James Coolidge Carter was arguably the preeminent appellate advocate of his time (he lived from 1828-1905 and was at the height of his fame at the end of the 19th century. A Mugwump, he had strong principled views on the human condition and a tenacious belief in the beauty of the economic order. The system’s fucntioning required the best of human traits to prevail in the never-ending battle between good and evil. Yet, Coolidge was remarkably skeptical of the innate goodness of humanity, writing:
The brute cares only for the wants of his body, and when these are satisfied he lies down contented . . . . But the desires of man have no such limitations. However much he may acquire, he is still greedy for more, and is never satisfied.
It struck me reading this that this sentiment is probably widely shared, even among those who routinely subordinate and brutalize nonhumans while justifying their actions on the grounds that the victims are “only animals.” Of course, this is not a new insight nor was it Coolidge’s point (he was not addressing human/nonhuman relationships at all). However, it got me thinking. Today it occured to me for the first time that expecting selfish, anti-social behavior from humans while comparing ourselves disfavorably to “brutes” simulataneously enables both critical self-reflection and ongoing exploitation. In that sense, self-criticism absent any accompanying will to reform is powerfully anti-social.
h/t to Lewis Grossman, whose interesting chapter on Coolidge sent me off on this tangent.