‘Faith in humanity’ is a phrase bandied about in our society. There are online lists of pictures and stories to ‘give us faith’ in humanity, I have often heard people saying that they’ve ‘lost faith’ in humanity, and (I would posit as a variant) I hear people saying that they ‘hate people’. I usually have a negative reaction to this kind of statement. Today I am going to dissect what it is that I think is being said when people say they talk about ‘faith in humanity.’
I think that ‘faith in humanity’ is predominantly about generalizing human nature. To have ‘faith’ in humanity is broadly speaking to have a positive view of human nature, while ‘losing faith’ is to say that one’s positive opinion is being threatened or is being somehow unsettled.
Now, I don’t take umbrage with people having a positive or negative view of human nature. I might argue with them about the details (in a previous post I already talked about some of my views of human nature), but I don’t find it irritating. What I do find irritating is the normal scenario in which ‘faith in humanity’ is used. Usually the statement is about a specific scenario or occurrence – someone will gain faith in humanity by seeing a man rescue drowning kittens, or lose faith when they hear about a horrible murderer.
I think the issue at hand is whether the goodness of human nature is an aggregate of its parts. Is human nature ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by the actions of its members? The person gaining or losing faith in humanity is, I think, taking this stance – their opinion of human nature is a summation of their experiences of humans doing things. I am inclined to accept this definition of human nature – it seems fair to me to say that human nature is a kind of summation of the nature of individuals. I also have no objection to generalizations: if someone presents me with statistical data that says that African-Americans are less educated then Caucasians I am quite happy to nod my head at this brute fact of the world. Accepting brute facts however is different then judging. Brute facts are summations, judgements are on the particulars. I may predict that an African American is less educated, but I at the same time think I should recognize each instance of an African American as an individual to be judged on their own merit. Brute statistical facts also lose much of their intricacy – there are many stories that reside behind the education divide.
This is where we come to my objection to people talking about gaining or losing faith in humanity. I perceive the statement as a judgement, a judgement of the greatest breadth. It is a judgement that extends to all people. How else could the statement be meaningful? You cannot lose or gain faith with people in general without gaining or losing faith with people in particular. The statement is therefore either meaningless or the broadest sort of generalization – I think people are better because this person has been good, or I think people are worse because this person has been evil.
The final aspect of the critique is that I also feel the statement is a kind of self-exaltation: there is power in judging others less. I think the uttering individuals take themselves as an individual (for of all people it is our own self of which we are entirely invested in the particulars), and therefore does not include themselves in the judgement. It becomes a kind of self-praise – I, in my goodness, judge these others worse.
Let me know what you think,