Human Nature and the Political Process

How do humans respond when “normal” no longer exists?  What is the essence of personal nature triggering what is good or evil within us?  Are humans basically good or inherently corrupt?  What previous experiences form our reaction to danger?  To what lengths are we prepared to go to for self-preservation?  Or will community turn to mob mentality and “every man for himself?”  Whatever the answers given to each question, no one really knows what personal beliefs will come to the surface in any confrontation.

These are the questions posed by Stephen King in his novella brought to film entitled The Mist.  A small northeastern town is struck by a severe storm in the night.  The next day, a thick mist envelopes the community.  Unbeknown to anyone, a military experiment gone awry succeeds in opening another dimension in the universe.  Through the open door come a myriad of awful beasts intent on what they do best: eating flesh.  Forty some people have found shelter in a local supermarket.  It is here the tale is played out.

Prior relationships dictate how people interact.  Inside the store we find residents versus out-of-towners, white versus black, blue collar versus white collar, religious versus unbelievers, pragmatists versus idealists, soldiers versus civilians.  David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is at odds with an uncaring neighbor (Andre Braugher) little concerned for the damage a dead tree has caused Jane’s boathouse.  Smoothing over their differences for the moment, they find their way to town for supplies.  Once the menace begins, Mrs. Carmody (Oscar winner, Marcia Gay Harden) morphs from town “crazy” to apocalyptic preacher, hardening a growing group of followers against anything other than paranoia.

Frank Darabont (director of other King writings: The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) combines his impressive talents to ask the science fiction question “What if?”  The Mist makes one wonder if we don’t encounter the extraterrestrial, monsters, and the abnormal every day.  The question of how assumptions about our nature impact everyday life is investigated by more than sci-fi thrillers.  Our beliefs about who we are affect everything.

What I refer to as “assumptions” about our nature some call “pre-conditioners,” “pre-conceptions,” or “presuppositions.”  Whatever title we give to the phenomenon, everyone everywhere assumes certain core beliefs.  These assumptions may be conscious or unconscious starting points of thought—that is, we may be able to articulate exactly why we think the way we do or why we have adopted certain beliefs with or without careful consideration.

  • Atheist—matter is eternal
  • Religionist—God is eternal

or

  • Scientism—only objective, empirical data can determine truth
  • Relationalism—only subjective, relationally-driven information tells truth

Leonard Pitts in a December 2004 column[1] succinctly stated, “We believe what we want to believe.”

We like to see ourselves as principled types who sift the facts before forming an opinion. But for most of us, we are perfectly willing to ignore any fact that contradicts what we believe.

Quoting from the then unpublished research of Drew Westen of Emory University, Pitts recorded that people make decisions based on bias, not fact, something researchers call both “selection bias” or “confirmation bias”.  According to Westen’s data since published in 2006, peoples’ opinion could be predicted 80 percent of the time.  The strength or weakness of the evidence turned out to be immaterial.  Opinions of any group trumped concrete evidence.  Westen concluded in his work “partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want . . . Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally biased judgments when they have a vested interest in how to interpret ‘the facts.’[2] As Pitts concluded “We believe what we want, facts be damned.”  The columnist continues:

“The scary thing,” according to Westen, “is the extent to which you can imagine this influencing jury decisions, boardroom decisions, political decisions …”

I’m reminded of a colleague of mine who says we Americans increasingly seem to embrace separate “truths,” reflecting not objective reality, but political orientation. Some of us even get our news exclusively from those sources that affirm our truths. He calls it living in alternate realities.

It’s because of that separateness that there often seems to be no moral center or intellectual coherence to much of what passes for public discourse these days. Our principles are situational. We’ll believe–or not believe–whatever it takes to win the argument.

Pitts’ and Westen’s points of view suggest something about our internal, psychological makeup.  Our Nature—our essence, the soil from which our person thinks, believes, behaves—conforms to a center, a point-of-view that can drive our decisions in multiple areas of thought.  As an example, we can ask the question, “How do we know what we know?” and show that selection of information may indicate our base belief.  If we say, for instance, that the Butler Bulldogs should be ranked in the top 25 in D-1 college basketball polls, we could show objective sources for such a belief, albeit, dictated by the love for our own team.  Our analysis of the outcome of tonight’s game between Tennessee and Indianapolis could be simple because we live in this city—“Yeah, the Colts have beaten the Titans 9 out of the last 11 meetings which sets the stage for victory tonight.”  Or we could note that the Colts are starting two rookie guards to protect Peyton and that Bob Sanders, heart and soul of the Indy defense, is sitting out yet another game.  But our instinctive belief is that the Colts will win, no matter what.  [As a note of full selection and confirmation bias disclosure, I’ve been a Colts fan since I was eight when I found out that Johnny Unitas was born on the same day as me.]

As bias relates to our nature, we may hold or lean toward one of two basic assumptions—we are good at heart, with perfectionist proclivities, or we are inherently corrupt, internally tainted, and not to be fully trusted.  Bertrand Russell wrote, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day.”  I would suggest, like Russell, that our belief about human nature encompasses our every belief and behavior.

[An aside: because of limitations of time and topic, it is not possible to broach the conflict between what many refer to as “the nature—nurture question.”  Is our nature genetically predisposed or environmentally conditioned.  On these points, one might find many resources.  Historically, some begin with John Locke’s psychological theory from An Essay on Human Understanding that people are born without innate beliefs and so her environment, upbringing, and experiences fashion her.  Others would agree with Stephen Pinker’s evolutionary view in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  This topic alone would be the basis for another whole discussion; most probably, many discussions.]

Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that humans are “good at heart”   His 1762 Social Contract became what Daniel Boorstin called in his book Seekers “a sacred text of the French Revolution of 1789.”  Based on “the general will of the people,” noted 15 times in The Declaration of the Rights of Man (French, 1789), humans became sole arbiters of right and wrong.  Rousseau’s perspective has been taken up by such as Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan highlighting the freedom individuals have to construct a society.  But Rousseau would have sought a thoroughly majority-rules vision of any social contract.  Ideas of tolerance, progress, equality, rights, moral-neutrality, live-and-learn, and a “people know best what’s good for them” mentality are offshoots from Rousseau’s baseline belief.  Those who assent that the individual should construct how they live life, believe one should live life as they see fit.  The resources to live such a life are generally  assumed to be the benefits of a society and government that both protects those rights and provides the resources to pursue that life.  State generated, government directed programs are essential to provide a basic so-called “good life” for all.  It was Rousseau’s belief in “the noble savage”—primitive people who live in altruistic societies unsullied from the atrocities of the modern world—that has generated the modern belief that people are basically good at heart.

The other perspective of human nature—that we are shot through with internal corruption—also drives social and political theory.  Concerned that the state or those in power would control all human endeavors, the individual must be assured of external checks on those in the corridors of influence.  Local jurisdiction, property rights, natural law, and individual responsibility over government control might be hallmarks of this point of view.  Montesquieu, an 18th C. English lawyer, put it this way in his treatise The Spirit of Laws, “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.  Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?  To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.”[3] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, simply known as Lord Acton, was a historian and moralist in 19th C. England.  Considered to be one of the most learned Englishmen of his time, Lord Acton expressed his assumption concerning human nature in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  Acton’s most notable conclusion to his life’s work believed that political liberty is the essential condition and guardian of religious liberty.

To the essence of this talk “how our views of anthropology—the study of humans—may dictate our vote” I would like to suggest the outcomes of our various points of view and how our view of the world may indicate which levers we pull in the voting booth.

(1) If we believe people are born good, we will attribute evil to forces outside the individual.  Terrorist attacks or national enemies are a product, not of individual will, but of external pressures such as poverty, ethnicity, or education.  Economic problems are the root cause of personal distress or disagreement and could be overcome by government intervention, financial entitlements, or state run laws.

(2) If we believe people are born good, we will stress educational programs in schools that teach the problems of smoking, the use of condoms for sex, and environmental policies.  We will suggest that the root problems of society are contained within sexism, racism, or classism.  According to this view, the greatest problem that I might have in my life are with people and things outside of myself.

(3) If we believe people are basically good, a religion sourced outside of myself may well be unnecessary and in some cases, harmful.  Even in our own lifetimes, if not throughout history, we have seen the destruction nature of followers of various religions.  Good people, by themselves, are capable of creating good moral standards within a social framework where government provides for social programs to create and maintain that goodness.

(4) If we believe people are basically good, we believe that those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad.  If there is a group that holds a different point of view, that point of view—coming from outside of us—must be perceived as a possible enemy to be defeated and therefore, eliminated.  This view would also hold that the more power one has the better to create government programs and judicial enforcement for the betterment of society.

There is another point of view.

(1) If we believe people are inherently corrupt [that means that every part of us is skewed from our motivations to our words to our actions], we believe that evil is actually a part of who we are.  From this point of view comes a belief in the need for an outside source of law which establishes boundaries not set by humans.

(2) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that education begins with character development—the interiority of the person—not with programs intended to address external issues of concern.  This view holds personal responsibility as paramount for what we do no matter our race, nationality, or religion.

(3) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that belief in God, no matter the sectarian or denominational belief, holds people to a higher standard of good not possible by themselves.  Assuming humans are tainted by wrong within themselves, people holding this position would advocate that political liberty protects religious liberty.

(4) If we believe people are inherently corrupt, we believe that all beliefs and political positions deserve and demand accountability through critique.  While one may think that another’s position is wrong, the desire for dialogue with objective standards of debate over power control would be most important.  In addition, a corrupt view of human nature precondition would argue for power to be in the hands of more than one group. There is a profound suspicion of big government, big labor, big corporations, and even big religious institutions.

David Mamet, for years my favorite Hollywood screenwriter, wrote an article in The Village Voice this past March entitled, “Why I am No Longer a Brain Dead Liberal.”  Perhaps no better person than Mamet could speak to the distinctiveness of the views of human nature.  I quote Mamet from his article at length:

I wrote a play about politics (November). And as part of the “writing process,” as I believe it’s called, I started thinking about politics . . . But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play . . . is . . . a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

As a child of the ’60s, I accepted as an article of faith that government is corrupt, that business is exploitative, and that people are generally good at heart . . . And, I wondered, how could I have spent decades thinking that I thought everything was always wrong at the same time that I thought I thought that people were basically good at heart? Which was it? I began to question what I actually thought and found that I do not think that people are basically good at heart; indeed, that view of human nature has both prompted and informed my writing for the last 40 years. I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.

I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

In addition to Mamet’s interesting forty year change of thinking, I give you the cartoon section of the morning paper.  Students stopped outside my office for years just to read my door and walls, plastered with funnies.  Some are held by magnets to my refrigerator at home, others are taped around me in my study, re-created on powerpoints for presentations, additional strips are framed and under glass.  These modern drawings capture philosophy through art.  Along with Mamet and the cartoons, I find myself within the category of thought that considers humanity to be less than its best self.

Comics like The Wizard of Id, Calvin and Hobbes, and Frank and Ernest do a good job of explaining human nature.  Of all the comics I’ve saved over the years those that communicate best are depictions of characters that correctly mirror what people are like.  In Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller produced a comic titled “The Essence of Human Nature.”  A man and a woman are standing by a sign that says, “Absolutely NO Machete Juggling.”  The man comments, “Suddenly I have an urge to juggle machetes…”

Chris Browne’s Hagar the Horrible makes the case another way.  Hagar’s wife sees her husband leaving the house loaded down with weapons.  “Where are you going?” she asks. “I’m meeting with Attila the Hun to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty.”  Frowning, her second question is, “Why do you need all those weapons?”  Hagar matter-of-factly explains, “It might not be possible.”

In discussions with his boy, Hagar insists, “Never turn your back on an enemy, my son!”  Reasoning with his father the child responds, “You should be more trusting Dad!  He’s not an enemy—he’s a ‘human being,’ just like you.”  Making his point Hagar rejoins, “THAT’S why you should never turn your back on him!”

Non Sequitur and Hagar the Horrible goes on to add that issues of trust and peace are restricted not by human misunderstanding or weaponry but by our nature.  The obvious question left to ask is “What makes us what we are?”

Belief about human nature generally gives us a distinctive marker of belief.  Those who hold a human perfectibility point of view might believe that money and government will help solve problems and make people good.  Those leaning in the direction of human corruption are more inclined toward an internal regulator from an outside source which is the acknowledged standard.

Belief in perfectibility is what instructs some cultural viewpoints.  Three reasons are normally given for why we act the way we do: (1) biology—“I was born this way”; (2) environment—“I was brought up this way”; or (3) psychology—“I just behave this way”.  Why people murder, hate, covet, or steal may deflect responsibility away from us. Suggesting that accountability lies within ourselves cuts against the grain of human perfectibility.  Choice, decision, or an act of the will might indicate our own culpability.  Again, I illustrate from the comics.

Caught drunk by the king in The Wizard of Id, the court jester intones, “Actually, sire…I’m suffering from a chemical imbalance.”  Genetic preconditions are often hailed as proof of a person’s conduct.  Though by no means accepted by all in the scientific community, news reports often link biology to bad behavior.  “I can’t help it, this is the way I am, I was born this way” are phrases heard from some who would rather not accept responsibility for their actions.

Calvin, complaining that Santa is bias toward good kids at Christmas, contends to Hobbes that “mitigating circumstances” should be considered.  Reminded that he had placed an incontinent toad in his mom’s sweater drawer, Calvin defensively asserts, “If I was being raised in a better environment, I wouldn’t do things like that.”  Next to biology, background is the answer for many who look for behavioral rationale.  The idea behind this comic is that culture is responsible for creating the minds of people who live within its society.

While the “nature—nurture” (biology versus environment) debate continues, psychology has been added to the list of reasons for why we act like we do. Frank contends to a lawyer in a Frank and Ernest cartoon, “Take responsibility?  Is that legal?” This comic pokes fun at the belief that it’s just not psychologically healthy to feel bad for what you’ve done.

Let me explain how I have seen this belief played out in my 25 years as an educator—both at the high school and college levels.  I have heard the following statements made both in the classroom and from the home:

  1. “It’s the way he was born.”
  2. “It runs in the family.”
  3. “Everyone does it.”
  4. “He can’t help himself.”
  5. “He’s on medication.”
  6. “Rules stifle my son.”

Guess where they come from?  Every single one of these ideas has their origin in the environmental, biological, or psychological justifications explored in the last section.

Gregory Roper, a professor of English at the University of Dallas confronts this same difficulty as an educator.  Concerned about the response he was receiving in a certain class, he recounts the questioning of his own beliefs as he drove across the Midwest:

Why had this class crashed so badly, been such a failure for both the students and me? I was angry, confused, disturbed. I began replanning the class from the ground up: better assignments, more personal meetings with the students to discuss their papers, having them assemble portfolios of writing. It would be a lot more work—the research would have to be put off again—but that’s what a teacher does, I thought.

Yet somewhere in Illinois the thought occurred to me that the problem was with the ideas I was importing into my pedagogy. I believed that the students’ learning was somehow primarily my responsibility; I had somewhere imbibed the notion that if I were just passionate enough, energetic enough, prepared enough, creative enough—if I worked hard enough, got to know my students well enough, and presented the material in a fresh enough way—that I could reach every student. I would be able to teach the student, not the subject, and transform his life.

What I discovered was that I thought of my students as innocent and malleable, uncorrupted, unspoiled, and it was only my task to light the fire in their souls . . . I discovered to my shock that I was, in my pedagogical philosophy, [a believer in the perfectability of humanity . . . ]

And I realized immediately the harm that this had done. I was full of hubris; I was exhausting myself, and I was, unaware of it, condescending to my students.

I believe many in the teaching profession are in this state, and that our popular ideology of the teacher pushes them in this direction. In films such as Stand and Deliver or To Sir, With Love, in books and television and popular images, we see the teacher as the good liberal: the secular, good-hearted, amazing transformer who, through sheer will, preparation, and energy, can overcome human nature and make his students into something new.

What occurred to me as I crossed Illinois was quite simple, and yet profound: it wasn’t my fault. I had taught those students well; I had given them the same assignments, the same pep talks, the same advice and instruction that I had given numerous sections of the very same course many times before, and they rejected it. That is, I had something—well, something like grace to offer them, and they had, in their human freedom, chosen not to take what I had to teach them. It was a tremendously liberating discovery, this notion that students, rather than being angels, were sinful humans. Now I was no longer trying to invent new paradigms for my teaching, come up with better assignments, more innovative ways to grade and assess their progress so I could help them more. Instead, I decided that I would begin the next semester making clear my new discovery: that students are responsible for their own learning, and that, if they were going to do well, they would have to accept this responsibility as adults and perform well.

Let me speak now to the impact these assumptions about human nature make on the political process.  I will not approach this part of the talk as one might expect.  I lean on the humanities to flesh out in story fashion how our human natures may impact our political and social points of view.

If there are words that need be listened to, it ought to be those from whom much has been learned in the crucible of oppression.  One of the great dissidents of this past fifty years has been the person of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: a writer who for years lived under the hobnailed boot of the old Soviet Union’s oppressive regime.  In the “Ascent,” one of the autobiographical sections of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, we find the justly famous assertion that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart.”

And read just a little further and we come to these words, not so well known but just as true, which describe the evil that roots itself not in the personal, but in the political:

… I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

It is of interest that Hegel in his Philosophy of Right could agree with Solzhenitsyn saying “It is only man who is good, and is good only because he can also be evil.”[4]

Literature itself is replete with statements that categorically state there is something wrong with the human person impacting all social relations.  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson demonstrates the titanic battle raging within humans: depravity triumphing over dignity.  Many other voices would concur with the general concern that humans are corruptible: “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “The Man That Corrupted Hanleyburg” by Mark Twain.

But it is in Lord of the Flies where corrupt human nature is perhaps best viewed as directly impacting the political process.  William Golding was a perfectionist prior to his serving on a carrier in World War II.  The post war tale explains Golding’s transformation to one who had seen the essence of humanity gone bad.  Golding tells the classic tale of a party of schoolboys who have crash landed on a desert island.  Dazzled by the wonders in what seems to them to be paradise “A new kind of glamour was spread over them and the scene, and they were conscious of the glamour and made happy by it.  They turned to each other, laughing excitedly, talking, not listening.  The air was bright . . . Ralph, faced by the task of translating all this into an explanation stood on the head, and fell over . . . eyes shining, mouths open, triumphant, they savoured the right of domination.  They were lifted up: were friends . . . “  Changing their military school garb for more primitive fare is an outward indication of an inward change: without an external law, the boys usurp authority, turn it into power, dominating each other.  What humans can become comes from what humans are—inescapably, terribly, dangerous.  As Ralphie, the bespeckeled target of power gone mad, says, “I’m afraid of us.”

Ralphie would have best understood the Mike Wallace “60 Minutes” interview of Auschwitz survivor Yehiel Dinur, a principal witness at the Nuremberg war-crime trials.  During the interview, a film clip from Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trail was viewed which showed Dinur enter the courtroom and come face to face with Eichmann for the first time since being sent to Aushchwitz almost twenty years earlier.  Stopped cold, Dinur began to sob uncontrollably and then fainted while the presiding judge pounded his gavel for order.  “Was Dinur over come by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories?”  Charles Colson records the response:

No; it was none of these.  Rather, as Diur explained to Wallace, all at once he realized Eichmann was not the godlike army officer who had sent so many to their deaths.  This Eichmann was an ordinary man. “I was afraid about myself,” said Dinur. “I saw that I am capable to do this.  I am . . . exactly like he.” Wallace concluded the summation of Dinur’s terrible discovery, “Eichmann is in all of us”

Were I to summarize my how the political process is impacted by one’s belief about corrupt humanity, I would have to confirm the following points of view:

No better example of concerns over the corruption of the political process can be attested to than the three branches of government constructed in the American Constitution, whose ideals were borrowed and applied from some European countries.

The founders of our country structured the Constitution to assure that our government would be limited in its powers.  The federal government was to be robust, able to defend the United States against external threats while not threatening its own people through tyranny.  To limit the power of the federal government, it was separated into three co-equal branches, the states and individuals retaining all other powers (herein is the importance of the Bill of Rights.  The Second Amendment allows individuals to “keep and bear arms” while the ninth and tenth amendments clearly protect states’ rights.)  The relationship between the executive and the legislative branches, for example, was to provide checks and balances, with established, recurrent elections so as to maintain accountability for authorities.

Alexander Hamilton said in Number 15 of The Federalist Papers

There is, in the nature of sovereign power, an impatience of control, that disposes those who are invested with the exercise of it, to look with an evil eye upon all external attempts to restrain or direct its operations . . . Power controlled or abridged is almost always the rival and enemy of that power by which it is controlled or abridged . . . This simple proposition will teach us how little reason there is to expect that the persons entrusted with the administration of the affairs of the particular confederacy . . . will do so in an unbiased regard . . . the results of this come from the constitution of human nature.

Belief in an inherently defective humanity will opt for a political process which places responsibility on the individual person.  Knowing they themselves are corrupt, they will assume others are also, not wanting to compound corruption, nor to give their responsibility to another.  However, the state is necessary to restrain evil.  The state, because all individuals and institutions are corruptible, must be limited in its power and jurisdiction.

To this concern, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison say in Number 51 of The Federalist Papers

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.  In framing a government which is to be, administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  A dependence on the people is no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Any kind of “utopian” resolutions toward poverty and injustice must be viewed with skepticism considering inherent human duplicity.  The government’s main responsibility will be to maintain compliance to natural law intended for the common good of common man maintaining the freedoms of religion and free-market commerce.  Individuals bear the responsibility of meeting immediate needs that those living in a locale are better able to identify, promote, and resolve.  Here we are reminded by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, “While we have the Statue of Liberty on the east coast, there should be a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.”

The government should only meet the needs of those who cannot help themselves by established, limited laws: limited both in their duration and in their extension.  Government is to provide oversight for compliance of laws so that within their bounds, freedom to produce from private property may result.  Individuals have both the freedom to create while bearing both the joy of success and the burden of failure.

Again, Montesquieu warns against “the public dole,” “taxpayer subsidies” from the 18th C. in The Spirit of Laws (Chap 2, Book VIII):

The people fall into this misfortune [contamination by riches] when those in whom they confide, desirous of concealing their own corruption, endeavour to corrupt them.  To disguise their own ambition, they speak to them only o f the grandeur of the state; to conceal their won avarice, they incessantly flatter theirs.  The corruption will increase among the corruptors, and likewise among those who are already corrupted.  The people will divide the public money among themselves, and, having added the administration of affairs to their indolence, will be for blending their poverty with the amusements of luxury . . . But with their indolence and luxury, nothing but the public treasure will be able to satisfy their demands.

Montesquieu’s words might be simply summarized this way: when the pig bellies up to the public trough, it’s hard to pull the pig away.

Perhaps nothing remains so important than the maintenance of a moral culture by way of a transcendent law and order while guaranteeing the protection and dignity of each human person.  If order is the cornerstone of liberty, then liberty will be the capstone of an ordered society.  Freedom of worship and the maintenance of the family are two spheres of social institutions which need the protection of this moral culture the most.  By the creation of moral goods, as well as economic goods, will a nation prosper for the general advancement of their people for both utility and aesthetics.

In this regard, we have a warning from Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter IV

Most of the crimes which disturb the internal peace of society are produced by the restraints of which the necessary, but unequal, laws of property have imposed on the appetites of mankind, by confining to a few the possession of those objects that are coveted by many.  Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude.  In the tumult of civil discord, the laws of society lose their force, and their place is seldom supplied by those of humanity.  The ardour of contention, the pride of past injuries, and the fear of future dangers, all contribute to inflame the mind, and to silence the voice of pity.  From such motives almost every page of history ahs been stained with civil blood.

So now we must return to the questions posed by Stephen King’s The Mist: What is the essence of personal nature triggering what is good or evil within us?  Are humans basically good or inherently corrupt?  What previous experiences form our reaction to danger?  To what lengths are we prepared to go to for self-preservation?  Or will community turn to mob mentality and “every man for himself?”

If the recent spate of comic book heroes come to a Cineplex near you has taught us anything it is that human-heroes are quite at odds with their own natures, their own beliefs.  Witness Ironman’s Robert Downey Jr. who asks “Haven’t you once felt conflicted about what you do?”  Del Toro’s cigar chomping, candy bar loving Hellboy offers that doing the right thing is simply a matter of choice, albeit after being jolted to thoughtfulness seeing the sign of the cross tattooed on his hand.  The Punisher teeters on the knife edge of justice versus revenge as he is forever marked by the murder of his family before his own eyes.  Many super-human-heroes could be named as examples.  [Perhaps it is at this point that we suggest, as a college student friend of mind explains, Superman is not a super-human-hero.  Superman is an alien whose greatest conflict is with Krytonite rather than with himself.  When I speak of super-human-heroes I mean those among us who are at once quite super and quite human.  Perhaps the American-Swiss philosopher Francis Schaeffer said it best, “Man is a great and a great sinner”.]

I believe the best example of a super-human-hero is Batman.  Like others who prey upon villains, thugs, and terrorists, Batman uses physical force to vanquish his foes.  He stands upon unassailable, laudatory virtues such as defending the defenseless and meeting force with force.  However, Batman struggles mightily with his own internal drive against villainy as he witnessed firsthand the murder of his own parents.  The desire to wreck havoc, uncontrolled vengeance, is etched on his face and in his soul as he confronts each villain.  It strikes me that Batman is the essence of our own humanity and the warning for our stable yet fragile political process.  The responsibility of government is our protection.  The responsibility of the individual is vigilance to keep government in its proper place.  It was the great teacher of the first century, Jesus, who reminds us what cartoonists and comic book heroes tell us today, “What enters a man from the outside cannot defile him . . . For from within, out of the heart of men, proceeds evil . . .” (Mark 7:17, 19).  If this is true, our view of human nature will indeed impact the political process and determine our vote.

Human Nature and the Political Process: How Our View of Anthropology May Dictate Our Vote Speech given at Butler University, Veritas Forum, 28 October 08, Mark Eckel, PhD


[1] Knight-Ridder Tribune, 28 December 04

[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Confirmation-bias

[3] Chapter 6, Book XI.4

[4] (GB, 46, 130b).

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