At lunch recently I had an interesting discussion with two friends. It started with the issue of taxes, and moved through several other smaller topics before arriving at the question of what role government, corporations, the free market, and communities should play in our lives. While no one gave in and agreed that the other side was correct, we did trace many of our disagreements back to one central subject: human nature. My friends were convinced that the empirical and historical evidence proves humans are naturally lazy and selfish, so we should avoid trusting large groups of people, or in ideas like the human spirit and common will. My position, by contrast, is that human nature is the product of many complex forces, and that without a better understanding of what produces it, we should not make universal statements about what humans are capable of (at least in the long term).
While I do think one can be skeptical based on what history has shown us about human conduct, the issue of human nature seems to me to be largely unanswered. We know some about how humans tend to act, but the underlying causes—and whether those causes are changeable—are still open to debate. Many fascinating areas of exploration have opened, from genetics and epigenetics to the unconscious and social practices, but much work is left to be done. This question is vitally important for almost every aspect of human endeavor, since it gets to the heart not just of politics but to what humans can know and the meaning of their behavior, if any. Here are some philosophical reflections on the topic to get you thinking.
- Simon Blackburn, “Human nature and science: A cautionary essay,” Behaviour, 2014.
- Brian Carey, “Justice for Jerks: Human Nature, Selfishness, and Noncompliance,” Social Theory & Practice, October 2016.
- Edgar Landgraf, “De-Essentializing Human Nature: Truths of the Posthuman Spirit,” Constructivist Foundations, July 2017, Volume 12, No 3.
- David Ludwig, “Language and Human Nature: Kurt Goldstein’s Neurolinguistic Foundation of a Holistic Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Behavior Sciences, January 2012.
- Justin E. H. Smith, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2017.
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