Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Human Nature

For the last month or so, Rebecca Ferguson and I have been discussing the character of Juliette Nichols as she prepares to portray Jules for the upcoming TV show. One of our recent emails descended into a philosophical discussion, which I thought readers might find interesting. With Rebecca’s permission, and picking up halfway through the email, I share it with you all here:



The philosophical underpinnings of the novel WOOL goes back to an age-old question about human nature. There are two broad views about our goodness or lack thereof. One school (often associated with the philosopher Jean Jacque Rousseau) says that humans are born innately good and it is society which corrupts us. This is the “Noble Savage” theory of human morality. The other school (linked to philosopher Thomas Hobbes) says that humans are born immoral and that civilization gradually tames us. That without a strong system of laws, we would run amok. This is called the “Leviathan” theory of human morality.

The debate between these two schools has defined human existence. It’s the difference between conservatism and liberalism, between hippie communes and brutal dictators. Most of us probably believe that neither school is 100% true, but the direction we lean informs our view of our fellow man and society. Do kids need to be strictly punished or allowed to explore and flourish? Should criminals be locked away for good or rehabilitated? Should we dominate the earth and bend it to our whim, or should we preserve it in order to not let ourselves be destroyed?

I have sad news to report: science has come down far more in support of Hobbes’ pessimism than Rousseau’s optimism. Kids lie willingly and often, as though the talent were inborn. Communes fall apart largely because of the freeloading and laziness of the worst among them. Societies without laws descend into anarchy. However (and this might be the biggest however in human history): rules are like water in that we need them, but too much and you drown.

This is where my own theory comes into play: I think humans are really good at seeing cause and effect. We do A and B happens. A caused B. More of A will lead to more of B. We learn these rules easily and readily. We have a hard time unlearning them when the causal relationship breaks down. Sometimes you get to a point where more A does not lead to more B.
Money and happiness is a great example. If you graph income and happiness on separate curves, they match up for a long while. Having money makes us happier, because we worry less, we can afford nicer things, more leisure time, security for our families, freedom, etc. However, numerous studies have found that after a while these curves “decouple.” Money can keep going up, but happiness levels off. The growing disconnect can lead to depression, as people keep adding A and don’t get any more of B. There’s a limited amount of happiness we can feel (B), but an unlimited amount of money we can imagine having (A). The difference has driven people mad.

The same is true of rules. If we add rules (A), we usually get a healthier society (B). As a parent, you must know this even better than I do! Kids even seem to enjoy having the structure of some rules, because it makes the world feel predictable and fair. They go insane in the rare households that shirk all rules. But you probably also know that too many rules don’t lead to perfect harmony. You can’t keep adding A until you get an ideal B. There’s a limit to how well people can function with one another. Society breaks down when we think that if we just had a few more rules, everyone would be perfectly happy and well-behaved. The truth is that there are limits to how well a society can function, just as there are limits to human happiness. And yet we often keep testing cause and effect, hoping to drive B to the moon. It’s like giving water to a thirsty person until they drown.

In the silo, these two schools of philosophy are embodied by Juliette and Bernard. Bernard believes in Hobbes’ Leviathan. People only get along if they live under the crushing weight of a mountain of rules. Juliette is Rousseau’s Noble Savage. She thinks if you got rid of all the rules and just let people do what comes naturally, that everything will sort itself out and we’d all be a lot happier. Both of them are wrong. Bernard will never live to see that he was wrong. Juliette will come to a middle ground of truth eventually. And it is Lukas who will help her get there.

Lukas is an interesting character. I see him as a hero for being the very sort of milquetoast that we rarely imbue in our protagonists. We like protagonists at the extremes. Compromise isn’t sexy. But compromise is where we find harmony and truth.

IT is the Leviathan and Mechanical are the Noble Savages, and Lukas is torn between the two. He’s in love with a mechanic, but he works for IT. He is drawn to Juliette’s lawlessness, but he is reading the Legacy, a set of books that detail how the world came to an end and how easily the silo can collapse and kill everyone in it. He wants to live like Juliette, but he fears that his boss Bernard is correct, and the only way to keep everyone alive is through manipulation and untruths.

The reality is that Bernard’s way (the way of the Leviathan) is pure laziness. It’s the easy way. Just set strict rules and punish offenders with the dispassion of a machine. It’s our mandatory sentencing laws in the American justice system, where we are not allowed to take individual circumstances into account. Or how a banking algorithm determines whether an applicant gets a loan, because getting to know that person and deciding to invest in them is too much work. Racism and misogyny come from the same sort of laziness. It’s a shortcut. Lukas and Juliette will realize that a better system means a lot more work, but that it’s worth it.

By the time Juliette becomes mayor, she will have seen what happens to a silo with too many rules and lies … and also what happens to a silo that breaks free and reaches for ultimate truth and maximum freedom. The tightrope act required to exist in the middle must terrify her, but how can a good person choose anything but this? How can a good parent not choose to set rules but also know when they are able to be broken? How does thoughtful inconsistency not become the highest ideal at some point? It must. The exceptions are what define us, not the rules they burst through. The challenge is acquiring the wisdom to know what exceptions matter and when. This is what makes for a good judge, free from mandatory sentencing. It’s what makes for a good banker, free from algorithms.

By the end of her journey, Juliette is the ultimate example of this tightrope act between leviathan and noble savage. She has the fiery spirit that allows exceptions but the keen mind that sees how all the rules should interlock like perfectly oiled cogs. She learns to not fear confrontation with people; she learns to be patient with others, and just as importantly learns to be patient with herself. To me, she embodies the ideal human adventure from our imperfect, beautiful selves to whatever wise and kind soul we might become before we die. We will never be perfect (a maximum amount of B), but we should never stop trying (a nonstop dose of A).

7 replies to “Human Nature”

How true! Having studied Rousseau and Hobbes over 50 years ago, it was good to read your views which reinforced what I have always believed. Bringing up my children, they always knew that rules were the framework which created a stable life. They also learned that there were occasions when they could ‘push the envelope’.

Loved this article, Hugh. You always have a novel and intriguing perspective on issues. And it’s timely for me as I’m just writing the second draft of my latest novel where the protagonist is wrestling with exactly these issue.

WOOL has a special place in my heart and in my journey as an author. I read WOOL while I was writing my memoir, Falling Silence, which is about me being born and raised in a cult, leaving and learning to live in a world I was raised to fear as evil. WOOL got me through some really tough chapters I was writing, because of the character Juliette. She was strength for me, to face what lay outside of the cult and not to fear it. To be willing to explore and question everything I was raised to believe. I found this book and you as an author, through one of your imposter’s introduction. Which is a comical story in and of itself.

The two theories you discuss, has always fascinated me. Having raised five children, who all ended up leaving the cult, several which helped guide me out; there is a need for both theories. I came to realize this when at 48, I was like a child trying adventuring out into a strange land and people, to figure out this strange world I entered. I had to set strict boundaries for myself initially, while I relearned history, observed people, and researched different lifestyles, beliefs, and relationships.

An insane amount of questions were asked, “Why?” escaped my lips a lot. Lots of reading and observation took place. A tremendous amount of analysis of every thought to determine if it was influenced by my cult upbringing.

As I grew in my foundation of who I desired to be, I could safely explore experiences. This was the key point that Juliette helped me get through. This woman, despite her philosophy and desire to explore, used her knowledge and wisdom to do it safely. She was willing to look at opposing viewpoints. She was willing to discuss opposing opinions, rather than just shut the person of, because she didn’t agree with them.

It was her ability to be opened minded, question everything, and listen to understand which became a guiding methodology for my journey outside of the cult. Juliette’s emotional journey of learning of the deceit and betrayal, in order to maintain power; can’t be underestimated as to the importance of her character development within WOOL.

Having obtained power, she had to evolve into what type of leader she would be. Without her willingness to be open minded, learn about the history, question decisions, and step back and observe the people she was now leading; she could have easily failed. Her silo could have become silent with the death of its inhabitants turning on each other.

She became a leader, because she gained the trust of individuals who believed in her ability to lead. She gained that trust because she listened to all points of view. She didn’t shut anyone down, but instead encouraged people to speak their thoughts. If she was to lead an entire silo of people, everyone needed to feel they had a voice and they mattered.

You brilliantly interweave your own personal political viewpoints into your writing. Yet, your books appeal to a wide variety of audience with different political opinions. It will be interesting to see the evolution of how this is interpreted on screen. Will it be entertaining, or will it be another political promotion piece? We’ve seen far to often, books not translating well onto the screen because they did not stay true to the book. Hopefully you can help guide this to not occur with WOOL.

I cannot accept the notion that humans may be born innately good or innately immoral because the concept of what is good is not set in stone. Social values change and evolve; they differ across different cultures and over time. Promotion of women’s rights and racial equality are some examples of this change. Children absorb the value systems that are presented to them by their family, their teachers, their peers and their society. For example, if attainment of money is presented as a worthy goal in and of itself (which has happened in many Western cultures over the last few decades), then it begins to subsume other considerations of family and community values. But this can change through deliberate choices and no normative social structures are immutable.
So there are two questions to consider: what should be the value system governing a community (whether it’s inside a giant silo or spread across a continent), and how these values should be enforced.
The latter is an interesting discussion and, as becomes the case in the Wool trilogy (and in the post), it is probably a matter of finding the right balance of different measures. The only observation I can add is that people have a tendency to change according to expectations. Treating another person with trust and respect often causes them to do their best to justify the self-image that this presents to them. The reverse, unfortunately, can also be true.

An interesting discussion to be had here. I believe in objective moral truth. I do not think morality is subjective at all. What we have across time and cultures are varying degrees of deviation from this objective moral truth. And over time, we have seen as systems bend asymptotically toward that truth.

Of course, we may never reach that truth, but it doesn’t mean that it does not exist. There have been fascinating results out of game theory that hint toward the genetic underpinnings of this objective moral truth, especially the algorithmic explorations of the prisoner’s dilemma. What emerges from these studies and evolutionary psychology can be found in nature.

We 100% do not build up morality from cultural influences. If we did, morality would be all over the place. What we find instead is that almost every human society has the same basic moral structures. The ways in which we differ are minor compared to the ways in which we are the same. These similarities are seen in other primates, and they are seen in infants, who have yet to absorb their cultural influences.

I think the question of whether universal morality exists doesn’t have a straightforward yes or no answer, and I completely agree that our similarities far outweigh our differences. There are a lot of common threads, both in animal and in human groups: cooperation improves the chances of survival for the group; competitive pressures arise from resource constraints. There are many similar basic moral principles reflected in different cultures. For most people, there are common imperatives for belonging, justice, understanding, and human interaction.
But how these imperatives translate into social structures, redistribution of resources, normative family values and interactions between different demographic groups varies quite significantly over cultures and throughout history.
In most human societies, a person who acts against the interests of the community is reprimanded, punished or expelled. Today, we have an extensive criminal system to codify the different types of behaviour that are considered to go against the interests of the community. But what is considered a crime in one society may be very different to the way the same action is treated in another community. Consider the impact that having a lot of children would have on a silo-based community with severe resource constraints, compared to the same action in a pioneer community settling on a new continent. In the first situation, it may be treated as a crime, in the second encouraged through government incentives.
The problem with experiments such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, is that strict experimental control in studies that attempt to tackle complex social issues often comes at the expense of fidelity to real-life situations. The morality label associated with one decision over another is interpreted in very simple terms: ‘Would one person inflict harm on another person for personal advantage?’
But human societies are complex, dynamic, adaptive systems with multiple variables. In real life, the Prisoner’s Dilemma would involve a multitude of other factors. Did Prisoner A and/or B actually commit the alleged offense? (Noting that the sense of justice will sometimes prompt people to act against their own interests.) What is the nature of the offense and the social stigma associated with it in the society? Was it a political protest? Drug trafficking? Sexual assault? Is Prisoner A a first-time offender who knows that if she agrees to a one year sentence, she will have a criminal record for the rest of her life that will prevent her from getting a decent job and destroy any chances of a career? Does she have children? How old are they? Is the father around? Does one of the children have a chronic medical condition? Do they have health insurance? How much does the medication cost? Does Prisoner B have a team of lawyers on stand-by to launch appeals? The answers to these questions will affect assessment of the morality of the final decision both for the individual prisoners and for the society at large. That is the real level of complexity in which human beings have to exercise their understanding of ethics, morality and self-interest. The social structures that enact these incentives or disincentives to make a particular decision also reflect a complex structure of value judgements.
Controlled experiments do very little to address this complexity, and I think that it is dangerous to extrapolate such findings to the broader social level in the way that the Prisoner’s Dilemma has been extrapolated to strategic planning, business and finance. Acknowledgement of complexity is also why systems thinking approaches have been gaining in popularity over the last fifty years (although more so in UK and Europe than in the US). Case studies in communities have a greater fidelity to reality, but are difficult to reproduce and even then, a degree of critical analysis has to be applied to the types of questions asked, the underpinning assumptions, and the elements of the system that are excluded from the study.

She has the fiery spirit that allows exceptions but the keen mind that sees how all the rules should interlock like perfectly oiled cogs. She learns to not fear confrontation with people; she learns to be patient with others, and just as importantly learns to be patient with herself. To me, she embodies the ideal human adventure from our imperfect, beautiful selves to whatever wise and kind soul we might become before we die. We will never be perfect (a maximum amount of B), but we should never stop trying (a nonstop dose of A).
These words are beautiful … these last words … They have a lot of meaning.
She studies … but she is like that in real life. The real …
It is very difficult to be such a person and not everyone can live such a life … it is not for everyone.

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