Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is our inner nature good?

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

The view that humans have inherent potentialities that are good has a long history. For example, Aristotle argued that humans have inherent potentialities that it is in their nature to develop. He suggests, however, that for most people the virtues remain undeveloped unless they are actively cultivated:

“Now some think that we are made good by nature, others by habituation, others by teaching. Nature's part evidently does not depend on us, but as a result of some divine causes is present in those who are truly fortunate; while argument and teaching, we may suspect, are not powerful with all men, but the soul of the student must first have been cultivated by means of habits for noble joy and noble hatred, like earth which is to nourish the seed” (“Nicomachean Ethics”, Book x: 9).

J.S. Mill made it clear that he didn’t think there was more than a mere germ of good in human nature:

“Allowing everything to be an instinct which anybody has ever asserted to be one, it remains true that nearly every respectable attribute of humanity is the result not of instinct, but of a victory over instinct; and that there is hardly anything valuable in the natural man except capacities - a whole world of possibilities, all of them dependent upon eminently artificial discipline for being realised” (“On Nature”, 1874).

Over a century before, David Hume presented a much more positive view of the relationship between morality and the inner nature of humans:

“Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it”. (“A Treatise of Human Nature”, 1739, III, I, i).

Hume’s view of the matter has received a considerable amount of support in recent years from psychological research (e.g. observing affective reactions to stories involving harmless taboo violations even though people had difficulty defending their moral judgments), neuroscientific evidence of emotional involvement in moral judgments, and studies that suggest that non-human primates and human have some similar moral instincts.

This evidence supports the social intuitionist view of Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund that moral beliefs and motivations come from a small set of intuitions that evolution has prepared the human brain to develop and that these intuitions then enable and constrain the social construction of virtues and values. This means that children have a preparedness to acquire certain kinds of moral knowledge and a resistance to acquiring other kinds (here).

Our instinctive morals don’t necessarily provide us with good guidance about how to behave towards strangers in the modern world because they evolved to protect self, kin and clan rather than to enable us to obtain the benefits of specialization and trade. I have previously suggested, following Hayek’s view, that our instinctive morals often cause people to argue for government intervention that gets in the way of the mutually beneficial exchanges among strangers that are necessary for human flourishing (here).

Nevertheless, Mill went much too far in asserting that nearly every respectable attribute of humanity is the result of victory over instinct. It seems to me that Maslow was much closer to the truth in asserting that the inner nature of humans is good.

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