Sunday, August 25, 2013

“I, Me, Mine: Why Humans are Naturally Evil” (2010)


This essay was written as one of the requirements in my SocSci II class (best GE subject ever) during my sophomore year in the University of the Philippines. It is also my first year as an Economics student, in which I transferred from the Management program a few months prior. 

This was written in the time of disenchantment - which explains my adherence to Hobbes's state of nature. 


The question regarding the nature of human beings has been a topic for hot discussion and debate among scholars and philosophers alike. One side would claim that humans are naturally evil while others would argue otherwise. Two of the most prominent philosophers that have discussed the conditions of human beings in the “state of nature” are Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - with Hobbes believing in the former, and Rousseau the latter. One driving force that leads to their perception of human nature is the state of affairs during their own respective times. Hobbes lived on an era where England (his home country) is in turmoil, with the frequent regime changes and wars ravaging the country. Rousseau on the other hand, lived on ..... less harsh times.

In my humblest opinion, I would say that Hobbes, despite my reluctance to his concept of the need of an absolute authority (the quote “Having absolute power, corrupts absolutely” quickly comes to mind), made more sense with respect to his description of man’s “state of nature” compared to Rousseau. According to Hobbes:

“… whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt, vile and inconsiderable…there being nothing simply and absolutely so…” (Curtis 330).
Simply put, things are only considered “good” when they give man pleasure and “bad when it gives them pain. Furthermore, Hobbes also stated that:

“Nature hath made men so equal … From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies…” (332).

Hobbes somehow puts the state of nature in bad light, equating it with the "state of war", where people compete for resources and sometimes, resort to undesirable means – even murder. History has shown humankind's blunders. Wars are of common occurrences. Humans subjugate other humans through colonizations, conquests, slavery, and the intolerance of religion, race and customs, which (The Inquisition, and the Holocaust are infamous examples) breed more violence and the deprivation of life. It is no wonder why Hobbes would come to such a harsh conclusion. Humans are really creatures, which, despite the claim of “rationality”, are much prone to corruption.

On the flip side, Rousseau is optimistic about the nature of man. To him, it is in the state of nature where there is a “removal of all cultural clothes”. Complications in the state of nature (the increase in population, resulting to a larger of competition of limited resources) would result to the people resorting to form an association. Thus, surrendering their “physical liberty” (the liberty of being able to do whatever they please) and obtaining “civil liberty” and “moral liberty” in the process. The liberties that we acquire in the association place limitations of human reason and general will through laws, making the people “nobler” in a sense that commitment and accountability are practiced. Rousseau’s idea of the nature of human beings is in stark contrast with Hobbes in which he believed that naturally, man is good but is corrupted by “civilization” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

I believe that Rousseau’s model of man in the state of nature is flawed. His model implies that humans are no different from beasts, which rely solely on instinct. Furthermore, if animals only rely on instinct, then no faculty of reason can ever be present. It means that without the possession of such faculty, we can resort to taking away the life of someone should we desire for their properties. Therefore, we, like animals, are in a constant state of war thus making Hobbes’s concept of the individual in the state of nature fitting to the criteria more than of Rousseau’s. Our rationality has enabled us to think of the idea of setting up communities, and forming a social contract. My problem with Rousseau is that of his inconsistencies in some of his explanations. His acceptance of the family as the only “natural institution” and humans as a “solitary” being does not seem to blend since you can’t have a family and at the same time, live in solitude. Furthermore, not having a language in the state of nature sounds absurd since it is hard to imagine us not having some sort of verbal communication. And lastly, how will he explain that beasts still rely on their instincts, while we humans, have somehow “levelled up” through the development of communities, market systems, complex governments, idealisms, languages and most of all, the ability to “tame” our natural impulses?

To back up my belief of Hobbes’ theory, another example is the registration process (the ever-dreaded CRS) in the University. It is a clear example of Hobbes’ state of war where “every man is enemy to every man.” It was a solid display of the enlistment week to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, with “practicability” frequently used as a justification to such disgusting means. The scriptures keep saying that we are God’s best creations; that we are rational, that we are superior over His other creations. For me, we are no different from animals, where we “live in the wild”, an environment filled with mutual distrust amongst each other. The week-long experience in my admission to the University only reinforced my belief that indeed, we only look after our own-interest especially when in times of desperation.

To sum it up, I am more inclined to agree on the pessimism of Hobbes than the positive perception of Rousseau. In spite of both theories being of no evidence, Rousseau’s idea of man being naturally good (or to be precise, amoral) is less realistic compared to Hobbes’s. Personal experiences and historical evidences have shown the deceitfulness, egoism, and self-centeredness of human beings. Even with the creation of the society, humans still tend to show tendencies of causing evil and harm in which I believe, is due to our natural tendencies rather than the influences of society. Besides the sophisticated structures of civilization, the intelligence, and the capability of forming other intricate systems, we are just like animals, who inevitably act upon impulse especially when nature calls for it. 

Such is life.

Curtis, Michael. The Great Political Theories, New York: Avon Books
Delaney, James J. “Rousseau, Jean-Jacques”. Internet Encyclopedia of 
               Philosophy, 18 Jan. 2010. Web. 03 Sept. 2010.

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