What is meant by the term “human nature”? In one sense, it is supremely uninformative. The “nature” of any existent can be defined simply as “that which that existent is.” To say that “X is human nature,” is simply to say “X is what humans are and/or do.” This is fine by itself, provided that it is not used as an explanation for any particular human characteristic or activity. X may be human nature, but X does not occur because of human nature. To say that human nature is the cause of any phenomenon is to say that such a phenomenon causes itself. To say that “some people steal because of human nature” is to say that “some people steal because they steal” or that “some people steal because that is the way humans are.” This is not particularly enlightening as to why some people actually steal.
The striking fact about uses of “human nature” in discourse is that the term is virtually never invoked to account for all the wonderful things people do. Few, if any, people say that humans build great buildings, create art, invent machines, and save lives because “that’s just human nature.” But when it comes to some humans killing, stealing, lying, raping, and committing a host of other abuses, “human nature” virtually never leaves the discussion. This leads me to suspect that a lot of presuppositions are smuggled in under the umbrella label of “human nature” which are not implicit in the term. Namely, most people whose discussions are peppered by the term frequently presuppose that all human beings somehow have even the worst vices “in their nature.”
If “human nature” is “the way human beings are,” then it is clearly contrary to empirical evidence to suppose that killing, stealing, lying, and other vices are inherent in human nature. We can find numerous examples of good, upstanding people who have never killed or stolen – and even a few whom we cannot imagine lying. Surely, “the way they are” is such that they do not kill, steal, or lie. This is as much a part of their human nature as killing, stealing, and lying are a part of the natures of genocidal dictators in North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. There is no reason to suppose that anyone is capable of any vice just because some people have been observed engaging in some vices.
The facts that some people do commit vices that others do not commit and that no vice is universal to human beings indicates to us that no vice is inherent to human nature – the way humans are. Rather, every vice is incidental to human nature. That is, the natures of some humans happen to be vicious, just as the natures of some cats happen to be white (not that there is anything wrong with white cats). But vice is no more an inseparable part of humanity than whiteness is an inseparable part of cathood. It may well be that some people will always be irreparably vicious, no matter what external stimuli short of death are applied to them. This is why it may be reasonable to advocate killing genocidal sadists and other comparable entities. But this is no commentary on all the other humans of this world.
Moreover, it is essential to recognize that prevailing trends with regard to behavior change over time. 300 years ago, if two Western, upper-class males had a dispute, it would often culminate in a duel to the death. Today, the disputants would be more likely to sit down and quasi-civilly discuss their differences. The statistical prevalence of each kind of behavior has changed dramatically. Moreover, the change has been an unambiguous improvement. “What humans are” does not need to be static and set in stone. Rather, as incentives, institutions, and motivations change, so does behavior – and the sum of our behaviors constitutes our “natures.”
The view of “human nature” that I have presented thus far is fully in accord with the principle of individualism. This principle asserts that each human being is fundamentally different and should be judged on his or her own qualities, and not on the qualities of other human beings who happen to share some direct or indirect association. Moreover, individualism holds that each human being can control his or her own behaviors to a substantial extent. Each person is free to choose virtue but is just as free to choose vice, and each person must be prepared to be judged by the rest of us on the basis of his or her choices. The question remains, of course, what would motivate people to choose virtue as opposed to vice?
Granting that people always have free will to act virtuously or viciously, what would lead people to want to pursue either course of action? Earlier, I described some incentives for moral behavior that motivate people to pursue virtuous and beneficial courses of action with regard to themselves and others. On the other hand, what motivates vice? The kinds of vice that do damage to others – killing, stealing, infliction of injury, and deception – all seem to stem from some sense of personal inadequacy. Either one does not have enough things and wishes to take away the things owned by others, or one feels slighted, deprived, or persecuted in some manner by others and wishes to correct this perceived victimization by destroying its perceived source. Harm that people do to themselves seems to stem either from a conviction that their lives are not quite worth living or from a simple failure to consider all of the long-term harmful consequences of their decisions.
Exploring the common human motivations for committing immoral acts might lead us to an understanding of how to alter these motivations and direct the “natural” desires of more people toward virtue. For instance, if a person is motivated to steal by a lack of food, then if this person had food, he might not resort to stealing (provided, of course, that he recognizes the change in conditions and does not continue to resort to stealing due to the inertia of habit). On the other hand, the new-found presence of food might get the person to focus on some other attribute he believes to be lacking in his life – say, a car – and steal that. How might it be possible to get such a person to refrain from stealing? Clearly, all people perceive some kinds of inadequacies in their lives. The ways that people’s incentives are structured will lead them to consider whether moral or immoral means are the best ways to compensate for such inadequacies.
The proper incentive structure to give to each person is such that the costs of any vicious act will be greater than its perceived benefits. I note that these costs can be both external – such as any kind of punishment – or internal – such as a feeling of self-loathing and disappointment for having committed an immoral act. Well-developed internal aversions to vicious conduct reduce the need for external incentives to encourage virtue. A wide variety of institutions, technologies, and patterns of interaction shape both people’s external and internal incentives. Yet what is most important to remember is that we are not fated to be locked into any particular configuration of incentives, motivations, and outcomes. These continually fluctuate and sometimes experience radical directional shifts. In shaping these incentives, we ought to lose the defeatism of those who claim that “human nature” will forever sentence us to suffer evil instead of correcting it. Rather, we must act such that our individual, incremental effects are for the better rather than for the worse.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CLXXXIX.