Caricatures of Human Nature

There are multiple models of human nature that have been claimed on various levels throughout the ages, and regardless of whether they are religiously or philosophically associated claims, social models employed by policy makers, rhetorical assertions used to group rationalize behavior, or popular opinions constructed for economic profits of advertisers, they are all highly fragmented conceptions – including such examples as materialism, that humans are sophisticated animals with the illusion of self-consciousness as a result of neurochemistry; hedonism, that human happiness is achieved through consumption and seeking pleasure; individualism, that humans are atomistic, relationships are a means to an end, and society is a mere aggregate of autonomous actors; and competitism, that humans are inherently conflictual and motivated by self-interest.

These caricatures of human reality are not just interesting to discuss, but have real social ramifications.  Their selective and exaggerated views have been reified in human consciousness and social structure, serving to normalize, justify, and encourage the associated patterns of behavior – often egoistic and harmful.  These behaviors, in turn, become models for social structures and institutions, which shape behaviors, and the result is a vicious self-reinforcing feedback cycle.

It’s true, fragmented conceptions of human nature did not originally create these behaviors, but started off simply describing them – after all, human beings did have selfish tendencies prior to Adam Smith.  The problem is when descriptive models of human nature are used for prescriptive purposes.  It is then that problematic models are reified, policies are built around them, self-interested behaviors are encouraged and normalized, and the flawed conception is reinforced.