Beliefs about human nature
There are a number of differing beliefs about human nature. Different positions on this subject strongly influence one's position on many issues, especially those involving the nature of ideal governance.
Good vs. Bad
There is significant disagreement about whether human nature is fundamentally good or fundamentally bad (the possibility of a middle ground tends to get lost in the shuffle, but this is presumably also a widely-held opinion).
Relevant scientific information about this aspect of human nature is now becoming more easily available, including:
- The existence of two major types of authoritarian mindset
- The fact that some individuals seem to have a stronger empathetic sense than others, causing them to be more likely to show altruistic behavior [
The classic expression of this dilemma is the "Hobbes vs. Rousseau" debate.
Some tentative definitions:
- Good behavior is behavior which is intended to help the community, regardless of whether it helps the acting individual.
- Bad behavior is that which is destructive of the community, regardless of whether it helps the acting individual.
In both of the above, it is generally the intention which determines the goodness or badness of the behavior, though intention can often be difficult to determine. There is strong evidence that individuals may believe that a set of behavior is in the best interest of the community in spite of clear evidence to the contrary; this is generally known as denial, or "deceiving yourself". Also, when complicated issues arise, individuals may disagree strongly about whether particular actions will help or harm the community. Thus it is not always easy to be sure whether behavior is good or bad. Certain types of behavior are defined as "bad" purely in terms of what actions are taken, usually because such actions can only be interpreted, within reason, as harmful to the community. Such actions are called crime, and result in punishment and perhaps incarceration, depending on the severity of the transgression.
- humans are bad: One belief is that humans are innately evil or at least self-centered, and need strong laws to keep them behaving in a way that is best for the community (keep them from doing bad things out of self-centered motives).
- humans are good: Another belief is that humans basically want to please others and cause good things to happen.
- alternatives: It seems more likely that there is a range of innate human qualities, rather than a pair of polar opposites. Some individual humans do wish to please others, and will go to great lengths to avoid selfish behavior, while others will take any excuse to behave selfishly if they think they can get away with it. Some individuals who behave well under ordinary circumstances will panic and begin acting selfishly under stress, while others will endure extraordinary stress – up to and including death – without lapsing into selfish behavior. Still others appear to be incapable of acting selflessly under any circumstances.
- One compromise position was advanced by English philosopher John Locke (1632.08.29 - 1704.10.28), who believed that people are often selfish but also believed that human nature is characterized by reason and tolerance. The combination of these ideas is sometimes called enlightened self-interest. Locke's ideas were heavily influential on the Enlightenment and on the founding fathers of the United States of America.