What is man?
Although it may seem an impossible task to answer such an expansive question within the limits of this forum, it is not at all difficult if one approaches the matter with open eyes.
Such a question requires a purely empirical approach—specifically, one based not only on personal experience but also on biology, on the historical and anthropological record and on observations of the primates most closely related to humans. Clearly, analytic logic can play no part in such an endeavor.
Accordingly, the notions that our consciousness somehow transcends the physical world or that the physical world exists only in our minds or that the nature of the world outside of us is somehow beyond our comprehension--are all derived by means of a so-called logic dehors of all sensory appreciation. Accordingly, these notions will have no place in this discussion.
It may be said, quite plainly, that we are a kind of ape. Our physical form, our biology and our physiology can hardly make this clearer. The history of our species also shows that we share certain behaviors with other apes.
Like them, we are social animals with a violent disposition. However, our violence is largely directed to those we consider outside of our social group. Within the social group we are notably cooperative, even loving and empathic, particularly when it comes to the rearing of children. The same may properly said of our duller cousins.
Like all apes, we have intense sexual passions. Whatever violence exists within ape societies typically consists of brutal confrontations between males seeking domination over the same females. Anyone with knowledge of the criminal courts will acknowledge the reality of this state of affairs where humans are concerned. Human history catalogues centuries of brutal autocrats not unlike alpha-male apes.
On the other hand, there is an enormous difference between humans and other apes. We are the only ape—nay, the only living creature-- with the power of speech. This is no small thing.
Like other apes, we do make primal (in a sense, “musical’) sounds expressing emotions or giving warnings. However, we also think and speak in words.
Words express our ideas, and our heads are full of ideas—very clever ideas that have allowed us to live far more comfortably than other animals. So much so, that it sometimes seems that we have thoroughly domesticated nature in general and our own human nature in particular. Unfortunately, our primal instincts always return to haunt us.
The questions arise: What is the meaning of right and wrong in the human condition? What exactly is it that satisfies us.
As to the first question, it should be obvious that “good and evil” are not physical realities existing outside of us. They belong only to the mind (or, more properly, to the brain). But what meaning should we attach to the words in quotes?
It is not so much a question of me or anyone else attaching a meaning to right and wrong. Rather, it is a question of identifying a meaning that arises out of human nature--that is, one not learned but built into us genetically. In this respect, it is important to recognize the context in which the human moral sense arises. This has everything to do with human societies—families, tribes, street gangs and nation states, as well as social groups joined by a common language, culture or creed. The latter expression refers not only to those sharing a common religion but also a common political belief (such as fascism, communism or liberal democracy).
Those joined together in a human society in these ways consider one another “us.” Those in other such societies are considered “them.” This distinction is present in the consciousness of all apes, not only humans, and has been amply demonstrated in the behavior of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas and orangutans.
A general moral principle is applicable to all those considered “us” [with the exception of the alpha male and king or autocrat in the case of humans]. That principle is, “Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Because this principle is found in virtually every human society, we are safe in saying that is a genetic constituent of human nature.
This moral principle, however, does not apply to “them”—the outsider, the foreigner, the infidel, and the enemy in war. Quite the contrary, we dehumanize such people and, in many cases, take great satisfaction in assaulting and killing them. This is a reality of human nature that cannot be ignored.
Indeed, we are never fully satisfied unless we can do violence in some way to those who are not “us.” But, one may ask, why is it that murder is comparatively rare even internationally in time of peace?
The answer lies in the fact that, to a large extent in modern times, we have been trained to suppress our violent inclinations where the outsider is concerned. Yet, when those inclinations have been given free reign in time of war, the result has been human slaughter on an unprecedented scale.
When we are called to war, our primal urges come readily to the fore, and we kill with ease. We are terrified in such circumstances; yet in a strange way, the experience is deeply satisfying, and we feel that our lives have far more significance than ever before.
When we return home, we certainly do not miss war, but we miss that feeling. The desire for it is built into our primal nature. It may be repressed or transferred, but it can never be eliminated. It is part of what makes us what we are.
The Marxists (like all utopians) tell us that man, left to his natural inclinations, will be “good,” and that it is only corrupt social institutions that make him otherwise. Yet no one is more brutal than a Marxist to those who do not share his creed. Indeed, the falsity of that creed, in this respect, is amply demonstrated by the very behavior of its advocates.
The primal brutality of our nature is something we try to come to terms with. We do this by transferring our brutal inclinations into comparatively benign and even productive activities.
Thus, we enjoy blood sports such as prize fighting and cage fighting, bull fights and the like. We go to car races, secretly hoping that drivers will be killed or seriously injured. We delight in violent films—the more violent the better. We devour plays and novels that depict murder and mayhem in excruciating detail.
Many surgeons enjoy their work not so much because it helps the patients but more so because they derive pleasure from the brutality of what they do. Thereby, they channel their primal inclinations into productive work. There are many other similar examples.
The trouble is that these things blunt our violent nature but cannot erase it. Our primal instincts dwell in us under pressure, waiting to burst forth. One may say that in us are planted the seeds of our own destruction--that nature herself has sent us out on the road to oblivion.