Politics and Original Sin

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By Martin Butler: Beliefs about the essential goodness or badness of human beings have been at the heart of much political theory.[1] A recent book by the political philosopher Lea Ypi succinctly expresses the conflicting approaches. Speaking of her mother she’s says:

“Everyone, she believed, fought as a matter of course, men and women, young and old, current generations and future ones. Unlike my father, who thought people were naturally good, she thought they were naturally evil. There was no point in trying to make them good; one simply has to channel that evil so as to limit the harm. That’s why she was convinced socialism could never work even under the best circumstances. It was against human nature.”[2]

This negative view of human nature is associated with philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the more positive view with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Whether this is entirely justified is an open question, and I do not want to challenge the idea of human nature as such. Human beings like sweet things, they are sexual beings, they are on the whole social, seeking the approval of their fellows, and so on. The idea of human nature seems perfectly reasonable.  I do, however, want to examine how the idea that human beings are naturally bad should affect our political beliefs, if indeed it should affect them at all.

Lea Ypi’s mother’s line is that society should be designed in a way that works with our natural human badness. If humans are selfish and greedy, for example, then social institutions ought to be designed to deal with this reality rather than change it. A famous passage from Adam Smith is sometimes taken to be developing this line of thought:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”[3]

Because benevolence is in short supply and far less reliable than self-love, society needs to harness the latter rather than relying on the former. The alchemy of the market, and capitalism more generally, allows the grimy motive of self-interest to be transformed into something that makes benevolence redundant.  But surely, if butchers, bakers and brewers cared for nothing but themselves, like all human beings (as Lea Ypi’s mother would have us believe) they would attempt to cheat their customers and suppliers. They would misrepresent the quality of their products, over-charge, use cheap low-quality ingredients, delay payments to their suppliers, and so on. The argument that this would work against their own self-interest as it would lead to a bad reputation certainly has some merit, but the idea that only good, honest traders can achieve success is naïve in the extreme. (The Mafia is an organization that works on nothing but self-interest, and a bad reputation has not put them out of business.) If self-advantage were the only motive in market-place transactions and we could not assume any level of fairness and honesty (not motivated by self-advantage) the commercial world would break down, and if all traders were constantly looking out for opportunities to cheat, no regulating body would be sufficient to keep them in line. In the same way, no police force could keep order if everyone was intent on committing crime.

This leads us to the thought that we might well be misrepresenting Adam Smith. Self-interest or self-love, we should remember, are not in themselves morally reprehensible but only when pursued at the expense of others. Self-love is not the same as selfishness. So the idea that Adam Smith’s portrayal of market transactions is somehow in line with the view that human beings are naturally bad may be grossly unfair. The whole point of his claim is that the butcher, baker and brewer do not pursue their interests at the expense of others. Their interests coalesce with those of others, but the motive of self-advantage is not enough, and some level of virtue in the participants must be assumed, at least in the majority. Ironically, market capitalism actually fits better with the assumption that human beings are naturally good because this supports the claim that there’s no need for the kind of legal regulations that market capitalists abhor. Certainly the idea that market transactions can rely on self-advantage alone does not pass muster. Although Smith does not spell this out it seems quite reasonable to suggest that he is making exactly this assumption.

Even if we accept that self-interest in itself is not morally suspect, there are still higher and lower ways in which humans can pursue their own advantage. This might roughly correspond to Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures.[4] The negative view of human nature argues that we are naturally drawn to the lower rather than the higher: everyone really craves material wealth and luxury whatever they might say.[5] And according to this negative view, part of the attraction of being rich is the fact that most people are not rich. Lea Ypi’s mother would undoubtedly claim we are irredeemably snobbish and enjoy looking down on others: wealth leads to power but power is only meaningful if others are less powerful than us. We all want to be billionaires, but only if that makes us part of an exclusive club, and a society in which all are equally rich would not have the same attraction at all.

If this is the reality of human nature, the idea of striving for some level of equality in society is empty and pointless, going against the grain of human nature as it does. Best to mitigate the worst effects of greed and snobbery without trying to deny it, and societies that impose a regime of ‘equality’ are attempting the impossible. Human nature cannot be suppressed, so the argument goes, therefore society ends up imposing a living lie, and elitism and snobbery emerge anyway, in a perverted or disguised form. The result is an Animal Farm kind of society.

This leads us to some basic questions about the nature of virtue and vice. Note that Lea Ypi’s mother does at least acknowledge that human nature is bad. (She says evil but I will ignore the difference although many would argue that it is significant.) She would presumably reject the claim that ‘greed is good’ (as expressed by the character Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street). She is not, as some have done, re-evaluating ordinary values, which is an option for those who take the negative view of human nature.[6] The argument here would be that if human beings are really bad at heart perhaps we need to look again at what ‘being bad’ means. By describing them as bad we damn all of humanity, so perhaps this means we’ve got our values wrong. Perhaps snobbery, greed, materialism, should be seen in a positive light, allowing us to be at peace with human reality. With this re-evaluation, the pessimism about human nature could be flipped into something more positive without having to actually change human nature at all. Perhaps Gordon Gekko was on to something after all.

The implausibility of this suggestion prompts us to reflect on the fact that something more than arbitrary choice leads us to regard such vices as greed, selfishness, snobbery, and dishonesty as bad, and virtues such as benevolence, honesty, modesty, and patience as good. A society in which the vices are dominant is deeply unattractive if indeed it is even conceivable. After all, most vices are inherently antisocial. If we wished our children to live a happy life, would we really attempt to inculcate a series of vices? A parent who did this would be seriously misguided and unlikely to produce a happy child. It sounds obvious, but it’s still worth saying: the difference between virtues and vices is that virtues are better than vices. Of course there are controversial cases, and misunderstandings. Being patient, for example, does not mean being infinitely patient. Honesty is not an absolute, and in some contexts a level of dishonesty is the right course of action – we need to judge, which in itself is a moral skill, and some virtues need to be handled with care. Loyalty, for example, is not always straightforwardly positive.

The claim that human beings are born innately and irrevocably bad (the original sin view) goes against some fundamental features of the way we normally think about moral issues.  But more importantly for us, it does not lead to the political beliefs Lea Ypi’s mother seems to think it does.

If humans were irredeemably bad, what would be the point of a good upbringing? If a child bullies other children, a good parent teaches the child that bullying is wrong. They might use a variety of techniques to make this clear, but if we are innately bad there would be no point. The counter argument might be that a good upbringing can mitigate but not eradicate the badness. Would this mean that if our child persistently bullied, we should just accept it?  Or, perhaps we should tell that child to limit the harm by only bullying occasionally, or just bullying the kid down the road that no-one else likes anyway. This is clearly nonsense. We might try and redirect the child’s aggression into something positive – such as a sporting activity – but this won’t be a matter of channeling the evil so as to limit the harm, it would be a matter of stopping the harm, and even this might not work completely. The point is that we are working to stop a vice, not just limit its damage. And just as a good upbringing should aim to instill virtues, similarly social institutions within society should work against our vices rather than pandering to them, even if we accept that human beings are imperfectible. After all vices are harmful, they are vices.

In addition, the idea that human beings are irredeemably bad is deterministic and contradicts the idea that we are responsible for our actions. The way we talk about morality and our whole system of punishment is based on the idea that we are free to decide how we act. An interpretation of this which makes it more consistent with the original sin view is that although we do have some degree of free-will, the odds are stacked against the good and in favor of the bad. Our impulses towards the dark side are stronger than those that pull us towards the light. Surely this is an argument for the claim that the good side needs all the help it can get. Certainly it doesn’t provide a justification for letting the bad have its way. It’s an argument for the claim that social institutions need to be designed to combat rather than pander to temptations of the bad. Lea Ypi’s mother’s argument seems to be that we are held hostage by our bad nature and so have to concede something, but this is unconvincing as long as we recognize that vices are actually bad. It’s an argument that suggests that in our more rational moments we ought to construct social structures that encourage the better side of our nature, even if this is the weaker side. Like a crowd at a football match, we can make a difference even from the side-lines. Well-constructed social institutions might help a weaker side(our good impulses) beat a superior opponent (our bad nature). The original sin view of human nature certainly does not support the kind of political fatalism suggested by Lea Ypi’s mother.

What I’ve said does not allow us to claim that human beings are actually either bad by nature or good by nature. That would require much more argument and evidence. For what it’s worth, I tend towards the view expressed by Aristotle that “The Virtues… come to be in us neither by nature, nor in despite of nature, but we are furnished by nature with a capacity for receiving them and are perfected in them through custom.”[7]

I do think however that the political assumptions often associated with the negative view of human nature are misguided. Clearly human beings can be good and they can be bad, whether by nature or nurture. Some political policies work and others don’t but our decisions about which policies to adopt should, at least partly, be based on whether they bring out our best side, and if this is the weaker side then this makes it all the more important. Policies such as absolute equality, for example, don’t work because they are bad policies, and would still be bad policies even if human beings had angelic natures. And certainly, grand political theories based on sweeping generalizations about the moral nature of human beings are deeply misguided.

[1] The term ‘Original Sin’ in the title is used to express the simple idea that human beings are born morally tainted. I am not concerned with the wider religious implications.
[2] Ypi, L., 2021, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, London: Penguin.
[3] Smith, A., 2010(1776). The Wealth of Nation. Chichester: Capstone, p27
[4] Mill, J.S., 1962(1861). Utilitarianism. Glasgow: Collins, Chapter 2.
[5] It might be thought that whether you seek higher or lower pleasures is morally neutral. Mill, I think, makes a convincing case for the claim that this is not so. Throughout chapter 2 of Utilitarianism he associates higher pleasures with virtue. Higher pleasures are linked to living a good life of the sort described by Aristotle. Unlike those who adopt the original sin view of humanity, Mill believed that if exposed to both, we would choose higher rather than lower pleasures.
[6] The idea of a re-evaluation of values is associated with Fredrich Nietzsche.
[7] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson, 2004. London: Penguin, p31

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