On Human Nature

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Kate Soper

Red Pepper, August, 1998

QUESTION: You have argued that any stance one takes on political, economic, social or even personal issues is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. Why is this?

CHOMSKY: Any stance we take is based on some conception of what is good for people. This conception will tacitly presuppose a certain belief as to the constitution of human nature — human needs and human potential. You might as well bring them out as clearly as possible so that they can be discussed.

QUESTION: According to your view of human nature, all human beings possess certain biological functions endowing them with common mental capacities. How do you defend this position against postmodernist critics who argue that there is no such thing as human nature, and that all attempts to define it are guilty of reading other cultures in the light of Western perceptions and values?

CHOMSKY: Not even the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature. They may argue that the exact properties of human nature are difficult to substantiate — this is certainly correct. However, it is impossible to coherently argue that an intrinsic, universal human nature does not exist. This amounts to the belief that the next human zygote conceived might just as well develop into a worm or a crab as a human being. Postmodernists might limit their assertion to denying any effect of human nature on our mental make-up — our values, our knowledge, our wants, etc. This also makes no sense. The postmodernist will argue that a child growing up in New York will develop a certain way of thinking, and if that child had grown up amongst Amazon tribespeople she would have developed a completely different way of thinking. This is true. But we must then ask how a child could develop these different consciousnesses. In whatever environment it finds itself, the child will mentally construct a rich and complex culture on the basis of the extremely scattered and limited phenomena it is exposed to. That consideration tells us (in advance of any detailed knowledge) that there must be an extraordinary directive and organisational component to the mind that is internal. We can begin to see human nature in terms of certain capacities to develop certain mental traits. I think we can go further than this and begin to discover universal aspects of these mental traits which are determined by human nature. I think we can find this in the area of morality. For example, not long ago I talked to people in Amazon tribes and I took it for granted that they have the same conception of vice and virtue as I do. It is only through sharing these values that we were able to interact — talking about real problems such as being forced out of the jungle by the state authorities. I believe I was correct to assume this: we had no problem communicating although we were as remote as is possible culturally.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting everyone agrees about the nature of vice and virtue?

CHOMSKY: In fact I think they probably have a very high measure of agreement. One strong bit of evidence for this is that everyone — a Genghis Khan, Himmler, Bill Gates — creates stories of themselves where they interpret their actions as working for the benefit of human beings. Even at the extreme levels of depravity, the Nazis did not boast that they wanted to kill Jews, but gave crazed justifications — even that they were acting in ‘self-defence’. It is very rare for people to justify their actions by saying ‘I’m doing this to maximise my own benefit and I don’t care what happens to anybody else’. That would be pathological.

QUESTION: Most people certainly try to offer moral justifications for what they do. But there is also enormous diversity in what they do, and defend as right to do.

CHOMSKY: And there is a lot of variation in people’s size. Take a walk through a museum where they have the armour from medieval knights and just look at the size of them: you could barely put a child into that armour. We have the same genes today as people did then, but we are very different because there have been radical changes in diet. This is characteristic of every aspect of organic development. Hence we should not be in the least surprised to discover that it is also characteristic of our social nature, our moral positions and so on. We are biological creatures.

QUESTION: But I think you would agree that not all cultures are equally viable from the standpoint of promoting human fulfilment and wellbeing? Are you wanting to argue that your understanding of human nature can give us a kind of objective understanding of the conditions of human flourishing?

CHOMSKY: Now we’re taking an essentialist position which the relativist would contradict. I’m not willing to go that far. We can develop a stronger conception of human nature through drawing on Enlightenment thinking on the issue. This has support from some of the sciences, but is mainly founded on a philosophical investigation into our hopes, intuition and experience, and an examination of history and cultural variety. There are needs for conditions which allow the flourishing of human capacities. Insights from the Enlightenment show us that people need to exist in free association with others — not in isolation, and not in relations of domination. There is a need to replace social fetters with social bonds. Therefore any social structure that involves relations of domination — whether it’s the family, a transnational corporation, gender relations — has a very heavy burden of proof to bear. It must demonstrate that the benefits it provides outweigh the restrictions it imposes on human capacities. If it can’t demonstrate its legitimacy, it should be dismantled.

QUESTION: Right. Can I ask you about your position on the possibility of ecological constraints on the realisation of human needs? Do you think — even if there were the political will to achieve it — that it might be impossible, for ecological reasons, to provide the necessary conditions for continued human flourishing?

CHOMSKY: Humans may well be a nonviable organism.

QUESTION: Do you think they are?

CHOMSKY: It’s very likely. From an evolutionary point of view, higher intelligence seems to be maladaptive rather than adaptive. Biologically successful organisms have a rigid character and are well adapted to a certain environmental niche. If higher intelligence helped adaptation you would expect it to have arisen over and over again. However, it didn’t. It arose in a single, not particularly successful organism, Homo Sapiens. And while the human population exploded, human societies developed in a way that has caused enormous damage to the environment. The human race could destroy itself and much organic life as a result.

QUESTION: Do you think that different social and economic circumstances either block or reinforce certain dispositions — that, for example, whatever there might be in the way of a natural tendency towards selfish and aggressive behaviour is reinforced by the capitalist market society?

CHOMSKY: There’s no doubt about it. Let’s take Germany, for example. In the early 20th century Germany was the most advanced area of Western culture — in music, the arts, science. In the passage of a few years, it entered the absolute depths of human history. Small changes in German society allowed people like Joseph Mengele to flourish rather than people like Einstein and Freud. The market is a radical experiment which violated fundamental human needs and capacities. You can see this in the violent struggles that were required to impose market conditions on people. In the United States, for example, about one sixth of the gross national product, over a trillion dollars per year, is devoted to marketing. Marketing is manipulation and deceit. It tries to turn people into something they aren’t — individuals focused solely on themselves, maximising their consumption of goods that they don’t need.

QUESTION: Granted the truth of what you say about our distinctively human capacities for freedom and co-operative action, how come we are so open to that kind of manipulation and deceit? How come we remain both globally and locally so caught up in oppression?

CHOMSKY: It’s a serious question. Why are we born free and end up enslaved?

QUESTION: Is there a case here for viewing social factors as more determinant than biological factors?

CHOMSKY: You can’t say which factor is more decisive. They interact. Take the example of puberty: small changes in nutrition can modify the onset of puberty by a factor of two, or even terminate it altogether. Or the visual system: in a kitten you can destroy the neural basis for vision simply by not presenting pattern stimulation in the first couple of weeks of its life. However, does this mean that the environment is the decisive force? No. Puberty is a process which human beings undergo at a particular stage of maturation because that’s the way they’ve been designed. You don’t undergo puberty because of peer pressure. Likewise, human limbs will not develop into wings rather than arms or legs. The genetic component determines strict limits within which variation is possible. I believe the same is true of our social and mental development.

QUESTION: Your ultimate political goal is anarchistic, the erosion of state institutions and any form of authoritarian control. But you have also recognised the need to defend some forms of state regulation as protection against a wholly unregulated market. Can you say more on how you view this two-edged process of possible political transformation?

CHOMSKY: I’m not in favour of people being in cages. On the other hand I think people ought to be in cages if there’s a sabre-toothed tiger wandering around outside and if they go out of the cage the sabre-toothed tiger will kill them. So sometimes there’s a justification for cages. That doesn’t mean cages are good things. State power is a good example of a necessary cage. There are sabre-toothed tigers outside; they are called transnational corporations which are among the most tyrannical totalitarian institutions that human society has devised. And there is a cage, namely the state, which to some extent is under popular control. The cage is protecting people from predatory tyrannies so there is a temporary need to maintain the cage, and even to extend the cage.

QUESTION: How is the aspiration for freedom being manifested today?

CHOMSKY: The current period is incredibly encouraging. There is more popular activism in more areas than at any time I can remember — labour struggles, environmental issues, women’s rights, children’s rights, respect for other cultures. I can’t think of a time when there have been so many people who were ready and eager to undertake direct action. There are far more than at any time in the 19th century, or in the 1960s. The feminist movement, environmental movements and solidarity movements have only fully emerged in the last 20 years. However, it is extremely scattered and chaotic. In the United States, people in one corner of a town don’t know that there’s somebody in the other corner of the same town doing the same thing. But that does not remove the fact that there is a profound continuity between these different movements.

They are all struggling for human liberation. They are all trying to free people from constraints on the viability of human life, like lack of food or decent work, and also on constraints that are imposed by social relations of domination. They are also strongly motivated by solidarity.

Recent movements have exhibited significant broadenings of the moral sphere where people have accepted responsibility towards wider and wider sections of people. Concern for indigenous tribal people is new. The environmental movement exhibits solidarity that extends to future generations — that’s also new. These moral changes are comparable to those that accompanied the abolition of slavery.

QUESTION: How do you see the relationship between work and free time in a more liberated society?

CHOMSKY: Polls in the US, Germany and elsewhere have shown that people value free time over material goods. Therefore, there are major propaganda efforts to reverse this. One reason over a trillion dollars a year is spent on marketing in the USA is to try to undermine our natural tendency to want free, liberated time.

QUESTION: How do you envisage the development of radical movements in the future? Do we need a uniting vision?

CHOMSKY: Movements have to be developed by the activists themselves in response to local circumstances — the possibilities, the willingness to take risks, the level of understanding. What needs to be done varies day by day. Sometimes it’s a meeting; sometimes it’s a demonstration; sometimes it’s civil disobedience; sometimes a general strike; sometimes it may be taking over a factory. It is important not to have too restrictive a vision of a future society. The situation may change to make that society impossible or undesirable. Marx’s vision was extremely skeletal. What is more important is to react to local circumstances and transform oppressive forces into forces for liberation. Take the automation of production for an example. The same technology that is used to deskill workers and enslave them can be used to eliminate the stupid boring work that nobody wants to do. We already know where we could go from here in transforming capitalism without leading to centralised state control. There is a range of opinion running from anarcho-syndicalists to left Marxists and council Communists that have a decentralised vision of social organisation and planning. Final executive power would be held at the level of workers’ councils and could be transferred up to federal organisations. We don’t know whether or even how that would work. These are things that you can only discover by trying.