Feel bad about us, feel good about the world


Occasionally I meet someone with a really awful view of human nature. They look at the world, see all the ways we fail to cooperate, and conclude humanity has been doomed from the start. To them, there’s something like an inherent deficit of altruism or foresight that prevents us from solving our most pressing problems. Specifically, they tend to be disappointed with progress on climate change or nuclear weapons and are pretty dour as a result.

I’m confused by the dour-ness. I’ll grant cooperation is difficult, but if you really hold humans in such low esteem, shouldn’t you be constantly amazed by everything around you? How can the misanthrope react to the cooperative feat that is you purchasing a pencil with anything but astonishment? Thousands of people had to coordinate their actions to collect the timber, shape the pencil, insert the graphite, and ship it to your locale. This is impressive to almost everybody. To the misanthrope, it should look like a miracle.

And miracles like this happen every day. Food from every corner of the globe is readily available at my grocery store. I can get nearly any book shipped to my door within two days. Humanity’s knowledge is at my fingertips. All of this is due to the coordination of thousands of actors.

There are other, arguably more important miracles. In much (though not all) of the world, I can openly practice any religion and not feel threatened for it. In many of the same places, I can critique those in power without fear of retribution. Throughout much of human history, almost nobody had these privileges.

All of these miracles have some kind of cooperation at their core. Cooperative actors create goods and services and distribute them to those in need. The political freedoms we enjoy are based on tolerance, which is a special kind of cooperative attitude. 1

I stand with the misanthropes. I believe there are dark, myopic parts of humanity that will never go away. But, I believe the natural consequence of this view is amazement, not depression. Things — more or less — work, and such an uncharitable view of human nature by itself could not predict much of the current world. Our faults persist, but in some significant capacity, we’re still able to cooperate. That’s amazing.

  1. “I disagree with their views on X, but these people are still worth cooperating with.” ↩︎