Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

13: Theories of Human Nature:
What are we?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         (1) Are we primarily finite corporeal animals OR (semi-) divine immortal incorporeal spirits OR equal parts of both? It is clear that we have bodies and the science of biology classifies humans as animals; it is also commonly believed that we are more than just our bodies: we have a mind, a soul and a spirit all of which are incorporeal and possibly immortal. How do these beliefs affect our well-being?
         (2) In our corporeal part: Are we primarily rational animals OR social animals OR sexual (drive based) animals? We can think abstract thoughts; this fact makes us rational animals. We form communities; this fact makes us social animals. We have drives (for sex, power, self-expression, etc.) and needs (food, clothing and shelter). With which type of animal do we first and/or foremost identify with when we consider what makes us a human animal? What are the ramifications of this belief.
         (3) Considering our 1) rationality 2) sociability 3) mind 4) soul and 5) spirit: is each of these aspects of our human nature of a different KIND OR is each of these aspects of our human nature developed to a different DEGREE compared to other non-human entities?
         1. Many animals exhibit intelligent behavior that is similar to human behavior. For example some apes can use tools; dolphins and bees seem to use language to communicate information; birds and beavers build relatively complex homes.
         Is this behavior evidence of intelligence of a lower degree than human intelligence – that is humans have the same kind of reason as animals but we just have more reason and this explains our higher level of development.
         Alternatively, is this behavior evidence that human intelligence is of a totally different kind than animal intelligence. Is the fact that we can do things that animals cannot do (such as worship, laugh etc.) and have things which animals cannot have (such as religion, art, technology etc.) evidence (not of a more developed but rather) of a different kind of reason?
         2. Many animals exhibit social behavior that is similar to human behavior. For example wolves live in packs; baboons in troops; ants in colonies; whales in pods. Some with a very developed division of labor; some with a very developed hierarchical system of government (pecking order); some exhibit signs of sentimentality, generosity, shame, tenderness jealousy, fear, anger and other human social emotions. Do these behaviors classify as different from similar human behavior in kind or in degree?
         3. It is clear that all animals have a brain and even all cells have a nucleus that controls the organism. Is the brain the same as the mind? Do animals have a mind and if so is it of the same kind (and therefore different only in degree of development to the human mind) or is the animal mind of a different kind to the human mind?
         4. For Plato the soul is the true immortal essence of a being. The soul is caught temporarily in this world and everything we see in the world has a true form or soul. Aristotle claimed that the soul was the “principle of animation” – the property that separated a dead body from a living body. He went on to describe three kinds of soul for three types of living entities: a vegetative soul for plants; a locomotive soul for animals and a rational soul for humans. For Christians one meaning of the soul is the image of God within us. Which concept do you accept or do you have a different definition of the soul? What are the consequences of each belief?
         5. We often speak of the “spirit of the times,” or the “spirit of the law,” or in the case of a sports star “the spirit of the player,” or the “spirit of the bear” (or any other totem animal). We can speak of a “broken spirit” or of being in “sad spirits” or “happy spirits” or in “good spirits.” People are sometimes described as having a “proud spirit” or a “generous spirit.” In philosophy spirit is often used interchangeably with soul; sometimes it means a soul that has left the body (ie ghost). What is your idea of “spirit” and what does it mean to hold such a view?
         How does our relationship to non-human entities (such as: the animals, God, the angels and Nature) change depending on which view of rationality, sociability, mind, soul and spirit one holds?
         (4) Is our individual human nature primarily determined on its own OR is it primarily determined by a universal collective of which we are a part or of which we can partake? Nature versus nurture. Do our genes exert more influence on us or does our environment? If you say nature is more important then there would seem to be little we can do to change ourselves: justice, blame and praise would not seem to make much sense. If, on the other hand environment is more important in determining human nature then we should be able to “reform” or “re-educate” ourselves and others in anyway we can imagine. What are some of the other consequences of choosing one belief as dominant?
         (5) Do we have a fallen/evil nature OR a good nature – that is: are we naturally inclined to do evil OR to do good? Christian teaching usually claims that due to original sin we have a fallen nature and therefore we tend to want to commit evil and immoral acts but that salvation can clean us of this evil nature – what is considered evil then becomes what we are naturally inclined to do. Buddhists and Hindu teachers have stressed that we are all naturally good and want to do what is good – the fact that we act in evil ways is due to ignorance – evil and immorality seem to be the result natural actions at the wrong time and/or place. Which view would be psychologically and socially more healthy?
         (6) Is human nature best described as a constant state; as an “is” OR is human nature better described as an ever changing flow or as a “becoming”? One problem with declaring us as rational animals is that we are not all rational at all times in our life. Fetuses, new born babies, some mentally challenged individuals and some very old people have not yet acquired rationality or have lost it. Are these people human? If not is it possible to draw a satisfactory line. If we declare that a human must have human parents or must have human DNA what about test tube babies or animals and plants that have been grown with some human DNA – what about mutations in the human population. These are some of the problems with static definitions of human nature. If we think of human nature as a flow of life might we solve some of these problems and thereby simplify the problem of identifying who is human?
         (7) Do all people have one human nature OR are some people blessed or cursed with a different human nature – are any people (or person) uniquely different from the majority of people OR is there something that we all possess in all times and places; at all ages; in all genders and in all social and physical conditions that unites us as human? If there is some criterion (or criteria) that defines our human nature we appear to be stuck with the question: where do we draw the lines that separate humans from non-humans. If there is not any such criterion then it would appear that “human nature” is not a category worth discussing and then neither should any of the above questions be considered. Is this really more healthy for individuals and societies?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren