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Humankind Read-Along Part 2: Debating the State of Human Decency

Humankind by Rutger Bregman cat post-its open book

Hello readers! 

The second discussion question for the Humankind read-along corresponds with page 20 of the book:

Do you agree with Bregman’s “radical idea” proposed on page 1, that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”? What cynical or pessimistic worldviews would you admit to having?

It’s so easy to point at one example of bad behavior and conclude that all of humanity is bad, like a drop of ink diffusing through a tub of water. When a little kid won’t share her toys, selfishness seems innate. When a politician uses his power to gain more power, we don’t blame his position for his corruption, but his person. When that jerk yells at the barista for no good reason, forget having any faith in humanity. We all suck. And if you don’t think you do, how would you feel about letting another person read your thoughts for a day? Once you get over the generic embarrassment anyone would feel at that, really listen to your thoughts. If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing it’s the quotidian inner remarks and urges that would drop inkblot after inkblot into the pool of your selfhood. 

The dichotomy I’ve established gives us two options: either people are perfect, or they’re terrible. The water is either transparent, or ink-tinged. But really, there’s only one option: we are soiled with ink through and through. 

But then I think of someone I admire who eschews such dichotomies regarding human nature: Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator and former Harvard professor, is an expert on bankruptcy law. Warren believes that the majority of US citizens work hard to do the best they can for their family. She fights for the middle class, the working class, the impoverished—society’s underdogs. I agree with her belief, and I support her fight. Because I can agree with her, I know that I must deep down believe in the decency of most people. 

And the problem with the image I first presented is that to do good is not neutral. To be perfect is unattainable, but to be generous, kind, trustworthy—to be good—must add something to the water too. And once we choose to see the good, the landscape of our inner selves morphs into a different image altogether. Perhaps a set of scales, weighing the good against the bad, is more suitable. Even though my mind quickly brings up examples of human wrongdoings, I do believe that in sum, evidence of human decency outweighs human darkness. 

Having just finished reading Suzanne Collins’ book The Ballad ot Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, I’ll end with a quote from the character Lucy Gray:

I think there’s a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you’ve stepped across the line into evil, and it’s your life’s challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line.

Your thoughts? Share in the comments. 

Here’s a preview of the next discussion question, which corresponds with page 40 of Humankind by a Rutger Bregman:

Bregman uses Lord of the Flies as an example of 

the embedded belief that people are inherently 

bad. Can you think of any other literary or 

cinematic depictions of human nature that perpetuate this cynical view?



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