Thought processes lie behind all human action. In the case of individuals with emotional or behavioural problems Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) addresses these concepts with surprisingly successful results. CBT works by looking at the thinking behind depressive, anxious or aggressive behaviour. This technique can also address the cognitive processes that lie behind the destructive behaviour that we see in international politics. In democracies, politicians are lent their position by the citizens of the country, so the assumptions of ordinary people, in their own language, will be examined here, because there is an interactive feedback between the opinions of ordinary people and the actions of politicians.
Asked why we have to have weapons of mass destruction and go to war from time to time, people will usually reply with one or more of the following statements: "You have to look after number one, you can’t change human nature, there always will be wars and nuclear weapons are necessary to keep the peace". Let us look at each in turn.
“You have to look after number one”.
This is an expression of the philosophy of individualism that lies behind free market capitalism. Philosophical individualism is different from the normal feeling of individuality that we all have, or the “individualism” of an eccentric person. Philosophic individualism takes the individual human person as the basic foundation of its view of reality. In this view, human societies are built up from individuals, who agree to give up some of their selfish impulses in order to gain security from the group. Individualism is the dominant political philosophy of our age, but it is not a valid philosophy, for two reasons.
First, it is a fact that humans are classified by biologists and ethnologists as social animals. Bears are non-social animals, living alone most of their lives, but animals like wolves and primates, including humans, are social, and prefer to live in groups. A great deal of our energy is spent in maintaining the social fabric that supports us, in a range of behaviours that range from being polite to people, to driving on the correct side of the road. Solitary confinement is used as an extra punishment for people who are already being punished in prison. We are social beings; there is such a thing as society, and individualism is a type of reductionism that tries to bring society down to its individual constituents for political purposes. This is not to dismiss the importance of the individual, it is simply to stress the importance and naturalness of acting socially, for the good of the community.
Second, individualism gives birth to free market capitalism, because the corporations that are the actors in the marketplace have acquired for themselves the legal identity and rights of individuals, although they have not always been given the same responsibilities as individual citizens, for instance in the matter of paying taxes in the economy in which they work. The key responsibility of corporation directors is to maximise profit, and the idea of unrestrained production for the sake of profit alone is incompatible with a sustainable environment. If we do not guide the market with policies based on the principles of producer responsibility, polluter pays and other instruments designed to protect environment and society, we are certainly going to bring our civilisation to an end.
We exist in an ecological system in which everything is interrelated, so if we really want to “look after number one”, we need to look after the society and environment that sustains “number one”. Individualist philosophy has to construct the idea of “enlightened self-interest” to produce this kind of cooperative behaviour, and this can and does produce positive social and ecological behaviour from individualists, but there is always the risk that selfish, psychopathic and criminal individuals may short circuit the “enlightened self interest” process, and act only in their own interest. It is possible to interpret American foreign policy in the Bush administrations as demonstrating this shortcut.
“You can't change human nature, and human nature is warlike”.
What is meant by human nature?
A 2 year old in the throes of a tantrum is clearly displaying human nature. That being the case, all parenting is a effort to change human nature. We try to teach children the social skills needed to live peaceably with others. This is chiefly to recognise that their individual ego needs to recognise the needs and rights of others.
If by human nature we mean adult nature, all psychotherapy, social work, management, advertising, economics and politics is an effort to change human nature, in the sense of improving the way humans interact with each other. Admittedly, these efforts are not always successful, but behaviour can and does change.
If it is some kind of racial human nature that is meant, we should remember that Mongols became peace loving herders after converting to Buddhism. The Norwegians, descendants of the aggressive Vikings, are now one of the most peace-loving nations on earth.
Ultimately, the belief that “you cannot change human nature” is deterministic. Determinism is clearly wrong, since it is human to make choices. Also it is clearly in “human nature” to try to improve the way things are, since we are always trying to do so.
"Human Nature" is not a particularly helpful term; it is more a phrase for the totality of assumptions and beliefs of the person who uses the phrase, rather than a precise description of any behaviours that can be always be expected of humans.
We can change human behaviour, and we must change those types of human behaviour that are destroying our security and environment.
While it is clearly the case that much of human history is the record of wars and conflicts, this is partly accounted for by the fact that this is what historians are interested in. They do not waste much ink in recording that the peasants were left alone to get on with tending their farms, even though this is what happens for most of the time. It is worth remembering that during the twentieth century, there were only ten years when the majority of the world was involved in war. This is not to underestimate the myriad of localised, proxy wars that were waged, but it is right to put world war into its temporal context.
It is not the case that all people instinctively take to war. One study showed that only 12% of trained soldiers who could have fired to kill in war, did fire. Since this research has come out, the military has devoted resources to training soldiers to overcome this natural distaste for killing. Most states in the UN states try to avoid war. States like the US and UK, who seem to find themselves embroiled in war on every few years, are in a small minority. States voting in favour of retention of nuclear weapons in the United Nations General Assembly are in a tiny minority.
Having said this, it must be admitted that humans do frequently throw themselves into wars and conflicts. When they do this, they are behaving like chimpanzee troupes. The argument is sometimes made that we are predators, with forward facing eyes and other biological predator features. Against this argument is the fact that bonobos and gorillas, who share these features, are not intrinsically aggressive.
In the end, the “predator” argument is a case of biological determinism. We have seen that much of our political activity is devoted to trying to change behaviour. From the point of view of a determinist, every effort to change the human condition is wasted, but this should also include the effort of the determinist to persuade reformers to stop trying to change human nature. Determinism is an intellectual and conceptual dead-end, and therefore should not be allowed to stand in the way of attempts to ameliorate the way things are.
“There always will be wars”.
This is partly a statement derived from history, partly a statement of determinism. There certainly have been many wars throughout human history, although it is interesting to note that the numbers of violent deaths suffered by human beings through the ages is on a falling trend, according to research carried out by xxx. The UN also shows that the number of wars has been falling over the past few decades.
This statement is another example of determinism, which has been answered above. An active proponent of militarism often brings a Straw Man argument into play, ridiculing as idealistic the notion that we could move into an era of perfect peace. This all-or-nothing thinking has no relation to the reasonable proposition that human ingenuity might be able to find ways of reducing the risk, frequency and intensity of warfare.
“Nuclear weapons will keep the peace forever”.
Oddly, people who make the claim that there “always will be wars” are also prone to argue that “nuclear weapons keep the peace”, with an implication that they are sufficient to guarantee or insure against war in the future. This is plainly a contradiction. While it is obvious that possession of nuclear weapons raises the threshold at which nuclear armed states would be prepared to go to war with each other, the possession of these weapons by no means offers a 100% guarantee that they will never be used.
This simple four step logical sequence is enough to dismiss the argument for retention of nuclear weapons:
1. If the consequences of the breakdown of a system is infinitely costly, that system should only be used if the chance of its breakdown is zero.
2. Nuclear war would destroy our civilization.
3. There is a finite chance that nuclear weapons could be used.
4. Therefore we must create a world free of nuclear weapons.
With the exception of step 2, which involves a value judgment, the logic here is irrefutable. Nuclear retentionists can only defend their position by trying to make the case that use of nuclear weapons would not necessarily lead to an all out nuclear war, which would destroy our civilization.
“If I had a club and you had a club and you put yours down, I would hit you”.
The framework of this concept is that society is in a basic condition of conflict. It is a limited and unreal view of society, although it is in some sense true of the world inhabited by dealers in drugs like heroin and crack cocaine. This is not a typical group from which we should create a reliable model of society in general.
In civil society we do not all carry weapons, because we have found it better not to do so. The present international community is in the same state of development as Britain in the age of robber barons, or Scotland in the clan era, and even then it is not certain that civil violence was universal. Human society has been evolving from clans and tribes to kingdoms, states and empires, getting larger all the time. At every stage of development, the principal groups clash with each other, struggling to establish supremacy. We are now at a stage where in the UN the process of conflict has been transformed into political conflict, resolved mainly by argument and voting, rather than military conflict, with some unfortunate exceptions.
A common threat can cause local conflict to stop. The Scottish clans could stop their fights when the English invaded. America and the Soviets united against Hitler. Earthlings would unite to resist an alien invasion.
Today the common threat comes from global warming, which is every bit as threatening as an alien invasion. Therefore at this point in history we can hope for, and work towards, global cooperation in slashing military budgets and working to stabilise our environment through energy conservation, renewable energy and re-afforestation.
“There is nothing I can do (about the state of the world”.
This is a common codicil to any discussion about politics. It is a poor reflection to the state of our democracy. If everyone who uses that excuse for inaction actually engaged with politics and tried to do something, the world would most definitely change.
The thinking of the ordinary person about politics reflects the same philosophies of individualism, determinism, logical error, and internal contradiction that affect the politicians who play out the great game of international politics. Since the assumptions are so easily overcome, this should give us confidence that the way the world’s history develops in the future may be guided into more constructive and peaceful paths.
Sunday, 16 November 2008