Chapter 1: Human Nature – Who are we really?

For the error bread in the bone 
Of each woman and each man 
Craves what it cannot have, 
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

– W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.”

“Well, it’s just human nature,” we say.  Meaning what?  Meaning that some failing or another, perhaps of a public official or business executive, is simply to be expected.  Business as usual — “We’re not perfect, you know.”  Yet, we are as likely to say, “I think people are basically good, all in all.” Upon hearing of executive criminality at Enron or outrageous malfeasance by a Chicago politician, we will defend our assessment with, “Well, it’s just a few rotten apples spoiling the whole barrel.  Most business executives and public officials are basically honest law abiding people.” So which is it?  We can’t really have it both ways.  Or can we?  What is human nature? 

The answer to this question makes all the difference in the way one approaches life – the raising and education of children, personal and social relationships, business, politics, law, religion — damn near everything that matters.  Yet how often we either avoid or, with duplicitous lack of rigor, straddle rather than deal with the heart of the matter. Politicians, other than by platitude, scrupulously avoid the question entirely.

Thomas Hobbes took the question of “Who are we really?” as the beginning point of his political philosophy.  Perhaps in a period of chaotic disillusionment with many of the institutions of our political, economic and social order; perhaps in a time  of reframing the very Social Contract by which our western culture has been organized, we should as well.  You may be surprised at the answer Hobbes gives, so let us start there. 

Hobbes does not answer the question – what is man? – per se; he answers it by asking, “relative to what?”  His perspective is relative to man’s fitness for social relationships, and it is in this context that he asks, “What is man?”  Unlike the Greeks – particularly Plato and Aristotle – Hobbes does not think humans are social or political animals by nature. Unlike traditional Christian theology he does not think we are fallen beings, “moral wretches,” redeemed by God through Christ back into the fellowship of faith.  Hobbes frames the question and his answer – balanced and without sectarian bias — in De Cive (On the Citizen), inquiring if men are actually “born fit for society” (as the Greeks argued they were) and answers that they are not, but that by training, and in the context of a Social Contract may be made so:

We shall first describe the attitude men have towards each other . . . and ask whether they are born fit for society and for preserving themselves from each other’s violence, and which faculty makes them so.  We shall go on from there to explain the policy which they had inevitably to adopt for that purpose, and to lay out the conditions of society and Peace among men, which are simply the fundamental laws of nature under another name.

– T. Hobbes, De Cive. Chapter 1: On the state of man without civil society, p. 21.

Hobbes is often accused of having a darkly negative view of human nature.  “And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short . . .” (Leviathan. Chapter XIII) being quoted ad nauseam as the quintessential Hobbesian view of the human condition.  In actuality, given the times in which he lived, and the times mankind has been through in the three and a half centuries since, Hobbes had an amazingly hopeful view of man.  Certainly a realistic one.  Hobbes developed an anthropology, if you will, which did not require a particular faith or religious perspective to be deployed in the statecraft of public life.  He framed the anthropology neither naïve nor cynical, but fundamentally hopeful – i.e. forward looking.  Man was not born fit for society, thought Hobbes, but he could be made fit.  And how that might be achieved was the possessing life’s work of the philosopher from Malmesbury.

Hobbes employs a thought experiment to convey his understanding of human nature.  Think about what it would be like if you and a number of others were thrown willy nilly into a world without order or convention – without social structure whatsoever – and it was not a garden flowing in milk and honey, but a place scarce in the physical necessities for survival.  The 1963 film Lord of the Flies (based on the British Nobel Laureate William Golding’s 1954 novel) is a marvelous, though terrifying, representation of what Hobbes was getting at.  The raw imperative of survival in the context of scarcity is moving, though not a pretty picture.  Hobbes, in describing man in “the state of nature,” intends nothing less than scaring the hell out of us.

Indeed, fear is a big element in the Hobbesian way of looking at things.  In his autobiography he jokingly notes that, “Fear and I were born twins.”  He goes on to relate that his mother went into early labor worrying about the imminent invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, which at the time of Hobbes birth lay just off shore the British Isles.  “My mother gave birth to Fear and Myself together!” He would write.  Fear, political turmoil, war and rumors of war are deeply engrained aspects of the political philosophy of Hobbes, and critical to understanding his view of human nature.

For Hobbes human beings are first, if not foremost, self interested.  This foundational reality – human selfishness — is neither good nor bad for Hobbes, it is simply true. It is true not just of our economic or political life, but of our personal life as well – friendships and even intimate relationships.  Failure to put this fact on the table would be fatal, in his view, to negotiating any working accommodation from a simple contract of sale to a constitution for a nation or a convention and multinational treaty for a league of nations.  Indeed, Hobbes says that self interest is “a law of nature” and again a “right” which all humans possess.  He puts it this way, “Man has a natural right to all things.”  As long as this natural right of “every man to everything” endures, Hobbes reasoned, there can be no security for anyone. 

Perhaps the most difficult part of accepting Hobbes’s understanding of human nature is at the level of personal motivation and relationships.  Challenged that humans naturally feel empathy (“pity” was the word Hobbes used) for each other, he would say, “Our pity is imagination or fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of our own insecurity.”  Or that there is human laughter and delight in jokes and story telling, that has no basis in selfishness, Hobbes would rejoin, “Laughter is nothing more than self applause.”  Or that there are human relationships – friends, loved ones, mentors – that are grounded on far more than egotistical advantage.  And Hobbes would say, “Friendships are for the advantage of your own prestige and social status,” “vain glory” being his exact words.

It is here that I have always wanted to take old Hobbes on, as it were, tooth and tong.  Yes, I’ll concede that I sometimes act on quite selfish motives, and often with mixed motives, particularly in political and business dealings, but I have friendship and relationships that are not founded on selfishness.  I am offended that Hobbes would suggest otherwise.  But Hobbes more than “suggests”:

Closer observation of the causes why men seek each other’s company and enjoy associating with each other, will easily reach the conclusion that it does not happen because by nature it could not be otherwise, but by chance.  For if a man naturally loved his fellow man, loved him, I mean, as his fellow man, there is no reason why everyone would not love everyone equally as equally men; or why every man would rather seek the company of men whose society is more prestigious and useful to him than to others.  By nature, then, we are not looking for friends but for honour or advantage from them.  This is what we are primarily after; friends are secondary. Men’s purpose in seeking each other may be inferred from what they do once they meet.  If we meet to do business, everyone is looking for profit not for friendship.  If the reason is public affairs, a kind of political relationship develops, which holds more mutual fear than love; it is sometimes the occasion of faction, but never of good will.   . . . To speak finally of those who profess to have more wisdom than other men, the Philosophers (i.e. academics): at their gatherings (i.e. faculty meetings!) everyone lectures everyone else, in fact everyone wants to be thought a Master; otherwise not only do they fail, like ordinary men, to love their colleagues, they actively pursue their resentments against them.  So clear is it from experience to anyone who gives any serious attention to human behavior that every voluntary encounter (emphasis added) is a product either of mutual need or of the pursuit of glory.

– T. Hobbes, De Cive, Chapter 1: On the state of man without civil society, pp 22-23.

The above is the longest direct quote by far of Hobbes’s writing in this book.  I quote this at such length to show how thorough-going was Hobbes’s conviction that our basic motivation as humans (mind you, “without civil society”) was self interest (i.e. egocentric).  Hobbes could not be more frontally offensive than this – even when we reach out in affection and friendship – we are first motivated by “what’s in it for us.” Hobbes is aware he is being offensive to his readers, for he follows this stark passage by acknowledging the “objection” (I would suggest revulsion) that he has produced in his readers.  “. . . it may seem a piece of weird foolishness to set a stumbling block in front of the reader on the very threshold of civil doctrine (the next chapter and those following of his book), by insisting that man is not born fit for society.  Something must be said in explanation.” (No argument there!)

Hobbes then acknowledges that we are born dependent and helpless and in need of care, and as adults we live far better in relationship with others than alone: “I am not therefore denying that we seek each other’s company at the prompting of nature.  Yet civil societies are not mere gatherings; they are alliances, which essentially require good faith and agreement for their making.  Infants and the uninstructed are ignorant (and) . . . cannot enter Society because (either) they do not know what it is, (or) . . . do not care to because they do not know the good it does. . . . Therefore man is made fit for Society not by nature, but by training.  (Emphasis added.) Furthermore, even if man were born in a condition to desire society, it does not follow that he was born suitably equipped to enter society.  Wanting is one thing, ability another.”  If there were ever a clearer endorsement for the need of public and civic education, I do not know what it would be.

Hobbes’s point is powerful, and I would suggest anyone who has parented children knows this by experience — humans are not born capable of civil association.  A two year old is not an eleemosynary being, and neither is a 13 year old. Achieving functional frontal lobe awareness of  and concern for the interests of others is a hard won victory of nature and nurture together in arduous and common purpose over twenty or twenty-five years of development.  (I have helped parent six teenagers, and I know whereof I speak!) Under the right circumstances, and within the social frameworks and governance of family, community, school, and nation, we human beings may achieve civility.  But civility is not “hard wired.”

I would argue not just that Thomas Hobbes is correct in the context of the 17th Century, but human nature in this respect has changed little from his time to ours.  Here, however, is a key point.  Hobbes does not see all humans as equally selfish or self interested, even in that raw world he calls The State of Nature.  There are good guys and bad guys, just no selfless guys, and the result is still chaos (“a war of all against all”). 

In the state of nature there is in all men a will to do harm, but not for the same reason or with equal culpability.  One man practices the equality of nature, and allows others everything which he allows himself; this is the mark of a modest man, one who has a true estimate of his own capacities.  (The kind of person a Kant or John Rawls calls to mind in their concept of “equal liberty.”) Another, supposing himself superior to others, wants to be allowed everything, and demands more honour for himself than others have; that is the sign of an aggressive character.  In his case, the will to do harm derives from vainglory and over valuation of his own strength.  For the first man, it derives from the need to defend his property and liberty against the other.”

– T. Hobbes, De Cive, p 26.

The result is, without any framework for channeling human aggression, the character of the latter destroys the natural tranquility of the former, and of all.  It is the old and persistent problem of free ridership – literally, “getting away with murder” – resulting in the devastation of all “natural” human institutions: families, friendships, neighborhoods, extended communities.  Human nature, insisted Hobbes, without some external structure of coercion is not just self interested, it is self destructive, and worse, destructive of human community.

In this conclusion about the human condition, Hobbes provides a way to avoid much of the fundamental silliness of the public discourse of our own time –that phony “left vs. right” standoff so promoted by the radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, et. al.  In a sense Hobbes would say, “A plague on both your houses.” To the neo-cons and Libertarians among us Hobbes agrees with the focus on “self interest,” but he would flatly reject their conclusion that the unfettered maximization of self interest in free markets creates wealth, i.e. the magic of the Invisible Hand would be totally lost on Hobbes.  The cover graphic (which we will discuss in detail in a later chapter) of his magnum opus The Leviathan is anything but “invisible.”  The hand holding the sword and the hand raising the crozier (the symbol of ecclesial authority) are quite visible.  On the other hand, to those Liberals (The Left) who see human nature as intrinsically good, governments as unambiguously benign and our times as the “dawning of the age of Aquarius” when “peace will guide the planets, and love will steer the stars,”  well, if around today Hobbes would probably just say, “Get real.”

Several books could be, and indeed many have been, written on Thomas Hobbes’s understanding of human nature. In this brief summary I have left out much, but hope I have shown how Hobbes’s quite secular – indeed truly postmodern — and balanced judgment about humankind provides an important beginning point for our own 21st Century discourse – a civil dialogue – on matters social, political and legal.  My major thesis, playing off Hobbes, is this: you cannot frame an adequate social contract, then or now, without beginning with a fundamental assessment of who we – the parties to such agreements – basically are, that is, relative to our fitness for civil society.

Hobbes is no religious mystic; he is neither Freudian, nor Jungian. Hobbes had none of the insights of modern neuroscience. Hobbes is truly limited by his mechanical — materialistic — understanding of the human soul, self or psyche, “The heart is a spring” being one of his sillier notions.  (Though perhaps no sillier than our modern metaphor, i.e. the digital computer is a human brain.)  Hobbesian anthropology is to a single purpose: not psychological, not religious, not moral, but political. Hobbes’s intellectual enterprise is single-mindedly directed toward developing an understanding of mankind so that one could in the end build a sustainable social order fit for him.  He called that end, the public good that was a means to nothing else, peace.

Thomas Hobbes correctly understood that human nature and world peace are intrinsically linked.  Humankind’s problem in building a world stable and secure was not so much about our politics as about our nature.  The quote at the head of this chapter, i.e. the haunting words of W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” was written on the cusp of the 20th Century’s greatest crisis, The Second World War.  Yet, Auden was not writing about the politics and policies of international relations.  His poem is personal, it is about the human self.  We all need and seek love, acceptance, affection.  But the flaw, “the error bread in the bone,” is that love is insufficient if it is not exclusive, i.e. not ours alone.  Therein, argues the poet, is our downfall.  I can still recall National Public Radio in the United States playing this poem over and over on the days following September 11, 2001.  Hobbes, I am certain, would have understood Auden’s poem; I am not certain, in this age of greed and terror, many of the rest of us do. 

So what do you think?  Are we human beings fundamentally selfish (egocentric)? Would you agree with Hobbes this is just a reality, and should not to be judged in some moral sense?  Even if you are a bit uncertain about your final answer to such a basic question would you be willing, for the sake of conversation (i.e. deliberation) to suspend judgment if others in the discourse would as well?  Hobbes sought by using the most minimal assumptions possible about us humans to provide a foundation for our building a more secure and peaceful life for ourselves.  One could have lengthy and inconclusive debates about whether or not humans are fundamentally charitable, but Hobbes thought that there was no debate about our being (out of necessity) self interested.   

In my graduate course on business ethics part of one classroom session is spent in discussing the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma.  There are many forms of this dilemma and many real life examples of its prevalence in business and other social contexts.  My favorite version is not about prisoners at all, but about soldiers.  I call the two soldiers Dan and Doris.  The two of them have been placed at a forward outpost of an impending military engagement, but some distance apart. It is nighttime. Dan and Doris can neither see nor hear each other, nor communicate in any fashion.  Dan and Doris are mercenaries, they have no allegiances.  The only assumption allowed to each (or to the students in deliberating their predicament) is that Dan and Doris are rational and self interested human beings.  I tell my students that an overwhelming enemy force is about to descend on our lonely soldiers, and ask the class in groups of four or five to deliberate what they would do in similar circumstance.

I am sure this or a similar exercise is used in ethics classes around the globe.  I will not bore you with all the perturbations of this classic dilemma nor its myriad treatments by game theorists.  What I do want to note is the almost universal tendency of students, when first introduced to the dilemma, to ignore the operative assumption, i.e. rational self-interest.  A former marine argues passionately that Dan and Doris must stand their ground and resist, even if to the death, the on-coming enemy force.  Simper Fi is his watchword. Someone else will argue that Dan (or Doris) should run like hell, because we all know one cannot trust a woman (a man) to be rational under such circumstances. Yet another will argue that we have a duty (often times detailed in religious idiom) to the other not to desert him/her in a time of crisis.  One student even went so far as to say he always asked, “What would Jesus do?”  And Jesus would be faithful to the end, even if he got nailed for it!

My point is this: it takes longer to get a class of very intelligent graduate students to accept the framework of the dilemma, than it does for them to deliberate it and reach a decision.  When finally (!) all the platitudes and ex post facto clichés are exhausted, a productive discussion ensues, more often than not, arriving at the traditional conclusion that staying rather than running is the only rational thing to do, providing the best chance of survival to the pair of soldiers afraid and alone in the dark.

Recall the classic outcomes given the possible pairings of the two basic options, to stay or to run:

If I run and she stays, then I am almost certain to get away (with murder!); but if I stay and she runs, I will surely die; on the other hand (foot?), if we both run we’re more likely to get cut down but not as likely as my certain fate in option two. So we come to the best possible outcome for us both, our fate depending on the decision of the other, both of us should stay.  The foundation of our survival becomes rational, self-interested cooperation: not friendship, not kinship, not religious conviction, no magic here.  As Hobbes and other philosophers of his ilk have argued, here is something foundational, well, something that one could bet his/her ass on!

Let’s review the bidding, as it were:

  1. We both run = The State of Nature (every man/woman for him/herself)
  2. She stays, I run = I’m a free rider. (the best option for me)
  3.  I stay, she runs = I’m a sucker. (the worst option for me)
  4. We both stay = Social Contract. (second best, but the rational choice)

Then when all, or almost all — the marine is still grumbling in the back of the room– are in agreement that against initial inclinations to the contrary, it is in one’s rational self interest to stay, not run, I suggest this: So now you know that as a rational being you should stay, and you know the other soldier (being rational as well) has reached the same conclusion, temptation comes.  A small voice says in your ear, “Well hell, since I know she is staying, my best chance is actually to run. I’m getting my ass outta here!”  The abyss of infinite regress lurks!  The rationally social contract collapses.  The free rider, or in this case the free runner, has caused the worst possible outcome to transpire.  “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

Hobbes discussed this very problem.  In a passage in Leviathan someone Hobbes calls “The Fool” inquires well, why not defect?  There are no consequences. I’m out for my self, why not run?  Hobbes’s answer is the central point of The Leviathan, and of his political philosophy, “Because if you break the social contract, you will be punished.”  The rejoinder to the position of The Fool (the free rider), says Hobbes, is coercion, externally applied accountability, absolute sovereignty. 

The ancient Greeks dealt with the same question.  Do you know the story of the Ring of Gyges? Plato used the story this way in The Republic: Glaucon, the older brother of Plato, was having an argument with Socrates about issues of ethics, justice and sovereignty. To make his point, that the only reason people behave morally is because they are afraid they will be caught and either embarrassed or punished if they do not, Glaucon tells the story of a poor but honest shepherd named Gyges. 

Gyges is doing the shepherd thing and tending his flocks.  A great earthquake occurs and an ancient cave-tomb is cracked open. Going into the tomb Gyges sees a corpse with a ring on its finger.  The tomb contains many other treasures, but Gyges takes only the ring from the cadaver and puts it on his own hand.  Gyges goes back to his sheep business, but he notices a very strange thing, when he turns the ring around to the inside of his hand, he becomes invisible! When he turns it back he is visible again. Gyges was a man of simple taste, but he did have a hankering after the beautiful Queen of his land; you can see where this is leading.

Glaucon drives his point home – you can’t trust shepherds as far as you can throw them – by relating how the poor and honest shepherd slips into the Queen’s bedchamber while the King is away (probably on a tour of his earthquake ravaged kingdom), seduces her majesty and plots with her to do in the King to become King himself.  Let’s hear it for King Gyges!

What is human nature fundamentally?  As you were reading the story of The Ring of Gyges, did you fantasize what you might have done with such a magic ring?  You don’t have to tell anyone your fantasies, in fact if you did, you’d probably clean the story up, because that is exactly the point Glaucon is making to Socrates!  Is the biblical notion that, “As a man thinks in is heart, so is he.” a concept you agree with?  Since we all sometimes betray our own better natures (at least in our thoughts if not our actions) when tempted, how can we know what is in “the heart” of those we deal with in business, civic affairs, politics or even religious organizations? 

This is why the minimalist assumptions of Thomas Hobbes about human nature, and the foundation provided therein for framing new human arrangements toward the future is so important in the mounting social chaos of the twenty-first century.  Alone in the dark; significant communication failing to cross cultural chasms; facing foes of awesome prospect, scared out of our wits or in perpetual denial, we need a way to get back to the basics of human engagement.  “So okay, for the sake of survival, I’ll drop my cultural platitudes, if you’ll drop yours.  Perhaps, though we will not agree on many other things, we can agree to survive and on the conditions under which that becomes possible?  Can we talk?”

Hobbes never heard or used the phrase “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” So far as I know, he never wrote or thought the words “free rider,” but his whole public philosophy turns on these concepts.  The erosive impact of someone’s selfish gaming of the system against all other parties to that system is ultimately destructive.  A graduate school study group has five members and has been assigned a major term project.  Work is parceled out during the second week of the term.  Each member of the team has his/her assigned readings and writing responsibility.  At mid-term the team meets to compare notes; four members have performed admirably, one fails to show-up. The project may still get done on time, but the team per se is toast.  Trust is lost and, without more concerted effort than required for the assignment itself, will never be restored.  In the intimate setting of a graduate school study group is the metaphor for the collapse of systems grand and global, and the lost of trust in both governments and financial markets across the face of the earth.

It is all about human nature.  Hobbes is sometimes referred to as a “foundationalist” philosopher, meaning that his assumptions about human nature are independent of moral norms.  The Canadian Philosopher David Gauthier (Morals By Agreement, 1986) is another.  Philosophers like Hobbes and Gauthier ground morality in human rationality. For them, all other assumptions about human nature stripped away, moral duties are founded in neither religion nor intuition nor culture, rather they are objective and rational, i.e. any reasonable person across cultures and nationalities and races could come to the same conclusions, reach similar normative outcomes. 

During my years in state and national politics there was a saying, a watchword among those tasked with advancing and pulling off political events, “Assume nothing and never pass on a chance to use the restroom.”  It is the first half of the motto I would have you focus on: assumptions (religious, political, psychological, cultural) can be like landmines across the landscape of human engagement.  Getting fundamentally explicit with each other about mutual needs and agreeing to principles of mutual advantage is foundational to every successful human enterprise, whether as small as a work group or a homeowner’s association, or as grand as a multilateral treaty among nation states or a charter of a new multinational corporation.  My personal apprehension is that in a time when major human civic engagement is required to fundamentally reconstruct social systems small and large, presumption is overwhelming the common purpose.

So we turn from Hobbes’s minimalist assumptions about human nature – afraid, egocentric, but rational — to the nature of humanity’s present predicament. 














Reference to Psalm 14:1: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.”

1 Response to “Chapter 1: Who Are We Really?”

  1. 1 Charles Oppegard September 21, 2009 at 4:05 am

    It is inviting to think we can get underneath the rancor of disagreements by granting this assumption, but can a society be engaged at that level of rationality? George Lakoff, who writes from the field of words and language urges an appeal to values and principles in his books. However I have a hard time thinking that would be productive. Sounds like an interesting start from Hobbes’s basic assumptions.

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