Monday, 29 August 2016

How the Body Keeps Human Nature in Check

Posted by Eugene Alper
Philosophers have always treated human nature with suspicion. From Plato's legend of the ring of Gyges to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the belief has been that human nature is fundamentally bad, and that if people could get away with it, they'd rather steal, rape, rob, and kill.
Because of this, one theory goes, people enter into a social contract. To avoid mutual destruction by their raging selves, they give up some of their freedom in exchange for security. The social contract theory, as one example of political philosophising, sounds reasonable. But is the premise correct? Is human nature really fundamentally bad?

It seems to me that however destructive human nature can be in theory—indeed, if we assume that man has free will, then he is capable of committing anything—in real life, man's own body, its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, forces him to co-operate with others rather than try to destroy them.

In real life, we do not think about this much; rather, we co-operate with others by habit instilled in us from childhood. We are trained to behave decently by our own family. Our parents do not want aggressive and unruly creatures bothering them, so for their own comfort they train us to be nice. And we continue to be so throughout life—and those who are not, as we often find out, may not have had that early socialising experience.

But let us pretend that there was no socialising milieu in one's childhood. Let us pretend that somehow a man did not realise that his mother was his only source of food and comfort, and he did not learn to please her. And let us pretend that it did not occur to him later in life that other people were useful to him too, and somehow he failed to master the skill of ingratiating himself with them in order to obtain what he needed. Let us pretend that, instead, the man was dropped from the sky into the world, not knowing anything at all about how it operated. Even then, it is my argument, he would be forced rather quickly to be nice rather than bellicose.

Dropped into the world, the man would promptly discover that his body needs to be fed every four hours and go to sleep every sixteen. His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and any contact with sharp, hard, or heavy objects, especially if the contact is made at speed. Even walking barefoot, he would observe, can be painful. He would find that the food his body demands so often is not readily available, and to fight for it with other people and animals a few times a day is painful to the skin. It is also risky to try to steal it, for getting away is difficult with the skin being so sensitive. Every night he would learn how physically complicated it is to find a safe shelter to hide from those he might have angered during the day. With his body getting hurt so easily and tired so quickly, he would calculate that it is more energy-efficient to try to engage others in a peaceful exchange, where he would trade for his food something of value to them: a thing he might have, a service he might perform, even a promise he might fulfill in the future.

Even if he were bigger and stronger than other men around him, he would understand that he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours—a third of each day on this planet—he would be as defenseless as a baby, and need to have someone he could trust next to him. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst human nature could not be mean under these circumstances all the time. The vulnerability of his own body at night and its dependence on non-poisonous food during the day would make him behave decently—at the very least to his closest circle.

This is what the man dropped from the sky would discover: however base and wild he might wish to be, his needy body keeps him in check. And philosophy, as fearful as it is of human nature, should acknowledge that it has an ally. The body is not a millstone to which the wing-flipping free will is oh-so-regrettably shackled, but a sensitive vessel playing a noble role. 'Don't be too cocky,' says the body to the free will trapped inside, 'or we will both get hurt.'

15 comments:

  1. Thank you, Eugene, for this elegant post. My minor point is that I don't really see Gyges Ring as representing Plato's view of human nautre - isn't Plato really in the camp of people being fundementally good? There's many different passages that seem to bear this view out - but perhpas the one where he argues that it is 'impossible' to 'knowingly' do evil is more typical?

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    1. Martin, thank you. I agree that the Gyges story may not be representing Plato's view, nor Socrates's. I don't have my copy handy at the moment, but I think it's Glaucon. But regardless, this is a legitimate view of human nature, and I think that was why Plato included it in the book among an array of others. Yes, I also agree that Socrates leads the reader to the idea that through "knowing" one becomes better. But it sounds to me that it is a way to improve human nature through education. Thank you for your kind words.

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    2. Plato does believe that the body is likely to lead us astray, and he hopes the mind can be trained to keep it in check. Socrates illustrates this with the famous story in Book IV:

      "Leontius, the son of Aglaion, was going up from the Piraeus along the outside of the North Wall when he saw some corpses lying at the executioners feet. He had an appetite to look at them but at the same time he was disgusted and turned away. For a time he struggled with himself and covered his face, but, finally overpowered by the appetite, he pushed his eyes wide open and rushed towards the corpses, saying, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches, take your fill of the beautiful sight.”

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    3. Hmmmm. I may be wrong but if I recall correctly this example by Socrates was not to demonstrate a conflict between the body and the mind but between two parts of the mind (actually, the soul): the intellecting part and the desiring (or appetitive) part.

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  2. I liked this post for its radicalism. The argument is, in a sense, known -- in materialism, for instance. But then again, not. I have not seen it stated like this before.

    One could in fact make an entire metaphysic of this. This man's body would determine the position of a light switch, the length of a working day, even the situation of a university ...

    I have my suspicions though that the post is fatally flawed. However, I don't have my thinking cap on right now ... :-)

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    1. Then take your time with that thinking cap, Thomas, I want to enjoy some time NOT knowing its fatal flaws :)

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  3. “Philosophers have always treated human nature with suspicion. From Plato's legend of the ring of Gyges to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the belief has been that human nature is fundamentally bad, and that if people could get away with it, they'd rather steal, rape, rob, and kill.”

    It is the ever human instinct to pursue self-interest and avoid pain, which is not evil, but to do so by harming others is. Given this, only under the condition of “thoughts being invisible”, can the instinct allow evil intentions to occur, (without causing pain). When thoughts are visible, man will instinctively not contemplate evil. Therefore, it is not “human nature” that is bad, but the “invisibility of thought” that is the root of human evil. In other words, the essence of human evil is the human instinct of “pursuing self-interest and avoiding pain” functioning in accordance with the physiological condition of “thoughts being invisible”.

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    1. Ah. That's an interesting idea: that if our thoughts were visible to others, we'd be less evil. Agreed.

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    2. And thank you, of course, for your comment, Chengde.

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    3. I recall reading that Confucius thought MUSIC was important to calm the wayward spirit.. the beastly impulses!

      This from a recent publishing effort of mine ('Cracking Philosophy')...
      Confucius had clear ideas
      about the importance of
      music. He said: ‘Let a man
      be stimulated by poetry,
      established by the rules
      of propriety, perfected
      by music.’
      For Confucius, music not
      only reflects the feelings of
      man, but it can also mould
      man’s character. This is
      because the harmony
      which is the essence of
      music can find its way into
      the hidden recesses of the
      mind and soul.
      Confucius, like Socrates,
      insisted that human nature
      is essentially virtuous:
      initially quiet and calm, but
      disturbed by the external
      world, which presents
      it with temptations and
      things to desire.
      When the desires are not
      properly controlled, we
      lose our true selves and
      the principle of reason
      is clouded. From this
      state soon arises all the
      evils of society: rebellion,
      disobedience, cunning
      and deceit, and general
      immorality. In short,
      as English philospher
      Thomas Hobbes would
      say 2000 years later, chaos.

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  4. Thank you, Eugene, for the several interesting ideas you present. Let me briefly touch on just one.

    “Is human nature fundamentally bad?” I think the answer has to take into account that humans are first and foremost biological entities. They come into this world with predispositions whose foundations are captured within (hard-wired into) the framework of that person’s unique biology. Of course, the biology can be, and is, influenced by conditioning—from familial conditioning to socializing to cultural habituation to personal experiences. The role of epigenetics—the influence of the external environment on genes’ expression—is just one driver of how (some of) the basic biology of a person, and its interesting effects, is alterable. The same is true for other (including psychological) influences, likewise bearing heavily on behaviour—and in turn the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the decisions a person makes, as well as of actions he or she takes. But, to circle back around, the fact that a person may well be unable, in some or many instances, to behave differently has to be viewed in the context of determinants embedded in that person’s biology. The latter therefore requires great caution in judging behavior (decisions and actions)—and thus, more broadly, whether human nature is fundamentally flawed—in the binary mode of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

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  5. Dear gentleman,

    In a way Eugene, your post is like a welcome in the carnaval of human life! As long as we disguise ourselves, each men takes a right for his action, his thoughts. But based on what? Every story can kill. But each story can be sincere for the narrator. Eventually, we are made of stories. Rather than which story is morally better, I think life is about who writes the most convincing story and properly because we live in a carnaval, it allows the party to continue. Not for this reason less evil.

    I do agree with Chengde there is an invisibility of thoughts, to disguise self interest (power) and its consequences to ignore pain rather than avoiding it (physically and psychologically). But I do not think the dichotomy of good and bad can be a standard for our nature. Rather it seems to allow the entertainment for human being to denote himself. Contrary to other organisms, mankind does not use this denotation for his survival.

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  6. My thinking cap back on again ... it would seem to me that the post (a) returns to origins, and (b) attributes motives.

    With regard to (a) it seems to me that the entire argument may be inverted. An example sentence inverted: 'In real life, man's own body, its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, forces him NOT to co-operate with others, and to destroy them.'

    With regard to (b) it seems to me that opposite motives may be ascribed to this man. An example sentence reversed: 'To avoid mutual destruction by their raging selves, they RETAIN some of their freedom in exchange for security.'

    The argument, then, does not seem to be ruined by looking at its mirror images. Hence, it has a problem of falsifiability ... ?

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