1990s >> 1993 >> no-1065-may-1993

Book Review: The human nature argument

One of the most frequent arguments used against the possibility and viability of socialism is that the ideas and behaviour it requires are against “human nature”. So any book that makes a detailed, well-researched and thoughtful analysis of the whole subject is likely to be useful to socialists. Such a book is Alfie Kohn’s The Brighter Side of Human Nature published in America in 1990. His references to capitalism and socialism are few but he is no apologist for the status quo. He is aware that most of what has been written on human nature has focused on its darker side. So his aim is to present examples of and discuss “altruism and empathy in everyday life” (the book’s subtitle).

Cynical consensus
Described as “an independent scholar, lecturer and journalist”, Kohn previously wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986). He starts by asking us to consider a curious set of facts about our culture:

  Someone who thinks well of himself is said to have a healthy self-concept and is envied. Someone who thinks well of his country is called a patriot and is applauded. But someone who thinks well of his species is regarded as hopelessly naive and is dismissed.

When you think about it, this set of facts isn’t so much curious as characteristic of capitalism. Individual-ism is lauded as superior to social-ism, so that when some individuals cream off the profits while others go short of what they need this is regarded as “natural”. Patriotism is the individual expression of nationalism, and the capitalist world is divided into nation-states because it suits leaders to divide and rule. Thinking well of one’s species is what people do when they overcome individualism and nationalism—when, as socialists, they identify with humanity as a whole.

In the following passage it is necessary to read “we” as referring to the current majority viewpoint, not that of the author and not, of course, that of socialists:

  The phrase “human nature” . . . is reserved, as if by some linguistic

Illustration by George Meddemen

convention, for what is nasty and negative in our repertoire. We invoke it to explain selfishness rather than service, competition rather than cooperation, egocentricity rather than empathy. On any given day we may witness innumerable gestures of caring, ranging from small acts of kindness to enormous sacrifices, but never do we shrug and say. “Well, what did you expect? Its just human nature to be generous”.

After giving some examples of the ways in which characteristics such as aggression and competition, selfishness and egocentricity are persistently overstated, and their opposites understated, Kohn goes on to present what he describes as a more balanced perspective, “an affirmation of what there is to appreciate about humankind without ignoring the reality that people sometimes act rotten”:

  In response to a stubborn refusal to recognize what is heartening about humans, I am chiefly interested in showing that there is more to us than the negative qualities we have come to identify with human nature. Most of us have heard only half the story. Human beings are selfish and self-centered, looking for any opportunity to take advantage. But human beings are also decent, able to feel others’ pain and prepared to try to relieve it. There is good evidence to support the proposition that it is as “natural” to help as it is to hurt, that concern for the well-being of others often cannot be reduced to self-interest, that social structures predicated on human selfishness have no claim to inevitability—or even prudence. In short, the cynical consensus about our species is out of step with the hard data.

The evidence that Kohn presents later in the book is all the more remarkable because it is evidence of how people behave in capitalism, a society that encourages and, indeed, depends for its very existence and continuation upon, a set of beliefs that emphasizes competition, being tough, accepting market forces, looking after yourself, and so on. In other words, people today are shown to behave much more pro-socially than the system urges them to. How much more pro-socially would be likely to behave in a system that emphasized the brighter, rather than the darker, side of human nature.

Pro-social behaviour
In his chapter on pro-social practices, Kohn gives us a number of examples from the literature on the subject. Some of them are findings from artificially contrived “research” situations of which experimental psychologists are unfortunately so fond. But other examples are from the author’s own experience or from studies of everyday life and are thus more credible:

  In my experience, cars do not spin their wheels on the ice for very long before someone stops to offer a push. We disrupt our schedules to visit sick friends, stop to give directions to lost travelers, ask crying people if there is anything we can do to help. According to polls, nearly 90 percent of Americans give money to charitable causes and nearly half take the time to do some sort of volunteer work. In one study, 83 percent of blood donors indicated a willingness to undergo anasthesia and stay overnight in a hospital in order to donate bone marrow to a complete stranger. And if we, like some researchers, choose to expand the idea of pro-social behaviour to include cooperative activities—working with others for mutual benefit, such as in structured collaboration at work—we would find even more evidence of prosocial inclinations. All of this, it should be stressed, is particularly remarkable in the light of the fact that we are socialized in an ethic of competitive individualism.

Kohn spends 15 pages tackling the question of whether aggressive behaviour is part of human nature. He concludes that it isn’t. Here are some extracts:

  The frequency with which nations draft their citizens into combat (and invoke stiff penalties for those who resist it) qualifies as powerful evidence against the idea that wars reflect natural human aggressiveness.

  There is absolutely no evidence from animal behavior or human psychology to suggest that individuals of any species fight because of spontaneous internal stimulation.

  Like other beliefs about the intrinsic unsavoriness of our species . . . an assumption about aggression can also be explained . . .  in terms of images presented to us by the mass media, and in terms of the powerful interests who are benefited by just such an assumption.

  The simple assumption that we cannot help being aggressive helps us to continue being aggressive. No circle is more vicious than the one set up by the fallacious assumption that we are unable to control an essentially violent nature.

A lengthy account is given of what a military historian of World War II discovered about the unwillingness of American soldiers to kill enemy troops. After interviews with hundreds of military companies in the central Pacific area and Europe, he found that on average not more than 15 percent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel. This reluctance to kill was true not only of novices but also of those who had been through several battles. The historian concluded that the average and normally healthy individual has such resistance towards killing a fellow human that they will not take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.

Illustration by Peter Rigg

One-sided individualism
Kohn devotes three chapters to altruism, after having introduced the subject earlier in the book. The famous study by Titmuss of blood donors gives perhaps the best example of altruism. When asked why they gave blood, most donors spoke about having either a duty or a desire to help others, or talked about wanting to express gratitude for being in good health or for having received someone else’s blood in the past. Less than two percent said they were hoping to receive some benefit from donating. A further example is given of altruistic behaviour among French civilians in World War II. Residents of a village agreed to hide Jews despite the enormous risks this involved. The helpers did not see themselves as heroic: they typically said that they simply did what had to be done, they answered a call, they made the obvious choice.

Kohn is highly critical of the doctrine of individualism, as expressed from Hobbes to Freud and from Ortega y Gasset (“human life as radical reality is only the life of each person”) to Margaret Thatcher (“there is no such thing as society”). Of psychology he writes “almost every branch, school, speciality, and theory within it is based on individualism”. The separate self as the fundamental level of analysis is one way of making sense of the world. But something is missing from the picture—and that is human relationship.

The belief that concern for self is more real than concern for others results from a very partial view of human behaviour. In the last century Toqueville remarked of the United States “the individual is free . . .  to expand as a standardized individual”. Kohn updates this judgment: “Our miserable individuality is screwed to the back of our cars in the form of personalized license plates”.

Part of the “human nature” argument for preserving the status quo is that the worlds work will only get done if people are paid to do it. Of course, the system does get people to work, up to a point. But, as Kohn observes, “People do their best work when they find it fun. not when they are in it for the money”. Rewards actually erode intrinsic interest. Encouraging pro-social behaviour by the use of incentives or other appeals to self-interest doesn’t work very well or works only in the short run:

  When we are rewarded for pro-social behavior, we tend to assume the reward, and not altruism, accounts for our having acted as we did . . . encouragement to think of oneself as a generous person—an appeal not to self-interest but to genuine altruism—seems to be the most reliable way to promote helping and caring over the long haul and in different situations.

Economists and other egoists have long claimed that we make all our decisions on the basis of trying to maximize our individual gains. But people (in the US) regularly do things like contribute to public television and radio stations even though self-interest theory predicts everyone should wait for others to contribute and then watch or listen for free. Actually it is not too difficult to promote behaviour that is in everyone’s best interests:

  People will usually cooperate with others in a group so long as they are given an opportunity to feel a sense of belongingness to that group. Allow someone to meet and talk with the others and he or she will subsequently tend to make decisions in the group’s interest rather than trying to take advantage of the others.

Kohn makes the important point that our thinking about what is natural is affected by our economic system (he actually says “may be affected” but that seems too weak). Also there is the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy:

  If we have been socialized to expect a tat for every tit, to keep score silently in relationships so that things are nearly symmetrical (and to feel uncomfortable when they are not), to construe the act of helping as doing a favor that ought to be repaid, then these expectations can create a reality as real as any determined by natural egoism.

However, social anthropologists tell us that in some cultures the emphasis is on gifts rather than exchanged commodities, gifts made with no assurance of anything in return. That is no doubt how it will be in socialist society. After all, even in today’s mercenary society we sometimes give help to strangers just because they need helping, not because we expect to get something out of it.

In his last chapter “Beyond Altruism” the author has a tantalizing section Where Humanity Begins. He suggests that we need a morality of thought and of feeling, of principle and of care. Throughout the book he emphasizes questions of morality and philosophy, although he is obviously aware of the economic—and to a lesser extent the political—implications of what he writes. Earlier he refers to the need to detoxify “the poisonous We/They structure of nationalism”. But his main message is summed up in one sentence: “Altruism—one self helping another without consideration of personal gain—is both realistic and commendable”.

The last paragraph of a book is often important because it contains the thoughts the author wants to leave us with:

  No imported solution will dissolve our problems of dehumanization and egocentricity, coldness and cruelty. No magical redemption from outside outside of human life will let us break through. The work that has to be done is our work, but we are better equipped for it than we have been led to believe. To move ourselves beyond selfishness, we already have what is required. We already are what is required. We are human and we have each other.