Human nature exists, and we cannot deal with life in a sensible way without accepting that. So the question we face is how to overcome an outlook that categorically rejects the very concept and is deeply rooted in the way the people who dominate our political life understand the world…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join James Kalb as he explores the essence of human nature and how either accepting or rejecting this essence influences political discourse. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
The Left does not like the idea of human nature. It tells them they are not free to do what they want. From a factual perspective, it tells them people do not change much, so the way things were in the past is mostly how they will be in the future. From a moral perspective, it suggests a standard for what is good other than satisfying desire, since it tells people to act in a way that fulfills their nature, or at least is suited to it.
The Left does not like any of that and they have been very successful turning their dislike into accepted dogma. The result is that if you talk about human nature today you are not going to get anywhere. People will say you are stereotyping, you are denying Hope and Change, and you are presenting existing power relations as natural and unchangeable. You will have to prove every detail of every claim and the standard of proof will be infinitely high. Also, none of your arguments will stick—next time the matter comes up, you will have to go through every issue all over again at the same level of detail.
All of which seems odd. On the face of it, every living thing has a nature of some kind. It has characteristic ways of acting, conditions it tries to bring about, and conditions that help it thrive. Why would that not be true of human beings? Is accepting human nature not basic to good sense in dealing with people? If the point looks obvious, why is it not generally accepted, or at least generally acceptable as something to consider?
As it is, people dismiss it without discussion. The result is that claims like “gender is a social construction” get taken seriously and, in fact, are basically treated as true. There are Midwestern public schools that tell teachers they should not use expressions like “boy” and “girl” because they are gendered. That is the new normal.
General acceptance of insane views can cause problems, so it is worth asking how we have ended up in this situation. The cause, I believe, is a tendency in modern ways of thinking to try to do too much with too little. The result is that people end up becoming irrational in the name of reason.
The Left is said to be progressive. That means that they apply modern thought to social affairs more single-mindedly than other people. That gives them a big rhetorical advantage. If you oppose them you are opposing the general movement of thought and once the modern world is thoroughly established, and everyone who matters has been subjected to mass higher education, you are opposing what everyone’s been trained to view as reason.
The modern thought I am talking about, which I think is the main tendency if you cut through a lot of fluff that ends up canceling itself out, tries to make knowledge rigorous and useful by concentrating on exact observation and immediate causal mechanism. It tries to use that knowledge to remake the world in accordance with whatever it is we want. That is what technology is about and it is what the functional part of the Left is about.
That general approach has been extremely effective in some settings. Obvious examples include modern natural science, modern industry, modern medicine, and modern warfare. So, everyone agrees that it works and makes sense.
There is not the same agreement as to other types of thought; for example philosophical thought of various kinds, religious thought, poetic thought, or thought based on tradition or informal good sense. The result is that reason has become identified with scientific thought, or at least what passes as such. Reason has to be common to all and the only kind of thought all accept is the kind associated with modern science, so that is what reason is understood to be.
That is a problem because people need answers to ultimate questions. That is a rational as well as emotional need. Part of what it is to be a rational actor is to act in accordance with a rational understanding of the situation you are in, and what makes most sense to do in that situation. If reason is modern scientific thought, and we want to be rational actors, then modern scientific thought has to give us that kind of understanding. It has to give us usable answers to questions about what actions, and therefore what goals, ultimately make sense. In other words, it has to tell us what the good is as well as how to bring it about.
The problem, of course, is that it cannot. Modern scientific thought is powerful because it limits itself. It does not claim to know everything and it will not give us an answer just because we need one. We do need to know what the good is, what the most reasonable goal of action is. “I feel like doing this” is enough for some people in some situations but it is not enough for everyone always. In particular, it is not enough in politics. Government has to be able to tell people that its demands are reasonable in a sense that is strong enough to justify compulsion and sacrifice, which is a very strong sense. With that in mind, it is not enough for government to say, “we are doing this because the guys running things feel like doing it.” In the end there has to be a believable argument why they should feel that way and why everyone else should too.
Modern progressive people need answers and they do not have a good way to get them, so they extract them any way they can from something that looks as much as possible like scientific thought.
For example, they make preferences, which are observable, substitute for the good. Instead of talking about what is good, they talk about satisfying preferences. That is what liberation means: People get what they choose. They make equality substitute for justice: All preferences are equally preferences, so they all have an equal claim to satisfaction. Put the two together and you get the progressive definition of the good society: It is the society that brings about maximum equal preference satisfaction.
They get very moralistic on the point. If you do not like their definition of the good society you are malicious, bigoted, greedy, and oppressive. They need the moralism because they do not have a reason why people should give up personal advantage for the sake of something else. They have a reason why the system in general should favor equality, but not why any of us should make the goals of the system our own. So they have to substitute abuse for reason.
The progressive definition of the good society has some important implications. It means you have to stop accepting general patterns, such as human nature, as a way of dealing with life. If satisfying preferences is the goal, going with the patterns that happen to exist is not the way to get there. If anything, those patterns get in the way of your freedom to get whatever it is you happen to want, so the progressive view is that you should suppress them or make them irrelevant.
That attitude is very much in line with modern technology. A traditional art or craft accepts the nature of its materials with all their special quirks and works with them. Modern technology would rather break down situations into their simplest components and apply a set routine that works equally well everywhere and gets you whatever goal you have specified. Traditional farming, medicine, and cooking, for example, took various aspects of living forms and their tendencies as a given and worked with them. Agribusiness, Big Pharma, and the food industry take a very different approach. The difference has a lot in common with the difference between politics as traditionally practiced and modern progressive politics. The latter is technocratic, so that its goals are defined abstractly by preference rigorously, rather than intuitively and with the aid of tradition and good sense.
Some of the odd features of political and social life today show how these general principles play out. People have traditionally believed in human nature. They have believed, for example, that men and women exist by nature, and mutual attraction and complementary qualities naturally lead them to come together, to have offspring, and form families. Both points, of course, are now denied. They have also thought that people are naturally social, and families are incomplete by themselves, so families come together to form larger communities.
When people began thinking about things somewhat philosophically, they noticed that man is rational, which means that he uses reason and general concepts to understand the world. An important part of that is understanding himself and what he does. For that reason, he has to have a conception of what he is—he is a man, a father, a husband, a citizen—that is somehow rooted in the nature of things, and his actions have to align with that conception. Otherwise, he will not be satisfied with his life—it will not seem well founded and it will not seem to make sense as part of the general scheme of things. That is the source of the idea that human nature is a guide for life, so that our natural goal is to live in a way that realizes our good as beings of a certain kind.
If you accept that way of thinking, a lot of modern perplexities disappear. You can still debate the exact role of government, the details of masculinity and femininity, and the extent of family and paternal authority, but it does not make sense to claim that there is something radically problematic about all those things, that we should look at them as chains we have to break for the sake of the unconditioned freedom that constitutes human dignity.
The kind of modern thought I am talking about, which tends toward the technological, of course tells us something different. It tells us that man is a mechanical system that responds to stimuli. He forms preferences revealed in his actions, but those preferences are whatever they happen to be and do not have any relation to a nonexistent human essence or nature that tells us what to do because we are somehow supposed to fit into it.
Progressive politics is the application of this latter outlook to the organization of society. It proposes a system that maximizes equal fulfillment of preferences, consistent with coherence, efficiency, and stability. That means, to pick a current example, that physical sex differences and the biology of human reproduction, imply nothing about what anyone should do except in the narrowest practical sense; for example, whether someone might need a pregnancy test. Apart from that kind of situation, natural functions and differences are just raw material to be dealt with and reconfigured in accordance with whatever individual preferences happen to be.
So people should be free to set up their sex lives however they want, and if they want to include something sex-related in their self-understanding, they should be free to do so as they wish. It is free to be you and me and if two men say they are married, they are married, and if Bradley Manning says he is a woman, he is a woman, and he has the same right anyone has to have his self-understanding accepted as valid. There is nothing natural or unnatural about it, it is all just something constructed.
All of this is becoming harder and harder to argue against in mainstream public life and the ratchet only turns one-way. Rejecting the trend is even considered a kind of violence since it leads to a social environment at odds with Chelsea Manning’s new identity, and therefore constitutes an existential threat to her ability to exist as herself. In effect, it is a willful attempt to destroy what she is. In the interests of justice, tolerance, safety, and the conflict-free efficiency of the system as a whole, those who commit such acts, even if they claim their aggressions are “just words,” need to be muted and re-educated.
Nonetheless, it is obvious that the current situation is insane. Human nature exists, as we noted at the beginning, and we cannot deal with life in a sensible way without accepting that. So the question we face is how to overcome an outlook that categorically rejects the very concept and is deeply rooted in the way the people who dominate our political life understand the world.
These are very deep waters and there is not time to discuss the entire problem, but it seems to me there are two general approaches we might take to the situation. One sticks as closely as possible to the modern scientific outlook as the best overall guide to human life, so it treats human nature as fact but not principle; that is, it recognizes that human beings have natural tendencies that shape and limit what is possible for them, but does not let that fact tell us what we should do about those tendencies.
It seems to me that approach is insufficient because it does not change the Leftist goal. We still have the line of thought that tells you that the good society is a social machine that maximizes equal preference satisfaction in a stable and reliable way. What changes is that you have discovered that more radical measures will be needed to achieve that society. So you get a sort of Leftist version of human bio-diversity, whose natural outcome is left-wing transhumanism, in effect the creation of New Soviet Man through bio-engineering and total environmental control as the highest social goal. In other words, you get inhuman ideological tyranny taken to a whole new level.
The other way is to accept human nature as a principle, so that fulfilling our nature is understood as a fundamental guide to life. But that means accepting that nature is good and we can trust its guidance. You can find that view in Christianity and also in various classical views such as stoicism; you can also find it in the non-Western world, for example in Confucius and Mencius. You are not going to get it out of the modern scientific understanding of the world if you take that understanding as the ultimate explanation of what is real, rather than a partial explanation that results from accepting certain limits on the type of inquiry you will pursue.
To summarize, it seems that the problem people have with human nature today has to do with the current view of nature as pure blind fact. That view makes it morally impossible to treat nature as a substantive guide for how to live. The result, unless we ignore the facts and say human beings do not have a nature, is a choice between a technological approach leading to Left-wing transhumanism and a humanist approach based on a religious or philosophical outlook that sees moral principle as implicit in nature. The practical question, if you take the latter approach, is what outlook of that kind best fits the world we live in and how such an outlook can be embodied in a stable tradition sufficient to motivate the life of a society.
But those are big issues we are not going to resolve today.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2015. This essay was originally given as a talk at the 2014 conference of The H. L. Mencken Club and is republished here with permission of the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.