ARE humans fundamentally good or bad? It’s a question that runs through the history of human thought. According to Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” The two philosophers who perhaps best represent the pessimistic view and the optimistic are, respectively, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacque Rousseau.
According to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind, these two thinkers ‘continue to be pitted against each other in the philosophical boxing ring’. Their respective positions go to the heart of the deep divide. And indeed, Bregman thinks that the ramifications are far-reaching embracing harsher ‘punishments versus better social services, reform school versus art school, top-down management versus empowered teams, old-fashioned breadwinners versus baby-toting dads – take just about any debate you can think of and it goes back, in some way, to the opposition between Hobbes and Rousseau’. This is big claim and one to which followers of Karl Marx and Adam Smith might raise an eyebrow or two. After all it could be argued that as important as the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ is the conflict between individualism and communitarianism, but with that caveat in place, it’s difficult not to recognise the importance of human nature.
For Thomas Hobbes human ‘life in that state of nature was, in his words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because humans “are driven by fear” leaving us in a “condition of war of all against all”,’ writes Bregman. But fear not because chaos ‘can be tamed and peace established if we all just agree to relinquish our liberty’ into the hands of a ‘solitary sovereign’ whom he dubs the Leviathan – the name that also graces his magnum opus (as a matter of interest Hobbes was born near Malmesbury and there is an early edition of The Leviathan in the town’s museum). Bregman characterizes this position as: “Give us power, or all is lost.” It is civilization that is our saviour from brute nature. The idea that humanity is fundamentally bad is also contained within the notion of Original Sin which, regardless of whether you are Christian or not, is embedded in much of Western culture and can, perhaps, be observed with chilling effect in the words of the traditional Baptism service.
Rousseau, on the other hand, takes a completely opposite view. For him we are naturally good in a state of nature and it is only the institutions of civilization that warp that natural goodness. He argues that ‘civil society is not a blessing, but a curse’. Rousseau understood that ‘man is naturally good, and that it is from these institutions alone that man becomes wicked’. In contrast to Hobbes, writes Bregman, Rousseau is saying: “Give us liberty, or all is lost.”
Bregman is in no doubt that Rousseau is right. For him for most of human history we ‘inhabited an egalitarian world without kings or aristocrats, presidents or CEOs’, and if anyone got a bit uppity they were quickly swatted by the community. But according to Bregman problems began about 10,000 years ago. “From the moment we began settling in one place and amassing private property, our group instinct was no longer innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchy it became downright toxic. And once leaders began raising armies to do their bidding there was no stopping the corruptive effects of power,” he writes, acknowledging at the same time the importance of community attachments in countering this process.
The problem is that Hobbes won the argument, ably assisted as we have seen at least in the West by Original Sin. And of course Bregman has some work to do to convince us that Rousseau was right. What about William Golding’s Lord of the Flies? What about the infamous psychological experiment by Stanley Milgrim during which 65 per cent of volunteers gave what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to ‘learners’ who got memory tests wrong? The experiment was immortalized in the book Obedience to Authority and helped to explain everything from the holocaust to the supposed veneer of civilization and the justification of Hobbes. According to Bregman, however, a more detailed examination of the shock treatment experiment shows how resistant the guinea pigs were to obeying the orders. Bregman argues that ‘evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out’ particularly if, as in the case of the shock treatment exercise, ‘they think they are being evil for the greater good’. He brings the same argument to bear on the perpetrators of the holocaust, particularly Adolf Eichmann who was characterized by Hannah Arendt as the epitome of the ‘banality of evil’. For Bregman, however, he believes that Eichmann, and others like him, didn’t do what they did because they wanted to do evil but because they thought they were doing the right thing, they thought they were doing good, however misguided they were (it should be said here that this is a hugely simplified account of his argument).
There is an occasional whiff of confirmation bias in Humankind because Bregman is so committed to his thesis. But, refreshingly, he is well aware of this problem and does his best to eliminate it. On the other hand he is paddling heroically against a tide of human thought that simply assumes that Hobbes was right. And to be clear Bregman is not arguing that we should all abandon civilization and become hunter gatherers. He acknowledges that things have become better in at least some parts of the world over the past 200 years, even if there has been a regression in recent years. In the end his claim is remarkably simple – that most people are pretty decent most of the time and he finishes with an optimistic rallying cry: “So be realistic. Be courageous. Be true to your nature and offer your trust. Do good in broad daylight and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. You may be dismissed as gullible and naïve at first. But remember, what’s naïve today may be common sense tomorrow.” Oh, and don’t watch the news!