The Human Nature Myth

We often use expressions like, “Well, that’s human nature” or “Its only human nature” and more. But perhaps we should protest the phrase “Human Nature” because it is often used to imply there is only one such kind of nature — corrupt, evil, sinful and such. But history shows us that people can act very differently in the same situations. Sure, many people become corrupt, destructive, violent, but other times we see courage, kindness, love, sacrifice and forgiveness. There is no “Human Nature”, there are only people. Is the expression a left-over from Christian theology?  Perhaps the phrase needs to be resisted as much as other simple dichotomies in any philosophy.  Or is this expression found in lots of languages outside of Christian cultures? If so, then maybe they are all mistaken.

A generous translation of the expression may simply mean, “Boy, people can be so cruel.” But the expression can also be used to sneak in the notion that people’s very inclinations are horrible. Or am I wrong?  What is your impression?  Is this just another Trojan horse of Christian apologists?  Is this just another temptation to think black-and-white?  Or should I let it slide and stop thinking so much?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “The Human Nature Myth

  1. I think “human nature” was more or less presupposed until Sartre, and it probably was and still is a hangover from religion. Sartre denied that human nature defines existence; existence defines human nature. “Man simply is.”

    (Not trying to sound like an expert on Sartre. I just happened to read a few paragraphs a couple weeks ago in the course of some research.)

  2. Personally, I never say “human nature.” I like to say that “we are just humans.” And by that I mean that no human is perfect and that we’re all fallible.

    My husband gets all defensive when he makes a mistake, and he rarely admits to making one. I always say to him. “Don’t worry about it, you’re just human. No one is perfect.”

    But…he doesn’t think he’s human, unfortunately.

  3. NFQ

    I’ve heard “human nature” used in positive context as well. See, e.g., the “noble savage,” though also in casual discussions.

  4. Camus Dude

    I wouldn’t say the phrase “human nature” is without its usefulness. Consider it as a shorthand for the description of what anthropology studies, for example.

    Indeed, if we accept (as we should) the scientific theory of evolution, then humans do have a “nature” (though this is not a “metaphysical” statement as the phrase is normally meant, or so it seems that it is normally meant to me).

    Our nature could be considered the best scientific description of the behavior of our species. This will change over time as we gain more knowledge about our species through, not just anthropology, but also biology, neurology, psychology, sociology, and the phrase “human nature” could basically be considered a place holder for whatever is the current best supported scientific theory of human nature.

  5. One of my wisest mentors was an old atheist who changed his last name (and his son’s name) to “Love”. We used to get together once a month the last 15 years before he died, and he had an incredibly impressive list of lifetime accomplishments; but one of the things that I found most impressive about him was his unflinching morality even in the face of his philosophical atheism.

    There are atheists (like I used to be) who argue that atheism implies moral ambiguity. But he surprised me by emphatically rejecting the moral amiguity. His reply was so simple and matter-of-fact — he would say, “Anyone who walks past a starving, crying baby will feed it.” For him, it was as simple as that — anyone who is a human, and who has the means to feed a starving baby, will feed the baby.

    That simple litmus test became my test of “human nature”. I sometimes chided him by saying that human nature also includes the reaction you have when you catch someone having sex with your wife (you want to bash the guy’s head in with a rock). But I am persuaded that his simple litmus test about feeding a starving child is the more important litmus test for “human nature”.

    So my experience jives with what Camus Dude is saying. For me, “human nature” is can be very positive or very negative, and I would use the phrase “fallen human nature” to reference the head-bashing stuff.

    In fact, the thing that made me love my old mentor is the same thing that attracted me to atheists like Ken Pulliam and you. All of you are willing to just discard the sophistry which says that love and morality are “irrational”, and you just accept love as a brute fact. Love is a brute fact of human nature. How else can we call ourselves human? My old atheist mentor wanted to be remembered as a “humanist”, so I tend to think of “human” nature as being the best and most hopeful of what he represented — I suspect most humanists would agree that “human nature” is a wonderful thing, and certainly not a slur.

    Coincidentally, he is the one who recommended Clarise Lispector’s “Hour of the Star” to me, 5+ years ago. “Hour of the Star” is a short novel set in Brazil and covering the same topics as the book “Death Without Weeping” and overlapping the “Dirty War” topics — highly recommended.

  6. Boz

    I have notiecd the same thing, and suspect it is due to the christian background of most(all?) western countries. Christian ideas pervade the culture. Like this one, that “Everyone is a sinner”, or “everyone is an asshole”.

    But I agree that it is not true.

  7. I agree with JS Allen…I don’t think the term “human nature” always has a negative connotation to it. Of course, it depends on who is using it and why.

    I would list curiosity, love, emotions, and ambition as things that are part of human nature…..and I don’t think of those as negative traits.

  8. DaCheese

    I’ve always thought of it as originating in western philosophy, not in religion per se. Think Hobbes v. Locke, etc. But I suppose they were influenced by Christian culture to some degree, so it’s hard to say categorically that “original sin” didn’t influence the acceptance of “human nature” as a constant, definable thing.

  9. Ben Finney

    I’ll agree with other commenters here that “human nature” is often used in a positive sense. I actively try to do it myself: I’ll point out how great it is that humans can get together and collaborate on a project, or partake in a quiet moment of beauty, or themselves create works of stunning beauty. These positive traits I happily and loudly claim for “human nature”.

  10. “Human Nature” is an abstraction — good or bad, it does not exist and is just a term used to say something else. As an abstraction, people can talk past each other when using it.

    @ David :
    I like “Humans just are”.

    @ Lorena :
    Agreed: Admitting weakness and foibles is a sign of real strength.

    @ NFQ :
    Yeah, I have heard “human nature” used positively. Some push for positive, some push for negative. IMHO, They are both mistaken and using the abstraction for their agenda.

    @ Camus Dude :
    Sure, it is useful if the two people agree on its use.
    You said,
    “…what anthropology studies [?show]…”
    Anthropology studies do not agree, it depends on who does a study, how it is done, counter studies — no field yields conclusive coherent data.
    Evolutionary theories in no way necessitate A SINGLE human nature. That is the point of my post.

    @ JS Allen :
    I just watched “The Unknown Soldier” — in those times of war and extermination many walk past a starving, crying baby. Again: there is no ONE such thing as “human nature”. Humans can love, hate, embrace, strike, tear down, build. A list of the various behavior of dogs can be made too. Do we call this “Dog Nature”? If we find the behavior shared by ALL dogs, and leave out the particular behaviors not shared by ALL dogs, our list will be uninteresting. I suspect the same with humans. Indeed, in this case, we may find the pared-down (non-idealized) list between dogs and humans to be similar and thus far less interesting that the abstractions imply to any given speaker.

    As I mentioned about, using “Human Nature” as good or bad is fine if folks agree with you. But because the abstraction is dilute, I think an empirical conversation shows it virtually empty.

    @ Boz :
    Yeah, it is not true and its opposite is not true. “Human Nature” is rather vacuous. It can thus hold anyone’s ideology easily and conveniently.

    @ terri :
    I agree, it is not always used negatively.

    @ DaCheese :

    @ Ben Finney :
    Encouraging each other by using the phrase can be most helpful. I am discussing it here on a rather a philosophical level and trying to illustrate the use of language and ideas as manipulations and not commitment to real understanding which is the illusion that many try to spin.

  11. geoih

    “There is no “Human Nature”, there are only people.”

    I would think your investigations into economics would have shown you that there is a broad “human nature” to action (where not acting is itself an action), which implies choice between actions. All actions are done by people (individuals), but all people act.

  12. @ geoih
    Sorry, I couldn’t follow that. Could you be more explicit for me. What do you feel I said that you disagree with? This format may help me:
    Sabio implied: X
    But I think: Y


  13. Tim Smith

    Is there a single monolithic way that people act and think? Obviously not; most of the responses have suggested this If we answer ‘no’ here then what is human nature anyway ? It cannot be any one thing, action or inclination. If it is ALL the things we do then it is NOT simply ONE of the ways we ‘are’. On the other hand consider that Kant, when developing his ethics maintained that experience per se, i.e. what people do and have done, is not a reliable guide to what ought to be done. We do not always get it right. His answer to this situation was to accept the principle of duty a priori, that is prior to and independent of any particular experience. where an ethical principle and its application is not contingent on personal inclinations or consequences but can recognized by all ‘rational agents’ as universally applicable. An example is the shopkeeper that charges a young gullible child the same price for an item that he/she would charge an adult. All can agree that this is a duty a priori, despite any possible greed driven inclination to overcharge the child. This then would be human nature as an ideal. Is even this form of ‘human nature’ viable. The jury is still out, but if there are duties a priori then a standard obtains from which deviation in any direction marks a departure from an ideal human nature. Of course we do ‘all sorts of things’; we would need a bean counter from an alternate universe to weigh the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ choices, assuming they were even identifiable, and to state the final verdict, ‘yea we are good’, ‘nay we are not’. This is all very abstract and does not consider consequential theories of action , or the many problems of a pure theory of duty. If one flaw or deviation dooms a theory then let us all be happy skeptics. My head spins. Pass the beer! Great post

  14. That is my point, Tim.
    There is no such thing as “human nature”.
    It is just a phrase that tricks people into thinking what they are talking about really exists.

    As for the rest of your discussion — sorry, I can’t follow when too much philosophical jargon is thrown around in long sentences — especially “a priori”. No idea what you were trying to say. I need it simple and concrete to some extent.

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