Random Thoughts Indexed

Human Nature
Part One - Part Two - Part Three

If I am to enquire into human nature, it seems to me that the best place to start is with the potentially clearest example to which I have access - myself.

What I have decided, and of course you are welcome to agree or disagree (but either way, do it with thought and rational argument, not with dogmatic repulsion to my concepts!), is that of any kind of traits which may be ascribed to human nature, there are present in all of us, to slightly varying degrees, both the trait and its "opposite."

(I think this may be one of the failures of Western thought in approaching this question: the tendency to analyse usually produces two opposed ideas, and we try to pick between them, when the truth can lie somewhere in between - or at both extremes!)

Now remember, in each of us there is a complex structure of socialising restrictions on behaviour and even thought. This structure enables our cultures to exist, permits us to live with each other and gain by our association. It is what lies below this rather thick veneer of personality, civilisation, and psychology that I am attempting to get to.

The polar conditions which are so tempting to take, for which I will use the example of Good and Evil, are purely human constructs, partly used to socialise those around us (we vilify what we call Evil, and at the same time try to avoid being vilified so that we might fully enjoy the benefits of community with others), and partly to describe individuals who seems to exemplify the extremes more than most of us.

Good and Evil are simply chosen descriptions of certain sets of behaviour - ones which we are all capable of under circumstances which make them seem appropriate or permissible.

An example of this permission would be the positively bloodthirsty response of many people to capital punishment. It is a situation in which they are permitted to feel moral and "Good," all the while condoning the first degree murder, by the state acting on their behalf, of an unlucky one of their number. None of these people would think of themselves as killers, since they have had their animal urges too deeply repressed in order to be able to get along with each other to admit to that. And yet, here they are permitting, condoning, arguing for, and perhaps even feeling good about... killing.

By the same token even a coarse, savage person with little on their resume to recommend them to sainthood will display soft and gentle sentiments, kindnesses, and generosity, at times when it is possible or permitted by their situation and their conditioning.

So those who would argue that humans are "fundamentally Good" or "fundamentally Evil" are both right! Good and Evil are simply extremes carved out of the range of natural human behaviour, with no real meaning outside of situational circumstances.

Deep down we are all brutal, monstrous savages, capable of sublime insight and love. We are also sublime, gentle, loving creatures capable of savage, brutal monstrosity. All it takes to reverse this descriptions is a slight change in circumstances.

We are just another animal, killing and being killed in order to survive... but our complex social structures have proved far more useful to us individually over the hundreds of generations, and our ability to learn patterns of behaviour which contradict our nature is partly what keeps us alive and reproducing.

Human Nature
Part One - Part Two - Part Three

8/19/01

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© Huw Powell
humanthoughts.org

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