have no control over, and which makes us into anonymous operators trying to interact with countless other anonymous operators in a system not well suited to any of us really achieving what we are after.  Perhaps driving becomes simply one more place where we are forced into an endless and tedious task, one more place where our interactions are with anonymous others who are usually not only indifferent to us but to whom we are merely in the way.  If we think about this more carefully, see the dramatic differences between road rage and defending our food from a very specific aggressor who is not at all anonymous, then we might begin to see what kind of thing we cannot, in fact, adapt to despite a century now of doing it every day.  

Then we can begin to arrive at a minimalist concept of human nature. One that doesn’t include any particular attempt to account for, by naturalizing,  the kinds of undesirable behavior we find ourselves repeating.  

My own ideas about what this might be have been inspired primarily by the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, and by Karl Marx.  I’ll begin with Spinoza.

In his Ethics, Spinoza explains the crucial importance of our ability to act in the world.  He argues that anything that increases our ability to act in the world produces Joy, and anything that decreases this ability to Sadness (160-161, 188-189).  Further, for Spinoza the mind is inextricably part of the material world, so that anything that “increases or diminishes our body’s power of acting,” will produce in the mind a way of thinking which will also increase or diminish our “mind’s power of thinking”(P11, 160).  What is he saying here?  That our natural tendency, as humans, is to go on increasing our capacity to engage with the world.  And this must not be understood merely physically, but also intellectually, because any increase in our intellectual understanding of the world is connected to an increase in our bodily capacity to do so.  If we come to a better understanding of the basic elements, for example, we can begin to isolate and use different kinds of metals, and so ultimately construct things we would never have been able to make without this knowledge.   We are Joyous, Spinoza tells us, when we are in the process of increasing our physical and mental engagement with the world around us.  I would want to insist that this engagement must be not only with the Mi world of animals, plants and minerals, but also the Md world of other humans and our collective social institutions.  

To put it simply, we are flourishing when we are able to actively engage with the world around us, remaking it and shaping it, rather than simply adapting to and enduring it.  

Marx’s idea is quite similar here.  Many have accuse Marx of buying into, even of originating, the idea that humans beings have not inherent nature. In an interesting short book on this question, Norman Geras refutes this misconception. As he explains, what Marx was interested in promoting was a society in which every individual would have

time available for ‘the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind’; ‘scope for the development of man’s faculties’; and a variety of pursuit—for ‘a man’s vital forces…find recreation and delight,’ Marx says, in ‘change of activity.’  Of course, time, scope and variety do not necessarily mean the absence of all effort and are not proposed by him in that sense.  The expenditure of labour-power, he contends, is ‘man’s normal life-activity’, some work and ‘suspension of tranquility’ a need, teh ‘overcoming of obstacles…a liberating activity’.  Genuinely free work can require ‘the most intense exertion’.  However, this is self-determining exertion and conceived as part of a breadth of individual development. (84-85)

We must remember that without making effort, we can never be fulfilled, because it is in our nature as humans to make an effort to increase our capacity for engaging the world.  But the effort must be “self-determining,” not in the sense of radically individual but in the sense that every individual must be able to participate in the collective decisions as to what kind of social projects we will undertake.  

This is the minimal sense of human nature we need to begin from.  Once we accept that this is the nature of a human being, we don’t need to fear that we will have no solid ground on which to justify an objection to any kind of social agenda which happens to gain popularity and power.  There may be many kinds of social projects, many ideologies, which will fulfill this demand of human nature, and there may be no rational argument to decide between them. However, we will always be able to justify opposing any social project which can be shown to deny this nature to those who participate in it.  On this basis, if the ability of some people to increase their capacity to engage the world is gained only at the expense of some others being denied this capacity, we can legitimately take the position that this particular social formation is unacceptable, and those denied the opportunity to increase their powers of engagement, denied the development of their faculties in Marx’s phrase, should refuse to participate in it.

We will need to figure out just what all of our “faculties” are, what capacities to engage in the world humans need to develop.  At the very least, we can agree with Aristotle that we are social animals, and language using animals.  We need to develop our interaction with other humans, through the use of language.  Since it is such a fundamental part of what makes us distinctively human, we will also need to be actively engaged in the construction of the language we use.  To attempt to abandon language and pretend we can sink down into a pre-linguistic engagement with the world, or on th other hand to adhere overly rigidly to an existing language formation and deny our need to actively participate in constructing the languages with which we engage one another and comprehend the Mi world, would be to deny our human nature.  

Because of the vital importance of language to the nature of our species, we will consider, and attempt to correct, some of our most common misconceptions about language in the next chapter.  

On Elections and Opinions

I’m going to record some thoughts on an issue that runs throughout the book.  At the moment, I’m puzzling over whether this issue can be made sufficiently clear by mentioning it in connection with many of the topics discussed in other chapters, or if I will need to give it some more focused attention in an additional chapter.

That issue is the present apparently sacred nature of opinion.  As Badiou says in Second Manifesto for Philosophy, “It has become difficult to challenge opinion, even though this would seem the duty of all philosophy since Plato”(15).  Having, and sticking by, opinions is considered a basic human right, and changing one’s opinions as a result of something as trivial as factual evidence and rational argument is a sign of weakness.  Even more, ever having changed one’s opinion on anything at all is seen almost as a moral failing, an indication that nothing one says now should ever be given serious consideration. I have seen people attacked for abandoning the homophobia they espoused in their youth, even by those in the LGBTQ community: if he used to hate gays, then his current denunciation of that position is not a positive change, but makes him even worse—he not only once hated gays, but also doesn’t remain unchanging in his opinion; he is the worst kind of human being, one open to being persuaded by argument, and surely that’s worse than a homophobe! 

Opinions are taken to be somehow born into us, and holding firm to them is not just our right, but our duty.  If we fail to do this, we have demonstrated the greatest weakness of all, an openness to evidence and argument. And this, somehow, would threaten the very fabric of our capitalist world.  At the least, it would suggest a form of subjectivity at odds with what capitalist ideologies assume about their subjects.  

Consider the practice of elections.  What are they but a ritual, meant to strengthen and celebrate the core ideology of global capitalism: there are bodies and there are opinions (to adapt Badiou’s formula).  The goal is to determine what those opinions are, and find a way to exploit them so as to further enslave the mass of those bodies in debt to the wealthiest 5%.  To that end, no politician could hope to win by offering arguments and evidence as to which particular plan would be in the best interest of the citizens.  The winner will be whoever somehow, usually with cheap rhetoric (rhetoric in the bad sense) manages to convince some majority group that their right to hold whatever opinion makes them a group is threatened, and that he will defend the right to this opinion.  Whether holding this opinion is connected to anyone’s particular best interest becomes a secondary concern, if it is considered at all.

We like to think we have a democracy, but of course we have nothing of the kind.  A democracy would entail a debate in which the goal is to make explicit the underlying social project we hope to advance, and explain why this is in the best interest of everyone, or at least of the majority of people.  This making explicit is the one thing that we must never do in our political system.  We cannot state explicitly what our fundamental goals really are, so all the key “issues” in any election are meant only to obscure them, to shift the focus to one or another set of opinions, and therefor we have a contest over which opinion is held by the majority.  

For democracy to even begin, we would need to be able to work to change opinions, exactly by making explicit what their underlying assumptions are and what collective social project they help to advance.  

Consider a challenging essay on this point by Sally Haslanger, “But Mom, Crop-Tops Are Cute” (originally published in Philosophical Issues, 2007, and collected in her book Resisting Reality, 2012).  Haslanger illustrates the problem of changing our ideological positions using the example of a debate between parents and their middle-school daughter about what it is appropriate to wear to school.  What is at stake here is not who is correct about the actual cuteness of a shirt that exposes the midriff, although we may get caught up in this question.  Or, the parents may focus on the wrong issues in their response, like whether the girl can be just as cute in some more modest outfit, or whether her wearing this may contribute to the marginalization of girls who are not slim enough to look cute in a crop-top.  The goal, however, should be to arrive at what Haslanger calls some “common ground.” And the only way to do this is to get clear on what underlying overall project gives rise to the particular belief.  Can it become clear that the real underlying debate is between whether it is best to become popular in middle school by being seen as sexually attractive, and so to have social success among one’s peers, or whether it is better to consider long term success in academics which might require ignoring current popularity and even perhaps not allowing oneself to be judged by one’s sexual desirability?  Can the two side make explicit their different fundamental social projects?  Once they do there may be some way to negotiate for common ground, without talking at cross-purposes. Or, if there is not common ground, then at least it becomes possible to make arguments that one or both social projects are flawed, and will not deliver the best overall results—that their costs will outweigh their benefits.  But first we have to agree on what “benefits” we all want.  

Democracy, then, depends on making explicit the outcome our position sees as desirable. And this is exactly what capitalism must necessarily obscure.

So what is the function of elections?  In a discussion of the importance of ritual, in his book The Language Animal, Charles Taylor suggests that our most fundamental “values and goods” include “human rights and democracy as a mode of government”(279).  We work to “recover the vivid sense of solidarity, of sharing a worthwhile goal”(277), through rituals like Fourth of July celebrations.  On Taylor’s account, then, democracy is the essential core social project, and Fourth of July holiday events are the “restorative ritual” which helps to keep us invested in this project.

Obviously, I think this misses the point.  Because clearly we do not believe in anything like democracy as a mode of government—except in the bizarre distortion of the term “democracy” common today. Rather, I would argue that elections are the “restorative ritual” that helps to maintain our investment in one of the core components of our (ultimately obscure) social project. That is, elections restore and revitalize our attachment to the idea of a subject who is nothing but a body with opinions.  Those opinions must not have been arrived at in any kind of rational, intellectual discourse. They are part of this subject’s “true self” only if they are not at all open to change due to the discovery of new facts or the understanding of a logical argument.  We hold elections to celebrate our concept of ourselves as having a right to any opinion we cannot justify and will never relinquish.  This subject, of course, is not our ultimate social project—that is the reproduction of the capitalist economic system, to which we all must remain servants. Our economy isn’t there to serve human needs; rather, we must construct human subjects to serve the needs of the deeply contradictory and destructive system, capitalism.  It should be clear enough, though, how the devotion to opinion is in service of a social project supposedly (of course not actually) dependent on something called the “free market.”  If the market is to be the ultimate determinant of all worth, it must be a given that the desires and tastes of the consumers are not open to change, these cannot be corrigible, or else the rightness of the outcome would be open to challenge.

Two key points emerge from this, which run throughout the argument I am making.  One, obviously, is that we must eliminate the myth that hermeneutics goes all the way down.  We cannot allow opinions to be sacred and inviolable, but must recover the idea that it is our task to critique and improve our opinions (including all of our beliefs and our supposedly deepest desires). The other is that it is essential to get clear on what really is the core social project at stake in any social practice. That is, we must not mistake an intermediate practice for the more fundamental arrangement of human society it is meant to support.  We will need to go all the way down to the most basic level: how have we decided to organize our production and distribution of the needs of human beings?

As I’ve said, this point informs the entire book I’m working on.  I haven’t yet decided if I need to make it explicitly in a separate chapter, by expanding on what I’ve written here, or if it is adequately conveyed, even better conveyed, in connection with all the other arguments about other issues I make throughout the book.