January 28, 2013

On human nature and on ordinary men

"La meilleure Philosophie, rélativement au monde, est d'allier, à son régard, le sarcasme de gaité avec l'indulgence du mépris."

"L'honnête homme, détrompé des toutes les illusions, est l'homme par excellence."
-- Chamfort


On human nature
2. On ordinary men
3. On not being an egalitarian
About ME/CFS


I am still not well for not having slept enough because of the problems with my eyes, and once again I only reproduce two lemmas from my Philosophical Dictionary, because I think they are worth reading.

I will say a little about my lemma on ordinary men in section 3, because I am aware my position is not popular.

1. On human nature

Human nature: The set of capacities to think, feel and act that characterizes all and only human beings, as evidenced by human history, science, art, and civilization, including many atrocities and much human misery.

That all human beings - born out of a woman, with bodies developed from human DNA - have a similar set of capacities that enables them to think, feel and act in particular ways, and not in others, seems from a naturalistic or commonsensical point of view an evident assumption or truth, and conforms to the natural presumption that natural things come in natural kinds, and that every individual that belongs to a given kind has the properties and relations that characterize all individuals of that kind, and that human beings may understand and represent by their unique gifts for language and mathematics.

Even so, it is an assumption, and an important one, since it is at the basis of much of the thinking that keeps human societies together, all of which tends to somehow acknowledge that you and I and every other human being, now and as long as we can trace back human history, have been very similar in our natural construction, needs, and intellectual and emotional reactions to very many events that may happen to us.

Where one can learn about human nature? In medicine, biology, history, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, art, music, for it seems all of these have much to say about uniquely human properties, acts, and ideas, and the physical and social conditions of these.

Perhaps the best brief and memorable introduction are Shakespeare's Plays, with the introductions by Johnson and Hazlitt, or Montaigne's Essays, or Gibbon's or Thucydides's histories. A suitable side-reading to these are Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Chamfort's Maximes et Pensées.

2. On ordinary men

Ordinary men: Ordinary men are those who are not individually remembered after death, because they are not and did nothing remarkable, for whatever reason. In terms of statistics, they form 9999 out of 10,000, and in terms of practice, it is they who do the work in any society, maintain its ideology and morals, protect or elect its leaders, and do its murderings and persecutions when ordered by their leaders. And no society can become better than the qualities and shortcomings of the ordinary men in it enable it to be.

This shows in principle that ordinary men are quite important in history and society, if not in person but because it is they who form and maintain and do nearly all in any society, even though they rarely or never originate its ideas, values, science or religion, for ordinary men are followers and executioners much rather than leaders or thinkers.

As defined - in terms of whether or not one is individually remembered after death, outside the circle of one's family and friends - ordinary men comprise the great majority of men, and include most of its intellectuals and artists, for these too mostly are when known locally in their own society in their own time mostly forgottten by following generations.

The fundamental problem this poses about the human state of the world and its possibilities for improvement may be indicated by a table like the following one.

Mr. Rudolph J. Rummel has taken the trouble of finding out how many civilian persons have been murdered in the 20th Century apart from the many soldiers that were killed on battle-fields. He wrote a book about it called Death by Government, in which one can find, among other things, the following table - that lists only civilian deaths and no military deaths in wartime:

Dictator Ideology Country Years Deaths
Joseph Stalin Communist Soviet Union 1929-1953 42,672,000
Mao Tse-tung Communist China 1923-1976 37,828,000
Adolf Hitler Fascist Germany 1933-1945 20,946,000
Chiang Kai-shek Militarist/Fascist China 1921-1948 10,214,000
Vladimir Lenin Communist Soviet Union 1917-1924 4,017,000
Tojo Hideki Militarist/Fascist Japan 1941-1945 3,990,000
Pol Pot Communist Cambodia 1968-1987 2,397,000
Yahya Khan Militarist Pakistan 1971 1,500,000
Josip Broz Tito Communist Yugoslavia 1941-1987 1,172,000







When summed, this comes to over 200 million murders - nearly all committed by perfectly ordinary men, for what they considered to be the best of moral reasons, from love for Our Fatherland or Our Party or Our Race, and because those they murdered stood in the way of a better society, or so their leaders claimed and they mostly believed.

What the above table also makes somewhat credible is that a considerable part of the murdering that ordinary men do happens especially when they are caught up in totalitarian states, political ideologies, or religious faiths.

And what the above table is misleading about is the role of politics: In the 20th Century most murdering on a social scale happened in the name of totalitarian political ideologies like fascism and communism, but in early ages most murdering on a social scale happened in the name of totalitarian faiths like Catholicism, Protestantism or Mohammedanism.

These facts show that the abilities and inclinations of ordinary men are of fundamental importance to the state and shape of human societies, and of what is possible and impossible in it, and suggest a number of questions.

Also, it so happens that next to Rummel's statistics, there are some interesting studies about ordinary men and totalitarianism: Browning's "Ordinary Men", Conquest's "The Great Terror", and Laqueur Ed.'s "The Holocaust Encyclopedia".

And part of the reasons for the above table of results of the abilities of ordinary men especially when combined with totalitarianism can be gleaned from the following table and quotation that concerns research into the actual moral behavior and thinking of human beings by the psychologist Kohlberg. I quote from the "Introduction to Psychology" by Hilgard & Atkinson:

Stages in the development of moral values



Level I. Premoral

1. Punishment and obedience orientation

Obeys rules in order to avoid punishment.

2. Naive instrumental hedonism

Conforms to obtain rewards, to have favors returned.

Level II. Morality of conventional role-conformity

3. "Good-boy" morality of maintaining good relations, approval of others.

Conforms to avoid disapproval, maintaining good relations, dislike by others.

4. Authority maintaining morality.

Conforms to avoid censure by legitimate authorities, with resultant guilt.

Level III. Morality of self-accepted moral principles

5. Morality of contract, of individual rights, and of democratically accepted law.

Conforms to maintain the respect of the impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare.

6. Morality of individual principles and conscience.

Conforms to avoid self-condemnation.

"Kohlberg's studies indicate that the moral judgments of children who are seven and younger are predominantly at Level I - actions are evaluated in terms of whether they avoid punishment or lad to rewards. By age 13, a majority of the moral dilemmas are resolved at Level II - actions are evaluated in terms of maintaining a good image in the eyes of other people. This is the level of conventional morality. In the first stage at this level (Stage 3) one seeks approval by being "nice"; this orientation expands in the next stage (Stage 4) to include "doing one's duty", showing respect for authority, and conforming to the social order in which one is raised.

According to Kohlberg, many individuals never progress beyond Level II. He sees the stages of moral development as closely tied to Piaget's stages of cognitive development, and only if a person has achieved the later stages of formal operational thought is he capable of the kind of abstract thinking necessary for postconventional morality at Level III. The highest stage of moral development (Level III, stage 6) requires formulating abstract ethical principles and conforming to them to avoid self-condemnation. Kohlberg reports that less than 10 percent of his subjects over age 16 show (...) kind of "clear-principled" Stage 6 thinking (...)"

And thus we have arrived in principle at some sort of explanation for the facts and numbers in the previous table: "actions are evaluated in terms of maintaining a good image in the eyes of other people. This is the level of conventional morality" and "many individuals never progress beyond Level II", which is that conventional conformist level.

On ordinay men: Here are some human all too human weaknesses that - especially but not only - ordinary men easily fall prone to

  • Ordinary men
    • engage mostly in wishful thinking (so as to keep themselves "happy")
    • are ruled by bias and prejudice
    • do not know real science, logic, mathematics or philosophy
    • do not do unto others as one would not be donne by only within their groups
    • are role-players who play by wishful thinking, make-believe - "The quality or act of pretending; assuming something is true when in fact one knows it is not" (wiki dictionary) - and pretension who normally do not step out of their roles out of self-interest and because of group-sanctions
    • are collaborators: They mostly do as they are told by leaders
    • are followers, of fashions and leaders of all kinds, usually because it is the fashion and they are conformists
    • are levellers: The only one who excel are the leaders of the group and what the media display as excellent
    • believe truth coincides with their interests and prejudices, especially as regards things that involve their or their groups' supposed interests
    • personalize or animate everything: all manner of abstractions - nations, corporations, groups, the people - are supposed to will and feel
    • do not reason in terms of quantified terms: Terms like "Some", "most" are carefully avoided often to infer all from some without mentioning either: ("Women are emotional", "Germans are no good")
    • cannot reason abstractly on any high level
    • make all manners of fallacies esp. of generalization, ambiguity and begging the question
    • are not independent individuals with their own ideas and values intentionally gathererd by their own life's practice

One result, supplementing Rummel's statistics, is this:

"I fear we live in a world in which war and racism are ubiquitous, in which the powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which peer-group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce "ordinary men" to become their "willing executioners." " (Christopher R. Browning, "Ordinary men", p. 222-3)

3. On not being an egalitarian

I am very well aware that especially the last section on ordinary men is most onpopular with ordinary men (which is not fair if they are or pretend to be Christians, but this is an aside). I have five excuses:

First, as I wrote yesterday:
Nobody asked to get born; nobody asked for such qualities and shortcomings as he has; nobody asked for the circumstances he was born in. And while I am not an ordinary man, I did nothing for it: It's genetical, not a matter of choice.

Second, I am not an egalitarian, and I think everybody who pretends to be one  - apart from the desirability of equality-for-the-law - lies: Ordinary men venerate media celebs and sports' heroes as if these are semi-divinities, and indeed did so already in Roman times, and ordinary men generally honestly believe that the members and especially the leaders of their own groups are better human beings than the leaders and members of the groups they do not belong to.

Third, for me human beings are or are not ordinary especially on intellectual, moral or artistic grounds, and I am neither an egalitarian nor a leveller because I know that some are simply a lot better on one or several of these dimensions
than the great majority (indeed while being average on most other dimensions: no one excels all or most in all or most  respects), and sometimes also than the great majority of their nominal peers. [1]

Fourth, I write as I do because I am interested in stating - what I think is - the truth, and not because I hope to gain by what I write (if I were, I would write other than I do). And it seems that what I think about ordinary men is true and is important for anyone who wants to make sense of the human world.

Fifth, that people differ in all kinds of talents seems to me an inescapable natural and genetical fact, that in itself is no reason to blame or praise people for - but it also does seem to me that a world with different men with different talents is more interesting and more rewarding for almost everyone who lives in it than one where all are as twin brothers or sisters, indeed provided that all have equal rights and a decent minimal income, that allows them to survive and have leisure, and the freedom to do, think and say what they please, within broad legal limits.

Finally, one reason to write about ordinary men - who may be perfectly moral, kind, benevolent persons - is that their characteristics, that include being easily deceived and thereby abused, set serious limits to the possibilities of social change in more rational and reasonable directions. As long as "most can be fooled most of the time" the chances for rationally motivated change are not large.
Jan 29, 2013: Removed somte typos.
[1] Most talents seem distributed like the talent for chess: Everybody who is not an imbecile can learn to play it; a few are good at it; a small part of those may get to be master or grandmaster; and among grandmasters sometimes there is one who clearly excels all. Also, none of this is a matter of personal choice: all that is personal choice is to try to develop a talent one knows one has.

About ME/CFS (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)

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