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.


Me on Dr. Cornel West on President Obama on Trayvon Martin

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 12.16.50 PMI used to enjoy listening to Cornel West. Now he just frustrates me, and I’m trying to figure out exactly why. I watched Obama’s comments on the Zimmerman case and was fairly moved by them. Come to find out, I was just taken in. I watched West’s interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now where she asked him to reflect on the President’s comments a few days prior. West’s response, in sum, was that Obama was a hypocrite. Though his comments sounded good, according to West, they were invalid for a few reasons. First, Obama is the drone president, and he does not seem overwhelmingly concerned with children who are indirect targets of foreign strikes. Second, he supports both the mayor and police chief of New York City, who have both been proponents of “Stop and Frisk” laws that have disproportionally targeted young black males. There were other reasons as well, but the gist is expressed at the beginning, where West says “Obama has very little moral authority.” (There’s the other side as well, that criticizes Obama for pandering to black folks when the white poor just make better choices, but that’s not worth further comment.)

While the interview served primarily for West to discredit each point of Obama’s speech that was praised by other segments of the media, he never clearly stated the method by which he discounted Obama’s words. But it follows a familiar logic, one that we have likely all used at one time or another in judging others. In this case, it goes something like this:

  • Obama says he cares about the fate of children such as Trayvon Martin.
  • Obama approves drone strikes in foreign countries, some of which kill children.


  • Obama doesn’t really care about children.

Or this one:

  • Obama says he cares about black people.
  • Obama has given vocal praise to people who support practices that unfairly target black people.


  • Obama doesn’t really care about black people.

Of course, our own logical processes don’t live up to this method. Take the following, for example:

  • I am an animal-lover.
  • Love means not wanting the object of love to suffer.
  • I eat animals.


  • I don’t really love animals.

Or this one:

  • I don’t want people around me to die from guns.
  • I own a gun.
  • I support the right to own guns.


  • I don’t really care if people around me die from guns.

Note that these follow a similar logic. The first statement is a sort of identity claim. They all say, in some form or another, “I am a person who is this,” or “If I had my way, the world would operate like this.” These are not factual statements that can be proven or disproven, although it is true that in many contexts they purport to reflect the way things are or the way the speaker wants them to be. Because they are not fact-based, they are open to the broadest interpretation. In this case, West extended Obama’s comments to encompass the broadest categories, found points that seem to contradict his statements, and implied his insincerity because of it.

The problem with this type of critique is not that the points West makes are invalid. Drone strikes are a huge problem. Even the larger lesson that rhetoric can often mask practices directly contradictory to stated aims is well taken. The problem is that no living person, including West, submits all areas of their life to the categorical logic he is using. Right or not, animal lovers might not agree that they don’t love animals because they also eat them. Others might not agree that gun ownership negates a desire to see less gun violence. Yet if one was playing to best possible scenarios, animal lovers would enact a world where no animals died, and people lovers would enact a world that eliminated guns.

So how helpful is this critique? Not very. People that hold unflinchingly to these high and inviolable standards die, because they are incompatible with the world. Anything less is a form of compromise, and we all compromise to stay alive and comfortable. This is not a negative value judgement but a statement. West is a Christian, as he pointed out at least twice in the course of the interview, and thus his model for the world is Jesus Christ, and more recently, leaders such as Martin Luther King. Both were killed. So is West doing everything that he can to enact the world that he claims he wants? Could we look at the scope of his life and find inconsistencies that would seem to invalidate his rhetoric? I’m certain.

Of course, it’s not West that has changed. It’s me. For many years, I lived in a world where I found little logical tension in holding the world and others within it to a high standard, indeed a standard it could not meet. Enter Jesus, who bridges the gap and reconciles the world with God because it cannot live up to the impossible standards. From the inside, that looks like a good place to be. From the outside, it is simply a different form of hypocrisy.

Now when I consider a critique, I also consider very carefully how I measure up to the same standard. Do I think that the government/institutional complex doesn’t “do enough” about race? Well, what am I doing? Is it “enough?” I have been reticent to invest emotionally in the Martin case, because I feel like the relative privilege from which I might spout platitudes invalidates my position.

I know that some speak with sincerity, including West (although he does appear pretty enamored with himself at times). My critique is that compromise should not be sufficient cause to discount one’s position. This is not the same as dismissing all critique because we all fail. I think the president should be held accountable to the extent that he is responsible for actions we deem wrong. But we should be clear about what those standards are and be willing to question our own relation to them. More specifically, I think that idealism about enacting a sort of heaven-on-earth has a place, but the Christian version of such idealism falls short because it also requires allegiance to a narrowly conceived deity that has an arbitrary relationship to the idealism expressed.

The accurate portion of the Christian message, as I mentioned, is that unwillingness to compromise will result in persecution, and if uncorrected, death. The intensity of that commitment, in and of itself, is morally neutral, but it is often valued highly by those who follow. However, we can look through history and see how few have followed that path. While these people have been visionaries, and have often inspired movements, they were also, quite literally, not easy to live with, a fact we all know as we choose not to rock the boat or do so only in safe ways. Obama have little “moral authority” from a Christian or other idealist perspective, but show me a person who does with the same amount of power and influence. It’s much easier to be uncompromising from the sidelines.

How much discrepancy, if any, is allowable between sentiment and action? What amount of action verifies rhetoric? I’m still wrestling with the question.


Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.


Mrs. Robinson’s Explicit Lyrics

I stopped buying CDs about seven or eight years ago. I didn’t stop listening to music, obviously, but when the iPod and iTunes started to become viable alternatives, it just didn’t seem necessary to buy a physical CD. For a while I lamented the demise of cover art, but I got over it. When I was in high school, though, Columbia House and BMG were the way to get your music. They were always offering some insane deal of between six and twelve CDs for the price of one to get on their monthly membership. I signed up for Columbia House and got the twelve CD deal. I can’t remember all the music I got, but I think it included the Counting Crows, maybe REM, the Cranberries, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits…and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

urlUntil they got smart and imprinted the explicit lyrics sticker in the cover art, the warning was just a sticker on the outside of the CD. I simply transferred the explicit lyrics sticker from Dr. Dre to Simon and Garfunkel and my problem was solved. Fool anybody, right? I don’t think I knew anything about Dr. Dre other than I’d heard “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” on the radio. It became a guilty pleasure for a nice Christian kid to be bumpin’ Dre in the car as I cruised to 7-11 (even though it was only a block away) for a Super Big Gulp.

It’s difficult for me to separate my feelings about “inappropriate” music from the Christian moral standards by which I judged both it and myself (while still listening to it). I do think that to a certain extent despite background, that type of music is popular because it is transgressive, yet it can be separated from the self. In other words, I can listen to it without it being a part of me. I can live vicariously through the music, through the “profane” language, through the sexual explicitness, through the demeaning treatment of women and figures of authority without actually being that way myself. I told myself that it was just the music that I liked, not the lyrics. But that’s not exactly true, is it?

The debate over the influence of media is not new. Video games, comic books, music, and movies have all come under fire for negatively influencing people (often children, although I think focusing on kids is an excuse to ignore the equally complex influence on adults). With the lines drawn, there are those who suggest that these media “desensitize” people to social norms, thus increasing their chances of in some sense mimicking what they see, read, or hear. They point to the most transgressive elements of these media and seem to have ample evidence for their claims. On the other side, defenders show that the vast majority of people who consume these media don’t become “bad” people, so that it’s not possible to single it out as the cause of transgressive actions. They might even contend that without such “outlets” to blow off steam, people might even be more transgressive.

The “truth” lies somewhere in between. Ignoring the question of the ethical responsibilities of the media producers—a significant discussion, although I’m unconvinced of any lasting ethical standards where capitalism is involved—it would be ignorant to assume either that we can posit a self that exists in the world but is unaffected by it, or that we are passive automatons with no ability to filter the information we receive. What is most interesting to me now is how music, as a media in and of itself, is inherently transgressive, or has the potential to be. It is the fact that a series of musical notes can circumvent the normal process by which we like to think we reason and interpret our world. We even identify certain types of music with particular emotions, as if these were inherent to the music itself, because of their ability to produce those emotions within us. When language is then added to music, it adds a message that can become self-founding because it is processed in an emotionally-supported environment transcending the context of its production.

At some point, I was found out and probably threw Dr. Dre away out of guilt or fear of punishment. But there would be others over the years. I had a complicated relationship with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Onyx, Wreckx-N-Effect, and many more. I have long since stopped beating myself up over my musical choices. However, there is still a sense of guilty pleasure in the sensory reception of transgressive action, even if it is as artificially constructed as killing zombies (just as a hypothetical, of course). The way for us to “humanize” music, as well as other media, is not to come to an answer about its societal or individual role, but to take a step back regularly and cognize our complicated relationship with it, recognizing the variegated functions it performs in our own lives. This will neither assign it wholly to the moral realm nor separate it completely from it.

I’ll talk more about specifically religious functions of music this week as well. Until then, any thoughts? Does/should music have a morality?


Euthyphro’s Dilemma…I Don’t Like It

Euthyphro is one of the so-called ‘dialogues,’ written by Plato, between Socrates and, you guessed it, Euthyphro. The dialogue is well known because of a particular dilemma—a dilemma in the original sense between two choices—that Socrates puts to his interlocutor. Euthyphro is filled with a sense of confidence at his ability to judge a pious, or right, action. When Socrates asks his criterium for deciding, Euthyphro responds that a pious action is one pleasing to the gods. Socrates then poses the question: “Is it pleasing to the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is pleasing to the gods?”EuthyphroCartoon

The dilemma often comes up in discussions of the relationship between morality and divinity, i.e., that we get our morality from a divine source. Neither answer to the dilemma is particularly appealing to religious folk. If an action is pious (or a thing is good) because it is pleasing to the gods, then it appears otherwise arbitrary. The gods picked a couple things they don’t like and some that they do, but it could just as well have been another way. This choice appears damaging to divine omniscience as well as problematic for a sense of divine love and care for us. The other choice is perhaps more damaging, from a contemporary religious point-of-view. If an action is pleasing to the gods because it is pious, then the action appears to have some preexistent standing before the gods, damaging conceptions of divine omnipotence. The gods, or God, like us, is just following the rules.

As mentioned, the dilemma is used to complicate understandings of our morality coming from a divine source. Your choices are: 1) God is arbitrary, or 2) God is impotent, or at least nowhere near omnipotent. Forced to make a choice between the two, I think many Christians would choose option one. That way, you could argue that it turns out the things God chose work for us, and we go on living our happy lives. Of course it gets messy if you’re in a situation where life dealt you a bad hand, or someone else’s pleasure is your pain. In that case you might be more inclined to see that morality is unequally beneficial. Secularists, on the other hand, tend to choose option two, including Troy Jollimore in a recent article on the subject, Godless Yet Good.

Jollimore uses the Euthyphro dilemma in response to his students’ common objection that without God, morality is totally subjective. Plugging in the case of murder, either murder is wrong because God says it is, or God says it is because its wrong. In the first case, there was nothing wrong with murder until God said there was, and in the second, murder is something wrong in and of itself and doesn’t need God’s approval to be that way. The idea that the only thing preventing people from running around killing each other is God’s disapproval—a view I have heard espoused many times—is itself immoral to Jollimore. He affirms instead that murder is wrong in and of itself.

I don’t like that option either. Luckily in life, there are always more than two possible choices. Actually, I guess my option is a version of choice one, albeit one that doesn’t involve God. From the standpoint of an objective mind coming up with the best possible scenario for humanity to live by, morality is arbitrary. But from a practical standpoint, morality is not arbitrary at all, because it serves many productive purposes. The fear of arbitrariness is the fear that things could change at any time, that the rules aren’t constant. Even if it were the case, our fear is not a justifiable reason to posit the stability of morality. What we can do, however, is look at history and see that the development of moral or ethical codes is slow and unlikely to change in a day, or even a couple decades. The fear of anarchy is an apocalyptic one, and the chances of its occurrence are slim. If we were to find out this was the case—that morality is completely arbitrary and thus could change anytime—then this has been the case all along and we’ve gotten along fairly well.

It looks to me as if Jollimore shares the same fear of the religious kids in his philosophy class: morality might be arbitrary. There is much more to his argument, which goes on to contrast versions of religious and secular ethics to indicate that there is hope for the latter. He highlights particularism, the idea that the ‘right’ thing to do in a given situation depends on, and cannot be separated from, the context of the situation itself. In contrast to rational or utilitarian viewpoints, answers to moral questions are not found by simply filling in the variables on all discrete circumstances. He suggests the following:

For particularists, then, individual perception and judgment are always necessary to decide difficult ethical questions: there is no theoretical ethical system that can do the work for us. Principles are useful, perhaps, but only as rules of thumb, practical guidelines that hold for the most part, but to which there will always be exceptions. At the foundational level, ethics is built not on a system of rules, but on individual human beings who possess character, judgment, and wisdom.

I like this as a contrast to morality given from on high, but it must also emphasize that we are born into a world that gives us a conception of morality before we can judge one of our own, and even those who go through the most radical life changes cannot completely escape their shaping by the social circumstances in which they were born and grew. What this means is that we cannot ever have the certainty that we can isolate the self from social influence in any of our dealings. But that’s okay, because no one else can either.

Morals and values change over time, and even the most venerated of them—if we took murder for example—are violated all the time. That does not eliminate their functionality, although it does tell me that exposing the hypocrisies in our moral violations, to the embarrassment of religion and government, may be stepping stones to a more reasonable morality.