14 March, 2001
Author: George Irbe
Back to George's Views
The Dark Side of Human Nature
The Importance of the Dark Side
This essay concerns human nature, and, coincidentally, the peculiar aversion to discuss and take into account the uglier aspects of it (e.g., envy, greed, resentment, desire to dominate, etc.) by philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and most of all by legislators who are increasingly engaged in forging of what is called 'social legislation'.
We can be sure that men have been learning from experience and precedent about everything that they can expect, in terms of dispositions, inclinations, and actions from human (i.e. their own) nature ever since they have had the intellectual wherewithal to do so. It is also quite certain that men were compelled to take note of their own nature because of their own frequently abusive and destructive behavior. The learning was motivated by necessity rather than curiosity, in order that they could devise counter-measures for bad behavior by individual members of their social group. This men could do even without delving deeply into the causes for bad behavior, by simply basing the counter-measures on an empirical and pragmatic appreciation of their own nature. Most, if not all, customs, rules of just conduct, and laws, which are the indispensable framework material for building and maintaining a society, have come about by this kind of pragmatic approach, which does not bother finding anthropological, sociological or psychological explanations for the uglier manifestations in human nature, but simply accepts such manifestations as a given. In the crudest terms: we know that there will always be individuals who cheat, steal and murder, and we can devise protective and punitive measures against such individuals, unless they also happen to be our masters, in which case it usually requires mass action, i.e. a revolution, to deal not just with the bad individual but also other men who are supporters of the power structure of the bad individual.
To show how important it is to take the darker side of human nature into account, if only in a general way, we can point to the Constitution of the United States. It is one of the most successful efforts - if not the most successful ever until now - to create a realistic framework for a self-governing free society. Its enduring success is in no small part due to the fact that the Founding Fathers were frank about recognizing the imperfections of their own human natures and who, therefore, created structures and instruments in the Constitution which would curb and counteract actions by men motivated by such imperfections. We have the historically memorable statement by James Madison (here taken from Forrest McDonald's Novus Ordo Seclorum, p. 205):
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Madison was saying that men are not angels; in other words, that they have not the ideally perfect natures of angels but rather the imperfect natures of men. This kind of empirical understanding of the uglier side of human nature has been sufficient through the ages for the promulgation of proscriptive (ought-not) rules and laws of just conduct for individuals and at times - the Constitution of the United States being the shining example - for creating a system of checks and balances within the organization of government in anticipation of the fact that inevitably some individual or group will attempt to do something to adulterate or subvert government institutions so as to gain unfair advantage over others in the pursuit of their own selfish interests.
In all those instances, then, of making proscriptive ought-not rules and laws pertaining to just individual conduct, or for emplacing of constitutional safeguards, it has proven to be sufficient to proceed on the simple expectation that certain bad acts will be attempted by men, sooner or later. It has not been necessary to take the next step, which would be to gain an understanding of the specifics of human nature and particularly of those attributes of it which could be the agents and reasons for bad actions by men.
However, recognizing the potential for nefarious behavior in human beings has become really important with the advent of the Welfare State. It has proven to be a costly error in our collective judgment to reason that, because social welfare legislation is not about constraining human misbehavior but rather about providing benefits to the needy individuals, therefore aspects of human nature - good or bad - do not enter into the equation at all. Industrialization and the attendant rapid increase in wealth- generation has increased society's expectations from government. The concept of the organized Welfare State, rarely known before in history, suddenly became the paramount objective for most of the governments of the industrialized societies and also for those which were striving to become industrialized. As it is, failure to recognize the vulnerabilities of social programs to the inevitable attempts at exploitation by individuals who are motivated by nothing more sinister than the normal nefariousness of human nature has often brought disastrous economic consequences on governments and societies in the 20th century. At the same time, social welfare legislation has received much unwarranted reverence from the unsophisticated public at large. The public has been led to believe that social welfare legislation - in actuality only mere government regulation - has the same gravitas as legislation of laws of just individual conduct, and therefore there is the erroneous assumption that social welfare legislation carries with it the customary rigor of laws of individual conduct. As Friedrich Hayek has stated in Chapter 6, Vol. 1 of "Law, Legislation and Liberty":
During the last hundred years it has been chiefly in the service of so-called 'social' aims that the distinction between rules of just conduct and rules for the organization of the services of government has been progressively obliterated. . . . The law of organization of government is not law in the sense of rules defining what kind of conduct is generally right, but consists of directions concerning what particular officers or agencies of government are required to do. . . . They are called 'laws' as a result of an attempt to claim for them the same dignity and respect which is attached to the universal rules of just conduct.
The problem with treating statutes and regulations that are enacted by a legislature to promote the objectives of social engineering as if they have the same weight as laws which are passed in the interests of just individual conduct is this: the laws of individual conduct are enacted in order to counter the worst that can be expected from any given individual, whereas statutes and regulations that intend to provide some social welfare benefit to a certain segment of society do not make any provisions at all for the worst in human nature and blithely expect only the best from all individuals concerned. This error in judgment about human nature guarantees that the worst will inevitably show up and soon bring the social program into disrepute, incurring its condemnation by the tax-payers. Another way of putting it is that laws of universal just individual conduct are, by their very definition, themselves safeguards against bad human conduct and hence against the bad side of human nature in general. Social welfare legislation has no such inherent safeguards, even though it, too, should be constructed so that it has a built-in immunity against the abuse of the program's benefits that can be anticipated as surely as the sunrise from the very individuals the program aims to help.
Very few people today would dispute the fact that the majority of the public have by now become accustomed to, and expect the services from, institutionalized social welfare programs; the only variance is the degree to which socialization is accepted from one country to the next. In view of this permanent ensconcement of belief in the necessity for social welfare in the public's mind , one would expect that, having had all the bad experiences with social legislation which ignored the dark side of human nature, legislators of social programs would now give serious attention to it. One would also expect the legislators, as per usual practice, to turn to the appropriate experts for advice and recommendations concerning the problem at hand, in this case the problem being a better understanding and a honest consideration of human nature. However, with a few exceptions, that is not the case.
The Importance of Envy and Ressentiment
When philosophers, sociologists, and political scientists talk about human nature - and those among them who recognize that it exists (not all of them concede even as little as that) invoke it quite often in their discussions - they pay hardly any attention to the potential that men have for acting badly, although that potential is universally and equally present in the natures of all men. Generally, it is the nobler side of human nature that is discussed in terms of its desires, needs, and aspirations. Often the undesirable characteristics of human nature are not even acknowledged, and hardly ever is their universal presence in all men of all races admitted as a fact, as if non-recognition could make the bad characteristics evaporate away. I suspect that this blind spot regarding human nature can also be attributed to the generally prevailing zeitgeist about the noble nature of socialism itself. Helmut Schoeck notes at the beginning (p. 9) of his comprehensive work, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, that in the 20th century there has been a curious "increasing tendency, above all in the social sciences and moral philosophy, to repress the concept of envy", and he speculates that this has happened because "the political theorist and the social critic found envy an increasingly embarrassing concept to use as an explanatory category or in reference to a social fact." Schoeck goes on to note that one cannot find a single instance of 'envy', 'jealousy' or 'resentment' in the subject indexes of the prestigious journals on sociology and anthropology over long periods of time in the 20th century. J.H. Berke reports this as well in The Tyranny of Malice, and also remarks that "in the indices of two major studies of human aggression and destructiveness, one didn't mention envy at all (or greed or jealousy), and the other mentioned it only once (greed once, jealousy not at all)" [p.13]. Berke adds a quote from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Parsons Tale:
It is certain that envy is the worst sin that is; for all other sins [are] against one virtue, whereas envy is against all virtue and against all goodness.
Envy is an ubiquitous presence in human nature. It is difficult to define envy as a discrete emotion, or to separate it out from other human emotions; it forms the substratum for many of them. Even of greater importance is the fact that envy is also a group emotion and thus a part of collectivist political ideologies and practices of our times. Therefore, it merits special attention when we talk about human nature. In Egalitarian Envy: The Political Foundations of Social Justice, de la Mora gives an excellent summary of man's views on envy from antiquity to the present. As mentioned above, Schoeck has noted the scarcity of studies of envy in the modern era. Similarly, de la Mora notes how reluctant we have always been to face and discuss the envy in us:
Human kind has reacted towards envy with more ignorance and concealment than towards sex. Such an ethical problem, which has such extraordinary inroads into individual and collective happiness has habitually been dealt with hypocritically and almost in secret. [p.61]
Envy is a feeling and therefore it is something that does not belong to the higher level [reason]; it is, besides, such a universal fact that it has been proclaimed to constitute an instinctive inclination of the human species. Envy . . . is one of the most negative feelings, for the one who feels it and for the one who inspires it. This relative rationality and this complete malignancy shows that this is a phenomenon that hides jealously and that has been missed by the sciences. For hundreds of thousands of years homo sapiens, with a strange mixture of fear and shame, has taken for granted and avoided dealing with envy, unable to make a decision and face it with the logos. [p.66]
In Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour Helmut Schoeck quotes Kant's statement in The Metaphysics of Morals which conveys the same understanding of envy being a normal component of human nature:
The impulse for envy is thus inherent in the nature of man, and only its manifestation makes it an abominable vice, . . . It is therefore natural for man to feel envious impulses. He will always compare himself with others, generally with those who are socially not too remote, but the vice that threatens personal relations, and hence society as a whole, becomes manifest only when the envious man proceeds to act, or fails to act, appropriately . . .[p.166]
Schoeck further recognizes that a certain controlled amount of envy, like many lethal poisons which are curative when used in small quantities, is essential to the functioning of society:
. . . without the capacity for envy, no sort of society could exist. In order to be able to fit into his social environment, the individual has to be trained, by early social experiences, which of necessity involve the torment, the capacity, the temptation, of envying somebody something. It is true that his success as a member of a community will depend on how well he is able to control and sublimate this drive, without which, however, he would never be able to grow up. We are thus confronted by an antinomy, an irreconcilable contradiction: envy is an extremely anti-social and destructive emotional state, but it is, at the same time, the most completely socially oriented. . . . We need envy for our social existence, though no society that hopes to endure can afford to raise it to a value principle or to an institution. [p.254]
In connection with my own understanding that envy is the substratum for, or blends with, many of the other human characteristics, it is appropriate to note what J.H. Berke has to say in The Tyranny of Malice:
Envy and greed rarely operate separately. My colleague, Dr. Nina Colthart, has suggested the term "grenvy" to denote the fusion of these two emotional forces and the simultaneous expressions of them. . . . Devouring and defiling characterize grenvy and distinguish the grenvious act from a greedy or envious one. The grenvious impulse is more common than pure greed or envy.[p.26]
Envy can hide behind greed as well as fuse with it. Many people accumulate things in order to numb an overweening sense of inferiority or worthlessness. [p.27]
There is another important, and much ignored, malady of human nature which can affect large groups of society differentiated by class, ethnicity, or nationality. It is generally called by its French name of "ressentiment". The closest equivalent word for ressentiment in English is "rancour." Ressentiment was investigated and described fully by the German philosopher Max Scheler, in 1912, in his work whose English title is Ressentiment and Moral Value-Judgment. In a new edition (1998) of the work as volume VII in the Marquette Studies in Philosophy, titled simply Ressentiment, translated by Lewis B. Coser and William W. Holdheim, Manfred S. Frings states in the Introduction:
[Scheler's] investigations into resentment hold up a mirror against those roots of the human soul from which stalwart rancor is nourished, channeled into feelings that eventually surface in various forms of resentment directed against people, social conditions, gender, classes, races, religions, institutions, and God. [p.5]
Ressentiment is an incurable, persistent feeling of hating and despising which occurs in certain individuals and groups. It takes its root in equally incurable impotencies or weaknesses that those subjects constantly suffer from.[p.6]
As Scheler describes the phenomenon of Ressentiment, I suspect that at least a little bit of it shows up in most of us at one time or another, and it too has a great bearing on the implementation of 'social legislation' in, so to say, the 'real world':
Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.[p.29]
Ressentiment . . . must be strongest in a society like ours, where approximately equal rights (political and otherwise) or formal social equality, publicly recognized, go hand in hand with wide factual differences in power, property, and education. While each has the "right" to compare himself with everyone else, he cannot do so in fact. Quite independently of the characters and experiences of individuals, a potent charge of ressentiment is here accumulated by the very structure of society.[p.33]
Another source of ressentiment lies in envy, jealousy, and the competitive urge. "Envy," as the term is understood in everyday usage, is due to a feeling of impotence which we experience when another person owns a good we covet. . . . [Envy] leads to ressentiment when the coveted values are such as cannot be acquired and lie in the sphere in which we compare ourselves to others. The most powerless envy is also the most terrible. [p.34]
Under the topic of envy, Aristotle has dealt so completely with the different manifestations of this crucial part of human nature in his Rhetoric, that I thought it worth reproducing here in its entirety. Please note that he speaks for all of us, using the pronoun "we". Aristotle shows that envy is the common denominator in many of our undesirable traits, such as vanity, greediness, ressentiment, and jealousy.
To take Envy next: we can see on what grounds, against what persons, and in what states of mind we feel it. Envy is pain at the sight of such good fortune as consists of the good things already mentioned; we feel it towards our equals; not with the idea of getting something for ourselves, but because the other people have it. We shall feel it if we have, or think we have, equals; and by 'equals' I mean equals in birth, relationship, age, disposition, distinction, or wealth. We feel envy also if we fall but a little short of having everything; which is why people in high places and prosperity feel it - they think every one else is taking what belongs to themselves. Also if we are exceptionally distinguished for some particular thing, and especially if that thing is wisdom or good fortune. Ambitious men are more envious than those who are not. So also those who profess wisdom; they are ambitious - to be thought wise. Indeed, generally, those who aim at a reputation for anything are envious on this particular point. And small-minded men are envious, for everything seems great to them. The good things which excite envy have already been mentioned. The deeds or possessions which arouse the love of reputation and honor and the desire for fame, and the various gifts of fortune, are almost all subject to envy; and particularly if we desire the thing ourselves, or think we are entitled to it, or if having it puts us a little above others, or not having it a little below them. It is clear also what kind of people we envy; that was included in what has been said already: we envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation. Hence the line:
Ay, kin can even be jealous of their kin.
Also our fellow competitors, who are indeed the people just mentioned - we do not compete with men who lived a hundred centuries ago, or those yet not born, or the dead, or those who dwell near the Pillars of Hercules, or those whom, in our opinion or that of others, we take to be far below us or far above us. So too we compete with those who follow the same ends as ourselves; we compete with our rivals in sport or in love, and generally with those who are after the same things; and it is therefore these whom we are bound to envy beyond all others. Hence the saying:
Potter against potter.
We also envy those whose possessions of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbors and our equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question; this annoys us, and excites envy in us. We also envy those who have what we ought to have, or have got what we did have once. Hence old men envy younger men, and those who have spent much envy those who have spent little on the same thing. And men who have not got a thing, or not got it yet, envy those who have got it quickly. We can also see what things and what persons give pleasure to envious people, and in what states of mind they feel it: the states of mind in which they feel pain are those under which they will feel pleasure in the contrary things. If therefore we ourselves with whom the decision rests are put in an envious state of mind, and those for whom our pity, or the award of something desirable, is claimed are such as have been described, it is obvious that they will win no pity from us.[1387b21-1388a28]
In Praise of Human Nature
The typical incomplete evaluation of human nature is exemplified by a lecture on it by the noted Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer Adler. I think it appropriate to choose Adler for this demonstration of the currently popular practice of seeing human nature through the proverbial "rose-colored glasses" because Adler is known as a philosopher of common sense, but in this instance he does not show the same pragmatism as his favorite sage, Aristotle, who was not quite as sanguine regarding what to expect from human nature. In a lecture titled "On the Nature of Man", given at the opening of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies on July 1, 1950, Mortimer Adler begins by stating very correctly that man does have a species- specific nature, and that "if moral philosophy is to have a sound factual basis, it is to be found in the facts about human nature and nowhere else." Regrettably, in the rest of the lecture Adler fails to discuss all the facts about human nature. He also states correctly that "free will or free choice, which consists in always being able to choose otherwise, no matter how one chooses, is an intellectual property, lacked by nonintellectual animals", and gives "both the jurisprudential and the theological definition of a person", which is: "A person is a living being with intellect and free will."
Adler classifies all the many different things that one can expect from human nature under the quite appropriate collective term of "potentialities"; he states that "human nature is constituted by all the potentialities that are species-specific properties common to all members of the human species. It is the essence of a potentiality to be capable of a wide variety of different actualizations." But Adler is looking through the "rose-colored glasses"; he talks in glowing terms about the potentialities as if they consisted only of great and noble achievements by man, without ever mentioning that these very same potentialities include, as well, the capacity for bad dispositions and bad actions. In the following discourse on the potentialities Adler actually appears to ascribe a very minor role to innate human nature (at least, that's how I understand his phrase "individual chosen behavior") and just about everything to "nurture" in the development of the individual. He thus comes very close to disclaiming any real significance to the "human nature" which he has categorically asserted does exist, but which actually appears to be not much more than the model of human nature popular with the rationalistic collectivists who see it as an "empty vessel" at birth. Adler says:
All the knowledge we acquire, all the understanding we develop, everything we learn, is a product of nurture. At birth, we have none of these. All the habits we form, all the tastes we cultivate, all the patterns of behavior we accumulate, are products of nurture. We are born only with potentialities or powers that are habituated by the things we do in the course of growing up. Many, if not all, of these habits of behavior are acquired under the influence of the homes and families, the tribes or societies in which we are brought up. Some, of course, are the results of individual chosen behavior.
Confronting the Dark Side of Human Nature
It is now in order to take a look at the big question: exactly what constitutes human nature, and, more important to this discussion, how do the undesirable components or potentialities of it, which have in a large sense been ignored in the century just past, come into play. I will also be so bold as to propose my own understanding of human nature later on.
In truth, it is not really possible to identify and define 'human nature' concretely or exactly. It is not as simple as drawing a circle around a set of properties and saying, "this is human nature." Generally, we think of human nature as the agent responsible for producing the thoughts and actions that are typically characteristic of mentally healthy human beings. There are many people who believe that human beings have a soul (Aristotle posits, and I agree, that all living things do). The question then is whether human nature is (a) an entity somehow bound up with the soul and thus a part of the soul, or (b) just another term for soul, or (c) the product of the interaction of the soul with the primeval genetical impulses of our biological host, i.e. our body and all its several parts. I am not certain whether to include Aristotle in category (a) or category (b); Aristotle does not specifically address the meaning of human nature, but mostly discusses what amount to being the several properties of human nature.
I myself belong in category (c). In my opinion, one of the best statements on human nature (it also has the Aristotelian undertones) is by Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora in Egalitarian Envy: The Political Foundations of Social Justice. He writes:
Humans have at their disposal three basic systems to guide them in the world: the instinctive or conditioned, the emotional or sentimental, and the logical or rational. They share the first two with other species and the last is, on this planet, their exclusive property. [p.65]
For my own understanding of human nature I will borrow from Adler only the concepts of 'species-specific potentialities', 'intellect', and 'free will'. I will also draw substantially on Aristotle. I share Aristotle's belief in the presence of a soul in all living things, and I also have an appreciation for Aristotle's concept of the 'faculties' of the soul, which are somewhat similar to the components that go into producing, in my conception of how the process works, our myriad-faceted, species-specific nature. Because I have learned much and gained much inspiration from Aristotle on the subject, and because Aristotle's ideas form the foundation and a back-drop to my own, I wish to present some of his ideas in greater detail.
Aristotle defines the presence of the soul in living things in his book on the soul, De Anima:
. . . the ensouled is distinguished from the unsouled by its being alive. Now since being alive is spoken of in many ways, even if only one of these is present, we say that the thing is alive, if, for instance, there is intellect or perception or spatial movement and rest or indeed movement connected with nourishment and growth and decay. It is for this reason that all the plants are also held to be alive . . . [413a21]
Soon thereafter, Aristotle identifies the three faculties of the soul:
. . . the soul is the principle of these things that we have mentioned and is defined by these things, the nutritive, perceptive and intellective faculties and movement. [413b11]
In the work already cited above, de la Mora gives what must be the most succinct description of Aristotle's model for the soul, while he also pays a much deserved tribute to Aristotle; the statement is in connection with that most ubiquitous component of human nature - envy:
. . . the most clear and almost superhuman mind . . . Aristotle . . . distinguishes three types of properties of the soul: faculties, habits and passions; among passions we find envy. In other contexts he considers envy as an affection of the soul which, for this reason, is felt and expressed through the body. [p.10]
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle elaborates on the nature of the human soul. First of all, he says that living is common to plants as well as men, so we need not particularly discuss nutrition and growth [1098a01]. Aristotle likewise dispenses with sensation (perceptive faculties) because it is also common to other animals. The human part of the soul is the one which directs action according to reason [1098a03]. Furthermore, the part of the soul which has reason is itself composed of one passive part that may, or may not, simply respond to the dictates of reason, and another more important part which uses reason because it thinks [1098a05]. Aristotle refers to the conventional opinion of the soul at the time: "Some things about the soul have been sufficiently stated also in public writings, and they should be used; e.g., one part of the soul is nonrational, the other has reason" [1102a28]. . . . "Of the nonrational, one part is like that which is common and vegetative, i.e., that which is the cause of nutrition and of growth. For one would posit such a power of the soul in all things which take in nutriment and in embryos; and he would posit the same [kind of power] also in complete beings, since it is more reasonable to posit this than to posit some other kind of power" [1102a33]. . . . "There seems to be also another nature of the soul which is nonrational but which participates in some way in reason" [1102b13]. Aristotle suggests that just as we at times experience disobedience from physical parts of the body, "perhaps in the soul, too, we should grant no less the existence of something which violates reason, i.e., a part which goes contrary to it or resists it" [1102b23]. Aristotle adds that ". . .the term 'nonrational', too, appears to have two meanings. For the vegetative part in no way communicates with reason, while the appetitive part and , in general, the part which desires shares [in reason] in some way, namely insofar it listens to it or obeys it; . . ." [1102b29].
While discussing virtue, Aristotle coincidentally outlines the composition of the human soul; what he refers to as "feelings [or passions]" appear very much like what I consider to be some of the components of human nature:
Since there are three things in the soul, and these are feelings [or passions], powers, and habits, virtue would be one of these. By feelings I mean, for example, desire, anger, fear, envy, courage, gladness, friendly feeling, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and, in general, whatever is accompanied by pleasure or pain; by powers I mean those qualities in virtue of which we are disposed to be affected by the above feelings for example, those in virtue of which we are capable of being angry or pained or feeling pity; and by habits I mean those qualities in virtue of which we are well or badly disposed with reference to the corresponding feelings, e.g., with reference to being angry we are badly disposed if we are angry too violently or too weakly but well disposed if we are angry moderately, and similarly with the others.[1105b20]
In Politics Aristotle describes men in a very candid way; one might say that he is telling us of the wide range of the 'potentialities' of human nature:
For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have no virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony.[1253a31]
. . . and in the Nicomachean Ethics, he asks us to consider our quite natural fallibilities:
We should take into consideration also the vices to which we are easily drawn, for some of us are by nature inclined towards some of them, others towards others; [1109b01]
In Rhetoric Aristotle describes, at times in sarcastic tones, many typical aspects of our human nature. We need not dwell here on the good ones which have been the fodder of countless laudatory works on man's goodness and nobility. Let me cite from Aristotle some of the unpleasant attributes which are present in all of our natures to some degree:
For the wrongs a man does to others will correspond to the bad quality or qualities that he himself possesses. Thus it is the mean man who will wrong others about money, the profligate in matters of physical pleasure, the effeminate in matters of comfort, and the coward where danger is concerned - his terror makes him abandon those who are involved in the same danger. The ambitious man does wrong for the sake of honor, the quick-tempered from anger, the lover of victory for the sake of victory, the embittered man for the sake of revenge, the stupid man because he has misguided notions of right and wrong, the shameless man because he does not mind what people think of him; and so with the rest - any wrong that any one does to others corresponds to his particular faults of character. [1368b15]
A Theory of Human Nature
I will now present my own layman's understanding of what human nature is and how it works. Let me first recall what I said earlier on about what I believed human nature to be: that it is the product of the interaction of the soul with the primeval genetical impulses of our biological host, i.e. our body and all its several parts. My conception of human nature is quite similar to that of de la Mora, already cited above: "Humans have at their disposal three basic systems to guide them in the world: the instinctive or conditioned, the emotional or sentimental, and the logical or rational. They share the first two with other species and the last is, on this planet, their exclusive property." There is a significant similarity between my 'primeval genetical impulses' and de la Mora's 'instinctive' and 'emotional' systems; there is also some similarity between my 'soul', which can also be termed the 'pilot' or 'conductor' of the human mind, and de la Mora's 'logical or rational' system.
I belong to a sub-set of cosmological theists who believe that the Creator imparts an immaterial soul to human beings. I go even further, following in Aristotle's footsteps (but with a different understanding of God and the soul), by positing that all living things are imparted with a soul, where the soul is the very essence of the meaning of 'life'. The soul is an essential component of my understanding of human nature. Furthermore, in my opinion it is the soul which possesses the 'free will'.
Other people see the situation differently. Nearly all people agree that the property which elevates men above the other life forms on Earth is their much superior intelligence. The superior intelligence also makes us capable of reasoning, choosing, and exercising a chosen option as we please. This ability to act or not to act in whatever the circumstance might be is termed our 'free will'. However, many schools of thought do not recognize the concept of the immaterial soul - that is the case with the rationalistic atheists, and also with most of the cosmological theists, who do not believe in the immaterial soul but do believe that God has created everything in the universe according to an intelligent plan. According to their strictly rational interpretation of the universe there can be no transcendental dimension to existence.
I differ also from the Biblical theists. They believe that God created man in his own image and gave man a soul and intelligence. Although man has 'free will' it is limited to a degree by predestination imposed by God. Things get further complicated by the existence of a supernatural evil being, commonly called Satan. Satan tempts men to be bad. Therefore, human nature contains both what God and Satan have placed into it.
I like to think that the physical part of Homo sapiens is the result of the process of evolution. This evolution, however, is not a matter of Darwinian probabilities and mere chance, but rather the step-by-step execution of an intelligent plan, designed and executed, of course, by a superior Intelligence, i.e. the Creator-God. This conviction of mine, first activated by what Gerald L. Schroeder has to say on the subject of evolution in The Science of God, became unshakable after reading John Cafferky's recent work, Evolution's Hand: Searching for the Creator in Contemporary Science (1997). All the evidence in the genetic make-up of man indicates that all the components in the human genome were 'field-tested' in earlier models of life forms, some reaching back more than a half billion years, others - for instance, the physical make-up of the human brain - having been 'field tested' only in the earlier hominid forms. Our genetic map, then, contains components which carry with them the genetic memory of experience from primeval times as well as from relatively recent ones. This genetic memory is what we call 'primitive instincts'.
I don't think that intelligence, per se, is a uniquely human attribute; it is just that we humans have so much more of it than the lower life forms. To me, it simply would not seem at all intelligent to ascribe to instinct alone all the actions by animals; certainly mammals and birds demonstrate much intelligent, pre-planned behavior. Even some instances of plant behavior appear to show a rudimentary level of intelligence. I have no difficulty with this fact, because I start from the assumption that all living things have a soul. I conclude that the soul, also, just as its biological host, has progressed through an evolutionary process planned and controlled by a Supreme Intelligence. Therefore, there are simple, primitive souls and more developed souls, culminating with the soul of man. The level of intelligence, and the corresponding extent of the free will associated with it, conforms to the degree of development of the soul. The extraordinary thing about Homo sapiens is that, compared to other life forms on Earth, his soul and intelligence have been not only hugely increased, but that they have been raised to an entirely different plane. Nevertheless, this soul which could be dubbed the 'super-soul', if you wish, still carries within its blueprint the structures from more primitive models of the past.
Another important element in my theory about the soul and human nature is my faith-based reasoning that the Supreme Intelligence or Creator-God is executing an intelligent and purposive plan. There could be no other logical purpose for investing any level of intelligence in the soul of a given life form unless the Investor, having done so, expects the soul of that life form to use the intelligence, within the scope of its given level of comprehension, to evaluate, choose, and then to exercise the correct - and autonomous and free-willed - actions expected of it in order for it to survive within the over-all system. Now, if we grant that the investing of intelligence has also been a part of the blueprint for the evolution for life on Earth, we can proceed further on this premise. It appears, then, that the soul of Homo sapiens is an audacious 'quantum leap in design' from previous models. This soul is invested with a very powerful intelligence. It stands to reason that the Supreme Intelligence who created it also expects from this super-soul a very high level of autonomous, correctly reasoned evaluation of all the complexities in the over-all system in which it exists and to follow up the reasoned evaluation with equally correct choices of action. In other words, it is eminently logical that the Creator-God has charged the human soul with a high degree of responsibility for its own actions that goes along with the great intellectual power; Homo sapiens has great autonomy of action but he must also face the consequences - good or bad - for his actions.
I now have the elements which comprise human nature, or any other nature, for that matter: the soul, the intelligence of the soul, and the soul's particular capacity to exercise free will. All three terms are, if one thinks about it, abstract and intangible concepts, i.e., they have no material expression. Let me note right now that the biological brain of an individual is only the instrument which the soul works with to exercise its chosen options. Biologists use a classification for the human brain which is also based on its evolutionary development: They call the core of the brain the r-complex, where 'r' denotes 'reptilian'; it is used to execute the most basic, life-sustaining actions. Above that is the 'limbic system', which gives rise to emotions, among them a loving concern for ones kind, especially for the young; all mammals have it. The uppermost layer is the cerebral cortex, which enables abstract thought and language; other mammals have it, but man's is by far the largest. It is easy to see in the structure of the brain how it was developed contemporaneously with the soul, if one accepts my notion of the brain as being only the tool for the use by the soul. Having thus concluded that the soul as well as the biological make-up of humans carry within their structures vestiges of ancient building blocks, I will posit next that human nature is a complex system in which all the building blocks, new and old, play a part.
The soul can be seen as performing the role of the 'pilot' in command of the biological body; it does this via the brain of the body. The actions that the soul performs through the body constitute the behavioral traits of the respective species-specific nature of that body. Here we are concerned with human nature: the species-specific nature of Homo sapiens.
The functioning of a soul can be represented as taking place simultaneously along two basic axes. Axis 'X' runs from a low point, which is 'Parity' to the high point of 'Dominance'; axis 'Y' runs from a low point of 'Subsistence' to a high point of 'Overabundance'. The X-axis represents status with respect to other members of the species. The Y-axis represents possession of goods of whatever sort. At any given moment, the species-specific soul responds to the circumstance of that moment by using its species-specific intelligence, and its acquired previous experience, to evaluate the options available for action; the kind of options available depend on the species-specific potentialities, which in turn depend on the physical attributes of the species and on the intelligence capabilities of the soul which is specific to that species.
Let us now take a look at the meaning of the postulated X and Y axes:
The positive range of the X-axis, from Parity to Dominance, concerns an individual's 'status' with respect to other members of his species. The soul of every individual of a species begins life with the presumption that it inhabits the body of an individual which is the same as the body of every other new-born member of that species. Of course, that is not really so. Within a group of individuals, there are always some differences in the genetic make-up and there even are genetic faults; there usually is the 'runt of the litter.' However, the young soul of the individual becomes aware of any shortcomings its biological host may have, compared to other individuals, only by living. The Supreme Intelligence, being supremely logical, has also imparted to every soul an incentive to try to be stronger and more adept at living than other individuals of the species. This drive to compete and excel ensures the continued success of a species, even as it creates a hierarchy among the members. 'Dominance' is a suitable term to apply to this innate compulsion of each soul to achieve a commanding status in the group. In short, the mission each soul is charged with is: Preferably dominance, but at minimum - parity. Typically, if the status of an individual falls below parity with respect to other members of the group, it may bring on early death to the biological body, or loss of the will to live in the soul; it may also lead the soul to a desperation-driven violent reaction to the loss of even the lowest status, in which case, too, the situation terminates in destruction of body and soul, but also with possible coincident lethal damage to some of the other members of the group. The circumstances and the outcomes are very complex for the human species, but still, a sub-parity status spells disaster for the individual and frequently also damage to other group members. Theoretically, there is an upper limit to the 'Dominance' value of the range, i.e. absolute dominance, but that is not of any concern here, because in reality such a state can never be achieved by any individual of any species.
The positive range of the Y-axis, from Subsistence to Overabundance represents every material and emotional good that the soul and its biological host needs or desires in order to live. Here, a negative, below-subsistence value means instant death, if the material good in question is part of physical nourishment, or, in some situations, also if the material good is shelter from the elements. In the psychological sense, the soul can descend into a catatonic state, or lash out violently, if deprived of subsistence-level emotional needs by the actions of an outside agent or agents. The high end of 'Overabundance' has no quantifiable limit, but here also there is a practical limit insofar as no individual can conceivably lay claim to every material good available to his species. The emotional goods, such as being loved and adored by others, are not quantifiable, but it can be said that one can never receive too much love or adoration. As it is, the Supreme Intelligence has very logically imparted to the souls of all the life forms the urge to exceed what is required for bare subsistence in order to minimize the chances of falling below the bare subsistence requirements of the various material and emotional goods.
The constant struggle to move up on the status scale from parity to dominance and on the goods scale from subsistence to overabundance is seen in all life forms. For the lowest life forms, the determining factors for a successful climb up either scale are essentially physical size and stamina. The biggest and strongest gets the most of the available nourishment by the sheer use of greater strength and body mass. In higher life forms, with souls of greater intelligence, strategy and cunning can replace brute force and one's status is often enforced by intimidation alone. On the other hand, souls of individuals with weaker physical attributes, or physical defects, find themselves at the low end of the two scales where they compete with the others who are in the same situation first and foremost simply to maintain parity and subsistence above the critical survivability level. I trust that most readers will understand what I am talking about without bringing in a lot of empirical evidence. Very basic competition for status and possession of goods can be observed in the simplest plant and animal life forms. In mammals, particularly among those which form family groups or social groups, the constant struggle of individuals to gain a higher status in the social hierarchy is quite obvious. On the goods side, there is keen competition for mates, territory, and food.
As stated previously, the Supreme Intelligence has, for good reasons, imparted a competitive drive to the souls of all life forms. It is, however, inevitable that therefore at some threshold level of intelligence and autonomous action the soul will start to generate certain feelings and attitudes with respect to the competitive environment, feelings like envy and jealousy. Basic manifestations of envy, jealousy, and greed can be observed in birds and mammals. The greater the intelligence, the greater is the level of sophistication in these feelings. Human beings have developed other variants of the basic themes, namely vanity, ressentiment and grenvy - a combination of greed (not by itself necessarily a negative drive on a moderate level) and envy.
The soul functions simultaneously in a matrix defined by the Parity-Dominance and Subsistence-Overabundance scales. In most instances status and possession of certain goods are interconnected or merge into one common objective. The shape of the matrix is species-specific. For instance, in some species the competition for status is fierce, while little effort is expended on competing for goods that might be confined to a limited subsistence range to begin with. Other species may live most of the time in an environment of abundance of goods, in which case every individual is so contented, fat and happy with things that hardly any competition for status is called for. There are several other dimensions possible in the species-specific matrices of status vs. goods. These dimensions go towards defining the species-specific natures.
The human soul competes on this same kind of matrix defined by the Parity-Dominance and Subsistence-Overabundance scales, but it does so by an uncountable number of different techniques and in many different fields of endeavor, including World 3, which is entirely of man's own creation and unique only to him as a species. To learn about World 3, the reader is directed to The Self and Its Brain by Karl R. Popper and John C. Eccles. This book is a great testimonial to the 'quantum leap' in intelligence which the Supreme Intelligence has invested in the human soul, compared to all previous designs. The human soul, using its practically unlimited intellect, has the potential to conceive of many different stratagems and procedures that could lead to a successful outcome in the competition for status or goods in any particular circumstance; and it does this repeatedly during its biological lifetime, as it confronts the ever-changing circumstances of life, at times from hour to hour if not from moment to moment. Having considered the options, the soul then chooses and acts according to the one that appears to be the best in the given circumstance. It is at this point that the soul can be said to exercise good or bad judgment and to show either a good or bad characteristic of human nature. And it is not the striving for greater dominance, or more goods, or more emotional fulfillment as such that is bad, but only that the means used to attain them might be bad. By using its God-given powerful intelligence the soul can always construe, if it so chooses, and perhaps only to ease its own conscience, arguments which are rational on the surface but which are in fact clever manipulations and inversions of wrong into right and vice versa. Moreover, the powerful intelligence of the human soul enables it to use envy and other negative feelings in very sophisticated ways; the soul uses its great powers of reason to construe and to justify the inversion of right and wrong, and to carry such inversion into action, no matter how bad the reasoning and action might be.
Human nature is therefore defined by its ambivalence. In a real sense the human soul is burdened with a heavy responsibility by the Supreme Intelligence in return for the near-limitless power of intelligence it has been granted. It is as if the Supreme Intelligence has decreed: "You are largely on your own. It is very hard to do, but try your utmost to get it right." So far, getting it right has proven to be almost impossible; the human soul carries within it the vestiges, faint as they may be, from other souls of other species, reaching back into the primordial past. The great intelligence of the human soul is a blessing, but it can also be seen as a curse: the God-given innate urge, given to the soul of man, just as it is given to the souls of other species, to excel in the pursuit of status and possession of goods, enables man to excel at what is best, but it also enables him to excel at the worst that can be imagined. The human soul can use the best powers of reason at its command to rationalize the necessity for the most evil acts. That is why envy and greed and other vices show up as very glaring and integral parts of human nature, much more so than in the lower life forms.
At this point it is fitting, I think, to return to the sage Aristotle. He was fully cognizant of the ambivalence of human nature. In the Nicomachean Ethics he dissected human nature to its core, and pointed out its warts as well as its prettier parts. The Nicomachean Ethics is a presentation of lessons from which men are to gain an understanding of their nature and, having understood it, to try to 'get it right'. At the heart of Aristotle's lessons is the principle of moderation in all the things that we desire, except for knowledge which we can never get too much of. Aristotle advises that we should keep our human nature on an even keel, but he understands that if the door is left wide open for the opportunity to indulge our vices, most of us will rush right through it. That's human nature. Now for some excerpts from the Nicomachean Ethics that provide a flavor of Aristotle's thoughts on the subject. Here he states how difficult it is to 'get it right':
a man may make an error in many ways (for evil, as the Pythagoreans conjectured, belongs to the infinite, while goodness belongs to the finite), but he may succeed in one way only; and in view of this, one of them is easy but the other hard. It is easy to miss the mark but hard to hit it. So it is because of these, too, that excess and deficiency belong to vice, but moderation to virtue. For men are good in one way, bad in many. [1106b29]
In the next quote Aristotle states that usually friendly persuasion is not enough to convince the average man to go against his nature and become good; that is why we have penalties for bad behavior, penalties that will compel man to curb his bad behavior:
[arguments] cannot exhort ordinary men to do good and noble deeds, for it is the nature of these men to obey not a sense of shame but fear, and to abstain from what is bad not because this is disgraceful but because of the penalties which they would receive, since by leading a life of passion such men pursue the corresponding pleasures and the means to them but avoid the opposite pains, having no conception of what is noble and truly pleasant as they have never tasted it. What argument, then, would reform these men? It is not possible or not easy to remove by argument the long-standing habits which are deeply rooted in ones character.[1179b11]
Aristotle speculated that a few men just might be born with a good nature, perhaps "through some divine cause". I don't believe that is ever the case. Our souls are born with neither good nor bad natures but rather with vestiges of more primitive souls in their make-up, and with the power to develop a very high level of intelligence which our soul is to use to discriminate between its bad and good potentialities for action, and then to choose the good. Aristotle expresses essentially the same idea in the second quote below, where he says that "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation," and in the third quote he tells us that it is not easy for us to practice the virtues and moderation in our desires and actions, and that, indeed, excellence in virtue is "rare and praiseworthy and noble." In other words, being virtuous in everything and at all times is a rarity in human nature.
Some think that men become good by nature, others think that they do so by habituation, still others, by teaching. Now it is clear that natures part is not in our power to do anything about but is present in those who are truly fortunate through some divine cause. Perhaps argument and teaching, too, cannot reach all men, but the soul of the listener, like the earth which is to nourish the seed, should first be cultivated by habit to enjoy or hate things properly; for he who lives according to passion would neither listen to an argument which dissuades him nor understand it, and if he is disposed in this manner, how can he be persuaded to change? In general, passion seems to yield not to argument but to force. So ones character must be somehow predisposed towards virtue, liking what is noble and disliking what is disgraceful. [1179b24]
Since virtues are of two kinds, intellectual and ethical, an intellectual virtue originates and grows mostly by teaching, and in view of this it requires experience and time, whereas an ethical virtue is acquired by habituation (ethos), as is indicated by the name ethical, which varies slightly from the name ethos. From this fact it is also clear that none of the ethical virtues arises in us by nature [at birth], for no thing which exists by nature can be changed into something else by habituation; e.g., no stone, which moves downwards by nature, can be changed by being habituated to move upwards, even if one were to keep on throwing it up countless of times, nor can fire be similarly made to move downwards, nor can anything else with some other attribute existing by nature be made to change that attribute by habituation. Hence virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation. [1103a14]
We have sufficiently discussed the following: that ethical virtue is a mean; the manner in which it is a mean; that it is a mean between two vices, one with respect to excess and the other with respect to deficiency; and that it is such a mean because it aims at what is moderate in feelings and actions. In view of what has been said, it is a difficult task to become a virtuous man, for in each case it is a difficult task to attain the mean; . . . and it is in view of this that excellence is rare and praiseworthy and noble. [1109a20]
In the following quote from Aristotle I find support for my theory that the Supreme Intelligence has invested our soul, which has vestiges of more primitive souls within it, with an extremely powerful intelligence which the soul can use not only for good and noble actions, but also for the most vile that its intelligence can conceive, more abominable than anything a lower animal form (Aristotle's "brute") is capable of conceiving:
As we said at the start, (a) some dispositions are human and natural, both in genus and in magnitude, (b) others are brutal, and (c) still others occur because of injuries or diseases.Temperance and intemperance are concerned only with (a) the first of these; and in view of this, we do not speak of the brutes as being temperate or intemperate, except metaphorically, and whenever one genus of animals differs in general from another in wantonness or destructiveness or omnivorous greed, for animals have no power of deliberating or judging things, but their nature lies outside of these, like that of madmen. Brutality is less bad than vice, but more fearful; for there is no corruption of the best part of a brute, as it is in a man, since brutes do not have such a part to be corrupted. So to compare brutes with men with respect to vice would be like comparing a lifeless with a living thing; for the badness of that which has no principle is always less harmful than the badness of that which has a principle, and the principle here is the intellect. So it would be like comparing injustice to an unjust man; for there is no sense in which each of these is worse than the other, since a man might do a great many times as much evil as a brute.[1149b29]
I will finish the quotations from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics with a passage that certainly confirms the similarity in his understanding of the role of the soul with mine in how it directs our actions. Aristotle makes a very important connection between reason and desire, when he says that "reason should . . . be true and desire should be right, if indeed intention is to be good, and what reason asserts desire should pursue." Here is the heart of the dilemma, the ambiguity and the dichotomy of human nature: the soul is just as likely to use false reason and wrong desire as it is to use true reason and right desire in deciding on what action to take.
There are three parts of the soul which have authority over action or truth: sense [i.e., power of sensation], intellect (or intuition), and desire. Of these, sense is not a principle of any action; and this is clear from the fact that brutes have sense but do not participate in action. Now what affirmation and denial are to thought, pursuit and avoidance are to desire; so since ethical virtue is a habit through intention while intention is desire through deliberation, reason should, because of these, be true and desire should be right, if indeed intention is to be good, and what reason asserts desire should pursue. So this thought or truth is practical, while goodness or badness in thought which is theoretical but neither practical nor productive is, respectively, truth or falsity; for this is the function of the thinking part of the soul, while the function of the part which is both practical and thinking is truth in agreement with right desire.[1139a18]
In the last 150 years, all kinds of coercive utopians, eugenicists, socialists, etc., have tried, time and again, to change or reconstruct human nature according to their utopian models, whatever those might be. Their haughty, but asinine, presumption that they have the ability to effect changes in human nature, or to rebuild it, has been proven to be utterly wrong in practice time and again. Human nature, the creation of the Supreme Intelligence, cannot be altered, period. We must accept human nature as it is, which means accepting ourselves for who we are. On a different tack, in the liberal Western democracies, efforts have been directed to social welfare and social engineering; here, insufficient attention has been given to human nature on the assumption, perhaps (one can only guess), that it consists of nothing but the most benign elements. For this reason, social welfare programs of various kinds have also proven to be much less than roaring successes. This need not have been so, if all aspects of human nature - the good and the bad - had been taken into account, particularly so the predisposition for grenvy and petty larceny. But then, of course, according to the dedicated egalitarians who sponsor them, the programs would appear to have too much cruelty and not enough kindness in them to merit the honorific of 'social'.
To accept ourselves for who we are we must first of all learn about our own nature. We need only to turn to Aristotle to do that. If we intend, as we repeatedly proclaim, to shape a better society - a society of free but prudent and responsible individuals - we must never forget that we must account for and cope with the 'dark side' of human nature which will always be with us. The human soul is always weighing the potential outcomes of actions it may take on the Parity-Dominance and the Subsistence-Overabundance scales in response to different circumstances that confront it. Aristotle recommends strongly that we should try to maintain a mean between the extremes. However, some souls are affected more by their primitive drives and are less inclined to direct their intelligence to understanding the real reasons for their having this intelligence to begin with. Such souls can go to the extremes, using their reasoning in aberrant ways to justify their actions. They do not think that they are bad or evil, but rather that they are pragmatic and realistic. Therefore, whether they are bad or evil depends entirely on how others judge their actions. In the last 150 years, again, great damage has been done to entire societies not by the acts of such individuals as individuals but rather by political movements in which demagogues have mobilized masses of people, who are already susceptible to such wrong desires due to their innate grenvy and ressentiment, to believe in the rightness of their aberrant reasoning. There is a pithy description of this process by de la Mora in Egalitarian Envy:
The call to crusades against the superiority of others, as, for example, by the Marxists, has a large following not because the envious and the resentful are a majority but because potentially they may become so, and thus egalitarian ideologies continue to promote such emotions. If, in addition, inequality is emphasized, if it is called arbitrary and even unlawful, if a gratuitous redistribution is promised, if the guilty conscience of the envious is dissolved into collective irresponsibility - the party or the class - and if it is made to appear that all this rests on a moral foundation, it is obvious that the number of the envious will not only multiply but that their envy will intensify. Egalitarianism is the opiate of the envious, and demagogues are the self-interested distributors of its massive consumption. This is how envy has become the decisive factor in contemporary political confrontations, . . . [p.93]
The mass mobilization of the dark side of human nature under ideological and political labels is what we must watch out for and guard against most of all. We have not done a very good job of it up to now. Our failure to do so is in large measure due to our reluctance to even take the dark side of human nature under serious consideration.
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