Often in political debates, especially when the notion of an alternative is raised, the idea of human nature manages to slink its way in. This is a tactic used most often for cynical or reactionary purposes to convince people that there is no possibility for an alternative, and especially not for a radical alternative. What is worse is that often entire theories and philosophies are based on assumptions about human nature that are flimsy at best and outright false at worst. We have all heard these assumptions before, that people are “naturally selfish,” “driven entirely by self-interest,” and my personal favorite, “naturally inclined towards the marketplace.” These conclusions are made by people who look out their window and conclude universal, timeless truths from what they see. What must be done is to place what appears to be the nature of human beings in its historical and societal context.
In a recent essay, Seth Ackerman correctly states, “Skeptics scoff that people are too selfish for such a system to work. Optimists argue that humans are a naturally cooperative species. Evidence is adduced for both sides of the argument.” He continues that, “It’s safe to assume that humans display a mixture of cooperation and selfishness, in proportions that change according to circumstances.” I believe this analysis to be correct. Human beings have a wide-ranging capacity for many dispositions, ranging from selfishness to selflessness, hatred to love, violence to caring. We see the range of these dispositions in our own society, but one is right to notice that our society tends towards selfishness and self-interest. This is not because human beings naturally tend toward this side of the parameter, but because there are certain structures in our society that value selfishness over altruism.
For example, in competing on the market, beating out your neighbor, your friends, and your family is valued. Greed and the maximization of profit at all costs (or externalities as an economist might say) are praised in business, and reducing people to means to achieve ones own ends is both commonplace and a necessity to succeed in a capitalist society. These structures of our society, which place possessions and individual achievement over relationships and community achievement, create a selfish disposition in its members, ourselves included.
The point is this: when having any political conversation about possible alternatives to the vicious state of society in which we live now, do not be persuaded by people who claim to know the universal truth of human nature. Alternatives should not be reduced to fantasies by such false limitations as those posited by people who cling to a distorted sense of the essence of our species. If there were any time, with crises upon crises at our doorstep, that alternatives to our current system need to be discussed, now is that time. Do not let current dogmas destroy the dreams of the future.