Why We Talk About Human Nature

I entered a Master’s in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada in 2016. I started the same semester as the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. I was drawn toward public policy because I love science, because I have always wanted to better understand how people come to hold political beliefs, and because I thought that bringing my rational science-based mind to public policy would open doors and avenues for me that were desperately needed in the world of public administration and policy. What I learned, and what we have all learned since President Trump took office, is that politics is not about policy, public administration is not about the high minded ideals we say it is about, and rationality is not and cannot be at the heart of public policy. Instead, politics is about identity, public administration is about systems and structures that benefit those we decide to be deserving and punishing those who are deviant. Public policy isn’t rational, its about self-interest and individual and group preferences. And this connects to the title of this post. We talk about human nature, because how we can define, understand, and perceive human nature can help us rationalize why our self-interest is valuable in public policy, why one group should be favored over another, and why one system that rewards some people is preferable over another system that rewards other people.

 

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes, “policy is ultimately about people, what they want and what is best for them. Every policy question involves assumptions about human nature, in particular about the choices that people may make and the consequences of their choices for themselves and society.” The reason why we talk about human nature is because it serves as the foundation upon which all of our social systems and structures are built upon. All of our decisions are based in fundamental assumptions about what we want, what are inherently inclined to do, and how we will behave as individuals and as part of a collective. However, this discussion is complicated because what we consider to be human nature, is subject to bias, to misunderstandings, and motivated reasoning. Politics and public policy are not rational because we all live with narrow understandings of what we want human nature to mean.

 

Personally, I think our conceptions and ideas of human nature are generally too narrow and limiting. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and he makes a substantial effort to show the diversity and seeming randomness in the stories that humans have created over tens of thousands of years, and how humans have lived in incredibly different circumstances, with different beliefs, different cultures, and different lifestyles throughout time. It is a picture of human nature which doesn’t quite make the jump to arguing that there is no human nature, but argues that human nature is a far more broad topic than what we typically focus on. I think Harari is correct, but someone who wants questions to religion to be central to human nature, someone who wants capitalistic competition to be central to human nature, or someone who wants altruism to be a deep facet of human nature might disagree with Harari.

 

Ultimately, we argue over human nature because how we define human nature can influence who is a winner and who is a loser in our society. It can shape who we see as deserving and who we see as deviant. The way we frame human nature can structure the political systems we adopt, the leaders we favor, and the economic systems that will run most of our lives. The discussions about human nature appear to be scientific, but they are often biased and flawed, and in the end what we really care about is our personal self-interest, and in seeing our group advance, even at the expense of others. Politics is not rational, we have all learned in nearly four years of a Donald Trump Presidency, because we have different views of what the people want and what is best for them, and flawed understandings of human nature influence those views and the downstream political decisions that we make.

2 thoughts on “Why We Talk About Human Nature

  1. Joe That is the fundamental question about the homo sapiens, is it nature or nurture? It is difficult to find a human trait that cannot be traced to a culture; those that defy that principle should be and usually are found in our primate cousins. The Andaman Islanders, San of the Kalahari and pre-contact Aborigines of Australia can be used partially as baselines, before agriculture and larger social groupings, balance those against primate studies and you have a comparison, a standard for judging inherent versus acquired characteristics. Regardless of the limitations that is much better and more revealing approach than using recorded history of human societies and/or current human behavior. ken

    1. I would agree with that. I also think (and I suspect Harari would as well) that the Nature versus Nurture debate misses an important point. It is kinda impossible to imagine a human being outside of culture as a “blank slate.” Harari certainly argues that homo sapiens are “sapiens” precisely because of their culture, so the idea of imaging a homo sapiens separate from the influence of culture is meaningless.

      Also, for the quote which inspired the post, the key point is that what we decide human nature to be is not some objective and scientific determination. Very few people (certainly none among political advocates or elected officials) are really thinking about aboriginal Tasmanians when they think about human nature. Their thoughts on human nature are probably shaped more by what is in their self and group interests for human nature to be, rather than in a scientific consideration of human nature. Again, this leads us in a place where the way we think of human nature is mostly unintelligible and meaningless.

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