Three assumptions about human nature

06.04.2016 |

Episode #3 of the course “How world affairs work” by Ralph Pettman


In this lesson, you’ll learn how analysts and politicians make basic assumptions about human naturehow they think people are either bad, calculating, or good.

Imagine you’re standing on top of a tall building overlooking a crowded street. You have a heavy suitcase, and you’re about to throw it over the edge. What chance do you think you have of hitting a good person? Less than 50%? More than 50%? Or do you want to argue about this whole thought experiment? Those who think the answer is less than 50% are pessimistic about human nature. Those who think the answer is more than 50% are optimistic about human nature. Those who want to argue about the answer see human nature as being opportunistic.

What does this mean for world affairs? What implications do these three assumptions have on how the world works?

Those who see human nature as being bad don’t see world conflict as ever coming to an end. They believe that people will always come to blows. They see this as a plain fact. Look at human history, they say. Look at current events today. Everywhere, there are wars. Peace is just a lull between one war and the next.

Those who see human nature as calculating see no reason why laws and organizations can’t achieve more than the conflict and war that the pessimists take for granted. They look at human history and see not only constant struggle and strife but also a determined effort to do better than this. They see not only the human potential for competition but also the potential for cooperation.

Those who see human nature as good are well aware of the common occurrence of wars in the world. They are equally aware of the attempt to make laws and organizations that do better than this. However, they see people as able to go one step furtherwe not only have the potential for competition or cooperation, but for collaboration too.

To the pessimists, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. This is unfair to dogs, but it’s the phrase that best describes their zero-sum “I win, you lose” Wild West view of how world affairs work. To the opportunists, it’s a tit-for-tat world. It’s potentially a win-win, “you be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you” view of how world affairs work. To the optimists, it’s a “hail fellow, well-met” world. It’s an “I’ll be nice to you regardless” view of how world affairs work.

The next lesson puts the three main dimensions of world affairs together with the three basic assumptions about human nature that analysts and politicians make. You’ll learn about the resulting matrix of nine different doctrines.


Recommended book

“Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism” by Muhammad Yunus and Karl Weber


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