Thursday, June 4, 2015

We're Not So Bad

For all the differences between the devoutly religious and Ayn Rand-type social Darwinists, they seem to have a certain narrative in common: that human nature is selfish, unsympathetic, and downright cold. For the capitalist social Darwinists, this is the justification for sweeping away all sorts of social welfare programs and having an every-man-for-himself style free market--it's only natural, after all. For the fervently religious, it's why people need some kind of divinely sanctioned morality to live by, lest they succumb to their sinister inner nature and care only about themselves.

It's not just these two groups that have this conception, either; the popular consensus really does seem to be that human nature is pretty brutal. For liberals, it's why we need economic regulations. For conservatives, it's why we need to be tough on crime and value deterrence over rehabilitation. Even I've put out a couple blog posts that paint a less-than-glowing image of human nature.

And it's not that this conception is entirely wrong; sure, people can be selfish, cold, brutal, and downright monstrous. We see examples of that all the time in the news, from ISIS to Israel-Palestine to the chilling dispassion of those running large corporations to the lives of their workers and customers. But what we overlook is that we also see people working together for their mutual benefit, and even going out of their way to help others, on a daily basis. Often it's something small--holding the door for another person or letting them switch lanes in front of you in a traffic jam. But it's not insignificant.

And, although I've used the term "social Darwinist," it's really not quite appropriate seeing that Darwin himself called the human capacity for sympathy toward others "the noblest part of our nature." Zoologist and evolutionary theorist Peter Kropotkin also argued that mutual aid is the most important factor in evolution:
Peter Kropotkin (from Wikimedia)

"There is an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species; there is, at the same time, as much, or perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defense...Sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle."
So it's not just some idealistic idea that the human species has a natural capacity for cooperating and sympathy with one another; rather, those things really are every bit as natural as competition and cruelty.

And, for that matter, people as a general rule do better for themselves when cooperating, rather than competing. That's why workers form unions and businesses form cartels--in each case, they understand it's better to cooperate with each other than to compete. Certainly, competition can drive people to do better; but cooperation actually enables them to do better.

The growing gap between the rich and everyone else can be traced, ultimately, to the fact that it's gotten increasingly easy for the rich to cooperate for their benefit and increasingly hard for everyone else to do so: while banks are allowed to become "too big to fail" and corporate lobbyists often find friends in Congress willing to make a deal with them, workers are forced to compete with each other for jobs without the benefits that unions used to offer. It isn't that the rich have simply come out on top through some grand competition; rather, they've stayed ahead by working together, while everyone else has had to compete with each other.

The point of all of this is that people do cooperate completely of their own accord all the time; so, no, the Hobbesian war of all against all is really not something that happens in real life, under normal circumstances. So the people who want to model the economy on that should understand that what they're proposing is not "natural" anymore than our current economy, or an entirely socialist economy, or any other. The people who are sure that without religion or morality we would all be murdering each other in the streets should ask themselves why, then, there are so many instances of people cooperating for their mutual benefit when morality and religion didn't come into play; or, for that matter, why there are so many examples of altruism among animals when they presumably have neither, at least in the human understanding of the words.

We do have the capacity to establish societies based on cooperation and mutual aid, rather than competition; they are not doomed to fail based on human nature, as so many have asserted. We also have the capacity to continue on our current course, where the few cooperate and the many compete, for the benefit of the former and detriment of the latter. Cooperation will continue either way; but who it will benefit is to be seen. The choice is ours.

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