How bad are we really? Humankind by Rutger Bregman

An ages-old morality play has started a new season of “reality shows,” run on television every night since May 25, 2020. Was George Floyd a bad man or a good man? How about the four policemen who killed him on the street? Were the street protestors outside the White House on June 1 patriots expressing their constitutional First Amendment rights or were they threats to civil order deserving police beatings and the chemical tearing agents deployed by the Secret Service?

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s refreshing new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), has come out at this remarkable point in world history. We are literally realigning our political parties and religious affiliations based on whether we think human beings are fundamentally good at their core or instead intrinsically evil, and Bregman’s title declares which side he is on.

This blog has, since its inception, been dabbling into questions of morality and ethics with the continuing tag of “Good People Disagree,” so that may betray my leanings here. [1] What I mean when I say that is not so much this big existential question, but rather my contention that the really hard ethical questions are not like “Thou shalt not kill” commandments, but rather are the numerous issues where men and women of good intention have wrestled one another throughout the ages.  My most recent example dilemma was “Is it morally right to cripple the economy in order to save a bunch of old people like me from the Coronavirus?” I know many “good people” on both sides of that debate. And some pretty creepy people as well.

I first ran across “professional optimist” Rutger Bregman in his 2017 book entitled, Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). Bregman takes us here on a journey through the best and most achievable ideas for improving the world around us. Life on Earth looks much more promising when you finish that book. Read it.

You don’t know what you think you know

The author’s approach in Humankind is a bit different. The first third of the book shows us that many of our “shared stories” about the “inhumanity of man” are not as simple as we have been led to believe. Indeed, they may be outright falsehoods. Bregman received a lot of pre-publication exposure though a widely-shared book excerpt, published online and in the Guardian, telling a real life “Lord of the Flies” tale that turned out very different from the famous William Golding novel from 1954 that we all read in school.

Six young boys from the South Pacific island nation of Tonga were shipwrecked for fifteen months on a remote island in 1965. Rather than re-enact the “things go to Hell” archetype from Golding’s book, these kids remained a very cooperative and self-sufficient group, caring for each other despite many hardships. Bregman details the “good human nature” of this group and throws a lot of well-documented “shade” on William Golding’s more negative view of the world.

Bregman continues debunking our favorite “men are nasty” stories (yes, mostly men; violence seems to be an XY gene-correlated illness). Most soldiers facing the direst conditions of war, he documents, still cannot kill another human being. He disputes Steven Pinker’s assertion that our human forebears were inherently violent. You also may have read Jared Diamond’s account that Easter Island’s civilization was destroyed through internecine warfare and thoughtless environmental degradation. Bunk, says Bregman. Imported rats plus disease brought by European slave traders more likely did them in. Who is correct here? Bregman’s point is that the real story is often more complicated than our simplistic morality tales.

What about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments where he had “ordinary people” follow his commands to deploy electric shocks on other subjects? Bad reporting of a poorly designed and manipulative experiment, he details. The 1964 New York murder of Kitty Genovese where dozens of people supposedly ignored her screams? In addition to documenting exaggerated and sensationalized reporting here, he notes research that documents how, in 90% of the cases, bystanders will risk their own lives to intervene on behalf of a stranger.

Rutger Bregman even takes on Adolf Hitler, mostly through talking about henchman Adolf Eichmann in particular. Bregman asserts that it is people’s deeply held “innate goodness” that can unfortunately be subverted by a small cadre of truly evil people to accomplish awful things. “My leader surely would not ask me to do a bad thing!” If he is correct here, well, that explains why a lot of “good people” I know support some very bad men in power today.

In the rest of Humankind, Bregman does try to deal with that complexity where things do go awry in war and other human folly. You need to walk that walk with him, as I cannot do it justice here. Suffice it to say, that, like with his prior book, life does not look so bleak when he is done with you. If your cynical self still says that he is constructing fantasy, perhaps Bregman is not the problem (says this inveterate cynic).

Religion and “total depravity”

American religion does not do us any favors in trying to grasp Rutger Bregman’s sunnier view of innate human kindness. A significant subset of Christianity still sings the John Newton hymn, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” Hardly a positive image of humankind here.

I have recently told the story of growing up in a part of the Midwest U.S. dominated by the descendants of 19th-century and early 20th-century religious emigres from Bregman’s home country of the Netherlands. While my own family’s stock came from other ethnic and religious roots, most of my neighbors (with their large post-WWII families) publicly practiced “religiously” their Calvinist faith. I learned as a young man John Calvin’s famous doctrinal acronym TULIP, the first letter of which stands for “Total Depravity.” [2] In other words, we humans are born “bad” from birth, because Eve ate some fruit, or because she and Adam had sex, or something.

We remain “bad” by nature, under this doctrine, even after we are “saved” by Jesus Christ. Indeed, in that tradition, you had no choice as to whether you have been “elected” for that salvation before you were born. You obviously were, and “they” were not.

I note frequently that, when the media uses the term “Christian,” they are most often speaking generically of those tag who themselves as “fundamentalists” or “evangelicals,” both of which movements came out of that Calvinist tradition with its poor view of innate human goodness. [3] Many other Christian traditions read the same scriptures differently. Arminianism is the theological term often applied to denominations like the Methodists, who are more likely to focus on the scriptures pointing to a “Good Creation.” In this strand of theology, humans are basically good, but flawed, and have “free will” to choose good actions or not.

Other American religious traditions, such as the Latter-day Saints, Episcopalians, and some Catholic orders, also spend more time focusing on the innate “goodness” of humankind, who have been given temporary “stewardship” over their earthly home in order to build (an often illusive) “goodness.” Likewise, political affiliation sifts religious traditions today depending on how they view “the least of these” (as Jesus called them) as inherently good or bad, and worthy of a helping hand.

And then there are the neuroscientists

From a scientific perspective, the terms “good” and “bad” are not particularly helpful. “The mind is a product of the brain,” and the brain has evolved over millions of years, at least in one common view, to “minimize surprise.” That is, human beings are constantly trading off individual and group survival strategies in order to get to survival and procreation. It is not so much “survival of the fittest” (a phrase that did not originate with Charles Darwin and one he did not like), but rather “survival of the adaptable.”

In what I call “the first ethical dilemma,” our hunter-gather forebears had to use different and competing parts of their brains to “place a bet” on whether to cooperate with encroaching neighbors for mutual survival, or to optionally “go it alone” and fight off these “others” as threats. [4] Sometimes “good cooperation” works out better for you and sometimes it does not, which is perhaps why the “ethical conflicts” between selfish action and mutual cooperation persist to this day. Sometimes these conflicts rise to the extreme, and they earn our “good” and “evil” tags.

Back to Humankind

Author Roger Bregman does not get too deep into religious dogma or scientific research in his book. Instead, he mostly tells more stories. He recounts the slow process through which South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and the Afrikaner General Constand Viljoen, longstanding enemies, came to trust one another to build a multiracial South African government. “Evil” takes a back seat here to something more complicated, but surmountable.

Bregman concludes his book by positing ten rules for better viewing humankind as a “good creation.” “Kindness is catching,” he says. “And it’s so contagious that it even infects people who merely see it from afar.”  The book is worth a read. It may even make you a little kinder.


Notes:

  1. You can read my first entry in this series from 2018 and follow the series by clicking on the “Dice” icon, or just click on the “Good people disagree” category tag to browse through the entries in reverse order.
  2. TULIP is the acronym for:
    • Total Depravity (also known as Original Sin – you are “bad” coming out of the chute).
    • Unconditional Election (some of us are “chosen” by God).
    • Limited Atonement (only “the elect” are saved through Christ – a key tenet behind Apartheid).
    • Irresistible Grace (those “elect” cannot help but be saved).
    • Perseverance of the Saints (“Once Saved Always Saved”).
  3. Modern American fundamentalism dates back only to the early 20th century, and the current version of evangelicalism, with its casual worship style, popular-style music, and “franchise” congregations related to megachurches, only goes back to the 1970s.
  4. Nobel-prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman has famously called these competing brain functions “System 1” and “System 2.”

For additional posts on probability, volition and ethics, follow the Dice icon back or forward where it appears.

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