Human Behaviour

Some thoughts on Good and Evil

Much ink has been spilt on the problem of evil: why people become angry, violent, even murderous. In a Christian account, the problem is laid at the door of a corrupt, "fallen" human nature. In more modern accounts, it is ascribed to inherited traits, or else to poor parenting and education.

Idle Theory offers a simple explanation for human kindness and cruelty. It is that the idlest people have the spare time to exercise kindness and consideration. And that it is the busiest people, strapped for time, who are not only less likely to be kind and considerate, but more likely to become angry and violent.

Idle people have the time to consider other people's point of view, time to weigh up the long term consequences of their actions, time to make considered choices. They can wait. Busy people have not the time for such consideration or judgement. They can't wait. They must make quick decisions that produce fast results.

Of course, idle people, even with plenty of time for foresight and consideration, may yet behave without care or consideration. Equally, busy people, if they have learned some self-restraint, may yet behave with courtesy even in the greatest hurry. But, in general, since idle people are capable of consideration and care, and busy people are not, it must be idle people who generally exhibit kindness and courtesy and consideration, and busy people who generally do not.

Idle people have the time to think, and so idle people will tend to ask questions about everything and anything. By contrast, busy people with little time to think will seldom think about anything, or question anything. They will tend to subcontract thinking to other people, and rely upon higher authorities. They will tend to act under the guidance of authority, or from training or conditioning by some authority, or ultimately from instinctive appetite or impulse.

Violent selfish xenophobic rapists

In Idle Theory, people are regarded as being either busy in unavoidable self-maintenance, or idly doing whatever they want. Self-maintenance is selfish activity. In this sense, everybody acts selfishly to some degree. But busy people, who are constrained to work longer to maintain themselves than idle people, must spend more time being selfish. The busier anyone is, the more selfishly they are behaving. Only a perfectly idle individual can act perfectly unselfishly.

An idle man, if inclined, can become very learned and cultivated, because he has the time to study, read, and learn. By contrast, a busy man has not the time for such studies, and must perforce remain ignorant and uneducated.

In a simple example of social manners, it is a busy man, a man in a hurry, who is most likely to shoulder his way past others, jump queues, refuse to give way or step aside for the elderly (or anybody) - because he cannot afford to be delayed. By contrast, it is an idle man, in no hurry to do anything, who is most likely to give way and step aside for almost anybody, and who is least likely to jump queues or shoulder his way in front - because he has sufficient free time that he can accept delay.

Extending this argument, it is an idle man, with plenty of time on his hands, who will go searching for a key to open a locked door. Faced with the same locked door, a busy man is likely to resort to force, and break down the door. He has not the time to do otherwise.

And again, it is a busy man who is most likely to resort to violence to solve disputes, because violent solutions offer quick fixes. Thus while, in some dispute, an idle man may be prepared to argue some case at great length, and listen to opposing arguments, a busy man has not the time for prolonged debate, and is likely to resolve the dispute with a blow to the jaw of his opponent.

And yet again, while an idle man is able to court a woman over many months with gifts and sweet words and flowers, a busy man is liable to just drag her behind a bush and rape her.

Still further, it is an idle man who has the time to altruistically assist others in difficulty. Busy men have not the time for such altruism. The drowning are not rescued by other drowning men, but by people safe in sturdy boats.

It might even be possible to explain xenophobia along these lines. Strangers are troublemakers. They don't speak the language. They can't count the money. They don't know the local customs and manners. They spell trouble, and in busy societies the trouble they cause may become intolerable. Only relatively idle societies can tolerate such strangers.

And so on. The argument can be developed in all directions. Idle men will tend to be learned, well-mannered, altruistic, affectionate, unselfish lovers. Busy men will tend to be ignorant, ill-mannered, cold-hearted, violent, selfish, xenophobic rapists.

The busy and the idle behave in ways appropriate to their circumstance. The busy man who spends hours trying to find the key to a locked door may have done better to simply break it open. The idle man who breaks down a locked door will too likely repent in leisure for his rashness.

It might also be suggested that the busiest people, with a lot to do and too little time to do it, may be prone to drive themselves too hard in the attempt to get things done in too short a time, and bring about physical collapse. Equally, if they have a lot to think about, they also may be prone to nervous collapse, simply because they have too much to think about, and too little time to think. The human frame, mental and physical, has its limits beyond which it is prone to various kinds of failure.

If so, human behaviour (and human health) would be best improved not by education or the threat of punishment, but simply by giving people more time, living idler lives.

The devil makes work for idle hands

Yet if it can be argued that it is a lack of idleness that is the root cause of bad behaviour, the more orthodox view is almost precisely the opposite - that it is in their idle hours that people get up to no good. In this view, human nature is seen as essentially selfish, aggressive, xenophobic, etc, and it is in idleness that these traits most readily express themselves. It is only while people are kept busy at work, or penned inside prisons, that these natural traits can be suppressed. Ergo, it becomes one of the prime tasks of government and other responsible persons to ensure that people are kept busy (or otherwise imprisoned). The prospect of general idleness is viewed with trepidation.

Although more usually associated with some Christian beliefs about a corrupt and 'fallen' human nature, the idea of an innate human nature has been more recently repackaged by authors such as Steven Pinker:

The dread of a permanently wicked human nature takes two forms. One is a practical fear: that social reform is a waste of time because human nature is unchangeable. The other is a deeper concern, which grows out of the Romantic belief that what is natural is good. According to the worry, if scientists suggest it is "natural" - part of human nature - to be adulterous, violent, ethnocentric, and selfish, they would be implying that these traits are good, not just unavoidable. (Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate, Ch. 8 original emphasis)

(Somehow or other, sheer indolence never seems to be counted as a plausibly genetic trait, even though parents and teachers and managers spend half their lives futilely trying to enliven their listless charges.) In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker sets out to question what he sees as a modern orthodoxy - that the human mind is, at birth, a blank slate on which subsequent behavioural traits are socially inscribed.

The Blank Slate has also served as a sacred scripture for political and ethical beliefs. According to the doctrine, any difference we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes and individuals come not from their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences. Change the experiences - by reforming parenting, education, the media, and social rewards - and you change the person. (Chapter I)

Regardless of the power of nurture or nature, the first point that should be made is that both are psychological theories in that they make the human mind the prime motivator of all human behaviour. On the nurture side, the idea is to get in quick with good parenting and education to write good advice on the blank slate of the juvenile mind before somebody else scrawls bad advice. On the nature side, the suggestion is that some genetic inheritance is already written ineradicably onto the not-so-blank slate. Either way, subsequent behaviour will be determined by cultural and/or genetic programming of human mind.

Where human nature is pessimistically regarded as an immutable datum, war is regularly seen as the automatic result of the moral failings of human nature, and crime exists simply because the human character itself is flawed, and human nature is made from "warped wood" 2, and natural human tendencies can only be curbed through tradition and the threat of punishment. Where human nature is regarded as a blank slate, war and crime is blamed on bad institutions, bad education, and restricted economic opportunity.

But behind the search for purely psychological motives, nurtured or natured, is an unstated presupposition that people are always freely choosing what to do, in a general condition of leisure. For it is only in leisure that there can be purely psychological motives to action, as purely psychological desires, ambitions or fears bubble up and rouse people to act. And accordingly, if human behaviour is ever to be understood, it is felt that it is the workings of the supreme controller - the human mind - which must be studied.

In this rosy vision1 of human life, it is as if everyone wakes up each morning and asks themselves, "What do I feel like doing today? Stroll along the beach? Read poetry? Nah! I really want to spend another 16 hours digging coal down the mine." Idle Theory denies this optimistic account of the human condition: far from being perfectly idle and continually free to choose, human life is busy and constrained.

And from the point of view of Idle Theory, human nature is neither regarded as a blank slate, nor as incorrigibly flawed, but instead is seen as acting within a circumstance that is to some degree constrained or busy. When hitherto leisured, wealthy, and cultivated Germans and other nationals, many of whom had probably never committed a crime in their entire lives, were taken from relatively idle civilian lives and made prisoners in Nazi labour camps, they very frequently resorted to stealing each others' food, clothes and money at every possible opportunity. Is one to suppose that this demonstrated either their incorrigibly flawed human natures, or bad parenting and education? Surely all it demonstrated was that, in desperate circumstances, people will resort to desperate measures? Might it not be that, regardless of their genetic inheritance or education, human beings will tend to behave as their circumstances dictate - kindly and gently in the the best of worlds, criminally and violently in the worst -, and that education or inheritance are entirely secondary in their influence to the overwhelming force of circumstance.

When storms break out, no doubt those sailing ships with the finest oak masts and the strongest canvas, commanded by master navigators with disciplined crews, are more likely to ride them out than ships less well equipped and crewed. But in the worst of hurricanes not even these slim advantages may save a ship. Yet it would be a strange public inquiry into the disaster, which subsequently placed all blame upon the inexperience of the ill-bred captain, the incompetence of his drunken crew, the ship's frayed canvas, warped masts, and leaking hull - while entirely neglecting to mention the great storm before whose winds they were together lost upon some rocky shore.

A culture of blame

One side effect of regarding human life as essentially leisured is that no allowance is made for busy people. Rather than discounting bad behaviour as the inevitable outcome of an excessive busyness, such behaviour is regularly seen as the exercise of free and unfettered choice. And where people, presumed to be sufficiently leisured to be able to make free choices, behave in some violent or aggressive manner, the usual conclusion that is drawn is that such people have actively chosen evil - that they are 'evil' people, fully culpable and blameworthy, and furthermore deserve to be punished or "taught a lesson".

It is as if human diseases (and busyness is by definition 'dis-ease') such as influenza or typhoid or malaria were not recognized for what they were, and appropriate allowances made for the sick, but instead that the behaviour of the sick - e.g. lying in bed coughing and shivering - was regarded as mere malingering, a course of action the 'sick' had in fact freely chosen, to be treated with contempt rather than care.

The result is that, instead of quickly forgiving bad behaviour, people are forever blaming one another for their transgressions, and ascribing to each other evil motives, and setting out to punish each other for perceived crimes.

And the consequence is a cycle of righteous violence, where one offence is met with another punitive offence, and this second offence brings about a further counter-punishment, in an escalating spiral of animosity, hatred, and violence.

Thus, for example, a small oversight by some busy person is perceived as a deliberate slight. And the perceived slight is met with a deliberate, more punitive snub. And this snub draws in turn its own yet more punitive riposte (which serves to re-inforce the conviction of an original intentional slight). And so animosity and incomprehension grow. And people are forced to take sides. And before long there are fights and murders, and the streets are filled with bodies and burning houses.

In this manner, it is the assumption of perfect freedom, and a consequence readiness to lay blame and demand punishment, that results in far more evil than the first, minor, busyness-induced offence. If people instead recognized that in their imperfect, busy world some people must inevitably behave badly, they would automatically let matters be, pass no judgements, and demand no punishments. Instead, rather than seek to punish some malefactor, they would enquire into the circumstances of his life, and if possible try to alleviate them.

Perhaps relevant, but at least amusing:

  Shortly thereafter, we arrive at our destination. Once again, the cab driver sits watching me as I struggle out of the car with a child in my arms and start trying to wrestle the stroller out of the boot.
  "Hurry up, would you?" he says, leaning out from his window. "I haven't got all night."
  Now a sensible, rational person would walk away at this point, understanding that it was not worth prolonging the unpleasant episode. But I can't let it lie. I try to. I really do. But something in me demands that the driver be informed of what a jerk he is.3

Ref 1. Idle Theory. The Rosy Vision.

Ref 2. "Nothing straight can be constructed from such warped wood as that which man is made of." (Essay on History. Immanuel Kant) Kant, despite this, seems to have been optimistic about the perfectibility of human society.

Ref 3. Zoe Heller. Daily Telegraph 14 Dec 2002

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 13 Dec 2002
Last edited: Nov 2004