Faith in Humanity: An Impossible Conundrum
Are people naturally inclined to be good or bad? Can you, do you want to pick a side in Rousseau’s primordial question?
Jean Jacques might not have been the first one to think about it, but he was witty enough to verbalise it in a fairly compelling manner. His stance was clear and uplifting: To “Are humans good by nature and corrupted by society?,” he replied with a simple and resounding Yes. We are naturally good, and vice and error corrupt us, he said.
The question is a primordial one as it’s deeply linked to what I like to call the human experience. Centuries of scratching our heads while watching or performing acts of selfishness and violence have allowed for multiple people and fields to politely diverge and disagree. Different disciplines (literature, psychology, law, economics and politics just to name a few) can now focus on failing at providing a final answer — in parallel!
Rousseau’s posture seems to hold its ground still, at least in certain areas: Fairy tales express the universal truth of good vs evil and the prevalence of the latter, and pretty much every book written and movie made capitalises on the dilemma (and let’s be honest, it’s generally the good guys who get to celebrate in the end.) The internet, on the other side, seems more inclined to define humanity as a bunch of gigantic a**hats, and celebrate the occasional “faith restored” with suspecting gleeful cheer.
My though is: Is there a proper answer to the question, and more importantly, is the question even valid nowadays?
We all know generalisations are limiting at best. All humanity good? All humanity evil? Of course we are talking about a garden of middle-grounds. Yet, a scientific approach regarding empathy and selfishness should be able to provide a decent attempt to answer.
For psychology, about 10 to 15% of the population has some sort of Type B personality disorder. This includes narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths, who by definition cannot put themselves in other people’s shoes. Since every force has an equal counter force, we could suppose (there aren’t as many MRI scans yet) that 10 to 15% of people are probably on the empathetic side, and suffer disproportionately due to this. So… we are not getting closer to an answer, yet…
It seems like human nature supports both selfish and prosocial traits. Different experiments go in this direction: In certain scenarios, selfishness works best. In others, cooperation is the way to go. And a little cheating is not considered unethical, as long as others are also doing it and it’s not a significant abuse.
Does this get us closely to solving the conundrum on a personal level? I think not. Because the famous nihilist meme is based on my own perception of humanity, and a thousand affirmations about nature and nurture won’t make me feel better about the dreadful state of the world today. So even if the answer were “Yes, we are good by nature,” what difference does it really make to, say, the citizens of Aleppo?
Now, here is where it gets ugly. This is the reason I began this piece. Because the rules of the game are different for different players, and for some, there simply are no rules at all. What kind of agreement can we reach if one party respects it and the other actively undermines it for their own selfish, usually self-justified purpose? If one side has made astuteness a perfect art?
If you were expecting a happy ending, I have bad news. Go find a nice fairy tale or movie. In this world, we must constantly pivot. The unfairness, the pain, the thirst for justice… I don’t think we are naturally bad either, I think we are ridiculously varied and have to deal with insane scenarios that are way beyond our control. We must constantly evaluate, negotiate and somehow thrive.
I still pick my ethics, though. Even if they place me on the losing team. On the one side, because I am who I am and I find bliss in consistency, on the other… because we still exist. As a species, as a group, we are here, and I think we are slowly getting better at being decent. My individual feels might be compromised, my life ended in a second, but we are greater in number. At least there is more visibility now. And a team always has to lose, but the game… the game, my friend, continues.