Last night, in discussion with friends, I found myself defending my own skepticism. The topic was whether there is an objective human good, or even a genuine human nature that determines how humans should live if they want to have happy lives. I’m willing to admit that, as a matter of empirical fact, a great many people across time and culture find a certain set of things valuable: free time, friends and family, work, a sense of belonging to a larger purpose, and so on. And finding these things valuable probably has something to do with humans as a species: we’re not armadillos, after all, and evolution has made us into a certain kind of species that delights in some things over others.
I hesitate, though, in calling this a “human nature” because in my mind a nature brings with it a certain kind of necessity, which I reject. I think it is perfectly possible for there to be someone who is a member of our biological species and just doesn’t go for the usual things. Maybe they rather like sitting alone in dark rooms feeling spiteful, like Dostoyevsky’s underground man, or maybe (like a great many intelligent human beings) they can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of life without finding themselves feeling guilty, inauthentic, or idiotic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong, let alone “inhuman,” about such miserable folk. And I don’t think their attitudes are simply side-effects of a modern industrial landscape that alienates humans from their own nature. There have always been Kierkegaards and Kafkas, I suspect, or humans that just refuse to be happy with what pleases a great many of us.
I went a bit further in the discussion, maybe beyond where a skeptic should stop. The general kinds of things most humans like (free time, friends and family, etc) feel like the makings of a “meaningful” life only when those humans manage to forget the boundary conditions of human existence. As I’ve said before, life is utterly meaningless. (I’m not much of a skeptic about this.) I think people can still feel happiness and take delight in many things – or refuse to take delight in them – but neither the delights nor the refusal are at all meaningful. Nothing is. If it does turn out to be a fact of our species that we can’t fully delight in anything unless we regard something as meaningful (and I don’t think it is a fact, but anyway) – then it is also a fact that human delight requires some form of delusion, or at least forgetfulness. Nothing new here; many philosophers have made this claim.
But the main topic of our conversation was politics, and I was asked what sort of political participation follows from my skepticism about there being any kind of genuine human nature or objective human good. I’m not sure what to say here that isn’t obvious. Obviously, some people like some things, and others like other things. Political participation is a struggle to bring about more of the things you happen to like. If what you like isn’t consistent with what other people like – so there’s no way to go separate ways and be happy about it – then you roll up your sleeves and get dirty. So, for example, I happen to like everyone having food, shelter, basic medical attention, etc. Other people don’t really care about it, or don’t see it as a problem government should address. I think government is probably the best way of making it happen (it’s at least an important component), so I need to wrestle with these people and try to have my way over them. It’s not that they’re mistaken about human nature or objective human goods. (What do I know about human nature and the objective human good?) It’s that I want something to happen and they are in my way. Obviously, they feel the same way. Thus politics.
Now in our political contests, they or I might make any number of appeals to human values, human nature, God, the ends of life, etc. That’s just effective rhetoric. In politics, if it works, it’s legit. I’ll even go so far as to say that, in all likelihood, the things I like are more likely to come about if people don’t think the way I do and instead believe the rhetoric and delude themselves with visions of meaningfulness.
Come to think of it, writing this little essay is not such a great idea. You know what? Forget it. I was wrong. There is a genuine human nature, and an objective human good, and it requires some form of democratic socialism and a radical redistribution of wealth. I’ll get you the details later.