The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Prison amenities and Maslow's Hierarchy

“"But then they'll shoot you back!" I can expect you to reply. But, you're postulating a situation where I'm sitting here minding my own business and somebody else demands my subsidies on the basis that they're able to hit me in the head. Notice the asymmetry of that situation; also notice that mostly what I want is to be left alone, and that the threat of violence on my part is a response to the threat of violence towards me and my loved one that you're invoking. So, big whoop. You want to impress me, start by making an argument that doesn't begin by treating mugging as a morally neutral phenomenon.”
##
You miss my point. Anyone who would consciously shoot you—or anyone in the head, or demand “money with menaces” is the last person I would want to pay off. But in most of the industrialized world, we DON’T execute people. So say: “crack you over the head with a pipe, and then run to the police.” Now you’re still stuck—we’re not going to execute someone for putting you in the hospital, and doing so wouldn’t make it a better world, in my opinion.

What would? Certainly some people need to be locked away (and if it were really possible for it to be fair, capital punishment seems a sound idea in many cases) and that includes, as I said, anyone who would have the basic necessities of life and still contemplate violence.

But how many good, decent, honest people would steal if they were hungry? If their children were hungry? I think that the average person, pushed far enough by hunger, would certainly steal. And the instant you decide to steal, you risk having to do violence to back that up.

The ability to kill, to steal, to take by whatever means the substance necessary to maintain life is probably in 99% of the human beings on this planet. When we perceive others as being of the “Other” tribe it gets easier. You make a sociopath at least partially by completely withholding affection and connection early in life. Obviously this is a bell curve. Some people won’t break down into criminal action, no matter what. And others won’t be good citizens no matter what.

But I think that most of us are somewhere in the middle. Most would kill to defend family and friends. And if society broke down, the rules by which one decides what is “us” and what is not get mighty fluid.

Take the average person and put them under perceived threat and they’ll o.k. a government’s plan to bomb strangers, even given the statistical certainty that innocent people will die. Those who feel the system works for them often have a difficult time believing that anyone could think otherwise.

I’d guess that 80% of people would steal if you denied them food for two days. They would try to keep violence out of it, but if you tried to jail everyone who WOULD commit violence if hungry and frustrated, I think there would be more people in jails than outside them.

Nature says some percentage of people will be bad, no matter what. Nurture says that the majority of otherwise good and decent human beings, if they believe themselves to be in a no-man’s-land where there are no rules, will revert to the law of the jungle. Again, they may not WANT to hurt you, but if you are between them and the food they need, or the food their child needs, someone is going to be hurt.

This doesn’t mean that they are bad, or that human nature is bad. It means that the gentler tendencies, the spiritual tendencies, the civilized and intellectual tendencies, are based on a foundation of survival, security, and satisfaction of basic physical hungers. That’s Maslow’s Heirarchy.

It takes a saint to remain true to higher values when it seems that cheats and robbers and dominators are getting rich. You don’t want to go down that road.

A huge amount of civilization, I think, is designed to channel the basic aspects of human nature into higher stages. And there are damned good selfish reasons to engage in charity. Not only is it good for its own sake, but it helps remind those who receive it that there is good in Mankind.

When I say that I feel we will have raised up a notch in our level of society when we provide those basic benefits it is because I think that caring for the least among us is a healthy thing in every way. I believe that human beings given love and safety during early development are far, far more likely to develop into healthy adults. And that providing a security net helps people feel that they have not fallen off the edge of the world, into a place where law and morality seem to be lies created to keep an unfair social order in place.

I don’t want that. I feel that it increases my chances of living to a ripe old age, and my children being the same, if no sane person needs to crack my head to get food and shelter. That still leaves the crazy and the bad, but you know something? I think that is actually a pretty small percentage of humanity.

Most of the rest? Bad reality maps.

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