Confronting Human Frailty

A man carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom.”                                                                                                               

                                                                                     ― Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Adam Bede


In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker borrowed a concept from the conservative scholar Thomas Sowell, who argued that there were two “visions” of human nature (Pinker, 2002). Pinker referred to these as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision, and he spent several pages placing famous historical thinkers into one of the two camps.  

According to Pinker, the Tragic Vision suggests that “humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits” (p. 287). On the other hand, in the Utopian Vision “psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.”

These groupings are not perfect, but Pinker argues that they work better than trying to categorize people as left/right or conservative/liberal. For some examples, in the Utopian camp, Pinker placed people like Bobby Kennedy, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine. For Tragic Visionaries, he chose – among others – Friedrich Hayek, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Hobbes.

Ultimately, Pinker felt that “the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life” (p. 293). To support this, he cited a checklist of points, including our propensity for nepotism, our self-serving cognitive biases, the inevitability of some level of inequality, ethnocentrism, violence, our limited ability to share selflessly without reciprocity, etc.

Some of his points I agree with; some less so. From an evolutionary perspective, I think it is a given that we have a biology riddled with imperfections, workarounds, and compromises. Evolution did not set out to create perfect organisms, but ones that were merely functional or just good enough. That includes us.

Among our weaknesses, I would agree with Pinker that we have self-serving biases and logical fallacies, and limited senses. And, frankly, humanity is often disappointing. Hardly a day goes by without reading some news story of someone’s callousness, selfishness, or outright cruelty. But perhaps that’s because we have such a big pool of people from which to choose. In that sample, it’s a mathematical certainty that someone will emerge as the daily jerk.

However, I can also think of people whom I’ve known and admired –uninterrupted – for years. Disappointment is not inevitable for a given individual, at least not on a regular basis. When disappointment does occur, I’d like to think that the Tragic Visionary in me is aware of human imperfection and is relatively quick to pardon.

In the end, I think there are lessons from both the Tragic and Utopian perspectives. We could probably use greater awareness of our own fallibilities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to concede entirely to pessimism. Adopting a strictly naïve Utopian perspective would be swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, but I also think that there is the possibility for improving our lot. Disappointment in humanity may be inevitable, but disappointments are probably more likely to occur under particular circumstances.

One thought on “Confronting Human Frailty

  1. Pingback: Year in Review: Top Posts of 2015 | Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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