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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The myth of human nature

Many of my high school history teachers taught watered-down versions of political theories and concepts. In particular, I remember one history teacher who was fond of “fill-in-the-blank” note sheets. When he taught our class about capitalism, we completed the following phrase in a handout: “Adam Smith believed that humans are _____, and that this is _____,” with the answers being “greedy” and “a good thing.”

I suppose it’s only natural to try to determine why humans act in the bad ways they do and to assume that these bad tendencies are innate to human beings. Perhaps it’s also natural for some people to suggest that sex, gender, race and ethnicity determine certain “natural” tendencies as well. But while it’s thankfully become fairly unacceptable among progressive-thinking people to make generalizations about the “nature” of specific groups of people, many progressive people are comfortable making similar generalizations about “human nature” in general. Specifically, many people I know share cynical views about the human race being naturally greedy and selfish.

Making generalizations about human nature, compared to generalizations about the nature of people of different sexes, sexual and gender identities, races and nationalities feels less harmful because it doesn’t target one group. It isn’t racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic to say that humans are naturally greedy, corrupt, power-hungry, wary of foreigners, etc. because it doesn’t sound like any one group is being stereotyped; rather, it suggest that we’re all “equally” bad.

But these statements are harmful for a different reason. They allow us to accept the world the way it is and to dismiss visions of a world that’s different from our current capitalist, neoliberal, conflict-ridden and environmentally destructive society as impractical and contrary to “human nature.”

Moreover, statements about the “natural” tendencies of humans in general can be as silencing as statements about the tendencies of specific groups of people. To quote Marx: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

It might seem logical to buy into cynical views about humans, accept that certain levels of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, wealth inequality and overall selfishness are somewhat intrinsic among humans, or at least among some humans; after all, humans have done some unspeakably awful things over the course of history, and continue to do bad things today. But when we assume that these actions stem from intrinsic human qualities, we rule out the possibility of ever changing these qualities and creating a world that enhances and emphasizes different “natural” qualities humans possess, such as compassion, openness, generosity and trust.

Moreover, if we accept the notion that humans have naturally selfish tendencies — which primarily benefit the self-interested “ruling class” — then we can easily say that no world system other than our current one could ever succeed.

In my experience, individuals act selfishly because they feel like they need to do so in order to get ahead, because they worry that if they don’t, they’ll get screwed over by others. But it doesn’t necessarily make people happier or more fulfilled. In fact, acting less selfishly is what builds strong, trusting, meaningful relationships with others and with ourselves, which personally gives my life meaning more than anything else.

Perhaps selfishness is an innate trait, used to justify, or at least accept, the degradation of the earth and disregard and even dehumanize others. But we need to stop believing that it is the only, or the most significant, human characteristic if we want to hold people responsible for degrading the planet and the people who live on it, and if we want to start changing the way our world is run and who is in power.