By: Pedja Ilic, JS Student
In philosophical discussions surrounding questions such as what constitutes a good life, how to distinguish right from wrong, and ultimately how one ought to live his or her life, there is one contentious point that precedes and perhaps influences them all, the concept of human nature. What is human nature, and how do we go about understanding it? There is no uniform consensus on what is indeed a very challenging concept.
Numerous philosophers, social scientist and other scholars have offered a spectrum of answers examining this very question. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century British philosopher, famously regarded the state of nature as solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short (Donnelly, 2003). Conversely, 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that nothing can be more gentle than the man in his primitive state (Rousseau, 1992). Numerous other thinkers have placed their answers on the continuum between the extremes of Rousseau and Hobbes. Others, including Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor of linguistics and philosophy, and one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, have argued that there is no such thing as human nature. Humans are specie without any particular function; to assign them one, is to dehumanize them (Political Discourse Series, 2010).
Jack Donnelly, a political science professor at the University of Denver Colorado and a prolific writer on the topic of human rights and nature argues, perhaps on par with another brilliant thinker of the 20th century, French philosopher and intellectual Michel Foucault, that history of human nature is nothing more than a social construction based on consensus, built upon conversations and social interactions among people, on a variety of topics, and given particular meaning (Donnelly, 2003). These social constructions are eventually understood to be foundations for what is known as human rights. Although, even such deduction of human nature to human interactions and subsequent importance and meaning it signifies, still cannot be firmly grounded in a definitive theoretical perspective, simply because human interactions are not static non-changing entities, but rather an ongoing adaptation to constantly changing environment. In contrast to Hobbes’ solitary state of nature, Donnelly bases human potential and progress, not in a self-contained individualistic structure; he emphasizes the concept of social interaction and interconnectedness as intrinsic to the functioning societies. In other words, humans have no better recourse for devising a functioning society in which meaningful lives are indeed possible, than the one of consensus and cooperation.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor, and one of the most prominent thinkers of today, Steven Pinker, argues that Hobbes, despite his rather direct and crude description of human nature, might to some extent had been right to call it nasty, brutish and short (2011). As the global civilizational progress continues, even though not without regressions, the world, living environment, and arguably human nature are becoming less brutish and measurably more prosperous for the largest number of people. Pinker utilizes dozens of scientific studies examining numbers of deaths through human history, proportional to the entire human population at specific point of time analyzed. It is this point in particular that testifies to ever changing properties of human nature, or rather human understanding of the same, in the light of specific historic and contemporary circumstances. Pinker further associates such progress with the creation of nation states and their internal systems of regulation and governing. Gathered data uniformly indicated greater numbers of deaths and human suffering in stateless entities without integrated power structures.
Returning to the question of human rights as a social construction, while further articulating Pinker’s argument about human prosperity brought upon creation of nation states, one notices rather interesting dichotomy. Human rights, however dependent on the prevailing world’s state of affairs, still have somewhat static universal character, namely found in the International Bill of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and International Covenants. These international statutes take on a form of an international law that all United Nations state members must abide by and implement within their respective jurisdictions. States, by their structure, are sovereign entities with executive powers over their citizens. Defined as such, existence of foundational regulating structures within them is necessary, and is rather automatically assumed. These structures help nation state regulate its internal affairs as well as participation in the international political, economic, and all others spheres of state’s interest.
It is this sum-concept of the state that Pinker argues has brought about more stability and uniformity in the world. The above mentioned dichotomy arises for two particular reasons. First, despite the existence of the International Bill of Human Rights, UDHR, and the International Covenants, due to numerous factors that span over consensus on socioeconomic, politic and strategic lines, and as shown earlier, the very concept of human nature, the notion of human rights remains flexible, not to say weak, and subject to change. This undermines the very stability of human rights as inalienable properties of human beings. Second, states with their assumed stability and sovereignty have the executive powers and responsibilities over validating and implementing international human rights. Coupled with their “foundational weaknesses” and states’ ultimate say over their implementation and appropriation, human rights are very often shunned and bluntly violated. This happens in part due to violator states not being uniformly penalized for their human rights violations, which directly or not, encourages them to continue with practices that often make global communities cringe in disbelief.
Therefore, can it be legitimately argued that creation of nation states has indeed brought about cornucopia of human progress and happiness? To some extent, perhaps. However, it would likewise be irresponsible and morally abhorrent to ignore their legitimate shortfalls, for they are abundant in our so-called progressive contemporary societies. Another point merits everyone’s attention. Existing international regulatory commissions and agencies responsible for monitoring and enforcement of human rights must have drastically firmer standpoints and plans of action addressing human rights violations. If they continue posing little or no deterrent, rogue states will keep having their day in the sun. Lastly, regardless of varying sentiments on concepts of human nature, and even human rights themselves, one point ought to be the ultimate non sequitur – maximizing happiness and wellbeing of all. Moreover, this might just offer us the ultimate solution to the puzzle of human nature. Live long and prosper!
Tags: Donnelly, Hobbes, Human Rights, Pinker, Rousseau