Human Nature: a Contested Concept

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HUMAN NATURE: A CONTESTED CONCEPT

Are we inherently good or bad? Are we driven by reason or emotions? Are we selfish or altruistic? Is the human mind malleable or predisposed? These questions are highly contested and the answers to them far from clear. This is due not only to the array of different perspectives on human nature, but also to seemingly contradictory evidence. We need only scratch the surface of history to find confirmation that humankind is capable of incredible cruelty and violence. In Ancient Rome, for example, entertainment was provided by forcing people to fight animals and other human beings – often to the death. If this seems barbaric in the extreme, we thankfully also find tales of tremendous bravery and what would seem to be altruism. Today, unsung heroes risk their lives every day to save those of complete strangers. In short, the picture is a mixed one: “We seem to be part angel, part demon, part rational, part animal, capable of great glory and great tragedy”.1 Indeed, the notion that human beings are part angel, part demon echoes Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) conclusion that he who is content with his solitude must be “Either a beast or a God”.2 Whether we are by nature good or bad is a central question in the debate on human nature. Philosophical as well as religious and spiritual traditions have answered the question in different ways. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that humankind is driven by the passions or instincts linked to self-preservation.3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), by contrast, argued that human beings are by nature good and that any vices that they may have are attributable to the corrupting influence of society. What makes human beings distinctly “human” is their capacity for reason. In the Old Testament, humankind is portrayed as created in the image of God and, thus, inherently good. However, both Jews and Christians are in agreement that human beings fell from grace by failing to refrain from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which left them adrift, alienated from God and in need of salvation.4

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NAYEF R.F. AL-RODHAN

Another question that recurs in discussions about human nature is whether we are driven by emotions or rational thought. A major concern here is whether reason plays a role in our moral judgements. If so, do we engage in conscious reasoning before pronouncing a judgement or after the fact? David Hume (1711-1776) was the first modern philosopher to argue that we make moral judgements on the basis of emotional responses to situations or scenarios. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) held a different opinion. He argued that we make moral judgements through a process of conscious reasoning.5 In Kant’s view, the evolution of humanity had followed a progression from being motivated by animal instincts to being driven by reason. For Aristotle, too, human beings are capable of living a “good” life by employing reason. Plato (427-347 BCE) held that human beings are driven by both passion and reason. How can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory faculties? Those who place greater emphasis on passion and survival instincts, such as fear, greed and sympathy, regard our biological heritage as more important than the environment in which we grow up, whereas those who give greater priority to our capacity for reason tend to attribute greater significance to culture and education or innate capacity – those things in the social world that shape the way we think and behave. Whether we are primarily motivated by basic survival instincts or by the environment is central to conflicting views on the question of free will and determinism. The question of how free humanity is to change its nature appears time and again in discussions. According to John Locke (1632-1704), people are free to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of nature. In this view, nurture is more important than nature in shaping our behaviour. As is mentioned above, Plato...
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