January 31, 2014
I have a pretty positive view of human nature, for a number of reasons. Partly, I’m consciously correcting for the negative bias of “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism. I also reject the idea that being self-interested is necessarily anti-social. Pursuing your own happiness, rightly understood, is a good thing. In fact, I would argue that those who care little for loftier goals like the good of society often do more good than do-gooders, as long as they pursue their self-interest rationally.
But caring about others is also a good thing, of course. And nobody cares more than those activists, pundits, political leaders, and enthusiastic voters who are involved in fighting to bring about a better society, right? Well, not according to philosopher Michael Huemer. In a very readable and thought-provoking paper entitled “In Praise of Passivity,” Huemer suggests that most people who see themselves as motivated by some high political ideal are instead motivated “by a desire to perceive themselves as working for the noble ideal.”How can you tell who really cares?
Huemer writes, “If people are seeking high ideals such as justice or the good of society, then they will work hard at figuring out what in fact promotes those ideals and will seek out information to correct any errors in their assumptions about what promotes their ideals, since mistaken beliefs on this score could lead to all of their efforts being wasted.”
This requires, among other things, reading up on more than one side of a controversial issue. Huemer doesn’t think most people with strong political opinions do these kinds of things. Rather, according to his observations, “most people who expend a great deal of effort promoting political causes expend very little effort attempting to make sure their beliefs are correct. They tend to hold very strong beliefs that they are very reluctant to reconsider.”This tendency certainly counts against my positive view of human nature.
Given how difficult it is to acquire real knowledge in the social sciences—something Huemer explores in his paper—people who merely want to perceive themselves as working for high political ideals are very likely to do more harm than good. But all is not lost. For one thing, I ascribe no ill will to people who want to feel good about themselves. And fortunately, there are workarounds for our all-too-human cognitive biases. Huemer has several recommendations for how to do some real good (and avoid doing real harm) in the world, recommendations that will surely challenge many people’s assumptions — which is itself a good thing.