Most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History
People are fundamentally good. It’s a difficult idea to sell at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a global pandemic with the planet teetering on the brink of climate crisis. All the evidence suggests the contrary doesn’t? Humans are the possessors of the selfish gene, acting only out of self-interest, aren’t they? You don’t have to look far to find multiple examples of people being awful. Five minutes on Twitter should do the trick.
Despite this, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, has published a book arguing the contrary, claiming in Human Kind: A Hopeful History that not only are humans fundamentally good, but that our success as a species is a result of our willingness to trust one another and work together to achieve the common good.
Has this description given you an overwhelming attack of Whataboutism yet? Hang back on that, because Bregman has done his research, and the book is a whistlestop tour of history, psychology and philosophy examining cases such as the London Blitz, the Stanford Prisoner Experiment, and the mysterious fate of Easter Island to debunk the myth of man as a purely selfish creature and to reframe them as case studies in his new philosophy of hope. As much as I’d like to believe that all people are fundamentally good at heart, I’m not entirely sold on this, but I don’t think that Bregman is either. Rather, he makes a powerful argument that the relentless negativity of the news that reaches us every day gives us a skewed perception of how bad the majority of humanity are, and this has the opposite of a placebo effect, making us feel worse and expect the worst of out fellow humans, trapping us in a cycle of negativity and cynicism which will make us behave in the spirit of mistrust.
To Bregman, cynicism is just another word for laziness, and a cynical world view is just a self-deceptive trick which gives the cynic an excuse to opt out of working to make the world a better place, and the book is compelling in challenging our cynicism about the average person’s intentions.
It ends with ten rules to live by to readdress the balance and go someway to thinking the best of others to create a positive feedback loop, in which people connect, understand and treat one another better. And maybe it will. What’s to lose in trying?