Human Nature and Self-Discovery

In this post on asocial action, I began to analyze the meaning of Crusoe’s right ends under the condition of islation from any social interaction. The task of developing detailed, specific recommendations to Crusoe in his lonely search for happiness can be reduced to the specification of the attributes of human nature. I do not mean that once we have settled on certain facts about human nature that these facts are then determinative of the ends that Crusoe must choose. The fact of variation between individuals means that any attribute of human nature in regards to right ends is subject to individual exceptions and outliers.

Crusoe can employ science in his search for the correct or best schedule of ends which will eliminate suffering and bring about a condition of satisfaction. However, the deductive method fails because it can only take ends as arbitrary givens. The science of evolutionary psychology is an inductive method which we can use to begin giving specific, detailed answers to the question, “What should Crusoe do?”

In their book, Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, Miller and Kanazawa explain the foundations of the science of evolutionary psychology in four principles, each in contravention to what they call the Standard Social Science Model:

People are animals… there is nothing special about humans… Evolutionary psychology recognizes that the same biological laws of evolution apply to humans as they do to all other species.

There is nothing special about the human brain… the brain is just another body part, just like the hand or the pancreas. Just as millions of years of evolution have gradually shaped the hand or the pancreas to perform certain functions, so has evolution shaped the human brain to perform its function, which is solving adaptive problems to help humans survive and reproduce successfully… Evolution does not stop at the neck; it goes all the way up.

Human nature is innate. Just as dogs are born with innate dog nature, and cats are born with innate cat nature, humans are born with innate human nature.

Human behavior is the product of both innate human nature and the environment… both innate human nature, which the genes program, and the environment in which humans grow up are equally important determinants of behavior.

The primary tool of evolutionary psychology (EP) is the search for culturally-universal behaviors. Human behavior clearly varies from individual to individual and from culture to culture. But those behaviors which humans exhibit in all cultures are likely to have a genetic basis since it is easier to believe that a behavior is the result of a single genetic factor than it is to believe that a behavior arose as an artifact of cultural conditioning, independently, in every culture.

Human universals–of which hundreds have been identified–consist of those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and mind that, so far as the record has been examined, are found among all peoples known to ethnography and history.

Donald BrownHuman Universals, Human Nature, Human Culture[1]

The idea that humans have a nature has been controversial for at least the entire 20th century. Rothbard discusses this:

Among intellectuals … the phrase “the nature of man” is apt to have the effect of a red flag on a bull. “Man has no nature!” is the modern rallying cry; and typical of the sentiment of political philosophers today was the assertion of a distinguished political theorist some years ago before a meeting of the American Political Science Association that “man’s nature” is a purely theological concept that must be dismissed from any scientific discussion.

Rothbard Ethics of Liberty, ch. 1

Specific features of human nature are not determinative of Crusoe’s behavior insomuch as he can choose to act in contravention to them. This is in stark contrast with Rothbard’s view on the matter:

Suppose now that Crusoe is confronted with a choice of either picking berries or picking some mushrooms for food, and he decides upon the pleasantly tasting mushrooms, when suddenly a previously shipwrecked inhabitant, coming upon Crusoe, shouts: “Don’t do that! Those mushrooms are poisonous.” There is no mystery in Crusoe’s subsequent shift to berries…

If Crusoe had eaten the mushrooms without learning of their poisonous effects, then his decision would have been incorrect—a possibly tragic error … If Crusoe, on the other hand, had known of the poison and eaten the mushrooms anyway—perhaps for “kicks” or from a very high time preference—then his decision would have been objectively immoral, an act deliberately set against his life and health.

Rothbard Ethics of Liberty, ch. 6

Human nature – as regards right ends – is only formally determinative of moral behavior. If Crusoe has chosen to eat a poisonous mushroom, we must from this conclude that he deemed this to be the correct choice to attain satisfaction. Perhaps he had grown weary of loneliness and sought release in death. The only other alternative is to say that Crusoe is not of sound mind. But we may not criticize the actual choices of an individual by comparison to some standard outside of his own judgment of what will lead to his satisfaction except insofar as he has acted out of ignorance. For example, if Crusoe falsely believes that a snake’s bite will not cause significant pain, and then proceeds to pick up a snake on the basis of this false belief, his ignorance of the facts of physical law, biology and human nature will combine to produce suffering.

Suffering, in turn, is the rod of Nature. Whenever I choose incorrectly, I am punished by Nature with pain, suffering and sadness. This is the rod-across-the-knuckles that impels me to change, alter and improve. I am motivated by suffering to revise my desired ends and the means I choose to attain them. Pain and suffering say, “You have incorrectly calculated the long-run consequences of your actions! Improve!”

It should not be misunderstood that the pedagogical role of pain and suffering redeem them. Pain and suffering are unequivocally bad. Besides this, pain and suffering do not always fulfill a pedagogical role. The suffering brought on by a congenital disease, for example, has no pedagogical role and no redeeming value.

But to the extent that suffering correlates with ignorance, it does play a pedagogical role however indirect and subtle. This is the motive force of the self-discovery process. To summarize the conclusions we’ve reached in Suffering and Satisfaction and Asocial Action and Right Ends:

We suffer, so we act. It is suffering which defines our particular ends and the application of means to the removal of suffering is called human action. When action succeeds in removing the conditions of our suffering, we are satisfied. Satisfaction is the end which is never a means to any other end; it is the end to which every other end is a means. I will call this process of suffering and action the unfolding process.

As events unfold, so also our life unfolds. With the lessons learned from the unfolding of many events, our aptitude in removing suffering or avoiding it altogether can increase. I will call this the self-discovery process.

The process of self-discovery does not operate as efficiently in every individual at all times. More importantly, the conditions for efficient operation of the self-discovery process are complicated by the factors already mentioned. Hence, in order to achieve efficient operation of the self-discovery process in one’s own life, it is necessary not merely to follow one’s innate developmental process of self-discovery but to augment this innate sense with methodical study. This is a topic for another post.

2 thoughts on “Human Nature and Self-Discovery

  1. Etjon Basha 12/11/2012 at 20:45 Reply

    Allow me to take issue with this passage:

    “It should not be misunderstood that the pedagogical role of pain and suffering redeem them. Pain and suffering are unequivocally bad. Besides this, pain and suffering do not always fulfill a pedagogical role. The suffering brought on by a congenital disease, for example, has no pedagogical role and no redeeming value.”

    To speak of pain as “bad” would imply that, if we had the chance to get rid of pain we should proceed to do so. Otherwise pain would be ‘unpleasant’ but not ‘bad’.

    But are we really sure we could survive as long, or in nearly as good a shape, as we do?
    If people sit for extended periods of time crushing their spine or allow their veins to get clogged because without pain these issues are ignored by all but the most health-conscious, imagine in what shape would humanity be with no pain whatever. We’d bite our tongues off and forget to go to the doctor, or ignore minor cuts letting those become infected. And let’s not even mention how much less careful anyone would be in general.

    So, while I agree that the pain caused by congenital disease seem pointless while the pain not caused by many other harmful actions seems needed, again if faced with the choice of eliminating pain completely, we should refuse.

    Just a thought anyway, great article.

  2. claytonkb 12/11/2012 at 23:34 Reply

    “To speak of pain as “bad” would imply that, if we had the chance to get rid of pain we should proceed to do so. Otherwise pain would be ‘unpleasant’ but not ‘bad’.”

    It is bad with respect to our decision-making. Cosmic banishment of pain is not even in view here… it is the banishment of pain within the confines of our power, that is, within the extents of influence we have in the world. Its total existence/non-existence is not really up to us… like the Universe itself, it is just -there-.

    “if faced with the choice of eliminating pain completely, we should refuse.”

    Hmm, I’m not sure what my position on this is. But it’s just not what is in view in this article. You might read my posts on Moral Language as well as Asocial Action and Right Ends to see how I’m using the terms “good” and “bad”. They are relative to the individual’s ability to act, that is, apply means to the accomplishment of ends.

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