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Human Nature – Take Your Pick

Sinceritus: People are basically good. Most of the world’s problems could be solved if only we all learned to act a little less selfishly. It just comes down to education and changing the environment, so we can help make people better.

Economicus: I disagree with your basic premise. Man is an imperfect, selfish, fallible creature and trying to change human nature is a pointless task.

Sinceritus: Well, I certainly think you’re selfish and hard-hearted, not even wanting to change the world for the better, let alone making any attempt to actually do something.

Economicus: You’re entitled to your opinion Sinceritus, but I don’t feel under any obligation to go about trying to solve everyone’s problems, like you do. Now, don’t get me wrong.  I have no objection to you doing so, although I do think your good intentions are no substitute for a practical understanding of how the world really works.

Sinceritus: But I do understand how the world really works and that’s why we all need to work together. Rousseau said “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. We all need to work together to get rid of those chains!

Economicus:Yes, and look where that got you. The French Revolution ended up in an orgy of blood and tears and I certainly don’t recall that leading to much character building. If you want change then, accepting the limitations to our knowledge, it should be gradual, evolutionary change not a socially engineered and centrally planned change.

Sinceritus:You can’t really believe that Economicus. No real progress will ever take place unless we can get rid of the entrenched power structures that are currently resisting progressive change.


Economicus: How do you know that? Maybe the unintended consequences of your actions will make things worse off than now. Human reason is very limited. The best we can do is to try and arrange our institutions so as to minimize the harm that we can do to each other. If we are going to make changes we need to think about the trade-offs involved. Trade-offs are OK but big ‘solutions’ are just  likely to cause more harm than good.

Sinceritus:You can keep your trade-offs. I’m talking about bringing about social justice in the world and if that means breaking a few heads then so be it.

Economicus: I also want to see justice in the world but I see it very differently from you. To start with, the property you want to redistribute already belongs to someone.  In addition, everyone has a very different view of what a just redistributive outcome should look like. Consequently the concept of a just outcome is a meaningless one.  It only makes sense to talk about a just process.

Sinceritus: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Economicus: Look, let’s assume for the moment that nobody was entitled to their wealth and everyone was just given an equal amount of money conjured out of nowhere. Everyone would choose to spend it differently. Some would spend it on eating out, others on books and movies. Almost immediately, some individuals (authors and movie stars) would have more money than others. If you believe it’s right to let people do what they want with their own money, then you have to accept the unequal outcome that’s achieved. If  not, you’re going to have to keep interfering in people’s lives to redistribute their income and that involves people losing their freedom. That’s why the Founding Fathers wrote that we have the right to the ‘pursuit’ of happiness, not a right to happiness itself. They were concerned to achieve a just process not a just outcome.

Sinceritus: But that’s the point. I don’t accept that the process can be just, it’s only the outcome that can be just. In your ‘just’ society people could be poor and hungry and there could be huge inequalities of wealth. That could never be just.

Economicus: I’m afraid that as long as we have differing views of human nature we will always disagree about such matters. Can we at least agree to be friends.

Sinceritus: That’s not as easy as it sounds. I can’t help but suspect that you have some hidden agenda for believing the way you do. If you were a good person you would not believe those things.

Economicus: Well, that’s about where we started our discussion, Sinceritus.  Goodbye, I’m off to the Forum to watch the debates.  Care to join me?

Sinceritus:  No thanks. I’ve had enough debate for one day.

____________________

 “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”  Bertrand Russell
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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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9 Comments on “Human Nature – Take Your Pick”

  1. Jack Says:

    Malcolm,

    This was the perfect read for me today.

    I have attempted this conversation a few times and most have ended the way this did.

    The Sinceritus’s of the world seem to be in charge and their efforts for the ‘greater good’ are not feeling very good to me. Can’t they just leave us be to make our own way? I guess not.

    Thank you,
    Jack

    Reply

  2. chr1 Says:

    Well said. I’ve had similar reservations, and I have similar reasons to the ones presented here for taking the economicus view. When someone believes that humans can be perfected through our institutions or according to ideals (justice, social justice) then it’s often just a matter for them to get the institutions right according to politicians or leaders who espouse the ideals. It’s a worldview, a belief system, an identity in which people self-select and create organizations that stick to the worldview.

    Like all of us, they are then predisposed to overlook the performance of these institutions in the real world, with real politicians, and real unintended consequences.

    I see that you live in California, so you must see a lot of Sinceritus.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for your feedback and comment. I agree with you and because it’s a worldview, I am not sure they can ever be reconciled. Maybe, as Isaiah Berlin argued, there is a pluralism of ultimate values and reason cannot adjudicate between them? Also, maybe we’re genetically predisposed to holding one view rather than another?

      Reply

  3. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm,

    1. Perhaps they won’t be reconciled, but how are comparisons between values to be made?

    2. Quite possibly there are genetic components to holding one view or another, but the determinism and materialism necessary to adhere to such a view has problems, if that’s the only thing holding the value pluralism together. I could see Sinceritus and Economicus engaging one another civilly, and I could also see them retrenching socially and politically with the knowledge that each was born that way.

    I could also see Religicus coming on scene with moral absolutes, and and maybe Stalinicus doing the same.

    There may be reasons known or unknown to us that do not simply rely on our genetic tendencies as to why we hold the beliefs we do, and if moral values are many and irreconcilable, and political values may be as well, then there may be other reasons for our beliefs.

    I think this is why your “ultimate” values statement caught me. If everyone’s got their own ultimate values, whose is the most ultimate?

    Of course, this doesn’t mean I have the ultimate, nor even absolute reasons, but I think it’s why I’m generally skeptical but interested in value pluralism because we all search for ultimate reasons, and most of us some of the time, believe we have them.

    Apologies for the long response.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for these great points.

      1. I think the term philosophers use for concepts over which there are endless disputes which cannot be settled by appeal to logic or empirical evidence is ‘essentally contested concepts’. Such concepts would include justice, fairness, freedom, equality etc. There are certainly considerations that can be used in arguments about these terms but, they argue, there will never be any conclusive, permanent agreement on their meaning.

      2. Maybe there is no ‘ultimate value’. Most of the time I value freedom as my highest value but I could envisage a time when negative freedom would mean less to me than, say, the positive freedom of political self-determination. For example, if I was Indian and lived under the British Raj I might be willing to trade away some negative freedom (English rule was less arbitrary than native rule) for the positive freedom of being ruled by my own kind. Consequently, I currently recognize that freedom is my highest value but acknowledge that it may not always be so. Can you live with that? I think I can.

      Reply

  4. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm,

    Good points.

    There will always be disagreement as to justice, fairness, freedom and equality etc. I agree with that.

    I just worry that if everyone has a basket of values, and can choose less freedom in lieu of more political identity and expediency and perhaps more self-determination (no guarantees that your own kind will look out for you), than no one may be able to agree on the basket.

    I don’t go so far as Hobbes and the Leviathan, but I have my doubts given human nature that value pluralism would work in order to create and maintain the commonwealth, or the greatest stability.

    Reply

  5. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    “no one may be able to agree on the basket.”

    Chris, exactly right. But we are in fact living in a world of value pluralism (different U.S. states and different nation states) and it is not that bad. Violence, both individual and sovereign, is still in long term decline throughout the world and the long peace since the second world war is still intact (Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’). With its warts and all America is still an empire of trust rather than an empire of conquest (Thomas Madden’s Empires of Trust). What else is left? Constitutionalism doesn’t work, nobody can agree on natural rights and libertarians cannot even agree on what libertarianism means (www.bleedingheartlibertarians.com).

    Reply

  6. nicciattfield Says:

    I like this post, and particularly the importance of ensuring that institutions work for the people within them, rather than forcing radical change. I also like the concept that change is a process, rather than a revolution. Change as process is almost unnoticed. As you mentioned in a post about empires, health care for more people would be helpful. But how do we create forums of helpful and more empathic debate? The connections and shared ideas (as Tim Brown wrote about in Design Thinking) are inspiring. But then people have to be willing to see alternate perspectives, and that can be the struggle.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, the inspiration behind this post is the idea that what we think are policy differences are ultimately different views of human nature. Consequently, the problem you mention of getting people to see alternate perspectives becomes a little more difficult, as first people have to be made aware of how their conception of human nature is influencing their choices. As you say, that can be a struggle. Thank you for commenting on this and other older posts of mine.

      Reply

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