At the heart of every philosophy is a set of assumptions or conclusions on the nature of human beings and what guides their thoughts and behaviors. It is perhaps too simplistic to dichotomize views on human nature, but as part of my own general view on humanity I understand that we understand our world through categorization, so on some level lines must be drawn, even on things which may not have a clear delineation of one position to the next.
Typically, discussions of human nature revolve around whether we are “good” or “bad” by nature; that we are an inherently moral race is posited by both of these positions. In one (what I would call a humanist position), humans are a beneficent race, perverted by unfortunate situations, and in the other (a position held by many of the inheritors of the Abrahamic tradition) humans are depraved, able to move beyond their sinful nature only through a powerful moral will or the assistance of God. However, when applying these to the task of organizing human action, either through government or markets, we find them lacking, especially since the proponents of each of these simplifications tend to be lumped into political organizations with the opposite application thereof. Humanists, who believe in a fundamentally “good” man (you may, as I have, heard again and again of having “faith” in humanity), tend to be concentrated in socialist-leaning political parties (the American Democrat party, for instance) which use their political power to restrict man, disallowing him to be free and good. Religious types, who believe in a fundamentally “bad” humanity tend to be concentrated in liberal-leaning political parties (the American Republican party), which allow man to be freely bad.
A dichotomy that I find more appealing in this application is explored in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, a thorough categorization and application of political philosophy into two “visions”: the constrained and the unconstrained. In the constrained vision, also referred to by humanities scholars and political philosophers Bruce Thornton and Victor Davis Hanson as man’s “tragic” nature, humans nature is fundamentally flawed, but is also unchanging, so whatever progress man may make technologically or economically, he still remains with the same moral limitations. The constrained man is not necessarily “good” or “bad,” but is essentially incapable of doing good for the human race directly. He is too limited in his moral capabilities, too limited in his understanding of others, and too limited in his skill set to hope to organize or guide the entire race; he must instead be content to guide himself and care for the limited number of people in his life. Likewise when looking at government, the constrained vision recognizes that no policy or government action, since these are essentially human actions, cannot be perfect or perfectible, and so the best any human can hope to create is a prudent trade-off. That, despite whatever he may intend, every action has negative unintended consequences. Those who believe in a tragic world view are skeptical of those in power, understanding that because of man’s limitations he is incapable of making perfect decisions and granting him power over others will only reveal these flaws on a larger scale.
The unconstrained vision does not concede that man’s nature is either flawed or fixed, but that man is capable of evolving morally and is in fact doing so, and also that at some point in the future man’s moral shortcomings will be either severely reduced or eliminated. The unconstrained man, when he is fully rational and reasoning, is fundamentally “good,” and is also likewise capable of doing good directly, either as an individual or through the use of government. The flaws perceived in men are also viewed as the result of a lack of reasoning, education, or rationality, and that so long as man has been educated so as to be fully rational, he will always choose what is morally good. The unconstrained man is also moving forward, improving the state of his countrymen, or perhaps the whole race. He is not content to look upon poverty, disease, and war as inevitable results of man’s flawed nature; instead, he seeks to correct these flaws, hoping for a time in the future of equality and peace. So, when looking at government, the unconstrained man sees a tool for alleviating the flaws he sees, and each policy that takes a step toward fixing the world is viewed as righteous; unintended consequences are not relevant to a decision that is fundamentally the moral choice in his mind. Inevitably some people will be hurt along the way, but those sacrifices are justified in context of what the collective as a whole will be able to achieve. He rejects the age-old saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” knowing that good intentions and sincerity to the cause are indispensable prerequisites to forging effective policy.
Given these two extremes, we see that those who view mankind as “bad” fit more into the category of the constrained vision, and likewise those who view humanity as “good” fit in the other. The American parities are not perfect expressions of either of these, but when creating a philosophical base for yourself, starting with the assumptions revolving around the nature of human existence is a great place to start. Those who know me best know that I have a very tragic view of man, informed by my practical experience and observations as well as by my religious beliefs. Perhaps in the future I will do some direct application of these to specific issues, showing how my vision of man leads me to my particular conclusions. Until then, question for yourself the nature of our being.