Sunday, February 18, 2007

Revisiting Human Nature

Tibor R. Machan

False alternatives are often presented as if there is nothing else to choose—like, love me or hate me, or being kind or mean. But in most cases there are many other options.

Throughout the history of ideas there has been a false alternative that’s been paraded before us, that of human beings as either naturally, innately good or evil. In modern philosophy the two positions are represented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. For Rousseau we are all born good but then get corrupted by society. According to Hobbes we are all driven by dark motives, mostly fear of death, to seek power over nature and others.

In religion, too, there is the idea that basically human beings are sinful and need to be lifted out of this awful state; in some other religions, however, we are deemed to be good from the start. Before considering this idea that its either one or the other, it is worth considering that conservatives have championed the Hobbesian idea, as well as its religious version, namely, that we are all basically corrupt. The conservative believes, as David Brooks points out, “a universal human nature; that it has nasty, competitive elements; that we don’t understand much about it; and that the conventions and institutions that have evolved to keep us from slitting each other’s throats are valuable and are altered at great peril.” Idealists or utopians think people are essentially good (or might, at least, be reengineered to be so).

Yet, think about it: if we are really so bad at heart, why should anyone think those conventions and institutions that have evolved aren’t the fruits of our evil nature? Why trust them? Quite the opposite would follow—naturally evil beings spawn evil practices, customs, laws and so forth. Also, how come we are born good but somehow society—which is, after all, the lot of us—makes us bad? Seems a weird idea.

There is also the problem that “competitive” is mistaken for “combative.” People, very nice ones indeed, compete throughout the world without in the slightest being nasty. Also, if we don’t understand human nature, how come David Brooks and others with whom he aligns himself on this issue have so much to say about it? From ignorance nothing follows, so why are they not just silent about it all?

But by far the most important problem here is that we are presented with a significant false alternative. So, suppose Rousseau was mistaken. Does it follow that Hobbes is correct? The evidence does not bear this out at all.

No once can dispute that there is a lot that’s objectionable in what human beings have done but no one can reasonably deny that human beings have also achieved much that’s admirable. Even all the conservative laments about how we are all “slouching toward Gomorrah” (a book title by Robert Bork) is an exaggeration—those looking back to the good old days conveniently forget that at least America’s good old days were filled with slavery, conscription, male chauvinistic laws, censorship, a murderous war, and lots of awful public policies. But, yes, there were also glorious things in the past, like the rule of law, respect for private property rights, civility in discourse, and so forth and so on. In short, human history has been replete with good and with evil.

What does this suggest? Certainly not that people are naturally good. Nor that they are naturally evil. Indeed, what it does seem to support is that human beings are neither one or the other, at least at the outset of their lives—they are what even the Bible suggests, quite without good or evil but with the capacity to embrace either, more or less, over their lifetimes.

The idea that people possess free will supports this, as well. Yes, they have a human nature—maybe even a firmly fixed one—but this could well amount to the fact that they are capable of thinking and, in consequence, choosing how they will conduct themselves. Some will choose well, some badly, none has to do just one or the other.

There really is much more support for this view of human nature—one that understands us with the freedom to choose our character for good or for ill—than what the conservatives or the utopians present. If the conservatives were right, humanity would have been doomed from the start. If the utopian idealists, then we would have no problems and all would go well all of the time. And clearly neither of this is what the evidence shows.

It is interesting that the American legal tradition gives credibility to this view of human nature, when it treats those not convicted of a crime as “not guilty.” That’s how we should see ourselves.

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