Foundational Beliefs Part Two: Human nature, purpose and meaning, and what happens when you die?

Human Nature

The concepts of human nature have a second aspect that has ramifications for political issues. What are people like? What motivates people? Are people predominately selfish creatures who, as Thomas Hobbes asserted, are barbarian egoists who need to be controlled so they don’t kill each other and ultimately exterminate the human race?  Or are people selfless beings who will work for the good of the others without concern for themselves as Karl Marx asserted would be true of the proletariat when they took over the means of production after the worker’s revolution?[i] Or perhaps people predominately work from a position of self-interest. This would not mean that people cannot act altruistically or be charitable toward others, but that their basic motivation comes from concern for themselves and their loved ones. When politicians start addressing economic issues, such convictions concerning human nature must be taken into account.

When we get to economics, the ramifications of the positions on human nature will be more thoroughly developed, but as you read this, ask yourself how you look at people. What do you expect from people? How do you expect them to react? Are you surprised when people do horribly cruel things to others, or are you more surprised when people do very gracious and giving things for others? If you left your wallet on a park bench, or in a store, would you anticipate a kind person returning it to you, or would you assume it was gone forever and start cancelling your credit cards? Why are you working for a living? Do you do it in order to be able to give the money to others, or is it because you do have bills to pay? Why do businesses exist? Is it to serve the greater interest of society, or is it to make money? Now, those might seem like overly simplistic questions, but your answers to those should give you some insight in to how you view human nature. And that perspective will be explored more as we examine the impact of beliefs on economic issues.

Purpose and Meaning in Life

What about the ideas of having some purpose or meaning in life? Why are you alive? Why are people as a species alive? Does your life or my life have any significance outside the impact on our immediate environment? What is life all about? If indeed we are just a product of chance evolution, then you may be able to arbitrarily pick a purpose for your life, but in reality you are nothing more than fertilizer waiting to happen. You and I serve no greater purpose than being, and we are of no more inherent significance than a slug. On the other hand, if there is some greater being who either designed the world or which is the force behind the world, then it would follow that not only our lives, but the rest of nature could have purpose and meaning. And if that’s the case, then it would also follow that discerning that purpose or meaning would have serious ethical implications.

An Afterlife??

What about what happens after your “three-score and ten” on this planet has passed? What happens when you die? From all the books written about near-death experiences, the afterlife is certainly a topic of interest to most of us. People have been fascinated with our own mortality for all of recorded history. Perhaps it is because, as far as we know, we alone among this world’s animals can contemplate our own demise. Is there a heaven and/or hell? Is there a paradise? Do we get reincarnated?[ii] Maybe we get to become gods on another planet. Or maybe we really are just worm food. Maybe this life is all there is and when we die, we are just dead. Again, as with all aspects of one’s myth, one’s beliefs about what, if anything, follows death has great implications in ethics and related political issues.


[i] One of the major problems  with Marx’s theory is his assertion that the bourgeoisie are by nature selfish whereas the proletariat, once they are in control, would act selflessly, working for the good of the whole. Unless the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are two distinct species which operate with two different inherent natures, Marx’s theory is incoherent at this point.

[ii] Interestingly in the western world we have taken the concept of reincarnation from Hinduism and converted it into a positive escape from our mortality. The western version of reincarnation is that we “get” to come back again and again. However, in traditional Hinduism the goal is to escape the Samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, rather than to keep getting reincarnated ad infinitum.

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