Certain questions have vexed philosophers for millennia: What is human nature? Do we have free will? How can we build healthy societies? Are we motivated more by emotion or by reason? Is nature or nurture a more important influence on our fate? Nayef R. F. Al-Rodhan addresses these questions and more in the newly revised second edition of his Emotional Amoral Egoism: A Neurophilosophy of Human Nature and Motivations. Although such attempts rarely produce definitive answers, Al-Rodhan has nevertheless provided an original and comprehensive view of human nature and the human future that is thoroughly grounded in the philosophical and scientific literature.As his title suggests, Rodhan’s thesis is that humans are primarily emotion-driven, amoral and egotistic. He argues that our feelings and actions are grounded in emotions far more than in reason, that human evolution has equipped us with “moral sensitivities” but not with an innate moral compass—and that we are above all concerned with surviving, reproducing and acquiring social status. In his view, genetics, culture and environment all play significant roles in how our lives unfold, and our innate evolved tendencies manifest differently depending on the milieu in which we find ourselves.
Al-Rodhan begins by surveying historical and current theories about human nature—including Hindu and Christian views, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience findings—and then explains his own theory, which he argues has “pushed the field of neurophilosophy into widely uncharted territory.” He discusses its implications for our daily lives, for domestic politics and international relations and for our future as a species—as well as for various current developments, such as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.
Al-Rodhan’s theory of human nature draws on a wide range of thinkers—from David Hume to Richard Dawkins—and his account is, for the most part, compellingly presented. He argues that, while humans have a capacity for reason, neuroscience findings have demonstrated that our decisions are driven mostly by emotion, and that reason comes in only after the fact, to enable us to explain or justify what we have decided. Further, he argues that, although we are inclined to have certain moral feelings towards our kin, we have no built-in moral code; rather, our moral intuitions are shaped by our environment, and so we should try to create an environment in which our moral tendencies will produce the best possible outcomes. Finally, he argues that we are all essentially narcissists, in that we are preoccupied with the contents of our own minds and devoted to our own concerns, and so we should work to direct our minds and our concerns productively towards innovation and away from plans to tear other people down.
His account of human nature slaughters more than a few sacred cows, not least the undying blank slatist view, and I found it convincing on the whole. I disagree with some of the applications of his theory but also found many insightful. For example, he proposes that we rethink how we are currently approaching international relations. He argues that the dominant models in the field remain realism and neo-realism, which treat states as individuals who make decisions out of rational self-interest. Al-Rodhan broadly agrees with the realist conception of the state as an individual and with the view that international conflict stems from this state-individual’s competitive nature, but argues that this theory is incomplete. Realists traditionally “focus too heavily on rational calculations to the neglect of the role played by emotions … [and] fail to address the many instances when conflict is less ‘rational.’”
In my opinion, applying this insight to, say, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—recognising that his regime could be better understood as internally incoherent, self-harming and irrationally aggressive—might have prompted a more effective response to it. Saddam was left in power after 1991, and a shameful deal with the US army allowed his forces to massacre tens of thousands of Shia rebels and civilians. Over the following decade, the west tried to contain Saddam, which only led to devastating sanctions and Ba’athist slaughter. If Saddam’s psychopathic insanity had been recognised in 1991, rather than assuming that he would learn his lesson and could be contained, and his regime overthrown, perhaps the Iraqis would have been spared that awful decade—and would have been better placed to follow the example of the Kurds in the north, who were protected from Saddam’s depredations by a no-fly zone, in creating a more secular, democratic state after the dictator was gone.
Al-Rodhan also offers some ways to think about dictatorship. For example, whereas foreign policy has often been based on an assumption that dictators are driven primarily by ideology and economic considerations, he argues convincingly that neuronal influences matter, too: power, he notes, is literally addictive: “power-seeking is akin to other addictive processes, since it produces ‘cravings’ at the neurocellular level and generates a ‘high’ much like that produced by … [psychoactive] drugs.” Dictators and dopamine: an interesting way to understand the allure of power!
However, the book also has several weaknesses. When he discusses the extent to which human beings are free to make moral choices, Al-Rodhan draws too sharp a distinction between the perspectives of philosophers who argue that human beings have “radical freedom” to make moral choices, and the perspectives of biologists, who describe the evolution of moral intuitions. Al-Rodhan claims that evolutionary biologists tend to see our moral choices as determined by those innate moral intuitions, and he cites Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in support of this claim. But Dawkins explicitly emphasises, in that book and elsewhere, that human beings can use reason and cultural knowledge to overcome our evolved instincts and make better moral choices than those instincts would otherwise prompt us to make.
Furthermore, as the research psychologist David P. Barash has argued, evolutionary biology and existential philosophy need not reach mutually incompatible conclusions, but can be reconciled into “a kind of evolutionary existentialism”: “In an absurd, inherently meaningless world—our unavoidable evolutionary legacy as material creatures in a physically bounded universe—the only route to meaning is to achieve it by how we engage our own sentient existence.”
In addition, Al-Rodhan’s theory relies too heavily on neuroscience findings. Neuroscience has shown us much about how the brain produces behaviour, but as the neuroscientist Erik Hoel has recently pointed out, this field, which is still in its infancy, has discovered almost nothing about human nature that we didn’t already know. Thus, I am sceptical that neuroscience findings provide adequate support for Al-Rodhan’s conclusions about human nature.
He also argues that, to channel our nature in the best ways and forestall the development of our nature at its worst, we need to establish “dignity-based governance”—which he defines as an approach to politics that respects other cultures, protects what he calls “cultural rights” and regulates media and entertainment to ensure that they depict different cultural norms respectfully. While I agree with Al-Rodhan that xenophobia and ethnocentrism should be combatted, he doesn’t adequately explore what upholding “cultural rights” would entail. For one thing, cultures do not have rights; only individuals do: if a culture has harmful norms, such as the practice of infant genital mutilation, then we should arguably oppose and disrespect those norms. Al-Rodhan does not make a convincing case that it supports human dignity to avoid hurting the feelings of those who engage in such practices by suppressing the opinions of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Khadija Khan, for example, who believe in universal human rights and dissent from the idea that there is a so-called cultural right to engage in such practices.
Another problem with Al-Rodhan’s concept of “dignity-based governance” is its disregard for the value of free speech. Supporting human dignity requires allowing individuals to think and speak freely: by focusing on group rights, Al-Rodhan inadvertently promotes clannish tyranny over individual rights. It is not bigoted to disagree with cultural practices that assault vulnerable individuals. If I say that Islamic homophobia or Jewish circumcision are culturally inspired attacks upon the rights of individuals, it does not mean that I am bigoted. It means that I am concerned about the human rights of individuals, who deserve to live freely without being attacked because of who they sleep with or cut up without their consent because they are born with a foreskin to parents whose religious or cultural outlook demands its removal.
Similarly, Al-Rodhan fails to make a convincing case that concerns about immigration are necessarily rooted in bigotry or hostility to foreigners. I am thoroughly pro-immigration, but as I have argued in a previous Areo piece, it is perfectly valid to discuss the problems that immigration policies may incur—such as the possible negative side effects of allowing people from very different cultures and with very different ideas—for example, about the status of women—to immigrate to western countries in large numbers.
Al-Rodhan is also unconvincing when he argues that political radicalisation results from “a complex interplay between neurobiological predispositions and social dynamics” and that it can be countered only through “inclusiveness, opportunity and reason.” This statement amounts to nothing more than a series of nice-sounding but vague and abstract words—which is no substitute for a serious analysis. His focus on the neurobiology of radicalisation also perpetuates a problem that pervades academia: the failure to recognise the role of ideological beliefs in motivating people to engage in behaviours that may in some cases be harmful to others. Many academics seem to believe that harmful behaviours must be motivated by something other than a person’s belief system, such as a socioeconomic grievance. But radical ideologues—whether far-right or far-left, Islamist or Christianist—often really do believe what they say they believe. Perhaps it is because scholars’ livings are built upon the use of reason that they are so often incapable of imagining that others could be motivated by irrationality; perhaps they are so used to Enlightenment thinking that they cannot fathom that some people really, truly, deeply believe that their god commands them to slaughter people. Al-Rodhan’s analysis misses this essential point.
Al-Rodhan also fails to live up to his stated ambition of resolving the free will debate, because he misunderstands its nature. He argues that, because our actions are not totally determined by our genes—for example, we can intentionally create societies that inspire the best in human nature—we therefore have free will. But, as any determinist will tell you, it doesn’t matter whether our actions are determined by our genes or by environmental influences: our actions are nevertheless caused by a combination of those influences, rather than by an immaterial self—a ghost in the machine. By misdefining determinism as a claim that only our genes control our behaviour, Al-Rodhan simply avoids engaging with the implications of determinism altogether.
Finally, a major weakness of the book is its turgid prose style. Al-Rodhan says that he wants to provide a jargon-free book, accessible to non-neuroscientists. But though he is an erudite and original thinker, his ideas are not expressed in clear, simple language. For example, early in the book, he writes, “Sectarian polarisation, operationalised by exogenous national interests and manipulation, continues to ravage many societies, especially in the Middle East.” Although most passages are not as opaque and awkward as this one, the book is nevertheless the book is nevertheless drier than a hungover mouth. Indeed, I found even the title of the book and the blurb on its cover so boring that I was at first turned off.
That’s a shame because, despite its flaws, the book provides an important account of human nature. Even if it is not quite as revolutionary as Al-Rodhan claims, it offers an enormous number of insights, drawn from philosophy, evolutionary biology and neuroscience and is worth multiple re-readings. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its claims, it is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the nature and future of humanity or wishes to better understand the nature of the species to which they belong—and thus better understand themselves.