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If you want to get to the bottom of human nature, what’s the best vantage point? It’s most primitive form or its most developed one?

People who think civilization corrupts us look to our original state. But if they look long enough, they will find enough examples of senseless cruelty and mutilation to wean them from the nostalgia for the early days of human kind.

Then consider the alternative; perhaps you think civilization improves us.

Take a moment to consider its softer vices. The tendency to hate those to whom you are indebted. Or the tendency to take quiet satisfaction in your friend’s bad luck.

If you’re still not convinced, have a look at the international situation. Here developed cultures commit themselves to perpetual barbarism (a state of preparedness for war).

But don’t look too long at any of this or you’re likely to contract another vice: misanthropy, or hatred of humankind as a whole.

Progress, asked Immanuel Kant an eighteenth century philosopher, the history of all times cries against it.


Getting Worse

The idea that we are bad and getting worse, feels comfortable across most cultures.

One thing that has not improved over time is our view of human nature and its prospects. Most people have a myth of a golden age from which we are in decline. 

But in the absence of evidence about whether the state of nature was violent or utopian, the idea of original paradise is likely to be the product of longing than anything else. The past looks simpler just because it is over and done with in a way the present is not.


The Enlightenment

All caricatures to the contrary the Enlightenment could be just as gloomy as any other age, and sometimes gloomier.

Kant’s discussion of the hidden vices of civilization is particularly chilling. For someone who believed ingratitude the vilest emotion, his focus on our inclination to hate the people who help us faces humankind at its worst.

Attuned to the nuances of crimes and misfortunes, the Genevan Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau never overlooked the darker forces within human nature. In fact, he alienated any number of people by rubbing their noses in it. He examined the rotten core of culture with more insight than any had done before him.


How does culture enslave us? Rousseau counts the ways.

From the banal but crucial (it provides us with income).

To the psychological (it gives us a precarious sense of self-worth as we see ourselves reflected in others eyes).

To the sublime (for many of us, the moments of awe provided by aesthetic experience are so powerful that we’re prepared to ignore other, moral areas, to enjoy them).

Rousseau saw clearly how we refuse to think for ourselves.

Yet he also recognised that we have no access to humankind in its natural state.

Looking around for evidence to support his intuitions he found the Maoris brutal, their Tahitian neighbours gentle.

Which was more natural?

It became clear soon enough that there was nowhere we could sail to that would reveal what we were naturally like. Any place we can reach, any time we can access, has already been touched. More importantly, we observers are biased. Rousseau was the first to point out how we read the data through the screen of our wishes and fears.


Radical honesty

Given that we cannot discover the facts. And given how much we project our values onto them, in this case above all, Rousseau proposed radical honesty.

Instead of giving out stories designed to serve a particular world-view as the truth about human nature, why not lay your cards on the table? Not certainty but plausibility should be the test for accepting a story, provided it supports a view you have other grounds to defend.

Kant called the state of nature a regulative idea. We can never know what it was like and we ought to stop trying.

Humans are active beings, not just observers, and we are bound to act as well as we can.

We cannot act morally if we act without hope. If decline is inevitable, it hardly matters if you do something to hasten it.

Are we in fact declining from a better state, or going forward from a worse one?

If nothing can decide that question shouldn’t we consider a different one. Which standpoint gives us better prospects for going on?

Rousseau, as usual put the point memorably: “Let us begin by setting aside all the facts, for they do not affect the question.”



Before you conclude that the barbarism our age produced is worse than any other, take a careful look at the past. The twentieth century had no monopoly on savagery and misery. Population growth left it holding the record for absolute numbers, but not for relative ones. Two-thirds of the population of Brandenburg, the heart of Prussia, was wiped out in the course of the Thirty Years’ War.

Was anything much crueller than a Roman crucifixion, with its stunning sadistic prelude that forced the condemned man to carry the instrument of his own torture through a jeering crowd gathered to watch him expire?

Though Rousseau thought we could live without most of the things we covet, praise of simple living is not yet awareness of the perils of technology.



When you think of the risks technology poses, presumably you don’t mean the technology that improved by 50 percent your chances of living long enough to worry about them. For every high-tech advance you find unnecessary, there’s another you find essential.

Decoding which elements will enhance our lives and which will threaten them is a matter of good judgment. This means using Enlightenment skills to solve problems it couldn’t imagine.

To believe that technology is neutral is not to believe that every technological development is an advance. Not everything that calls itself progress is progress. The growing awareness of the damage some technologies have done to the environment should make us weigh new developments more carefully than our forebears did.

At the same time we should remember that many technological advances that met critical resistance, from movable type to infant inoculation, turned out to be unqualified successes.

There is no clear metric on which to balance losses and gains.

Like most important questions, these will be settled piecework, case by case, rather than by general principle.


This Essay draws on work the by philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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