There are lots of cultural and individual differences between people, but do humans have something innately in common? According to philosopher John Locke, there is no such thing as human nature. In his view, the mind is at birth a “blank slate” without rules, so data are added, and rules for processing them are formed solely by sensory experiences.
Even if he were wrong, any human nature we might have seems to be a complex thing.
“Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.” (Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor)
So, the term ‘human nature’ is controversial because it is disputed whether or not such a thing exists. Does the phrase suit what it seems to refer to? Is human nature a misnomer or a valid idea?
Is human nature an animal nature?
Biology sees human beings as just another species of animal. One with the most intelligence and at the top of the pecking order. Like animals, we seek to satisfy our natural drives for food, drink, shelter, sex and a basic need for bodily comfort and avoidance of pain. Biologist Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, points out that, according to Darwinian evolutionary theory, our human makeup must have had a selfish streak if it were to be fit enough to survive down the generations.
On the other hand, even if we have come about because of our ancestors’ success in meeting their bodily needs at the expense of others, it is difficult to see how this kind of human essence can be the whole picture. Biologists have a hard time explaining altruism and acts of compassion involving an element of self-sacrifice by some individuals following natural disasters.
Is human nature fundamentally good?
A prominent Chinese philosopher called Mencius believed that goodness comes from inborn human inclinations towards for example benevolence and propriety. He argued that if an individual behaves badly, it is not the result of his or her constitution but rather is due to experiencing an unhealthy environment. A similar view is held by contemporary secular humanism. So it is thought for example that individuals turn to crime because of poverty or conforming to their delinquent subculture. By its emphasis on the value and effectiveness of human beings, humanism shows a belief in the inherent goodness of human nature.
However, it is difficult to maintain this view given the inhumane as well as humane things done by people.
“Human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive.” (Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist)
Is human nature fundamentally bad?
All religions have the idea that there is something wrong with the moral nature of people. However, the notion reaches what I consider to be an extreme version in the orthodox Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’. The Catholic Church and most mainstream Protestant denominations teach that all humans are born in a sinful state as a consequence of the sin of Adam.
According to Jeffrey Brodd (professor of religious studies at California State University) this condition of human nature has been characterized in many ways, ranging from a tendency toward sin yet without collective guilt, referred to as a “sin nature”, to something as drastic as total depravity or automatic guilt of all humans through collective guilt. In my view, this doctrine has caused a huge subjective sense of guilt and self-condemnation.
An alternative idea is that our normal state is to have an awareness of being a separate, self-contained individual with mind and body of our own. The consequence is a general tendency towards self-orientation. So, a part of our make-up is a natural concern for the needs of oneself. This can be a positive thing as with self-development of personal skills, or self-reflection on inner feelings. The trouble is there is a risk it can amount to self-indulgence and a selfish attitude if we were not on our guard.
Thus, in line with this view, we are born neither basically bad nor basically good but our human nature consists of both positive and negative tendencies.
“From the moral as from the intellectual point of view, the child is born neither good nor bad but master of his destiny.” (Jean Piaget, child psychologist)
Does human nature possess a soul?
Another objection to seeing human nature as merely natural appetite comes from spiritual thought concerning distinctly human faculties. This idea goes far back to the ancient Greeks. The human soul in the works of Plato and Aristotle has a divided nature. One part is specifically human and rational. Another part is home to desires or passions similar to those found in animals.
In a similar vein, according to the spiritual philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg, we human beings, unlike animals, have the capacity for thinking with liberty and rational discernment Consequently, to be human is to be free and able to think and choose rationally.
“It’s just human nature to try and figure things out. So, when we’re in the midst of a situation, we usually try to reason our way through it.” (Joyce Meyer, Christian author)
What is more human than the ability to look down upon oneself from above, so to speak, and apply ethical principles to our feelings and thoughts? If we wish it enables us better able to perceive what is more deeply meaningful and valuable. No animal possesses this self-conscious, reflective life. Consequently, we humans need not blindly follow instinctive and conditioned reactions. Instead, we are free to turn this way or that, to follow or not follow some of our natural inclinations.
We could develop potential humane qualities like consideration for others, forgiveness, and kindness. But how?
One answer is that to do so we need to consciously receive into our lives what comes from beyond us but which can be present within us – the Divine Source of all that is good.
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems