Human nature

From Academic Kids

Human nature is the fundamental nature and substance of humans, as well as the range of human behavior that is believed to be invariant over long periods of time and across very different cultural contexts.


Metaphysics and ethics

There are a number of perspectives regarding the fundamental nature and substance of humans. These are by no means mutually exclusive, and the following list is by no means exhaustive:

Free will and determinism

The issue of free will and determinism underlies much of the debate about human nature. Free will, or agency, refers to the ability of humans to make genuinely free choices (in some sense). As it relates to humans, the thesis of determinism implies that human choices are fully caused by internal and external forces.

  • Incompatibilism holds that determinism and free will are contradictory (i.e. both cannot be true). Incompatibilist views can either deny or accept will.
    • Incompatibilist views holding to free will include:
      • Libertarianism holds that the human perception of free choice in action is genuine, rather than seemingly genuine, so that some of our actions are performed without there being any compulsion by internal or external forces to do so (i.e., indeterminism).
      • Thomism holds that humans have a genuine experience of free will, and this experience of free will is evidence of a soul that transcends the mere physical components of the system.
    • Incompatibilist views that deny free will include:
      • Fatalism refers to the belief that humans do not have freedom, but rather that our decisions stem from environmental, biological, or theological factors, that the appearance of free will is an illusion, and that human deliberation and actions are pointless because things have to be the way they have to be.
      • Predestination is the position that God orchestrates all the events in the universe, human and otherwise, according to his will; in essence a theistic form of fatalism
      • Biological determinism and Social determinism are the views that human actions are determined by their biology and social interaction, respectively. The debate between these two positions is known as Nature vs. nurture.
  • Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism coexist. Compatibilist views include:
    • Humian compatibilitism is the view that they are compatible because free will is merely the hypothetical ability to choose differently if one were differently disposed according to the physical factors of determinism.
    • Molinism is the view that God is able to pre-destine all events on Earth because he knows in advance what people will freely choose.
    • Contemporary compatibilists seek definitions of free will that permit determinism.

Spiritual vs. natural

Another often-discussed aspect of human nature is the existence and relationship of the physical body with a spirit or soul that transcends the human's physical attributes, as well as the existence of any transcendent purpose. In this area, there are three dominant views:

  • The philosophical naturalist position is that humans are entirely natural, with no spiritual component or transcendent purpose. Subsets of the naturalist view include the materialist and physicalist positions, which hold that humans are entirely physical. However, some naturalists are also dualists about mind and body. Naturalism, combined with the natural and social sciences, views humans as the unplanned product of evolution, which operated in part by natural selection on random mutations. Philosophical naturalist not believe in a supernatural afterlife. While philosophical naturalism is often assailed as a unacceptable view of human nature, it is endorsed by many prominent philosophers and thinkers. The philosophical naturalist often will view religious belief as similar to superstition and as the product of unsound or magical thinking.
  • In contrast to materialism, there is the Platonic or idealist position. It can be expressed in many ways, but in essence it is the view that there is a distinction between appearance and reality, and that the world we see around us is simply a reflection of some higher, divine existence, of which the human (and perhaps also the animal) soul, spirit, or mind may be part. In his Republic, Book VII, Plato represents humankind as prisoners chained from birth inside an underground cave, unable to move their heads, and therefore able to see only the shadows on the walls created by a fire outside the cave, shadows that, in their ignorance, the cave dwellers mistake for reality. For Plato, therefore, the soul is a spirit that uses the body. It is in a non-natural state of union, and longs to be freed from its bodily prison (cf. Republic, X, 611).
  • Between materialism and idealism lies Thomism, which is, in essence, a synthesis of Christian theology and the philosophy of Aristotle. The Thomist view of human nature is that we are in essence a "rational animal" -- a single, undivided being that is at once animal and rational. The soul is seen as the entirety of the human being -- no division is made between the "physical" and the "spiritual." As such, the human soul is not a spirit that reluctantly uses the human body as with Platonic idealism, but is instead "the individual substance of a rational nature" -- that is, the soul is the human in his entirety, with both material and rational or spiritual components. This position differentiates Thomism from both materialism and idealism. Unlike idealism, it holds that the visible universe is not a "mere shadow" of a transcendent reality, but instead is fully real in and of itself. However, unlike materialism, thomism holds that empiricism and philosophy, when properly exercised, lead inevitably to reasonable belief in God, the human soul, and moral objectivism. Thus, to a thomist, it is obvious from the evidence that there is a God and an eternal soul.

State of nature

State of nature refers to philosophical assertions regarding the condition of humans before social factors are imposed, thus attempting to describe the "natural essence" of human nature.

  • Views which see humans as inherently good:
    • According to John Locke, humans in the state of nature have perfect freedom to order their actions according to the laws of nature, without having to ask permission to act from any other person. People are of equal value, and treat each other as they would want to be treated. People only leave the state of nature when they consent to take part in a community. [1] (
    • According to Rousseau, humans in the state of nature are naturally good, and bad habits are the product of corrupting civilization;
  • Views which see humans as morally neutral:
    • According to Pelagius, humans in the state of nature are not tainted by original sin, but are instead fully capable of choosing good or evil.
    • According to social determinism and biological determinism, human behavior is determined by biological and social factors, so they are neither truly to blame for actions generally considered "bad" nor truly credited with actions generally considered "good."
  • Views which see humans as inherently bad:
    • According to Hobbes, humans in the state of nature are inherently in a "war of all against all," and life in that state is ultimately "nasty, brutish, and short." To Hobbes, this state of nature is remedied by good government.
    • According to Original sin, humans in the state of nature are tarnished by the sin of Adam, and can only be redeemed by the grace of God;
    • According to Bertrand Russell moral evil or sin is derived from the instincts that have been transmitted to us from our ancestry of beasts of prey. This ancestry originated when certain animals became omnivorous and employed predation (killing and thievery) in order periodically to ingurgitate the flesh as well as the fruit and produce of other once-living things to support metabolism in competiton with other animals for scarce food-animal and food-plant sources in the predatory environment in which we evolved. Thus, the simple fact that we humans must eat other life or else starve, die and rot is the probable primordial origin of contemporary and historical moral evil; i.e., the bad things we do to each other by lying, cheating, slandering, thieving and slaughtering.


There are a number of views regarding the origin and nature of human morality

  • Moral realism or Moral objectivism holds that moral codes exist outside of human opinion -- that certain things are right or wrong regardless of human opinion on the topic. Objective morality may be seen as stemming from the inherent nature of humanity, divine command, or both.
  • Moral relativism holds that moral codes are a function of human values and social structures, and hold no meaning outside social convention.
  • Moral absolutism is view that certain acts are right or wrong regardless of context.


  • Materialism and philosophical naturalism hold that there is no external purpose to human life. Proponents of this view often adopt the philosophy of secular humanism.
  • Teleology holds that there is inherent purpose to human existence. This purpose may arise from the inherent nature of humanity itself (what a human is "supposed to be," as in the case of objectivist philosophy), from mankind's relationship to the divine (what God wants humanity to be, as in the case of religion), or from both (as when the divine commands are seen as being in accord with the inherent nature of humanity and humanity's best interests)

Psychology and biology

A long standing question in philosophy and science is whether there exists an invariant human nature. For those who believe there is a human nature, further questions include:

  • What determines/constrains human nature?
  • To what extent is human nature malleable?
  • How does it vary between people and populations?

Tabula rasa

John Locke's philosophy of empiricism saw human nature as a tabula rasa. In this view, the mind is at birth a "blank slate" without rules, and data is added and rules for processing it are formed solely by our sensory experiences.

An alternative view is seen in E. O. Wilson's sociobiology and the closely related theory of evolutionary psychology.

Behavioral genetics

The nature vs nurture debate. Behavioral genetics

Human diversity

Population genetics

Arguments for invariance

All individuals and all societies have a similar facial grammar. Everyone smiles the same, and the way we use our eyes to convey cognition or flirtatiousness is the same. Evaluations of facial attractiveness are consistent across races and cultures with a preference for symmetry and proportion which are explained by scientists as markers of health during physical development attributable to good genes or a good environment. Human females find male faces that are rated more masculine and less caring, more attractive during the part of their menstrual cycle when they are most fertile. In utero exposure to testosterone (normal for the male fetus) alters brain development toward greater spatial and mathematical potential, greater physical roughhousing during childhood play, and to find females attractive once puberty is attained. Female brain development with its emphasis on verbal fluency is the default, absent exposure to testosterone.

No success has ever been scientifically demonstrated in re-assigning an individual's handedness. Although an individual may change their external behavior (picking up scissors with their right hand instead of the left, for instance), their internal inclination never changes. Even people who lose a limb, who physically do not possess the ability to pick up scissors with their left hand, will try to do so if they are 'left handed.' The percentage of left-handers in all cultures at all times remains constant (because left-handedness is a recessive trait).

Newborn babies, far too young to have been acculturated to do so, have measurable behaviors such as being more attracted to human faces than other shapes and having a preference for their mother's voice over any other voice.

Arguments for social malleability

The Duke of Wellington is said to have become indignant upon hearing someone refer to habit as "second nature." He replied, "It is ten times nature!"

William James likewise referred to habit as the fly-wheel of society. Habits, though, are by definition acquired, and different habits will be both the effect and the cause of very different societies.

Some have argued that the role for nurture comes not from the absence of innate impulses in human nature, but from the plethora of such impulses -- so many, and so contradictory, that nurture must sort them out and put them into a hierarchy.

Influential views of human nature

As a general rule, any -ism important enough to be both defended and attacked, probably states or implies a distinctive view about human nature. Platonism, Marxism and Freudianism may serve as examples of this rule.

Plato took a conception of reason and the examined life that he learnt from Socrates and built both a metaphysics and, more to our point, an anthropology around it. There was an intellectual soul, resident in the human head, and there was a appetitive beast, resident in the belly and genitals. The duty of the former is to keep the latter tamed and, in time, to welcome death as an escape from this uncomfortable co-habitation.

In one disguise or another, Plato's dualism was immensely influential. It insinuated itself deeply into Christian theology — a process that began, perhaps, as early as the Gospel of John. Descartes' famous contrast between the soul that thinks and the body that is extended is a distinctive take on Plato, as is Kant's contrast between the noumenal and the phenomenal aspects of human nature.

What all these views have in common is the following structure: "there exists an invariant human nature, and my theory discloses it better than other theories." This structure does allow for progress in history — because coming to know ourselves better is progress. But human nature itself, as the object of that knowledge, is considered a constant. Indeed, in Kantianism, human nature in the really-real sense can't be said to change because change requires time, and time is a feature only of the less-real, phenomenal, world.

Hegel represents an important break with this Platonic hegemony. Building on his concept of the dialectic, everything is, so to speak, up for grabs: as humans come to know themselves better, the object of knowledge necessarily changes.

Karl Marx inherits that Hegelian dialectic, and with it, a disdain for the notion of an underlying invariant human nature. Sometimes Marxists express their views by contrasting “nature” with “history.” Sometimes they use the phrase “existence precedes consciousness.” The point, in either case, is that who a person is, is determined by where and when he is — social context takes precedence over innate behavior; or, in other words, the main feature of human nature is adaptability.

"Human Nature" is often used as a counter argument to Marxism. However, it is not that Marxists entirely reject the concept of human nature, rather they contend that many of the behaviours exhibited by humans in Western capitalist societies - particularly excessive self-interest, and lack of social responsibility - are by no means fixed or innate.

In one sense, this position is as far from Plato as is possible. But in another sense, it comes back around to a Platonizing dualism, except that the beast and the mind aren’t at war within each human body, as Plato suspected — for Marxists, the beast is the past and its burdens, while the mind awaits in the future.

In this spirit, Marx once wrote that all of what we call history would be better seen as pre-history, and that once the abolition of social classes and communism are achieved, only then will the true history of the human race begin.

The Austrian school of economics, in the years around 18711940, developed its own views largely in opposition to Marx, and in opposition to a group of historicist scholars. In the process, they developed a distinctive view of human nature.

In structural terms, their view returned to that of the thinkers mentioned in this survey prior to Hegel. Like Descartes or Kant, these thinkers believed that there exists an invariant human nature, but that progress is possible in history through the more complete understanding of that nature. They conceived of human nature in terms of bounded rationality and of the pursuit of marginal utility, and they believed that the pursuit of this utility in the marketplace would create a condition of spontaneous order that will be more rational than any alternative that might be planned, given the bounded rationality of any possible planners.

During the same period of time, Austria also hosted the development of psychoanalysis. Its founder, Sigmund Freud, believed that the Marxists were right to focus on what he called "the decisive influence which the economic circumstances of men have upon their intellectual, ethical and artistic attitudes." But he thought that the Marxist view of the class struggle was a too shallow one, assigning to recent centuries conflicts that were, rather, primordial. Behind the class struggle, according to Freud, there stands the struggle between father and son, between established clan leader and rebellious challenger. In this spirit, Freud heavily criticized the Soviet Union, writing in 1932 that its leaders had made themselves "inaccessible to doubt, without feeling for the suffering of others if they stand in the way of their intentions."

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