I have this sinking feeling that I’m not much different from other animals, that my humanity teeters on a seesaw that I don’t control. Long ago Hobbes conjectured that in the state of nature, humans, like animals, would readily kill each other so as to live longer, eat more, or simply because it gave them something they wanted— Hobbes thought that humans would do anything necessary to survive, no matter what. Hobbes’ thinking makes me nervous, but the longer I think about it, the more I’m afraid he might be right. Of course I’d like to consider myself to be more than an uncaring, man-killing, selfish monster, but I’m not totally convinced that it’s entirely impossible. Yes I want to be more enlightened than the animals of the world, but if I were to be placed in a life or death situation, couldn’t I feasibly act similarly? The answer, I think, is that I could.
More broadly put, I’m not sure that the distinction from animals that we humans so proudly hold ourselves to, that of overcoming our animal instincts, is necessarily as realistic as we think it is. Sure, I can reason (Kant) and opposable thumbs are great, but really, in the awful situation where I’m forced to pick others over myself, how can I possibly know what I would do? As far as I can tell, what makes us human, what makes us different from other animals, is not that we think about this, but that we think we’re any different.
The germination of this uneasy feeling came a bit before reading Hobbes, after I’d read José Saramago’s Blindness. In the book, random citizens become afflicted with an unknown disease causing blindness. Confused and unsure of where the disease comes from, the government quarantines the “sick.” However, afraid that the disease will spread, the government neglects to take adequate care of them—giving them too little food and refusing to enter the premises to keep order. With insufficient food, limited space, and no government, the atmosphere inside the quarantine becomes panicked and, seemingly, very similar to Hobbes’ state of nature: groups of people band together to protect themselves and to steal from others; one group gets a hold of all the food and barters with the other internees, demanding whatever they want in return. The society Saramago envisions is terrifying—one where whomever has power has all control.
It is a result of our superior faculties, then, that humans can afford to consider themselves “better” than animals, Saramago says; take away our comfort and put us into a situation in which we feel fear, and we will revert to acting like animals, not because we want to, but we feel we must in order to survive. “Could there be a thin line between our humanity and our animal nature?” Saramago seems to ask. A line that, say, a natural disaster couldn’t cause us to scamper across?
Which brings me to The Hunger Games. There are a plethora of messages in the movie, but the one that most strongly stuck with me is that human beings can be really terrible to one another: how could a society of people like us (at least of people who seem to look like us) allow teenagers to run around killing one another? Yes, this is fiction, but I feel that Suzanne Collins wanted to, at least in part, make the point that under certain circumstances humans can do terrible things—things we wouldn’t normally fathom ourselves capable of. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, after all it’s a kid’s book, but after seeing the movie, I couldn’t help but think that Collins was saying that put people in a state of nature, and they’ll turn into animals.
Of course, it’s important to note that at the end of the first movie of The Hunger Games, the two main characters beat the system: they don’t have to kill each other, and both survive. In Blindness, too, the main characters are able to stick together, sacrificing for one another and undergoing serious pain and anguish to do so. Looking at these people who are able to put others’ well-being over their own would suggest that maybe Hobbes has it wrong, and that we’re not all out for our own good. But who knows? After all, it’s fiction.
I talked about this post with some of my friends here at Amherst, and they categorically disagreed with its premise: “Saying that humans ‘become,’ or are, animals if both are only interested in their own survival seems an arbitrary place to start,” said one. “What would you say about the fruit seller in Tunisia?” asked another. Both good questions, and neither of which I have definitive answers to. Maybe, then, we are capable of so much more. Maybe this comparison is arbitrary or simply wrong. But maybe Hobbes was right and we’re closer to a state of nature than we can recognize.
And so I’ll end with this thought: my dad doesn’t like my dog very much, and not because he has an issue with the dog, but because he says my mom gives the dog too much attention. And while I just think he’s jealous, he claims that the dog doesn’t really love my mom, it’s just that the dog knows he needs my mom. Why? Well, she feeds him.
Feature Image from: http://setyoufreenews.blogspot.com/2010/11/new-statistical-model-moves-human.html