Does Human Nature Explain Violence?
Filed Under: Lifestyle, Opinion | Posted: 02/15/2009 at 3:11PM
Comments | Region: Pakistan
Many philosophers have attributed the origin of violence to human nature, however, before indulging in the philosophical debate about the origins of violence it is pertinent to describe the terms first. Human Nature is described as the “The sum of qualities and traits shared by all humans” by the American Heritage Dictionary. For the sake of our discussion human nature will encompass everything that is natural and does not depend on manmade restrictions, which includes psychology, biology and physiology. It is much more troublesome to define violence, it can be described as the “an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power” or the “abuse or injury to meaning, content, or intent”. However, the important aspect is that violence does not only mean physical harm but also includes mental harm. After the rupture of modernity, nature was held to be a clean state and could no longer be held as a logical ground for explanation. The fact that nature in itself does not say anything and you could perceive it as anything means that the use of nature cannot be logically proven. Human nature is part of nature at large. The fact that many renowned philosophers have interpreted human nature in different ways like Hobbes and Rousseau presenting completely opposites pictures of human nature means that in itself human nature does not say anything. There is no concrete biological, historical or psychological link in between violence and human nature. Human nature can help in acting as an instrument to carry out violence but in itself human nature does not determine violence hence it cannot explain violence. The origin of violence cannot be found in human nature.
Human Nature essentially tells us nothing; we can make it say what we want to. Hobbes believes that men are naturally antagonistic towards each other and without the creation of a state through a social contract men will be constantly engaged in war in a state of nature. Hobbes says, “during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man” (Leviathan, 1.13). On the other hand Rousseau believes naturally men feel pity towards each other but it is reason that corrupts human nature and forces men towards violence. The notion of private property gives men a reason to fight as it differentiates me from everyone else. However, Kant believes that nature is contradictory and in his fourth thesis in the idea of a universal history Kant presents the notion of the “The unsocial socialibility”, which essentially means that nature knows that competition is essential for men to maximize the potential antagonism towards each other. Men want to compete with each other but at the same time they want to co-exist as well. The other becomes an obstacle to my will but he is also essential for me to be myself. According to Kant the other is an “organ obstacle”. Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant all seek to explain violence by resorting to human nature but all of them attribute completely different things to human nature. Hobbes and Rousseau adopt completely opposite schemes to reach the same goal in attempting to explain violence. What this means is human nature is not a viable factor in trying to explain human nature, there is something other than human nature which determines violence. All three of them agree that something occurs when there is an interaction of the wills. Man does not inflict harm on objects; it requires other subjects for violence to occur. However, it is not pertinent to dwell into the possible origins of violence for the sake of this discussion and it is only important to disregard human nature as a potential explanation for violence. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that human beings naturally feel antagonistic or pity, these are all generalized conceptual theories which do not depend on fact and have no historical basis. The state of nature is a concept hence it cannot be traced back to see how men truly acted in a state of nature. In a categorized destruction of human nature as an explanation of violence, it is safe to say that the concept of the state of nature is not a possible explanation.
Furthermore, it is true that human beings have instincts but human beings are not like animals. There is an ontological break in between animals and human beings. Animals cannot be used to describe human beings as they are inferior to humans. The superior cannot be described by the inferior. Human beings posses rationality hence they have the power to make decisions and the ability to choose whether they should follow their instincts or not. It is not enough to say that men posses an instinct to be violent because the sense of morality and the ability to make rational decisions should precisely work towards controlling these instincts. In conclusion, men are not instinctive creatures and instincts cannot be used to explain the causes of violence.
Additionally, Violent cannot be necessitated, in order for the moral and legal frameworks to operate violence has to be contingent otherwise there would be no concept of moral or legal responsibility and accountability. This idea is derived from Kant’s idea that evil needs to be attributed to the free will. Legal and moral responsibility lies on the presupposition that we are free. We cannot choose to not be free because according to Kant it cannot be proved freedom but the fact that I live under the idea of freedom is enough for me to be free. According to Sartre, we are condemned to freedom. All this essentially means that “Determinism” cannot be used to describe violence because by definition it is undeniable but it is wrongly formulated because it can only be used retrospectively and it cannot be predicted or proven. Conclusively Human nature does not determine violence for example when Machiavelli, in the Prince, declares that human beings tend to be bad and a ruler should also learn to be evil it is a case of determinism where human nature is used to substantiate what you already believe in. It is a self fulfilling prophecy, Machiavelli believes that human beings are naturally violent hence he finds violence in human nature.
On the other hand it cannot be denied that human beings do posses instincts and psychology does play a part in determining the behaviour of people. It is not enough to say that violence is culturally determined and human beings are merely instruments exercising violence. Violence is condemned in all moral frameworks yet its rampant use is appalling. Despite the legal measures to prevent violence, it still occurs and seemingly nothing can be done to completely eradicate violence. According to Kant, the paradox of evil is that both evil and violence is contingent yet it occurs as if it was necessitated. Kant presents the notion of Radical Evil, which is rooted in us. The numerous wars that have occurred and the atrocities conducted in those wars by human beings cannot be denied. Men seem naturally inclined towards violence and the examples of war illustrate that. Freud would argue that human beings are determined by the two fundamental drives that he calls “Eros” and “Thanatos”, which “Sex” and “Death”. According to Freud, the mind is divided into three parts the super ego, the ego and the Id. The “Id” is what constitutes us and it is completely unconscious hence we are determined by the unconscious part of our mind rather than the utopian idea of rationality dictating our behaviour. The social control seeks to internalize itself through the super ego to keep the naturally violent Id in check and the ego is constantly negotiating between the Id and the super ego. In his book called “In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” Steven Pinker argues that the idea that the human mind is a blank state at birth is a dogma and it is actually the genes that determine human behaviour. He argues that there is innate aggression in human beings, which then leads to violence.
Even when it is argued that violence is not determined by human nature and it is actually the clash of two wills that determines violence, there is some part of human nature which leads us to clash with the other wills hence human nature may not directly cause violence but it may do so indirectly. The innate desire to compete or to succeed can lead to violence. Even in the work of Hegel called the Dialectic of the master and the slave, Hegel argues that the “I” has a desire for appropriation and that natural desire leads to this inherent collision in between the two wills. Hegel feels that this relationship in between the wills is naturally unstable where both the subjects are trying to prove their subjectivity. Hence, human nature can be used to explain violence indirectly.
However, Freud’s theories and other psychological theories are akin to astronomy and mythology because they cannot be logically proven. There are examples of “Determinism”, these theories cannot be defied but also cannot be proven. There is no sufficient scientific evidence to suggest that the human beings have any genes which determines violence or any kind of human behaviour. The examples of war in history do not prove that violence is determined by human nature, that is a vast generalization as human beings have also protested wars and often resorted to more peaceful means as well hence human nature is not a justifiable explanation of violence because there is evidence on both sides and nothing can be proven conclusively by these illustrations. There is no real genetic, psychological, historical and experimental evidence proving human nature as the origin of violence hence it cannot be logically proven to explain violence. Hegel does not entirely find the basis of violence in human nature but only uses human nature as an instrument to realize it. However, even the theory of Hegel is essentially only a theory and it also attributes to human nature whatever fits the beliefs and whatever fits the theory.
In conclusion, it can be seen that philosophers conveniently attribute to human nature things as they see fit in order to substantiate their theories. However, the contradictions found in nature and attributed to nature destroy the credibility of these theories. It is true that without using human beings as an instrument violence will not occur because violence in essence is a characteristic of human beings but it is wrong to say human nature can explain violence because human nature in itself does not determine anything. Human beings have rationality and a free will to make their own decisions. If they choose to act violently, it is a conscious decision on their parts and they should be held responsible for it rather than seeking to find explanations in biology and psychology, which end up sounding mythological rather than simply logical.