Human Nature: The Good, the Bad…and the Neutral?

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I’m teaching a course on ethics to college sophomores this semester, and it has been an intriguing experience so far. I set the stage the first day by explaining my background in the study of religion and thus my proclivity to discuss the influence of religion on ethical behavior. I also told students they would not only need to articulate what they believe about a given scenario, but why they believe it, and if the “why” adequately justifies the “what.” Standard fare, but especially important in an ethics course.

Our first foray into exploring these issues was a discussion on our moral valuation of human nature. I instructed students to stand and physically place themselves in a line according to whether they thought human nature was good, neutral, bad, or somewhere in between. The point of the exercise is to indicate that the way we view the nature of humanity (or whether we believe such a thing exists) affects how we understand our capacity for ethics and our ethical decision-making processes.

In both my sections of the course, about three-quarters of students put themselves somewhere in the middle between the extremes of good and bad. The remaining quarter thought human nature lay in one extreme or the other. Only a few thought that humanity was by nature good (although this is certainly as defensible as saying it is bad), and even fewer of those could articulate their response. They primarily defended their positions with the (acknowledge) idealistic hope that humanity should be good, despite fears that it is not.

On the other side, those who explained their justification best were those who think our nature is “bad.” One student gave a short testimony when I asked, responding that because she is a Christian, she believes that humanity is bad unless it is saved by Jesus Christ. Another student responded that although she was not religious, she also thought humanity was bad when left to its own devices, but is tamed through constructive social influence. Both of these positions are informed by a Western Christian cultural influence, the first more obviously, and the second, by a Hobbesian perspective suggesting that without a “social contract” we would all being clubbing each other over the head at the slightest provocation.

The exercise served its purpose well, as many students reflected that their minds were changed when they heard justifications from other students and had to think how to defend their beliefs. I was reminded, though, of how much more difficult a task it is to explore other ethical possibilities when we have a dogmatic view of the world, and a decision on the morality of human nature is one of the most fundamentally dogmatic of all.

If I had participated in the experience myself, I would have placed myself directly in the middle, not because I think human nature is both good and bad, as some students commented, but because I doubt that there is such a thing we can productively label as human nature. There are multiple problems with assigning a moral value to our nature as humans. I can certainly not rule out genetic or biological predispositions and adaptations that encourage us to act in particular ways, but it makes little sense to give them a moral valuation on the natural level. It is the product of lazy thinking.

One could try to justify the badness of human nature by the many terrible tragedies that have taken place in the course of human history, but those on the other side of the spectrum could also amass a great number of advancements and improvements that point to the innate goodness of humanity. While perhaps the most emotionally appealing, this is not the most decisive forum for discussion. Those approaching the problem from a cherry-picking historical perspective are informed not by the state of nature itself, but by their situated-ness that appears to them as the natural state of human affairs, which in turn is used to interpret and judge all new stimuli.

But the larger point is that it is self-defeating to place a moral value on the nature of humanity. If indeed there are commonalities to be observed among us, their very existence suggests a futility to our approval or disapproval of them. They simply are. The stigmatization of our nature is responsible for a long history of self-revulsion in Western Christian thought, and serves to keep the institution in a position of authority, just as a state of “terror” makes the business of war much more manageable. Certainly if our notions of good and bad are actually divinely influenced, there is conceivable justification for labeling attitudes, dispositions, and even things as good or bad, but there can be little evidence for a divine origin other than the historical and social manifestations of the labeling process, which cannot be definitely linked to an a priori state of humankind. It is a theological, and not a philosophical or historical argument. Even if such a link could be made between our notions of morality and divine ones, it would in any case indict the Divine for capriciousness in intentionally imbuing humanity with moral deficiency. To do otherwise would be to break the divine moral code.

This is not to say that the actions or even thoughts of humanity cannot be morally labeled. They can and often should be. However, the explanatory value of judging an ethical situation on the basis of the badness of human nature is deceptive and weak. It is a poor substitute for the difficult ethical work of evaluating the intricacies of the entanglements we find ourselves in. “That’s just human nature” has never solved an ethical dilemma; it has merely exempted us from the dirty work of wrestling with it.