Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?
John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?
Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.
It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.
I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ’em, we may as well feed ’em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!
However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”, “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”, and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.” “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”
We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,
that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.
The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,
There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.
“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.” This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.” Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation
is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.
So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.
Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.
According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.” Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,
Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.
The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.
Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.” The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.
To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.” We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.” (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,” whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)
Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?
 Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
 De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 205.
 Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.
 Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.
 De Waal, 36.
 Qtd., De Waal, 38.
 Graeber, 320.
 Ibid., 331.
 Ibid., 331.
 Ibid., 383.
 De Waal, 106.
 Ibid., 221.
 Ibid., 197.