Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

26 July, 2012

Post-Aurora: A Defense of the Human Race

By Aaron
26 July, 2012

For every villain like James Holmes, there's a handful of eccentric "superheros" trying to stop him (video also here)

Events like last weekend's mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater are almost enough to make a person lose faith in humanity, to write off the whole lot of homines sapientes as a lost cause and go live in a cabin in the woods of Alaska. News stories about Miami face-eaters and monstrous Penn State football coaches don't exactly improve one's view of our species either, but one reason these stories make the news is precisely because they are, blessedly, so rare. As awful as such events are, then, we'd all do well to step back and note that, isolated horrors aside, the vast majority of humans remain kind, generous and, quite simply, downright decent.

I say this as someone who hasn't always had a terribly optimistic view of my fellow man (although I've generally been more sanguine about the fairer sex). Indeed, for much of my life I agreed with the comedian Bill Hicks who described humans as "a virus with shoes." Unfortunately, this dour view of humanity leads a person to unsavory conclusions about human capabilities. If I believe, for instance, that humans are naturally - and only - selfish, uncaring misers, it follows that the government must confiscate some portion of their income in order to care for the old, sick, and hungry that would otherwise die in the gutters if not for such state-run programs as Medicare and Social Security. And if I believe that humans are merely a pack of short-sighted imbeciles who will not look after their own well-being, it follows that I should support an array of restrictions on their activities - such as what they put into their body, whether or not they wear a seat belt, or how they choose a hair stylist - even if those activities harm no one but themselves. In short, this pessimistic view of humanity - grounded as it is in an arrogant view of myself as qualified to make such judgements about the ability and character of others - leads almost inevitably to the belief that people must be watched, coddled, and guarded against at all times. I take no pride in saying so, but for years this is how I viewed people.

At some point, however, I realized that my pessimism was not just exaggerated, but also wrong. This realization began when it dawned on me that I, too, am human (a startling bit of insight, I know) and, as such, am subject to the same foibles as most everyone else. Thus, even if humans are selfish and short-sighted - which we certainly are on occasion - there is no reason to believe that I or any bureaucrat, both as imperfect as the next fellow, could do any better at the task of overseeing the affairs of others. Even this viewpoint, however, retained a hint of pessimism, as it merely lumped me and said bureaucrat into that same tight-fisted and doltish whole.

A more important moment of understanding came when, one day, I looked around and realized that, with the exception of the occasional James Holmes, Jerry Sandusky, and Cho Seung-Hui, humans strive to be, as Adam Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, both loved and lovely:

[Man] naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame. 

That is, most folks, most of the time and - this is crucial - under the right incentives, want to do the right thing, and they most often succeed. The magician, comedian and all-around philosopher Penn Jillette was correct, then, when he noted:

I believe firmly that if you pull a Ferrari up in front of a Starbucks and say to a random person, “My wife’s pregnant, I gotta run in the car with her, I gotta drive her there, my car is out there, just please take it and park it and text me at this number,” and run away, they’re not gonna steal that car. Your vast majority of people are gonna go, “Oh Jesus, I don’t know if I can drive a stick.” And they’re gonna get in there and they’re gonna do that. I think if liberals would just trust people to be better, there’s no problem with them either.

Jillette here hits on an important point: the nanny state and its cousins on the politicial continuum (tyranny, authoritarianism, socialism, etc.) are predicated on the notion that most folks are diluted variants of either James Holmes (he of the Aurora, Colorado shooting) or Forrest Gump. Trouble is, the nanny state actions that grow out of this belief become a self-fulfilling prophecy: when you remove from folks the incentive to care for their parents, save for their own retirement, or properly insure their home against disaster, guess what? They don't do it. Not because they're greedy or stupid, but because they follow incentives and the incentives tell them there's no need to bother. If someone else will do something for me, why do it for myself? 
Yes, we're all greedy - or, if you prefer, self-interested - but we're also inclined to help our friends and loved ones and even the occasional stranger through a rough patch. Yes, we can be a foolish and myopic lot, but we also generally take the long view when it behooves us to do so. And more often than not, if you pay close attention, you won't be disappointed by the folks around you. 

If you're still troubled, however, as I confess I am, by the recent events in Colorado, take a moment to watch this video with Harvard's Steven Pinker, who notes that we, as humans, are killing each other a lot less than ever before. Perhaps you don't think that's saying much, but hey, it's a helluva lot of something.