Although human beings are not all the same, they are sometimes expected to feel the same and do similar things. In general, the motivation and context of theories can vary as much as the theories themselves. For almost all its history, philosophy has overlapped with many other areas of thought. One mark of philosophy, however, has been its preoccupation with comprehensive understanding of basic concepts and realities. This paper examines various theories of human nature.
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Theories of Human Nature
One of Confucius’ central concerns, in life and in his philosophy, was the possible transition from being an agreeable person who usually behaved fairly well to a more advanced and refined state of being a reliably good person.
The goal was to be someone who had internalized, and also enjoyed, a life of virtuous action and harmonious human interaction. This is an underlying ethical concern which lends itself to an emphasis on the things in us that would make possible such a transition.
Confucius’ follower, Mengzi, specifically identified the crucial element in us which is a tendency toward benevolent impulses. The benevolent impulse typically comes and goes, and is often overridden by strong impulses of a selfish nature.
Nevertheless, Mengzi argued that these occasional benevolent impulses showed that each of us has psychological tendencies that could be built upon in becoming consistently benevolent people. Although his later rival Xunzi had a somewhat bleaker view of what most of us are like, he too thought that there were normal human tendencies which showed that a transition to a genuine virtue was possible.
The ancient Upanishads focused on an impersonal spiritual core known as atman. This hardly implies that we are perfect or spiritual in our daily lives. It is, however, taken as pointing toward the possibility that we could transform our daily lives and liberate ourselves from the concerns of the world. This would require focusing on our atman and its ultimate identity with the divine nature of the universe.
Buddha’s philosophy starts out by denying the existence of an atman which yields a more complicated view than that of the Upanishads of what human beings are essentially like. Unfortunately, it also leads to a basic human problem. Because we have the illusion of having a self, and because we also have desires, we inevitably will suffer. Buddha’s career was devoted first to finding, and then disseminating, a solution to this problem.
Part of the cure was to find his picture of what human beings are like. This facilitates clearing one’s thought of the elements that lead to suffering.
It also, to the extent to which reincarnation is meaningful, makes it possible for us to liberate ourselves from further reincarnation and instead, to enter a blissful state known as nirvana. A specific motivation for the theory of human nature is the desire for effective therapy and also liberation. Something like this is true of the Christian doctrine of original sin, as different as it is from Buddha’s view.
If a tendency to have occasional bad impulses is inherent in human nature, then every one of us must guard against it and also learn to be self-critical. Salvation remains a possibility, but moving toward it will be facilitated by an understanding of what the problem is. In general, a sense of our own limitations and needs really matters. In a way, original sin is one side of the picture while the other side of it is grace.
The picture we get at the dawn of Western philosophy in Athens is different and more mixed. Plato and Aristotle had multiple sources for their theories of human nature. They both believed that good education can make possible a transition from being a somewhat good person to being a thoroughly and reliably good person. In this they are a little like Confucius, although their ideas of what the right sorts of education differ greatly.
In addition, both Plato and Aristotle had what we nowadays would term extremely analytical minds. The general assumption was that to be a certain kind of thing was to have a certain kind of nature, shared with everything else that fits the same general description. Human beings, as Aristotle said, are rational animals.
Plato’s analysis of the human soul had been that it had three parts, among which reason should dominate. This is not entirely the same as what Aristotle then said, but does point in the same general direction. We can appreciate this better if we contrast the preoccupations of ancient Greek culture with those of recent Western thought. The ancient Greeks seemed to focus on the differences between human beings and animals, whereas in recent Western thought more attention is paid to similarities.
The eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant shared the view that reason is a central feature of human nature. The concerns that led him to this were not, however, entirely the same as those of Plato and Aristotle. They had more to do with the idea that reason is the element in human nature that grounds morality.
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Views of human nature very different from Kant’s had developed before him among the British philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including those of Thomas Hobbes, Bishop Joseph Butler, and David Hume. These philosophers were concerned with the real world roots of social relations such as our restraint in interacting with other people and our respect for legal and political authority.
Thomas Hobbes was a great pioneer in this, although both Butler and Hume then saw him as an extremist of sorts, who had developed a one-sided view of human nature. Hobbes lived through the English civil war, in which the Puritans finally defeated and executed King Charles I, and setup a parliamentary government led by Oliver Cromwell.
To some extent, Hobbes experienced a society that had fallen apart. It was natural for him to attempt to analyze how societies, in more normal times, remain cohesive and functional. However, Hobbes concern now seems oddly topical. There certainly are areas of the world in which once viable societies have fallen apart, leaving little effective law and order. One might think of the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Iraq as notable examples.
This, however, is not true of countries like Britain, Australia, and America. Much as someone who is quite healthy must consider the possibility of becoming sick, we should keep our minds open to the idea that we may not be entirely immune to what has happened elsewhere. As Hobbes saw it, the key to a viable society is a social contract. This is thought of as an agreement that has at least two components.
One is a general commitment to a structure of laws and moral obligations while the other is a commitment to recognize the authority of a government, and of the person or persons in charge. Hobbes tried to be realistic about these commitments. He knew that they did not represent 100 per cent compliance and that we still had to lock up our valuables and watch our purses and wallets. All the same, a viable society requires its members, by and large, to be inclined to comply.
It is always tempting to regard competing philosophies as starkly and diametrically opposed to one another. This makes for a dramatic and simple picture when in fact, no major philosopher ever denied that there are selfish and appetitive elements in what we are like. Butler and Hume did differ from Hobbes in claiming that we needed a fuller and more complete picture of human nature.
Butler’s position was that, just in terms of the construction of personal satisfaction, relations of caring for other people generally contribute to our lives. Ordinarily, altruism and self interest often run in the same direction. This becomes especially clear if we factor in the satisfactions of harmonious relations with people we care for, who may well care for us. Fortunately, people tend to care for others and to have some inclination toward harmonious relations with others. Although this was left out of Hobbes account, it is real.
Like Kant, Hume also held that we can best understand morality if we see it as something rooted in human nature. Hobbes had portrayed morality as one of the products of selfishness represented by the social contract. Hume argued against this, asserting that morality rests on organized normal human sentiments of sympathy or benevolence. One notion that Hobbes, Butler, Hume, and Kant all shared was that basically they regarded the construction of the human society as a success.
Sartre and Arendt were much more concerned with the development of an individual nature than some of their predecessors had been. Sartre argued that human beings are radically different, in being inherently incomplete in their natures, from ordinary physical objects.
The incompleteness of an individual’s nature is linked to the freedom inherent in human life. Although Arendt denied that she had a theory of human nature, studies indicate that she actually had one. She claimed that the revealing of a distinct nature is characteristic of human life.
Comprehensive theories of personality should aspire to include both a specification of human nature and an account of the major ways in which individuals differ.
Evolutionary psychology provides a powerful heuristic for the discovery of both. Since the evolutionary process is the only creative process capable, in principle, of producing complex organic mechanisms, all theories of human nature must, be anchored in the basic principles of evolution by selection. Theories of personality that are inconsistent with these evolutionary principles stand little or no chance of being correct.
All of these theories of human nature are guided largely by a sense of human potential. This is less true of many accounts in Western philosophies that place correspondingly more emphasis on what people are like even in an unfulfilled state. In general, theories of individual differences, however, cannot be separated from theories of human nature.