What about human nature?

Updated: 21 May 2008, 22:38

Originally written: 22 January 2006

People have a very negative view of human nature. Everything negative about human behaviour is labelled human nature. Everything positive is something else. Have you ever heard anyone say that good behaviour is indicative of human nature? Probably not. Another popular perspective is that every person is a mix of good and bad, which effectively means that we have no “human nature” as such. If we have no human nature, the question becomes one of human behaviour.

It is not reasonable to assign only bad behaviour to human nature unless one takes the position that any good behaviour is unnatural or deviant. It is somewhat bizarre to believe that desirable behaviour is deviant. It is not necessarily inconsistent to hold that perspective, but it then seems incumbent upon those holding that perspective to tell us what causes that deviance. That explanation does not seem to be forthcoming, so until it is presented, reasonable people should reject the concept that only negative behaviour should be assigned to our nature.

Therefore, we will consider that concept that human nature is negative enough to prevent a socialist society from functioning satisfactorily.

When people speak of human nature, they are almost always referring to human behaviour. For instance, when socialists mention that war will not be necessary and therefore will not exist in a socialist society, we are told that is impossible, because war is part of human nature.


Think about the concept that “war is a part of human nature.” Does it mean that humans naturally want to kill and maim people they have never met? That is what war means. It is not reasonable to assign war to human nature. Humans do not have a biological need to kill other people independent of their environment. Humans, as a species, do have a biological need to survive. But equating survival and war is completely unreasonable. In fact, war undermines nature’s efforts for the survival of the human species. War is unnatural.

By any reasonable definition of human nature, war cannot be considered part of human nature.

But war is a very prominent feature of human history. It could easily be argued that even though war is not part of human nature, it is certainly a part of human behaviour, to date. Socialists are not going to challenge that, because it is obviously true. What causes this deviant human behaviour?

Nobody can talk to the first human who bashed in the skull of another human, to learn why. We can, however, look at the world around us today, and at recorded history, to try to understand why humans war.

Even if you only consider the currently popular “reasons” for wars, they all relate to the social environment in which we live. Religion, ethnic hatred, imperialism, oppression, and economics, are all part of the social environment. Wars are caused by humans reacting to their social environment. That is behaviour, it is not nature. The social environment is the cause of war.

If we change the social environment to eliminate the causes of war, there would be no war. War is not caused by human nature, so war is not an indicator that human nature would prevent a socialist society from functioning.

Bad People?

Are people too anti-social for a socialist society to function?

It is obvious that humans are naturally gregarious. We like to be around other people. If people were as anti-social as we are supposed to be, there would not be more than six billion of us.

We live in a world of artificial scarcity. We have the resources to eliminate scarcity as a significant social factor. But, the reality is that people are poor. That reality generates crime and anti-social behaviour. Although many will suffer without breaking current social norms, others will not. They steal to feed themselves and their children. They steal to try to acquire the lifestyle that is dangled in front of us all, as normal. Few of us can afford the lifestyles we see on television or in movies, but we are led to believe that those lifestyles are what we should expect to live. Almost all “crime” is property crime. People steal, and people destroy what they cannot have. We should not be surprised.

Personal poverty does not explain why million dollar CEOs cheat and lie and steal. For that explanation we turn to what is considered success under capitalism. Wealth.

A company is successful if it consistently produces a high return on investment (ROI). A CEO and other senior officers of a company are paid a lot of money to produce a high return on investment. The shareholders, for the most part, do not care how the profit is generated, as long as their ROI is high enough to prevent them from moving their investment to another company. People can whine and scream that the shareholders should care, but there is no indication that this change will ever occur. The best which can be expected is that the shareholders, to maintain their profits, will act to prevent the worst excesses.

They are doing exactly what capitalism’s rules demand. Although many people do not like those rules, they cannot be changed. The rules can be eliminated by eliminating capitalism, but the vast majority want no part in that. So, the rules remain, and people keep complaining and “demanding” that the rules be changed. They have done this for several hundred years. The rules have not changed. The whiners keep whining and the “demands” are still ignored. The rules will not change because they are inherent in capitalism. No matter how much people whine and “demand,” or march in the streets, or destroy the buildings and automobiles which other workers have built, the rules will not change.

So, the CEOs will continue to receive large salaries and shares of the profits, to generate high returns on investment. Occasionally some will get caught breaking laws meant to protect capitalists from each other and their CEOs. These people are doing what capitalism pushes them to do, and which capitalism makes very profitable for them. And they are, by and large, successfully wealthy.

It is our social environment which causes “bad people”. If we change that social environment, we eliminate these “bad people”.

Lazy People?

In a socialist society, work will be voluntary. It is widely believed that people are lazy, and unless forced to work, would not. In a direct contradiction of this, especially popular in the United States, people praise the “Christian Work Ethic.” Perhaps they believe that Christians have a self-defense against laziness, which is unavailable to others. The so-called “Christian Work Ethic” seems to be very powerful in Japan, in workers who are not predominately Christian.

Most people are probably lazy in the sense that they do not like to do boring, repetitive work. That may — in part — be a driver of technological change. Rather than boredom, workers design procedures to eliminate the work, or technology to do the work. This form of laziness is, by and large, socially beneficial. So some “laziness” is desirable and strengthens the socialist case.

People see that working hard is not a ticket to wealth. Apologists for capitalism deny this until it is easily proven that it is obviously true, then they change their tune to say that “working smart” is the way to wealth. “Working smart,” it turns out, is whatever it happened to be which made a rich person, rich. That is a circular argument, but the apologists for capitalism cling to it.

People wonder why they have to work so hard, and nothing ever seems to come of it. They see those who do not seem to work very hard, and are rich. This cannot be expected to build a passion for their employment.

On the other hand, many people work very hard in socially beneficial activities — for free — as volunteers.


Is altruism — if it even exists — necessary for socialism to function?

Whether or not altruism exists, there are many cases of people who will go out of their way, and sometimes suffer physical injury, to help others they may not even know. Whenever there is a natural disaster, such as a tsunami or an earthquake, people willingly donate to help those affected. Reducing one’s wealth is, whether small or not, an injury to oneself. Even if there is no altruism, people are quite willing to help other people even when there is no direct, substantive benefit.

But even that is not necessary for the function of a socialist society. All that is necessary is “enlightened self interest,” the recognition that pro-social behaviour benefits oneself. Producing food, voluntarily, will benefit the farmworker because otherwise he would starve. Producing medical equipment or medications, voluntarily, will benefit the worker who does so, because otherwise that equipment or medication would not be there when she needs it.

An anti-social farmworker might decide that there are enough dupes working on the farms so that he can leech off their work (much like today’s capitalists). Enough leeches, and there would be no food, no medicine, no houses, nothing. If that happened, socialist society would crumble.

But it is not even remotely likely. Today, the vast majority object to what they feel is leeching by anyone on government assistance who is capable of productive work. That is played up hysterically by the media, and the scope of the “problem” is probably much less than it appears from the media coverage. Today some might wonder why they should work if others need not. Most realize that if people stopped working, capitalism would crumble.

Those people are forced to work today to put bread on the table. It will not take altruism in a socialist society. It will take only an understanding of reality to keep people working pro-socially.


What about the sickos? What about child abusers, torturers, and others whose acts terrify and sicken us? Is that human nature?

Perhaps — and only perhaps — there will always be sickos. We cannot assume that every sicko is the result of living in the sick society which is capitalism. But even though human nature bashing is popular today, few believe that the sickos are the result of human nature. Sickos are deviant. It is not human nature to torture children or anyone.

The brutally competitive nature of capitalism and its brutal poverty, generates an environment of anti-social psychosis. By eliminating that anti-social environment, its socially-generated sickos will no longer be generated. It may be that some people will evidence horribly anti-social behaviour, no matter how sane a society we build. If so, how will that be different from today — except that there will be fewer sickos overall? Capitalism has not stopped the sickos.;

In socialist society, if there are sickos, they will have to be dealt with to protect society. Capitalism’s Gravediggers is not going to try to predict the form that protection will take. Today we are all too ingrained with the brutality of capitalism to be able to know what people without that training in violence will choose to do.

Is socialism impossible because of human nature?


Almost everything which is alleged to be “human nature” is environmentally generated behaviour, not human nature. By creating an environment which will not generate “bad” behaviour, we will have solved the “problems” of our imagined human nature.
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