Maybe people aren’t so bad after all

I have to confess, I often find myself feeling quite misanthropic. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that, “hell is other people”. I can definitely relate to this.

One of the most impactful things I have seen in recent times that illustrates our flaws is an animation by an artist called Steve Cutts. Man is a caricatured timeline of mankind and its impact on all it sees.

Very depressing. However, last night I went to a talk by George Monbiot about Rewilding Britain at the Old Fire Station in Penrith. I’m a big fan of George, so I was familiar with most of what he spoke about. Towards the end though, in answer to a question from the audience, he got onto a topic that I found very interesting.

Humans are often characterised as being selfish, only looking out for themselves. George invoked the concept of homo economicus. I must admit I wasn’t familiar with this theory, but it is a term coined to describe the self-interested nature of human beings. But to counter this, George spoke of a raft of psychological studies that suggest the opposite. And actually, that human beings are unique in their desire to help others for no reason. The views he outlined are fortunately available online in an article he wrote for the Guardian earlier this month.

George referenced the way that humans send money to people in need whom they’ve never met, the way humans help people with heavy bags on trains, the way some humans are even willing to take refugees into their homes. He countered that one might accurately describe chimpanzees as homo economicus, but that humans couldn’t be more different.

Now, you may reasonably feel that the above examples are more related to the social norms in which we’re raised, rather than an actual innate kindness. But in addition to the examples above, George referenced a number of studies relating to altruism in very young children:

By the age of 14 months, children begin to help each other, for example by handing over objects another child can’t reach. By the time they are two, they start sharing things they value. By the age of three, they start to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Are we therefore naturally kind? And it is therefore the frameworks and systems in which we live that diminish this kindness?

Perhaps the most fascinating (and equally most depressing) aspect of all of this is that we have a tendency to allow the psychopaths to lead us. One in a hundred ordinary people are psychopaths, yet that figure rises to 4% when we look at CEOs.

So maybe there isn’t hope for us after all. But I think I’ll cling to the idea that wherever there are humans, there’s a possibility of kindness prevailing.

I should say, the featured image for this post is also one of Steve Cutts’.

3 thoughts on “Maybe people aren’t so bad after all

  1. I was just thinking about this kind of stuff yesterday. Watching “The gift of life” on bbc, a documentary showing the organ donation stuff in hospitals. For me, no amount of money could make anyone want to go through what they do as a day job, the pressures, the heart break and the downs. Obviously they do it with the intention of helping people, so this feeling must vastly outweigh the crap they get from MP’s, the horrible feeling they get when they fail or even just the weight of the pressure from that patients loved ones…one mistake and that’s someone’s life… worth a watch: http://www.channel5.com/shows/gift-of-life

    Also, this restores a lot of faith in mankind, also worth a watch:

  2. I am overall less worried about the innate kindness/empathy of the human animal (or lack thereof) and more worried about whether civilization, taken as an organism, can find a sustainable equilibrium with our environment.

    To my knowledge, there is only ever one outcome when a species is allowed to spread unchecked in a closed system, and we are following that pattern. There should be a difference… we should be self-aware, and we should see this coming and be able to modify our behavior. But it seems that we are just unable to think generationally. Sorry for the downer comment. :-/

    1. Sorry for the slow reply Bob. I pretty much entirely agree with you.

      However, I feel we must maintain optimism. Like many things, if you don’t think you can achieve something, you definitely won’t. For as long as you think you might achieve something, there’s a possibility that you will.

      To quote George Monbiot again, “an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.”

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