I have a question for you. It’s a simple one but there’s a chance that it could lead you to make one of the more important decisions of your life. Really.
The question is: What is the fundamental nature of human beings?
This is an old question, asked and answered many times by many great minds. Rutger Bregman, in his recent book Human Kind, does a good job of presenting us with two broad options from which to choose. These take the form of the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, both of whom were highly influential on later thinkers and both of whom have also received a fair bit of stick.
To oversimplify, Hobbes believed that human beings are essentially bad. In our natural state, he said, we are wicked and vicious and, were it not for the civilising influence of the state, we would live in continual fear of violent death. His famous view was that, left to ourselves, the life of humans would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
And in the other corner is Rousseau, who believed that human beings are essentially good, but that we have become corrupted by the unnatural limitations placed upon us by modern society. His view was that we could recover our natural goodness and wisdom if we were self-governing, free from the oppression of authority.
We can reduce the scope of the question from the universal to the specific. Which view do you believe is more true of you? If left to yourself, would you tend more towards being wicked and vicious (Hobbes) or more towards being good and wise (Rousseau)? My guess is that you’d probably lean to the latter.
And what about others, people like your colleagues? Which do you think would be more true of them if they weren’t being monitored with KPIs and whatnot – wicked/vicious or good/wise? It’s not purely abstract and academic. It matters which way you lean because, as I discussed in another post (Making Magic), how you see others shapes your reality and theirs. If you see others in your team as fundamentally unworthy in some way, that’s likely to affect the way that you treat them, which in turn is likely to affect their behaviour.
If there’s a difference between your answer for yourself and your colleagues, how do you account for that difference? What do you think might be their response if faced with this question, and how might they see you? And how might their view affect you and what you bring? What might that ultimately mean for what you all achieve as a team?
If you would counter my provocation by producing evidence to support your view of the fundamental nature of others, and if you’ve read my earlier article, you already know that my response would contain the word schema. The evidence that you have in your possession is likely to have been selectively collected to fit with an existing schema. In your introductory course in statistics at university you would have been warned about the consequences of sampling error. That lesson applies in this situation.
To be fair, it is difficult, even impossible, to know with any great accuracy the fundamental nature of human beings. To complicate matters, not everyone’s the same. And not everyone’s the same in different contexts (e.g. market-domain or people-domain) or under different conditions (e.g. low noise or high noise). It’s not at all simple. Yet we have to make a choice in order to proceed in the world.
In fact, we all have already chosen, but perhaps not consciously. Close observation of your own inclinations and behaviours will indicate which of the two philosophers you already lean towards. And that choice has real and serious consequences for you and for those around you.
This might be a good time to make your choice conscious and explicit, rather than operating off a default setting that’s likely to yield sparse and bitter fruit.
- Which view of human nature (wicked/vicious or good/wise) is likely to be the more fruitful over the long term?
- Which do you choose? What costs would necessarily accompany your choice?
- How might you begin to put your choice into practice? With whom? When?
- Rutger Bregman: Human Kind (2020)
- Justin Newdigate: Noise (2019)
- Bertrand Russell: History Of Western Philosophy (1946)