Human Nature, Morality, And Society

The following describes philosophical developments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Enlightenment Project

In the wake of scientific revolution, social thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—the philosophes—began to rethink morals and government along scientific lines. Especially in France, where the most radical ideas abounded, they rejected tradition and religion. The key question was that of moral authority: Why should I do what society tells me to do? In the past, tradition and religion were the sources of moral authority. However, their claims were predicted on the assumption that goodness was a primary, objective property of actions and events. When goodness became thought of as a secondary property, the authority of tradition and religion became suspect. The philosophes turned to science as a superior fount of moral authority. Descartes and his successors subjected every common belief about the mind and the world to conscious, rational scrutiny, and the philosophes did the same for every received belief about morality and society. Again, the key to these new inquiries was human nature: Are people inherently good or evil? Given our nature, what is the just society? Such questions made the human sciences, especially psychology, socially important. It became imperative to settle scientifically the nature of human nature, and perhaps, to replace traditional religious means of social control with scientific ones. As psychological inquiry into the nature of the mind issued in a skeptical crisis, psychological inquiry into human social nature issued in a moral crisis.

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Examining Human Nature

Modern inquiry into humans as social creatures began with the English thinker Thomas Hobbes (1583-1679). Hobbes was a devotee of the new mechanical-mathematical philosophy and functionally an atheist. He asked a question central to psychology: What would people be like as animals, living without society or culture? He thought he had an empirically confirmed answer. Having survived the horrors of the English Civil War, in which the governmental institutions ceased to function, Hobbes thought that without government there would be “war of every one against every one,” making human lives “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes depicted human nature as violently dangerous, needing to be checked by strong, even authoritarian, governments. More disturbingly, Hobbes suggested that moral authority is a chimera; the only reality is force. Hobbes’s unpleasant analysis of human motives, human society, and the illusion of morality has haunted social thought ever since. And it rests on psychological conclusions about human nature.

Numerous responses to Hobbes’s challenge arose, each predicated upon a different understanding of human nature. For the history of psychology in America, the most important response came from the Scottish commonsense philosophers. They observed that human life is orderly even when unregulated by law, suggesting that human beings were, as Aristotle had taught, inherently social creatures, designed (for the Scots, by God) to live peaceably together. Scottish realism shaped their social philosophy. They said we have a moral sense through which we intuitively see that some actions are good and others evil. The Scottish system of psychology was widely taught in American colleges through the 1870s as part of religious character building. When experimental, physiologically oriented German psychology was brought to America, it found the “old psychology” already in place, resisting the idea that psychology become a natural science. Although the “new psychology” triumphed, the effects of the old linger in American psychologists’ devotion to practical, applied psychology.

The Enlightenment project took a different, less moderate, turn in France. Lockean empiricism came to France carrying the imprimatur of Voltaire. Around the time of the French Revolution, a group of thinkers called the Ideologues (followers of the way of ideas), pushed empiricism to the limit, arguing that not only is the mind void of ideas at birth, it is equally void of faculties. Allied to materialism, French empiricism offered a vision of humanity that made some philosophes heady with possibilities. If there is no human nature, if human beings are mere clay to be shaped by society, then as John Watson and B. F. Skinner said later, we can make human beings to order. We are neither good nor evil by nature, but are made good or evil by society. Tradition and religion have made people ignorant and therefore bad, but rightly trained and educated, people can be made perfectly virtuous. This vision has inspired some and horrified others, and whether it is correct depends upon psychology.

The Counter-Enlightenment

Those who found the philosophies’ vision horrifying saw their fears coming true as the French Revolution descended from veneration of reason to the Reign of Terror. A reaction against the Enlightenment arose, making important new claims about human nature and human life. The roots of Counter-Enlightenment reach back to the scientific revolution. A contemporary of Descartes, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), was a mathematician and physicist who came to detest Cartesian reason. A religious man, he was filled with dread by the meaningless universe depicted by science. Reason alone, he concluded, was an insufficient guide to life, writing. “The heart has its reasons that reason does not understand.” Pascal raised an important and enduring psychological and moral question: What role should emotion play in leading a good life? From the time of the Stoics through the Enlightenment, the party of reason urged that emotion should be ignored, suppressed, even expunged, because reason offered the best path to truth. For Pascal and the Counter-Enlightenment Romantics, reason had come to a dead end, offering a view of the universe empty of meaning, and a view of society empty of moral authority. They turned to emotion and other nonrational aspects of human nature to make up rea­son’s shortcomings.

Romantic ideas cropped up in various places. Hume wrote that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Passion gives us goals, reason calculates how to achieve them. The concept of causality has irrational roots in the human feeling that effects must follow upon causes. The Scots’ moral sense was an intuitive, nonrational perception of right and wrong. Kant’s transcendental ego lay beyond rational knowing, and later idealists said it posited the world into existence by a romantic act of will. The first widely influential Romantic was Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-­1778). Hobbes’s opposite, he said that humans were naturally virtuous and peaceable noble savages, being made wicked by society. The impulses of the heart, he said, were always right. In Against the Enlightenment, he argued that science had made people worse, not better off. People should flee the Enlightenment’s breeding ground, the city, for the countryside, to dwell with unsophisticated country folk.

The historical-cultural tradition was also linked to the Counter-Enlightenment. In Against Descartes, Johann Herder wrote: “I feel! I am!” His motto that we live in a world we create led to a more respectful attitude to culture and history than that of the philosophes. They famously promoted tolerance for cultural differences, because they saw them as irrational. But precisely because they saw them as irrational, they did not respect them. According to the Marquis de Condorcet, “The time will come when the sun will shine only on free men who have no master but their reason.” As the claims of reason are universal, there is only one rational way of life, to be discovered and maintained by science. Against this, Herder asserted that humans are not fully human unless they participate in a living, developing, culture of their own in which they find meaning and inspiration. To abolish tradition (culture) was to abolish humanity.

By 1789, the year of the French Revolution, psychology was well established as a philosophical, if not yet scientific, discipline. It had also become clear that psychology—the science of human nature—would be critical to all future discussions of human values and human life.