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Op-Ed World Culture & Society

Human nature and the ethical life

New York, USA

By Massimo Pigliucci

Does human nature exist? The answer has implications for anyone concerned about ethics. In an era defined by amoral political leadership and eroding social values, thinking about the essence of humanity has never been more important.

The philosophical concept of “human nature” has a long history. In Western culture, its study began with Socrates in the fifth century BCE, but it was Aristotle who argued that human nature was characterized by unique attributes – particularly, people’s need to socialize and our ability to reason. For the Stoics of Hellenistic Greece, human nature was what gave life meaning and contributed to their embrace of cosmopolitanism and equality.

Ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Mencius believed human nature was innately good, while Xunzi thought it was evil and lacked a moral compass. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, human nature is fundamentally corrupted by sin, but can be redeemed by embracing God, in whose image we have been created.

Modern Western philosophers, writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, expanded on these ideas. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that our natural state leads to a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” which is why we need a strong, centralized political authority (the so-called Leviathan).

By contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that human nature is malleable, but that our original state was one without reason, language, or community. He concluded that the mismatch between our early condition and modern civilization is at the root of our unhappiness, advocating a literal return to nature. David Hume, always sensible and moderate, proposed that humans are characterized by a combination of altruism and selfishness, and that such a combination can be partially molded for the better (or worse) by culture.

Charles Darwin’s work in the mid-1800s made many of the early “essentialist” views of human nature untenable. The idea that humans had a small set of characteristics that only humans possess was at odds with the slow, gradual pace of Darwinian evolution. While Homo sapiens evolved as a particular species of primate, there are no clean breaks between our biology and that of other species.

So the philosophical debate over human nature rages on, updated with the findings of biology. Today, some philosophers interpret Rousseau and Darwin to mean that human nature itself is nonexistent, and that while biology may constrain the body, it does not restrict our minds or our volition.

Evolutionary psychologists and even some neuroscientists say that is nonsense. The message they take from Darwin (and partly from Rousseau) is that we are maladaptive in a modern context – basically, Pleistocene apes who find themselves equipped with mobile phones and nuclear weapons.

As an evolutionary biologist and philosopher of science, my view is that human nature certainly exists, but that it is not based on an “essence” of any kind. Rather, our species, just like any other biological species, is characterized by a dynamic and evolving set of traits that are statistically typical for our lineage but neither present in every member nor absent from every other species.

Why does any of this matter to someone who is not a scientist or a philosopher? There are at least two good reasons that I can think of. One is personal; the other is political.

First, how we interpret human nature has broad implications for ethics, in the ancient Greco-Roman sense of the study of how we should live our lives. Someone who holds a Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of human nature is naturally going to worship God and follow the guidance of religious commandments. By contrast, someone adopting an existentialist philosophy along the lines of Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir might believe that because “existence precedes essence,” we are radically free to shape our lives according to our own choices, and do not need God to help us along.

Moreover, views on human nature affect views on ethics. And today, our ethics are a mess. One recent study in the United States called Donald Trump’s presidency the “most unethical” in American history, while Gallup’s annual survey of US attitudes toward morality suggests a steady erosion of social mores. If we all took a moment to consider where we stood on the debate about human nature, we might gain valuable insight into our own beliefs – and by extension, the beliefs of others.

Personally, I lean toward the naturalistic ethics of the Stoics, for whom human nature constrains and suggests – but does not rigidly determine – what we can and should do. But regardless of one’s religious or philosophical leanings, reflecting on who we are – biologically and otherwise – is a good way to take more ownership of our actions. Needless to say, there are many among us who could benefit from such an exercise.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. He blogs at

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.