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Survival Mode: A Quasi-Philosophical Argument for People's Inherent Goodness

By Raegan Boettcher

Art by Jamylle Gomes

During Winter 2023, I took a philosophy course about the history of materialism and discourses of life and death. In all honesty, it was kind of torturous and horrifically boring, but at least I successfully completed my TMV requirement — and I can happily say that it is over and I never have to suffer through Aristotelian philosophy again. And I admit, I did learn some things about Marxist materialism and Foucaultian historicism (including a distaste for the latter). I also learned that a lot of philosophy is bullshit. (Don’t get me wrong, I think some philosophy can be useful. But still — a lot of philosophy is bullshit.)

Nonetheless, if I had to pick one thing that really stuck with me — across hundreds and hundreds of pages of Kant, Socrates, Sartre, Hobbes, Locke, Lacan, Foucault — it would be that we need to believe in people’s inherent goodness.

I remember, very clearly, when we read excerpts from Hobbes’ Leviathan, discussing his conception of the state of nature and insistence that a sovereign is necessary to control man’s inherent violence. Hobbes famously said,

“during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”[1]

Hobbesian philosophy argues that the state of nature is war and rails against arguments for autonomy or self-governance. (Hobbes specifically argues for monarchy, but I would argue that there are few, if any, governments that actually provide their constituents complete autonomy.)

I just couldn’t fathom thinking like this — because if I didn’t believe that people were inherently good, I wouldn’t survive. If people are inherently evil, if all we want is war and violence, then what do we fight for? What am I doing here, if not learning to better love and care for people? But then, if people are inherently good, why do bad things happen? Why are there arguably bad people (or at least, people that do bad things)?

I would argue that it is because we’re in a constant fight for our lives. People in crisis, in survival mode, do drastic things to secure their own well-being. The crisis in question? I mean. Look around you. I’m mainly talking about capitalism (as it plays a significant role in the development of other forms of exploitation, like patriarchy[2]), but please take any other oppressive system that has made society as we know it basically irredeemable and insert here: [ ].

I refuse to believe that we have a natural tendency to step on each other to gain traction in the rat race. We’re highly social creatures — we love to be social so much that we domesticated wolves and spend a lot of time and money and food to maintain this relationship even now. (And they let us do this for them, because they, too, are highly social creatures and instinctively understand the value of mutualistic relationships.) At our core, we are made of love and we want to share it.

People are naturally competitive, I’ll give you that, but usually it’s playful. It’s enriching. Competition is useful, in an evolutionary sense, and interesting, in a neurological sense — but neurology tells us that competition is only half of our programmed social cognition. The other half is cooperation.[3]

At our most basic level (and when I say basic, I mean when our needs are reasonably met), we thrive in community. Have you heard the saying — “it takes a village”? It’s true — it does take a village, whether the task is raising a child, feeding a family, or learning to do more than just survive. A village thrives when we put our efforts into building community and caring for each other. That is one of the most revolutionary acts for us to pursue today. For just a few examples — the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, the Writers Guild strike at the time of writing this, mutual aid networks created by Sunrise and other various organizations on campus, feminist consciousness-raising in Spare Rib. Unions, strikes, mutual aid, radical worldbuilding — these are not actions of people in isolation. They are radical acts of community care.

The survival-of-the-fittest, rat-race attitude is carefully taught and cultivated. We’re taught that we live in a society of scarcity, that only some of us will survive, but that could not be further from the truth. Our resources are not scarce — they are sequestered at the top, for the benefit of the few; they are hoarded in imperial countries, for the wealthiest citizens. I mean, have you seen those videos of restaurant staff throwing out massive amounts of food after closing?

Think about price gouging during natural disasters — the justification being that we have to raise prices, otherwise people will buy too many and we’ll run out. As if selling a pack of water for $40 is morally correct (and as if selling water is ever morally correct, in the first place). There are over 16 million empty homes in the United States, consistently outnumbering the number of unhoused people in any given region. Syracuse, NY alone has 110 empty homes per unhoused person.[4]

Our society manufactures scarcity to perpetuate a reliance on capitalist modes of production. We are taught that this is the only way forward. But housing and food are not scarce. And neither is our collective capacity for care.

I just can’t bring myself to believe in the rat race because all of the people in my life that I love, because they have brought me so much joy and laughter and care. And the effort that it takes to be kind in a world that looks like this proves (at least to me) that our basic state is one of love. That doesn’t mean that love isn’t hard and being kind isn’t laborious at times. Maybe it would be easier to be thoughtlessly unkind, to take your anger at the world out on other people, but the care work is necessary. It is a central part of our nature.

I think Hobbes is ridiculous and pessimistic, but I also understand him, and I cannot stop thinking about him because I know what he was feeling. Hobbes wrote Leviathan after witnessing the carnage of the English Civil War. I cannot even blame him, truthfully — who wouldn’t believe humans are fundamentally evil after watching your friends and neighbors tear each other apart?

Trauma and isolation make you feel like everything is terrible, everyone is evil, and nothing is redeemable. And isn’t that the entire point? This world-in-perpetual-crisis makes us feel traumatized and isolated, so we keep perpetuating this system because we feel like we have no other choice. It makes us feel like everyone else is surviving, and doing it well, so we must try to do the same, and try to go it alone.

We don’t have to go it alone. The most radical thing you can do is reach out a hand, to make a connection, to live your life with love, and to open your heart to others. We can decide that this isn’t good enough — that there has to be something beyond the rat race, that we all deserve something better. adrienne marie brown describes this as a radical imagination, a visionary practice.[5] We live in a society created by the ruling class, but we have the power to imagine otherwise.

We’re shoved into the world like rats in a maze and we’re too busy pressing the pleasure button, so often at the expense of other people, to look for an exit. We don’t have to keep pressing the button. We can find our way out of the maze.






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