Self-interest and humanitarianism
Human beings are either entirely or nearly entirely driven by self-interest, this much has been made clear by studies in both philosophy and economics. Sadly, I do not here have time to provide a proof of this claim, but I can throw out a few of the great thinkers who have come to this conclusion:
Ludwig von Mises said that all people are rational maximizers operating via a subjective theory of value
Karl Marx believed that all people were engaged in a battle over resources.
Nietzsche said that the natural human being attempts to exert his will and force upon the world surrounding him.
Plato said that all men desire good things, but each man has his own subjective opinion of the “good” which he came to via his own experiences (both during and before “life”.
I highly doubt that human nature has changed a great deal in 100 years.
However, 100 years ago it was very common for European nations to do just about whatever they wanted to the rest of the world. In fact, human nature is in all likelihood not very different now than it was in the days of the early church, when Christians were wrapped in lambskin, covered in oil, and burned alive in order to serve as torches.
Humanitarianism goes mainstream
Today we see humanitarianism preached in the mainstream media. While it must be noted that preaching humanitarianism and practicing it are two different things entirely, the effort to appear humanitarian is unique in itself in relation to the rest of human history. The one exception is cases in which the ruling class found it necessary in some sense to make concessions or to appease the slave class; and this exception is telling.
Human beings are self-motivated creatures and they are also generally social creatures. These two instincts combined create a human being that exists within a spectrum of either trying to control other human beings or trying to have a positive relationship with these other human beings.
Very few humans openly try to bring harm upon themselves from other humans without having a deeper purpose in mind. If we add to this the fact that we live in a world of instant mass communication that is available not just to the ruling class, but to the ‘slave class’ as well, we begin to understand why a great deal of humanitarian rhetoric is now seen in the mainstream.
If we do something in violation of the desires of another human being, a million people can instantly know it, and fear that we will do the same thing to them. We thus cannot go about doing whatever we want to anyone we want, even if we have the power to do it in the moment; because it will immediately bring up the greater force of humanity against us, albeit in reference again to our own self-interest.
Interestingly enough, this development is more akin to a return to a past system than an entirely new development in and of itself. For the majority of human history, humans existed in a much more small-scale society than they do today. Therefore, the actions of each individual were apparent to every member of the group. Everyone acting in their own self-interest involved everyone retaining the approval of the rest of the group. If one person got out of line or did not do his or her share of the work, it was obvious to everyone that he or she was a negative influence, and this would affect how much food and protection he or she received.
Civilization took away the natural mechanism of keeping human beings in check; the ability to witness the actions of the other members of the group. In the tribal community, if one robbed from another, it was rather hard to cover one’s tracks, and one almost definitely ended up paying the consequences. In modern society, if one steals from another, cuts in front of another in traffic, or commits violence against another, the only way, until recently, that one could be found and punished one’s actions was if the offender was someone both known and then found by the offended.
Mass media and mass communication are pushing modern society back towards the tribal dynamics of accountability. Thus, it is not human nature that is changing to a more positive form, but rather society than is changing to better keep human nature in check.
Considering that we are only in the evolving stages of this increase in mass communication, which has not yet reached the entire world, it makes sense that the mainstream would have us be extremely concerned with the plight of the African continent, but care nothing for the problems in countries such as, for example, Indonesia.
There also is here an element of what can be called empathy or sympathy. Humans relate to what they know, and mass communication increases the sources of knowledge for a single human being. If I see a young boy starving to death in the Sudan on a live TV feed, suddenly I am sad. However, before I saw the TV feed he was still starving, and yet I did not care about him.
While I may not have ever starved before, I do know what hunger is like, and I know that starving would be a horrible experience. The starving boy is now a part of my life. I think about him, whether I want to or not. Granted, different humans think about the starving boy to different extents — why this is we cannot say; perhaps it is predisposition, perhaps some people are really just nicer than others. However, mass communication helps us to feel as though these people in other countries are part of “our tribe,” rather than simply hostile, unknown members of a foreign tribe.
What does this mean?
First off, any attempt to monitor the mass communication that has been the mechanism of this change back towards the tribal mechanism should be viewed with complete and utter hostility.
Those in government are no different than the rest of us in that they have the same human, self-serving nature, even if they have convinced themselves that they have the better interests of their fellow man at heart.
If one is able via coercion to put themselves above being easily recognized for their infringements on their fellow men, it would give this person or group immense power, and would in all likelihood be an incentive for them to do whatever they want, with the expectation that they will not be found out.
This description also tells us to be skeptical of those who claim to be humanitarian. Note that this does not mean we should attempt to hinder humanitarian efforts. Quite the contrary, it would seem that, considering mass communication as a return to the tribal mechanism, humanitarianism is a much more natural state of humanity than colonization and mass wars of the past.
However, what we must never fail to understand is that anyone can claim humanitarianism as their cause, and while we can still admit that even the most genuine forms of humanitarianism can, in the end, be self-serving, there is a difference between those forms that actually produce tangible goods for those who are helped, and those which merely serve to build up a false reputation and, in innumerable cases, increase the level of dependency by the poorest of society in order to increase the power of the higher echelons.
It would seem that one of the best methods we have available to us of limiting wars and violence is in fact keeping as open as possible the methods of modern communication. In this way, the tribal mechanism of accountability can once again take its place, and help to push human beings towards less exertions of force over others, and more compromises that benefit both parties involved as much as possible.
It seems to me that if humanitarianism and the free market continue to be successful and continue to reinforce and increase the use of mass media as more and more cultures are brought out of poverty, then more and more human beings will be unleashed from the animalistic state of merely attempting to eat, survive, and protect one’s young. If more and more human beings can take such things for granted, then they will have more time for things such as music, art, and philosophy, things that such great thinkers as Nietzsche called the true metaphysical activities of the human race, and it would seem that this would be a massive step of progress for the human species as a whole.
Elliot Engstrom is a 2010 graduate of Wake Forest University, where he majored in French with a double minor in history and journalism, and a member of the University of Georgia School of Law Class of 2013. Aside from his schoolwork and contributions to the Daily Caller, he writes for Young Americans for Liberty, Learning From Dogs, and Rethinking the State.