This paragraph in the “Human Nature” chapter of my Introduction to Philosophy textbook speared me, considering the turmoil before, during and continuing after our most recent elections. It’s a long paragraph so bear with me. I’ll split it at points to add more white space for emphasis and where my mind flipped thoughts from ‘right’ to ‘left’ instead of its usual on-edge position:
Your perception of human nature determines even how you think we should set up our society. Ask yourself this, for example: Should our society be based on capitalism or socialism?
Well, suppose that humans are essentially self-interested.
Then, wouldn’t the best way to get people to work be to allow every individual to keep whatever benefits he or she produces and to not support those who don’t work? Won’t self-interest then lead every person to work hard and to produce as much as he or she can? Isn’t this the fundamental idea behind capitalist societies, with their free enterprise systems and ideas about individualism?
If all people are basically self-interested, then shouldn’t we spend more on police, prisons, the military, and other institutions we use to protect people from one another?
On the other hand, what if humans are not basically self-interested, but cooperative and can act for purely unselfish motives?
Then, wouldn’t it make sense to inspire people to work for one another’s good and to share whatever each produces? Aren’t socialist institutions, such as welfare programs and redistributive taxes, based on the idea that human nature is basically social and that humans can and should share with one another? Isn’t the huge sum of money that we spend on prisons, police and the military a big waste that could be put to better use in helping meeting human needs?
Which of these two options is more realistic? How far should our society god in pursuing either one?
Doesn’t your answer depend on how you view human nature? (Velasquez 55)
The above paragraph shed a whole new light on a debate I’ve been having inside of myself for decades. I was born, raised and still live in a ‘red’ state, smack dab in the center of the United States: Kansas (by the way, yesterday we are celebrated 156 years as a state). I often refer to it as the Heart of America, and I’m not the first nor the last who will do that. Individualism, frontier spirit, pioneering, protecting liberty all run very deep here. It was not unusual to see hunting rifles on racks in the back windows of pickups in the high school parking lot.
Within fifteen miles of where I live are two renowned prisons – the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth and the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks house on the grounds of Fort Leavenworth, also how to the Command and General Staff College. Within walking distance of my home, is the Lansing Correctional Facility. There are a couple of more prisons nearby, but I’m sure I made my point. I’m fully indoctrinated but it doesn’t mean I don’t question the status quo.
All this ‘red’ doesn’t mean there is a lack of caring and compassion in this community. Yet I still prefer the approach of teaching someone to fish, rather than fishing for them. Obviously, this doesn’t apply absolutely. Use common sense!
I’ve been programmed all my life to be patriotic, revere liberty and individuality, to support and thank or military service men and women, to work hard, to sacrifice for family and to help those in need. These are a combination of my environment (rural American culture) and my religious training and upbringing. But I am more than the sum of these parts. And so are you.
I’m tired of the war-like rhetoric, the aggressively adversarial approach to discourse, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ stance. I don’t and won’t go out of my way to feed that fire. When did meeting in the middle become anathema? When did compromise become a dirty word?
Does that make me self-interested (selfish) or selfless? As I’m learning through my Philosophy class, nothing is ever as it seems and you can always dig deeper. What I may have previously assumed was my selfless behavior may actually be motivated by my selfishness (in a twisted sort of way it makes sense, but I’m still not wholly convinced yet).
I prefer to live with hope, rather than despair, with love, rather than hate, and in the light instead of the darkness. And balance. I’m always seeking balance.
Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text with Readings. 12th ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.