Any stance we take is based on some conception of what is good for people. This conception will tacitly presuppose a certain belief as to the constitution of human nature — human needs and human potential. You might as well bring them out as clearly as possible so that they can be discussed.
According to your view of human nature, all human beings possess certain biological functions endowing them with common mental capacities. How do you defend this position against postmodernist critics who argue that there is no such thing as human nature, and that all attempts to define it are guilty of reading other cultures in the light of Western perceptions and values?
Not even the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature. They may argue that the exact properties of human nature are difficult to substantiate — this is certainly correct. However, it is impossible to coherently argue that an intrinsic, universal human nature does not exist. This amounts to the belief that the next human zygote conceived might just as well develop into a worm or a crab as a human being. Postmodernists might limit their assertion to denying any effect of human nature on our mental make-up — our values, our knowledge, our wants, etc. This also makes no sense.
The postmodernist will argue that a child growing up in New York will develop a certain way of thinking, and if that child had grown up amongst Amazon tribes people she would have developed a completely different way of thinking. This is true. But we must then ask how a child could develop these different consciousnesses. In whatever environment it finds itself, the child will mentally construct a rich and complex culture on the basis of the extremely scattered and limited phenomena it is exposed to. That consideration tells us (in advance of any detailed knowledge) that there must be an extraordinary directive and organizational component to the mind that is internal. We can begin to see human nature in terms of certain capacities to develop certain mental traits. I think we can go further than this and begin to discover universal aspects of these mental traits which are determined by human nature. I think we can find this in the area of morality.
For example, not long ago I talked to people in Amazon tribes and I took it for granted that they have the same conception of vice and virtue as I do. It is only through sharing these values that we were able to interact — talking about real problems such as being forced out of the jungle by the state authorities. I believe I was correct to assume this: we had no problem communicating although we were as remote as is possible culturally.
Are you suggesting everyone agrees about the nature of vice and virtue?
In fact I think they probably have a very high measure of agreement. One strong bit of evidence for this is that everyone — Genghis Khan, Himmler, Bill Gates — creates stories of themselves where they interpret their actions as working for the benefit of human beings. Even at the extreme levels of depravity, the Nazis did not boast that they wanted to kill Jews, but gave crazed justifications — even that they were acting in ‘self-defense’. It is very rare for people to justify their actions by saying ‘I’m doing this to maximize my own benefit and I don’t care what happens to anybody else’. That would be pathological.
But I think you would agree that not all cultures are equally viable from the standpoint of promoting human fulfillment and well-being? Are you wanting to argue that your understanding of human nature can give us a kind of objective understanding of the conditions of human flourishing?
Now we’re taking an essentialist position which the relativist would contradict. I’m not willing to go that far. We can develop a stronger conception of human nature through drawing on Enlightenment thinking on the issue.
This has support from some of the sciences, but is mainly founded on a philosophical investigation into our hopes, intuition and experience, and an examination of history and cultural variety. There are needs for conditions which allow the flourishing of human capacities. Insights from the Enlightenment show us that people need to exist in free association with others — not in isolation, and not in relations of domination. There is a need to replace social fetters with social bonds. Therefore any social structure that involves relations of domination — whether it’s the family, a transnational corporation, gender relations — has a very heavy burden of proof to bear. It must demonstrate that the benefits it provides outweigh the restrictions it imposes on human capacities. If it can’t demonstrate its legitimacy, it should be dismantled.
Do you think that different social and economic circumstances either block or reinforce certain dispositions — that, for example, whatever there might be in the way of a natural tendency towards selfish and aggressive behavior is reinforced by the capitalist market society?
There’s no doubt about it. Let’s take Germany, for example. In the early 20th century Germany was the most advanced area of Western culture — in music, the arts, science. In the passage of a few years, it entered the absolute depths of human history. Small changes in German society allowed people like Joseph Mengele to flourish rather than people like Einstein and Freud.
Granted the truth of what you say about our distinctively human capacities for freedom and co-operative action, how come we are so open to that kind of manipulation and deceit? How come we remain both globally and locally so caught up in oppression?
It’s a serious question. Why are we born free and end up enslaved?
Is there a case here for viewing social factors as more determinant than biological factors?
You can’t say which factor is more decisive. They interact. Take the example of puberty: small changes in nutrition can modify the onset of puberty by a factor of two, or even terminate it altogether. Or the visual system: in a kitten you can destroy the neural basis for vision simply by not presenting pattern stimulation in the first couple of weeks of its life. However, does this mean that the environment is the decisive force? No. Puberty is a process which human beings undergo at a particular stage of maturation because that’s the way they’ve been designed. You don’t undergo puberty because of peer pressure. Likewise, human limbs will not develop into wings rather than arms or legs. The genetic component determines strict limits within which variation is possible. I believe the same is true of our social and mental development.
How do you see the relationship between work and free time in a more liberated society?
Polls in the US, Germany and elsewhere have shown that people value free time over material goods. Therefore, there are major propaganda efforts to reverse this. One reason over a trillion dollars a year is spent on marketing in the USA is to try to undermine our natural tendency to want free, liberated time.
What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished a few important books. One is Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans, a penetrating and expert study showing how and why standard doctrines concerning economic development are dramatically refuted by the historical record and have caused severe harm when applied. Another is Peter Hallward’s Damming the Flood. The “flood” is Lavalas, the popular movement in Haiti that won the first democratic election in this tragic country, a victim of French and US torture, and the savagery of a small elite, since it became the first free country of free men in the hemisphere. Hallward’s deeply informed account of what he sees as “neo-imperial sabotage” by the traditional torturers explores the background of the coup of 2004 and the persistence of “the flood” in a country that is a microcosm of imperial savagery and heroic resistance, however one interprets recent events.
What are you currently watching?
My wife and I used to be movie addicts, but I’m now pretty much reduced to what the grandchildren want to see. All-time favorite? The one movie I sat through twice was Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, so maybe that qualifies.
What are you currently listening to?
If some ancient equipment could be rehabilitated, I’d take out some wonderful old records of Axel Schiøtz singing Schubert Lieder and Pablo Casals playing Bach solo cello suites, reviving memories of more light-hearted days when my wife and I backpacked through Europe to the Prades festival, 60 years ago.