Conversations on Human Nature

I had another conversation with my uncle today on human nature. One of the points that he makes is that there is no agreement on what human nature is or even that it exists. In the process of working on the site I have found a more educated response on this point referencing several sources. Most recently I have been looking at Elizabeth Hannon and Tim Lewens book titled Why we disagree about Human Nature which was recommended to me by Paul Griffiths of the University of Sidney as well as Maria Kronfeldner’s book What’s Left of Human Nature? , Arguing about Human Nature edited by Eduard Machery and Stephen M. Downes. My uncle also sent me a copy of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Anyway it seems safe to say that what everyone can agree that the concept of human nature is complicated and decidedly non essentialist. In other words everyone agrees that there are physical aspects and behaviors that we see across time and cultures (reference also from the back of Pinker’s book Donald E. Brown’s List of Human Universals). Everyone also agrees that what is human has a very wide range of variation if studied in an inclusive way. Everyone agrees that there are biological/physical realities as well as evolutionary, social, and context based influences, and that these influences interact in complicated ways.

Where are conversation went today and where it has tended to go more recently follows along several points.

We agree that part of human nature is imparted to us at birth. My uncle contends that this aspect of our individual nature remains an unchanging influence on us throughout our lives, and that it can be a very strong influence on our behavior. My point on that is that even if that is true (which I am doubtful because I sense that we do change throughout life sometimes in profound ways) it is probably not the most important determining factor in our behavior at least for the vast majority of people.

Another point of discussion is about “lying, cheating, and stealing”. His question on that is; “Why do we behave in these destructive ways even though most of us would agree that they are bad?” His underlying point here is that there is something bad in our human nature that makes us behave in these ways, something that overcomes our rational knowledge that these are destructive ways of interacting with one another. My response to this is to reference our sponsored project with Dr. Robert Agnew who discusses his General Strain Theory in a lecture that we sponsored at the University of Tampa. Agnew’s point being that certain combinations of innate tendencies combined with various strain from the environment causes predictable criminal outcomes. My understanding of Agnew’s position is that if we address the strain aspect we can affect the final behavior outcome. My point being that even though we have an influence from our inherited traits it is not the most important determiner of our behavior in most cases.

Another point of discussion has to do with exceptions vs the norm or usual behavior that we see. My point is that overall we see compliance with surrounding social structures and that for the most part people do stay within rules, value the truth, and do not steal from others. On a certain level we all break these rules as well, but my point is that if we didn’t follow our social structures on a macro level we would have total anarchy, and it is an overall human tendency to attempt to use social structures to establish some kind of predicable order.

I feel like overall our positions have solidified a little. My uncle advocating that we should all recognize our badness and the fact that it is part of what we inherit at birth, and my position being that yes we have inherited traits but they are not the most important determining factors in our behavior in most cases.

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