Ian Walsh on human nature.

Having discussed how human nature is fundamental to politics, Ian Walsh defined the basic parameters of human nature that are relevant to politics. Here they are. While I don’t agree with every point, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in his words. It’s as good as any other basis to discuss political constructs.

Most humans are malleable. Change the circumstances in which people live, change the way they are raised, change their education, change their technology, change the means of production and what people believe and how they act will change. We become what we do and what we believe and we interpret everyday activity through a lens of belief, language, and ideology.

Humans are neither good nor bad, ethical nor unethical, moral nor immoral. They are, instead, easily led. Peer groups and authority figures can get humans to do almost anything: rape, mass-murder, torture. Feed the hungry, heal the wounded, work together to build great projects of which no small group could even conceive.

Humans have drives. Humans want to eat, to have sex, to belong, to feel safe, to be respected, to have meaning in their lives, and so on. But there are many many different ways to feed oneself, feel safe, get sex, and be respected. The Maslovian hierarchy is a good guide to people’s drives. But—

Not everyone has the same drives to the same extent. Some will starve or die for honor. Others will die rather than kill. Some will dedicate their lives to saving other humans or even non-humans. The Maslovian hierarchy is not a hierarchy for individuals, only for large numbers of people. People will go without food to self-actualize, for example, as the many ascetic traditions of the world should attest.

A few people are rigid. There are some people who you can’t get to torture, no matter what. There are some people who will never kill; and so on. There are people whose moral codes are so strong they cannot be coerced into breaking them. Even those people are products of their culture, but once set, they are stone.

Kindness is as innate as cruelty. Empathy is a function of the brain. When we say “I feel your pain,” we are talking literally, as mirror neurons dance the same dance as the person suffering. Humans have died trying to save drowning animals, other humans they don’t know, and so on. We see someone suffering, and if we’re neurotypical, that suffering hurts us.

Cruelty is innate, too. Some people really get off on cruelty, on hurting other people. As with the rigid moralists, there is a core of people who are like this pretty much no matter what, but in most people it is a question of circumstance and conditioning; treat someone cruelly and they will become cruel. Virtually every abuser was abused. Those to whom evil is done, do it to someone else entirely.

Humans are band-based: We are wired to live in bands of about 150 people. Those people are the people we are likely to treat well, whose concerns concern us. While we may be kind to those outside the band, we are far more likely not to be, and the first job of any leader who wants war and cruelty to the outsider is to convince the band “they aren’t like us.”

We can expand the band: Ideology of various types can expand the band. All Christians are brothers, all members of the same nation; all sports fans of the same team, all people who believe in Democracy, Human Rights, or Communism. Everyone who has the same totem animal. We expand the bonds of the band outwards: “This person is like me and deserves my help and sympathy”.

2 thoughts on “Ian Walsh on human nature.

  1. sbt42 November 3, 2016 at 05:05 Reply

    Thanks to your blogroll, I’ve been reading a fair amount of Welsh lately. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

    So where do you specifically disagree? From what I’ve read here and over there, it seems to me you would take issue with his “blank slate” approach of people being neither cruel nor kind by nature, etc, etc. From what I understand of your writing, it seems you would rather promote the idea that humans are driven/influenced to cooperate with one another, even if solely through blatant self-interest. This is how societies and communities are formed.

    Care to elaborate – and correct me should I be off-base?

    • Francois Tremblay November 3, 2016 at 14:43 Reply

      Yes, that’s right! But it’s only a minor point, in this case. I agree with everything else he says.

      And glad I was able to introduce you to that great blog, as well. :)

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