Human Nature

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These are just a few quick notes about a big subject, prompted by the discussion in February 2023.

The context is that we were talking about war, and I said that war is a desperate last choice, an option taken by leaders when they feel there is no alternative.  (This may not always be true, but it seems like a useful starting point.)  Someone else essentially said that wars are started by bad people seeking power and glory.  This is a disagreement about how wars start, but it is also a disagreement about the nature of humanity.

I believe that human beings are essentially good and rational, but we are pulled in two different directions because we are both social and selfish.  Everything else, pretty much, comes from this basic starting point.

Essentially Rational

I know we frequently describe people as 'bad' or 'insane' (or both), but I question the value of such judgements: they don't get us anywhere.  Why did he do this bad thing?  Because he is a bad person!  It doesn't tell you anything.  (On the other hand, it does allow you to be judgemental and feel superior, which often seems like a worthwhile outcome.)

I have long been convinced by one of the core insights of the anti-psychiatry movement, that people generally have good reasons for the way they act, even when it appears to be unreasonable to many outside observers.  If my actions appear to you to be insane, it is likely that you do not see or understand my reasons for acting that way.  If you believe the 'reason' for my actions is that I am insane, then you can simply write me off - there is nothing to understand because I am detached from reality and you are in touch with reality.  But if the reason is that I see and understand the world differently from you, then there is a way forward: you can seek to understand my perspective, and that understanding may help us to communicate and change.

Essentially Good

If leaders take us to war because they are fundamentally bad people, then there is nothing we can do except oppose them.  But if they are trying to do something good, then we can try to understand it, and maybe find a better way forward.  This is probably not very helpful once war has broken out, but almost every war has a significant lead-up, and if we can understand what is happening at that time, then we have a real opportunity to take things in a different direction.

Peacemaking is closely related to conflict resolution - helping two people, or two groups, to understand one another, to recognize that each has a valid perspective and valid concerns, and that finding a way forward which everyone is happy with is far preferable to conflict and destruction.  This may sound naive, but people who practice conflict resolution report that time and time again parties who believe that they are inevitably opposed to one another can find ways to cooperate and co-exist peacefully.  It is hard work, but it can be done - perhaps not all the time, but surprisingly often.


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  • Interesting notes - thank you.

    The view that people generally have internal rationality that may not be externally evident to other, supposedly rational, observers is an understanding that I came to on my own.   I know we have also discussed this among ourselves.  I hadn't realised that it was also from the anti-psychiatry movement.   It seems completely natural to me to understand rationality this way.   Our own rationality is always accepted by ourselves - and therefore, the concept is naturally a relative one.

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