Are People Basically Good or Evil? Pt.2

By Robert Bernstein   |   May 10, 2022

I want to continue my review of the book Humankind, which I started in my previous article. Author Rutger Bregman showed that many of the best and worst aspects of human behavior stem from a common desire to be “helpful.” Just as wolves domesticated themselves to be able to live among humans, humans domesticated themselves to live closely among other humans. Bregman calls us “Homo puppy”: The same “helpful” behavior that makes dogs loyal can also make them exceptionally vicious.

Bergman went on to show what happens when you assume the best. Norway’s Halden Prison is a maximum-security prison for the most violent offenders. Inmates have private rooms. They prepare food in kitchens with knives. The guards are not armed. All inmates eventually return to society. The Norwegian system costs twice as much to run as the U.S. system. But it saves far more money and lives in the long run as inmates are prepared to integrate back into society.

The U.S. almost had this system. But the infamous Zimbardo Stanford Prison (fraudulent, see Part 1) Experiment claimed to show that prisons are inherently brutal. Zimbardo created the opposite of what he intended: His “research” didn’t end prisons. It ended the idea of rehabilitation in US prisons. Because he expected the worst instead of the best.

Bregman told the story of FAVI car parts in France. New CEO Jean-François Zobrist created mini factory teams of 25-35 employees and let them choose their own team leader. Each team set their wages, work hours, and hiring. Sound like a recipe for goofing off and disaster? In fact, productivity increased. The company grew fivefold. Market share grew. While their competitors moved production to low-wage countries, FAVI stayed in Europe. Zobrist wrote a book whose subtitle translates to “The company that believes people are good.”

Humans also naturally love to play. This has been taken away from kids in recent years. Kids’ lives are over scheduled. Walking and biking to school used to be a chance for exploring and autonomy. Now kids are driven everywhere. “Prison inmates spend more time outdoors than most kids.” He noted one of my pet peeves: LEGO sets are now kits to build specific structures instead of open-ended building blocks for creative imagination.

Nomadic and hunter-gatherer children don’t go to school. They learn by playing. Sometimes with scary things like knives. Anthropologist David F. Lancy documented in Playing With Knives: The Socialization of Self-Initiated Learners young children watching adults use knives and copying through play.

Danish Landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen noted that kids actually prefer playing at junkyards and construction sites to formal playgrounds. So, he designed a playground in 1943 with junked cars, tires, and firewood. Kids were given hammers, chisels, and screwdrivers. The kids loved it and they were better behaved there, too!

Bregman told the story of Agora School in the Netherlands where the kids run it. No classrooms, homework, or grades. “Coaches” replace teachers. Kids pursue their own interests. It works.

Bergman told the story of “Participatory Budgeting” now used to varying degrees in 1,500 cities. Citizens directly decide where to spend public money. People learn quickly when they are self-motivated. Community discussion switches from mindless sports talk to public policy. Vital infrastructure gets built. Education improves. Citizens are happy to pay taxes when they have such direct control.

The late UCSB professor Garrett Hardin famously wrote of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” claiming that shared resources are selfishly exploited to the point of disaster. But Elinor Ostrom’s research showed that in real life, communities naturally create rules that allow resources to be shared sustainably. Hardin saw humans as brute animals. But humans naturally communicate and plan. She won the Economics Nobel Prize for her work.

Bergman ends Humankind with Ten Rules to Live By. Here are a few:

  1. When in doubt, assume the best. If you decide not to trust someone, then you never find out if you are wrong. If you have never been conned, maybe you are missing opportunities.

5. Try to understand the Other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from. Cherish those who raise unpleasant subjects. They are the key to progress.

9. Be public with your giving. You will inspire others to be more giving.

10. Redefine what it means to be “realistic.” It is the cynic who is out of touch. Be courageous. Offer trust. Help create a New Realism.   


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