One Human Nature?

Prize question: What is more harmful, the assumption that there is one human nature, or the idea that there are many?

History suggests several answers. We can argue that the assumption of human beings as “economic agents” interested only in maximizing their own profit, leads to the current neoliberal system with all its destructive tendencies. But we can also point out that every time a “substantial difference” between ethnic or cultural groups of human beings was posited and supported with dismal pseudoscience involving bone structure or nasal size, this was done to suppress and destroy.

So which one is it?

We’d like to expand our circles of compassion, so distuingishing between different kinds of human beings seems a counterintuitive approach to achieve that goal. We must question though, what exactly is the function of the term “human nature” in our discourse? It most certainly doesn’t refer to our physical appearance. It has something to do with the behaviour we expect from a human being. We call something “typically human” if such expectations are met in a conspicuous way. A child who blushes when he is telling a lie, a man interrupting another gentlemen who is conversing with his wife, a distinguished professor who laughs at his own jokes, and so forth.

What we really mean by human nature, in a Wittgensteinian sense, is not a simple formule on which we can build our political system, like the tradition from Hobbes and Rousseau to Lenin and Milton Friedman has done. The concept of a human nature is kept alive by its constant use and alteration. If we can’t relate it to our concrete behavioral expectations of other humans, the concept inflates and leaves us with a bad taste nihilism (sorry to cut this argument short here).

So, what if we take this live concept of human nature seriously? Then we have greedy bastards, sensitive sharing people, charismatic individuals and their timid followers, cynics, naturally funny characters, diplomats, cowards, fanatics who haven’t cut the umbilical cord to a childhood trauma, and so on. By the time you’re 18, or 16, you have acquired your very own part of “human nature”, of the vital system we use to ground all our expectations and interactions.

But then, all bets are off. Being human would in itself fail to qualify as basis of any entitlement. I could find myself writing horrible things here if I’m trying to draw the consequences out of this sort of lazy relativism. Don’t worry, this is just an essay. I would of course argue that the only rational order is some sort of anarchy, because it’s the only thing that respects the multifariousness of human nature. But that lacking universal rationality, we need power structures (ie hierarchies) of some sort that protect perceived universal human values.

I don’t know how to finish this. So I continue as the impersonator of my baby daughter.

These different people can live in different villages. In our village there would be many people who like to share and to smile and to tell stories to each other. And there are other villages where the people lock their doors and look at each other with something my cynical father calls contempt or envy. And in still other villages the people would choose a few people so they can bully them. I think it is maybe not a very good idea to separate every body in different villages because all the unhappy people can also learn from us and maybe we can learn from them. But my father says “radical” change is very important now because some people are destroying the world and they know it but we can’t do anything about it.

You are right, my dear. “As we all go down / at least we are learning from each other”

Daddy, you are too, what do you call that, cynical. Do you want to move to another village?

No. I’m right here with you. Let us have a little faith.

What faith?

The faith that… let me cover your tender ears… that we can destroy the enemy before they destroy our planet… now that you can hear me again… the faith that our sustainable, loving, caring, way of life – will prevail.


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