Human Nature and Social Order

Nomadic Lass / Foter / CC BY-SA

I have already discussed human nature as it relates to the self-discovery process. In this relation, human nature is approximate. As it is a description of the behavior of humans generally, it must necessarily admit of exceptions in the individual case. Outliers (e.g. a sword-swallower) are less interesting for this analysis than humans qua humans. We can truly say, “Honey bees collect pollen.” This is a true fact about honey bees, even if the odd honey bee has a derangement that causes him to fly in circles and never collect a bit of pollen. It is clear that collecting pollen is part of honey bee nature. We can list many such facts that are also true in the same sense about humans, even if there are pathological exceptions. These facts can be called human nature.

A description of human nature can only be constructed by empirical means. We have to go out and see what humans actually do in order to say what human nature is. A quick thought-experiment shows why this is the case. It is easy to conceive of an alien race that is intelligent and acts purposively. But we can imagine that the physiological facts of this alien race may be extremely different from our own. It might employ means of communication, locomotion, metabolism and reproduction wholly foreign to our ability to conceive. We can set some extremely general outside limits on what kinds of facts must be the case even of an alien physiology on the basis of physical and praxeological laws but there are not many other details we can conceive a priori.

In its relation to the social order, human nature consists of truths about human beings that always or usually hold. In this relation, the constraints of human nature are unqualified since we have already stated that we are discussing human nature as it concerns the human population.

Given this way of thinking about human nature, there is a direct connection to the final end – that is, satisfaction. Specifically, we may draw an analogy between the laws of physics and the “laws of human nature.” Just as an atom moves according to the laws governing the motion of atoms, so the human being acts according to the laws of human nature.

The gross facts of the physical world – such as gravity, or the scarcity of usable energy, and so on – represent limits on the available means by which an individual can attain his ends. Similarly, the gross facts of the social world – human mores, cultural beliefs and attitudes, and so on – represent limits on the available means by which an individual can attain his ends through social interaction. You cannot tango if no one else likes the tango. The limits on the available means are determined by the physical and social (among other) facts. Right reason is a tool by which the individual can discover these limits and improve over time his choice among the available means.

In natural-law philosophy … reason is not bound, as it is in modern post-Humean philosophy, to be a mere slave to the passions, confined to cranking out the discovery of the means to arbitrarily chosen ends. For the ends themselves are selected by the use of reason; and “right reason” dictates to man his proper ends as well as the means for their attainment.

Murray Rothbard Ethics of Liberty, Chapter 1

Rothbard makes the case that there is something which dictates to man his proper ends: right reason. This is very plausible, particularly if you grant that man has a nature. However, Rothbard has turned the shirt inside-out – it is not the ends of the individual that are dictated by right reason but the ends of humanity. If the proper ends of the individual are dictated by right reason, then there is something higher than the individual’s own pleasure or satisfaction which determines his proper ends. If this is possible, then it would manifest whenever my desires and right reason disagree.

Right reason and satisfaction are inherently harmonious by virtue of man’s ability to foresee the consequences of his own behavior. This ability to ponder the future can be thought of as making the future become the present. We are able to trade off future states of affairs against present states of affairs precisely because our brains enable us to foresee the consequences of our actions. The foreseeable consequences of your actions become as though they were present when you presently conceive of them in your mind. And, in the same way, you can trade the pleasure and pains of the present against the respective future pleasure and pains that will result from present courses of action.

Thus the conflict between right reason and satisfaction vanishes. Right reason is simply accurate forecasting of the future consequences of your actions – it is the banishment of ignorance. The pursuit of satisfaction is simply a matter of choosing among the available present and future states of affairs that course of action which is most preferable vis-a-vis all others.

As I pointed out in Social Action and Social Norms, the social order is the expression of human nature in regards to interpersonal interaction and human relationships. The laws of human nature inform the use-value relation in which people stand to each other. Hence, the primary subject of study in regards to the question of choosing right ends – that is, the question of morality – is the social order itself.


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