This ranks among the most important questions human beings must strive to answer. It’s also one of the most difficult.
There are three contrasting approaches typically used in answering this question. The first is pragmatic: Human nature is what humans do. The second is aspirational: Human nature is an ideal towards which we should strive. The third is constructivist: Human nature is what we say it is.
The first approach might be described as an anthropological research project. To pursue it, we simply look for patterns and commonalities in the behaviors of human beings around the world; and from there generalize to a description of human nature that reads as a list of typical traits and pursuits. Thus, for example, we might describe human beings as tool-making, building-constructing, art-loving, deity-worshiping, word-forming and/or war-mongering beings.
As sensible as the first approach may seem, it has substantial flaws. For one, there is tremendous variability among the cultures of the world. Is there any activity that is is so genuinely universal that every single human being (or even every single human society) practices it? And if so, is it truly unique to human beings, or is it something –such as eating or sleeping –that we share with all the other animals of the world?
A second major flaw in this approach is that it is purely descriptive. It tells us only what is, but gives us no basis for gaining understanding or making judgments. For instance, the sample list above claims that religion is a part of human nature, but doesn’t explain why, or whether that might be a good thing or a bad thing.
A third, and related flaw is that this approach seemingly locks us into the behaviors of the past. If warmongering is a part of human nature (as claimed above) does that mean that war is something we can never ever escape? Or is it possible that human nature might change in the future?
The second approach has a long and distinguished history in philosophy. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pursuit of virtues and ideals (such as Wisdom, Love, Truth and Beauty) as the correct aim of human nature, while his student Aristotle focused on a more earthbound set of “excellences” (such as skill in debate, skill in governance, skill in warfare, and so forth) as the true “measure of a man.” On the other side of the world the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius also advocated a similar approach.
The key advantage to this approach is that it celebrates the best in human nature, and in doing so offers a promise that we can become better as a species; even offering putative guidance towards transcending our weaknesses and eliminating our faults. As good as this may sound, however, this approach also has weaknesses. First, it is vulnerable to the charge of being an unfounded fantasy, divorced from reality –what evidence is there that Plato’s ideals have anything to do with “human nature” at all? Second, it raises the question of who sets the standards, and how can we ensure that they are universal and not ethnocentric –as in the case of many of the “excellences” of Confucius and Aristotle, which can seem strange and alien to a modern day observer in the West. Third, while it offers the possibility of progress towards an ideal of human nature, it does not simultaneously offer the possibility that human nature itself might progress. Thus, it runs the risk of being made obsolete by the changes in the human experience; most notably the increasing importance of technology of various kinds, and the effects on human societies of the worldwide crises of global warming and overpopulation.
The third approach, to claim that human nature is what we make of it, has a degree of freedom and openness, and a sense of personal agency and impact missing from the other two approaches. Yet by itself, it is far the weakest, possessing neither the direct connection to the real world of the first approach, nor the guidance and inspiration of the second approach. It thus threatens to reduce the entire concept of human nature to meaninglessness.
Rather than wholly adopting any one of these approaches, I would instead advocate a “reconstructivist” approach that draws from all three.
First, I think we need the anthropological background of the first approach in order to place human nature within a context; to let us know where we have come from, and what are the social, biological, spiritual and evolutionary pressures that have shaped us as a species. But from that point forward, I think we need to combine the second and third approaches in order to reconstruct a new vision of human nature that is responsive to the realities of the modern era, but that emphasizes the best potentials of human beings in order to create a brighter future.
In broad general outline, this is the way I would envision a reconstructed human nature:
First, I would reemphasize a range of traditional human practices, such as homemade meals enjoyed slowly and communally, face-to-face conversations, getting from place to place by foot (and living in places and ways that make that possible), community gardening and social dancing. These types of things have long histories in nearly all human cultures and therefore evoke a strong visceral response from most people.
Second, I would also reemphasize the arts and humanities, and practices such as music, painting, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics, and so forth –these are practices that developed over the course of millennia towards the purpose of showcasing the unique aptitudes of human beings.
As far as attitudes towards age, I would reinstate an attitude of respect towards elders, as representatives of tradition and repositories of wisdom, but not to the innovation-stifling extent practiced by most traditional societies. At the same time I would reinforce the modern era’s attitude of respect towards the young, as representatives of innovation and sources of creativity, but not to the tradition-trampling extent practiced by most modern societies.
Some long-established facets of human nature would need to be discarded. Chief among these is the old equation of fecundity = happiness. Children are unquestionably our most precious resource, but our way of expressing that can and must change. I am an opponent of abortion, but I strongly support voluntary preventative birth control. We must embrace the fact that sexual activity is no longer synonymous with procreation. At the same time, we need to promote adoption as an alternative and as a supplement to biological family creation.
Something else that must be eliminated is the human tendency to go to war. The urge to compete is a necessary and positive element of human nature, but competition through violence has outlived whatever utility it once possessed. The new machines of war are so deadly, powerful and horrific, that we must unequivocally ensure they can never be deployed.
In addition, we must all take on a conservationist mindset with respect to natural resources. The past record of humanity on this is mixed. There have been societies, generally in resource rich environments, that have been successful despite their consumerist leanings, while other societies have thrived in resource poor environments through conservation. As the planet transitions from a resource rich to a resource poor environment, however, the human species as a whole must make the shift from a consumerist nature to a conservationist nature.
A modern student of humanity must also consider the place of technology in questions of human identity. On one hand, the invention and utilization of technology is one of the most characteristic of all human activities and traits. But on the other hand, the increasing pervasiveness of technological devices has had what can only be described as a dehumanizing effect on many people and societies.
I would argue for the following: first that we moderate our use of technology, instituting technological sabbaths similar to those practiced by Orthodox Jews, and scaling back our reliance on devices such as cell phones and PDAs. Second, that we change our technological focus away from dehumanizing instantiations of technology such as weapon development, cosmetic surgery and mass productive machinery, and towards more positive aims such as desert reclamation, clean energy production and preventative medicine. Finally, that we should less on physical/material technologies and more on the creation of a new set of social and cultural technologies that will help us better deal with one another as human beings.