Are Humans Good ‘by Nature’?

Occasionally, while sailing upon the sea of discourse, you can find the idea of ‘humanity’s natural goodness’. Sometimes people are denying it (and attributing it to their opponents), and other times people are affirming it (and attributing its negation to their opponents).

I noticed today that there are actually two very different, and independent, things that this could mean.

Firstly, it could mean that humans are intrinsically good, however we understand ‘intrinsically’ – such as, perhaps, the idea that insofar as people are freed from a certain class of ‘impositions’ from outside, and can be more fully themselves, they will tend to be better.

Secondly, it could mean that humans are good when in their natural setting – the setting where they arise prior to any artificial intervention. This might mean their infancy, the state they emerge into as children, or it might mean the hunter-gatherer setting in which humans spent their vast prehistory.

To see that these two are dependent, consider that one could hold the first but not the second, or the second but not the first.

We could hold the first but not the second if we said that humans are usually bad when they are unhappy, frightened, and resentful, and good when they are happy, confident, and secure. We could then suggest that in their natural environment, people are likely to be unhappy, frightened, and resentful because of scarcity, danger, ignorance, or conflict. The full expression of ‘human nature’ would then require a certain sort of ‘triumph over nature’ to do away with scarcity and ignorance.

(this is, I believe, Marx’s position, or something like it)

We could hold the second but not the first if we said that humans tend to be corrupted when given power, leisure, knowledge or opportunities, but that their natural environment serves to deprive them of these things, and hence keep them simple, virtuous and straightforward. This might be a fortunate accident, or an act of wisdom by God. The virtue of ‘nature’ is then precisely that it keeps ‘human nature’ in check.

(this is, I believe, Rousseau’s position, or something like it)

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