Friday, December 2, 2016
This I Believe (Second Installment)
This I Believe: Part II
Here, in my second installment, I will be sticking to my original plan of discussing two of my favorite topics: human nature and politics. Additionally, to wrap up with a nice little bow, I will briefly state my philosophy on philosophy itself.
The State of Nature
In order to illustrate my view on human nature, as it stands right now, I will be using one of the thought experiments utilized by several philosophers before me: the state of nature. The state of nature was certainly one of the topics I found most interesting throughout this course, and I was pleased by its continual reemergence. The idea of it, to my understanding, is simply theorizing as to the characteristics of a world in which mankind was not bound by any governing authority. Thinking of such a world, regardless of whether it existed or not, brings forth many implications as to the natural inclinations of humans as individuals.
Personally, I completely disagree with John Locke’s theory of “Virtuous Anarchists” who obey reason in lieu of human authority. Yes, Locke did own up to the exception of a few wicked men, but overall, he saw this prehistoric world as harmonious and generally good. I’ll let Locke go live there if he wants to, but I’ll just stay here. Where are his virtuous anarchists now? Where are those who gladly obey reason and have no need of any “encouragement” from the law? Can you, dear reader, in all honesty tell me you dependably follow reason, or that you perceive what is reasonable on a consistent basis? Did true virtuous anarchists cease to exist upon the formation of government? Why, if the state of nature was as stable as Locke asserted, did men form government, from which countless acts of oppression have stemmed ever since? The existence of government, with all its flaws, stands for me as proof that the alternative to it must be worse.
My state of nature is not populated by generally good individuals who may be misguided at times. To the contrary, it is peopled by bullies, thugs, and those who feel forced to out-bully and out-thug the bullies and thugs. The original governments, then, were formed as a defense against those who made their livelihoods through violence, by those who preferred to make their livelihoods peacefully: safety in numbers. I am not saying there are none who lean towards choosing good before evil, but I am saying, in a state of nature, their survival would depend on their adaptation to a harsher method of survival. All this to say, humans, whether by genetics or circumstances, are essentially evil.
Do you find that claim too strong? Allow me to present you with two examples I find convincing, the first being the famous (or infamous, according to some) literary work Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.
Lord of the Flies follows a large group of young boys who become stranded on a deserted island. There are no adults among them. At first, they attempt the formation of a basic hierarchy, electing a boy named Ralph to the position of chief. Stuff happens, they go wild, and murders occur. Okay, maybe a bit more explanation is in order.
Over time, two factions emerge. One continues to follow Ralph, and strive for a sense of civilization, while the other follows a boy named Jack (they are “the tribe”). Jack wins over more and more of Ralph’s followers, and after killing two of them, Ralph is left alone to be hunted like an animal across the island. Upon his capture, the tribe, which consists of boys aged 12 and under, intends to impale Ralph’s severed head on a stake. The children in this book are left in a state of nature, and author William Golding shows their degradation in a haunting, and horrifyingly believable way.
If you prefer a nonfictional example, simply look to the obedience experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram. In these controversial experiments, he discovered that an alarmingly high percentage of typical everyday people will cause significant harm to others (or even potentially kill them) if ordered to do so by one they view as an authoritative figure. This speaks first to what I said about how our goodness is often circumstantial, and secondly to how natural inclinations towards evil may manifest themselves within a governed group. After all, I’m certainly not here to tell you that government entirely solves what I consider the “state of nature problem,” but I do believe government and authority provide us with the best opportunity to live as virtuous individuals.
If you are interested in the details of Milgram’s experiments, here is a three minute video that explains the details and their implications quite well.
If you think we’re a better species than we were in the 60’s, and don’t mind seeing people justify their horrible deeds, watch this other three minute video showing the experiment being conducted (no pun intended) with modern subjects.
To conclude this lengthy segment, I will say that when measuring evil, we must be mindful of scale. Any malice I harbor in my heart is capable of hurting others, but typically only a select few who are closest to me. If I have a bout of anger, at least I don’t have access to the figurative (or not…) nuclear codes. But who’s to say you or I do not at times experience feelings which would render us capable of causing history-altering damage, had we the means? I believe that to be a question worth your consideration.
Anyway, moving right along…
Machiavelli was included in our History of Western Philosophy reading, and I think if a book is ever penned with the title A History of Western Prophecy, he should have an equally long chapter devoted to him. I say this because, let’s face it, he’s right; right in the sense that politics run in accordance with his description of what he considers their ideal form. If he truly believed his writings (which I know is debatable) then I dislike him as a man. I do not, however, dislike him as a philosopher in the sense that he was basically laying out how many politicians work behind the scenes. Obviously, I consider such conduct abhorrent, and believe the only moral option is to fight it with my vote, my voice, and my pen to my dying breath. I call upon all with a sense of justice to do the same.
What do I think is the best form of government? Well, in an ideal world, a monarchy. Unfortunately, in case you hadn’t noticed, we live in a far from ideal world. Since there can be no safeguard which ensures a monarch’s goodness, we must settle for one of what I personally consider the next best options: a democracy or a republic. I admit that I have not at this time decided which I like more between the two.
As a general rule, I am in favor of personal freedom, to the greatest extent that it may be entrusted to a person. I am most wary of any politician who promises me something, but requires significant power or jurisdiction to provide it. Do they really care about me, or are they using me as a means to gain personal influence to bring about their own agendas? I cannot say for sure, so I weigh the risks on a case by case basis. Though I lean towards being a lover of liberty, I understand there are responsibilities that come with freedom which humans cannot handle (again, the state of nature problem). In those specific cases, regulation is necessary and good.
Be wary of anyone who promises to make your country great again.
The Study of Philosophy
In our class, I became bogged down during conversations of the various viewpoints on the substances, “windowless monads,” etc., and thrived when discourse on God, human nature, political philosophy, and ethics was underway. I appreciate Karl Marx of all people when he says, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the real task is to alter it” (quoted by Russell on page 784 of HoWP). Philosophy stands at its finest when it wrestles with the big questions: questions that drastically affect our treatment of the earth, the pursuit of knowledge, and, most importantly, each other. Philosophy at its worst is hogwash; at its best, it is beautiful.
Word count: 1415
Total word count for both parts: 2600
Link to my first installment
Links to my comments