We’ve now seen that selfless, courageous action is not the preserve of saints or superheroes
Rite&Reason: The co-operation, selflessness, love and altruism we’ve seen has shown us sides to ourselves we never knew existed
We can build better, safer and more just societies based on our understanding that human nature defaults to good rather than evil. If we do that we’ll be able to replicate and grow the good we’ve seen all around us long after the novel coronavirus has been defeated. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It’s already July 2020 and we’re still in the throes of the Covid-19 global pandemic. We’re tired of restrictions and illness and fear and uncertainty about the future and we hope and pray that soon there’ll be an effective vaccine to protect us.
Notwithstanding all of that, however, most would agree that during this crisis we’ve seen changes in our societies that we wish would continue in the post-pandemic world. The co-operation, selflessness, love and altruism we’ve seen has shown us sides to ourselves we never knew existed.
It seems that when the chips are down we’re not who we thought we were – we are better
It seems that when the chips are down we’re not who we thought we were – we are better. Before Covid-19, when we looked at the dysfunction in the world, we shook our heads sadly and said, “Well, that’s human nature for you.” But this worldwide efflorescence of selfless, co-operative human behaviour definitely challenges that view. So, is it possible that we may have misjudged ourselves?
Could it be that what we previously believed to be our intrinsic and unchangeable way of being, represents, in fact, a distortion of human nature?
We’ve now seen that selfless, courageous action is not the preserve of saints or superheroes but can found anywhere and in anybody. So, could this evidence of innate goodness be a game-changer?
Thomas Kuhn, physicist, philosopher and originator of the term “paradigm shift”, described any situation that precedes a paradigm shift thus: “The usual prelude to change of this sort is . . . the awareness of an anomaly, of an occurrence or set of occurrences that does not fit existing ways of ordering phenomena. The changes that occur therefore require ‘putting on a different kind of thinking-cap’ . . .”
The outpourings of goodness we’ve seen during the pandemic certainly don’t fit with our belief in the intrinsic incorrigibility of human beings. The positive outcome of this tragic episode in human history is that our paradigm of human nature is shifting.
We need to recognise and work with this change because how we view things is very influential in how we act and, even, how others interact with us.
In the 1960s Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson undertook a study and discovered a phenomenon they called “The Pygmalion Effect”. For the purposes of the experiment, teachers were told that certain students were showing signs of a spurt in intellectual growth.
The students were chosen at random and the “proof” of their aptitude was fabricated. At the end of the year the students of whom the teachers had high expectations showed significantly greater gains in intellectual growth than those in the control group.
This connection between expectation and outcomes has been proven time and time again and shows how the lens through which we view the world substantially influences our understanding of what we see.
As physicist David Bohm put it “. . . facts are not to be considered as if they were independently existent objects that we might find or pick up in the laboratory. Rather, as the Latin root of the word facere indicates, the fact is ‘what has been made’ (eg as in manufacture). Thus, in a certain sense, we ‘make’ the fact. That is to say, beginning with immediate perception of an actual situation, we develop the fact by giving it order, form and structure with the aid of our theoretical concepts.”
In other words, we see what we already believe. To view human nature as intrinsically good is not to deny the many corrupt and evil actions that abound. We can’t – and shouldn’t – deny human suffering or forget that most of it is caused by other human beings.
After Covid-19 we can keep the good parts going by simply believing what we have seen and using it to inform our view of human nature
Reframing our view of human nature allows us to incorporate this evil as a dysfunction and work for change and improvement.
After Covid-19 we can keep the good parts going by simply believing what we have seen and using it to inform our view of human nature. Based on the solid evidence seen during the pandemic we can stop creating societies to simply cater for distortions of human nature.
Instead, we can build better, safer and more just societies based on our understanding that human nature defaults to good rather than evil.
If we do that we’ll be able to replicate and grow the good we’ve seen all around us long after the novel coronavirus has been defeated.
As the governing body of the Bahá’í Faith wrote in their 1986 statement, ‘The Promise of World Peace’: “Satisfaction on this point will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature, will encourage harmony and co-operation instead of war and conflict.”