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Our Human Nature

Greed is a sign of moral and psychological immaturity. Psychologically and morally mature adults are caring, cooperative, and honest.

This is the fifteenth of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK


Helping Hand, photo by Knight725

Photo by Knight725.

The successful function of mature democracies, caring communities, and living economies requires caring, mature, and responsible citizens who care not only for their own well-being, but as well for that of their neighbor. Given the experience of human history, many will ask with good reason whether this might be contrary to human nature.

We humans are complex beings with many possibilities. Empire has demonstrated our capacity for extremes of individualistic greed, hubris, deceit, ruthless competition, and material excess. Yet most people daily demonstrate our human capacity for caring, sharing, peacemaking, and service.

The former are the possibilities of our lower nature; the latter, the possibilities of our higher nature. Contrary to what morally challenged market fundamentalists would have us believe, both are within our means. What in fact makes us distinctively human is our capacity to choose which of our many possibilities will define us as individuals and societies.

We humans have a complex three-part brain. At the base is our “reptilian” brain.

What makes us distinctively human is our capacity to choose which of our many possibilities will define us as individuals and societies.

It coordinates basic functions, such as breathing, hunting and eating, reproducing, protecting territory, and engaging the fight-or-flight response. These functions are essential to survival and they are part of our nature. The are not, however, characteristic of our human nature, but rather of our reptilian nature—defined by the most primitive and least-evolved part of our brain.

Layered on top of the reptilian brain is the limbic or “mammalian” brain, the center of the emotional intelligence that gives mammals their distinctive capacity to experience emotion, read the emotional state of other mammals, bond socially, care for their children, and form cooperative communities.

The third and, in adult humans, largest layer is the neocortical brain, the center of our capacity for cognitive reasoning, symbolic thought, awareness, and highly developed self-aware volition. The neocortical brain is the source of our capacity for choice, including our capacity for moral choice, and our capacity to decide whether to create an economy that celebrates and rewards our reptilian nature or our distinctively human nature.

Most of the development of the limbic and neocortical brains essential to actualizing the capacities that make us most distinctively human occurs after birth and depends on lifelong learning acquired through our interactions with family, community, and nature. Developmental psychologists describe the healthy pathway to a fully formed human consciousness as a progression from the self-centered, undifferentiated magical consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder.

Engaging in an act of cooperation and generosity triggers the brain’s pleasure center.

Scientists who use advanced imaging technology to study brain function confirm that the mature human brain is wired for caring, cooperation, and service. Their studies reveal that merely thinking about another person experiencing harm triggers the same reaction in a mentally healthy adult brain as that of a mother who sees distress on her baby’s face.

Conversely, engaging in an act of cooperation and generosity triggers the brain’s pleasure center to release the same hormone that’s released when we eat chocolate or engage in good sex. In addition to producing a sense of bliss, this hormone benefits our health by boosting our immune system, reducing our heart rate, and preparing us to approach and soothe.

Moldova, photo by Stelios LazakisWant the Good Life? Your Neighbors Need It, Too: An interview with epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, whose research shows that what the healthiest and happiest societies have in common is not that they have more, but that what they have is more equitably shared.

Positive emotions like compassion produce similar benefits. Negative emotions, by contrast, suppress our immune system, increase our heart rate, and shift us into reptilian mode prepared to fight or flee.

It is entirely logical that we humans have an instinctual desire to cooperate and protect the group. We are helpless as infants and even as adults are individually weak. As a group, however, we are the strongest of Earth’s living creatures. This in turn creates a moral obligation to use this power responsibly for the good of the whole. These findings are further confirmed by the pleasure that most of us experience being a member of an effective team or extending an uncompensated helping hand to another being.

Behaviors driven by our lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly normal for young children, but they become sociopathic in adults and are easily manipulated by advertisers, propagandists, and political demagogues. Tragically, persons who have been thwarted on the path to maturity are those most likely to engage in the ruthless competition for positions of unaccountable power—and to abuse that power when they succeed.

Just as we have chosen to create economies that reward and celebrate the sociopathic greed and ruthless competition of our reptilian nature, we can and must now create economies that nurture and reward the caring, sharing, peacemaking, and service of our distinctively human nature.

[Next: The World of Our Dreams]


David Korten author picDavid Korten (livingeconomiesforum.org) is the author of Agenda for a New EconomyTheGreat Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, and the international best seller When Corporations Rule the World. He is board chair of YES! Magazine and co-chair of the New Economy Working Group. This Agenda for a New Economy blog series is co-sponsored byCSRwire.com and YesMagazine.org based on excerpts from Agenda for a New Economy, 2nd edition.

The ideas presented here are developed in greater detail in Agenda for a New Economy available from theYES! Magazine web store — where there are 3 WAYS TO GET THE BOOK and a 22% discount!

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More by David Korten:

  • We Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect: Recent research has shown that our brains are made to support caring, cooperation, and service. David Korten says there is evidence that we can learn to get along across the red-blue divide—after all, we want most of the same things. As a bonus, we'll be healthier and happier if we do.
  • 7 Steps for Action Toward a New Economy: Rather than turning again to increased global competition to mend our failing economy, we must instead steer our focus toward cooperation and equality.
  • Greed Is Not a Virtue: Profit-centered market fundamentalism has become a national religion.
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