Let’s begin with some words of praise for the eternal human nature argument. Yes, it may be logically fallacious and often absolutely unfounded, but what it lacks in sound reasoning it more than compensates for in persistence. Just as the often-heard phrase “common sense” can be translated as “I have no idea what I’m talking about so I’m going to pretend my ideas are self-evident in case they conflict with actual research,” the argument invoking “human nature” translates to, “I can’t think of any other argument other than I’m right because this is how humans just are.”
But whereas “common sense” is rarely used above the intellectual level of a local conservative AM radio DJ or Larry the Cable Guy, the “human nature” argument carries enough prestige to be used by respected economists and intellectual figures. This is pretty impressive for such a fallacious, plainly ridiculous argument. Let’s give it a hand for withstanding the test of time.
The human nature argument can take many forms, as the argument basically goes like this: “You can’t have X because human nature is Y, and you can’t change human nature!”
Our variable Y can either suggest that human nature is actively opposed to your proposition, or the argument can be worded so that the speaker feigns sympathy with your idea, but thinks that humans are just too flawed to put it into action. The argument is typically used against socialism, or sometimes any idea which hints that capitalism may not be the pinnacle of human social development, and that another superior mode of production is possible. It is at this point when many socialists fall into a trap.
First off, once the human nature argument is invoked, one must point out that no one has managed to prove the existence of a constant, unchanging “human nature.” What traits we have which are truly universal can also be found in animals, such as the will to survive or procreate. To argue against the idea without pointing out the argument’s biggest and most obvious flaw is giving your opponent quarter he or she does not deserve. The “trap” however, is the process whereby the proponent of socialism attempts to argue against the most common form of the human nature argument, namely that humans are inherently selfish or driven primarily by self-interest and thus cannot possibly maintain a society based on egalitarian values.
The inexperienced socialist proponent is likely to attack the most obvious weak aspects of the argument, citing all kinds of examples of human cooperation and altruistic behavior. These kinds of counter-arguments are abundant, but one can go further. The human nature argument is about as realistic and true-to-life as the claim that the moon is made of cheese or that the Earth is flat. It deserves not only to be countered, but crushed and ground into the dirt.
If we assume that the argument is that humans naturally seek self-interest above all, we can crush this claim via several steps, each eviscerating the argument further until it is exposed completely. In order to explore the various angles of attack, let us begin with a realistic presentation of the argument, worded thusly.
Socialism cannot work because humans are inherently selfish, always seeking personal gain. This is why capitalism endures and why a better system than capitalism is impossible, because in the market which dominates capitalism individuals seek personal gain and society as a whole benefits.
The above is not a quotation, but it is a reasonably accurate formulation of the argument we are dealing with, and it attacks socialism while it supports capitalism as a system which can translate self-seeking behavior into socially positive results. Obviously the manner in which you encounter the argument may vary but before one makes the accusation that this is a straw man argument let us remember that the topic is the human nature-based argument as it is used as an attack against socialism. It is not necessary to state that refutations should depend on the actual argument of a given opponent, even despite the fact that the above-mentioned argument is a realistic example of a general human nature-based argument. That having been dealt with, let us now look at the counter-arguments, starting with the most simple objections to the most devastating.
First, the argument is logically fallacious. It is an appeal to nature, akin to saying that if you break your arm, you should not put it in a cast and take painkillers because after all, this is not how nature deals with these matters. Perhaps more importantly, there is no scientific proof to support the existence of “human nature.” If a static, predictable human nature existed, psychologists and many other workers in scientific fields would need to spend so much time doing research in trying to understand human behavior.
Next, and in line with the first points, it is necessary to highlight the fact that “human nature,” has changed dramatically over time. If our most ancient, prehistoric ancestors had been driven primarily by self-interest, our species never would have survived. Life for early humans was such a daily struggle that anyone putting their self-interest above that of their clan or tribe would have either starved, been killed, or even been cannibalized. Seeking self-interest first might lead to a fuller stomach one day, but to certain death beyond that. Even as mankind advanced and the agricultural revolution led to the beginnings of private property, production was still social enough to curtail the lure of naked self-interest.
The last in the series of basic arguments concerns all manner of examples which might be given to show the extent of altruism or social consciousness of human beings. The Marxist Professor Richard Wolff provided in one of his lectures an excellent example of modern transactions which are still not only handled outside the market, but which would be met with shock and scorn were anyone to suggest that they should be. The concrete example he provides is that of a person who visits his or her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday. The father asks the son or daughter to take out the trash on their way out. Wolff then asks us to imagine the reaction which would occur if the child were to quote a price for this service, explaining that it was based on the free market. In real life of course, you would do the favor and never even consider your opportunity cost in taking out the trash versus some other minute-long activity, like eating a few more pieces of turkey.
Arguments like these are all well and good, but capitalist apologists, especially those with training in mainstream economics, have developed counter-measures which often successfully dupe most of us unless we have the confidence to challenge their assumptions. Often times what the capitalist apologist will claim is that examples of selfless or altruistic behavior are actually “optical illusions”; the seemingly selfless individual must have had some kind of selfish motive, even if he or she never realized it, and this possibly unknown motive was the real reason for an altruistic action.
Apologists are quite fond of projecting the logic of the capitalist or merchant onto the population as a whole, as doing so erases the lines of class and makes it seem as though we all basically think in the same way, workers and capitalists alike. So for example, a person who dedicates their life to vaccinating children in Africa actually has a selfish motive in the sense that he values the satisfaction of helping people in the same way a merchant might value money. Because absurd ideas like this might be used in defense of the human nature argument, we need to go further, and strike harder.
Getting them on the Ropes
Put simply, as much as capitalism foments negative traits such as greed, dishonesty and narcissism, it is clear that even today we do not live in a society where everyone is primarily seeking their own self-interest. How do we know? It’s simple: because if this were the case, such a society could not function.
The Korean economist Ha Joon Chang deals with this argument beautifully in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. He begins with a common example of the argument, the core of which is quoted below from the introduction to “Thing 5.”
The market beautifully harnesses the energy of selfish individuals thinking only of themselves (and, at most, their families) to produce social harmony. Communism failed because it denied this human instinct and ran the economy assuming everyone to be selfless, or at least largely altruistic.
Take note of the words regarding communism, as this is a common argument used against it and we will address that aspect of the argument later. Getting back to Ha-Joon Chang’s counter-argument, let us look at this quote from his initial counter-argument:
Indeed, if the world were full of the self-seeking individuals found in economics textbooks, it would grind to a halt because we would be spending most of our time cheating, trying to catch the cheaters, and punishing the caught.
Here we see the author already hinting at the fact that society could not function if humans were primarily ruled by self-interest. Here, Ha-Joon uses three examples of activities which would take up nearly all our time if we were to take this common economist’s assumption at face value. But imagine what this would actually entail. Imagine one day you understand that nobody will tell you the truth unless it is either beneficial to their own self-interests, or if they simply don’t care. Imagine everyone else also understands this as well as you do. What this means is that everyone would spend an enormous amount of time checking and verifying virtually every piece of information they get, even if a large part of that turns out to be true anyway. It is clear that this is no way to run a healthy society, and in such cases it might turn out to be impossible.
Continuing, Ha Joon acknowledges counter-arguments which claim that obvious examples of altruism are actually selfish acts in disguise, and then proceeds to destroy them by pointing out why society would be impossible if this assumption about human nature were true. To use one of his examples, he asks the rhetorical question as to why more customers don’t run away from taxis without paying. He points out that the likelihood of running into the same taxi driver are low. He probably had a city such as New York in mind, but in a city such as Moscow, there are an untold amount of unlicensed taxis, the use of which could be called hitchhiking for a small fee.
Whatever city Ha-Joon might be referring to, and whether or not we are talking about licensed or unofficial taxis, it is clear that most passengers won’t attempt to run away without paying, and the whole taxi industry could not work were it not for this fact. Ha-Joon goes on to point out why in the selfish world of free-market economists, the taxi driver would not be able to enforce his fare. He might get cited for illegal parking as he leaves his cab to chase the passenger. He can get charged with assault. He stands to lose some things and he really stands to gain little from enforcing the fare. Other taxi drivers aren’t going to enforce fares either, because then they face the same risks and get no rewards. The useful system of taxis work because there is an assumption that you should pay the fare regardless of whether or not you could potentially get away without paying.
In the fantasy world of free-market economics, where the human nature argument is given the air of a scientific law, it is believed that the market brings different self-seeking individuals together and reconciles their differences for the good of society. Put simply, the reason why shops aren’t cheating you and companies don’t make ridiculously low-quality products is because it would drive consumers away to their competitors in the market. As Ha-Joon points out, punishing a company’s bad behavior or rewarding someone’s good behavior in the market does not benefit the person who does so, but rather society as a whole. If the free-market assumption were true, individuals such as the taxi driver who is ripped off would prefer someone else to do the work of correcting cheaters. Because everyone is assumed to be the same, nobody would waste their personal time and resources catching and punishing cheaters, nor would they do the same in order to reward some company or individual who has done good.
Ha-Joon Chang’s argument is a powerful one, which cuts the human nature claim off at the knees by pointing out how society simply could not function if the claim were true. We can go further though.
In the beginning of this article it was mentioned that the human nature argument is often made by intellectuals and other respected figures. What is probably more interesting, and what the reader may have already experienced, is that this argument is used not only by libertarians or conservatives but even by members of America’s mainstream, so-called “left”, i.e. “progressives.” In fact one may hear it from seemingly radical “leftists,” and whatever the specifics, these “leftists” use the argument pretty much exclusively when debating with communists, anarchists, or pretty much anyone who openly states that they seek to abolish capitalism and help humanity move on to a better form of society.
As such, when it rolls of the tongues of liberals it is a shining example of moral cowardice. “Oh I do agree that we have a problem with our capitalist system, and we definitely need reforms, but you can’t change human nature,” they say, washing their hands of any responsibility to actually make good on their lofty idealistic promises.
If there is a system that requires saintly altruism, surely it is this centrist liberalism which goes by the name “progressivism” in contemporary America. It relies on the ruling class to suddenly find a conscious and start creating jobs, paying their fair share of taxes, and contributing to the society which has provided them with so much. But it is at this point where we move on to the most powerful argument Marxists could ever have against this “human nature” nonsense, an argument which applies whether the opponent in question is a radical Democrat or a Tea Party Republican. Socialism does not require everyone to be altruistic. It does not require the denial of self-interest. In fact, it is capitalism which requires the majority of the population to be excessively altruistic, while denying their most obvious self-interests.
In a capitalist system, production is socialized whereas the profit is privatized. The worker selflessly gives his or her time, energy, effort, and thought at a severe loss, that is to say that they must necessarily sell these things in the labor market at a price which is far below the value which they create. Let us break this down via a useful analogy. Imagine we have four people who are hungry and decide to make a rather large meal. Each has a personal vested interest in this meal, and though the various tasks are divided up amongst them, each puts his or her maximum effort into their labor because they expect the others to do the same. If one slacks off on the potatoes, another might slack off on the meat, and insofar as everyone wants to enjoy this meal it is in their self-interest to coordinate the effort together and perform their individual tasks to the best of their ability. Altruism cannot explain what is going on here. The people are hungry, so they cooperate and prepare their food. The self-interest of each party is being served, and cooperation and the maximum effort according to ability are what best serve those interests. This analogy represents socialism, albeit in a very simplified form.
Now let us consider the same scenario, but it runs according to capitalism. One man is never hungry, because others must feed him very well only to receive a few scraps as necessity dictates. When it comes time to prepare a meal, the fourth man who is never hungry does no work. He owns the kitchen and the utensils therein, ergo whatever food is prepared in their, though not by his own hand, becomes his automatically. Often times the workers prepare dishes for their employer which they will never be allowed to taste themselves. They get nothing but what the fourth man sees fit to grant them. In the real world, the only place where we can truly appreciate this relationship, the conditions are far worse. The worker gives up so much for so little, and rarely even questions this. In fact we have seen for years now that Americans are working more hours for less pay, that is to say those Americans who are lucky enough to still have jobs. What patience, what generosity, what altruism, what philanthropy the average worker displays every day, though they do so anonymously and without notice.
What all this boils down to is that communism doesn’t require workers to be altruists and always work for the common good. Insofar as the main objective of a socialist revolution is the abolition of private property and the appropriation of the means of production by the working class as a whole and its designated representatives, we may say that revolution means workers realizing and doing precisely that which serves their interests not only on a social level but also personally as well.
The two analogies described above compare production and distribution under socialism and capitalism, and it is clear that the former far better serves both the collective and individual interests of the people involved. No worker’s self-interests are best served by the consolidation of wealth into increasingly fewer hands, much less a system where one is forced to produce a certain amount while receiving as compensation only a fraction in return.
So here we see that after we have totally broken down the infamous human nature argument, in the end it becomes totally moot, as the revolution does not require any superhuman sense of generosity or altruism. In fact, socialist revolution succeeds via the working class realizing its own interests, collectively and individually, and then fighting for their sake. It requires the working class to do away with its ongoing ‘charity’ by which it donates its time, energy, bodies, minds, and wealth to those who prefer not to work while reaping all the profits.
The fallacious, metaphysical argument appealing to some constant, static, eternal human nature has been around for quite some time, and it isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. Perhaps the only real permanent thing about human nature is that an argument such as this one, though describing eternal human nature differently depending on the era, may have existed throughout most of our history.
Who knows how many barbaric practices were explained away by claiming they were merely natural features of human nature?
Now we’ve seen that the argument is not only ridiculous and easily refuted, but it is also largely irrelevant to Marxists. Revolutionaries do not preach to the workers to give up their possessions nor their self-interests. On the contrary, they urge the workers to see how their real interests necessarily contradict those of their bosses, and to rise up and take what should rightfully be theirs, that is to say, the world.
CHANG, HA-JOON, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism