A few years ago we were invited to consider the idea that humanity is making great strides in becoming more empathetic, less violent—that “the better angels of our nature” were winning out over our baser instincts. The argument was based on lots of data, displayed in many charts and lists and seeming to show that we are evolving into better people.
It’s true that borderless technology has brought us closer together, that sympathy for victims of disasters is enhanced by on-location 24-hour news. It’s true that the promotion of human rights has given us more tolerant societies, that Europeans have not gone to war with each other for more than seven decades, that democracy and capitalism have largely leveled the playing field around the world. And yet, dangerous crosscurrents are visible once more.
How to account for the rise in anti-Semitism? What about the emergence of nationalists and autocrats in otherwise democratic states? And what about studies showing that empathy is declining among the young?
Are we born good or bad or neutral? Is human nature so malleable that it can come down on the side of good or bad, depending on circumstances? What is the role of values in the creation and maintenance of stable societies? What long-term damage does the overthrow of ethical and moral norms cause?
Consider that gene-editing technology brings the promise of eradication of serious diseases and life-long disorders, but also the reality of genetic catastrophes. The recent manipulation of genetic material with as yet unknown consequences by a Chinese researcher brought worldwide condemnation. Yet once this genie is set free, who will prevent others from using the technology in other potentially injurious ways? As of now there is no universally agreed control.
Though we may be becoming more empathetic and less violent in some respects, the proclivity of human nature to act first and foremost from self-interest is ever present. This may mean distorting the purpose of an otherwise benign technology for nationalistic ends.
For instance, what if gene modification is weaponized in the service of the state?
“[The] convergence of low cost and high availability means that applications for gene editing—both positive and negative—could arise from people or states operating outside of the traditional scientific community.”
The dark side of human nature may again find ways to rid a nation of the racially or politically marginalized. Stalin sought to destroy the farmer class, driving them off the land and causing a famine that killed 5–8 million. Following Lenin’s lead, he then made internal terror an instrument of the state, indiscriminately killing many more. Fyodor Dostoevsky had already foreseen this end when he wrote, “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” A few years later to the west, the industrialized Nazi death camps were the creation of men wanting to please their leader, a man devoid of any shred of empathy.
We thought perhaps that such times were in the past. But totalitarians and autocrats are again coming to the fore in many countries. In the Middle East, many of the innocent have been barrel-bombed, chemically attacked and starved to death. Are these isolated examples, while the overall trend is to the good? Or are we seeing once more the tendency of human nature to swing between good and bad depending on self-interest, ambition and thirst for power?
What can you and I do as individuals in the face of these questions and developments? It’s doubtful that we can achieve very much against governmental forces. What we can do is make sure that our human nature is constantly directed toward the good. It’s possible for us to raise children with conscience and empathy. Peace of mind is achievable in the direst of situations. Vision has many articles along these lines. As always, our basis is biblical, the one source we believe we can trust for wisdom in living life in all times.