Monday, June 25, 2007

Human Nature and Political Bent

Apropos of the thing over at Eric's place (see the previous post), there's something I've been thinking about for a little while that I want to take the opportunity to explore a bit.

In some philosophy class or another - I really don't remember which one anymore, though I think it was taught by Sharyn - we addressed the idea that different assumptions are made by people at different levels. Shallow differences in assumption (or opinion, I think) are easily recognized and addressed as such. For example, minute differences in preferred social policy on the part of two think-tank wonks is one example of a shallow assumption. Differences between anarchists on the usefulness of the state as a short-term tool is perhaps another kind of difference, one that runs a little deeper.

On the other hand, some differences are assumptions so fundamental to our worldview that they tend never to be recognized as such, and can cause huge problems when they collide, and often result in people talking past each other and/or thinking the other person is crazy. I tend to think it's these sorts of assumptions that often separate people politically, especially between groups like the liberal blogosphere and the nascent conservative movement - two groups whose worldviews happen to be colliding rather spectacularly at the moment.

At risk of some horrible overgeneralization, I tend to think that a major difference between so-called liberals and conservatives is perhaps the most basic possible: what is human nature?

I know, I know - liberals (especially when expanded to 'the left') no more have a unified idea of human nature than Dick Cheney has a soul. Bear with me.

Speaking of Dick, you should read the Washington Post series on him (Part One, Part Two of four). All that nefarious, sketchy crap folks have been accusing him of for years? Basically true. The guy is really just a huge asshole.

Max Weber, author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, offers a big piece of what I'd call the conservative movement position: That one's fate is determined before one is born, and as a result, success on earth is a sign that one will get into heaven. Failure on earth is a sign one is damned. Therefore, working hard and being materially successful translates into evidence of god's favor. Or - and I think this bit is important - material success itself, gained from hard work or not, is a sign of god's favor. Massive CEO paychecks justify themselves - and so does social inequality. It's preordained by god, and (and this is the best part) poor people are responsible for their own position since they are obviously sinners!

Convenient, that.

The second piece is good old original sin. If human nature is 'sinful,' then something like, say, the redistribution of wealth by the state (yes, this is where I'm going) is not going to have a positive effect, but it is instead going to allow people to be sinful and lazy without consequence. Also, such immorality will be endorsed by the state, since the state is generally responsible for the redistribution of wealth. Hence an opposition to social welfare programs in general. And yes, I'm aware that some folks are opposed to social welfare programs because they're greedy jerks. This is more directed at trying to explain why lower-income folks are economically conservative to their own detriment - their fundamental assumptions and/or beliefs about the nature of people suggest that certain policies are good and others aren't.

This, by the way, has a lot of explanatory power as to why Reagan's "welfare queen" stuck (besides the massive racism, I mean - let's not forget that): Some young women was going to have lots of kids and be supported by the government while being incredibly lazy and 'immoral' because conservative ideas about human nature suggests that's what people do.

On the other hand, if one believes in a human nature that is either inherently good or inherently morally neutral/ambiguous, then wealth redistribution can do some good. In fact, it could do a lot of good: How much time and energy would people have to create and explore the world if they didn't have to worry about their job or income so much?

Think of it this way: Social welfare is a base that allows people the opportunity to improve themselves, be creative, or - hell, why not? - make even more money. The point is that it increases, often dramatically, the possibilities available to an individual.

I should add more to this last section, but I'm tired. My point is that folks that get into arguments or debates that often end with folks talking past each other, or simply being stunned/baffled at what the other 'side' is saying, are folks that have radically different beliefs at a level very fundamental to their worldview, and that if those differences aren't made clear and explicit, the consequences can be very detrimental to debate, discussion, and honest communication.


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