The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Human Nature for Ideology

All ideologies, including all economic ideologies like the modern discipline of economics, are theories of human nature in drag. If you believe that humans are innately selfish and greedy, for example, you will believe that monetary incentives are the best way to allocate resources and permission to do things in an economy. If you want more of something, you’ll arrange for people who do it to have more money.

If you believe that greed leads to the best outcomes, that the invisible hand takes selfishness and turns it into public good, then  you will argue that most of what people do because of greed is good, and should not be disallowed, but, indeed, encouraged.

To a remarkable extent, this is how we run out economic affairs, and it is not an ideology that most of humanity, for most of history, would have agreed with. Even if they thought that humans were greedy and selfish, they would have thought that greed and selfishness should be restrained, not rewarded.

Human nature is tricky to discuss because the specifics of human nature are remarkably twisty. All humans don’t want almost anything: to live, to procreate, to be rich, to be admired, even to be safe. Whatever you think all humans want, all humans don’t.

You can fall back on “the vast majority of humans,” and use the standard trick of economics “as if”—humans aren’t all greedy, but you can act as if they are and your models will work.

But they won’t.  Humans aren’t rational, they aren’t utility seekers except in the most metaphysical of terms (because nobody can give a definition of utility which applies to everyone except “whatever people do/revealed preferences,” which isn’t a definition.)

Humans have a biology: We have bodies that are much alike, brains that are much alike, and if we wish to continue living, some needs that are much alike (food, water, and internal homeostasis.)

But humans are less defined by their biology than any other animal of which I am aware: We have culture, and our culture adapts and changes far faster than our biology does.

So, if you’re creating an ideology, you’ve got a problem; Humans are so plastic that anything you say about them will be wrong for some of them.

The solution, first, is to make this part of your definition of human nature.

Most humans are malleable. Change the circumstances in which people live, change the way they are raised, change their education, change their technology, change the means of production and what people believe and how they act will change. We become what we do and what we believe and we interpret everyday activity through a lens of belief, language, and ideology.

Humans are neither good nor bad, ethical nor unethical, moral nor immoral. They are, instead, easily led. Peer groups and authority figures can get humans to do almost anything: rape, mass-murder, torture. Feed the hungry, heal the wounded, work together to build great projects of which no small group could even conceive.

Humans have drives. Humans want to eat, to have sex, to belong, to feel safe, to be respected, to have meaning in their lives, and so on. But there are many many different ways to feed oneself, feel safe, get sex, and be respected. The Maslovian hierarchy is a good guide to people’s drives.  But—

Not everyone has the same drives to the same extent. Some will starve or die for honor. Others will die rather than kill. Some will dedicate their lives to saving other humans or even non-humans. The Maslovian hierarchy is not a hierarchy for individuals, only for large numbers of people. People will go without food to self-actualize, for example, as the many ascetic traditions of the world should attest.

A few people are rigid. There are some people who you can’t get to torture, no matter what. There are some people who will never kill; and so on. There are people whose moral codes are so strong they cannot be coerced into breaking them. Even those people are products of their culture, but once set, they are stone.

Kindness is as innate as cruelty. Empathy is a function of the brain. When we say “I feel your pain,” we are talking literally, as mirror neurons dance the same dance as the person suffering. Humans have died trying to save drowning animals, other humans they don’t know, and so on. We see someone suffering, and if we’re neurotypical, that suffering hurts us.

Cruelty is innate, too. Some people really get off on cruelty, on hurting other people. As with the rigid moralists, there is a core of people who are like this pretty much no matter what, but in most people it is a question of circumstance and conditioning; treat someone cruelly and they will become cruel. Virtually every abuser was abused. Those to whom evil is done, do it to someone else entirely.

Humans are band-based: We are wired to live in bands of about 150 people. Those people are the people we are likely to treat well, whose concerns concern us. While we may be kind to those outside the band, we are far more likely not to be, and the first job of any leader who wants war and cruelty to the outsider is to convince the band “they aren’t like us.”

We can expand the band: Ideology of various types can expand the band. All Christians are brothers, all members of the same nation; all sports fans of the same team, all people who believe in Democracy, Human Rights, or Communism. Everyone who has the same totem animal. We expand the bonds of the band outwards: “This person is like me and deserves my help and sympathy”.

Humans are malleable, twisty, and strange, wildly adaptable, and able to believe almost anything. That malleability has often been a matter of despair, and we have lamented how easy it is for leaders to take us to war and to convince us to commit atrocities.

But it is also a matter for hope: We can change, and just as cruelty begets cruelty, so kindness begets kindness.  Both are self-reinforcing cycles, and in that lies hope. As easy as it is to lead most of us to evil, so too most of us can come to do good. Expand the band, create a universalist ideology which rests in kindness, and an allowance for multiple paths to the same end, and human nature can just as easily work for us as against us.

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  1. S Brennan

    Nice one Ian, I can’t pick a nit.

  2. Jeff Wegerson

    Important under expanding the band is the meta-ideology of language, both acquired and taught.

  3. Dan H

    I think cruelty/the rightist view has the advantage in the self fulfilling cycle due to the reality of death. Multiply that advantage by time and population… I hope, as its all one can do, but I think were a doomed species, and soon.

  4. Dan H

    Which is not to say its not worth fighting for, because again its all one can do. Just that any decent attempt needs to be well aware of that advantage… you’ve talked about it before. Non violence has no chance.

  5. Bruce Wilder

    The rigidity – malleability continuum, and its relationship to social groups, and the cultures and ethical imperatives and worldviews those social groups foster might provide interesting opportunities for enlightening extensions.

    Also, most people are followers, who are seeking security in group membership. This shapes any political contest for popular support of authority.

  6. Person

    For some reason I think the ultimate expression of human malleability is hate fuck.

  7. A thoughtful and useful taxonomy that I will return to anytime I’m considering the topic (which is pretty often.) Thanks, Ian.

  8. Blasphemous stuff for Ayn Rand devotees

  9. atcooper

    Non-violence can work. Mealy-mouthed cowardice does not, but convicted non-violence to the point of ones own death, that works. It’s the acting in ones full capacity, whatever that is, that matters. These are points made here in the past. They are worth repeating.

  10. atcooper

    I think specifically of burning Tibetan monks specifically as an example of what I mean.

  11. I would add/emphasize that humans are creative and often difficult to predict in how they use that creativity.

  12. Dan H

    Self sacrifice might turn some. It would not matter to true believers. A risk averse rightist should immediately kill every person he sees… its entitrely compatible with his worldview and the safest option. Self sacrifice wouldn’t mean jack to such a person.

  13. Dan H

    Which is to say, I don’t think there are enough people willing to sacrifice themselves to snap enough of the fake rightists out of their selfish cocoons. Death usually reinforces rightist thinking.

  14. Bruce Wilder

    The key, intended audiences for self-sacrifice and non-violent resistance are composed largely of followers, who have conventional and authoritarian attitudes in place of considered philosophies, not the sociopathic dominators, who give “right-wing” such a bad rap.

    The social malleability of human nature means that, in any social group, human ambivalence is expressed in role-taking, and this role-taking lies over top of whatever variation may exist in deep individual character. It is easy to confuse attribution — most commonly to confuse roles with the person, and imagine that having a part to play or a position to argue, reflects some deep conviction or trait of character. It is far less common, but still dangerous, to forget that some deep pathology of the individual can handicap or infect the performance of an assigned social role.

  15. Je

    We can expand the band

    There’s this, from a recent review in The New Republic of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, regarding how and why Danes saved nearly all their Jews during World War II:

    The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

    [emphasis added.]

    But it is also a matter for hope: we can change…

    Whatever your view of social science, we know enough behavioral science to get closer to that end: creating prosperous societies. with more equality and more broadly-based distribution and power to distribute, is both a means and an end; exerting counter-control against those (“the oligarchy”) who control everyone else, in effective ways, is part of the way of getting there—“shunning and shaming” leverages our “band-based” predisposition constructively; it confronts those acting against the vast majority of people in a direct, “social” way, saying, in effect, they are outside the band.

    It’s all doable. We just have to put the pieces together.

  16. Dan H

    Yes, most people are followers. This is itself indicates the depth that principles control most people. Pain is vastly more effective. The right has no qualms with inflicting pain. The purist leftist nonviolent ideal is too far try removed from basic biology to work.

  17. Ian Welsh

    Pain is not more effective, it’s just easier in the short term.

  18. Jessica

    Competition between societies and competition between different visions and different leaderships within a society is won by the society or the vision/leadership that can coordinate more human energy and creativity. That coordination can be coercion or cooperation.
    We need to be able to coordinate more with cooperation than they can coordinate with coercion.
    Coercion through money is gentler (less harsh) than other means but perhaps it also undermines cooperation more successfully. It definitely undermines solidarity more successfully.
    Using Ian’s terminology, we will need to expand our sense of who is in our “band”. We will also need to find ways to present the next society in a way that works for those with very broad bands (species/planet wide) and for those with narrower bands (national) and yet narrower (clan/tribe/family).
    One last thing, even though what I want is a society based on cooperation instead of coercion, we will need some coercion too, particularly for dealing with the die-hards of the old (current) society.

  19. cripes

    As much as we admire the courage of monks personal sacrifice during the Vietnam war, such acts are rare and limited to the devout, disciplined and unmarried. The “non-violence” fetishists, when not busy policing others’ expression for moral purity, become delusional with fantasies of self-immolation in the public square. Or perhaps he is thinking of others torching their flesh while he gazes on in pious approval.

    We cant expect workers and fathers and students to go around burning themselves or bowing their heads for nightsticks, tasers and beanbag rounds to satisfy medeival flagellant fantasies. Its also a really limited strategy. BTW, there will be a large reich-chorus cheering you on and fox news headlines willblare: Taxpayers Pick Up Tab For Monk’s Mess.

  20. Ian Welsh

    Suicide bombers are very common, and the Japanese had no trouble finding enough Kamakizi pilots: planes were the limiting factor.

    Willingness to die doesn’t necessarily mean non-violence.

  21. cripes

    Thats also true. I guess I’m thinking right now we’re faced with willingness to sign a petition, speak out at work or community, join a union kind-of-challenges, comsidering the collateral consequences there are too much for many people. I’m pretty sure we’ll have no trouble recognizing man-the-barricades moments when it arrives. But there’s a long way between now and then. I’m still confounded by the way OWS played, though its no secret the role the state had in that episode.

  22. cripes

    Er, OWS played out…

  23. Bruce Wilder

    Human beings, individually, face fairly severe cognitive limits, which, like most of our limits, we overcome by social cooperation. The cognitive, creative effort to produce a new idea or insight, or to criticize an old one, or to produce new information, or to verify information by application of critical method — these efforts can be large and costly, and require rare talents, unusual opportunities and specialization or focus, or large sunk cost investment of resources. Whatever the sometimes mysterious combination of factors, which produce valuable ideas, the ideas can trade at fairly low price. Organized instruction or further distillation can reduce the price further. Critical or creative thinking about any complex subject is a highly trade-able good. Once an insight has made it into the common discourse, however great its value, its price falls, bringing it within reach of the cognitive budgets of much lesser minds. Opinions of glittering attractiveness, poses of social power, delightful metaphors, and great truths can be had by mere social imitation or attentiveness.

    One can be informed about the affairs of the world — or feel that one is — from a few hours reading blogs or watching cable news. (Yes, I’m being a little sarcastic, there.) One can be an authoritative expert just by adhering to the social standards and conventions of one’s profession. There’s nothing necessarily illegitimate in this; one can be a medical doctor, and have studied Koch’s postulates and the methods of science, and still have to adhere to rules of thumbs and methods suggested by social authority, just to get through the practical day at the clinic. I’m making a point about the severe cognitive limits of every one, and how we compensate with social institutions.

    The cognitive limitations, and therefore the cognitive budget, remain. The plenty of knowledge and ideas may only exacerbate the problems posed by cognitive limits and the budget those limits make necessary. How people feel about cognitive activity — how motivated to engage in cognition, how distracted or preoccupied, how confident in their own powers of cognition, how tolerant of open, unanswered questions or conflicts — become central to social dynamics and potential for social manipulation. It’s that overloaded cognitive budget, which resists strongly ideas and information, which might break the budget, not by their own, trivial price alone, but by their displacement of previously valuable cognitive investments rendered obsolete or ineffective.

    It’s those investments, which undergird a sense of self-worth, of safety, of belonging, of being able to manipulate at least that part of the world within reach, which will not be lightly traded away. The mind’s stock of ideational durable good investments makes the cognitive budget sufficient against the demands of daily life, but an idea, however cheap, that discards those durable goods, brings existential anxiety to the fore. It could be like asking someone to give up her automobile for a pair of running shoes. Without the durable goods, it feels like the cognitive budget is no longer sufficient to the demands of daily life. The new idea is disorganizing, threatens to eject the follower from a manageable place in an organization of social and economic life, into a chaos, which will make existential demands that cannot be met.

    Ideology is embedded in social organization by cognitive limits and the cognitive budget. We are economizing on our own thoughtfulness, in a context that puts significant demands on our ability to pay attention, and which is undergird with existential anxiety about our ability to make good in society. Ideology cannot be separated from hierarchy in an hierarchical society, where the hierarchy, itself, is economizing on information by prescribing roles and rules to govern behavior.

    Social organization rests on social cooperation, but not on social cooperation on exclusively ideal terms. We arrive at social cooperation along a path of strategic competition, and in a hierarchical society, a path of strategic competition, which has awarded its elite leadership privileged positions. Moreover, strategic competition continues. It is in the context of continuing strategic competition over how a hierarchical society is organized and by whom, that battles over ideology take place. It’s a contest in which the loyalty of leaders to followers and followers to leaders is in play.

    The potential for cruelty may be inherent in human nature, but so is social cooperation, and it seems to me that ideology will rationalize cruelty in the organization of social cooperation, when cruelty seems to pay. And, kindness may well fail as a principle of ideology, when it threatens not to pay, as a principle of organization.

    My point (I know, you thought I would never get to one!) is that the choice of kindness over cruelty may rest on the ability to offer help managing the cognitive budget, on the ability to press a cognitively more demanding story, a story of enlightened self-interest over a story of expedience.

    The political attitudes of authoritarian followers — the conventionalism of their morality, their submissiveness to constituted authority and their paranoid cynicism about the corruption of public authority; their isolationism and aggression toward deviants and “the other” — are related to efforts to manage a limited budget for cognition and the associated existential anxiety.

    There’s a political contest, among elites, for those followers. One cynical faction can offer a simpler story; the more humane elite, substantially better terms. It’s easy enough for the ruthless cynic to push more people into precarious anxiety or to show threats from “the other”, and to fool people, who have little spare capacity for critical evaluation of political appeals.

    A universalist ideology, which is only universalist in principle, can appeal to people, who feel capable of taking care of themselves, and who enjoy the easy ratiocination on abstract ideas. There are real political hazards, though. Not least of these is giving up the credibility of the pledge of elites to take care of followers. In competition with non-universalists, or just cynical sociopaths, it is too easy to lose, just by a failure to make populist appeals.

    I, involuntarily, watched a full cycle of MSNBC yesterday. Some of the hosts were in Atlanta, so a lot of the talk centered on Georgia politics. And, it was clear that the Democrats have been out-maneuvered on racial politics. Apparently, Republicans in Georgia have used re-districting to eliminate a large part of the white male leadership from the Democratic Party in Georgia, and then let the Democrats talk themselves into being the party of racial minorities, which they were doing in front of me, on teevee, with considerable self-congratulation and very little apparent self-awareness. Very easy, indeed.

  24. atcooper

    The Dane example is definitely more in line with a mass non-violence strategy than the monk example. Subversion by way of Jerry Tucker, a ‘work-to-rule strategy, in which workers frustrate employers by slowing down operations all the while technically hewing to the letter of their contract,’ (, is also more viable for mainstream, familial members of the body politic.

  25. Dan H

    Bruce, I’m in awe… but not enough to vote for you. 8)

  26. john c. halasz

    “I, involuntarily, watched a full cycle of MSNBC yesterday.”

    Stop me, before I watch again!?!

  27. cripes

    Bruce has, very eloquently, put the dynamic in a nutshell that we encounter in attempting to communicate with co-workers, family and neighbors, even in the most basic terms, about almost any matter of great or small importance that challenges the conventional herd thinking employed in every single last detail of everyday life.

    If I make an offhand comment to the HR manager, who says of an elderly, limping beggar we see daily on Michigan avenue that he should “get a job” would she hire him? when I point out to my big five bank vice president brother-in-law who believes that little mortgage holders crashed the economy by their irresponsible greed, that they didn’t collateralize debt and spread it all over the world, I’m assaulting their entire cognitive edifice. But I just can’t stop myself.

    Their entire mode of living is based on not thinking about anything, just existing to display conformance to the peer group and loyalty to their masters. That’s about it.

    Ok, they get to keep their jobs, and (almost) everyone around them rewards their intellectual subservience by more rounds of mutual cheerleading. It must excite the endorphins or something. And congratulate themselves on their all-american individualism, well-earned success and empathy for the truly deserving.

    What the f*ck is wrong with them?

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