Five Theories of Human Nature
For decades now, we have witnessed a push towards the idea that humans are fundamentally good at heart.
The massive international bestseller, Human kind by Rutger Bregman, even goes as far as trying (and failing) to debunk the Milgram experiments and other important works showing that, well, pure goodness certainly isn’t the one and only feature of humanity. There are disturbing and dark aspects as well, and we can’t just wish them away.
Here are the four main ideas that shape much of modern thinking about these matters—plus another, better way of looking at it.
Humans Are Bad and Need to Be Governed Hard (Thomas Hobbes)
Left to their own devices, humans will revert to their basest nature; therefore, they need a strong government to keep them in check.
Thomas Hobbes thought that in the natural state, humans will revert to a constant state of “war of all against all.” Hence the necessity for a strong government that keeps this savagery in check for the benefit of all.
This view certainly has merit: human communities need some form of policing to prevent evil from spreading. Otherwise, you won’t just have crime, but criminal networks, and ultimately, a corrupted society.
But the idea that all men are anti-social at heart strikes most of us as extreme, and it doesn’t jive too well with experience. It has therefore been rightfully criticized as too misanthropic a view. Besides, the view that the plebs is bad and needs to be “reformed” by force, or protected against its own folly, has always been a favorite of wannabe tyrants past and present.
Humans Are Good and Have Moral Instincts (Adam Smith)
Humans are intrinsically compassionate and can organically develop virtues and a good society.
Adam Smith, despite the caricature of a free market radical that is often painted of him, was a very tender soul and a keen observer of social interactions. His Theory of Moral Sentiments emphasizes our innate capacity for sympathy, for mirroring the feelings of others, which, under normal circumstances, organically leads to the development of a sound, nuanced moral code and sense of propriety.
Naturally, such a view tends to grant humans much more freedom than Hobbesian pessimism: we might not need to be governed so hard, after all.
Smith’s view has a lot going for it: humans indeed have a strong moral sense, and often recognize true virtue when they see it. No doubt, Smith himself was a good man, and so he somewhat generalized his own internal make-up. But we also sense that something might be missing in that picture—and that certainly not all humans recognize virtue, much less embody it, while some are even actively hostile towards it.
Humans Are Ruled by Savage Drives, Kept in Check by Civilization (Sigmund Freud)
Humans are governed by their base instincts, especially for sex and murder. However, during socialization, they learn to keep those in check and redirect those drives towards productive goals (“sublimation”).
In the Freudian picture, society instills in its members a sort of higher authority, the “super-ego,” which determines much of their ambitions, motives, etc., while they remain mostly unconscious of this. That way, the base instincts are redirected towards upholding society and harmony. For Freud, the main base instincts were aggression and sex drive (think Oedipus complex).
Philosopher David Stove called this sort of theory “veneer theories,” that is, the idea that under a thin veneer of civilization, savagery rules, and that our seemingly cultivated and moral behavior is merely a sugar-coating of our beastly nature that can break down at any point.
While sex drive and aggression are certainly important instincts that play themselves out in many different ways (and often unconsciously so), and to become aware of such drives and integrate them productively no doubt is important for us, this picture seems extremely one-dimensional and incomplete.
Humans Are Good at Heart but Corrupted by Society (Rousseau, Marcuse)
In his natural (savage) state, man is noble at heart, but civilization has corrupted him for the benefit of the ruling class, especially under capitalism.
No other theory has gained so much traction in recent decades than Rousseau’s “noble savage” and its (Neo-)Marxist successors.
In that picture, humans are basically noble and deeply social, but have “fallen” under the influence of modern society, which deforms and exploits them. In that sense, it is sort of a “reverse veneer theory:” whereas in the veneer theory, civilization disguises our savage nature, here, it disguises our noble nature.
Herbert Marcuse has kind of combined this sentiment with Marxism and Freudianism: in this view, Freud’s super-ego is actually responsible for the oppression of certain classes in society, but they are so busy with sublimation and the satisfaction of false needs drilled into them by the capitalists that they are entirely unconscious of their own oppression. Hence the need to “sensitize,” “problematize,” to “wake up,” and so on. Modern “woke” ideas like white supremacy are based on this model: society and the ruling capitalist elite have drilled evilness into humans, which overshadows the “noble savage” that we are all at heart; but we can’t see it. We need to be made aware of it so that we can break free from our internalized role as oppressor/oppressed and rediscover our true (good) nature.
There is much to be said about this picture: no doubt, we are brainwashed daily by the powerful, and often cannot see our own prison. Furthermore, it is certainly true that some of our moral failings have to do with wrong ideals promoted by society (such as fame, money, or status symbols) and that without TV, some of our instinctive virtues might shine forth once again.
But this picture is not only incomplete (jealousy, resentment, aggression, narcissism etc. seem to be a feature of human nature and won’t go away in a “savage state”), but also dangerous: while many of the proponents of the noble savage concept are clearly motivated by a deep longing for a better, more harmonious, more “natural” state of being, many others are no doubt driven not by their longing, but by their hatred for our civilization and morality itself. It is often very hard to tell the difference.
Another danger is that if you adopt this view of a brainwashed humanity unable to see its own oppression, this can become an excuse for pathological power plays, re-education against the will of the people, and brushing off all criticism with the argument that those who criticize simply aren’t “aware” and “sensitive” enough to see the truth.
Humans Are Diverse and Capable of Growth (Dabrowski, Lobaczewski)
There is no uniform human nature, but diversity: in terms of our starting points, of our capacity for growth, and of the actualization of our given potential.
In this picture, we recognize that humans are neither fundamentally good nor evil. Rather, there exists a spectrum: some, like clinical psychopaths, are close to being fundamentally evil; others seem to be virtuous almost from the start. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
That is, some of us have little potential for developing virtue, while others do. But even those of us who do have this potential do not always realize it, because it requires both motivation and hard work. Mustering both is so difficult, in fact, that it almost always requires going through transformative crises and hurtful realizations to break us out of our stupor and super-charge our motivation for change.
Traditionally, this process has been framed in terms of spiritual development: growing closer to the Divine, through sudden illumination, until we see ourselves utterly transformed, when the Divine spirit affects the totality of our lives and experiences: we bring every aspect of our existence under the umbrella of higher principles; everything will be ordered according to the Divine spark.
The apostle Paul experienced such a transformation, and went on teaching precisely such a theory, as I outlined in a previous essay. The Stoics thought along similar lines.
Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski expresses the same idea in more secular terms, proposing a theory of personality development that relies on deep realizations, and the pain that goes along with them, to re-integrate our personality according to higher principles, which then leads to real moral autonomy deserving of the name.
The theory of positive disintegration (TPD) is an idea of personality development developed by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski. Unlike mainstream psychology, the idea views psychological tension and anxiety as necessary for personal growth. These “disintegrative” processes are “positive”, whereas people who fail to go through positive disintegration may stop at “primary integration”, possessing individuality but nevertheless lacking an autonomous personality and remaining impressionable. Entering into disintegration and subsequent higher processes of development continues through developmental potential, including over-excitability and hypersensitivity.
Unlike other theories of development such as Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, it is not assumed that even a majority of people progress through all levels. TPD is also not a theory of stages, and levels do not correlate with age; tension and anxiety do not correlate to maturity.
In other words, this view recognizes that not all people achieve, or perhaps are even capable of, a higher moral development.
Combined with the ideas about evil that Andrew Lobaczewski (of Political Ponerology fame) develops, according to which psychopaths and other pathological individuals can form networks and deeply corrupt entire societies, we get a nuanced picture.
All the first four theories about human nature presented above have valid points: there are evil human beings; left unchecked, society really can devolve into pathological chaos; humans really are compassionate and have a moral instinct, but not all, and it needs to be nurtured and developed; we really do have savage drives that can rule our behavior and that we need to acknowledge; society can and does corrupt us, and our longing for a more “noble-savage”-like community is justified to an extent.
Most importantly, though, humans are in need of profound individual transformation and development. At least those who are capable of it. Otherwise, we will always be, to an extent, the mere playthings of societal forces, unless we are the rare ones who not only come to this world already virtuous, but resist the corruption by society while discerning the positive elements of our civilization.
Thinkers Suffer from Projection
Lastly, an important point.
Philosophers and theorists, like scientists, depend on good data.
However, the data available to them is limited by their own development and psychological make-up: if you have never experienced what Dąbrowski calls “positive disintegration,” for example, this concept will seem utterly foreign to you, and you won’t recognize it when you see it.
Similarly, if all you can think of is sex and killing your neighbor, you might be forgiven for believing that this is what animates humanity.
If you have been the subject of savagery and lived through war and chaos, you might proclaim the need for a ruthless authoritarian regime to stamp out humanity’s worst excesses.
If you have witnessed the supreme cruelty that “holier than thou” types and other conformists can inflict on others, you might long for the state of the noble savage, where people can express themselves freely and are not stifled by legalistic and moralistic sophistery and oppression.
And if you are living in a world of noble propriety and mores, you might emphasize the fine moral instincts that most, or at least many, humans naturally possess.
But the danger is always that one merely projects one’s own state of moral development, and one’s own traits and preferences, on the rest of humanity, therefore missing crucial data points. Plus, as already mentioned, the reasoning of some thinkers might be driven by less than noble feelings: like hatred for some basic and natural moral code, or the need to normalize their own pathological drives and fantasies. In these cases, everything that justifies such pathology will be gladly used.
And so, the noble savage quickly becomes a euphemism for the unleashed psychopath.
It helps if we can broaden our horizon and not get too attached to one theory or the other. This hopefully lets us see more and widen our filter, as it were, when looking at reality.
Not all humans are the same, and not all situations are created equal. The more we grow, the more we see.
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