Monday, May 15, 2006

What Does It Mean to Say "Human Nature Is Good"?

I've been thinking a bit recently about the claim that "human nature is good", famously advocated by Rousseau in the West and by Mencius in ancient China.

Well, already that way of putting it is disputable! Is there one claim that both Rousseau and Mencius make? -- or, instead, when Rousseau says "la nature humaine est bonne" and Mencius says "xing shan", though the best English translation of their statements is "human nature is good", each means something quite different?

One might be led to this thought, especially, if one bears in mind the "state of nature" thought experiment that is given high prominence in many discussions of Rousseau. The "state of nature", per Rousseau, is a (perhaps fictional) state in which human beings exist without any societal or cultural ties. A certain reading of Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality might lead one to suppose that when Rousseau says "human nature is good" he means that people in the state of nature are good. If that's what Rousseau means, then he must mean something different from Mencius, since Mencius does not even contemplate "the state of nature" but always imagines people as thoroughly embedded in some society or other.

But I don't think we need to read Rousseau this way. For one thing, it saddles Rousseau with a strange view of the "natural". Human beings, of course, are naturally social -- like wolves and ants. No naturalist (not even in Rousseau's day!) would think to separate the wolf from the pack or the ant from its colony to determine its "natural" behavior. Human beings deprived of society -- like the occasionally discovered "wild child" -- will lack language and fear humans. But surely this isn't our "natural" state!

If we look to Mencius and to Rousseau's later work Emile (which Rousseau himself said was the key to understanding all the rest of his work) we see, I think, a developmental approach to the "natural". What is natural is what arises in a healthy process of normal development, in normal people, without external imposition. Both Rousseau and Mencius think morality arises from such a natural, healthy process; and that, I'd suggest is what is at the core of each of their claims about "human nature".

Interpreted in that way, and developed a bit (as both Rousseau and Mencius do develop it) the question whether "human nature is good" gains some specific, interesting, and empirically explorable content.

By the way, Hobbes and Xunzi (Rousseau’s and Mencius’s most famous opponents on the issue of human nature) would both say, I think, that morality is the result of external imposition, rather than something that emerges from within in a normal process of development, so this interpretation can get them right, too.

I’ve been revising an essay on this recently, which you can see here.


Brad C said...

I should read your essay before posting this but since I am procrasinating instead of working on the dissertation as it is...

I agree it is plausible to build some sort of socialization into our idea of "normal" development (man is a social animal), but isn't there a danger here about begging the question against the "human nature is not good" view?

I assume that Freud, for example, is a paradigmatic pessimist (like Hobbes). He thinks we are socialized into the "non-natural" emotion of guilt, when we internalize our parents disapproval. (I esp. thinking of Deigh's "Love, Guilt, and the Sense of Justice" in this context)

To avoid classing Freud as an optimist about human nature, we need to have a sense of "normal socialization" that does not include the sort he thought gave rise to the moral sentiments.

You write: "What is natural is what arises in a healthy process of normal development, in normal people, without external imposition. "

It seems to me that the sophisticated pessimist will agree that we (well at least "we" westerners) usually *internalize* an initally external demand as a part of socialization. I guess I am asking: do you mean to classify Freud as a fan of the "human nature is good & morality is natural" party?

If not, why doesn't his account of morality make it "natural" according to your definition?

Ok...back to work!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

You're right that I would classify Freud as a pessimist. I think I can interpret him this way because, for him, the internalization of moral standards is not a healthy developmental process -- at least if it goes too far. Not to make a cartoon of his view, but if morality is a kind of pathology or sickness, then even if human beings commonly have it, it's not part of our "nature", on the sense of the "natural" that I favor. (I actually think Freud's view is more nuanced than this.)

Brad C said...

That makes sense. One more try at figuring out what is worrying me: what would you say about the Friendly Freud we find in, say, Scheffler's "Human Morality". The idea is that, pace Freud (and Wollheim), the moral sentiments are part of healthy development. Nonetheless they are, roughly as Freud thought, the result of internalizing an intially external demand.

If the sound moral sentiments develop only if a certain external factor (say a certain type of "good enough" parenting) is present, then it consequently makes sense to deny that humans are naturally moral.

But given your definition of "natural" the Friendly Freud view entails the thought that humans ARE naturally moral.

Hope you see the worry.

Justin Tiwald said...


I can't express how delighted I am to see someone blogging on Chinese philosophy. I've been conferencing for the past two days and fallen a bit behind on my work, but I should have a chance to read your paper soon.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brad, on my view there's more than one way for a trait to fail to be natural: It might not be a part of normal, "healthy" development, OR it might be "externally imposed". So bad-boy Freud fails to think that human nature is good by (at least) the first criterion, while friendly Freud fails by the second. That's the thought, anyway.

Analogy: My hair might turn purple due to disease (not a normal, healthy process) or due to dye (external imposition). Either way, that's not its "natural" color.

Justin, I can't promise that I'll write frequently on Chinese philosophy. But I do think that anyone with a serious interest in moral psychology would do well to acquaint herself with Chinese thinkers (and recent Western commentators such as Ivanhoe, Shun, etc.). As I'm sure you'll agree, there's no need to ghettoize discussions of such thinkers to specialized journals and forums specifically dedicated to them!

Justin Tiwald said...

I'll take what I can get, Eric. I'm quite glad that you are interested in getting us out of the ghetto. Admittedly there are a few that seem inclined to stay there, but I think most see all kinds of opportunities for cross-fertilization.