How many times have we heard that we cannot have a society based on cooperation because people are naturally greedy? The idea that human nature is unchangeable and that it is basically selfish or anti-social is used over and over again to discourage people from challenging our current social order. It is one of the mechanisms used to promote cynicism and destroy hope.
But is it so? Dominant ideas about human nature are often dated back to Adam Smith, one of the most important theorists of capitalist society. In ‘The Wealth of Nations’ published in England in 1776, Smith writes that people are naturally self-interested. The best society, he argues, was one that made good use of this fact. ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ He imagines society as a collection of these self-interested, small-business people, with social goods achieved through the invisible hand of the market. If we simply allow markets to work, people will be able to get what they need.
The idea of the sufficiency of the market has expanded into the idea that when people pursue profit they are doing something good for society. It lives on in the idea that social policies not based on self-interest and the free workings of the market are bad for all members of society. Social programs must make the best use of the unavoidable truth that people only act out of self-interest. If we appeal to any values other than self-interest, we are being idealistic, unrealistic and starry-eyed.
One of the complications in thinking about human nature is that the very question, ‘What is human nature?’ implies that we can look at people as they are, outside of any specific culture. When we ask what human nature is, we are asking, ‘What are people like underneath all of the layers of cultural conditioning?’ But one of the most fundamental things we can say about human beings as a species is that we live together in groups, and that we get our senses of meaning, identity, purpose, desire, etc. from our cultures.
Smith makes a mistake that is common among social theorists. He looks at people in his society and extrapolates to make judgements about how all people are. As a middle-class person, writing at a time when capitalism was stabilizing as the dominant economic system in England, Smith saw the world in individualistic terms. But people in different societies experience reality in very different ways. And it turns out that the greediness hypothesis isn’t even a good characterization of people in a capitalist society.
Cynthia Kaufman, “Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change”
Remember this whenever someone says something like “greed is the only good motivator for medical advancement.” Think about what they’re saying. They’re essentially saying that doctors will only get involved in medical research if their reward is money, not the saving of human lives. They’re basically telling you that it is human nature to value money over people.
Think about that. Think about this whenever they talk about social programs somehow being immoral.