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Noam Chomsky interviewed by Kate Soper
Red Pepper, August, 1998
QUESTION: You have argued that any stance one takes on political, economic, social or even personal issues is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. Why is this? CHOMSKY: Any stance we take is based on some conception of what is good for people. This conception will tacitly presuppose a certain belief as to the constitution of human nature -- human needs and human potential. You might as well bring them out as clearly as possible so that they can be discussed. QUESTION: According to your view of human nature, all human beings possess certain biological functions endowing them with common mental capacities. How do you defend this position against postmodernist critics who argue that there is no such thing as human nature, and that all attempts to define it are guilty of reading other cultures in the light of Western perceptions and values? CHOMSKY: Not even the most extreme postmodernist can seriously argue that there is no such thing as human nature. They may argue that the exact properties of human nature are difficult to substantiate -- this is certainly correct. However, it is impossible to coherently argue that an intrinsic, universal human nature does not exist. This amounts to the belief that the next human zygote conceived might just as well develop into a worm or a crab as a human being. Postmodernists might limit their assertion to denying any effect of human nature on our mental make-up -- our values, our knowledge, our wants, etc. This also makes no sense. The postmodernist will argue that a child growing up in New York will develop a certain way of thinking, and if that child had grown up amongst Amazon tribespeople she would have developed a completely different way of thinking. This is true. But we must then ask how a child could develop these different consciousnesses. In whatever environment it finds itself, the child will mentally construct a rich and complex culture on the basis of the extremely scattered and limited phenomena it is exposed to. That consideration tells us (in advance of any detailed knowledge) that there must be an extraordinary directive and organisational component to the mind that is internal. We can begin to see human nature in terms of certain capacities to develop certain mental traits. I think we can go further than this and begin to discover universal aspects of these mental traits which are determined by human nature. I think we can find this in the area of morality. For example, not long ago I talked to people in Amazon tribes and I took it for granted that they have the same conception of vice and virtue as I do. It is only through sharing these values that we were able to interact -- talking about real problems such as being forced out of the jungle by the state authorities. I believe I was correct to assume this: we had no problem communicating although we were as remote as is possible culturally. QUESTION: Are you suggesting everyone agrees about the nature of vice and virtue? CHOMSKY: In fact I think they probably have a very high measure of agreement. One strong bit of evidence for this is that everyone -- a Genghis Khan, Himmler, Bill Gates -- creates stories of themselves where they interpret their actions as working for the benefit of human beings. Even at the extreme levels of depravity, the Nazis did not boast that they wanted to kill Jews, but gave crazed justifications -- even that they were acting in 'self-defence'. It is very rare for people to justify their actions by saying 'I'm doing this to maximise my own benefit and I don't care what happens to anybody else'. That would be pathological. QUESTION: Most people certainly try to offer moral justifications for what they do. But there is also enormous diversity in what they do, and defend as right to do. CHOMSKY: And there is a lot of variation in people's size. Take a walk through a museum where they have the armour