The Total Depravity of Man

Starting with the earliest technologies of fire, stoneshaping, and symbolic culture, the ascent of humanity is a history of ever-greater control over nature and human nature. Its culmination would be to make that control complete. Although most people no longer think it possible to win a complete victory over disease, suffering, and death (that is, a complete victory over nature), the Technological Program lives on in unspoken assumptions and attitudes, the dream of a technological Utopia. Life will get better and better, safer and safer, more and more convenient, efficient, modern, clean, automated, secure.

Underlying this belief is the assumption that we are on the right track and indeed that we have come a long way already. It assumes that life in the raw is, as Thomas Hobbes so famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The tenacity with which we cling to this prejudice reveals just how much depends on it—nothing less than the whole ideology of progress. Progress (in the sense we know it) is only meaningful if we are ascending from a lower to a higher state—from the natural realm to a separate human realm. Extrapolating backward, we must believe that original nature and original human nature are bad. Hence, the goal of control: technology to control nature, culture to control human nature.

This chapter will outline the all-encompassing consequences of the program of bringing life and the world under control. While collectively we seek to dominate and subdue nature through science and technology, the goal of control casts a shadow into our personal lives as well. We feel we need to control ourselves, our bodies, our emotions, our impulses, our appetites. Why? Because in a personalized version of the Hobbesian view of nature, our natural selves are bad too. The psychological “technologies” we use to achieve self-control are legion, internalized from earliest childhood: guilt, willpower, discipline, shame, motivations, threats, rewards. We must govern and control ourselves, just as we must govern and control nature through technology to make it good—an ordered garden as opposed to an inhospitable wilderness. Indeed, as the uncivilized human is in a state of nature, the two statements of inherent badness (of wild nature and uncontrolled human) are identical.

In religion this assumption is embodied in the concept of Original Sin and, more broadly, the idea found across all institutionalized religions that spirituality consists of a struggle at self-improvement. We strive to raise ourselves above the temptations of the flesh into the realm of the spirit, to overcome our bestial inclinations, to exercise restraint and self-control. In other words, we “hold ourselves” to a code of morality.[1] Whether it is Hinduism, Christianity, or any other world religion, it is a basic doctrine that we should try hard to be nice. The same applies, perhaps even more strongly, to ethical and moral systems that are not explicitly religious—another indication that the seeming cultural divide in our society between the secular and the religious is mostly a matter of appearances.

The idea of Original Sin is central to most Christian churches today, although it was once hotly disputed by such Church fathers as Pelagius and fudged by later figures such as Thomas Aquinas. The founders of Protestantism, Martin Luther and John Calvin, argued for the “total depravity of man,” the innate sinfulness of human beings.[2] For them, trying hard to be nice wasn’t good enough! This is a crucial doctrine because it is the foundation of the entire dogma of Christ as the supernatural Redeemer, an agent of divinity outside ourselves, our one and only salvation.[3] Also, as Abraham Maslow observes,

any doctrine of the innate depravity of man or any maligning of his animal nature very easily leads to some extra-human interpretation of goodness, saintliness, virtue, self-sacrifice, altruism, etc. If they can’t be explained from within human nature—and explained they must be—then they must be explained from outside of human nature. The worse man is, the poorer a thing he is conceived to be, the more necessary becomes a god.[4]

It is not just religion that depends on the innate depravity of the human species. The doctrine extends beyond theology to atheistic psychology, most famously in the writings of Sigmund Freud, but more recently in works of various Darwinian sociobiologists and cognitive psychologists such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker.[5]

Here is a revealing irony: although Protestant fundamentalists vilify Darwinism and seek to keep it out of the public schools, their view of the innate sinfulness of man is in complete agreement with the Neo-Darwinian account of life’s origins and evolution. Each dovetails beautifully with the other. This should come as no surprise, since both Darwinism and Original Sin arise out of the same deep cultural conceptions of self and the universe.[6]

The Nature implicit in Darwinism, including human nature, is not very nice. It is a nature in which competition is the rule, in which the deepest purpose of life, the deepest motivation of behavior, is to survive and reproduce, and in which cooperation is an occasional, coincidental product of an alignment of interests. Cooperation is okay, but it is even better to trick other organisms into helping you while you refrain from expending any energy helping them. As Richard Dawkins writes, “Natural selection favours genes which control their survival machines in such a way that they make the best use of their environment. This includes making the best use of other survival machines, both of the same and different species.”[7]

The definition of the self implicit in the dominant theories of biogenesis and evolution is that each of us is a discrete, separate being struggling against other such beings to survive and reproduce. In this view, from the unicellular stage to the present, successful organisms are those that are better able to look after their own interests at the expense of their rivals, a rival being defined as anything competing for the same resources. Any organism programmed by its genes to enact behaviors that diminish its chances of surviving and reproducing—for example sharing resources when there may not be enough for itself—is less likely to reproduce, and those genes will die out of the gene pool. In other words, we are programmed—life is programmed—to profit at the expense of other beings. Can you think of a better definition of “not nice” than that? Selfishness being our nature, of course we need laws, morals, and self-control to rein in that selfishness and become civil beings.

Thus, mainstream science and mainstream religion agree that we are by nature bad; that therefore, just as we must control Nature, we must control, regulate, improve upon, and yes, dominate ourselves in order that we may be good. Let us add to this agreement economics, which also holds as a central axiom that people are driven to maximize self-interest. If science, religion, and economics all agree, the doctrine of innate badness must have deep roots indeed. It is no accident that it is orthodoxy in both the scientific and religious realms. The ideology of our civilization—progress, ascent—depends on it. It is therefore built into many of our reflexive assumptions of what is true. It is also built into our money system, thus generating the very same behavior that we mistake as fundamental.

Because it is imbued so deeply into our mythology, our ideology, our culture, and our economy, the doctrine of original sin is actually correct—correct insofar as we are immersed in our culture. It is correct given our ideological infrastructure and the motivations built in to our cultural institutions.

Hobbes wrote Leviathan long before Darwin ever conceived of evolution via natural selection and long before the theory of the selfish gene was ever invented. The “(human) nature is bad” idea goes back way before Darwin, before Hobbes, before Luther and Calvin. It is implicit in dualism itself, which finds its origins in the so-called Neolithic Revolution if not before, even if its full articulation was not to come until the Scientific Revolution.

Dualism is the idea that the universe is divided into two parts, which go by the names of matter and spirit, God and creation, human and nature or, most fundamentally, self and other. These two parts are by no means symmetrical: self is more important, other less. In religion, soul is self, body is other. The soul is important, while the flesh is at best irrelevant and at worst an impediment to the life of the spirit. Outside religion, the same dualism, following Descartes, manifests as mind = self, body = other. Either way, we identify with our minds and not our bodies, not other life forms, not the world at large. Even if we try hard to cultivate compassion, a narrow identity with an illusory separate self is built in to our deepest worldview. (In fact, that we feel we need to “try” to be compassionate is symptomatic of that world view.) No wonder we are so out of touch with our bodies and suffer such chronically poor health. No wonder we treat our bodies and our material planet so cavalierly. No wonder we visit such violence on these (unimportant) others—other religions, other nations, other races, other species.

On a collective level, dualism manifests as a distinction between man and nature, again dividing the universe into two parts, one of which is Self, and therefore important, and the other of which is Other, and thus only important to the extent that it affects Self. Dualism motivates well-meaning arguments for “conservation” of natural “resources,” locutions which imply the subordination of Nature to man and define the things of the world in terms of their usefulness to ourselves. Rainforests are to be preserved because—who knows?—we might derive important medicines from them some day. And just imagine the economic losses from topsoil erosion! Such arguments are counterproductive because they end up reinforcing the very mindset that is at the root of the problem to begin with: that the world is an Other, here for our use.

The logical conclusion of dualism—that Other is important only to the extent it affects Self—is a hidden abscess constantly leaking poison into the body of our civilization. It is a universal acid that erodes away the core of any system of morals, ethics, and responsibility, which readily succumb to a succession of pragmatic “Why should I’s?”

Excepting pragmatic reasons, why should I care about anything outside my self? The usual religious answer, “Because God says to” or “Because God will punish me otherwise” gets us nowhere, because that morality too comes down to pragmatism—avoiding divine retribution for our sins. It is really no different. Must we be scared into being good? Must we exercise self-control, knowing that we are foregoing our natural self-interest that we could maximize by being ruthless to the world? Is eternal struggle the only alternative to depravity?

Why should I, as an individual, do anything for anyone else? Why shouldn’t I pollute to my heart’s content? Why shouldn’t I steal your wallet provided I know I can get away with it? Here is a dialog I recently had with my class:

Me: Why shouldn’t I just pollute as much as I want to?

Class: You might poison your own environment.

Me: Yes, you’re right—I’d better make sure only to pollute my neighbors’ yards, not my own.

Class: If you get caught you’ll suffer consequences that outweigh the benefits of polluting.

Me: Okay, I will only pollute to the extent that the benefits outweigh the risks. I’ll do it in secret, while maintaining the appearance of being a nice guy. I’ll get an unscrupulous business to pay me cash to dump toxic waste into a sinkhole at night. No one will ever know. Or, let’s say I’m a corporation and I want to pollute to maintain higher profits. I’ll fund biased studies and create PR that says pollution isn’t so bad after all. Why shouldn’t I?

Class: But if everyone did that you would be doomed.

Me: True. That’s why I support laws and morals that prevent others from doing it. But why shouldn’t I do it myself if I can get away with it? (Why shouldn’t I manipulate “other survival machines, both of the same and different species”?)

In other words, what does the rest of the world matter? The discrete and isolated self of Descartes implies a discrete and separate universe outside that self. As long as I can insulate myself from the world out there—possible in principle precisely because it is separate—I can do anything I want to. The only limits are pragmatic ones. On a case-by-case basis, I can judge whether each action maximizes my benefit. Should I steal that man’s wallet that he left on the table when he went to the bathroom? Let me calculate the costs and benefits. The potential payoff is $200, the risk of getting caught in this setting is only about 2%, the fine and loss of face is worth maybe $7,000 . . . calculating, I arrive at an expected payoff of $56 (that is, $200×98%-$7000×2%). So I steal it. Raise the fine to $11,000, and I won’t. Right?

The logic seems absurd, but it is precisely the logic behind a legal system based on deterrence. This system seeks, through the imposition of penalties, to convert behavior that would otherwise be in an individual’s rational self-interest into irrational behavior. Without a penalty of some sort, stealing would be in our rational self-interest.

Let us pursue this line of inquiry a little further. Everyone knows that we don’t actually perform an explicit calculation every time the opportunity to profit at another’s expense presents itself. The decision has been automated through the moral training of our childhood. Our parents, teachers, and other authorities train us to not be selfish by rewarding “nice” behavior and punishing “selfish” behavior. They provide an incentive for niceness that makes it no longer irrational but actually in line with selfishness. Eventually we internalize these incentives in the form of guilt, conscience, and habit. Our natural selves are selfish, ruthless, and depraved, requiring a long period of training to subdue nature and foster morals, ethics, and decent behavior.

Here we see an inextricable link between dualism and control. Bereft of an organic indwelling spirit, the material world that science presents us—indifferent, purposeless, and ruthlessly competitive—cries out for the control we call technology. Ruled by bestial or sinful drives, the physical body living in that world similarly calls out for the control we impose through moral training, education, and culture.

The program of control, in turn, demands the reduction of the world described in “The Origins of Separation”; that is, the finitization of the infinite. In science we seek to control variables, in engineering to account for every conceivable force with our equations. Our efforts at control fail when the infinite leaks back in—an uncontrolled variable in science, an unforeseen circumstance in life, “human error” in a factory. Always, the response to such accidents is to extend control to them too, to make the system failsafe. Yet after thousands of years, no matter how hard we try, infinity keeps creeping back in.

 

[1] Actually, the original esoteric teachings of all religions say quite the opposite; I am talking here about institutional religion.

 

[2]The doctrine of total depravity has been expounded upon by generations of Protestant theologians. I refer the reader to Arthur Pink’s The Total Depravity of Man for an articulate exposition. Given the atrocities perpetrated by Luther, I wonder if he was merely projecting his understanding of his own self onto reality.

 

[3] There are esoteric interpretations of these concepts that do not depend on Original Sin, however.

 

[4] Maslow, Abraham, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Penguin Books, 1970. p. 38

 

[5] See Pinker,Stephen, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Penguin, 2002.

 

[6] Another way that fundamentalist Christianity dovetails with the Scientific Program is in the literalist interpretation of the Bible, which accords to words an absolute meaning and reified status. Their goal is to discover an inerrant standard by which to determine truth, an absolute reality “out there” that is beyond the subjectivity of cultural construction—how similar indeed to the goal of the scientific method. Superficially very different, Fundamentalism and Science share many of the same ontological assumptions and goals.

 

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