Governing for human capacity, not human nature

Illustration by Arturo Espinosa/Creative Commons.

By Gordon Merrick, Forum Contributor

Historically, governance has been tied to the idea that humans are innately “good,” or innately “bad.” This governance has come in various forms, from theocracies (think original sin) to the advent of democracy (think Hobbes and the “state of nature”). Some political theorists have proposed that such reductionist thinking has caused more harm than benefit.

One of the loudest voices, Michel Foucault, was taken from us too early during the AIDS epidemic. His writings detailed power dynamics and the falsehoods of “apolitical” institutions. Foucault proposed that the division between political bodies and so-called “apolitical” institutions was a fiction because these institutions reinforce the unwritten rules of society.

In healthcare, for example, we deem who is “sick” and who is “healthy.” At a not-so-distant point in our past, our healthcare system deemed homosexuality a sickness that could, and should, be cured. Through treating a human quality as a disease, our seemingly “apolitical” healthcare system reflected the overall value judgments our society holds, expressing a political belief.

Other examples may include: our treatment of addiction; what our criminal justice system views as a crime; and even what we choose to teach our youth. Foucault’s ideas continue to develop and are now a basis for a common critique of society: that zero-sum (“I do well when you do poorly”) governance and theory is not rooted in reality, and has failed us.

We should govern in a way that does not view the world in stark contrast, but acknowledges the complexity and shading that exists. This will require an acceptance that humans are not “hardwired” to be “good” or “bad,” but instead have an immense capacity for both. Governing to reality requires our institutions and civic systems to try and empower the capacity for “good,” while trying to quiet the capacity for “bad.” Our current systems place disproportionate emphasis on the latter.

Now, we should define what “good” I am talking about here. In short, I define “good” as behavior or actions that do not outrightly harm, but help. This definition challenges the conventional, zero-sum thinking that has run our political and economic systems for decades, which has been revealed time and again to do harm to the real world in order to benefit the financial world. Examples of this real harm for financial benefit include climate change, the military-industrial complex, and the deregulation of our financial sector. But, my point is not that “good”-ness isn’t related to financial health. It must be a consideration given our dependance on finances in the modern world. But, with that said, financial and economic leaders around the world are calling for this more complex view through calling for Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR expands corporate concerns beyond economic bottom-lines, and considers social and environmental bottom-lines as well. It is time for our civic governments to catch-up on this systematic view.

Civic governance structures should embrace their role of not only the enforcer quelling the capacity for “bad,” but the most influential proponent of the capacity for “good.” When governments and other groups invest time and energy into building the capacity for “good,” the results speak for themselves. Take, for example, investing in community centers like libraries; ranked-choice voting systems that foster communication and cooperation; or hosting neighborhood block parties to strengthen sense of community and local relationships. Although these aren’t groundbreaking policies or ideas, their role is to foster connectivity in a community.

In sum, rather than governing to try and control people’s innate “good”-ness or “bad”-ness, our governance structures should empower individuals to build on their capacity for “good” while trying to lessen the capacity for “bad.” These practices help individuals realize that we are not but a single candle flame in a dark abyss, but a single cell in the organism that is society.

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