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Human Nature: Why Utopias Don’t Work

12/01/2008

Last year I read The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer. I’ve always been interested in human behavior, that is, why we behave the way we do, and I found the book to be a fascinating look at morality from a secular, scientific, evolutionary point of view. Humans are, after all, merely animals like any other, but with complicated behaviors that often seem difficult to predict. I think people, especially philosophers and religious folks, tend to think that because humans are capable of reason and intellect, we can somehow overcome human nature.

The problem with any utopia is that it fails to take into account actual human behavioral patterns. As I postulated when I was around 12 or 13 years old (and having my first “deep, profound thoughts”), in a perfect world, there would be no need for the words “thank you” or “I’m sorry”. The appreciation and remorse would be understood. In a perfect world, people would never need to thank each other, because people would simply always share. It would be the norm and so thanking someone would be redundant and pointless. In a perfect world, no one would intentionally cause anyone harm, so any harm done by another person would be merely accidental, and of course, they would be sorry and the person harmed would not be angry at them. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. People are jerks. People lie. People cheat. People steal. People do petty crap. People are sometimes lazy and sometimes selfish. It just the way we evolved and for a good reason.

In Shermer’s book, he uses evidence from various studies to show that social groups are pretty stable without formal rules as long as they stay below a population of about 250. The “golden rule” happens naturally as long as the people in the group all know each other. The benefit of screwing them over are outweighed by the risk of being seen as a jerkwad within the group. If you take someone’s last donut without permission, they won’t be inclined to give you a jump start when your car battery dies. What happens when a group is bigger than that? Well, people begin to have anonymity, like in large cities where if you cut someone off on the freeway or jump in front of them in line, the chances that you’ll have to deal with that same person again are very low, so the benefit of screwing them over outweigh the risk. On an even bigger scale, someone can anonymously comment on a blog with severe viciousness or do hideous hateful things on the internet with no consequences.

I like the idea of a utopia, but it just doesn’t work. Even if all of society were to embrace the idea of the “golden rule”, the society would become vulnerable to just one person who comes along and exploits the generosity of others. And since we are all capable of negative behavior, once one person exploits it, that behavior will spread like a virus; other people will see them benefit and follow suit. It’s just human nature.

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2 Comments
  1. 13/01/2008 9:36 am

    A less rosy view of the “golden rule” is social-contract. As explained in Hobbes’ Leviathan it essentially is the idea that we don’t use each other as means-to-ends to avoid being used as means-to-ends by others. Hobbes’ personal social-contractarian beliefs are a bit 18th century (which is not bad for a guy from the 17th century) but the concept of s-c is one that, arguably, has something worth thinking about.

  2. emmajeans permalink
    12/02/2008 6:09 am

    In a collectivist culture, ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ are not necessary for in-groupers. In fact, expressing gratitude and regret is reserved only for outsiders; and if you say these things to an in-grouper, you are putting a bit of a wall up.
    Actions are more important.
    Also, in collectivist cultures, the benefit of doing good things for other people is explicitly taught from childhood, and there are some hard-to-translate words which express the types of doing-things-for-others which occur. They emphasise the good of the group rather than the convenience of the individual, which is what tends to happen in individualist societies such as Aus, USA, etc.

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