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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

We Are What we Make of Ourselves

I know that many socialists and Marxists take it on faith that human beings are inherently benevolent and compassionate, and that cruelty, hatred, greed, fraud and selfishness are not intrinsic to the human condition, but rather the result of a dehumanizing capitalist economic system that continuously rewards the selfish and cruel individual.

On the other side of the political spectrum, you have the unapologetic defenders of capitalism who hold that the latter economic system prevails because we WANT it to—that we are just ARE the sorts of people who don’t mind cheating others if we can get away with it, who love to buy or take whatever we can without thinking about others, who are by nature selfish.

If you think this is one of those debates that can be settled statistically through sociological empirical study, you would be dead wrong. The fact is that there is evidence both of humans acting in selfish and cruel ways, as well as in caring and benevolent ways. And notwithstanding Richard Dawkins, there just are no such things as selfish or altruistic ‘genes’—this is the worst sort of anthropomorphist philosophical fiction. People can be altruistic or selfish; genes cannot.

So, what are we left with? My sense is that given the ‘right’ circumstances we all have some potential to be bigoted, hateful, greedy, cruel and selfish. Moreover, it is quite plausible to believe that we have created a socio-economic universe in neoliberal capitalism that does everything possible to make greed and selfishness appear ‘normal’ and even virtuous. Many will mistake this appearance as reality—just the way things are when it comes to flawed human beings. We should see this kind of thinking for what it is: a dangerous and destructive illusion. Moreover, despite the enormous pressure to capitulate and conform to the capitalist status quo millions of people around the globe are doing everything they can to create a better, more compassionate, less selfish world that is not based on greed and endless consumerism.

It is unproductive and intellectually lazy to revert to the thesis that we are intrinsically oriented in one way or another. It is much more challenging and difficult to simply assume we are not anything by nature, and then ask ourselves who do we want to be, and what kind of world do we wish to inhabit.

In the end, it is not what nature or God makes of us, but what we make of ourselves individually and collectively.

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