//
you're reading...
Introduction to Philosophical Inquiry, Uncategorized

Nature? What Nature?

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

Follow me on Twitter: @LiamtheSaint

 

Advertisements

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Nature? What Nature?

  1. I love this post. Well done. I like what you write. I especially appreciate this comment:

    “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”…

    I think this comment, if believed and applied, would breed in us a certain amount of necessary humility that comes from acknowledging that nothing we despise in another person is wholly absent from ourselves. It also displays a remarkable compassion that must be hard to cling to for a person who is the victim of an evil act.

    I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question. When I hear about human nature I tend to think that part of the conversation must center around what distinguishes human beings from other animals. If human nature is variety how does this help us in distinguishing humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom which displays remarkable variety as well? Is this a different issue in your mind?

    Lastly, I’m curious, why ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are always adorned with divorced quotation marks through the paper?

    Thanks for your paper. It made me think a lot.

    Chris

    Posted by Chris Price | September 24, 2012, 11:29 pm
    • Thank you very much, I’m glad you appreciated the post.

      I completely agree with you on that. If we want to erase our ‘us vs. them’ mentality, it means recognizing the basic virtues and vices that we each share – and would lead to a greater understanding and tolerance between us all.

      That’s a good question. I had been going to address that issue, but I figured keeping it concise and to the single point I was making was a better way to represent myself. I’ve always thought that the basic thing that separates us from animals is, not simply our ability to reason, but our conscious using of it to go against what might be our baser nature and lead us in new directions. That doesn’t change the concept of human nature as variety, for reason takes different people in different directions – but it distinguishes the race as a whole.

      I used quotation marks because I feel uncomfortable, particularly in a piece like this, referring to good and evil as independent, objective things. I thought the quotation marks might indicate the hesitancy we need to have in labeling anything as such.

      Thanks again for the comment, its made me think a little more about what my reasoning leads to.

      Liam

      Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 25, 2012, 1:03 am
      • Great stuff.

        Good and evil – we should be careful but sometimes, I think, we can be confident, provided we keep other things you’ve written above in mind.

        Thanks,

        Chris

        Posted by Chris Price | September 25, 2012, 1:16 am
      • I believe what separates us from the animals isn’t only our more complex brains and reason, as you said, but also the development of mental functions such as imagination. A look at human evolution is enough to see that.

        As far as human nature, I do believe it exists; inherent, albeit complicated. You are right about the issue of pigeon-holing people as good or evil. We may be separate from the animals in our way, but we are always still one of them.

        Bad things that exist in our society’s have always happened in the animal kingdom, for it’s own reasons. The difference there is that we make a conscious effort to rise above that behaviour, and we are more redeemable over the aimed barbarism of animals.

        Human nature, I believe, is one step above animal nature, and that’s what makes it more complicated.

        Posted by littlewonder2 | September 27, 2012, 6:54 am
  2. Liam,

    Correct me if I’m wrong:

    You seem to struggle a lot – with people’s generalization that people can be evil. With your conclusion, that “The nature of man lies not in his universal goodness, or his lack thereof. The nature of man lies in his variety.” you’re saying that evil isn’t really something that can be applied to people.

    Would you say that the word evil, and the definition of evil, is something applied in light of current cultural views?

    Posted by JonathanToews | September 25, 2012, 4:11 am
    • Well, evil is really a social construct – one I wholeheartedly agree with, but still not something objective in and of itself. So to answer your question, yes. Blasphemy used to be(and in some cases still is) considered one of the highest evils. It’s not anymore. I doubt our considering murder evil will ever change, but many things used to be considered just as or more evil than murder that we don’t think the same about now. I think we just have to keep in mind that everything is a result of the breadth of human experience. Do you agree?

      Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 26, 2012, 6:13 am
  3. “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.”

    In reference to the above, labels help us classify people based on their behaviour. I don’t see labels as pigeon-holing individuals but rather as a way of addressing similarities and differences. Evil and good simply denote the quality of behaviour that is closer or further away from the norm. I’m unclear of the dangerous ramifications that you elude to. When someone commits an evil act, the act is indeed evil. That is the reality. I’m not sure how we would simply cast aside the evil behaviour of Clifford Olsen, for example. I, for one, do not easily cast off these immoral actions. His behaviour may for some be evil, for others grotesque. Evil is the label we give unexplained, disturbing behaviour.

    Humanity refers to the quality of being humane while humaneness is the quality of compassion or consideration for others. To label someone as evil based on disturbing, grotesque behaviour suggests that indeed that person lacks humaneness and thus, quite frankly they certainly are different than you and I. Clearly, everyone is not “simply human.”

    Posted by gleneagletalons | September 26, 2012, 4:46 am
    • Fair points. But I challenge your final assertion, that not everyone is ‘simply human’. Evil behaviour, as we would define it, certainly exists – and going by your definition of humanity, I suppose, we could say it takes it away. But I don’t think that leads to your conclusion. You say “When someone commits an evil act, the act is indeed evil.”, and while I won’t disagree with that, I will disagree that this makes them any less human. Are they being humane, defining humaneness as compassion? No. But we cannot say that, simply because someone has committed an evil act and is no longer humane, that they are no longer a human like you and I.

      You mention Clifford Olsen. Evil, grotesque behaviour – sure. But a human nonetheless, and while you can call him evil, there is nothing fundamentally different about him(barring any sort of chemical and neurological deficiencies causing his actions – but that leads to far too many other questions). How are they different than us, except that their particular life experiences led them down a different path? What, exactly, is so fundamental about compassion that it stands as a legitimate dividing line between people?

      Believing those who commit evil acts are so different from us – not ‘simply human’ – has dangerous ramifications because it encourages us to forget the potential of evil in all of us and to think it is simply a trait of a few maniacs. A dangerous sense of security, that leaves us – and the opposite leaves us humility enough to realize that any person can fall into the abyss we call evil. The controversy around the movie Downfall, shown in Mr.Unger’s History 12 class, exemplifies this controversy. As I assume you know, the actor playing Hitler did so incredibly well – making him seem…well, human. Yet far too many wanted him portrayed as a inhuman monster, refusing to accept that a person of such undisputed evil as Hitler could still be ‘human’. But he is, and every person who grows up to kill or launch a genocide was at one point a normal human like you and I. That is the crux of the issue – that our nature is malleable and even those we consider evil incarnate are at their heart still human like everyone else.

      Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 26, 2012, 6:11 am
      • “What, exactly, is so fundamental about compassion that it stands as a legitimate dividing line between people?” Thank you! Personally, I’ve wondered for a long time why people are always making such a deal about a person’s “humanity” as though it were a personality trait that all people must have in order to validated as people. I never understood that humanity was just “humaneness” aka “compassion” that everyone must have.

        This is something I haven’t understood because, as part of having Aspberger’s disorder, I apparently have a limited capacity of empathy that everyone holds in such high regard. I do have it, I just can’t always promise to empathise with you under certain circumstances.

        But the thing is, labelling people as “human” or “inhuman” has become such a big deal, that some people go around saying “if you didn’t cry watching [insert tearjerker here], you’re not human.” It ticks me off.

        Posted by littlewonder2 | September 27, 2012, 7:12 am
        • I like your last example. Obviously the people spoken of aren’t being serious, but the basic idea – that ‘humaneness’ manifests itself, or should manifest itself, in similar ways for everyone, or else they are somehow fundamentally different, certainly holds true. Empathy is a funny thing – it seems almost inherently selfish, rooted as it is in being able to feel someone else’s pain and by extension thinking about how bad it would be for you to be in that position. I wonder just how much it affects our understanding of good and evil, or even if it truly does at all – and does that not make empathy-driven compassion truly a selfish thing?

          Posted by Liam St.Louis | September 27, 2012, 11:53 pm
      • My point is that those who carry out evil behaviour lack a sense of humaneness. These individuals are different than you and I because of this feature. The “legitimate dividing line between people” exists in this case because compassion is fundamental to NOT being inhumane. Those who carry out evil step over this fundamental line that we call compassion. Again, compassion in this context has everything to do with dividing acts of evil from acts that are not.

        Posted by gleneagletalons | October 1, 2012, 4:35 am
  4. Highly recommend viewing this video by a UBC Professor of Anthropology on the issue of the interplay between culture and evolution http://edge.org/conversation/how-culture-drove-human-evolution. Stick with it, it is really thought provoking and insightful.

    Personally I do not believe science will provide the answers to ALL philosophical questions and I fiercely resist that kind of reductionism. But some of them, like this question of whether there is a specific “human” nature, are definitely open to testing, and as the video explains, current evidence clearly shows that there is not a single solitary “human nature,” that it is something that, when framed in terms of evolutionary adaption strategies, differs based on environment. More profoundly, that the difference can then start to have evolutionary effects (this last part is the piece that is the mind bending piece in this video, at least for me – the idea that a culture invention, the example given was the control of fire, then acts as a selection pressure and individuals with smaller mouths, larger lungs and different intestinal tracts start to succeed more than others.)

    So, do resist the broad generalizations in the term “human nature” but at the same time, recognize that we’re physical beings in specific contexts and that many of our behaviours are adaptions to our environment, ones which many in the same environment do in fact share. Cheers, Scott Leslie

    Posted by nessman | September 26, 2012, 9:11 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Sticky Posts for the Week of September 24th – 28th « Philosophy 12 - September 26, 2012

  2. Pingback: Thinking Dutch | Interesting read on NYTimes Philosophy Blog « Philosophy 12 - September 30, 2012

  3. Pingback: Looking back on #Philosophy12 | Adventures in a Gifted Classroom - February 10, 2013

  4. Pingback: Looking back on Philosophy 12 | Philosophy 12 - February 22, 2013

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: