The False Notion of Human Nature | Omid Fouladpouri
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not reflect the opinions of Pulse Magazine as a whole.
Human nature. A word so familiar to all of us, and to some, is seen as unquestionable fact. What are the origins of this concept? What are the common explanations for what human nature is? How has it historically been used? Is it really definable? How much of a role does it play compared to “nurture”?
Human nature often refers to the very well-defined view of how humans naturally are regardless of their social conditions; thus, human nature refers to how humans universally are. The implications of such a notion on society, depending on the person, can range from advocacy of a complete reorganization of society to not meaning much. The origins of the concept of human nature are from the same time as the origins of modern Western philosophy, when the study of everything was under review. In addition to the search for how we exist and how we should act, the search for understanding ourselves also emerged. It has been under significant debate since then, but the modern conception is rooted in the era of the past few hundred years.
Thomas Hobbes, a highly influential philosopher from the 16th century and an unironic advocate of authoritarianism, believed in and helped contribute to this now common notion of humans being naturally greedy. In addition to that view, there are a few other common views of human nature. Beliefs range from humans being naturally cooperative, rational, or irrational, while others are just a rejection of the concept of human nature. Or, at the very least, some don’t believe it is definable. So what is the point of all this? Well, for many the conception of human nature is very important to how societal organization must be.
In addition, historically and up to this point, the concept of human nature has been the justification for so many regrettable societal constructs which all still exist in different capacities, including slavery and patriarchy. The notion of humans being naturally different in inherent value, of having highly defined gender roles and norms they must abide by, and much more are results of attempts to either justify societal oppression that already exists or to push further in that direction. Human nature is often now seen as the justification of our current societal organization, such as the profit motive, the state, and many other societal institutions. With this in mind, why do so many continue to believe in it? Well, it’s what is often taught in schools to explain why what exists must exist. Any time any legitimate criticism is brought up, it is often disregarded due to the existence of this common, agreed upon, unquestioned belief.
This poses the question: does human nature really exist? The answer, well, is complicated. Many of us want simple explanations to highly complicated questions, and this question isn’t an exception. Why human nature is often taught so simplistically and without question isn’t a matter of the goal of being accurate, but a goal of unquestionable justification. Our societal institutions as they exist now are heavily centralized, and what better way can powerful, centralized organizations justify themselves except with simple explanations that reduce the true complexity of people? In other words, once people recognize the complexity of earth, the life on it, and our social relations, they would question the existence of centralized institutions in the first place. Centralization exists to promote universality regardless of accuracy, and promoting universal conceptions of nature and humans (such as the Pareto principle or the simplification of human nature to highly specific universal traits such as greed) contributes to their goal. This may seem like a difficult concept to grasp. However it can best be explained by this: Centralized organization exists to apply to everyone, and it needs to defend its existence by making universal claims and saying they exist to serve those claims.
To truly understand a conception of human nature, this alleged unchanging characteristic that exists in all humans regardless of a specific date in history, specific society they exist, and who they are, we must look for similar characteristics along different dates, societies, and people. The only issue with this is that it’s really hard to account for all aspects of society. Considering the social norms, resources, and personal experiences of each person and trying to find a set of common characteristics is near impossible.
Now the existence of human nature is not impossible, considering the fact we have predetermined phases of human growth, such as puberty. Does this necessitate we must have a completely preoriented mind? No, definitely not. Also considering the fact that we have some fundamental characteristics that are only imposed after birth, such as language, one can only conclude that both may play a role in the development of the mind. Height is a good example of this as well. We have a height we are genetically tending towards, but we could either end up shorter or taller depending on our circumstances. After all, the amount of food, exercise, and sleep play a critical role in the process of height development. Could human nature be seen, instead of the one dimensional form that height takes, as a two or three dimensional set of capacities and moralities humans can be influenced by in soceity? Possibly, but due to the massive lack of evidence and the near impossibility of being able to objectively find a common characteristic among humans, it would make the most sense to view any conception of human nature as purely skepticism and far from fact.
The undefinability of human nature, regardless, shouldn’t affect anyone’s view on societal organization. Societal organization is a matter of ethics and morals, not a view on what humans may be predetermined to believe or tend towards. Regardless, considering the fact that the societal and social conditions of humans in past and modern societies have evidently influenced the people in those societies, it makes sense that whatever nature is is dominated by the nurture of the society surrounding it. Many historical societies have involved both heavy communal living and others with highly competitive people fighting to survive. One thing that can be observed of all humans in all time periods in all societies is their ability to be influenced by the society around them.
Human nature, originating from the modern Western philosophers trying to understand and characterize all humans of all societies through their lens, has often been a justification for mass oppression. But when truly considering the necessary analysis for any conception of human nature, the most accurate and reasonable conclusion is that it’s undefined. The one conclusion one could make through an analysis of various societies during various time periods is that humans are influenced by their environment. In cooperative societies, humans demonstrated those values of cooperation. In competitive societies, humans demonstrated those values of competition. That’s not to say that societies necessarily limit thought and action, as humans can be creative and break the notions that have been imposed on them. An example for this breaking of societally-accepted notions would be the early abolitionist movement in the United States. The abolitionist movement went against everything the society around it promoted. Fundamentally, everything that one is taught, especially with such political implications as it has, must be challenged and questioned for the promotion of both a greater physical and intellectual freedom. We must continue to search for more answers, but never use them to justify any aspect of society. A society with an unshackled and highly critical view of itself will lead to the further development of better ideas.