Sounding Board

Human nature

We must understand our vices as well as our virtues

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can’t trust people, Jeremy.” 

Super Hans, the crack addicted dispenser of violence and wisdom in the noughties sitcom Peep Show and the Tory cleric, Jonathan Swift, might not be obvious bedfellows. True, they both share a profound talent for the scatological: Hans memorably compared the act of giving birth to “frogs coming out an arsehole” whilst one of Swift’s most popular poems reaches a denouement when he realises that “Celia shits!”. Both loved ecclesiastical politics, Swift’s career as a Tory propagandist stalling as Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin due to the above crudities whereas Hans loved nothing more than “kicking back with a bit of Barchester”.

Crucially though, both had healthily low opinions of human nature, almost postmodern in their misanthropy. Super Hans’s critique of public taste and democracy sits comfortably alongside Swift’s general treatise on the human condition in Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels where it is concluded that humans were “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” Neither analysis, alas, is popular today.

Human nature has become the domain of living, laughing and loving; our sole purpose is the pursuit of pleasure and the minimisation of pain and the only way we can assess the value of humanity as a whole is on the basis by which that pursuit is enabled. That we are good and rational and, most importantly today, have a right to pursue these ends is taken for granted. The problem is that, as Swift and Super Hans knew, it isn’t true.

A cursory look at the history of humanity should be more than enough. Yet we have had people who read history at university at the forefront of government for a number of years and remain stuck in a rut around human nature. How many public policy mistakes have been the result of the basic miscalculation that people are good and rational and will behave accordingly? From the right to buy scheme to Covid marshals, the last 40 odd years of British politics are littered with ideas that were presented as sensible in the abstract until the knotty reality of human nature got involved.

Globally, things are even worse

Globally, things are even worse. Canada’s euthanasia policy provides a solid example: originally marketed as a rational choice for sensible adults and therefore an indisputable moral good, it is now being used to kill the poor and the mentally ill as well as the physically sick and the elderly. 

It is no coincidence that those who advocate most strongly for these sorts of measures are, themselves, of an age and social background that means they are routinely furthest away from the messy outworking of human nature — until the inevitability of death creeps up on them. 

Pointing out the wider flaws in human nature does not equate to a call for technocracy — the clarion call of a Times column that “if only we could get the grown-ups in charge again”. It requires a revisionism worthy of our most maniacal online historians to think that the very people who most actively advanced a naïve view of the human condition remain the best hope. Again, the philosophy of our governing, commenting and culturally dominant, classes is the problem here: it’s very easy to believe people are fundamentally sensible and good and trustworthy when you believe yourself to be so as well.

No, lack of charity begins at home. Indeed, part of the failure of any real criticism of the status quo — which has been attempted from left and right, religious and non-religious sources — is that advocates of such critiques are almost never able to convince anyone that they are prepared to apply such diagnoses to themselves. One can dress-up in the gown and bands of historic moral chastisement all one wants, but if that isn’t accompanied by a sense of the irony of that action and of personal introspection around one’s own language, action and mores, then you might as well go back to shouting at strangers at bus stops.

As a clergyman, I am often asked whether I think the story of Adam and Eve is true. My main response is to paraphrase Pontius Pilate and ask it is dependent on whatever “truth” means. What I know to be true is its diagnosis of human nature: that it is fallen and in need of some form of redemption. 

What I also know to be true is that it applies, first and foremost, to me and my nature. As another unlikely postmodernist in this regard, Dr Johnson, put it, “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”

The endless task of attempting to address that, ironically, leads to much more laughing, loving and, well, living than believing that such pursuits are moral goods in, and of, themselves.

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