Human Nature


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Recently some friends and I discussed the nature of hom sap so as better to understand how it could be that the violent institution of government could appear from nowhere, back before writing was invented. Are we good, or evil, or neither?

We didn't reach full agreement, but the subject was given a new boost by B.R. Merrick's recent fine thought-provoker, The Heart of America, which suggests that American humans, at least, are mired in a culture of violence. He offers abundant evidence, notably in the kind of movies to which we flock; he didn't mention video games, though he might have done, for extra effect. It saddens me that my sweet, 10-year-old granddaughter should take pleasure in zapping images (which vaguely depict people) on a PC screen so that they explode into dozens of gory fragments.

And yet, at her age, I was reveling in daily radio broadcasts of violent desperados meeting bloodthirsty, violent ends--and here I am, only a few stops removed from a peacenik.

So to what extent does the cultural environment really determine our actual behavior? Or even reflect it? Not too much, I think. In fact, we might take a second look at some of the movies mentioned in that article. I haven't watched more than a fraction of them, but those I did see did not appear to me to encourage, stimulate or glorify violence for its own sake.

Take for example "Schindler's List," intimately associated with the third most violent outrage in the history of 20th Century government brutality. I've watched it a few times, and its portrayal of that savagery is accurate as far as I can tell, as is its chilling picture of one of the government savages--the Kommandant, Amon Göth, played by Ralph Fiennes. Yet to me, the whole message of the film was that of the recovery of humanity. Even Göth is almost persuaded, during one well-lubricated conversation with Schindler, that "real power" consists in holding a man's life in one's hands and then sparing him. He tries it out on a young Jew, takes some pleasure in it--but then reverts to form and kills the lad for sport, for rifle practice. Schindler himself, of course, changes radically during the movie from an opportunist government subcontractor taking advantage of the Jews' plight to make himself a fortune, to one with the most profound remorse that he might have used it to save a few more of their lives. That message is all the more powerful for being true, not fiction; there really was an Oskar Schindler, and he really did do that. This all tells me that even after government has obliterated nearly all trace of human compassion, it can still rise to the surface.

Or consider "The Silence of the Lambs," the Anthony Hopkins - Jodie Foster masterpiece of a horror flick that portrays a couple of vicious killers and the undoing of one of them (the other escaped, so the movie makers could reap extra revenues from a hot property). Does it glorify violence? Certainly, it looks it right in the face and scares us. Occasionally, humans really do such bestial things--Jeffrey Dahmer was real, for example--and it always makes the TV news, and such monsters aren't necessarily employed at the time by government, even though their actions prove that they are in essence miniature, one-person governments. But what about the overall message of the movie?

To me, it conveys the bumbling incompetence of the government's vaunted crime-fighting apparatus, contrasted with the success of the sincere and simple dedication of the young FBI trainee who cracks the case despite that mismanagement. It conveys a trace of humanity discovered even in Hannibal Lecter, the sinister cannibal; for he treats Clarice Starling with respect, even calling with congratulations on the day she graduates. It even conveys touches of grisly humor, as when he tells her he must break off so he can prepare to "have an old friend for dinner." It's a well-told tale with plenty of tension, but does it cause anyone to go out and eat people? Not that I've noticed.

Lastly consider a third, as it happens not one of those mentioned by Mr. Merrick: "Born on the Fourth of July." Full of gruesome violence, it presents the amplified sound of government bullets ripping into flesh and bone, with vivid portrayals of what life is like when legless and paralyzed below the waist, and of the filthy conditions in at least one government hospital. Does that movie foster violence? Not as I see it. To the contrary, it shows some of the horrors of war precisely to induce repulsion at the violence in war; and that one, like "Schindler," is based upon a true story, that of Ron Kovic. If people suppose that dismemberment and death in their country's service is somehow "noble" or "patriotic," and they very often do, this movie serves well to dismantle that naïve supposition.

The relation between environment and violence can be tested in another way: Victorian England was about as prudish, correct, moral, religious and upstanding a society as one can find in history, and yet it's there that took place the horrible series of murders by Jack the Ripper, who killed prostitutes and then ripped open their bellies and dissected their innards. That's entirely comparable to what Dahmer did, yet it preceded a whole century during which we are said to have become depraved by violence in movies. So no, I don't buy it; their influence is seriously overstated and the correlation, poor.

What is truly, deeply horrible is what governments have done, in recent years as in every age. The cruel conduct of private, or amateur, criminals is simply not to be compared to the massive, wholesale, professional slaughter carried out by governments. At this writing and as a result of the US invasion, about 100,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq , as well as 4,345 US military personnel and at least seven times that number of wounded. The benefit resulting from that heavy cost has not yet been clearly and credibly identified, and some sources put some of the numbers much higher. US military deaths in Afghanistan were (at 9/20) 838, and over 18,741 Afghans have died, in or out of uniform. What for? Not clear. Osama bin Ladin is still at large after eight years, and in any case the appropriate response after 9/11 was not to bomb the government protecting him but to apologize for 60 years of US government support for the arch-enemy of the Muslim world, and to cancel immediately all US support for all foreign governments including that of Israel. That would have pulled the plug on all possible motivation for future attacks on Americans, while leaving everyone here untroubled by any Patriot Act.

All these numbers are quite trivial, of course, compared to the slaughterfests in World War One and Two, Korea and Viet Nam. Yet not one of those conflicts was "needed" by anyone in America--except the ruling class, the governments of the day, who needed outlets for their machismo. WWI established the US government on the world stage (and "stage" is quite a good term for the play-acting that goes on among politicians at every level) and WWII left the US government the only one standing with assets available, and hence able to dominate the world for the next half century. At the risk of falling foul of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc trap that besets historians, I say that is why they were waged; and the Korean and Vietnam wars were fought to fend off a potential rival. So the utter vanity of the rulers was fed, while a hundred million human beings, give or take a few million, had their lives prematurely extinguished. This is what violence is, and any portrayal of individual violence on the silver screen pales by comparison into triviality.

A possible rebuttal might be that this is all very well, but these murderous governments acquired and kept their power because real people voted for them, or at least tolerated them. Real people fought their battles, obeyed their orders. Real people surrendered their taxes, to pay for their weapons. Real people even volunteered to lend them money. Does not this therefore help prove that real people are, at root, evil and violent? Are we lovers of peace and liberty trying to deal with an insoluble problem; that even when we succeed in bringing about a free society, the cycle will simply start over and governments will raise their ugly heads again, just a few years later?

That is why it matters, for us to understand human nature.

If humans really were evil--if some variation of "original sin" is a fact of our existence, then I would have to suggest that we on STR are wasting our time, dreaming impossible dreams. We might just as well, being unable to beat 'em, join 'em. Let's eat, drink, make merry, for tomorrow we'll certainly die; in fact on that assumption (that humans are evil at root) there is hardly a shred of hope that the race will outlive the Century, given the very large array of WMDs that already exists and which is fast proliferating. I do not say any government will deliberately use them, for its leaders would die along with everyone else - but I do say their use by accident or by suicidal religious fanatics - of whom we hear more every day - is inevitable. For as long as governments continue to exist.

That horrid outcome is of course no evidence at all that the assumption is wrong. It simply says that if it's right, doom is unavoidable and we should stop pretending otherwise.

That too is why it matters, for us to understand human nature.

My view is that the assumption is dead wrong; that humans are basically good, not evil, and that humans do evil things only when they acquire power over other people. That's true on an individual level, and true much more commonly at every level of government, which is in its essential nature a violent organization, based entirely on the false premise that it has some right to exist and govern, or to exercise power over other humans. Can I prove or justify this view?

In evidence I offer two arguments. The first is weak, the second is stronger.

First, as far as we can tell, human beings got along well without any governments for 80% of our history; and since any evil bias in our nature would certainly have produced them, we can fairly say that no such bias exists. I reach the "80%" by noting that while our species evolved gradually over a much longer period, "modern man" can be fairly dated from about 50,000 years ago, while there is no trace of government until after 10,000 years ago. The weakness of this evidence is that writing was not invented until about 9,000 years ago, and so there is no proof either way of what was going on in those earlier 40,000 years.

No proof, but some evidence; for when mankind migrated out of Africa those 2,000 generations ago, he first followed its Eastern shore heading North, and then branched. Some continued to follow the shore all the way round to Australia , some went inland and branched again. Some of those several branches never did discover fixed agriculture, and it so happens that two of those (at different times) crossed the Bering Bridge and populated the Americas; we therefore have on our doorstep a distant echo of what those wandering societies were like. You'll have noticed that while "Indian" nations here do have leaders and elders, the tradition of consensus is still, after 2,000 generations, very powerful. We would not describe their social organizations as being based upon government, in any degree comparable to that under which we suffer.

Second, when we encounter almost anyone, he or she is simply nice! Strip away the uniforms and badges and titles and guns and deal with the person as a person, as a fellow-human, and we find someone who is sociable, agreeable, pleasant, helpful and, when the occasion arises, compassionate. I've even found this with IRS personnel, and there can be few types of human more sinister than those, in their official capacities. When one gets behind their occupational cover (by no means easy, I admit) and converses on a level, they are as pleasant as the next guy. Even Judge George Singal, who this month sentenced a harmless NH dentist to thirty five years in prison for doing nothing and hurting nobody, may quite possibly be an engaging fellow to meet at a party--as was Amon Göth. On a personal level, even the mass-murderers who head up the FedGov are similarly amiable company, I think, though I've never had the chance to test that. Only when power over others is possessed and exercised do the horns poke out and the eyes glow scarlet and the mouths froth. Only when the mind has been corrupted by layers of indoctrinated mythology do they retreat (like a nut in its case) into a bigoted, anti-social animal poised to do one harm. Or, of course, when they are, themselves, faced by threat; for all animals have a capacity for violence in defense of themselves or their young, and so it must be for the survival of the species. Even Hitler was kind to dogs, and to children--so long as they were Aryan--and millions thought the world of him, especially women.

The survival and growing prosperity of our species therefore depends entirely upon the removal of the myths, the titles, badges and uniforms--and not much else. The underlying human nature is entirely inoffensive, in almost every case. That removal task is by no means trivial, but it can be done. In fact, it is being done. And when government has evaporated from the face of the Earth we humans will, unlike our distant ancestors, then be well and truly warned never to let it reappear.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."


Wilton D. Alston's picture

I'd go even one more step than does Davies in not worrying about how much violence is "created" by movies and such. I heard Paul Cantor say, in a long-format interview some time ago, "The expression of taboo behaviors [as seen in "The Simpsons"] provides a cathartic release that lessens the behavior versus increasing it!" I agree, and I think the data would support such an assertion. In other words, people get to release their urges to shoot--given that these urges actually exist--from these games. As such, this release does not increase those urges; it mitigates them. Further, I'd also assert that it matters very little if people are "good" or "evil" as long as we know that they are self-interested. If so, then all the conclusions Davies draws about the government are borne-out and it is only via the banishment of coercive rule that such expressions of evil as war can be eradicated.