The humanities - the area of knowledge studying the life of human beings and their societies - would, one would imagine, know the nature of what it is studying. It would concern itself with understanding before anything else the nature of human beings and drawing from that nature guiding principles for human society at large. In fact, there has been a strong movement in the humanities (called anti-essentialism) which claims that there is no essential human nature. We are not essentially anything. There is no stable nature to be known about us. Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus' idea that "everything is flux" applies equally to human beings. And with no universal human nature, there can be no universal norms of moral conduct. Is this true?
The importance of this philosophic debate for libertarianism should be clear. Libertarian political philosophy is based around the notion of natural rights. For classic liberal thinkers such as John Locke and the American Founding Fathers as well as modern libertarian thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard these rights are given their factual basis by grounding them in the nature of human beings. The best derivation of natural rights was that given by Rand who wrote that humans are individual beings whose survival requires the freedom to think and act. Rights are moral concepts that recognise this human nature and protect that freedom in human society.
But what if there is no human nature from whence to derive rights? What if the individual is just a social construction? What if the use of reason is our tool of survival simply because we have made it so? This 'nature' to which we refer when defending individual rights is clearly undercut if the notion of a human nature is in fact meaningless. Rights can no longer be said to be 'natural' and would be arbitrary constructs - and society, having created them, could take them away.
That there is no universal human nature is precisely what anti-essentialists argue. And so too are they aware of the consequences for morality and politics. Anti-essentialism often forms the base for doctrines of moral and cultural relativism, doctrines holding that there is nothing in human nature that makes protection of individual rights a necessary social condition. Often it is thought that human beings are limitlessly malleable and that any kind of society, whether the totalitarian dictatorships of North Korea and Cuba or the liberal societies of the West are thus all equally valid.
Why do they argue this? And what is wrong with their argument?
The idea that there is an essential human nature has certainly lost its popularity. The Aristotelian view that human nature is definite and specific, that it is some 'essence' apparent in every one of us, has lost its hold. That has probably had more to do with the dominance of the nominalist theory of universals than any other factor. Aristotelian realism, which preceded the dominance of nominalism, claimed that essences exist within entities themselves. Nominalists, however, such as Wittgenstein, have instead argued that the idea of an 'essence' is meaningless, that when we form a concept we do so simply by noticing vague resemblances, rather than any universal essence embodied in every concrete the concept subsumes. We obviously can't perceive these essences directly, the nominalist argues, so the concepts we form must be arbitrary and thus ultimately we can never speak of, among other things, an essential human nature.
To defend any conception of an essential human nature then we need to defend abstractions. We need to show that they are not subjective constructs but that they are mental grasps of actualities that exist in the world. If Aristotelians believed that abstractions refer to essences that exist in objects, like little flags enabling us to identify which concretes are subsumed by which concepts, and if the nominalists, unable to find those flags, concluded that abstractions are subjective and arbitrary, then we need to re-think what we say about concepts if we are to defend a universal human nature.
Everything that exists in the world possesses some 'nature,' some 'identity.' To be is to be something. The idea of something that exists but is not actually something is unintelligible. Everything has a nature. This applies to humans as much as to anything else. But what this nature is doesn't just reveal itself to us. We need to put in some mental effort in order to discover it. We have to form concepts. 'Human nature' is itself an abstraction, a concept. A defence of an objective human nature therefore also depends on a defence of concepts - of an explanation of the objectivity of our conceptual knowledge.
The Objectivist defence of concepts is outlined in Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Crudely put, one way to avoid the pitfalls of both the realist and the nominalist positions is to do what the Objectivist theory does - that is, deny that concepts exist either "out there in the world, independent of us" or that they exist "merely within our own heads" as subjective constructs without any referents in the world around us. Rather, we can say that concepts are products of a relation between subject and object. What exist independently of us are concretes. But concepts are our means of classifying such concretes. We perform such classification by perceptually identifying similarities among various concretes, noticing that certain entities share the same characteristics, but to a different measurement or to a greater or lesser degree. The process of abstraction allows us to mentally isolate (i.e. abstract) those characteristics from their particular measurements, and retain a kind of mental entity - a mental grasp of the characteristics with their measurements omitted. This is the concept.
The process is not an arbitrary one. We have to retain a focus on the very real concretes that exist. But neither do concepts exist in the concretes themselves. Concepts are the human subject's method of classifying real concretes (the object) on the basis of real, observable similarities.
This is a mere outline of the Objectivist theory of concepts. But on the basis of the above, we can say that our concepts refer to something real. We can say that the concept of a 'human nature' means something. It's not just an arbitrary groupings of resemblances we ourselves have found it convenient to patch together.
Human nature exists. There may be many differences among human beings across cultures and throughout history. But so are there similarities. When we form the concept of 'human nature' we abstract away the differences and retain the similarities. What we have is a concept that is universal - that subsumes all humans in all places and all times. It does not deny that there will be vast differences. It assumes that there are. But it focuses on the similarities and allows us to identify truths about human nature that are universally applicable to all the referents of the concept.
Notice too that those who argue that human beings are too different for there to be a universal human nature are in fact presupposing one. When they refer to human beings in their attempt to deny a human nature they are doing so on the assumption that there exist some truths about human beings for them to base their argument on. They have observed human difference, after all. But how did they observe these human beings amongst whom there is so much difference unless they have first observed that there exists a class of beings with a certain nature distinct from lions, monkeys and snakes for example?
Because everything in the world is something, and because our concepts designate these natures, it is my argument that no one can avoid assuming some kind of human nature. As Laszlo Versenyi writes: "Barring all knowledge of human nature - that which makes man a man - the word man would mean nothing and we could not even conceive of man as a definite being distinguishable from all other beings ? [A]nything we might say about man would be necessarily meaningless, including the statement that human nature as such is unknowable to man."1
On such a view even anti-essentialists rely on some conception of human nature. For even the anti-essentialist Marxist who argues that human nature is essentially nothing but that humans are determined by the material modes of any historical epoch is assuming that humans are something. They are beings such that they are determined by material forces as opposed to beings that are not. They are something. They have this nature rather than some other nature. And though their thoughts, feelings and behaviours will change depending on historical context, they are nevertheless essentially beings whose nature allows history to write on it.2 (Of course, this conception of human beings as solely products of material forces is false, but that is beside point.)
Ultimately, the fact that no theorising about human beings can proceed without at least an implicit idea of a human nature is testament to the fact that, as Ayn Rand pointed out, nobody has any choice about the fact that they need a philosophy. Rand wrote that philosophy was inescapable. Everybody has one in some form. And so too does everyone have a particular kind of philosophy - a philosophy of human nature. The consequences of bad philosophy for our political life become crystal clear. If we start organising our society on the assumption that human beings are mere parts in a social whole greater than themselves, parts with no individual identity, then the result is going to be the kind of collectivist societies that remain present throughout the world. But because that view is false, only disaster, destruction and death can result - and far too much of it has resulted already because of people getting this one wrong. It behoves us, therefore, to get our thinking about human nature right.Discuss this article
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