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What is Humanity's Essential Nature? That's the Wrong Question

What is humanity’s essential nature? Over the years I’ve read or heard people say that at our core humans are:

• cooperative
• competitive
• greedy & selfish
• generous & kind
• empathic
• violent & brutish
• peaceful & loving
• spiritual

One Quality?

Many people seem to find it important to identify some quality – whether positive or negative – as the true essence of human beings. I find this need to essentialize our nature perplexing. To me it seems quite obvious that humans are all of these things (and more). We are capable of extreme acts of brutality and cruelty and extraordinary acts of altruism and generosity. We are both cooperative and competitive. We live, by and large, peacefully with one another, but we are also violent, as evidenced by murder, rape, and war. We are mimetic but are also capable of thinking for ourselves. We are often superstitious and believe in unfounded things but can be rational and are excellent at reasoning. We can be reactive and impulsive but are also able to harness the qualities of self-discipline, restraint, and self-control.

To essentialize our nature down to one or two qualities usually serves to ground a person or group’s philosophy of life or ideology, whether political, economic, psychological, spiritual, or a combination, and enables them to advocate for specific social, political, or economic systems. If, for example, humans are essentially violent and brutish, we’d better have a strong military and law enforcement. If we are essentially loving and peaceful, we can invest in our better natures and not waste our precious resources on prisons and defense. If we are essentially cooperative and empathic, then indulging our less natural competitive and selfish impulses may steer us off our natural, and healthier, path. If we are essentially competitive and selfish, however, we might as well celebrate our nature and build a society firmly grounded in competition and inequality, and suffering be damned. If we are essentially rational, we can easily thrive in a libertarian society, but if we are essentially greedy, we may need restrictions and perhaps a socialist system to prevent the more successful greedy people from crushing the less successful (but still greedy) people.

Recognizing the Complexity

If instead of latching on to one primary quality and insisting that it represents humanity’s true nature, we recognize the complexity of our nature, and then identify a meaningful principle by which to live that relies upon that complexity for its healthy execution, we might find ourselves more creatively addressing the real challenges we face. The principle I advocate is this: living a life in which we strive to do the most good and the least harm to ourselves, other people, animals, and the environment, through all of our choices — including what we eat, wear and buy; what we do for work and entertainment; and how we participate in society and democracy as citizens, volunteers, and changemakers.

If we adopt such a principle, we won’t need to get mired in what is “natural” or “unnatural” and use these as justifications for our behavior, which can be quite silly. It’s easy, for example, to make an argument that public defecation and fornication are natural, but who would want to advocate this? We tend to be quite selective in our choice of “natural” behaviors to justify and promote, based on our desires, habits, and norms, rather than on any meaningful principle for living. For instance, many people routinely state that meat-eating is natural and that therefore they are justified in eating animals. A small number of people argue just as vociferously that meat-eating isn’t actually natural and point to humans’ lack of fangs, talons, and claws, surmising that we are essentially plant-eaters. Such arguments derail us and keep us from the much more important question. The reality is that humans have evolved as biological omnivores. We can survive on a primarily meat-based diet (as the Inuits do) and on a completely plant-based diet (as millions of vegans do). The question shouldn’t be whether meat-eating is natural or not, but rather, all things considered, what diet does the most good and the least harm? It’s hard to argue that a plant-based diet isn’t the answer to that question, as almost every study of the effects of a meat-based diet on our health, the environment, and animals reveals.

Most Good, Least Harm

Rather than fall prey to essentialist beliefs, let’s instead acknowledge that humans can do great good and great harm, and let’s strive to do more of the former and less of the latter, harnessing our creativity, reasoning, empathy, generosity, integrity, restraint, wisdom, and kindness, and keeping in check our violent, greedy, hateful impulses. Living according to this principle is challenging, complicated, and humbling, but deeply rewarding, meaningful, and ultimately joyful, while bringing about a better world in the process.

Image courtesy of Jan Ramroth via Creative Commons.