Listener Feedback Answered
After publishing Hardly Strictly Politics 26 we received a question from a Dear Listener which we answered in HSP 27. Since I had already written some material in response, I decided to curate what I prepared and post it.
The listener’s question:
“Here’s an interesting question for the HSP boys: has humanity’s behavior gotten any better in the last 2000 years?”
Two points should be acknowledged from the outset.
First, the listener offers a 2,000-year timeframe, which aligns with the birth of Jesus Christ. The coincidence of this timeframe gives cause to wonder if a subtext lies beneath the question–inquiring as to whether humanity’s behavior has become better or worse since the birth of Jesus Christ or, more specifically, whether Christianity been a net positive or negative in terms of humanity’s behavior. So as to avoid operating on assumptions, I will answer the question at face value, but this coincidence is worth mentioning in the event that the assumption is correct.
Second, there is little value in answering this close-ended question without also answering at least one of the subsequent open-ended paths of inquiry it begets: Why has humanity behaved better–or not? This question will also be addressed.
The short answer to the original question is that it is impossible to answer as posed. The reason is two-fold:
First, there are premises which must be addressed before a meaningful answer can be provided.
Second, the scope is much too broad. Further on, in the name of focus and precision, I will narrow the scope.
This questions stands upon three premises.
First, there is the premise that “humanity behaves”. Behavior is a form of chosen action–chosen action requires chosen values, chosen values require thought, and thought requires consciousness. As consciousness exists only at the individual level–that is to say, it can only be an individual doing the thinking–then it is necessarily true that humanity does not and cannot behave as a single unit. Individuals can come together and decide upon a common course of action, but only through individual coming to that decision through his or her own individual thought. Therefore, let us bear in mind that what is actually being evaluated here is individual behavior, and it is fair to say that to make such a value judgement on the aggregate behavior of all individuals who have lived over the course of the past 2,000 years is an impossible task.
Second, the question stands on a premise that one understands what “good” behavior constitutes. Unanswered questions embedded in the premise are: What is the standard of good in this context? To whom, and for what purpose? To what end should one’s behavior serve?
In short: Behavior in accordance with what standard of good?
There were, for example, many well-behaved Nazis in 1940–in accordance with the Fuhrer’s dictates. Without defining a standard of good in this context it is again impossible to provide a meaningful answer to the listener’s question.
The phrasing of the question includes a third premise: one implying that moral code exists outside of and independently from the individual. The question asks the reader to project a presupposed morality upon individuals for the express purpose of forming a character judgement—without regard for that individual’s context. Again, it should go without saying that this is an impossible task.
Standard of Good
Any attempt to answer this question must first address the premise: What is the standard by which behavior should be judged good or bad? Leaving this question unanswered would invariably result in many possible and wildly different conclusions.
Ask a Climate Truther this question and their response would likely be that the most well-behaved period for humanity was prior to modern civilization – the advances of modernity required a dramatic increase in energy usage, which in turn required the burning of fossils fuels on an unprecedented scale. Since the Climate Truther’s standard of good behavior is that which impacts the planet the least, then the best behavior humanity could exude as a species would be to cease to exist, turning the planet back to a tabula rasa.
To circle back to the Nazi example, their standard of good was whatever was good for the Aryan race, with any specific prescriptions regarding policy and behavior detailed by the Fuhrer. Ask a Neo-Nazi the original question and their response will be that a small group of human beings had but a glimmering moment of good behavior around 1940. The importance of standards is evident not just in answering this question, but in deciding how to live life as an individual in general.
Failure to grasp what the standard of good is will, sooner or later, yield disastrous results. Most people have some vague understanding of what “good” is, with which they accord loosely, even if unconsciously. Most often this is the result of whatever culture he or she matured in, which is why culture is so important–and even more so mental and intellectual independence.
What is the standard? Without going into a detailed discussion of morality, put simply it is this: correct behavior is behavior which is in accordance with reality given individual context. If you do not behave in accordance with reality and the implications that it has upon your life, your happiness, and your values, then all is lost.
With this standard in mind, in order to attempt to answer the question the frame must be further focused. A better question which would still fall within the 2,000-year timeframe would be: Why has humanity behaved so much better in the past 200 hundred years than in the prior 1,800 years—specifically in the west?
Due to the Enlightenment and Greek philosophers, the United States was made possible. For the first time in human history populations in a given geographic area were free to behave in the name of their own ends, and an institution was brought into existence to ensure that no one got in the way of that freedom— the original intent of the United States government. For the first time individuals were free to behave in accordance with reality and with their own ends as their moral purpose. Activities such as heralding the king at the town square, worshipping in the church, observing parades of dictatorship, or taking part in tribal ceremonies are not productive in accordance with your biological needs, and the advent of the American government afforded individuals freedom from such requirements.
At some point, reality demands that you go out and plough the field or you will starve to death. Reality is the arbiter of existence, and the extent to which an individual will survive and flourish is directly dependent upon an active decision to embrace that arbitration. When the United States was founded the individual was for the first time allowed to decide for themselves how rigorously and to what extent they would behave in accordance with reality. The extent to which western society has become wealthier is the extent to which individuals can voluntarily enjoy other activities on weekends, holidays, and other down-time. This afforded time was either sparse or non-existent 200 years ago prior to the founding of the United States and the individual freedoms that its creators championed.
The key corollary here is that the extent to which we have been free is the extent to which we have become wealthier, more peaceful, and overall better off as a species. The mind, which creates all of these things, including that which you see in the image above, requires freedom of thought, and thus action, or behavior.
Finally, Ayn Rand provided a much more succinct explanation of the importance of behavior in accordance with reality:
“He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see. Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.” Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction.”