Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In high school I was presented with two allegedly opposite viewpoints. One side, championed by Hobbes, asserted that people were naturally wicked, and needed to be made virtuous by society (by which was meant the state). The other, championed by Rousseau, held that people were naturally good, but were corrupted by society (and in this case society really means society, that is the more or less voluntary mutual associations people enter into). Although I felt there was something wrong with "both" at the time, it didn't occur to me until much later that, far from being opposites, they were fundamentally saying the same thing. That is, that although they both claimed to describe human nature, essentially they were saying that there is no such thing, that whether people behave well or badly depends almost entirely on social structures, and that clever people like themselves should be placed in charge of structuring society so as to maximize human virtue and happiness. Of course, for people with strong preferences one way or the other the distinction between those favoring a "back to nature" vs a "fool for the city" approach, but to many of us the question of whether choices are made voluntarily by individuals or mandated by some central authority is much more important than what that authority will decide if given the power to do so. Particularly since the policy is likely to change, even completely reverse itself, when the central decision makers see that things are not going as planned.

One is frequently confronted with this kind of false dichotomy, especially in politics, but also in science and philosophy. The trouble is not just that the list of choices presented fails to consider all possible options, but that the way the problem is framed distorts the way it is thought about.

1 comment:

m said...

Cmon George, it's been awhile. You're really smart and with a real interesting viewpoint. Keep posting!