We Are What We Believe We Are

As an economist, I have always been puzzled by the basic assumption that we are all pursuing our own self-interest.  And fascinated by studies that suggest that the study of economics makes people more self-interested and less altruistic. I also questioned the dominant assumption of economists since the mid-20th century that the human mind is just a giant cost-benefit calculating machine. So I was relieved to reconnect with a long tradition in economics that challenged that pair of assumptions about humans. 

One part of that challenge questioned the capability of the human mind as an efficient calculating machine.  We would make better (if still self-interested) decisions if we fed all the data into a computer along with our preferences.  A lot of behavioral economics has been devoted to examining that assumption, questioning our ability to choose wisely or well from either an altruistic or self-interested perspective.  Having too many choices confuses us. We are influenced by the context in which the choice is made and are very bad at estimating probability, which plays an important role in making good choices. (For example, we insure too much against low dollar risks and not enough against infrequent but very expensive losses.)

Far harder to dislodge is the first assumption, self-interest.  Always competition, never co-operation. Every generation a Me generation. From Greek cynicism and Christianity’s doctrine of original sin, we are encouraged by our culture to believe the worst about human nature.  That view is reinforced by the news, by economists, and by political leaders who are, as it is fashionable to say, on the spectrum.  Not the autism spectrum, the self-interested spectrum. After all, many people run for office because they want power and control, so why are we surprised when they abuse it? 

But there are also people running for office because they find it a venue in which to work to make the world a better place, just like nurses and firefighters and teachers and other helping professions. They seek power both for their own satisfaction and to do good in the world. Yes, we are all a mix of self-interest and altruism, but if we are told that greed is good, self-interest is normal, and other people and institutions can’t be trusted, we begin to internalize that view of ourselves and others.  It leads to defeatism and hopelessness and a lot of sales of insurance policies to protect ourselves against a hostile world.

But is it, in fact, actually true? Dutch author Rutgers Bregman in his new book Humankind has single -handedly enabled me to affirm my alternative view of the world, which believes that most of us lie on the hopeful, trusting, at least somewhat altruistic range of the spectrum of human personality. That we are a mixture of original sin and original blessing, and it is up to our families, or institutions and our culture to focus our attention on the glass half-full, the original blessing part.  I know my hopeful view is shared by my family and close friends, in part because my husband and I  conveyed that understanding to our family and chose our friends because they shared that world view.  It calls us to rejoice in the success of others, come to their aid in times of crisis, to share their sorrows and try to create more peace, joy, hope, love, and generosity in the world.

Saint Paul, with whom I have some issues, got it right when he said, Faith, hope, love, these three abide, but the greatest of these is love. I would add a fourth, grace (or gratitude) as the four essential attitudes (or virtues) that are the foundation for a positive view of human nature.  Faith, or trust—in ourselves, in the sacred, in humanity, in the reality of goodness.  Hope, or as theologian Joanna Macy would qualify it, active hope-belief that the world can become a better place if we do our part.  Love, the mother of kindness, compassion, justice that make life worth living. Grace or gratitude, the belief that everything we have –our health, our loved ones, our food, nature, our skills, our opportunities, even our challenges—are free gifts that we can use to live wisely and well for ourselves and others. 

So, reading this book, I resolved to mostly turn off the news, which focuses on the negative in the world and in humanity.  Maybe PBS News Hour is enough. I resolved to assume the best intentions in others and to affirm my own best intentions.  I think it will contribute to my inner peace. And as Lao-Tse reminds us, if there is to be peace in the world, there must first be peace in the heart, then in the home, among neighbors in the cities, among the nations. 

Let it begin with me. And you.

And read the book, it’s really good.

One thought on “We Are What We Believe We Are

  1. This is one of the best ‘sermons’ I’ve read (HEARD) in a long while. Yes, I will read the book.
    PS…I’d like the glass to be at least 3/4 full. 🙂


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