Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the twelfth episode of the first season of New Girl (FOX), the roommates Jess and Nick keep fighting about whether people’s intentions are generally good or bad. Nick is convinced that the landlord (played by Jeff Kober, Sons of Anarchy) wants to have sex with Jess. Jess champions the good nature of people.
NICK: That man wants to sleep with you.
JESS: No, he doesn’t.
NICK: Yes, he does.
JESS: He was just showing me how to close a closet.
NICK: Okay, anytime a man shows a woman how to do something from behind, it’s just an excuse for him to get really close and breathe on her neck. Watch any sports movie.
JESS: That is not a thing.
NICK: You mind picking up that mug? Oh, no, you’re doing it all wrong. Here, let me show you. No, no, no. I’ve been doing this for years. See, the way to pick up a mug is like that. You just got to relax into it.
JESS: He wasn’t doing that!
NICK: That’s exactly what he was doing.
JESS: You always see the worst in people!
NICK: Yeah, because people are the worst!
[We see Nick as an 11-year-old finding a banknote on the street.]
YOUNG NICK (Aaron Landon): Oh, five bucks! Look out, college. Here I come! Ha, ha, ha ! (An adult man runs from behind, takes the banknote out of his hands and pushes him to the ground) That’s it. People stink!
JESS: You must have been doing something.
NICK: Are you seriously defending the man who pushed me into the bushes?
JESS: Well, people can be good. You just have to give them a chance to show you.
[An 8-year-old Jess is accosted by a man in a truck]
MAN: Hey, little girl. You like candy?
YOUNG JESS (Portia Martine Berman): I sure do!
MAN: Great! My nana made way too much!
JESS: Why can’t you admit you were wrong? I was nice, and now he’s fixing our apartment.
And it goes on like that during the whole episode. There are adults who offer candies to random kids on the street with no ulterior motives, and there are pedophiles and child abductors. There are kids who behave badly, who uninhibitedly say mean things to people and are educated to behave properly and mind their language. So what are we? Pure kids who went bad or little evils who were forced to behave ourselves to fit in? We can find philosophers for both theories.
Among those who like Jess think that man is good by nature, there is Socrates (469-399 B.C.) who reportedly said that “The only good is knowledge, and the only evil is ignorance” and who believes that people are capable of reforming because they are inherently good. This thought was then shared by his disciple Plato (427-347 B.C.) and Plato’s disciple Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) The English physician and philosopher of the Enlightenment John Locke (1632-1704), is renowned for his belief that man is born with an “empty” mind, a tabula rasa. He still believes that man is basically good and that education makes man what he is – whether good or bad, useful or ineffectual. According to Locke, humans are rational creatures who know what is right and wrong, and are capable of knowing what is lawful and unlawful well enough to resolve conflicts. In particular, and most importantly, they are capable of telling the difference between what is theirs and what belongs to someone else. Regrettably they do not always act in accordance with this knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), one of the most important persons of the French Enlightenment, defends the idea that man is born inherently good, but it is society that corrupts him: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” (Social Contract 1:1, 1762). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) also adopted Rousseau’s belief in the inherent goodness of man upon birth:
“The proposition: Man is bad can only mean: He is conscious of the moral law, and yet has adopted into his maxim (occasional) deviation therefrom. He is by nature bad is equivalent to saying: This holds of him considered as a species; not as if such a quality could be inferred from the specific conception of man (that of man in general) (for then it would be necessary); but by what is known of him through experience he cannot be otherwise judged, or it may be presupposed as subjectively necessary in every man, even the best.” (Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics, First part of THE PHILOSOPHICAL THEORY OF RELIGION)
According to Kant, man is by nature neither good nor bad. “By nature, man is not a moral being at all (…) The idea of morality belongs to culture“. He adds: “We live in a time of disciplinary training, culture, and civilization, but not by any means in a time of moralization.” Kant announces in the opening sentence of his Lectures on Pedagogy: “The human being is the only animal that should be educated.“ We can read a few pages further that the human being “can only become human through education. He is nothing except what education makes of him”
But isn’t good education what what prevents children from being evils eternally? Don’t children have an instinct to behave badly that education more or less adjusts? The philosopher that is famed for thinking that man is by nature evil is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). His major work is the Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651), also a classic in the theory of social contract. According to Hobbes, the life of man in the state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. In order to acquire certain things (gain, safety and reputation), people attack each other, which jeopardizes the survival of the human species.
The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons,wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, asmile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.
So according to Hobbes, man is not by nature a social animal and society could not exist except by the power of the state, whithout which people would live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death”. When left in the state of nature, human beings are doomed to always wage a “war of all against all”.
In 1754, Rousseau wrote the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in response to Hobbes’ Leviathan and the general Enlightenment view that education and progress had improved the human condition. Without ever using the term “Noble savage” (that, by the way, is mistakenly attributed to him), he describes the attitudes and behaviors of a human being that has not been corrupted by civilization: in our natural state, compassion or love is the natural response to human suffering; this instinct balances that of self-preservation. Rousseau differentiates between three kinds of “love”: “amour de soi” or self love, which is the instinct of preservation; “amour propre” which is a selfish love in which we privilege our own desires over the needs of others and which according to Rousseau is caused by social forces (see extract below); and “pitié” or compassion or empathy.
“Before the invention of signs to represent riches, wealth could hardly consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real possessions men can have. But, when inheritances so increased in number and extent as to occupy the whole of the land, and to border on one another, one man could aggrandise himself only at the expense of another; at the same time the supernumeraries, who had been too weak or too indolent to make such acquisitions, and had grown poor without sustaining any loss, because, while they saw everything change around them, they remained still the same, were obliged to receive their subsistence, or steal it, from the rich; and this soon bred, according to their different characters, dominion and slavery, or violence and rapine. The wealthy, on their part, had no sooner begun to taste the pleasure of command, than they disdained all others, and, using their old slaves to acquire new, thought of nothing but subduing and enslaving their neighbours; like ravenous wolves, which, having once tasted human flesh, despise every other food and thenceforth seek only men to devour.
It is manifestly against the Law of Nature . . . that a handful of men wallow in luxury, while the famished multitudes lack the necessities of life.”
As I was writing this article, murders were committed in the name of religion; racist, sexist, homophobic crimes were added to yesterday’s list; a football fan threw a brick at the head of a football player at the end of a game, the latter dropped dead; I saw a video of a dog barking at a mother to make her stop beating her crying child, the mom gave way.