the individual vs. society, and the collective unconscious

Are human beings social animals? We live in large collective groups and have complex rules for our social interactions. Also, our close biological relatives seem to frequently organised themselves into social groups. It would certainly seem so.

However, our entire experience of life is limited to our own headspace. Every human being is limited to their own, fundamentally ego-centric point of view. We can try to imagine what others are feeling, but only by imagining what we ourselves would experience in a similar situation. What's more, it is far easier to simply ignore what other people are feeling. We are conditioned by societies rules to not do this, but we all do it, and we do it frequently. It is an effort to put ourselves in someone else's shoes.

It is easier to be selfish than it is to be altruistic.

Indeed, biologically speaking, this makes sense. If we look ourselves over others we are more likely to survive and pass on our genes. Law of the jungle and all that. (This argument is of course more complex, for example there may be situations in which helping others helps us survive, but I would still point that our theoretical ancestor is only helping others here in order to help him-/herself).

So, again, I would state: it is easier to be selfish than it is to be altruistic.

This, to me, does not seem like the nature of a social animal. Now, maybe my definition of social is unnecessarily harsh but when I look at the world around me I believe that almost all the evil in it comes from people being selfish, from people ignoring the negative consequences of their actions on others.

Often, of course, we can't help but hurt some in order to help others but I would argue that the moral position here would be to ensure that the majority benefit, and the minority is hurt. A truly social animal would even hurt themselves if the majority benefited.

This rarely happens.

So, by my argument so far: We are selfish by nature and it is from this that "evil" originates in the world.

I seem to have wandered dangerously close to something akin to original sin. At the very least, this line of argument seems to state that all people are integrally evil. And I'm not sure I believe that. It may be true, but I want to try to convince myself that it is not. After all, the majority of people do not seem to be comporting themselves in an evil manner. As I stated at the opening of this ramble we live in large collective groups (sometimes numbering in the millions) and we tend to survive. Evil happens, but it is the minority. There is a social instinct.

Where does it come from?

Before I enter tenuous territory, there are some obvious places that should be mentioned. Most importantly: we are more likely to survive if we all agree to certain social rules. If we load certain actions with a moral aspect, that society punishes, then they are less likely to happen, and the majority more likely to survive.

However, existence is possible in a fractured anarchistic, everyone out for themselves, environment, so, again, where does this social urge come from? If it is easier to see from our own point of view, why do we look from others? What makes us want to do as we are done by?

Here is the tenuous territory: the collective unconscious. I, personally, have significant doubts about the collective unconscious. It doesn't fit with my hard-won preconceptions about the world at all. However, the evidence is there. There are undeniably universal themes and archetypes, not only in world mythology, but in how we construct our own lives. These themes and archetypes are still important today. They have been transmogrified certainly, but they are still here.

Of particular interest, I think, is the hero archetype - the archetype that stands at the centre of the story, the archetype that we aspire to. The hero is defined by sacrifice. He sacrifices himself, an individual, in order that society benefits. That is why we call people like firemen and policemen heroes: they put themselves in danger so that society benefits.

So, I would suggest that the collective unconscious is, at least partly, responsible for the social urge in humans. What this answers, however... I don't know. The collective unconscious seems to be a symptom rather than a cause. Or maybe it is just a more fundamental expression of the social urge. Whatever... there must be a cause for the collective unconcious. I don't know what this is. Maybe it is something similar in the make-up of our brains. Or maybe it is a creation of society itself, a story made up by one randomly occuring collective that allowed it to survive and propagate. I don't know.

But it is there, and maybe by exploring it, it will be possible to find out a little bit more about that terminal case we call the human condition.


some random thoughts on iraq and the nature of leadership

NOTE: It should be mentioned that I am remarkably uninformed on this subject

The general opinion of a large number of people I know is that the War on Iraq (or whatever the most popular euphemism of the day is) was/is a mistake and that the troops should be withdrawn post-haste.

I disagree.

One of the few things I clearly recall from my course in Internation Relations is that, while democratic societies are exceptionally stable (and apparently almost never go to war against each other), democratizing states are exceptionally unstable as various parties jostle for position. Iraq, I believe, is a country in the process of democratizing. Therefore it does indeed seem necessary for an external force to present in case everything goes shit-wise. That external force in this case is (essentially) the U.S.

And therein lies the problem.

The problem is not necessarily that it is the U.S. specifically that is guarding the democratizing process (though that certainly carries its own baggage) but that it is predominantly only one country that is providing the guiding hand.

I would argue that any external country involved in another country's democratizing process is bound to end up wanting to protect itself, and to try to influence the process so that it comes out of it well. You could argue all day over whether this is the right thing to do (a country's government is surely supposed to protect it's own people, and yet shouldn't the people of primary importance here be the people of Iraq?) but it is going to happen whether it is morally wrong or right. (After all, who would re-elect a government that actively endangered him/her).

However, the more countries involved in guding the democratizing the more the individual desires of each nation would be blunted, and eventually, with enough people involved, the forces democratizing a nation would be molded into something as close to a win-win-situation for all as possible.

Basically, what I am saying is that the US going into Iraq (essentially) unilaterally was a mistake.

However, I do believe that removing Sadam Hussein from power was the right thing to do. The morally right thing to do. WMD or no (and I think no) I believe that Saddam Husseub is a vile human being who was doing vile things to a large number of people. It was a good thing for a large number of people that he was removed from power.

My question though, is whether Sadam Hussein would have been removed from power had the US waited for the international community to assist? There certainly is a chance that the international community would have said, yes, this man must be stopped. However, it would have taken a long time and more people would have been hurt. And there is also the chance that the international community would have said, no, we don't think it is within our purview to take this action, Sadam Hussein is not threatening any of us. Essentially the people of Iraq would have been abandonned to the whims of a madman, as long as that madman didn't threaten anyone outside of his own borders.

I have phrased this so it sounds like a Satanic position to hold, which belies my own feelings, but it is an understandable stance. Why should a country endanger its own people (a large number of people) for anothers?

Essentially, for it to be certain that the war on Iraq should take place, a leader had to emerge. It is predictable that the US would take this role (oil, the threat of terrorism, world hegemony, etc. the reasons are plentiful, some more pertinent than others).

So, for ensured action, a unilateral approach was almost required in this scenario, but it was also the worst way the action could be performed.

It also seems to me that this general type of situation is not limited to the war on Iraq. When rapid action is required then either a mass consensus is needed, or a leader. But who are the leaders? It seems to me that in order to believe you can/should be a leader you also have to believe that you would be a better leader than the majority of other people. In other words, in order to desire to be a leader, I would suggest that you have to lack a certain faith in the rest of humanity. A certain level of ego-ism is required. Generalizing slightly (and I hope only slightly) I would suggest that leaders (at least those who have actively sought power) have a stronger belief in the individual than in society.

And, considering we entrust the safety of society to these leaders then this strikes me as being a fundamental problem in the structure of society.

I certainly thing it is this problem which leads to people like Sadam Hussein, and to the US unilaterally attacking him.

But, like I said, I believe removing him from power was a good thing. All the other baggage associated with Iraq comes from the (essentially) unilateral nature of the action. But a unilateral action if not the only option, was the only sure option to remove Sadam Hussein.

And round and round it goes.

I see no neat solution to this problem. I think I heard or read somewhere that the only people who should be allowed to lead are those who don't want to (or possibly that people who want to lead are the very people who should never be given a position of power) and I have to say I agree. This is, of course, impossible.

Leaders are a fact of life but they do not come out of nowhere. And the Bush administration could not have started the war on Iraq without the mass consensus of its the US population. So maybe it is we followers who should be the most careful.