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As we enter the third millennium we see a world scourged by selfishness, greed, hatred and corruption. Not much different from the last two millennia then! But it's human nature, what else can you expect?

As a boy I remember listening to my grandfather, a socialist, and being inspired by his vision of a world free from exploitation. He asked me who I thought was the biggest enemy of the working class. I thought of various possibilities--big business, certain politicians, the IMF . `No', he replied `the biggest enemy of the working man is himself--his own greed and selfishness'. That is when it dawned on me that the world could only change if people would.

The idea that we have moral choice has always been important to me. Looking at some of the popular theories about human nature it's striking how different they are, and the little part that moral choice plays.

Sociologists have tended to emphasise that we are a product of our upbringing and that the key to better people is careful social engineering. Karl Marx took this to an extreme, thinking that people could be cured of selfishness if they were brought up in a society where there was no private property and everything was shared. According to this view individual moral choice is an illusion.

Religions, on the other hand, have tended to emphasise moral choice. But it's not always that simple: for example there is a stream within Christian thought which suggests that human nature is inherently wicked and that only God himself can bestow the gift of goodness through an act of conversion. Taken to extremes, this also suggests that moral choice is an illusion since all is pre-destined by God.

Philosophers of the Enlightenment and their successors, the Positivists, have emphasised the mind's potential for rational thought--by making rational choices we can solve all problems. For them, the important thing is to educate people to think clearly, and since religion hasn't always encouraged this, positivists have often opposed religion and morality.

However, since Freud first started writing about the subconscious we have been aware of the extent to which people do not behave rationally. Modern psychologists are a mixed bunch so we can't make generalisations, but from Psychology we have the idea that our rational, conscious nature is a thin veneer sitting on top of powerful primordial needs and drives that must be satisfied. Psychologists are (rightly) concerned with `healthy vs sick' questions rather than what is moral. But there is a tendency to confuse the two--to think that `bad' is just a form of `mad'--no more the result of choice than catching a cold.

Ever since Darwin first wrote about natural selection and `the survival of the fittest', there has been a view that the selfish, individualistic sides of human nature are necessary to advance humanity. As Ivan Boesky notoriously said in the 80s `greed is good for you'. More recently, biologists such as Richard Dawkins have refined evolutionary theory to suggest that it is not individual animals that compete but individual genes. He pointed out that co-operation is often a better evolutionary strategy than competition and coined the phrase `the selfish gene'. But for people who heard the phrase but didn't read the book the impression is often given that it is our genes that make us selfish and (yet again) moral choice plays no part.

So far, the theories have been ones which suggest that our nature is something we have little control over. However, philosophers such as Sartre and Nietzsche, struggling against stifling social conformity, wanted to emphasise human choice. They proposed that humans are free to create their own destiny and nature--to the point of suggesting that we have no essential nature. Borrowing from John Locke, they say that human nature is a blank sheet of paper on which we write our own script. But since they thought of morality as part of the restricting baggage they were trying to move away from, theirs was a distinctly amoral vision.

There is truth in all these ideas, but I find myself most attracted to those who, while recognising the part that genetics and upbringing play, agree that moral choice is important. Looking at my own life it is clear that my genes and conditioning have produced a whole mass of conflicting motives and drives. I may not be able to choose whether I feel love, hate, desire, repulsion etc, but I can choose what I do with those feelings. And it seems to me that just as when you excercise a muscle it grows--so it is with the inner life. If I exercise certain feelings by dwelling or acting on them, they become stronger, and if I choose not to dwell on them they become weaker. Friends who are into health food tell me `you are what you eat'. I would add `you are what you think', which is worrying when you look at how much trash people read and watch on TV.

Somebody once said to me, `I'm too old to change', and there is some truth in this. So much of our personality is about habits and as people get older they often become set in their ways. It would take as big a miracle for me to change mental habits overnight as it would for my body to become athletic--these things take time and daily discipline. To me, morality is about which choices make us more human as individuals and as a society. Yet miracles happen and people do have radical conversions.

One thing about taking the route of least resistance is that it leads to a dead end--a private hell of our own making. An addict may have a choice, but it doesn't seem that way to him. By far the most successful programme for treating addicts this century has been the 12-steps programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, also developed for use in other addictions. Its first three steps are: 1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable; 2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; 3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

So many have had this experience of God breaking the bars of the prisons we create for ourselves that it cannot be ignored. To those cynics who tell me that human nature cannot change, I would answer that we always have a choice.

Mike Lowe, UK

Last update: 2000-02-12 20:06:07 (EEST).
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