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Cynicism is the lazy thinker’s theory for everything

Rutger Bergman (2020) has published a new book in which he examines the inclinations of human nature and dismantles the pessimistic view of humankind. Chris Chatteris provides a review of Bregman’s treatise, offering a more hopeful perspective on our ability to work together for the common good.

Rutger Bregman, in his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History plays two philosophers — Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — up against each other to determine whether, by nature, humankind is tends towards survival of the fittest or cooperation.

Hobbes’ view was that in the ‘state of nature’, namely before we became settled in agricultural and industrial societies and order was imposed by a stern sovereign, human life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Rousseau, on the other hand, held we were ‘noble savages’ who shared and looked after one another. The nastiness, brutishness and shortness began when we became ‘civilised’ and private property became a measure of wealth and status.

Cooperation for the common good

Bregman argues that a careful study of history and other disciplines reveals that Rousseau’s conclusion was the correct one. He posits that our fundamental nature is not to be a predator (homo lupus) but rather what he playfully calls ‘homo puppy’ or homo cooperans.

For Bregman, most people are decent folk and their fundamental instincts are community orientated. It is not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the friendliest and those who can best work together. We are communal beings, not moral monads.

He knows that this is hard to accept. Cynicism runs deep and it is more fashionable to believe that humankind operates on primordial survival instincts.

As part of his counterargument, he cites the Dutch professor who conducts the same thought-experiment every year with his first-year students. On Planet A an airliner crashes and breaks into three pieces. The survivors do not panic: they check that their travelling companions are all right and then proceed to help the injured from the wreck. On Planet B the same crash results in total pandemonium and an everyone-for-themselves situation where people are trample each other to escape the wreck. When he asks the students which planet we inhabit, the majority always opts for Planet A.

But historical studies indicate that we actually inhabit Planet B. However, in emergencies we act with consideration for others and our instincts are to work together to face the problem. Why then, do we assume that we live on Planet A? Bregman sets out to explain where these perceptions come from. William Golding’s 20th century allegorical novel The Lord of the Flies has had an immense influence on several generations of young minds. Bregman traces the novel’s terrifying vision of human nature to the author’s own pathology and the pathologies of the British public-school system.

It is not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the friendliest and those who can best work together.

He contrasts this narrative with the a real life story of six Tongan boys who were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in 1965 and lived there for 15 months. They survived because they cooperated. Incidentally, they were from a Catholic school.

Other commonly cited examples, such as the prison guard experiment conducted at Stanford University and that even more appalling one in which volunteers thought they were administering dangerous electric shocks to people, are also debunked by some close historical research. The problem with these experiments, writes Bregman, was that their creators manipulated them to obtain the Hobbesian results they wanted.

The driving force behind the cynical view of human nature, Bregman thinks, is the individuals and interests that benefit from it. The press is an obvious one and he urges us to pay less attention to it. The tendency of dishing up of bad news is also found in history, leading to the erroneous conclusion that history consists of one terrible battle after another. After all, peace makes for a less riveting story.

All is not sweetness and light, of course. Things can go horribly wrong, particularly when our cooperating instincts are channelled into an evil cause. The best fighting force in the Second World War, according to Bregman’s research, was by far the German Wehrmacht, but it fought so well not because of the Nazi ideology but out of a sense of comradeship common to all soldiers in all armies. But the German high command was particularly adept at it.

An optimistic lesson

Refreshing and liberating reading. Liberating from that debilitating sense that there is no alternative to the cynical world of the 1970s and 80s shaped by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Bregman’s thesis of a kinder, more generous-spirited humanity is a secular equivalent of an anti-Augustinian critique.

Interestingly, even though he is an unbeliever, one can detect the influence of Bregman’s deeply Christian parents whom he obviously greatly respects. There is even a section in the book about turning the other cheek! I find that Bergman, as a secular writer, is good for the soul.

Bregman’s thesis of a kinder, more generous-spirited humanity is a secular equivalent of an anti-Augustinian critique.

If our fundamental nature is indeed homo cooperans, then this is good news in a time of pandemic when we will have to cooperate in creative ways to emerge from the economic and social fallout of disease.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.