Saturday, December 13, 2008

something i've been thinking about.

attributing good faith to all other human beings-- particularly those who have done some harm to us-- is often considered naive. but it seems to me, given all of the complexities of circumstance, cognitive biases toward attending to our own interests rather than those of others, and the myriad ways in which people makes sense of (rationalize, perhaps) their own behavior, that the real naivete lies in attributions of bad faith or, more precisely, ill will. it strikes me as almost superstitious-- naive in the way that it's naive to attribute weather that scares or injures us to angry gods. we're harmed in some way by some movement in the world, and, in our pain and ignorance and self-absorption, we make sense of it by attributing some ill intention. this is not a new idea. but i don't mean to say that it's naive to attribute intentions to people in general-- i mean bad intentions in particular. i'm suggesting that bad intentions, despite all the wrenching harm that people manage to do, are relatively rare, and that making adequate sense of all that harm, even in terms of human agency, will require a more sophisticated analysis.

this sounds a little funny. on the one hand i'm trying to correct a certain misanthropic world view. on the other hand, my criticism is built on an understanding of human beings as vulnerable and ignorant and self-absorbed. but i don't mean these terms pejoratively. we're relatively small things with a lot of nerve endings (literal and metaphorical) and limited resources and just two eyes to see out of. to have contempt for a thing because it's that sort of thing strikes me as being ungenerous to the point of its being a kind of misapprehension. what's naive (though forgivably so) is to have ever believed that things were otherwise-- to have been operating on the assumption that we are more, or that our being good or worthy depends on such a thing.


Anthony said...

This for some reason reminds me of an article I started reading: "The standard, non-repeated prisoner's dilemma poses no true dilemma about rationality, we argue. What the prisoners ought rationally to do, unless they are selfless, depends on the relationship of trust that they have or lack with one another."
Prisoner's Mistrust, Erin Kelly and Lionel McPherson

Marcelo Daniel said...

I like this observation very much. In fact I would say it is a very pragmatic approach to not assume ill-will from others. Assuming ill will often leads to unnecessary conflict and negative emotions, completely preventable were it not for jumping to conclusions about someone's intentions, sometimes based on nothing but one's own imagination. It is as you say, almost superstitious to believe in the bad intentions of others. And when one assumes good intentions from others, it can have an almost magical transformative effect, facilitating a self-fulfilling prophecy: people treated with an assumption of good will tend to act in good will. Your post just made my day.