Irony and Human Nature (re: Austin & Sanderson)

Wed, 23 Apr 1997 13:23:39 +0100
Richard K. Moore (

Andrew Austin seems to have soundly refuted (in "Re: Sanderson on
individuals and systems") the view expressed by Professor Sanderson
regarding the primacy of individual rational selfishness in determining
social forms. But it was Austin's marshalling of empirical psychological
research that I found convicing. The attempt to show logical absurdity in
Sanderson's argument was tenuous. And the attempt, which we've seen
before, to discount all notions of "human nature" stands refuted, I'd say,
by Austin himself - ironically.

4/22/97, Andrew Wayne Austin wrote:
>First, I assert three axioms. (1) Individuals are born and socialized into
>preexisting social systems that are real. (2) These social systems place
>structural and processual constraints on the range of alternatives among
>which individuals may choose...

I interpret these to be claims about what human nature is, ie:
(a) It is human nature to be born into a society which has social
systems and to be socialized to those systems. It is human
nature for this socialization to be accomplished, in part,
by constraints on choices available to the individual.

>...Research into cognition has clearly
>demonstrated that human beings are not typically rational thinkers. "The
>most general finding is the extremely limited reasoning power of the
>experimental subjects tested...
>...Human beings, if anything, are practical thinkers. They learn schemes and
>proceed heuristically.

Again, I see claims about the nature of human nature:
(b) It is human nature to use practical thinking - to learn schemes
and proceed heuristically. It is typical of human nature not to
employ subtle reasoning skills.

>More importantly, individual behavior can only
>be understood in social contexts, and this means starting with the social
>system first.

Here I see:
(c) Human nature is to be understood in a social context, especially
in the interaction between an individual and the social systems
of a particular society.

Austin, evidently, chooses not to perceive his claims as being descriptions
of human nature. I'd say that's not a rational choice, but rather a
heuristic he's adopted to help discount the notion that there is a "human
nature" in debates he participates in. Thus he reveals his (non-rational)
human-ness, consonant with the very human nature he implicitly identifies.

I happen to agree with Austin's implicit formulation. The three tenets
(a,b,c) above, it seems to me, are a substantial start toward identifying
the major characteristics of human nature. Already in these first three
principles it becomes clear that human nature and social systems can only
be understood when they are understood together. They recursively
influence and determine one another. Human nature is social.

If one wants to understand elephant nature, one starts (ala Austin) by
understanding the social context - females and young travel in groups,
adult males travel alone, etc. Attempts to discover elephant nature in
zoos failed, naturally, because they started with the invalid assumption
that elephant nature was capable of being expressed by a lone individual
(or perhaps pair), and outside of natural habitat.

If one wants to understand electron nature, one must also understand proton
and atom nature. The nature of the PARTS and of the SYSTEM are understood
all together or not at all.


As Austin points out, there are some interesting points of logic and pardox to be considered. I believe his view goes something like this: There cannot be a human nature because individual behavior is always socially determined.

There is an implicit, somewhat behaviorist, assumption in such a view: Human nature, if it exists, would exist in an individual prior to societal influences.

This is the same kind of erroneous assumption that blinded science to true animal nature prior to modern field ethology. Regarding this assumption, let me comment in Austin's own words: "On what theoretical and empirical grounds is this assertion made? None are given." Human nature expresses and discovers itself in interaction with society. It cannot be taken in isolation, just as lung nature is meaningless without air.


>Capitalism was forced on the world's majority. It slowly evolved because >people resisted it for centuries. And they still do. People seek to go >past capitalism.

This may be Austin's most relevant conclusion, as regards WSN. I fully agree with him here, but must point out that "people seek" is an implicit reference to a "people nature".

>To say that rationally is inherent in the human actor is to suggest >that rationality is a part of physical nature. This means that other >animals could be rational actors. How is it possible for a cat to act >rationally?

It is fitting to close with the above example of multi-non-sequitor illogic, which is easily understood as a very human non-rational attempt to establish debating territory, and to take up swords against "reactionary criminology, neoclassical liberalism, and neoconservative moral philosophy".

Admirable goals, humanly pursued - but not science, not logical.

Regards, rkm