The Muselet #10: Pretty decent

This is a book about a radical idea. An idea that’s long been known to make rulers nervous. An idea denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history. At the same time, it’s an idea that’s legitimised by virtually every branch of science. One that’s corroborated by evolution and confirmed by everyday life. An idea so intrinsic to human nature that it goes unnoticed and gets overlooked. If only we had the courage to take it more seriously, it’s an idea that might just start a revolution. Turn society on its head. Because once you grasp what it really means, it’s nothing less than a mind-bending drug that ensures you’ll never look at the world the same again.

So what is this radical idea?

That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.

So, my dad subscribed to The Muselet a few weeks ago.

Hi dad 👋 Chances are I’m sitting next to you as you receive this email, because this email is scheduled for the weekend that I’m in The Netherlands (not Holland) for a short vacation break.

After reading some older issues, most likely at least Zef’s Razor, my dad asked: “Have you read the book ‘De Meeste Mensen Deugen’? It seems to be very much in line with what you’re talking about.”

The few of you that don’t happen to be native Dutch speakers (I’d say “native” is actually essential in this case) will likely never be able to fully appreciate the brilliance of this title. Roughly speaking it translates to “Most people are pretty decent” but the word “deugen” (to be decent) carries so many connotations for me that make it practically impossible to translate properly. Perhaps that’s why the English translators yielded and entitled it “Humankind: A Hopeful History.”

At the time of this writing (about 1.5 week ago) I’m 74% in and it’s brilliant. “74%!?” you’ll ask, “that’s highly specific.” It is indeed, because of course I’m reading this on a Kindle, and since the Dutch version isn’t available there, I’m reading the English translation. Which to some degree is somewhat insane, but... the advantage is that I was able to start this email with a quote that otherwise I’d have to translate. So there’s that.

The book spends most of its pages disproving veneer theory:

[Veneer theory is] the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation.

Veneer theory roughly says that the only reason civilization works is because of the rules we put in place, and our enforcement of them. If we wouldn’t have our laws, anarchy would ensue immediately. Because, humans are — excuse my French — animals, when the rubber hits the road.

But that, this book argues, isn’t true at all. And it does so masterfully by deep diving into many of the famous experiments and “proofs” we know about that supposedly show people’s dark side, such as:

  1. The famous “The Lord of the Flies” book and movie, where a group of kids strand on an abandoned island that devolves into chaos. Reality: a fascinating work of fiction, but the author dug up an actual case where kids were stranded on a deserted island and things ended very differently.

  2. The mystery of Easter Island — where the theory went the inhabitants split into two camps, deforested the entire island to build the famous statues, and ultimately practically exterminated each other. Again: gripping story, but most likely, not what happened there at all.

  3. The famous Stanford prison experiment: in which a group of students were put into the roles of “prisoners” and “guards” and what happened? The situation devolved quickly into an authoritarian regime including psychological torture. But once more: is that really what happened? Wasn’t this experiment rigged?

  4. The Milgram experiment: in which the obedience of people was tested letting participants give increasing strong electrical shocks to the screaming person in the next room. This experiment was immediately embraced as an explanation of the death camps during the Holocaust. Again: was this experiment legit — how likely was it that the participants really thought the experiment’s supervisors would allow them to killanother person with electrical shocks? Why did they comply, actually?

Sorry for merely hinting at how this book burns these ideas to the ground, but it’s unrealistic to summarize them in a couple of words. You’ll just have to read it yourself.

This and many rich parts of history are explored and the recurring conclusion is: deep down, most people, are pretty decent.

Confirmation bias is pointed out as a main source of so many people believing the exact opposite. But I don’t care, because this books confirms what I already long believed, although previously merely based on gut feel and upbringing. So I’m happy, because it shows I was right all along 🙃

I encourage you to give this book a read, especially if you are skeptical.

Why? This is nicely described in the following short parable:

An old man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil: angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good: peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.”

After a moment, the boy asks: “Which wolf will win?”

The old man smiles. “The one you feed.”

In short: these type of beliefs tend to be become self-fulfilling prophecies. So the outcome actually depends on the side we’re all decide to be on.

If we believe people to be decent, and as a result allow them to be decent — they will be decent. If we believe them to be untrustworthy, and as a result put systems in place that assume they are untrustworthy — guess what, they will be untrustworthy.

If we’d all fully embrace this idea, the implications would be quite significant, as the intro to this email suggests.

Rather than focusing our energy on figuring out how to enforce the absence of bad behavior, we’d focus on encouraging the good.

Rather than complain about how the people in that other department are delivering crap work, we’d spend that energy figuring out how we can help.

Rather than attributing something to malice, we’d have a conversation to understand.

This makes me realize, I need to revise Zef’s Razor a little bit. 

Therefore, here is Zef’s Razor v2:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by misunderstanding.

Here misunderstanding goes deeper than a surface-level “whoops, I misheard you,” but actually goes into misunderstanding of intentions and drivers. Zef’s Razor v1 highlighted “miscommunication,” but that’s only a relatively superficial explanation. The the thing to attack here is assumptions we tend to make about intentions

And those intentions — believe me, tend to be be good. Because, most people, deep down, are pretty decent.