Human nature

Theory of human individual and social character.

There is a ‘natural’ human character as there is a natural shape to a particular plant or a natural form to a particular animal.

This human nature is prior to the particularities of any time or place.

Also see: dialectic, dialectical materialism

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Classical Greek philosophy

Philosophy in classical Greece is the ultimate origin of the Western conception of the nature of things.[12]

According to Aristotle, the philosophical study of human nature itself originated with Socrates, who turned philosophy from study of the heavens to study of the human things.[16] Though leaving no written works, Socrates is said to have studied the question of how a person should best live. It is clear from the works of his students, Plato and Xenophon, and also from the accounts of Aristotle (Plato’s student), that Socrates was a rationalist and believed that the best life and the life most suited to human nature involved reasoning. The Socratic school was the dominant surviving influence in philosophical discussion in the Middle Ages, amongst Islamic, Christian, and Jewish philosophers.

The human soul in the works of Plato and Aristotle has a nature that is divided in a specifically human way. One part is specifically human and rational, being further divided into (1) a part which is rational on its own; and (2) a spirited part which can understand reason. Other parts of the soul are home to desires or passions similar to those found in animals. In both Aristotle and Plato, spiritedness (thumos) is distinguished from the other passions (epithūmíā).[17] The proper function of the “rational” was to rule the other parts of the soul, helped by spiritedness. By this account, using one’s reason is the best way to live, and philosophers are the highest types of humans.


Aristotle—Plato’s most famous student-made some of the most famous and influential statements about human nature. In his works, apart from using a similar scheme of a divided human soul, some clear statements about human nature are made:

  • Man is a conjugal animal: An animal that is born to couple in adulthood. In doing so, man builds a household (oikos) and, in more successful cases, a clan or small village still run upon patriarchal lines.[18]
  • Man is a political animal: An animal with an innate propensity to develop more complex communities (i.e. the size of a city or town), with systems of law-making and a division of labor. This type of community is different in kind from a large family, and requires the special use of human reason.[19]
  • Man is a mimetic animal: Man loves to use his imagination, and not only to make laws and run town councils: “[W]e enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, obscene beasts, for instance, and corpses.… [The] reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, ‘that is so and so.'”[20]

For Aristotle, reason is not only what is most special about humanity compared to other animals, but it is also what we were meant to achieve at our best. Much of Aristotle’s description of human nature is still influential today. However, the particular teleological idea that humans are “meant” or intended to be something has become much less popular in modern times.[21]

Theory of four causes[edit]

For the Socratics, human nature, and all natures, are metaphysical concepts. Aristotle developed the standard presentation of this approach with his theory of four causes, whereby every living thing exhibits four aspects, or “causes:”

  1. matter (hyle);
  2. form (eidos);
  3. effect (kinoun); and
  4. end (telos).

For example, an oak tree is made of plant cells (matter); grows from an acorn (effect); exhibits the nature of oak trees (form); and grows into a fully mature oak tree (end). According to Aristotle, human nature is an example of a formal cause. Likewise, our ‘end’ is to become a fully actualized human being (including fully actualizing the mind). Aristotle suggests that the human intellect (νοῦςnoûs), while “smallest in bulk”, is the most significant part of the human psyche and should be cultivated above all else.[22] The cultivation of learning and intellectual growth of the philosopher is thereby also the happiest and least painful life.

Chinese philosophy


Portrait of Mencius, a Confucian philosopher

Human nature is a central question in Chinese philosophy.[23] From the Song dynasty, the theory of potential or innate goodness of human beings became dominant in Confucianism.[24]


Mencius argues that human nature is good,[23][25] understanding human nature as the innate tendency to an ideal state that’s expected to be formed under the right conditions.[26] Therefore, humans have the capacity to be good, even though they are not all good.[26]

According to Mencian theory, human nature contains four beginnings (duan) of morality:[27]

  1. a sense of compassion that develops into benevolence (ren);
  2. a sense of shame and disdain that develops into righteousness (yi);
  3. a sense of respect and courtesy that develops into propriety (li); and
  4. a sense of right and wrong that develops into wisdom (zhi).[25][27]

The beginnings of morality are characterized by both affective motivations and intuitive judgments, such as what’s right and wrong, deferential, respectful, or disdainful.[27]

In Mencius’ view, goodness is the result of the development of innate tendencies toward the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, and propriety.[25] The tendencies are manifested in moral emotions for every human being.[25] Reflection (si) upon the manifestations of the four beginnings leads to the development of virtues.[25] It brings recognition that virtue takes precedence over satisfaction, but a lack of reflection inhibits moral development.[27] In other words, humans have a constitution comprising emotional predispositions that direct them to goodness.[25]

Mencius also addresses the question why the capacity for evil is not grounded in human nature.[25] If an individual becomes bad, it is not the result of his or her constitution, as their constitution contains the emotional predispositions that direct to goodness, but a matter of injuring or not fully developing his or her constitution in the appropriate direction.[25] He recognizes desires of the senses as natural predispositions distinct from the four beginnings.[27] People can be misled and led astray by their desires if they do not engage their ethical motivations.[25] He therefore places responsibility on people to reflect on the manifestations of the four beginnings.[27] Herein, it is not the function of ears and eyes but the function of the heart to reflect, as sensory organs are associated with sensual desires but the heart is the seat of feeling and thinking.[28] Mencius considers core virtues—benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom—as internal qualities that humans originally possess, so people can not attain full satisfaction by solely pursuits of self-interest due to their innate morality.[29] Wong (2018) underscores that Mencius’ characterization of human nature as good means that “it contains predispositions to feel and act in morally appropriate ways and to make intuitive normative judgments that can with the right nurturing conditions give human beings guidance as to the proper emphasis to be given to the desires of the senses.”[27]

Mencius sees ritual (i.e., the standard for how humans should treat and interact with each other) as an outward expression of the inherent moral sense in human nature.[29]


Mencius’ view of ritual is in contrast to Xunzi, who does not view moral sense as an innate part of human nature.[30] Rather, a moral sense is acquired through learning, in which one engages in and reflects upon a set of ritual practices.[30] Xunzi’s claim that human nature is bad, according to Ivanhoe (1994), means that humans do not have a conception of morality and therefore must acquire it through learning, lest destructive and alienating competition inevitably arises from human desire.[30]

Xunzi understands human nature as the basic faculties, capacities, and desires that people have from birth.[26] He argues that human nature is evil and that any goodness is the result of human activity.[23][31] It is human nature to seek profit, because humans desire for sensory satisfaction.[31] Xunzi states that “Now the nature of man is evil. It must depend on teachers and laws to become correct and achieve propriety and righteousness and then it becomes disciplined.”[23] He underscores that goodness comes from the traits and habits acquired through conscious actions, which he calls artifice (wei).[26] Therefore, morality is seen as a human artifice but not as a part of human nature.[32]


Statue of Shang Yang, a prominent Legalist scholar and statesman

Human nature is one of the major pillars of Legalism in China.[33] However, Legalists do not concern themselves with whether human goodness or badness is inborn, and whether human beings possess the fundamental qualities associated with that nature.[33]

Legalists see the overwhelming majority of human beings as selfish in nature.[33] They hold the view that human nature is evil, in which individuals are driven by selfishness.[34] Therefore, people are not expected to always behave morally.[33] For instance, due to the corrupt nature of humans, Legalists did not trust that officials would carry out their duties in a fair and impartial manner.[35] There is a perpetual political struggle, characterized by conflict among contending human actors and interests, where individuals are easily tempted due to their selfish nature at the expense of others.[34]

According to Legalism, selfishness in human nature can not be eliminated or altered by education or self-cultivation.[33][36] It dismisses the possibility that people can overcome their selfishness and considers the possibility that people can be driven by moral commitment to be exceptionally rare.[33] Legalists do not see the individual morality of both the rulers or the ruled as an important concern in a political system.[33] Instead, Legalist thinkers such as Han Fei emphasize clear and impersonal norms and standards (such as laws, regulations, and rules) as the basis to maintain order.[33]

As human nature has an unchanging selfish but satiable core, Han Fei argues that competition for external goods during times of scarcity produces disorder, while times of abundance simply mean that people do not fall back into chaos and conflict but not that they are necessarily nice.[36] Additionally, Han Fei argues that people are all motivated by their unchanging selfish core to want whatever advantage they can gain from whomever they can gain such advantage, which especially comes to expression in situations where people can act with impunity.[36]

Legalists posit that human selfishness can be an asset rather than a threat to a state.[33] It is axiomatic in Legalism that the government can not be staffed by upright and trustworthy men of service, because every member of the elite—like any member of society—will pursue their own interests and thus must be employed for their interests.[33] Herein, individuals must be allowed to pursue their selfish interests exclusively in a manner that benefits rather than contradicts the needs of a state.[33] Therefore, a political system that presupposes this human selfishness is the only viable system.[33] In contrast, a political system based on trust and respect (rather than impersonal norms and standards) brings great concern with regard to an ongoing and irresolvable power struggle.[33] Rather, checks and controls must be in place to limit the subversion of the system by its actors (such as ministers and other officials).[33] Legalists view the usage of reward and punishment as effective political controls, as it is in human nature to have likes and dislikes.[34] For instance, according to the Legalist statesman Shang Yang, it is crucial to investigate the disposition of people in terms of rewards and penalties when a law is established.[33] He explains that a populace can not be driven to pursuits of agriculture or warfare if people consider these to be bitter or dangerous on the basis of calculations about their possible benefits, but people can be directed toward these pursuits through the application of positive and negative incentives.[33] As an implication of the selfish core in human nature, Han Fei remarks that “Those who act as ministers fear the penalties and hope to profit by the rewards.”[36]

In Han Fei’s view, the only realistic option is a political system that produces equivalents of junzi (君子, who are virtuous exemplars in Confucianism) but not junzi.[36] This does not mean, however, that Han Fei makes a distinction between seeming and being good, as he does not entertain the idea that humans are good.[36] Rather, as human nature is constituted by self-interest, he argues that humans can be shaped behaviorally to yield social order if it is in the individual’s own self-interest to abide by the norms (i.e., different interests are aligned to each other and the social good), which is most efficiently ensured if the norms are publicly and impartially enforced

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