Why humans keep failing the moral test

As I have learned more about human nature and the way societies work I’ve come to realise that many of the fundamental frameworks wrapping the darker side of humanity are right there in front of us. Often.

Hi. I’m your teacher…

As just one example, when I was a kid at Nelson Park primary school in Napier, New Zealand, children were routinely punished for things they hadn’t done. Accusation meant guilt, guilt meant punishment; and the teachers took a very great deal of pleasure from finding any excuse to hurt the kids. The problem was that some kids quickly found out they could exploit this by ‘telling on’ other kids – alleging their target had done something against the myriad petty ‘rules’, and so getting them punished. It was a great bullying device. I discovered this when I was abruptly called out at assembly, in front of the school and informed that I had been in the school grounds the previous weekend. This was, of course, forbidden and I needed due punishment. This was the first I’d heard of it – I’d been away with my family. And why would I want to go back into a place where my days were filled with abuse and pain from teachers? But someone had ‘told on’ me, and that made me guilty. No defence – if you denied the allegation you were punished for lying.

I mention all this not to outline the profound moral void in which Nelson Park School’s teachers – and New Zealand’s school system generally – floated in the early 1970s, but because this kind of behaviour is well known historically. All it takes is an authoritarian system in which one group are defined as having power, and another are not. Two things emerge. One is a behaviour pattern by those with power use it to get their jollies – shown, since, to be a fundamental part of human nature. But those in the group without the power also find ways to exploit the system to get their own way – always, of course, at the expense of somebody else.

At Nelson Park School this system was used by the teachers to make themselves feel good at the expense of the kids. And that phenomenon was then used by some kids to bully and hurt other kids. The point is that the school was a microcosm: these same behaviours are clear enough through history. Witch-hunting, for instance, operated in precisely the same way – villagers would pick on an innocent woman, knowing the ruthless way in which any accused witch was treated. Often the actual reason was some dispute or other problem, local to the village, in which the allegation of ‘witchcraft’ was merely a device.

Robespierre’s ‘Terror’ of 1793 was another example to a much larger scale: amidst a hysteria in which any innocent citizen could be accused of being a counter-revolutionary and summarily executed, it was all too easy for neighbours to ‘dob in’ each other over minor domestic disputes. The same happened, again, during Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union. Again, neighbours had merely to ‘dob in’ each other, and often did so for reasons that had everything to do with their personal arguments. And, of course, there remains the McCarthy era in the United States, where mere mention of someone being a ‘red’ or ‘communist’ sufficed to ruin them and take away any defence.

There are many, many other examples, all associated with the way humans exploit either an overt authoritarian system, or a social phenomenon which has the features of authoritarianism. A raft of behaviours, including the way those defined as powerless by the system still find ways to hurt others – usually by exploiting the way those with power so swiftly find ways to misuse it – consistently seem to follow. The fact that this pattern of behaviour can occur with such frequency and apparent ease makes clear that it is innate to humans. And the conclusion, alas, is that humans are not a very nice species.

What worries me is that much of it goes unnoticed. We recoil in due horror from the excessive examples. But it happens on many scales, from death camps to school playgrounds and everything between. Including what we assume to be our civilised society.

Are humans really not a very nice species? Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021


14 thoughts on “Why humans keep failing the moral test

    1. Yes, humans certainly are. Unfortunately. There was a study in ‘Nature’ that put it down to evolutionary origins: primates, in general, are one of the few families that are violent towards each other, and of those, first the great apes – and then humans – are the worst. Our violence has been shown to pre-date agriculture, and I do wonder whether it was an evolutionary survival trait that worked until band size became too great. Our ‘intelligence’ (such as it is…) seems to be able to modify the outcomes, though. The study’s here: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature19758

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    2. That is a little misleading though, in that humans have greater power to destroy than other species.
      Early applications of a new power are often destructive before lessons are learned.
      A child learns how to use a new tool by making mistakes, unless it is taught by its parents. Humankind can only learn how to use its power from the lessons of history; it isn’t immediate or instinctive).

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  1. I have to agree with Chris. Humans are the most destructive species, ever, but we do so in very strange ways. In the rest of the animal kingdom, some species are ‘prey’ and some are predators. If too many of the prey are wiped out, the predators die, so there is a kind of balance maintained between supply and demand. Or you could say there’s a balance between competition and co-operation. Not a perfect balance, but a balance.
    Amongst humans, predators and prey are part of the /same/ species. While we have something external to fear, or prey upon, we don’t prey upon each other [that much]. Take away external dangers and we turn the dual part of our nature on ourselves.
    I think that’s why we have wars. The reasons manufactured to start those wars are almost irrelevant. Just think of all those young men gleefully marching off to Gallipoli or wherever. Volunteering to go.
    Perhaps wars are the result of an internal biological switch that gets turned on when there are too many of us. Or too many sociopaths at the helm. :/

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    1. I think there is a great deal of biology attached to human violence – an evolutionary trait that (as I mentioned to Chris in the comment above) was probably a successful survival strategy, once upon a time. But that time is long past. It’s a sad indictment: here in NZ, the Wellington zoo has a variety of dangerous animals – African hyenas (which I’ve seen being fed – and it’s scary), along with various big cats. They also have a small band of chimps. If there’s an earthquake and the cages are broken, their emergency plan involves the sad duty of shooting the most dangerous of these animals. Chimps top the list. And humans, alas, are more dangerous again. There’s good evidence that our social structures and intelligence can modify these behaviours, but all too often it doesn’t.

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      1. Ugh, that is chilling news. I hate the idea of wild animals being locked up in cages for our amusement, but I’d hate to see them destroyed. As for the chimps, yes, I read they’re dangerous too. It seems the more intelligent the upright apes become, the more violent they are.
        In some ways, the only real surprise is that our social structures have worked as well as they have. Major cities with /millions/ of inhabitants? It is a miracle of sorts.
        I’ve sometimes wondered if we’d do better if we restricted the size of our cities. Then again, how small would they need to be?

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  2. Thanks Matthew for a good article and certainly a contentious issue. I agree this is a serious problem that has been around forever if History is considered. So it certainly makes one wonder if humans are innately sadistic and if so how the heck did we become so dominant on the planet? I tend to think we are generally good people but for some reason tend to put much more emphasis on the darker side of life. So maybe, just maybe, if we could write and talk more about the good things that have happened and are happening every day it may just become self perpetuating?

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    1. Certainly – the commercialisation of news and its reduction to drama has amplified the attention paid to the darker side of modern human society. What worries me is that there is good evidence of that same darkness being well evident even in hunter-gatherer times; it seems to be innate.


  3. I wonder if our cruel and violent tendencies are a somehow a result of our big brains. On the other hand, other intelligent species, apart from primates, don’t seem to have those tendencies. If it is so, it’s quite likely that what made us the inventive creatures we are may just bring about our extinction.

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    1. I think it’s highly likely that the very features that make us distinct – inventiveness, creativity and so forth – are going to be linked to the way we also manage to destroy every environment we enter, factionalise and then fight among ourselves (with psychotic viciousness in academic departments, as far as I can tell) and so forth. Possibly a survival trait that’s either misfired or which simply doesn’t work longer-term, particularly in modern complex societies.

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  4. That does sound a rather fatalistic view of humankind. I suspect much depends on one’s environment and stage of development. I’m in the process of watching a two-part documentary based on Stephen Pinker’s hypothesis that human violence has declined over history and continues to do so.
    It is sadly true that it isn’t only the cream that rises to the top, but I like to think we’re getting better at skimming off the ordure, due partly to the increasing power of the massed voices underneath. And, while the baying of the hounds of the press is often unpleasant and so irresponsible that it becomes an alternative form of bullying, it still occasionally throws light on practices and behaviour that might otherwise go undenounced. (Although I do think it’s important that children are actively taught not to believe everything they read without corroboration.)
    Every generation learns more about how they affect the world and each other, but knowledge takes time to percolate through societies. Because we began as animals doesn’t mean were doomed to remain so.

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  5. In Nazi Germany, the Gestapo had about 5000 active agents. There was no way this small number in a nation of 80 million could control the populace to the degree they were controlled. They relied on neighbourhood tattle-tales to point the finger, and on the five million NSDAP members to keep an eye on things. it was a society run by a combination of fear and desire to be approved and gain an advantage in the struggle to be part of the Master-Race. At the same time, there and in all the other societies where we see these dark forces at work light is there as well. Humans are indeed the most destructive species ever, but also the most creative and the most capable of helping others – among themselves and other species.

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