Alan Dent


To be even mildly right-wing is to celebrate division. The Right often evokes “human nature” but always to imply self-interest, unfairness, distinctions and to deny universality. The history of this distorted version of what it means to be human is very long, but for our purposes what matters is how it’s employed to prop up the moral vacuity of capitalism. One of the Right’s favourite theorists is Adam Smith who, they claim, was a free marketeer avant la lettre when he argued the self-interest of the butcher, the brewer and the baker provides our dinner and evoked the magical “invisible hand” which smooths capitalism’s wrinkles. In fact, Smith uses the term hardly at all and on the couple of occasions he does so, with the opposite intent of the free-marketeers. What he’s saying is there is a natural sympathy between human beings which intervenes, like an invisible hand to prevent the triumph of evil. Also, Smith believed the world was ruled by a beneficent God who would not permit total evil. Therefore, evil could be only “partial” and the apparent evils of capitalism (poverty, degradation of workers etc) would be attenuated by the prevailing goodness of God’s universe. That may be a bad argument, but it’s nothing like the argument of the neo-liberals.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith terms the pursuit of personal wealth “a delusion”. He didn’t call his book The Wealth of Individuals. His concern was rational: how do communities defend themselves against want? He spoke of “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind: everything for ourselves, nothing for anyone else.” Does that sound like Thatcher, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Blair or Starmer? Before The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments whose first sentence is: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Can you imagine that on a Tory leaflet or in a speech by Starmer? The Wealth of Nations is understandable only in the light of the previous book: it’s because Smith has the classical liberal’s faith in the mutual beneficence of human nature that he has no fear of the self-interest of the butcher, brewer or baker. It is limited by our natural endowment and God’s oversight. Had he witnessed the twentieth century he would have re-written his masterpiece.

Smith’s friend David Hume also had faith in human nature, which he conceived as broadly benign. The contemporary Right takes the opposite view: capitalism is the expression of our human endowment which is self-interested, manipulative, conniving, forever in pursuit of advantage, inclined to invidious comparison and essentially amoral. At the heart of neo-liberalism is the notion the  market is morally neutral: it does what has to be done, and if millions are left going to food banks, no one is to blame. Von Hayek peddles this: people are biased, they will be unjust and authoritarian, while the market is exempt from such baseness. It’s reminiscent of Anatole France’s famous quip: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to beg in the street or sleep under bridges.”

The conundrum lies in uncovering what human nature is; no small matter and almost certainly running up against the limits of our understanding. However, there are some serious clues. If we are a product of nature, which is self-evidently true, then our species capacities have been endowed by biology, which can’t be held responsible for the existence of classes. We aren’t workers or capitalists or slaves and slave-owners by nature. Yet in right-wing ideology there has to be the suggestion we are. Social categories correspond to natural endowment. Trump is a billionaire because of his extraordinary prowess in business. The poor blacks of America are, the hidden suggestion is, deserving of their poverty (or incarceration).

For the past five hundred years the world has been dominated by conquest based on white supremacy in pursuit of lucre. The supremacy rests on a flawed concept of “race” which is biologically without meaning. As Richard Lewontin put it “Differences are biological, distinctions social.” “Race” is a cultural category. Believing skin colour is a marker of some essential biological distinction is as absurd as thinking the same of eye colour or hair colour. These are superficial differences which imply no social distinction. In order to do violence to others, to make use of their labour, to enslave them, to use them or our advantage, there has to be some excuse. Hence, the Right’s ideology of distinction.

Yet why does there have to be an excuse? Why don’t capitalists simply declare: “We want to be rich and powerful and we’re going to use your labour. Shut up and do as we say or we’ll employ the forces of the State against you” ? The  explanation for their need to appear moral, is probably that, somehow, they know morality is unavoidable. Did Columbus know his behaviour towards the Tainos was morally despicable? Probably, but he rationalised: European monarchs need the wealth; these people are “savages”; God intended us to slaughter and exploit them. Every dictator needs a moral excuse. |Hitler was rescuing the German people from humiliation. Putin is defending Mother Russia from fascists. Imagine if Hitler had declared in the early 1930s: “Elect me and I’ll exterminate 5 million Jews and bring cataclysmic war to the world.” There always has to be a moral cover because we are moral creatures by nature.

Try to stop yourself thinking. You can do so only by thinking about not thinking. We think as naturally as we breath. Try to wipe language from your mind. Can’t be done. We are linguistic by nature and it’s universal. It isn’t the product of particular economic relations, it doesn’t differ according to which continent you were born on, what colour your skin is. Language is our common inheritance. It’s human nature. Of course, the six thousand languages currently in use look like the Tower of Babel and it’s easy to be misled into thinking each language is unique. What we know, however, is beneath the apparent chaos of language in use is the extraordinary efficiency of the inner faculty. All languages are underpinned by a universal grammar which functions by using a very small number of rules (arguably just one) in a generative process to produce an infinite number of sentences.  Chinese and English are superficially very different, but the fundamental internal operations which produce their sentences are identical. In a way, it’s obvious they must be: we all have language; there must be some universal inner process which permits that. A universal inner process which is a product of evolution. We are linguistic by endowment rather than by choice or circumstance.

Why shouldn’t the same be true of morality? Citing the evidence and making the argument would be a long business, but to be abrupt : there is a species expectation of fair behaviour. The capacity to recognise unfairness is as universal as language. Everyone responds positively (with maybe the exception of a few psychopaths) to a young man who helps an old lady across the road, just as everyone responds negatively if a young man punches an old lady in the face and steals her purse, and this looks pretty regular across cultures. There are often very difficult choices  and we aren’t always consistent, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest Hume and Smith may be right: there is a natural sympathy between people and it is a “principle” of our nature to want to see the happiness of others. It may well be that our moral faculty works in much the same way as our linguistic faculty: from a predetermined small set of rules, by a generative process, a wide and perhaps infinite array of moral decisions becomes possible.

In the ideology of the Right, morality is usually conceived as an imposition from without: it’s a matter of obeying the Bible or the boss. There is always  this suggestion of an external force providing the rules we must live by. Yet, at the same time, with characteristic incoherence, the Right puts its faith in the market on the grounds of its moral neutrality. Recognising we are moral creatures by nature, however, implies removing the barriers to the expression of our moral impulses. The peril of this for the rich and powerful is obvious. What they need is a set of rules imposed on the rest of us and which give expression to the hypocrisy and incoherence of their position. The constant hysteria of the media is a good example of moralism which has no faith in people’s innate moral capacity forcing ethical simplicities on the common folk out of fear they may decide for themselves. Right-wing ideology always sneaks in the assumption that the people can’t be trusted to make moral or any other kind of serious decisions. Just as they are lacking in intellectual capacity, so they lack moral capacity. Yet the evidence to the contrary is persuasive.

If we are moral by nature, how do we explain dictators, injustice, exploitation and so on? Well, evil people are always defending a supposedly moral position. Even gangsters. In fact, especially gangsters. Hence the well-known sentimentality of fascists and totalitarians. In short, it takes a huge effort to drive people away from their natural, mutual sympathy. It requires constant indoctrination, vigilance and use of punishment of one kind or another. In our culture, there is a high price  for not putting your own material interest first: yet witness how people respond to others in distress, often at the other side of the world.

The left has had an historic nervousness about a given, fixed human nature because it has seen it as militating against the possibility of social change; but that’s a mistake. It’s our nature to make our history and we do so through moral choice, not because we are buffeted by abstract  forces. We are cultural by nature just as we are linguistic. The Right has to adopt an incoherent position: that there is a human nature, but it isn’t universal. Thus, it’s human nature to be self-interested if you’re a capitalist but not if you’re a trade unionist. If there is a human nature, and self-evidently there is, it must be universal. If it’s the self-interested, acquisitive human nature of the Right, then they have no moral ground on which to argue against any form  of self-interest. If it’s human nature to be benightedly self-interested, it’s hard to find secure moral ground to condemn theft. Honest business is morally superior to housebreaking, but begin from the assumption that people have little or no concern for the well-being of others and you quickly validate bad behaviour. The Right has to invoke  human nature to justify its “vile maxim” and then deny it to condemn workers who strike for decent pay or to get on its high horse about law and order.

The left has everything to gain by pushing the idea of a given, fixed human nature part of whose essential characteristics are those put forward by Adam Smith: concern for the fortune of others and interest in their well-being and happiness as a matter of principle. That is, we are inescapably moral. As Shakespeare puts it in King Lear, the idea that our destiny in the stars not in ourselves is a “worthy evasion of whore-master man”. Our moral nature saves us from the tragedy of injustice, which is why it’s in the interests of the rich and powerful to deny it.