On the Human Condition (Wellspring, Chapter 1) part 1Our conception of human nature to a very large extent determines our treatment of each other, in both our individual relationships and in society. Yet even though the study of psychology has begun to change our intellectual understanding of our fellow humans, our society is based on old ideas and feelings which have become largely obsolete. However, it is very difficult to completely overhaul the foundations and institutions of society in any less than a lifetime, or even two. It has been tried several times, by various forms of revolution, and it causes unbearable instability, suffering and tendencies toward mob psychology and mass neurosis. Indeed, any kind of rapid change of the way society works - for example, technological progress - can cause widespread psychological discomfort and role displacement, resulting in uncertainty of what to expect or how we should react to cope with what is happening around us.
In any self-regulating system there are a few key components which, if changed, will sooner or later transform the whole system. Such self-regulating, self-contained systems are often called "cybernetic" by the scientists, engineers and philosophers who study them. Living organisms, and societies, even the heating and cooling systems in our homes, are examples of cybernetic systems. Typically, in any cybernetic system, there eight such key components that are critical for change and transformation. I shall go into greater depth on this topic later. In one example - a social revolution - Marxist philosophies chose private property as their primary key component to use as a fulcrum to overturn the injustices of capitalist economics. But any attempt to totally transform society must have an idea of how to readjust all of the key components to work together, and it helps to have an overall goal and plan in mind. Thus the question of human nature becomes important, in order to have clear plans about what it will be necessary to change, and to know what kinds of responses one expects to elicit. Without these, it would be very difficult to know whether one's ideals are truly taking shape.
a. paradox and prejudice
For ages there has raged a debate about whether human beings are born innately good or evil. But both of these judgements are essentially social constructs, as are the ideas of virtue and vice. The real question asks whether society itself is pro-life, i.e., supportive of healthy and happy actualisation of human potential, or anti-life, i.e., stifling and frustrating human development by means of psychic manipulation, inequality and coercion. Human nature is essentially plastic and neutral, but that does not mean that it cannot become objectively sick. When we become destructive, sadistic, alienated or fear life more than death, we can be said to be mentally ill. However, health is the ordinary tendency and aim of all normal living creatures, so long as their environment and circumstances do not inhibit their development.
When I say that human beings are essentially neutral, I mean that we have no innate tendency to be morally good or evil. What tendencies we do possess, however, lead us to be adaptable to both the natural environment and our social circumstances, and give us both strengths and weaknesses. Our abilities to think, reflect and reason are our only tools to allow us to discern what is good or evil, according to how various types of actions tend to promote optimum pro-life outcomes. Physically, humanity has evolved to become non-specializing generalists. That means we do not require any specific ecological habitat, as we can modify our environment to suit our needs, and we have no instinct to perform any specific task as a way of life. Instead, we learn how to survive from our families and society. As the result of this initial dependency, a baby imprints on its parents in the first months of life, and their attitudes and behavior toward it begin a pattern of interaction. This will affect the way the child will interact with others later on, and shape its expectations of society. These attitudes, expectations and behaviors can be either reinforced or modified by later training or education, though this does not always occur on a conscious level. It can be very difficult for the child if teachers and parents do not agree, as the conflict will be internalized and cannot be resolved until one or the other wins, or the child is forced to choose between them. This parental imprinting and social education of children illustrates the essential plasticity of human nature. Even in later life, we can be molded by our contacts with other people, but this does not mean that the process is easy. There is also the counter-tendency toward stability of character, expressed as the child becomes an independent individual and learns to make its own choices, and as an adult when evaluating the society's aims and modes of behavior.
If there is too much pressure from authority to conform, even an ordinary person may become rebellious, perhaps subconsciously, and find it difficult to look at society's values objectively rather than with suspicion and rejection. Of course, any overtly rebellious behavior would be interpreted as a threat to social stability, and would bring down reprisal and suppression, one way or another. But this will only drive the individual's disturbance deeper, causing resentment and a stronger will to resist. If outside suppression goes still further, breaking the will and the impulse to rebel altogether, that will cause some degree of mental illness. At any point in this process of enforced conformity, the individual may erupt into violence, defensive and/or destructive, because he feels that he is not valued as a person, and his only recourse to justice is through vengeance and death. However, given the opportunity and freedom to make one's own decisions and experience life, the person will gradually find appropriate avenues of creative existential expression, and learn to transform unacceptable behaviors into comfortable alternatives. All this will be accomplished by the innate human need to understand, and to be understood by others, without authoritative pressure.
It is the essentially isolated nature of human beings, unable to cue in on the thoughts and feelings of others quite reliably, which allows us to become individuals, and gives us a spiritual depth that has never been fully explored. It also gives us certain weaknesses, for example, our innate selfishness which stems directly from the necessary instinct for survival, and can almost never be completely eradicated. However, our isolation and individuality also gives us certain strengths designed to help us balance and possibly overcome that weakness. We have been given the desire, also innate, to know and achieve transcendance. As we begin to understand that suffering and social anarchy come from self-centered selfishness, we tend to absorb the society's values, if we are not already embittered by mistreatment. And beyond that, when we experience the vast grandeur of the universe, and the minute intricacies of nature, we begin to wonder where it all came from, and to speculate about God and to question our limitations and understand them.
It is by reason of this balance of strengths and weaknesses, and of the essentially neutral and plastic nature of human character development, that I must insist that there is no original orientation of human nature toward either good or evil. There is no "original sin" for which God condemns us, and from which we must be "saved." Yet it does seem paradoxical that authoritative pressure usually tends to produce results which only superficially conform to its intent, while causing an opposite reaction within the individual. A person must voluntarily decide and choose to incorporate the values of society for those values to really be his or her own and guide one's actions and even thoughts along approved and productive paths. We choose to follow when we can think of no better way, even if we are dissatisfied with society, but force is counter-productive.