With the recent Arab spring uprisings fuelling a wave of ‘Eastern-interest’ in the West, a number of stories have come to light that got me thinking about human nature. In Delhi, a 23-year-old female medical student known as ‘Damini’ was gang-raped and beaten on a bus; she later died in hospital of her sustained injuries. Naturally this has caused major outcry of both ‘behead them all’ and ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ varieties. Similarly, there has been debate about what exactly caused this incident. As ever, people find blame only in things routed fully in their own experience. By this I mean that religious zealots say lack of reverence (or even a twisted kind of providence) is to blame, cultural theorists blame some kind of in-built cultural problem (rape is, after all, the national sport of India) and ‘realists’ and ‘humanists’ (or more honestly known as pessimists and atheists) say that humanity in general is to blame. I could go down the usual lines and attack these groups, and believe me, enough of them have commented stupidly to provide plenty of material to do so, but I don’t mean to. What I do mean to do is analyse the idea of who’s to blame. Or more directly, how this ties in to human nature.
Naturally this has been debated for some time and anyone with any understanding of the nature of truth knows that there is no truly all-encompassing answer to the mystery of human nature and that while it is impossible to ‘figure out’ (as it were), it is also very much worthy of study and discussion due to what the study itself can teach us.
Thomas Hobbes (a 17th century English philosopher), who, it’s worth nothing, experienced the horrors of the English civil war and the execution of Charles I (a very big deal in English history, we’ve been a fairly willing monarchy for an absurd amount of time and, agree with it or not, it is a major part of this country) believed that humans were inherently flawed. He said that humans are naturally violent and jealous beings; that in a state of nature (which is to say, many humans living entirely without a society, no laws, no rules, no organisation, just nature) people would use aggression to gain superiority, people would kill and rape at will with no fear of repercussions. He goes on to say that the reason we formed a society was to supress this destructive nature and perhaps control it enough to allow the species to continue developing. Hobbes believed that a Leviathan, or a massive ruling body that has unquestionable power, is needed to control and oversee peoples’ actions and make sure that society is progressing and human nature isn’t allowed to flourish into the hell that we would create if left to our own devices. If this is true then the movement of the lefty politics (Chartists, Marxists, general socialists etc.) of the 19th century, who tried desperately to spread more freedom to the lower classes, actually started a chain of events that led to a collapse of society of sorts. Although we could argue that the Bourgeois classes in the pre-19th century were taking advantage of their responsibilities and gathering all the power and resources and allowing the little people to starve, it could also be said that they have a responsibility to contain the problem of freedom, because freedom leads to the expression of destructive human nature. This would suggest that the increasing freedom of modern societies is to blame for such events in the current world and that we need to return, instead, to a Leviathan-controlled state to hold back the tide of evil spewing forth from our wretched minds.
John Locke, another English thinker of the same period, took a totally different view of things. He said that human nature is characterised mainly by its capacity for fairness, understanding and compassion. He said that in a state of nature, everybody would help each other and there would be no competition coming between everyone. Essentially a hardcore communist’s wet dream. He goes on to say that it is the principles of competitive currency and society that breeds selfishness and the other dangerous elements of psychology that, in turn, lead to violence and oppression. Neglecting, though, to answer how humanity, who is full of generally decent people who are as lovely one moment as they are the next, managed to create something as malevolent as a society that can encourage every vice, every evil, every terrible, destructive act that has ever been known. Another way to think of it is how can an ever-loving perfectly good being like a God create a devil capable of spawning and spreading all the world’s evils? Questions like that have tested peoples’ faith in human nature and in deities since belief was first invented. This seems an extreme opinion but it is more relevant than you’d think. Perhaps most of us would agree that human nature can be both kind and malevolent, the important part of Locke’s arguments here is the influence of society and many of the arguments today depend on the idea of a corrupting influence. Are people corrupted by what they see on T.V.? No they aren’t. It is much more complicated than that. We’ve all seen people disassemble such arguments by saying that some people who play violent video games don’t commit horrifically violent acts. The logic is valid but the issue is deeper.
What corrupts people, according to many of the reactionists and John Locke, is the day-to-day nature of society. The simple truths that are accepted as norms that are, in fact, just truisms of a societal ideal. Examples of this could be the simple fact that you should move forward in life and this movement is characterised by living in nicer and nicer places as you grow up, nicer being characterised as ‘more expensive’. This isn’t controversial, it’s just true and yet most people wouldn’t realise that it isn’t really true, it’s just a fact of an ideaology that is so ingrained into our psyches that we’ve forgotten that it isn’t the way things always are, just the way they happen to be here and now.
To bring a less straight forward view in on this, Jean Jacques-Rousseau (an 18th century French political philosopher) says that in the State of Nature, people are neither supremely evil nor good. Moreso that they are simply incapable of both; that without society and communal rules and thoughts, humanity is inherently primitive. The State of Nature would be simply animals acting like animals; there would be rapes and murders (or, sex and death anyway) as there are in nature but not out of any morality. He went on to say that we formed a social contract not out of fear of destruction nor the equal assigning of rights but rather out of a fundamental desire to advance. Essentially, without society, we are but savages. We decided to work together and impose a rule structure to allow for development. He also, it has been pointed out as somewhat circuitously, believed that society could be fully free while individuals still submit to a power, albeit not a governmental one. He said, instead, the general will of the people should be obeyed. Whether this is a direct majority of elected opinions or just the general feel of the group varies in each instance but what is significant here is that perhaps the only reason we find these rapes and incidents abhorrent is because of the luxury of society.
In nature, as in Rousseau’s State of Nature, animals get what they want when they are stronger, faster and luckier (a faster rabbit outruns the fox, the stronger ox takes down territorial adversary and the luckier hyena doesn’t get struck by lightning) but this relationship is never condemned as unfair or celebrated as contemporary, it just is and the same is true of our actions, except that in a built-up self-aggrandising society, we are awarded the luxury of surviving regardless of our individual strengths, instead relying on the state to support us and our environment. This fairly extreme twisting of nature to suit our excessive needs is, of course, utterly ignored. Job centres are still filled with ceaselessly angry shirtless people shouting about how everything is set against them, none of them realising that they have a house with heating, hot and cold running water is accessible at the tiniest twist of a faucet, the streets are lit and protective clothing as well as charity of every kind is continuously available. These excesses all lead to the one main luxury of having the time and freedom to think about and to judge such events. Even so far as to invent the wacky concepts of right and wrong, just and unjust and equal and unequal. Rousseau's third, rather more radical, view suggests not that the blame lay at the offenders’ feet nor at the feet of society or the media or anywhere else. But that the blame is irrelevant. If anywhere the blame belongs with us for declaring such actions as evil; we are making the distinction so, in a way, we are the sources of the evil.
Initially the third of these opinions (Rousseau's) can seem the weakest as it removes blame and makes certain contradictory statements but if you attempt to apply Roland Barthes’ principle of reading a work independent of its author, it distinguishes itself as the strongest. Free from the republic-obsessed socialists of the 18th century, this line of thought instead provides us with a social philosophy of introspection. Is human nature destructive and selfish? Is it what sets us apart from animals (other animals* perhaps) with our capacity for great charity and kindness? Or are we just a race of simpletons that are misusing what mind power we have to bumble around ascribing arbitrary distinctions and traits of morality and equality onto each other while never realising that such concepts, being as tautologous as this sentence, apply to nothing but themselves?