I came across David McKnight’s reflection on his own book of the same name, Beyond Right and Left, which tackles political ideas and the fight over “human nature.” We’ve dealt with some similar ideas in the critical discussion we had over Steven Pinker and his essay on a moral instinct. McKnight’s take seems to be more thoughtful.
McKnight’s argument boils down to this: “Any plans for social reform must take account of the limitations presented by human nature. As remarkable as human diversity and capacity is, it is not unlimited. Any new political vision which assumes we can create societies without conflict or without self interest, is doomed to fail. Attempts at perfection, in politics or religion, have proven disastrous.”
He bases this approach on his critique of leftist politics and the associated approach of “social constructionism” (which has deep roots in Western history and certainly is strong in cultural anthropology):
Social constructionism has evolved into a dogma which is particularly strong among intellectuals and the academy. Popularised by psychology and social science, it argues that human beings are a product of experience and environment — and ONLY of our experience and our environment. Our attitudes and desires, our virtues and vices, are socially constructed. They do not, must not and cannot be explained partly by human nature. To believe this is to commit the ultimate sin of essentialism, a belief that there is a human ‘essence’.
From the time of the Enlightenment, idealists have opposed essentialism. They believed that the human possibilities were practically limitless; that ‘Man’, as well as society, could be perfected. Given the right social conditions, greed and selfishness could be eliminated. Social constructionism, whether in its weak or strong form, is a dogma of optimism. If we assume that humans are constructed solely by ‘the ensemble of social relations’ then in order to have happier and better humans, we need only to change those social conditions. But dogmatic social constructionism, like its parent, rationalism, is an inadequate tool of analysis and guide to social change today. The belief in the totally plastic nature of humans and hence their perfectibility is being increasingly shown to be grounded on false assumptions about the human species…
Rather than exploring what kind of nature humans might have, optimists and social reformers have dismissed the whole idea as irretrievably reactionary and opted for social constructionism. And this occurred in spite of many progressive liberals and leftists glibly acknowledging that BOTH nature and nurture as forces shaping human beings. Yet in practice, many have opted almost exclusively for nurture (culture).
MacDonald argues for a more pragmatic approach in politics and policy:
Acknowledging some sort of human nature does not mean that every feature is unavoidable or inherently worthwhile (many human tendencies pull in opposite directions). Innate tendencies are moderated or magnified by culture. The point is that to be blind to the facts is to risk disaster. If humans naturally tend to form hierarchies and ranking systems, it is the height of naivete to imagine that we can ‘abolish’ them believing that they will not re-appear in some new guise. This is a lesson from attempts to enforce rigid ‘equality’. But this need not mean abandoning attempts to create situations of greater rather than lesser equality. There is a world of difference between a ranking system based on a peaceful democracy and one based on brute physical force.
What I find interesting in his approach is his recognition of both the individual and social natures of human beings (yes, I know, itself a dichotomy). He writes, “The kind of human nature which those who have researched it talk about is rather a set of innate tendencies whose expression is tempered by historical, cultural as well as individual circumstance.” Among those innate tendencies he would include, “such bedrock elements of life as gratitude, shame, remorse, pride, honour, retribution, empathy, love and so on [taken from Robert Wright].” But these exist in our social interactions, for “humans are social creatures, meaning that they naturally prefer to live in groups and are not naturally solitary. It is here that we return to the main preoccupation of the chapter. These social groups are, specifically, families and local communities.”
His nature-and-culture approach then has implications for policy: “I have already argued that a fatal weakness of reforming visionaries (especially Marxists) was the misconception that humans are completely malleable and that traits such as self interest can disappear with the ‘right’ kind of social structure. For similar reasons we cannot imagine that ethnic identification will one day disappear. Social conditions will greatly shape its intensity and its expression but it will remain in some form.”
In this case, a comparative anthropological approach (the study of variation in differing contexts) can prove to be a crucial empirical tool, along with views of human predispositions and social conditions meeting half way. MacDonald writes: “Ien Ang argues that ‘The main long-term goal of anti-racist educational programs should be the gradual development of a general culture of what I want to call interracial trust. It may be the case that some fundamental form of racism – associated with ethno-centrism and intolerance against those who are different – -is part and parcel of human nature: it is deeply embedded in the very culture of human society.’ It is likely that she is right. It is impossible to find a society which is not ethno-centric to some degree but it is quite possible to find societies which display a wide variety of behaviours towards people of other ethnicities, from a murderous suspicion to a peaceful trust or even better. And societies can display both qualities at different stages in their history.
Certainly there are places where I might disagree, where I might say MacDonald pushes his argument too far or makes an assumption that biases his interpretation. But I find his overall argument provocative, so I thought I’d put it up here.