On Human Nature

The concept of human nature is one that’s been debated for years by just about everyone, from the absolutely brilliant to the completely unremarkable, with good reason. How we see each other has a huge impact on how we interact with each other, how we motivate others, and even how we govern. It’s a conflict that rages even in our own government, with Republicans often claiming that human nature is intrinsically wicked while Democrats claim that it’s good. One of these sides has been gaining ground after what must have been one of the greatest rhetorical coups of all time.

These days, those believe that human beings are wicked, cruel, and greedy by nature style themselves as “realists.” They argue that, though they definitely don’t like it, they recognize that humans simply have evil tendencies. They hurt each other, take from each other, abuse each other, and the amount of suffering in the world clearly proves that our nature is base and depraved. Those who believe otherwise, according to the "realists," are idealists, starry-eyed and blinded by their own optimism. They level other accusations at “idealists” as well, claiming that, instead of punishing wrongdoers for their actions, idealists would rather blame, and therefore seek to change, society. In short, those who believe the worst of people argue that others are blinded by idealism in ways that prevent. The vocabulary of their argument makes it incredibly hard to argue against them, as it presupposes that they understand reality better than their opponents.

Is this true though? After all, psychological studies has shown frequently that even babies have genuinely good instincts. Whether by revealing that we prefer those who help to those who harm, that we care about fairness, or that we instinctively try to help strangers we know are in pain, all the evidence points to positive human nature. We have our negative qualities of course: greed, deceit, and wrath, but our instincts are largely to do good. Indeed, the existence of a functioning society at all, one in which we largely obey its rules and help each other, is quite powerful evidence for our ultimately good nature. This conception of the world, though, doesn’t prevent “idealists” from punishing those who do wrong. After all, a punishment implies that you could have done better, that you were expected to do better. If you believe that people are inherently good, it’s much easier to punish them for doing wrong than if you believe this is simply how they are. The fact that you might also recognize that other forces are at work in wrongdoing than human depravity doesn’t take away from that. 

In truth, though, there’s a reason this question has persisted for Millennia. Our fundamental moral makeup is something that’s just about impossible to know with any real certainty. What we take to be human nature will largely be a choice we have to make as individuals, part of the worldview we ourselves construct. For myself, the choice could not be more clear. I refuse to live in fear of others just because they’re also human, refuse to believe that committing atrocities ins natural, refuse to believe our basest qualities are also are deepest. We are good people I sincerely believe, deep down. So we had better act like it.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex