Thursday, September 24, 2009


If we view our lives and our humanity as something that naturally trends away from perfection - as something that, left to its natural state, will break a little bit each day - it may just help us to see that we need to do something proactive each day to alter that trend. A boulder on a mountain will tend to roll down it given wind and rain and earthquakes and nature and time. Its natural state is not to climb that hill. If our internal self-engine is left to idle, it will naturally drift away unless we expend some energy daily to fight the trend. Some days we roll farther down the hill than others and need a bit more adjustment. Other days there's may not be much movement at all, but we will never go up that hill unless we're deliberate about it.


truist said...

I don't see humanity as something that naturally trends away from perfection; in fact, I see it trending toward it. Look at the history of the human race - we have been continually improving (with local dips in the timeline) ever since we began. To me, that is simply an observable fact that proves that humanity is trending toward the positive.

I can imagine an argument that an outside force (say, God) has been pushing this positive movement, but that doesn't change the conclusion: humanity can be expected to continue to trend toward the positive, for as long as it is around.

On an individual basis, the argument is trickier, but I still believe that people's base instinct is actually to improve. Again, look at humanity - it is always improving, and that can only be because the individual people have been pushing it up. And for that historical trend to have been so consistent must mean that people are naturally inclined to make things better.

I have actually thought about this topic a lot; I see humanity as a naturally positive place, always improving, and that makes me feel better about the world around me. It helps fend off some of the fear-mongering that so often pulls us down.

P.S. - I'm really glad you're blogging - it's making me talk about things I normally leave un-blogged :)

mattmc3 said...

truist - I'm entirely fascinated by your position, though I'm not really sure that we're talking about the same subject. If you're referring to merely technological advancements, I would agree with you that humanity is making incredible strides forward in areas of health, technology, and material goods. But I wasn't talking about those things.

What I'm talking about is the human condition - what's the truth of who we are as people? As individuals? To put it bluntly, I believe that the answer to that is we are all selfish to the core. In general, we will not naturally do good unless we are deliberate about it. And even if we can manage it today, we will not tomorrow. With apologies to Harry Potter, we are daily faced with a choice between what is good and what is easy.

I agree somewhat with your assertion that our base instinct is to improve. But I would phrase it differently - I believe that we know in our minds what is right, but our actions will not often reflect that. That 18" migration of head-knowledge to heart-knowledge is the longest journey in life. But the jaunt from our heart to our hands is a short one. So we pay lip service to good, while our natural tendency is to promote ourselves and our own well being. We live in a "do what feels right" society. "If it's good for you then go for it."

The belief that humans are naturally good or caring is certainly a seductive philosophy. It has an undeniable feel-good flare to it. It demands zero response - just go about doing what you're doing and it'll all be okay. Cruise control. But I believe that it takes a complete denial of the reality to come to that conclusion. And the slide downhill will be gradual - unnoticeable at times.

We needn't look to the nightly news, the divorce rate, infidelity, racism or crime - we can see this played out perfectly con any highway. The way we drive our cars is a crystal clear reflection of how little concern we have for others.

Of course, my message wasn't one of desolate hopelessness. On the contrary - it's the exact opposite. Once we recognize "hey, we're not perfect. We've got problems", we can then begin to make small daily corrections in our attitudes and actions. We can analyze the paths we're on. We can evaluate our relationships, our direction, the future outcomes of our behavior. We can take small, deliberate steps back up the hill. But the enemy of that progress is the belief that "we're okay just the way we are".

truist said...

I think you are misunderstanding my comment. I am not arguing that we can just sit back and let things happen, without positive effort. In fact, I think we agree about the conclusion: without conscious, deliberate effort, the human condition will not improve.

But it sounds like you think people's natural tendency is to not make that effort, and I disagree - I think that most people, left to their own devices, will naturally push uphill. And not just in our minds or hearts - I think people's actions will naturally tend toward the positive.

To address your comments about the human condition not improving: look at your examples - the nightly news, the divorce rate, infidelity, racism, crime, and driving attitudes. Those things are all small potatoes compared to the issues of the last few thousand years: stonings, crucifixion, eye-for-eye, lack of education, slavery, no women's rights, etc. We are getting better, much better; it just seems like there is still a long way to go.

In fact, that observation - that there is still a long way to go - helps to prove my point. The fact that you are so concerned about how important it is to push uphill suggests that there is something innate inside you that makes you feel like you need to push uphill. I think everyone has that innate feeling. And that makes me happy :)

I also agree with your other point, that even though we might feel like we should improve, it is often hard to actually take the actions to cause the improvement. But even so, I think that if you just look at the outcomes, you will find that most people do end up actually taking those actions, one way or another. (Maybe because they tried the easy way and it sucked, first, but they do eventually get to doing it right.)

That ties in to the notion that we are all selfish. I basically agree with that, also. But I don't think that "selfish" is incompatible with "doing good." In fact, I think self-interest is one of the biggest motivating factors in making the improvements we are discussing. Humans have a natural feeling of satisfaction when they do something that they feel is positive, and that feeling is essentially a reward that makes our selfish side happy when we do something that doesn't have any other benefit for ourselves.

We also learn from our mistakes - "I tried doing it the easy way, and that backfired, so next time I'll do it the better way." In such circumstances, it is our own self-interest that makes us do it the better way, but the better way is probably better for everyone.

If you look at all these topics, I think there are two fundamental ways to look at things: either we are inherently bad and have to struggle to get better, or we are inherently good and should just work to follow our natural tendency to get better. Either belief leads to essentially the same behavior, and I think both sides of the argument have a self-consistent set of corresponding arguments that reinforce it. So it comes down to a personal decision about which way to believe, and I choose to believe the one that starts with the positive, rather than the one that starts with a negative. That fits with my natural positive-naturedness, much better ;-)

P.S. - I was inspired by this comment to write my own blog post on a related topic (i.e. religion), in case you are interested.