It is one of the oldest questions: What is the nature of man? Is he by nature good and reasonable, as argued by Butler? Or is he instead evil and selfish, fulfilling Hobbes’ description of life as nasty, brutish, and short? And if the latter is true, is man still redeemable, either by reason or action, or is he condemned to be of that fallen state forever?
Worthwhile questions, to be sure; but I reject the concept. ‘Nature’ is a funny word – we use it to apply to so much, but it really doesn’t actually mean anything. What is it? Some nebulous concept of a person’s character? There are some people we would call ‘good’ and some people we would call ‘evil’. Who are we to say which is the default? Furthermore, no one in the history of the world has actually considered themselves ‘evil’. People always act as they believe is justified, whether that means killing six million Jews or devoting a life to the service of the needy.
Indeed, this pigeon-holing of people as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has dangerous ramifications. Doing so makes it easy for us to cast off immoral actions as the result of evil people, letting us go on with our lives safe in the knowledge that people who do bad things are just bad people and we’d better try our best to stay away from them. But this is simply a denial of reality. No one is intrinsically ‘evil’. Everyone is simply human; no more and no less. To label someone as ‘evil’ is to deny their humanity, and by extension, to deny that they are the same as you and I. For that is the most important thing to remember when we speak of ‘evil’. We are not speaking of monsters, of deformed boogeymen and incomprehensible lunatics. We are speaking of people. We are speaking of people with mothers and fathers, of people with brothers and sisters, of people who cried when they skinned their knee as a child and felt scared when the older kids walked by. If you want to understand ‘evil’, you cannot separate it from our basic notions of humanity.
This answers the question, I think, albeit in an indirect way. What is the nature of man, but man? How can you declare seven billion people, with all their different lifestyles, morals, and experiences, to be one thing or another? Every action, ‘good’ or ‘evil’, is the product of all that has come before, just as every person is the product of everything that has happened to them during their life. What was it that led Joseph Stalin on a different path than Mother Theresa? Were they born fundamentally different beings? Did God send one as a plague upon the world and the other as an angel? Or is the thing that separates them rooted in the experiences that shaped their mind and formed their world? Indeed, how could it be anything else?
We see, then, that we cannot ascribe the character of men to some vague, generalized notion of ‘human nature’ that is applicable in all cases. Every person is different, and every person will have their own biases, assumptions, and experiences. That fact must be the fundamental basis for understanding humanity. The nature of man lies not in his universal goodness, or his lack thereof. The nature of man lies in his variety.
– Liam St.Louis
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