Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Atomic Theory of Human Nature: A Critique -- Why (Most) Libertarians are Wrong

The relevance of one’s theory of human nature to one’s views in ethics and politics has been apparent to me ever since I read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes as an undergraduate.  Hobbes begins with the idea that people are essentially self-interested and ends up with a view that a government, any government, is better than what he calls “the war of all against all” or the “state of nature” in which people pursue their own interests to the detriment of everyone else’s.
Cover page for Leviathan
These days Hobbes is likely to sound like an apologist for authoritarian government overreach.  We’ve generally rejected his conclusion, but his premise is stronger than ever.   What I call the atomic theory of human nature is alive and well.

This theory says that human beings are atomic, isolated, free, and self-interestedly rational individuals.  We may care about others, but it is, strictly speaking, irrational to do so unless it somehow serves our own interests. The atomic theory of human nature is the basis of most of the discipline of economics.  It’s assumed by many ethicists and political philosophers.  The atomic theory is essentially egoist, both in the psychological and the ethical sense.  In politics, it’s especially prevalent among fans of Ayn Rand and more generally among American libertarians and conservatives (although there are exceptions, perhaps among some “bleeding heart libertarians” and authoritarian conservatives).  I suspect the prevalence of the atomic theory of human nature explains the popularity of dystopian science fiction, since such stories typically pit rugged individuals against hegemonic hordes.

The atomic theory of human nature is so prevalent these days that it’s almost odd to even point it out.  One might call it an invisible dogma. 

But do we have any good reason to believe it?  I don’t think so.  I think the atomic theory of human nature is fundamentally flawed, both empirically and morally.  It’s not an accurate description of typical human values and behavior, and it causes suffering insofar as it stunts the cultivation of virtues conducive to human flourishing.

Caring is Human

Many feminist philosophers, such as Virginia Held, have criticized Hobbes in particular and early modern European philosophers in general for overlooking obvious facts about human beings.  Hobbes seems to imagine that human beings come into the world as fully formed atomic agents who voluntarily form associations.

One of the most valuable insights from care ethics is that we come into this world as a part of a network of caring human beings.  After being wholly dependent upon our mothers, we are born helpless and would quickly die without at least one older human to care for us.  People already care about us, and we soon come to care about others; we don’t choose to enter these networks of care from some mythical Archimedean point of voluntary and rational self-interest.  These relationships of care continue throughout our lives and expand beyond our families to include friends, neighbors, and strangers.  The question, “Why do you care about your family and friends?” is about as hard to answer as the question, “Why do you want to be happy?”  Aristotle thought that the fact that it’s almost nonsensical to demand an answer to the second question tells us something important about human nature.  The same should be said for the first question.
Hobbesian babies forging the social contract
Nothing like the atomic theory would make any sense unless you could think of yourself as untethered to others and fully responsible, both causally and morally, for your own identity.  This is an illusion.  It is often fostered by privilege, especially if one is in a position of relative social and economic independence.  This may be, for instance, why most American libertarians today are relatively privileged white men, as were early modern European political theorists like Hobbes; it may also explain why it’s so hard for white Americans to talk about systemic racism.

That the atomic theory overlooks such basic facts about human nature ought to cause us to re-evaluate it, if not reject it outright as an obviously irrational undermining of one’s own humanity.  Sure, you might try to explain this away by saying that we’re really deep down seeking the warm fuzzy feeling we get from helping others.  Or you might make reductionist appeals to selfish genes or elaborate game theoretic accounts.  At some point, however, I suspect this is just bad faith that shows how deep the denial goes.  As Joseph Butler argues, the fact that we often feel good about helping others doesn’t mean that serving others wasn’t our reason for acting; even Richard Dawkins, progenitor of the selfish gene theory, says that we often work against our selfish genes, as when we practice birth control.

I've previously discussed money as the hyper value of American society that makes us anxious to admit there are other values, which is why, aside from worries about crippling student loan debt, college students these days are anxious about admitting that the purpose of their education could be anything other than securing a high paying job.  Likewise, the hold the atomic theory has over us makes us oddly reluctant to admit an obvious truth: people care about each other, not due to mathematical calculations that make economics look like a rigorous science, but because that’s part of what it means to be human. 

Buddhists Against the Atomic Self

Buddhists are famous for their view of non-self.  We normally think that the word “I” refers to a relatively permanent agent of experience: the thinker of thoughts, the feeler of feelings, the doer of deeds, and so on.  Buddhists argue that there is no such thing; instead, a person consists of five impermanent, impersonal aggregates, which are causally dependent on outside factors.  Furthermore, the illusion that there is a self creates suffering insofar as we cling to that which we erroneously take to be “ours,” which creates unmet and unmeetable expectations.
The Buddha and other non-selves
If Buddhists are right (and I suspect they are), then the atomic theory of human nature is both deeply mistaken and a fundamental cause of suffering.  But even if you see the Buddhists’ view as a metaphysical excess, I think a little reflection ought to suffice to see that just as a network of causes made you what you are, so do your actions have effects outside of your own person.  Contrary to the atomic theory, there is no hermetically sealed border between self and other.

The Harms of Atomization

Hannah Arendt discusses a process she calls “atomization,” which involves the erasure of class identity and the creation of masses of atomic individuals.  As she says, “… the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 317).  According to Arendt, atomization was a necessary condition for totalitarian movements like Nazism and Stalinism.  (See this article by Chris Hedges, which applies Arendt’s idea to the loss of communal organizations and the rise of our digital self-obsession)

I don’t think the United States is in danger of anything as crass as Stalinist totalitarianism anytime soon (sorry, dystopians), but I wonder if a more subtle totalitarianism of the 1% has resulted from the loss of class consciousness.  The mere suggestion of progressive taxation of the rich is frequently decried as “class warfare.”  Politicians discuss “the middle class” purely in terms of the maintenance of a moderate level of economic comfort, but not in terms of any substantial political goals.

These days I think atomization may increase tendencies toward…
  • Thinking about political issues, from taxes and healthcare to immigration and guns, in terms of inviolable individual rights rather than in terms of the public good
  • Conceiving of poverty as a personal failing, rather than a social failing 
  • Thinking of government as a bogeyman, a Scary Other, rather than a part of a functioning society that ought to be responsive to its citizens
  • Losing the very idea of the public good, which often translates to defunding of public programs from unemployment insurance to public libraries
  • Viewing others, even our neighbors, with fear and suspicion
  • Increased feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Readiness to dehumanize groups deemed as Other (e.g., people in other countries, people of different religions, immigrants, the poor, women, people of color, LGBT people, etc.) 
The last point may seem like a strange inconsistency in that many atomic theorists consider themselves to be individuals, but they’re often quick to erase individuality among groups they don’t like.  Consider the tendency of many people in Europe and North America to make sweeping claims about Muslims or Islam based on the actions of a very small violent minority, which is an obvious Hasty Generalization fallacy.  This isn’t as inconsistent as it appears if you reflect on the self-other distinction as an avenue for encouraging the thought that am an individual, but everything not-me is in some sense the same (especially if I don’t like it!).  My example is particularly salient as many Muslims in my home of Chattanooga, TN are worried this week after the tragic murder of five US service members on July 16, 2015.  

Objection: Losing our Individuality?

The suggestion that we are not atomic individuals is likely to be met with talk about the “tyranny of the majority” and the loss of individual rights or losing our individuality by merging into one homogenous blend.  But as Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) teaches us, we're all individuals.

I think we should talk about rights.  Whether people “have” rights in some metaphysical sense, rights talk is often good for us insofar as it can create conditions for flourishing humans and prevent things that are bad for us.  The right to freedom of/from religion and the prohibition of torture are good for all of us.  Maintaining a balance between personal freedom and the public good is one of the most difficult tasks of a democratic society.  I think the atomic theory pushes us too far to one side, but we ought to continue these conversations.  Honest public debate (even about human nature!) is also good for all of us.

I don’t think that rejecting the atomic theory would mean that we all merge into one monolithic Super Person.  In fact, the only reason you can be altruistic or care about others is because they’re different from you.  If we were all the same, “altruism” would really just be egoism.  As I noted in my discussion of the TV show, Sense8, we are all connected, but we are all also, due to unique causal histories, somewhat different – unity in diversity, and all that.   Diversity is good for us (see my post on the value of diversity in philosophy and science fiction).  

I think we should aim for something like Star Trek or the Culture of Iain M. Banks in which we see diversity as enriching the whole while not forgetting that we’re all in this together (and if that’s too utopian, I’d settle for something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 or the “ambiguous utopia” of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed).

Objection: Aren’t We Selfish?

Of course, we can all be selfish sometimes, probably more often than we’d like to admit.  Some people are even selfish all the time.  We call them sociopaths or psychopaths, and they’re some of our most successful serial killers, cutthroat business leaders, shameless politicians, self-absorbed celebrities, and just plain assholes (a certain fictional detective is not a sociopath, despite his insistence to the contrary).  When I say that it’s part of human nature to care about other people, I mean this as a statistical generalization: most people do in fact care about other people, but there are always exceptions.

The danger of the atomic theory of human nature is that it cultivates selfishness at the expense of kindness, generosity, and compassion.  A theory of human nature doesn’t necessarily imply that all humans are born into a moral cookie cutter.  We all have various, often competing, moral tendencies in differing degrees.  I think ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Mencius were right when they said that whether you become a good person depends in large part on the cultivation of your character through your education and upbringing.  If we raise people as atomistic, self-interested individuals, is it any wonder that their “sprouts” of benevolence (as Mencius would say) go untended and become stunted?  I’m not entirely sure that empathy is a simple choice (as this article suggests), but it can definitely be cultivated.

Also, there are reasons, both scientific and philosophical, to think that being a caring, compassionate individual is actually good for you, which might be obvious once the fog of the atomic theory dissipates (see this article on the work of psychologist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard).

Other-Interested Rationality

For too long we’ve assumed that “rationality” is synonymous with “self-interested rationality.”  Instead of wondering why people are so irrational according to what economists and other atomic theorists think it means to be rational (as in this piece), why don’t we wonder whether the atomists are simply wrong about what it means to be rational?

Because people are capable of both being rational and caring about others, I think it’s time we explore the concept of other-interested rationality.  Such explorations will require a deep interrogation of the atomic theory and, I hope, its eventual rejection and replacement.  In questioning the invisible dogma of the atomic theory of human nature we might even develop a theory of human nature more faithful both to who we are and who we’d like to be.


  1. Bingo!

    This was a very interesting read. I really look forward to reading your work. Your blog is awesome!

    K. K.

    1. Thanks! I'll look forward to hearing what you think in the future.