A gospel and theodicy according to Rutger Bregman

by Jeroen Bouterse

Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History is a clearly written argument if ever there was one. Bregman believes humans are a kind species and that we should arrange society accordingly. The reason why this thesis needs intellectual support at all is not that it is particularly profound or complicated, but that there are so many misunderstandings to be cleared away, so many apparent objections that need to be overcome.

You have already thought of those objections, or you will if you take half a minute. Bregman confronts many of them squarely. He looks at historical atrocities, social-psychological experiments such as the Stanford prison experiment, and famous anecdotes about human cruelty or indifference, patiently explaining how we should look at these in a different light. The anecdotes turn out to be less damning to human nature, and the experiments more flawed than common perception has it.

Of course, this leaves, well, human history. Bregman is aware that his beloved humans have committed all kinds of horrific acts of violence over the millennia. This is a problem for his thesis, and it remains one. Though the book does present an attempt to explain all the violence in a way that lets human nature off the hook, I do not think that this attempt is satisfactory.

Humanity’s best qualities

Bregman’s thesis is that we are basically decent, so much is clear; but what that means in a specific context can vary. Sometimes it is that we don’t enjoy violence; sometimes it is that we are very cooperative; sometimes it is that we don’t mind working hard; sometimes it is that we enjoy sharing.

The fact that there is this multitude of social virtues, these many forms of general benevolence, means that in humans acting badly we can also usually find some good impulse. Bregman reveals how he came to realize that Wehrmacht soldiers in the last days of the Second World War were motivated to keep fighting by bonds of friendship between them. “The Second World War had been a heroic struggle in which friendship, loyalty, solidarity – humanity’s best qualities – inspired millions of ordinary men to perpetrate the worst massacre in history.” (207)

Reading sections like these, I felt slightly cheated. Surely even the worst pessimists about human nature already know that soldiers are not orcs. Surely we didn’t believe that the reason the Wehrmacht kept fighting was that every individual serviceman was evil and wanted to cause as much needless suffering as possible. Bregman is stacking the deck here, by zooming in on a defensive stage in the war rather than on the war crimes in which the Wehrmacht also played an important role. The reference to Germany under the Nazi regime seems to imply we have covered its ultimate evils, but actually we haven’t.

Bregman is also setting the bar for a ‘hopeful history’ too low. The observation that humans are social animals even when committing atrocities should not be the observation of an optimist. It is a disturbing fact, and it is precisely what the most deeply pessimistic thinkers want to press upon us. “Alone I would not have done it”, Augustine reflects when he confesses in near-desperation to the arguably minor offense of stealing pears (Conf. II.9). Augustine, however, does not mean to invoke peer pressure in an exculpatory sense; on the contrary, his point is to give a deeper, more complicated and troubling account of human sinfulness. Human evil takes other forms than anti-social egoism; many of its forms are social.

Augustine is right about that, even if he needs to calm down about the pears. Whatever we identify as a key ingredient of our propensity (or at least capability) to take part in the worst imaginable atrocities, we would do well to think twice before we call that thing our ‘best quality’. If our inclination to sacrifice our physical and mental comfort for the interests of the pack can be hacked to make us commit genocide, then that inclination is a double-edged sword at best.

It’s not that Bregman does not worry about our vulnerabilities; his interest is precisely in arranging society in such a way that they don’t get exploited. He thinks we can still do much better on this, by developing more democratic societies. I think this is true, and it deserves to be said. Bregman injects ambitious ideas into progressive politics, and this is a good thing. However, the reading of history with which he supports these ideas is surprisingly simplistic.

Good guys with poison darts

Bregman’s sweeping interpretation of human history is built on what I would call the Animal Farm theory of politics: we are good-natured creatures, led by corrupt pigs.

It was not always like this. Human virtue flourishes in the state of nature, taken literally to be our prehistoric past: Bregman draws remarkably frequently on the communistic and democratic life of hunter-gatherer societies. What separates us from this prehistoric utopia is the trap of civilization: the development of institutions that stand in the way of actualizing our natural propensity to virtue. States and private property, capitalistic economies, and their ideologies of human selfishness. The reason for all of these mistakes was that we were not designed for large-scale societies. When we blundered into them, our shameless leaders were able to cheat the rest of us into giving up our liberty, equality and fraternity, and begin their reigns of oppression (102). Violence and war followed, and here we are.

Bregman does acknowledge that our world has changed for the better in the last few centuries. More frequently, though, he juxtaposes modern democracies and ancient monarchies, and contrasts both of them to the friendly and hospitable hunter-gatherers that we used to be.

Yes, there is evidence that many of these hunter-gatherers died violent deaths; but Bregman believes that this was because the community had the good sense to eliminate the anti-social bullies from its midst (96, 99). The spread of projectile weapons was a huge boon to human kindness, since it made killing aggressive individuals easier (414, n. 8). This practice, moreover, had the fortunate eugenic effect that “more amiable types had more offspring” (97).

The levity with which Bregman refers to these collective executions is one of the more sinister motifs in his book. Presumably, Bregman does not cheer for the violence committed but for the violence prevented; after all, once the bullies actually became kings and generals, they went on to commit atrocities on a much larger scale. Still, it worries me that Bregman gives positive mention to these practices at all, precisely in a book that seeks to draw moral lessons from every fact and anecdote. There is more than a hint that, though almost all people are nice, there is an identifiable remainder that we would simply be better off without.

Bregman vacillates between defining this remainder in terms of their psychological traits and in terms of their social station, and decides that the two go together: some people are shameless sociopaths and they tend to become managers or politicians, or they start out decent and get corrupted by power. In small-scale societies these people could be stopped by good guys with poison darts, but ever since we blundered into this ‘civilization’ thing, it has become so much harder to get rid of the power-hungry – again, whether these be iron-age monarchs (102) or “the suits in Washington, Beijing and Brussels” (301).

I believe this is too crude: for one, elites in modern democratic societies maintain themselves in ways that likely differ significantly from the ways of biblical kings and Roman generals. In general, it is baffling to me that Bregman feels no pressure to analyze in more than the crudest terms how power is justified, to think about what legitimate power could look like, or what even constitutes powerful elites in different contexts: whether it matters if elites are defined by economic wealth, military rank, caste, or education. Whether there is any meaningful difference between representative democracy and autocracy. To Bregman, power is power; the thing we need to know is that most of us don’t have it, and that people who do have it tend to be sociopaths.

This is a thoroughly ahistorical thesis. That Bregman, or his publisher, still decided to call his book a ‘history’, is a misnomer. The only reason why Bregman engages with history at all, is that he presents a theory of human society that presumably applies to all of it: the gospel that almost all humans are nice, and the theodicy that 99 percent of evil is caused by 1 percent of humans.

Changing Contexts

There is another sense in which Bregman’s narrative ignores the complexity of history. Bregman pays almost no attention to the contextual nature of ethical beliefs and practices. It seems to me highly unlikely, if not demonstrably false, that being a good person in the 21st century involves the same virtues as being a good member of a hunter-gatherer society. This is a second reason to be puzzled over the extent to which Bregman fawns over the good-naturedness of our ancestors.

On occasion, Bregman hints at ways in which history doesn’t just get in the way of our naturally friendly attitudes, but puts us in new situations that ask for new responses. He calls on us to be ‘compassionate’ rather than ‘empathetic’: in a cosmopolitan world, we need to see the neighbor in the stranger, we need to take care not to let our physical or emotional distance to other people get in the way of taking their interests to heart.

This is spot-on. By way of illustration, Bregman invokes Christian and Buddhist prescriptions here, which ask us to look beyond the immediate ties we have to particular people and groups. These are ethical views, however, that first arose and spread not in small bands of brothers and sisters, but in large empires. I am not congratulating those empires; I mean that throughout history, changes in social arrangements, in the broadest sense of that term, have contributed to changes in ethical thought and language. Some layers of these intellectual developments stay with us to this day, enabling us to form and express ideas about human dignity, about the conditions of legitimate government and about personal ethics.

‘Civilization’ did not only bring tyrannical governments and oppressive ideologies; it also brought forms of art and literature that have expanded our ethical horizons, that have enabled us to develop universalistic, humanistic and even non-speciesist forms of morality. I agree with Bregman that a ‘veneer’ model of civilization does not do justice to the extent to which morality depends on natural human propensities; but Bregman’s inversion of that model seems to me not to do justice to the extent to which our sensibilities and practices have been shaped by culture. Both approaches stake too much on one question: exactly how much of the good stuff in us is due to our biological nature, and how much is due to society. This question, however, is impossible to answer, precisely because we are naturally social animals.

This means that ‘human nature’ and ‘civilization’ are both fully present in all of the good and evil that we do. It also means that the very definition of ethical behavior changes over time. I don’t just mean that societal norms change, or that the definition of virtues is itself a political question. I also mean that the kinds of practices and attitudes that we ought, on reflection, to encourage in ourselves and in others, are themselves dependent on the complexity of our society and the state of our technology. To name just one no-brainer: it is unethical to eat meat in an age of factory farming and vegetarian alternatives. We are in an objectively different situation than hunter-gatherers were with respect to our exploitation of animals.

I know that Bregman agrees; he has written about his overnight conversion to vegetarianism due to reading Yuval Noah Harari’s critique of factory farming. He is silent about the issue in Humankind, however. Here, the thesis is that our moral compass naturally points in the right direction unless it is disturbed by power. This lets ordinary citizens off for an awful lot, and our complicity in the immense misery of industrially farmed animals is just one simple example. Even if no-one forces us to prefer the taste of meat or dairy over the prevention of suffering, a majority of us still choose the first. This is not decent in any meaningful sense of the word.

Pygmalion

Bregman would perhaps respond that giving ordinary people a break is part of the point: he might cite (as he does p. 257) the so-called Pygmalion Effect, which is the psychological placebo effect we provoke when we signal to others that we have faith in them. The Pygmalion Effect is, I understand, a respectable and replicable social-psychological phenomenon. Setting positive expectations to students, employees, citizens or readers is often more effective in motivating them to do good than telling them they are hopeless.

There are also likely to be limits to the efficacy of the Pygmalion effect, and to its rightful place in political thought. Bregman does not worry himself with those limits. Time and again, he appeals to the principle that people will turn into your expectations of them (10, 277, 306, 328); that they will be decent if you tell them they are decent. Bregman is quite open about his intentions: he wants to make us better by telling us we are good.

The simplicity of the analysis that Bregman presents, its hyperbolic mode both in form and in content, may be by design: the book leaves the impression of having been written not to be intellectually remarkable, but to be loud and clear and effective. Bregman wants to shift the mean of our discourse about humans in society, and he has decided that the best way to do this is by pulling hard at one extreme end of that discourse. The bluntness and repetition that characterize the style of the book are parts of this game, a good reminder that a book, like most things in life, has to be a particular compromise between virtues that are hard to square.

It’s always easier to dwell on flaws than on virtues, and Bregman warns precisely against this bias. For all its flaws, Humanity is a decent book, a potential force for good that leaves me hopeful that we can do even better.