Tragic vs. Utopian View of Human Nature

Beliefs cluster. If you find out someone is an environmentalist, she probably also is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, affirmative action, generous welfare programs, and gay marriage, is a secularist and a professor or student. If you find out someone favors a strong military, he probably also "supports judicial restraint, laissez-faire economic policy, is more likely to be pragmatic than idealistic, censorious than permissive, meritocratic than egalitarian, and gradualist than revolutionary." If you find out someone is religious, she probably also supports lower taxes.

Here's a game to play while driving. When you see an activist-like bumper sticker on the car in front of you, guess the person's beliefs. For example, if I see a bumper sticker for the National Organization for Women with a pro-choice message, I bet I can accurately predict 95% of their beliefs on political and social issues.

Thomas Sowell has offered an audacious explanation for why beliefs cluster like they do: the collections each reflect a different fundamental view of human nature. Sowell sorts human nature into two camps: the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. Steven Pinker summarizes it in The Blank Slate, which is where the quote in my first paragraph comes from. Excerpt:

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. "Mortal things suit mortals best," wrote Pindar; "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made," wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream things that never were and ask, 'why not?'" The quote is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F. Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough"). …

In the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it.

The theory is not foolproof in approximating bundles of belief. But it does provide a useful framework to understand certain political perspectives. Usually modern liberals tend to hold the Utopian Vision and modern conservatives tend to hold the Tragic Vision of human nature.

Consider public education in America from this perspective.

Conservatives are generally skeptical of the government monopoly of public schools. The Tragic Vision emphasizes the bedrock of selfishness in human nature, and conservatives see public school teachers and their unions as selfish, greedy economic actors like any other — no more, no less. The Tragic Vision emphasizes that power corrupts and even very smart people at the top can err; conservatives tend to support decentralized control and competition (through charter schools, vouchers, etc).

The Utopian Vision emphasizes the possibility for great individuals to transcend their darker self-interested temptations and fight for the "greater good." Liberals first see teachers as generous servants fulfilling an important calling, and in political debates give them corresponding deference. The Utopian Vision emphasizes equality, and liberals see government-run public schools as important instruments in this level-playing-field-for-everyone quest.

There are probably better examples of the theory at work, but it's one that jumped to mind as I ponder the state of public education.

Note that Sowell, in his book, actually uses the terms "Constrained Vision" vs. "Unconstrained Vision." The Constrained Vision sees human nature as unchanging and selfish, and the Unconstrained Vision sees human nature as malleable and perfectible.

26 comments on “Tragic vs. Utopian View of Human Nature
  • I also found Pinker’s examination of these two views in The Blank Slate interesting.

    However, couldn’t belief clustering also be due to a team-mentality, rather than just a fundamental observation about human nature?

    For example, if I have several left-oriented beliefs (environmentalism, reduced income inequality, abolishing capital punishment) I may accept other left-oriented beliefs because these are the beliefs of my “team”. I may accept that pro-choice is also a good belief, because it is the doctrine of my friends and role models.

    From a rational perspective, a certain amount of team-based reasoning might make sense. It’s difficult for ordinary people to deeply consider the philosophical ramifications of every position. Even if you are an expert on a subject (say economics) there are many nuances that make it difficult to form an educated conviction. So, if you follow and believe on topic of your group in detail (say views on environment or abortion), you’re more willing to accept their arguments at face value for the rest of that team’s beliefs.

    • You mentioned pro-choice. It’s worth noting that the divide over abortion is never brought up in Sowell’s book. I too can’t see how being pro-life could derive from the tragic vision, or how being pro-choice could derive from the utopian vision.

        • Not necessarily. I’m an atheist and I oppose abortion with every fiber of my being. If a politician agreed with me on every single issue but abortion voting for him would be out of the question for me.

          • I agree. I don’t see any necessary overlap between abortion and religious belief. My nephew and I are both atheists (raised atheist, not former theists), and he is pro-life and I am pro-choice. Though we would both agree that in an “ideal” world no one would desire abortions.

  • New reader here. Thanks to Scott Young for passing this along.

    I agree, we cluster. We have to. It’s the only way individuals with any level of day-to-day responsibility can manage taking a position on an issue.

    Scott, I do believe team influence plays into our own stance. Ben, I believe our world view shapes our stance and core beliefs, too.

    Ben since you used politics as an example…

    Politically we are grouped and polarized thanks to the two-party power system that has dominated for most of our nation’s history.

    When voting for representatives locally, statewide, or nationally we can really only decide based a few key issues…and the parties (Rep. & Dem.) ensure our candidates fit into their party schemas.

    Basically, I think it’s unfair to say a person this person clusters politically solely on world view…it seems to me more than anything people do the best with the system in place. We cluster because of the framework of the system.

    • That’s a chicken and egg question. Did the framework arise because of this so-called clustering, or did the framework cause clustering?

  • Good thought, Scott. The question is what makes a set of beliefs
    ‘left-oriented’ in the first place such that a team would coalesce around
    them? Sowell and Pinker would say, a certain view about human nature.

  • It seems like there are more than two clusters; and although the two clusters you described are the most influential, doesn’t it seem like they are disintegrating? On the “conservative” side, many conservatives are very frustrated with the dominance of the religious right.

    What would the worldview of a libertarian be in this model?

  • I don’t think the libertarian POV is represented by this model — my own
    beliefs, for example, don’t cluster in this way. But then, libertarians are
    a tiny minority and far from the mainstream.

    • Sowell cites libertarianism as one of the groups that “defy easy categorization” because they combine elements of the tragic vision and the utopian vision. Marxism and fascism are also among them.

  • Interesting. NHANES data in the US over the decades has shown that bad health behaviours tend to cluster. So a person who fails to exercise and smokes is also likely to not care about excess weight or about eating fruit and vegetables. The explanations proffered there are not binary because such behaviours are complex, multifactorially driven by hormones, state of mind, other beliefs (such as religious) and plain lack of awareness amongst others. I wonder if this model can be applied meaningfully at all to this phenomenon.

  • They’re only a “tiny minority” if you ask them whether they are libertarians. If instead you look at their substantive beliefs, which is what your post was about, the numbers can (depending on interpretations) come out as similar to conservatives and liberals (with populists at a similar level). See, e.g., Yes, this is a biased source, but the polls cited are independent.

    A very common belief set is “the government should pretty much leave us alone – except for my special one or two issues.” Those one or two issues differ for each person. I don’t know what you call this cluster but I find it very common.

  • Good point. I certainly think the Tragic/Utopian dichotomy explains some of the differences in right/left thinking.

    But I believe there are probably a lot of other deep commonalities that help create the left/right coalescence of ideas. Religion and tradition within beliefs, mercy vs justice, freedom vs safety, etc.

    If you follow Pinker’s logic on the last one, these might also have a genetic influence solidifying the two spheres of thought.

  • This topic has been of recent interest to me, particularly as it applies to politics. The first manifestation of this in American politics comes way back from…the beginning: Jefferson (utopian) vs Adams (tragic) debated this their whole lives, and it heavily influenced the architecture of the US government, with Jefferson being more of a federalist (reliance on the inherent goodness of man) vs Adams being in favor of a strong republic (wanting to institutionalize the iterative governmental learnings of man).

  • Great post… but as a conservative can I take the liberty of correcting one thing you said Ben?

    “The Tragic Vision emphasizes the bedrock of self-interest in human nature,”

    It’s the difference between Maslow hierarchy of needs and narcissism…. maybe that’s a bad analogy.

    Anyways self-interest, unlike selfishness, isn’t necessarily restricted to the individual. Preservation of the tribe (patriotism, workers unions, football team, etc) is fundamental to the preservation of oneself and fundamental to human nature… IMHO.

    Also to chime in with some of the other replies about clustering and joining with groups. I think this was a fundamental truth that the founders recognized when creating the USA as a republic and why direct democracy will never work.

    There is no way each citizen can know all the intricacies of each political issue. The one thing that the citizen can know is their own values and they can identify and support people that share their values. Being able to identify with our leaders on a certain gives us trust in the decisions that they make.

    The problem with the approach is how easy it is to manipulate people’s feelings on a large scale.

    I think the current administration is a great example of this. President Obama campaigned as a deliberate and thoughtful moderate but has pushed an agenda that is unabashedly liberal.

    There is no easy way to govern large groups of people which is why it is important to support strong states rights and a limited federal government…. so says the Tragic Visionary 🙂

  • I wish I would have proof read what I wrote!

    My last paragraph should read:

    There is no easy way to fairly & justly govern large groups of people and at the same time ensure maximum liberty which is why it is important to support strong states rights and a limited federal government…. so says the Tragic Visionary 🙂

  • This is a political parallel to philosophic optimism v. philosophic pessimism. Pessimism gets a bad rap, but it can really mean a belief in limits to the human condition and deep scepticism towards the malleability of human nature and a teleological or utopian vision of society. If you haven’t already read it, ‘Pessimism’ by Joshua Dienstag is a great book on a ‘Tragic’ worldview.

  • Isn’t this Jung’s theory of psychological types? You only need a small number of data points to make a fairly accurate assessment of someone’s Myers-Briggs type, and once you know someone’s personality type you can make all sorts of surprisingly accurate guesses about him.

    There is likely some sort of animating theme between the various views you are analyzing. The person who supports environmentalism, rehabilitating offenders, welfare, and gay marriage is telling you that she identifies with the downtrodden and believes government should be active and generous.

    If you discovered that you were wrong in your initial guess – for example, that the environmentalist is actually opposed to gay marriage – it probably means you picked the wrong theme; she may be so opposed to any change that she doesn’t like any interference with the physical landscape or the social landscape. I’d expect her to be opposed to school busing as well.

    As for DaveJ’s comment that he does not know what to call the position that “the government should pretty much leave us alone – except for my special one or two issues,” I believe the technical term is “greed.” You’ll find it all over the animal kingdom, but it’s especially popular among the primates. Need to put those big brains to work somehow.

  • Thomas Sowell is one of those distinguished academics whose syndicated newspaper column a liberal reads with the knowledge that likely he will be inflamed with indignation, if he respects the logical empiricism that Sowell extols.

    Sowell’s writing there on economics brings to mind the image of a dour old hermaphrodite, belly swollen with the bastard devil-child of Adam Smith and Adolph Coors, trying to exorcise the evil spirits of Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith with ibogaine pixie dust blown into the uncomprehending eyes of Joe the Plumber and Suzie Sexpert.

    Though he actually has some defensible ideas, especially on certain social policies like the decriminalization of drugs, I can’t take seriously the sociological theorizing of a faithful servant of the Hoover Institution for whom no insulting half-truth is too lame to be used in the service of his disinformation campaigns.

    His statement that there are more trees in the US now than when the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, disingenuously equating the species monoculture of southern pine tree plantations with the bio-diversity of native ecosystems, is laughably absurd.

    I sneer when he uses gross acreage statistics to support his claim that there is no looming shortage of developable land here, as if every hectare of desert arroyo and caliche bed were seaside real estate on Biscayne Bay.

    The man’s newspaper column has historically been brim-full of Ann Coulter-style hate speech, and I will waste little of my time reading his thoughts on tragic versus utopian views.

    I think he understands human nature very well, and will not scruple to misinform his reading public in the service of his personal agenda.

  • “Hypocrisy” is closer than “greed” – but what I wondered is what to call the cluster in relation to Ben’s categories, not what to call the behavior.

  • What more does the tragic/utopian distinction offer us compared with the usual conservative/liberal one? Seems like just repackaging to me, not much new insight offered. We already implicitly know that conservatives view human nature differently than liberals, why else would their ‘values’ be different?

    Haidt’s moral foundations research seems like a much more fundamental way of looking at the spectrum of people’s political views ( ).

  • I just wanted to write and say that I am almost finished with reading Thomas Sowell’s book “A Conflict of Visions.” This book is really excellent and interesting and I think is really hitting the nail on the head with his book about why people take certain political positions.
    I am also a graduate student in philosophy and I am really interested in existentialism, and I think your concept of a team mentality in politics is very interesting. In existentialism, Martin Heidegger, writes about inauthenticity and authenticity, which basically when someone is truly being themselves, authentic, and also when someone falls into the “they-self,” inauthenticity. The “they-self” is when you are just part of the herd. I think politically people are often falling into being inauthentic, because they are just choosing a side,a team, with people that tend to agree with more, yet if they tried to logically really flesh out their ideas they would not truly agree completely with either the unconstrained or constrained vision of humanity. In a sense they are just falling into the team they most agree with politically, being part of the they-self. Psychologists talk of “in-groups” and “out groups” and each side is being part of the “in-group” that they most agree with politically, because of their fundamental metaphysical views of the world, and then just having a herd mentality and going along with the “in group,” in all situations. The “in group” then paints the other as evil, an “out-group” since they can’t understand the other side because of their fundamentally different views of human nature. In a sense people are not really being Heidegarian authentic and they are falling into the “they-self.” The unconstrained nor constrained view can be right or wrong all the time. All these issues requires much existential responsibilty, yet people are in a sense just being lazy and taking an “in-group” side, without thinkinbg deeply. Well, this has gotten a little long, but I just thought I would respond. Thanks

  • I can think of one exception to this theory: most liberal parents I know are deathly afraid to allow their children to play outside or walk to a bus stop unattended; they feel their kids should only be allowed to play at playgrounds with the most state-of-the-art safe apparatus. On the other hand, conservative parents are typically more comfortable to give their children freedom to roam and play with things naturally at hand. Why should this be the case?

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