A Short Treatise on Human Nature

I’m going to let you in on a little secret (that won’t be so secret once I tell the whole world about it, but such is the cost of blogging).

I don’t believe that humans are basically good.

In my current circles, saying such feels about as close to blasphemy that I can get to without belonging to a religion. In mental health and social work, the Rogerian view of basic human goodness is practically prerequisite.

But to me, trying to say that humans are basically good requires the same underlying philosophy as the more Christian view of original sin—a concept I also adamantly reject for somewhat obvious reasons.

So what do I believe about human nature?

I’ve been thinking over the answer to that question ever since I realized that Carl Rogers and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. The short answer is that I believe humans are neutral, neither good nor bad. But that’s somewhat of a cop out.

People aren’t really concerned with what an infant’s natural state in the moral universe is; rather, they are searching for a way to explain human behavior and motivation. The view of human depravity explains why people do the shitty things they do, thus why they need limitations. The view of human goodness explains why people do good things, turn around their lives, have a change of heart, etc., thus why we shouldn’t give up on them.

So how do I understand human behavior? I wouldn’t even be able to do it justice in a book, much less a blog post. However, I will give an attempt at codifying where I find myself in my current views of humanity.

  • Humans are meaning makers: I think I sort of steal this thought from Gestalt psychology…but then Gestalt psychology probably stole it from someone else. People seek out patterns and look for meaning. Our brains are wired for it. Do we discover patterns or invent them? I don’t know. On some levels, I don’t think it matters. The point is that we look for ways of making sense and meaning out of the things we encounter throughout life. In the process, we tell ourselves stories about how the world works.
  • Humans are selfish: And this isn’t a bad thing (when balanced with the next point). We have an internal drive for survival, which means that we have a drive to seek out that which we perceive as good for us, “perceive” being the operative word. While I fully believe that each individual can be the best expert on themselves and what they need, I don’t think that every individual actually embodies that. Sometimes our compass gets fucked, and we end up pursuing that which hurts us.
  • Humans are social: Duh, right? But seriously, we are social animals. We need others to survive. We have an internal psychological and biological drive to bond. Hence, even though we are selfish beings, we are also not entirely selfish beings. The Age of Empathy does a great job of laying out the evolutionary imperative for us herd animals to have an emotional connection to each other and nicely counterbalances the typical capitalistic version of survival of the fittest.

It feels like there should be more bullet points, yet that’s pretty much the nutshell version of my view of human nature in this moment: basically neutral in the beginning, with a drive to survive and bond and an incredible capacity to make meaning. From this perspective, there’s room for people to be motivated to do good things and bad, prosocial and antisocial, self-caring and self-destructive.

I guess ultimately, I don’t disagree entirely with Rogers.  Give people a healthy environment, and they’ll probably turn out basically “good.” Give people a way to adjust their stories and relationships to self and others, and they can change, heal, grow, self-actualize, whatever.

I just don’t think that once they’ve been programmed with certain stories and views of themselves and others that it’s a mere process of removing them from a negative environment and giving them lots of love. Bad stories, survival mechanisms, and relationship patterns don’t just disappear because someone enters a new environment.

The modern love affair with unconditional positive regard (a concept I secretly believe is grossly misunderstood in our day and age) looks appealing in the same way that positivity looks appealing. Like positivity, though, it’s too simplified. Ultimately, it betrays the people it purportedly helps because it doesn’t actually provide them with the tools and resources they need to change.