Human Nature

I’m editing a book by a political scientist on “loss of faith in our social and governing institutions.” Seems pretty relevant right now!

I can’t got into detail about the author’s work as it has not yet been published, but I can write about a quote she included that caught my eye:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, 1882, pp. 288-89.

I think this kind of lack of faith in others, this lack of kindness and reciprocity between individuals is still with us today, possibly to a greater degree than in Hume’s day. It seems to me that many aspects of modern culture contribute to this pervasive tendency:

  • the impossibility of understanding the creation and activity of objects around us, which contributes to a pervasive feeling of powerlessness
  • the isolation created by our forms of housing, transportation, and leisure activities
  • materialism, which encourages us to think of money and possessions rather than people and activities
  • our culture of fear, magnified by ubiquitous media sources that overemphasize violence and human failings

In particular, we have developed an “us vs. them” attitude in so many parts of Western culture — be it Christians vs. Muslims, citizens vs. immigrants, conservatives vs. liberals, pro-life vs. pro-choice, rural vs. urban, and so on. The problem with this kind of dualistic thinking is, well, that it’s simply wrong. Assigning a single value, or even a few related values, to an inherently complex human being is just fallacious and overly simplistic. But it does make it very easy for us to decide how to think about and treat others:

  • “Pro-choice people are condoning murder.”
  • “I won’t shop at the corner store because the owner is a Muslim.”
  • “Conservatives only care about themselves and don’t want to help others.”
  • “People who don’t support arms control are just crazy.”

Of course, one of the most obvious and publicized dichotomies is in the US political system: Democrats and Republicans own the show, with independents, Greens, Libertarians, and others just a footnote in the process. So we have grand pronouncements by our representatives and candidates claiming to “reach across the aisle” to work in a bipartisan manner. As if it were such a great effort to listen to others and try to work out compromises that benefit everyone as much as possible.

But as Eve recently said, “There is no aisle.” We seem pretty schizophrenic in this country: one minute we’re all “united we stand”, the next we’re “bipartisan”, and then sometimes we’re fierce individualists. Those things are all true (or can be), but in the end, we’re all human beings with the same basic needs. We could all be helping one another on a local, personal level, and we could all do more to understand what “the other” is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. If we got back to dealing with other human beings in a personal way, recognizing our unique identities in addition to our commonalities, I think that would do much more to enhance our feeling of “mutual confidence and security” than any walls we might build or legislation we might enact.

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Filed under Books, Deep Thoughts, Politics, Religion

16 responses to “Human Nature

  1. I was having a discussion yesterday with someone about the utility of categories and labels; the context of our debate was do to with psychological diagnosis, but I think the general principles carry over into a broader frame of reference. There’s a fine line between useful organization of information, and insularity. I think we have some natural desire to identify with a group (well, most of us do, at least) and yet our senses of self are so poorly-defined that we can’t accurately see anything existing outside that group.

    I think this is partly a postmodern phenomenon, to do with decentralization of authority. Not too long ago, the groups were pretty big: Royal Family, Court, Nobles, and Everyone Else. But now we live in a world of stratified mosaic, where nobody is really sure where they fit, and their senses of themselves seem composed of fragments, like I’m an eco-friendly, vegan, stay-at-home, far-left, homeschooling, recovering codependent mother. I mean, I actually see people describe themselves in ways such as that, as though they are oddly assembled from some bin of identity pieces.

    It’s harder to see what we all have in common when we are assembling ourselves from pieces desperately glued together. We’re too afraid of something being jarred loose or scavenged away from us, I think.

  2. Wow, that comment might have made more sense without the bourbon I’m using as a cold remedy. Geez.

  3. that quote saddened me deeply, mostly because i see how it plays out in people’s lives, and they don’t even realize the impact in their own lives and the lives of others. thanks for giving me something to think on this evening.

  4. Hmm. But there are alternatives – you yourself link to Freecycle and bookmooch (incidentally, I’m resting on Bookmooch as I simply can’t afford the amount of postage it seemed to involve but we still Freecycle). The impact of Creative Commons and Lessig, the workshop/conference I’m attending next Thursday about the business sense of giving stuff away…It’s not all doom and gloom!

  5. David: You made perfect sense. Scary to think what you’re like off the cold medicine 🙂

    Your comments echo a lot of what Rudolf Steiner said about modern life and consciousness. He spoke many times about how we are currently in a state of increased individual consciousness, compared with (approximately) humanity prior to the 19th century. We have been cast out of Eden, in that we are no longer able to depend on instinctive cultural or religious guidelines, and certainly nationalism is no longer appropriate either.

    But what that does is make us like Adam and Eve: cast out, cold and hungry, and shifting for ourselves. We have to consciously decide everything instead of being told what to do (or simply knowing what to do).

    So I think we end up sounding disjointed, because we have to make our own groups now. We have to find like-minded people instead of simply being born to our social stratum and environment. I was just reading about the work of women in the Middle Ages, for example: there is ample evidence that most women of that time did not travel farther than about 5 miles from their homes in their lifetimes! Consider how mobile our society is, so that we are more often than not cast adrift from our families, as well.

    Angela: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is sad, isn’t it? But then, if as I said in my comment to David, we are responsible for making our own social connections, then that also allows us to do so, as opposed to the social and cultural restrictions of past ages. So there is hope!

    URD: Yes, it’s not all gloom and doom. That’s why I called it a “tendency”. I certainly use my computer to offset isolation in my own life (though obviously that has its social limitations) and to engage in trusting and free interactions such as BookMooch and Freecycle. (I’ve held off for the most part on both lately as well, since we’ve moved.) I fully support the Creative Commons-related movement as a paradigm for a new way to view artistic and cultural interactions. That’s why I also volunteer proofread for Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg. There are also the various co-ops and credit unions I have been a member of for many years.

    The thing I always come back to, though, is what percentage of the total population is involved in these things? I still maintain that isolation and distrust are the greater tendencies in Western (or US) culture right now, though perhaps these alternatives will make a difference in my lifetime!

  6. You’ve said so eloquently much of what I’ve been thinking about lately. I do want to reach out more than I currently do to lessen that isolation that you’re talking about here.

  7. Bex

    Oh dear.
    I think we are all a little mixed up right now.
    Makes me want the “village” back.
    That could be considered a bit “head in the sand” though, yes? XXxx

  8. Eve

    This was quite moving and beautiful. I think the only cure for this is to be connected and neighborly to others, to look and listen. One of the aspects of a Waldorf education I most appreciate is that it actively leads children to understand the world around them, and particularly how things are made and used.

    This reminds me of “A Pattern Language,” in which it is pointed out that the best communities for relationship are those in which work and home are close together–as close as possible, in fact. The apartment above the butcher shop, etc.

    Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew a lot about producing income and making things, everything from bringing home food for dinner via hunting or fishing, to canning food, to churning butter, to growing their own food. Today we buy so much and we have no connection to what we consume. This is just one more disconnection in the lives of a whole society that is already discombobulated, with a 50% divorce rate, so many children raised with only one parent in the home, and so little understanding of how things work.

    Well. An interesting read. I don’t see it changing, barring a severe change in the economy or major, earth-shattering war requiring survival skills.

  9. Dawn: From what I remember from your blog, you have a good group of local friends both online and in real life, which is a start right there. Plus you like to shop locally and choose locally grown food. All good!

    Bex: Yes, it’s not that I want to go back in time to avoid reality! I think it’s more that we could learn some wisdom from the ways of the past that we could incorporate into modern life. I think we can have “village” experiences, even in urban areas — maybe even more so there because of the population density. I can speak from long years of experience that it is quite easy to live in suburbia and never know your neighbors at all.

    Eve: The other nice thing about Waldorf schools (and I’m sure this occurs to varying degrees at other private schools) is that a community usually develops around the school, of parents, faculty, staff, and others. The festival life of the school enhances that, I think.

    I have to say, from recent experience, that there are plenty of down sides to living in close proximity to work. It’s more of a challenge to separate and have mental time “away” when work is at your doorstep. But if you love your work, that’s probably not such an issue.

    Your mention of a severe economic change or suddenly needing survival skills reminds me of something I heard on NPR today: the parents in a family of four in Missouri, running an organic farm, spoke about how on the edge financially they are. They are doing what they’re supposed to be doing: running their own business, providing a good life for their children, participating in their local economy, and so on. But they are living in a mobile home, have no health insurance except for Medicaid for the children, and barely make ends meet. The mother said that she at least feels safe in that they can feed themselves if worse came to worst, and that they can cut their own firewood and draw water from their well. I just started crying in the car (I really need to stop listening to NPR while driving!) thinking about this family trying so hard and yet being so precarious. What’s wrong with this picture? Where is their social “safety net”?

  10. Nana

    Let me get this out and over quickly. For as long as we have had recorded history, and surely for a very long time before that, humans have needed to be part of a group. At first it was for sheer survival and gradually changed to a cooperative effort and an exchange of goods and services for the benefit of the entire group. Yet, while all of this was being developed, we were still extremely wary of those other groups, to the point of creating early weapons.
    Clubs and slings with heavy rocks in them were not meant to just kill animals for dinner. They were also used to kill and maim members of those other groups so that we could increase our territory, and thus have greater access to the critters we killed for food!

    Now for the more positive stuff. It is really easy for those of us who are not too bashful to make slight connections in very small ways. Each time we smile at someone we don’t know or strike up a conversation with the person next to us in line at the market or say hello to someone we see often but don’t know, we add a dollop of heartwarmth to our bucket. Keep on doing the little things and soon you’ll need a bigger bucket.

    I have tried during my entire adult life to be someone who could surprise others and be impossible to “type cast”. It is not as difficult as it seems, just takes a little practice. Stay true to yourself and not what others expect you to be.

  11. Mon

    Wow, My initial thought wasthat the quote was a contemporary one, not from 1882. I find it very sad how so many cautionary thoughts from the past are still prevalent today.

    For me, it’s our disconnect with nature that has led to these dichotomies and subsequently our discontent. When we do not see that life is a web – interconnected – it is easy to hurt others and the environment. We don’t see it as ultimately hurting ourselves.

    Btw, I’ve handed you the Kreativ Blogger Award. 🙂

  12. Alida

    I wonder too if because we live in an age where information is so readily available (although some people haven’t caught on.) that we label everything to keep order and to keep from getting information overload. Way back when news trickled in slowly, we had time to digest it or perhaps when people heard the news it was no longer relevant. Now we have so much to sift through, we have to make sense of it somehow.

    BTW: I heard that story on NPR too and my thoughts were similar.

  13. Nana: I think the thing about where we are today as human beings is that we don’t need a group identity as much as we once did, or at least that’s where we heading in general. Steiner talked about the need to move beyond nationality or race into a more global, inclusive consciousness. To see the commonality among all human beings instead of being divisive.

    Mon: Thanks! And yes, our relationship with the natural world is part of this tendency. We seem to spend a lot of energy convincing ourselves that we are separate from nature, that the physical and spiritual are separate, and so on. We end up isolated on all levels, I think.

    Alida: There is a human need to label and categorize…perhaps an ancient biological imperative from a time when we needed to discern friend from enemy, poison from food. Recently I sorted my blog roll into categories, just for clarity, but then I felt like I was absurdly reducing such gorgeous, complex people! In my feed reader, it makes a certain amount of sense to do that, so that I can scan more quickly through and prioritize what I want to read, but it’s definitely applying an arbitrary limitation.

  14. Eve

    Heni, about the NPR program. I didn’t hear it, but I often feel the same way myself. My husband and I have done more than our share of charitable giving and showing through our actions that we are willing to help change the world. The world hasn’t helped us one bit.

    I have a lot of inner conflict about writing about what life is really like for adoptive parents of special needs children and young adults. People become so irate. But I’ll tell you this: if people knew what the State puts foster and adoptive parents through, and that we usually receive little or no help with anything, they’d be shocked and outraged. One reason I am so against increasing government is that I worked in advocacy for so many years and saw how the State operates with taxpayer dollars, at the expense of handicapped children.

    For the love of God, it is appalling stuff. So, while I pity the organic farmer, I wonder what you all would think if you knew that people who adopted handicapped kids from the State were even worse off, and the only answer taxpayers could give was to shovel more money to a government who misappropriates and abuses what they already have?

    Do you really think that the government-run social help is going to help very many people? If so, then I must apologetically state that I suspect you’re very naive and have never been at the mercy of the State.

  15. Eve, I don’t think it’s naive to think that government social help could and does help lots of people quite well, despite your experience. No, I’ve never been at the mercy of the state. But close relatives of mine have, and it’s been a lifesaver for them and their children. They received housing, food stamps, welfare checks, employment assistance, and childcare.

    I don’t think the answer is to “shovel more money to a government who misappropriates and abuses what they already have”. I think the answer is to make government more efficient and transparent, so that the money we do give is used wisely and appropriately. Privatization, for example, results in less public oversight and more potential for corruption. Let’s not make the government “larger” or “smaller”, but rather make it work better.

    I think one of the purposes of government is to do what individuals or small groups of people cannot do, or cannot do efficiently or consistently. That’s how we come to have our interstate road system, for example. For the last three years before our latest move, we lived a mile from the New York/New Jersey border. I can tell you that the NJ roads were pretty awful, starting right on that borderline. The only reason: differences in governing. My experiences on interstates, on the contrary, have been uniformly satisfactory.

    (And I know that helping the poor and disabled and orphaned is not quite the same thing as allocating funds for highways, but on another level, it’s exactly the same.)

  16. @Azad.Cinema aint for entertainment alonefirst of all what is entertainment to you ,is getting shocked entertainment ? or is getting motivated to do something entertainment ?.dictionary defines it as an act which brings pleasure and relaxation ,if that is the case then I think that only a sicko can be entertained after watching Bandit Queen ,still its considered good cinema.

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