The philosophical question ‘what is a human being?’ opens the door to a myriad of possible interpretations of human nature as our common human condition is perceived and experienced through a rich and diverse array of cultural perspectives. For those of us who also teach the TOK course, we are constantly reminded of this fundamental question when addressing knowledge issues related to ethics, the arts or history. Both programmes actually feed each other and I personally find that stimulating new TOK resource material can be applied to both courses indiscriminately. In this respect, recent publications by Francis Fukuyama and Steven Pinker offer stimulating food for thought for both Philosophy and TOK students.
Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order portrays an unstable human nature dominated by the tyranny of local kinship (extended family bonds) before the creation of a strong sovereign state, introduced to guarantee peace and security between naturally gregarious but equally selfish and aggressive individuals. The American scholar contends that the problem of violence may be curbed at the level of a particular community organising itself into a state but sooner or later, this new state will have to compete with and face potentially threatening neighbouring states. Fukuyama’s vision of human nature eventually relies on a close analysis of political systems and the way they promote human potential or crush and impede the exercise of individual freedom among their citizens. His position could be summarised in the following statement: ‘Tell me in which kind of society you live and I will tell you the kind of person you are.’
By contrast, in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker approaches the problem of violence from a psychological viewpoint and arrives at a most surprising conclusion. Despite the endless conflicts and genocides perpetrated all around the globe, Pinker finds ground for optimism and comfort in his claim that our present time is actually less violent than any previous period in human history. In his previous books, the Harvard psychologist argued that our brain is the product of evolution and hence our natural propensity to violence in a competitive environment. Yet he contends here that reason has a crucial part to play in our forfeiting personal advantage – be it gained through violent means – in favour of long-term gains shared with others. Pinker sees positive individual trends confirmed by crime rate statistics where Fukuyama points to the hand of ‘political order’ in setting and institutionalising moral values.
In their different ways, both Fukuyama and Pinker sound an optimistic note about our human condition. The lesson of both the historian and the psychologist’ conclusions can contribute to fruitful class discussions about the relative merits of social harmony arrived at through political consensus and individual self-restraint resulting from our better rational judgement.