The Quest for Flourishing: Nature or Nurture?

human nature

This is another long and complicated blog post, but gets closer to closing the loop in my overall story of the centrality of flourishing to the good life and the reasons why it is so difficult to come by in today’s world. David Brooks, my favorite source of blog topics, wrote a good piece in the NYTimes today (July 8, 2016) contrasting two basic human dispositions: selfishness and empathy/altruism. The final paragraph tells most of the story of the column.

By assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind. Maybe it’s time to upend classical economics and political science. Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.

I fully agree with the gist of his article, but I think he fails to dig deep enough to understand the causes of the behavior he criticizes. I believe the contrasting modes of behavior are due to the tension between nature and nurture. Selfishness is a modern idea about human nature, often attributed to Adam Smith’s view of economic “man.” Brooks notes,

Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Machiavelli and Hobbes gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. Sigmund Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness. Children, he wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”

I have often written that Smith and those that followed his line of thinking were wrong. Human behavior is today, indeed, frequently, perhaps, largely, driven by selfish motivations, but not as a result of some inherent nature. This is a very critical distinction because, if it is our nature to be selfish above all other motivating forces, the visions of progress toward some concept of perfection are doomed to remain only as pretty pictures in our minds.

The opposite disposition Brooks poses is altruism. The motivating force is turned on its tail, in this case, aimed at the target of the action, not at the actor. This is a very important mode and is absolutely necessary if one thinks of civilization as some collection of interconnected human beings, as it is in reality. Later, as the above paragraph indicates, Brooks equates altruism with some disposition related to a sort of moral behavior: “a longing to do good.” Again he mixes up nature and nurture. Morality is a human invention, designed to control behavior, but rests on a particular model of human nature.

If humans had some sort of moral code built into their nature instead of the selfish genes of Richard Dawkins, goodness would abound in the world more or less automatically.1 We would observe actions that would be predominantly motivated by altruism. How would we know? The results themselves would indicate the direction of intentions and the reasons given would be consistent with that. One of the widely accepted qualities of social life in the United States today is individualism, a disposition that overlays selfishness. This, too, is manifest in the direction of intentions and the reasons given for associated actions,

Brooks apposes selfishness, as human nature, with a moral disposition to do good, writing, “To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens [nature] or the moral lens [nurture].” (my additions in brackets) Unfortunately this pairing creates a struggle where the latter is over-matched by the former. Given enough time, nature will rule over some sort of culturally based disposition (nurture). As I explain below, this outcome always arises because prevailing institutions begin with a singular belief that gets more strongly embedded over time. Moral strictures are always only human creations based on another human creation: the concept of goodness. Against a long history of belief in “the good” as being a natural phenomenon, today few believe it can be found in nature or be derived from natural laws. Religious views of the “good” still abound, views that would argue that a god included goodness in creating human nature. I do not accept this latter view.

What Brooks misses is that what he refers to as altruism may indeed be closer to what constitutes human nature than is selfishness. As I have written extensively, I believe that human nature, as a basic way of behavior, is caring. Caring is a way of acting interactively with objects encountered in the world such that the actions are motivated by the objects; they do nor arise out of some purely internal (selfish) origin. Human consciousness has a fundamental intentionality to it, defined as always being about some perceptual thing made distinct to the observer. I am always only conscious of some thing, including awareness of my own body. I do not have space to elaborate on this here, but argue that this basic feature of the human species ends up with actions that fit the notions of care, more than that of selfishness.

Brooks gives several examples of caring (what he calls altruistic behavior). Babies can act quicker to aid others that do adults, for example. This would indicate that, before they are socialized into acting on a basis of institutionalized rules, human are naturally caring in social situations. Other actions at that stage are emotionally driven by evolutionary formed parts of the brain. Babies act before they have developed language skills beyond more than a rudimentary level. Ther cannot, at that stage, create stories about the world that will later serve as the source of their behavior.

This explanation is based on the work of current cognitive science, particularly that of Antonio Damasio. Damasio claims that the way the brain works can be described in terms of three selves, associated with three different areas of the brain.2 The first is the proto-self, the basis for action related to evolution and to consequent basic emotions. It is the place that hunger and fright could be said to reside. The proto-self acts in modes inherent in the brain structure as genetically shaped. The second of the selves, the core self, is also largely of (more recent) evolutionary origin and entails that part of the cognitive system that runs the machinery of the body and maintains it in a homeostatic condition. That self, of which we are not generally aware, works to keep the body viable whenever the internal and external environment changes.

The third and most important self that is relevant to this article is the autobiographical self. This self corresponds to the processes taking place in the largest parts of the brain, which processes arise out of the embedded memories of life’s experiences. This self is largely the product of nurture, as compared to nature, which is the source of the other two selves. This is the self that is conscious, has intentions, can give reasons, can be characterized as having dispositions to act in certain ways more than in others. It may help to use the metaphor of story as the source of actions manifest by this self, the one we can observe in everyday situations.

The baby has no such story to act upon. Babies lack both the experience and the language on which to write their story in their memories. As they develop and enter into the social world and begin to acquire language, they begin to write their own, unique stories, that is, create memory traces corresponding to the events. Learning, the act of inscribing of the stories, comes from doing, that is, life experience. We know that humans left in the care of primate “parents” do not develop in the same way as those in human social milieus; they become “wild” children. To the extent that the stories include deontic ethical rules, that is, rules about, duties, rights, and similar oughts or obligations, the rules will have come from translations of experience into fixed memory patterns. If life is lived within institutions with associated deontic powers that are based on selfishness, that is, one ought to act out of one’s desires, wants, or any similar manifestation of inwardly directed intentions, then, over time, the resultant human actor will be seen as having a selfish nature.

That would be a mistake, a very bad mistake for the world because the set of selfish-based institutions that shape human behavior would be continually reinforced and more deeply embedded. And that is exactly where we are today. The world is being threatened by the consequences of an error in judgment: mistaking the distinctive selfishness of modern, capitalistic life as nature when, in fact, it is nurture. Capitalistic political societies grew out of the selfishness belief, and, as the institutions of capitalism grew, that belief became further embedded as true.

I owe the concept of deontic power to John Searle, the American philosopher, who has written extensively on the nature of language, its connection to the human mind, and its role in creating human social institutions.3 The latter are the myriads of sets of rules that create the social structures within which we live everyday, and, which lie outside of our immediate consciousness. He includes institutional things like “money” or “private property” or “marriage” or “baseball”, created and empowered by the collective intention of society at some point in history, and endowed with a set of what he calls deontic powers, that is, a set of rules laying out specific duties, obligations, rights, etc. attached to the new institution.

Private property, a relatively recent invention, epitomizes the background power of the model of selfishness. The deontic power of private property can be expressed in a simple rule: I can (ought to be able to) use what I own in anyway I want without anyone restricting that right. Searle points out that every right by someone creates obligations in everyone else. Private property also means that others have an obligation not to interfere with its use.

So now I have set the stage to get back to David Brooks. He bemoans the absence of “institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.” So do I, but I would make say this in stronger terms. We need to re-create institutions based on our true human nature of caring, a nature that has become swamped by the embedding of a misbelief in selfishness in virtually all the important institutions of modernity. It is more than a longing or a disposition. What ever longings we have come out of moments when our true nature breaks through the barriers created by modernity and shows up in our consciousness.

Institutions are only human creations. They have no reality other than that we have endowed them with by language. They are born only through human linguistic Declarations (a particular form of speech act, explained in the Searle book I cite.). New institutions with different deontic powers, consistent with a flourishing vision of the world, can be created if enough of us say so.

The place to start is with the foundational institution of all, beliefs. Beliefs are statements about truths about how the world works. We need them if we are to live harmoniously in the world. If we went about life believing that gravity acted to push objects apart, we would forever be trying to construct a built world that couldn’t possibly work. In the broad social world, we hold statements about the natural world as true in modern times if they have been created by science. Science is just another example of an institution, but with the particular deontic power that the claims made through science ought to be accepted as valid truths about the world. The creation of this institution has benefitted humanity immensely, but can and has also created some false impressions about the nature of things, that is, the true way things are.

Human nature is one of these errors. We do not know that humans are selfish in the same way we know that gravity is an attractive force. We have taken it for granted in constructing the institutions of modernity, but now are beginning to see the error of our ways. The response to this mistake is very simple in concept, but not in practice. Stop making it. Acknowledge that the belief that humans are naturally selfish is wrong. It is a belief arising out of nurture, that is observations of human behavior conditioned by the deontic power of institutions based on that model, a destructive tautology.

Start with what I believe is the nature of human Being: caring, arising out of our unique powers of language and intentionality. (Read the Searle book I cite for the basis of this claim.) Heidegger got a similar place, declaring caring to be the foundation of human existence, through his philosophizing, even in the absence of the biological knowledge available today. Caring is much more than the “longing” Brooks writes about. My longing is for a flourishing world where all life can achieve its biological potential, and humans, in addition, their special cultural potential, based on being able to live according to their caring nature. To get there, we must voice that belief in everything we do in constructing both our material artifacts and also our social facts and institutions that exist only through languaging them. That’s only the beginning; we also must start to replace the existing artifacts and institution based on the old concept of human nature. That’s the hard part because we have come to believe that that they are generally the right ones to have and cannot see how to live without them.

  1. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Damasio, A. (2010) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon
  3. Searle, J. (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.