Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

Another Questionable Assumption About Human Nature

The Hobbesian view further assumes that human nature is primarily atomistic and self-interested: on such a view, the individual human being comes first--and community, if it arises at all, is suspect. In fact, given the stress on human freedom as freedom from constraints--community can only be interpreted as relationships which restrict individual freedom: the more free one is, the more one is free from community.

While this atomistic understanding is readily assumed in North American culture, it is by no means the only belief available to us about human nature--nor is it, in my view, the most plausible. While we like to talk individuality, it seems obvious that most of us fear the isolation of the perfectly "free" (free from others) individual, and struggle instead to achieve connection with others. Most philosophers and certainly most cultures assume that human beings are by nature social creatures, not isolated atoms.

Moreover, the Hobbesian view paradoxically may lead not to the perfection of individual freedom--but precisely to its extinction. Hobbes argued (as Augustine before him) that self-interested, atomistic individuals fall quickly into "the war of each against all," a chaos which can be overcome only through the imposition of hierarchical order--an imposition which requires the power of a central and absolute sovereign.

As a contemporary example: anarchists and libertarians may be outraged that alarmed parents are asking government bureaucrats to regulate the "free speech" of the Internet as this free speech seems to include a flood of pornography. But this is precisely the result predicted (and endorsed) by Hobbes.

An alternative is a more --social conception of human nature.

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