Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Human Nature Is Good: A Sketch of the Argument

The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi and the early modern French philosopher Rousseau both argued that human nature is good. The ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi and the early modern English philosopher Hobbes argued that human nature is not good.

I interpret this as an empirical disagreement about human moral psychology. We can ask, who is closer to right?

1. Clarifying the Question.

First we need to clarify the question. What do Mengzi and Rousseau mean by the slogan that is normally translated into English as "human nature is good"? There are, I think, two main claims.

One is a claim about ordinary moral reactions: Normal people, if they haven't been too corrupted by a bad environment, will tend to be revolted by clear cases of morally bad behavior and pleased by clear cases of morally good behavior.

The other is a claim about moral development: If people reflect carefully on those reactions, their moral understanding will mature, and they will find themselves increasingly wanting to do what's morally right.

The contrasting view -- the Xunzi/Hobbes view -- is that morality is an artificial human construction. Unless the right moral system has specifically been inculcated in them, ordinary people will not normally find themselves revolved by evil and pleased by the good. At least to start, people need to be told what is right and wrong by others who are wiser than them. There is no innate moral compass to get you started in the right developmental direction.

2. Mixed Evidence?

One might think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

On the side of good: Anyone who suddenly sees a child crawling toward a well, about to fall in, would have an impulse to save the child, suggesting that everyone has some basic, non-selfish concern for the welfare of others, even without specific training (Mengzi 2A6). This concern appears to be present early in development. For example, even very young children show spontaneous compassion toward those who are hurt. Also, people of different origins and upbringings admire moral heroes who make sacrifices for the greater good, even when they aren't themselves directly benefited. Non-human primates show sympathy for each other and seem to understand the basics of reciprocity, exchange, and rule-following, suggesting that such norms aren't entirely a human invention. (On non-human primates, see especially Frans de Waal's 1996 book Good Natured.)

On the other hand: Toddlers (and adults!) can of course be selfish and greedy; they don't like to share or to wait their turn. In the southern U.S. about a century ago, crowds of ordinary White people frequently lynched Blacks for minor or invented offenses, proudly taking pictures and inviting their children along, without apparently seeing anything wrong in it. (See especially James Allen et al., Without Sanctuary.) The great "heroes" of the past include not only those who sacrificed for the greater good but also people famous mainly for conquest and genocide. We still barely seem to notice the horribleness of naming our boys "Alexander" and "Joshua".

3. Human Nature Is Nonetheless Good.

Some cases can be handled by emphasizing that only "normal" people who haven't been too corrupted by a bad environment will be attracted to good and revolted by evil. But a better general defense of the goodness of human nature involves adopting an idea that runs through both the Confucian and Buddhist traditions and, in the West, from Socrates through the Enlightenment to Habermas and Scanlon. It's this: If you stop and think, in an epistemically responsible way (perhaps especially in dialogue with others), you will tend to find yourself drawn toward what's morally good and repelled by what's evil.

Example A. Extreme ingroup bias. For example, one of the primary sources of evil that doesn't feel like evil -- and can in fact feel like doing something morally good -- is ingroup/outgroup thinking. Early 20th century Southern Whites saw Blacks as an outgroup, a "them" that needed to be controlled; the Nazis similarly viewed the Jews as alien; in celebrating wars of conquest, the suffering of the conquered group is either disregarded or treated as much less important that the benefits to the conquering group. Ingroup/outgroup thinking of this sort typically requires either ignoring others' suffering or accepting dubious theories that can't withstand objective scrutiny. (This is one function of propaganda.) The type of extreme ingroup bias that promotes evil behavior tends to be undermined by epistemically responsible reflection.

Example B. Selfishness and jerkitude. Similarly, selfish or jerkish behavior tends to be supported by rationalizations and excuses that prove flimsy when carefully examined. ("It's fine for me to cheat on the test because of X", "Our interns ought to expect to be hassled and harrassed; it's just part of their job", etc.) If you were simply comfortable being selfish, you wouldn't need to concoct those poor justifications. If and when critical reflection finally reveals the flimsiness of those justifications, that normally creates some psychological pressure for you to change.

It's crucial not to overstate this point. We can be unshakable in our biases and rationalizations despite overwhelming evidence. And even when we do come to realize that something we eagerly want for ourselves or our group is immoral, we can still choose that thing. Evil might still be commonplace: Just as most plants don't survive to maturity, many people fall far short of their moral potential, often due to hard circumstances or negative outside influences.

Still, if we think well enough, we all can see the basic outlines of moral right and wrong; and something in us doesn't like to choose the wrong. This is true of pretty much everyone who isn't seriously socially deprived, regardless of the specifics of their cultural training. Furthermore, this inclination toward what's good -- I hope and believe -- is powerful enough to place at the center of moral education.

That is the empirical content of the claim that human nature is good.

I do have some qualms and hesitations, and I think it only works to a certain extent and within certain limits.

Perhaps oddly, the strikingly poor quality of the reasoning in recent U.S. politics has actually firmed up my opinion that careful reflection can indeed fairly easily reveal the lies behind evil.


Related: Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau (History of Philosophy Quarterly 2007).

[image source]


howard b said...

If people were so good,would they be susceptible to evil? The evidence seems to support the view of thinkers like Erich Fromm and parts of the Hebrew Bible that we are born with both potentialities.
As does your post

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Surely we have both potentialities. However, the potentialities might not be realized by the same type of processes.

Fromm, for example, thinks of life-affirming morality as the result of healthy psychological development, and life-denying approaches to the world as illness or pathology. This is not *so* far from saying that our natural tendencies are toward what's morally good. On a Hobbesian/Xunzian view, evil would be just as healthy as good (though not prudent, given the right kinds of social structures that punish misbehavior).

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that your opening definition, "normal people, not corrupted by a bad environment" already did all the heavy argumentative lifting. People have innate capacities for compassion and agression, and these capacities were obviously selected for for the same reason that all innate traits are selected for: they contribute to reproductive success. If course, these capacities are also incredibly broad and must be supplemented by enculturation I order to actually work. So by only selecting the forms of enculturation that give you the results you want you get your result more or less by fiat. In less complex terms, humans are clearly neither inherently "good" or "evil"; they are mere conglomerates of genes and upbringing.

Callan S. said...

Maybe the issue is self predation.

I mean, when people work in harmony they often create a lot of resources. All it takes is one member of a species to turn on its own kind and prey upon their own people to extract those resources for themselves and everyone is vulnerable to that.

Because to stop a own specie predator takes an own specie predator.

And that's where the trouble really starts - when the own specie predator who is supposed to stop the exploiter becomes the exploiter themselves. Who watches the watchmen? For example, I've heard the idea of certain racial demographics are basically fueling commercial prison systems - basically just a more accepted version of slavery.

So you have these folks floating around with own specie predation tendencies because they are stop those with those tendencies. Both solution and initial problem. In fact I'm being reminded of 'Dexter' right now. Also reminded of male lions who seem to exist purely to eat the kills of the females so as to chase off other males...from mating with those females.

Actually it might make an interesting movie to take someone with predation tendencies and go through two time lines where they become both police enforcer and mob enforcer.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Maybe so. A bit darker and more reductionistic than my usual way of thinking though!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon Feb 15: I see your concern, but I only tended, "normal" and "not corrupted" quite weakly. Of course one could use them to exclude all sort of people and then get the result by fiat, but that's not Mengzi's or my intention, as hopefully is revealed by using terms like "we all" or "almost everyone". "Normal" is meant to exclude, psychopaths and people with severe cognitive impairments. Rousseau thinks lots of people are probably irredeemably corrupted, but that's not Mengzi's or my view. So the claim does have risky empirical content!

Anonymous said...

Well, to be a bit more specific, I think agression toward the outgroup is just as natural as compassion for the in-group, and if I'm not mistaken the empirical results suggest they go hand in hand. From an evolutionary perspective that is hardly surprising. To have a rather blunt example, think of what a mother is capable of doing to innocent people if the life of her offspring is at stake. Love is a double-edged sword. It is far more likely that the Nazis gained support because people feared for their families and they offered hope than due to anti-Semitism alone. From a historical standpoint most wars are really just about resources, so focusing on the post-hoc rationalizations given for them is a moot point. If people were intelligent enough to see past it they would then just be openly Nietzschean: "Yes, we take their resources not because we think we are better than them, but because we wish to thrive." I doubt any amount of reasoning will make the majority of society embrace asceticism. Of course, we have enough resources now where this is largely unnecessary. But this is unique from a historical standpoint. As far as thinking that people who have never known hunger are good because they don't wish to invade countries, and that there is something different about them such that they truly are intrinsically better than their aggressive ancestors, I am reminded again of Nietzsche: "I often laugh at the weaklings, who think themselves good because their claws are blunt."

Perils said...

It's not either-or, it's about a constant balancing act, between opposing forces/impulses etc - neither of them is good or bad per se - competition and cooperation, aggression and affiliation...