Current Affairs is


and depends entirely on YOUR support.

Can you help?

Subscribe from 16 cents a day ($5 per month)

Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Right-Wing Story About Human Nature Is False

Are we naturally violent, power-hungry, and greedy? Rutger Bregman’s book “Humankind” devastates the myth of human selfishness.

  • “All men would be tyrants if they could.” — John Adams* 
  • “It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous, as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.” John von Neumann
  • “Humankind’s covetousness is boundless…  Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn.” —  Paul Bahn and John Flenley, Easter Island, Earth Island* 
  • “Tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed?… The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.”Milton Friedman 
  • “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” — Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene*
  • “No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.” Steven Pinker 
  • “For this can be said of men in general: that they are ungrateful, fickle, hypocrites.” Machiavelli
  • “Our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle.” — John Calvin* 
  • “As a rule men do wrong whenever they can.” — Aristotle
  • “Remove the elementary staples of organized, civilized life—food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security—and we all go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.” — Timothy Garton Ash*
  • “No one likes to think they’re a Nazi, but everyone is one.” “Granted the opportunity, how many of us would not be Hitlers?” — Jordan Peterson1

One common view of human beings is that we are “by nature” selfish, violent, cruel, and untrustworthy, and that, to the extent we manage to restrain these base instincts, it is because we are taught to be generous, and punished if we go around hurting others. Sometimes this view is accompanied by a story about human development: once upon a time, life was nasty, brutish, and short, a war of all against all. Prehistoric human beings were violent barbarians. Fortunately, civilization has gradually brought out the better angels of our nature. Free markets can actually direct humans’ natural selfishness toward socially beneficial ends, and laws backed by the threat of violence are able to ensure that a semblance of order is maintained. But this progress is fragile and depends on maintaining our existing institutions roughly as they are. Civilization could easily be destroyed if you tamper with it, and we could lapse back into barbarism. The primatologist Frans de Waal coined the term “veneer theory” to describe the idea that morality and civilization are essentially a thin veneer that is easily cracked, and that beneath it is a “natural” state in which we are warlike and irrational. 

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, in Humankind: A Hopeful History (newly issued in paperback), destroys this story utterly. Bregman, perhaps best known for driving Tucker Carlson nuts by daring to criticize Carlson on his own show, claims this is nothing more than a myth or fable about humanity. It is a dangerous one, too, because believing in it can shape the policy choices we make and the way we treat each other. Alarmingly, most people do seem to hold a cynical or pessimistic view of other people, seeing them as untrustworthy. But Bregman’s remarkable book shows that when we actually look at the real world of human social life, and get past the powerful pessimistic tales about original sin, the state of nature, the darkness in all of our hearts, etc., we find that human beings are, on the whole, far more inclined to be sociable and selfless than “treacherous and knavish.” 

One of Bregman’s most helpful contributions is to expose that many of the most vivid examples used to support the pessimistic view of “human nature” collapse when we look at evidence from the real world. Many of us read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in high school, with its haunting portrait of well-educated boys reverting to tribal chaos (poor Piggy!) when isolated and deprived. Golding intended it to be a realistic novel, showing how, contrary to romantic illusions, boys trapped on an island would “really behave.” No matter how well-intentioned and innocent they started off, things would descend because, in his words, “our nature compels us” in that direction, since “man produces evil as a bee produces honey.”

But while Golding’s novel might be a ripping yarn, Bregman shows that it’s in no way a realistic depiction of human social behavior under such conditions. In fact, in emergencies, the opposite tends to happen: a remarkable instinct toward solidarity, compassion, and collectivism displays itself. It’s in precisely the situations where we might expect people to panic and “revert” to a brute struggle for survival that we see perfect strangers willing to give their lives for each other. In fact, as Rebecca Solnit shows in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, shared dire circumstances tend to create social bonds so strong that the results are almost utopian, offering a weird and beautiful vision of the kinds of radical social transformations that we are capable of. 

Bregman shows that “Lord of the Flies”-style myths about post-disaster chaos are simply at odds with the facts. Post-Katrina New Orleans was portrayed in early press accounts as a place of lawlessness and violence, with reports of murders and rapes among the residents huddled together in the Superdome. (From The Guardian: Katrina’s big lesson is that the crust of civilisation on which we tread is always wafer thin… looting, rape and armed terror…. emerged within hours in New Orleans.”) In fact, these were rumors based on prejudices, and the real story of the city after the storm is of a place of resilience where neighbors who had lost everything worked together to slowly rebuild and preserve an extraordinary place. 

Bregman even tracked down a real-world “Lord of the Flies” situation, to see whether Golding was right about what schoolboys trapped on an island would “really” do. In 1965, six boys from Tonga ended up stranded on a barren islet for 15 months. What happened? Well, while in Golding’s novel the boys fight viciously over who is to maintain the fire, “those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.” Lifelong bonds were generated. It was a heartwarming story, but it didn’t get widely told.  

So life diverges sharply from Golding’s supposedly “realistic” fiction. But Bregman also shows that many of the real-world case studies used to prove “veneer” theory and the pessimistic view of human nature are almost equally fictitious. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, in which students were assigned the role of “prisoner” or “guard,” and the guards became savage and brutal, supposedly shows that ordinary people given a role to inhabit can quickly transform into sociopaths. It offered support for Jordan Peterson’s notion that any one of us could be Hitler, and showed that it would take precious little for the veneer of goodness to disappear and the brutes within us to come out. 

But the experiment, cited endlessly in introductory psychology courses (it is one of the things I most vividly remember from high school AP psychology), was a fraud. The demented and sadistic stuff was intentionally dreamed up by the experimenter, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, not spontaneously by the student guards. As French sociologist Thibault Le Texier, author of the paper “Debunking the Stanford Prison Experiment,” told Bregman:

“It took me a while before I accepted the idea that it could all be fake. At first, I didn’t want to believe it. I thought: no, this is a reputable professor at Stanford University. I must be wrong.”

It turns out that reputable professors at Stanford can indeed be fakers. As Le Texier found, the experiment caught people’s attention because it was a powerful moral allegory, but it was worthless as scientific research. The guards who abused prisoners appeared to be doing the things that Zimbardo wanted them to do, not what they were naturally inclined to do in the contrived situation, and it’s unclear to what extent the whole thing was play-acting on the part of both the guards and the prisoners, all of whom knew they were in a role-playing exercise. Drawing conclusions about human nature from the Stanford Prison Experiment is like concluding from watching Macbeth that seemingly normal actors can quickly turn into serial murderers. Zimbardo himself said that “the research itself is a dramatic piece. It is really like a Greek drama—what happens when you put good people in an evil place? There is a stage-like setting, costumes, actors, auxiliary actors… . There is deep dramatic focus.” So Zimbardo did not conduct an experiment testing a hypothesis. He dramatized a widely-believed story, and because that story was already widely-believed, the fraudulence of the project as a scientific enterprise went totally under-discussed in popular presentations.2

The Stanford Prison Experiment may be one of the most egregious pieces of fake science about human nature, but Bregman shows that other popular “case studies” similarly crumble under scrutiny. Take the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, which also became a staple of psychology textbooks. The standard story, popularized by an article in the New York Times, was that when Genovese was attacked, there were 38 witnesses who either saw or heard what happened but did not intervene or call the police. Dozens of neighbors supposedly “watched [Genovese] get knifed to death in a New York street” yet “not one of [them] made the slightest effort to save her, to scream at the killer, or even to call the police,” as science fiction writer Harlan Ellison related the tale. 

In fact, it later turned out that the Times had, by its own admission, “grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed part of it, or recognized the cries for help.” The Times reporter later admitted that he concealed the fact that the witnesses didn’t realize what was happening, because “It would have ruined the story.” 

Furthermore, a neighbor did rush to help Genovese. Her name was Sophia Farrar, and she “actually raced from her apartment to rescue Ms. Genovese, knowing she was in distress,” despite being unaware whether the assailant was still present. Genovese died in Farrar’s arms, as Farrar comforted her and promised that “help is on the way.” The fact that Genovese was helped by someone who put themselves at risk undercuts the story of her killing as a tale of our indifference to the fate of others. The absence of that fact from the story also meant Genovese’s relatives experienced more pain and disillusionment than they needed to. Genovese’ brother said later that “it would have made such a difference to my family knowing that Kitty died in the arms of a friend.”  

In fact, as Bregman documents, bystanders are actually capable of a lot of remarkable heroics. Bregman cites as one example an incident in which, over the course of just two minutes, four perfect strangers come together to jump into the water and save a woman from a sinking car. It is true that, in cases where people assume somebody else has a situation under control, or that their own intervention wouldn’t help, they can refrain from offering aid. You have probably seen situations yourself where you are tempted to do something but worry you will only make things worse. But when people know they’re needed, they tend to leap into action. Human beings who have never shown any prior sign of special heroism or bravery suddenly reveal themselves to be so committed to the welfare of those they do not know that they are willing to die for them. Bregman quotes a survivor of the 9/11 attacks who recalls that as the towers were being evacuated, people did not push and shove past others but actually said, “you first.” 

In instance after instance, where Bregman investigates the “pessimistic” story about natural human inclinations, he finds that it doesn’t hold up. The story is believed not because it has been proven to be true, but because it rings true. The story of how Easter Island’s civilization destroyed itself through lapsing into war and cannibalism, retold by the bestselling pop science writer Jared Diamond, is probably false. Bregman debunks statistics presented by Steven Pinker purporting to show that life before civilization was hyper-violent. He discusses the work of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose book Yanomamö: The Fierce People, profiled an Indigenous society in the Amazon that supposedly engaged in “incessant warfare,” who led Chagnon to speculate that “violence may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture.” The book became perhaps “the best-selling anthropology text ever,” but another field researcher who spent a decade among the Yanomamö insisted “fierce people” was “the biggest misnomer in the history of anthropology.” “I never saw what Chagnon reported that he saw in terms of the violence…” he said. It was “as if someone had stood on a mean corner in Manhattan chronicling muggings and murders and then had written a book titled ‘New Yorkers: The Mugging and Murdering People.’” Yet the “fierce people” picture of the Yanomamö has been used (e.g., by Pinker) to support the view that humans’ natural pre-Enlightenment condition is a violent one. Surveying the anthropology literature, Bregman concludes: “How much proof is there that war is in our nature? The answer is almost none.”(David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new magnum opus The Dawn of Everything offers a great deal of further evidence that “primitive” societies are actually more complex and less brutal than portrayed in simplistic stories that characterize human history as a march from barbarism to Enlightenment.) 

Another famous social psychology study, psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, was based around the conflicts that arose between two groups of young boys separated into teams. It had “Lord of the Flies” vibes, but as with the Stanford Prison Experiment, the conflict did not arise organically but was intentionally stoked by the researchers. In fact, the first time Sherif ran the experiment, he “believed he could make the two groups… sworn enemies via a series of well-timed ‘frustration exercises.’” To his “dismay, however, the children just couldn’t be persuaded to hate each other.” He tried again with more subtle manipulations by the research team, “egg[ing] the boys on [and] providing them with the means to provoke one another.” Eventually Muzafer managed to stoke some antagonism, including “raids on cabins, vandalism and food fights,” and the results were used to develop “realistic conflict theory.” But he suppressed the results of the first attempt where no fighting occurred, and Gina Perry, author of a book on the experiment, explains that Muzafer’s research practices came out of a “tradition in the [19]30s of using experiments as demonstrations—as a confirmation, not to try to find something new.” In other words, flagrantly violating the basics of the scientific method. 

Amusingly, when artificial scenarios like this are tried without the manipulation, the results have often been rather dull. The BBC put together a modernized and slightly more ethical version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and apart from the lively moments in which the prisoners tried to reorganize the prison as a democratic commune, and a brief breakout attempt, very little serious conflict occurred. CBS, in its infamous 2007 Kid Nation reality show, put a bunch of kids together alone to try to run their own town. They were evidently expecting Lord of the Flies, but according to kids who participated, it took a lot of selective editing to wring real drama out of the situation.  

Bregman also looks at the way that crude economic assumptions about humans as “rational self-interested maximizers” (homo economicus, the study of a person “solely as a being who desires to possess wealth,” in John Stuart Mill’s formulation) have distorted our understanding of the ways people actually operate. For instance, a famous 1968 article by Garrett Hardin called “The Tragedy of the Commons” argued that because of human selfishness, property held in common for all would quickly be used up and destroyed. Hardin wrote: 

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” … the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another … But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination to-ward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

To economists, who believe that “rationality” is synonymous with “trying to maximize one’s individual gains,”3 the story makes sense. Under a certain theory of what human beings are like and how they act, this hypothetical does indeed describe what would logically follow. 

But as it happens, the theory is false. Economist Elinor Ostrom decided to actually look at what does happen when property is held in common and used by groups. The answer is that, across thousands of successful commons, the groups establish norms that are followed, and the situation Hardin foresaw is avoided, because people aren’t like that. This is not to say that it cannot occur—sometimes it does, when people are foolish and can’t get their act together—but “rational” people actually do not try to maximize their gains at the expense of everybody else, because this (1) is sociopathic and (2) destroys everything. Instead, as Ostrom documented in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, they create institutions for managing the commons so that everyone benefits. 

In fact, it is not just that the popular examples adduced to prove human selfishness fall to pieces when scrutinized. It’s that we also have plenty of counter-evidence to show a totally different picture of our basic moral selves. Bregman shows many cases of human beings being natural everyday communists, constantly acting to assist one another without any expectation of reward. Cynics can always find a way to attribute a selfish motive to an altruistic-seeming act (“ah, you gave him some change because you wanted to appear good, not because you wanted to do good”), but in experimental settings, even when people stand to gain nothing reputationally from being generous, they still try to do what is fair rather than what is most self-serving. There is a famous experiment called the “dictator game” in which subjects are given a sum of money and told they can decide how to split it with another subject (even if they decide to give the other person nothing). Usually people do not give the stranger nothing, as they would if they were operating on pure self-interest. 

As Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis write in A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution, mounting evidence has challenged old-fashioned views of human beings as typically concerned with their own individual interest. In fact, human beings are constantly working together and assisting each other, and this is a good part of the reason why our species has been so successful. Bregman comments that as our species developed, “rather than a struggle for survival, it was a snuggle for survival, in which we kept each other warm.” Nor is altruistic behavior self-serving beneath the surface. People genuinely care about each other. Bowles and Gintis summarize: 

“People cooperate not only for self-interested reasons but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, try to uphold social norms, and value behaving ethically for its own sake. People punish those who exploit the cooperative behavior of others for the same reasons. Contributing to the success of a joint project for the benefit of one’s group, even at a personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, even elation. Failing to do so is often a source of shame or guilt … [W]e came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments … in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and expand relative to other groups, thereby allowing these prosocial motivations to proliferate.” 

The idea that “rational” human beings would engage in a dog-eat-dog Social Darwinist competition (one that, as the famous prisoners’ dilemma showed, ends up leaving nobody well off) was contradicted by evidence of what human beings actually do. “As the prisoner’s dilemma and the tragedy of the commons were becoming staples of undergraduate instruction,” Bowles and Gintis write, “field evidence from anthropology and micro-historical studies of social movements pointed in an entirely different direction.” For instance, it was long suspected that “rational-self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests” because lazy free-riders could just let others do the work. In reality, as the history of the labor movement and the civil rights movement shows, people will band together and make immense sacrifices to achieve goals that they themselves may never actually get to see realized. 

So, given all this rosy and uplifting material about the natural goodness of humankind, how do we explain all the completely horrible stuff that human beings have done and are capable of doing? Fine, Philip Zimbardo faked his findings, but Auschwitz was a real place, millions upon millions of people have died enslaved, and horrible crimes are committed every day. There has been no shortage of brutality, bloodshed, and exploitation. How can we deal with these facts?

Bregman argues as follows: first, even in situations of terrible human evil and destruction, things are often more complicated than they seem, and the number of truly twisted people may be smaller than the amount of suffering suggests. He points to striking evidence that soldiers in war over the years have shown a reluctance to actually kill anyone, and that it appears to be quite difficult to train the average person out of their instinctive aversion to violence. This is one reason that violent protest movements succeed less often than nonviolent ones; it is simply more difficult to recruit people to a violent movement and gain support for it, because people don’t like to see others hurt and don’t like doing it. 

Bregman recalls the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914, in which troops from the British and French side left the trenches and made merry with troops from the German side, getting to know one another, singing carols, playing football, etc. The event was spontaneous and unauthorized: soldiers on the two sides simply realized the other side was comprised of human beings, and the natural instinct to be sociable kicked in. Their commanders were horrified, and strict regulations had to be put in place to make sure there were no more instances of enemies accidentally becoming friends. Over the years, training regimens have been perfected that are better at desensitizing soldiers to murder, though the prevalence of PTSD among combat veterans shows that it is not easy to get people accustomed to violence. (During the Vietnam War, one of the techniques for turning American teens into killers was requiring them to practice the disgusting racist dehumanization of the Vietnamese, who were only ever referred to using ethnic slurs.) It also becomes easier to overcome this by making killing a more clinical and detached act; it may be harder to stab someone than to drop an atomic bomb on them, because the dropping of bombs is conducted by pressing a button from miles up in the sky. 

Even in cases where people carry out true indefensible acts, Bregman argues that only for a very few true psychopaths does cruelty create pleasure. Rather, there are often other motivations at work. In the infamous Milgram experiments, for instance, people showed a disturbing willingness to inflict painful electric shocks on others when they were instructed to do so by an authority figure. Milgram saw his experiment as proof that human beings are disturbingly obedient to authority, and the findings as important in explaining the Holocaust.

Bregman does not dismiss the Milgram experiments entirely, but adds a few complications: for instance, it’s not necessarily clear that people complied with Milgram because they were “obedient” to authority, simple amoral automatons who simply did whatever they were told to do. Interviews revealed that those who suppressed their conscious revulsion at the task did so in part because they were told they were helping science and they wanted to be useful. They were told that the experiment would be a failure if they didn’t comply, with the implication that they could be preventing the accumulation of important scientific findings that would help people learn. (The cover story for the whole thing was that the electric shocks were being administered in an effort to discover how the learning process worked.) And as video of the experiment shows, many showed extreme reluctance and discomfort. When they did comply, it was often under great distress and anguish. 

This still isn’t particularly encouraging. It does mean that people are insufficiently stubborn in their disinclination to harm, and that many can be pressured into doing the indefensible. But the direction of the inclination is clear. We are not simply robots who can be directed by authority figures to do any kind of sinister act. The overwhelming majority of us do not want to cause harm. To cause harm, our better instincts must be overridden

Furthermore, the factors that make us do terrible things are often because we are social and want to please and be helpful. People do not want to be a bother and are reluctant to challenge others. One of the less-discussed findings of Milgram’s experiments is that people are far more likely to refuse to do an immoral thing if they see someone else refusing. Participants in the Milgram experiment who watched someone else refuse to administer the shocks rarely agreed to continue. (Incidentally, transcripts of instances in which people did confront the experimenter offer inspiring examples of courageous human moral behavior. If we are disturbed by conformity and acceptance of authority, we should in equal measure admire resistance and consider what brings it about.) 

Milgram himself said that the experiments did not show that human beings were amoral, but that our moral concern can “shift to a consideration of how well [we are] living up to the expectation that the authority has.” Even acts of obvious evil can come of a desire to do good: “The virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.” Bregman himself dares to point out that ordinary front-line Nazi troops were often not particularly ideologically committed to Hitler’s doctrine, but had a desire to serve their country and their friends. This is not a defense of them, but an important piece of the picture: take an ordinary person and put them in a situation where “helping your country” means helping a genocidal nightmare, and your Perfectly Normal Person without evil intent will become part of a monstrous enterprise. 

To the extent normal people can do awful things, then, it is often because they are embedded in systems that put immense pressure on them to override their moral instincts: the insurance adjuster who is too generous granting claims will not last long in the company, the draft dodger who does not want to kill will be treated as a coward, the teenager who joins a gang does so for protection and a desire to fit in. A capitalist economy rewards those who exploit others, and the business owner who is too generous will lose the struggle of the marketplace. One of the central insights to take from the prisoner’s dilemma is that we can easily get trapped in situations where we want to cooperate, and it would be good for us, but we can nevertheless end up betraying one another. World War One is an astonishing example of a situation that is desired by nobody coming about because of a failure to properly coordinate, and a hierarchical social structure where a few powerful people can order the deaths of millions. It does not, however, tell us that we are cruel and selfish. 

Nevertheless: plenty of people are clearly not very good. They swindle, they lie, they abuse, and they kill. What of them? First, Bregman reminds us that if we are trying to produce a rational assessment, we need to look at the norm rather than the exceptions. He notes that if one reads the newspaper, one can see life as a parade of nothing but murders and catastrophes, because that’s the stuff that makes the newspaper, but all of the people who are not murdering are not news. But Bregman also makes a strong case that where people are at their worst, it is because they are in positions of power, meaning that other people are less likely to call them on their bad behavior, because those people are being ruled over. If I care about the judgment of others and shape my behavior accordingly, but I am a billionaire surrounded by sycophants who always insist they are pleased by everything I do, then I do not face social sanctions for immorality. Power, Bregman argues, really does corrupt, and he warns that we have to keep sociopaths from rising to positions where they can command other people. 

Milgram’s findings are not wrong; ordinary people can indeed be induced to participate in atrocities. But it often takes manipulation by the powerful. Moral panics can be created through propaganda. The media can terrify people through creating a distorted image of the world, and convince people that foreigners are fundamentally different somehow. Zimbardo may have produced a morality play rather than scientific research, but part of the argument he made is certainly true: we have created, in the contemporary American prison, an institution where people are routinely dehumanized, and where this dehumanization has become something normal. 

What are the implications of taking a more positive view of the average human being? Bregman says that there are major consequences. Once we reject the pessimistic view of our nature, we must “rethink how we organize our schools and prisons, our businesses and democracies.” He cites American criminal punishment as a clear example of a set of failed policies that comes from a lack of faith in people. If you view “criminals” as a class of people who are simply “bad,” because they have “reverted” to their “natural” instincts, then throwing them away in a cage for a long time makes rational sense. Bregman cites “broken windows policing” as an example of bad policy based on a pessimistic view of human nature. The theory was classic “veneer” thinking: if you allow vandals to break a few windows here and there, you are on a slippery slope to complete anarchy and chaos. “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” wrote the theory’s originators. Thus it is important to punish the small offenses, to make sure the first window never gets broken. (The theory was built on a misinterpretation of another dubious study by Philip Zimbardo.) This totally speculative theory was hugely influential and changed policing practices such that officers treated  “ordinary people like potential criminals” because “the smallest misstep could supposedly be on the path to far worse.” These policies didn’t reduce crime but did result in the racist terrorizing of ordinary people going about their business. 

Bregman argues that if, on the other hand, we do not assume that society is one broken window away from collapse, we will take a far more effective approach to actually reducing violence in society. He looks at Norwegian prisons, which are famous for treating their inmates as humans by offering them what is basically a normal life. The “soft” approach works—the Norwegian prison system “boasts a 20 percent recidivism rate (compared to the 76.6 percent recidivism rate in the U.S.) and includes Halden Prison, considered the most humane prison in the world.” Bregman argues that if you treat people well and expect the best of them, they become better, and that pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. He cites an incredible story of a social worker who, while being mugged, invited his mugger to dinner. The evening ended with the return of his wallet and a new acquaintanceship.   

This is, of course, a rather exceptional anecdote, and it is perhaps not best practice for dealing with a violent assailant. But Bregman has the courage to defend the humanity of the people seen as most inhuman, even including terrorists, who are less fanatical and far more human than one might think from judging their horrifying acts alone. The right-wing perspective on crime is that bleeding hearts need to get “tough,” and that “realists” understand that the strict enforcement of the law is necessary, because people who are not disciplined lapse into bad behavior. In fact, Bregman’s book is an argument that taking pessimism and cynicism as synonymous with “realism” is mistaken. In fact, as the success of the “bleeding heart” model in Norwegian criminal punishment shows, it is the cynics who have departed from reality, and that departure means that we have chosen to accept more crime (because people reoffend) than we would have if we were “realistic” enough to understand that rehabilitation is more effective than retribution.4 It is standard to assume that the legal system should be constructed on the assumption that people are bad—as David Hume advised, “in contriving any system of government … every man ought to be supposed to be a knave and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest.” But that is a bad model that results in bad policy.5

Bregman warns us that the consequences of accepting “veneer” theory can be horrific. During World War II, the Germans assumed that if they bombed London enough, the British would be demoralized and social order would break down. Exactly the opposite happened: the Blitz created a spirit of solidarity and strengthened the social order like nothing before or since. But the British had the same assumption about the Germans, and conducted saturation bombing of German cities on the identical false theory, with the same lack of effect. Tough circumstances can lead to a remarkable level of cooperation, a trait that has allowed human beings to flourish as a species. To ignore this and to assume that bombing a civilian population enough would lead to a “war of all against all,” only leads to the pointless colossal taking of life.

When we view our fellow humans with suspicion, we make it harder to solve our collective problems. Understanding that the people of Russia and China, for example, are pretty much like ourselves in many essential ways is critical if we are to avoid increasing levels of international tension. In a nuclear-armed world, we cannot afford to assume the worst of other people. (John von Neumann, a pioneer of game theory, publicly suggested that it was rational to start a preemptive nuclear war with the USSR as soon as possible.) We have to get past our suspicion and believe in the full humanity of those who are officially portrayed as sinister others and enemies. 

“Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! … The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weakness of human nature.” — Emma Goldman6 

“People don’t refuse the ambition to become Hitler because they don’t have the genocidal motivation. They don’t follow that pathway because they don’t have the organizational genius. They’ve got the damned motivation!”Jordan Peterson 

When someone describes “humanity” as selfish and cruel, they are more likely to be describing themselves than the bulk of actual human beings. Lord of the Flies author William Golding said, “I have always understood the Nazis, because I am of that sort by nature.” Jordan Peterson, speaking of being a concentration camp guard torturing people, said: “I know perfectly well that I could do that sort of thing… and maybe I could even enjoy it … ” Those who lack empathy may assume that the rest of us are the same,7 and that the “veneer” of morality can easily be peeled away, revealing the beast within us all.

In fact, as Bregman writes, “modern science has made short work of the veneer theory of civilization.” Even the disturbing Milgram experiments showed that on average, people are reluctant to inflict pain on each other, and tend to go forward with it only under immense pressure from others. In reality, a good source of the problem is that we are not individualistic enough, that we care too much about what others want and expect from us, to the point where we may be willing to commit atrocities if it seems like the socially appropriate thing to do.8

Bregman discusses the contrasting visions of human nature as the difference between the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes believed that human beings were naturally in a warlike state, and needed to surrender their freedom to the great Leviathan of the state in order to have any hope of achieving a civilized order. Rousseau believed the “civilized order” was the problem and that the trouble with humanity had started when private property arose.9 The conservative economist Thomas Sowell describes a similar dichotomy between two “visions” of nature. Sowell calls them the “constrained” or “tragic” vision and the “unconstrained” or “utopian” vision. The tragic view emphasizes how flawed human beings are, and tries to construct institutions that tame our natural bad instincts. The utopian view treats us as infinitely perfectible and capable of anything. For Sowell, this results in excessively idealistic policy-making that results in catastrophe.

In reality, neither binary view of human nature is helpful. Even the term “human nature” is too imprecise to be especially meaningful. We know that some people are more selfish than others, and that other than the true sociopaths and true saints, each of us has a mixture of both base and generous motives. I don’t think it is necessary to believe human beings are “fundamentally good at heart”—though some beautiful souls have managed to maintain this view—because in fact what we are depends a lot on our circumstances. Good people can be turned hateful and cruel through exposure to propaganda, or can be too cowardly and conformist to prevent a hideous crime. I do think, however, that we need to completely reject the simplistic narrative of a “base” or “knavish” nature that must be aggressively restrained through discipline. Humankind: A Hopeful History shows persuasively that this view is a myth that will only come close to being true if we choose to act as if it is true. Our default assumption should be to believe in people. Not all people, and not all the time. But on average, humans are a cooperative species. We want to be fair and to help each other. This fundamental fact about us needs to be understood, so that we can move on to the more difficult question of why we fail to uphold our values when we do fail to uphold them. Let us begin with a respect for, rather than a cynicism toward, the average human being. 

  1. Quotes with * were found in Bregman’s Humankind. Thanks to Troy Parfitt for supplying Peterson quotes. 

  2. Academics, to their credit, have spent decades harshly criticizing the “experiment.” 

  3. This is not a caricature. Influential economist Anthony Downs said that “when we speak of rational behavior, we always mean rational behavior directed primarily to selfish ends. It is extraordinary the degree to which sociopathy has become normalized by economics, to the point where it is treated as synonymous with being rational. This is one example of what critics of economics are talking about when they argue that it contains embedded normative ideological assumptions that make the discipline’s claim to be a “science” ridiculous. 

  4. Interestingly, North Dakota is currently conducting an experiment in Norwegian style rehabilitation. Bregman quotes the head of the state’s department of corrections, who had seen Norwegian prisons: “How did we think it was okay to put human beings in cagelike settings?” 

  5. In The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens, Samuel Bowles shows why economic policy should not be made on the supposition that people are motivated chiefly by financial self-interest, and we actually make people worse than they would otherwise be when we think this way. 

  6. Quoted in Bregman 

  7. It should be noted that one major flaw in Bregman’s book is that he endorses the dubious argument made by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, in Against Empathy, that because empathy tends to be selective we should abandon it in favor of a more detached and rational “compassion.” I have previously shown at length why this argument is wrong and harmful, and I do not agree at all with the claim that less rather than more empathy would make us better off. 

  8. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character often engages in tests of how much horrifying behavior Americans will tolerate. The answer is a surprising amount, much of which seems to come from the desire to be agreeable. 

  9. “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” 

More In: History

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs