Smugness – And Simplicity

There’s reality-based and there’s smug-based. Today, I was defining terms used often by Americans around the founding. (Doing an on-line course has forced me to be more precise and less airy – perhaps bullshitty is the appropriate word – than on-site teaching.) Googling “human nature”, the Merriam-Webster definition, first used in the 1500’s arises: “the nature of humans; especially : the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans.” Good enough. It linked the lengthier Britannica definition. This begins with the simplified traditional question: is man intrinsically selfish and competitive – as Hobbes and Locke would argue – or intrinsically social and altruistic – as Durkheim and Marx would argue. So this is how some saw (see) the divisions – such stark simplicity! Ah, some care and love humans; others don’t. The scripts and asides in class and subtle accusations in arguments write themselves. So, I tartly framed this for my students, observing that those who see man as altruistic have certainly proved it by murdering a hundred million of them in the last century.

The Britannica entry goes on to discuss the arguments of evolutionary psychology, which may begin to make those responses not only more scientifically accurate but more like the vision of those people of over two hundred years ago I teach. They observed human nature with honesty and brought to it skills (in some as strong believers and in others as merely immersed in a strongly Judao-Christian culture) of analysis enlarged by the histories and assumptions of their faith – man is fallen, rent from one another by that fall, but in love might repair that alienation. (Later, Pinker, certainly not a believer, would point out the wisdom that this long history gives if we but read it.) The latter, of course given modern teaching constraints, I did not put so explicitly. But it does seem to me that the fruit of their observations, the concepts of the Constitution and human rights, have weathered two centuries better than those of the nineteenth century observers have weathered one.

I’m no philosopher and didn’t want to tackle writing this myself. Few students will follow the links, but if they do, I want more; Will Wilkinson at Cato provided more. And here, he quoted Denis Dutton (one of my heroes, his A&LDaily greets me every morning and every evening with the riches he has found on the net). Cato’s lengthier description concludes.

As Immanuel Kant famously remarked, “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made.” But, in the words of philosopher, Denis Dutton, “It is not . . . that no beautiful carving or piece of furniture can be produced from twisted wood; it is rather that whatever is finally created will only endure if it takes into account the grain, texture, natural joints, knotholes, strengths and weaknesses of the original material.”

Benjamin Franklin and George Washington would, surely, have seen this as a truism.

8 thoughts on “Smugness – And Simplicity”

  1. “whatever is finally created will only endure if it takes into account the grain, texture, natural joints, knotholes, strengths and weaknesses of the original material”…very nicely put.

    I’ve been thinking lately about the blank-slate theory of human nature, which seems to inform a lot of political-philosophical thinking. Although the theory has been around for a long time, it seems to have become more popular in the 20th century.

    One would think that Darwinism and secularism would have made blank-slate theory *less* attractive…if the human mind is basically a machine, however elaborate, then why would one not expect it to have a specific nature? It’s interesting that blank-slate theory originated and became popular *before* the invention of the stored program computer, the only machine whose nature approximates the fluidity of the mind as posited by blank-slate theory…prior to this, there was nothing natural, animal, or mechanical that could have served as a prototype for the blank slate.

  2. Utopian ideologies fail because they seek three impossible goals—1) perfection, 2) universal agreement, and 3) stasis. None of these are naturally occurring human attributes, so any attempt to bring them about must be, by definition, unnatural and external to human existence.

    If you ever wonder why so many seemingly noble experiments to achieve an earthly nirvana result instead in a hellish nightmare of death and destruction, it is precisely because nirvana, utopia, this supposed perfect world, is necessarily unnatural and external to human existence.

    The results are, in fact, precisely congruent to the fundamental nature of these “visions”—something not human, and intrinsically inimical to ordinary human life.

    The genius of a structured governmental system which specifically limits the power of the state, and instead offers the widest possible latitude to the rights and liberties of the individual citizen, is its explicit recognition of the imperfections of human beings, of their never-ending variation of opinions, values, and tastes, and its open-ended ability to be modified as future circumstances require.

    By rejecting the unearthly visions of the utopians, and focussing on the realities and requirements of life as it is lived here on this earth, the structure of a limited representative state allows for the simplist, and yet most profound, goal of humanity to be realized—the freedom to live as one sees fit.

  3. Utopias…

    “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law – a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”


    “..children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens–and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same.”

    –Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz

  4. One would think that Darwinism and secularism would have made blank-slate theory *less* attractive

    They did. For almost a hundred years after ”The Origin of Species” was published, hereditary factors were strongly emphasized. That’s how we ended up with “Scientific Racism” and the eugenics movement.

    After the defeat of Nazism there was a violent reaction against the “genetic” explanation of human differences. Look at some science writing from the 1970s and see if you don’t find all sorts of references to “imprinting”, “conditioning” and “environment” and very few references to “hereditary.”

    Even when research had shown that there was a very, very strong genetic component to things like intelligence (or for that matter, depression and schizophrenia), the scientific community did their best to keep that dirty little secret in the family. Charles Murray was practically lynched for publishing a book that stated that intelligence was largely heritable, a fact which college students learn in Neurology 101. One can’t help but be reminded of the way the legacy media avoids mentioning that a particular terrorist was a fundamentalist Moslem.

  5. It wasn’t just Charles Murray. There was a Harvard Law School student whose e-mail was leaked to the press and the furor that resulted has certainly taught anyone who thinks such thoughts to keep quiet about it.

    There was a thread yesterday on a Glenn Reynolds column about the bubble in college education. There is considerable huffing and puffing about the fact that employers require a college degree. It is amazing that so many people don’t realize this is a subtle IQ test by employers. They are not permitted to give any exams or to ask for IQ tests. What are they to do ?

  6. It also signals (at least minimal) perseverance. The best preparation for running my little business was a Ph.D. because it taught me not to expect rewards quickly and to be willing to toil for years on a dissertation with no pats on the back nor other recompense. Of course, that’s a lousy, expensive, and relatively non-productive preparation; it doesn’t give you much in terms of people skills and generally lousy time/management. I certainly wouldn’t argue its the best metric. But, as Michael Kennedy points out, its one you are less likely to get sued over.

  7. @David

    “I’ve been thinking lately about the blank-slate theory of human nature, which seems to inform a lot of political-philosophical thinking. Although the theory has been around for a long time, it seems to have become more popular in the 20th century.”

    The blank-slate theory of human nature was popular in the last half of the 20th century because it was ideologically convenient. If human behavior was determined purely by culture and education, for example, then the “New Soviet Man” became possible. Hence the bitter, ideologically loaded attacks on those, like Lorenz, Ardrey, and E.O. Wilson, who pointed out what has really been obvious since at least the days of Darwin; that human behavior is strongly influenced by innate predispositions hard-wired in the brain.

    Happily, blank slate theory has finally fallen out of fashion because revelations about the brain coming from fields such as neuroscience have made them untenable. Go to Amazon, for example, and type in the search words “evolution morality.” You will find a host of new books on the subject, many of them coming from the academic establishment, that accept innate influences on moral behavior as a given. Anyone who suggested such a thing 20 years ago would have been immediately and furiously denounced as a “fascist,” etc.

    In a word, we have made progress. Now, instead of denying that innate predispositions have anything to do with human behavior, the establishment line is that we are hard-wired to be “really good,” e.g., we are predisposed to act in a way that predominantly leftist academics would consider “truly moral.” The fact that certain anomalies, such as the entire history of human warfare, are rather an ill fit for this rosy picture, is rationalized out of existence or simply ignored. Still, it is gratifying that we are making some progress. The blank slate is now a dead letter.

  8. I would suggest reading a book by by Thomas Sowell titled ” A Conflict of Visions” that discusses the very profound/different ways in which ways in which liberal and conservative view the world.

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