Axiomatic Human Properties

In any philosophy of human nature there are certain parameters of the human condition which are inserted axiomatically. These properties are extremely significant to the formulation of any philosophy governing people, namely ethics and politics, but usually aren’t addressed in a uniform and clear manner. The following elements are single pieces that might be composed together to create complex ethical theories or political philosophies. Simply rattling off a list of beliefs about human nature being one way or the other in reactionary mode is pretty much a waste of time. Connecting them together to create a model that accurately reflects the world, or some piece of it, can be very important to the advancement of human knowledge. Big names in political philosophy like Hobbes, Locke, and Nietzsche have built their ideas up from the same basic elements, but they’ve done it in such a creative, novel, and useful way that reflects the way many people see and interact with the world. I believe that spreading a little understanding about what exactly the building blocks of such thinking can improve the quality of thinking in the US and around the world.

The first and most commonly addressed one is whether people are fundamentally good or evil. This question has so many ramifications for all aspects of any philosophy. If people are inherently evil then it is necessary to use some form of philosophical machinery to control, alter, or ameliorate the evil nature of humanity. This is a totally different viewpoint from someone who believes people are fundamentally good, who doesn’t need their philosophy to do much to control human behavior. Indeed, the entire realm of philosophy, particularly ethics, is more focused on what individuals decide virtue is, and each person can have their own philosophy and you can trust them to be virtuous anyway. Their virtue is given, the philosophy is a result instead of the other way around. If human nature is evil, however, then philosophy must come before human virtue can be achieved, and it is necessary to identify the philosophy most conducive to society and then enforce that point of view on everyone. If they can’t be forced to accept it, they must be forced to at least obey it through the application of laws and punishments. Most political philosophers of sufficient import are in the camp of humans being evil, and most of the governments derived from their philosophy depend upon coercive application of laws and police and courts in order to control their population. Whether people or philosophy come first is the ultimate chicken-or-the-egg question, and its primary embodiment is the debate over whether human nature is good or evil.

There is also a question about whether one man is competent or not, regarding whether one man has great powers available to him or if one man is nothing by himself. It is reasonable to have a point of view where human nature is good, but naturally stupid. This is more akin to the Stoic idea, where everyone has virtue as a driving force. Every murderer has a justification for why they saw fit to commit murder (assuming they aren’t innocent), and they really believe their justification. If they were fundamentally evil, they could care less about virtue. They may still be trying to dress up their actions as virtuous to cynically try to escape punishment, and we arrive at a Chinese Room dilemma of having to verify whether or not someone “really believes” something or if they’re just pretending. In most all cases, however, they truly believe their rationale, despite the fact that it is highly irrational. Murder and other crimes, viewed in a broader context by a rational being, are all stupid, even discounting the additional punishments inflicted by laws. If you lie for your own benefit, then nobody has the incentive to trust you. In the extreme short term, perhaps you don’t care, but if such a person was actually rational they would realize the immense value of having a perfect reputation and rock-solid name can yield far greater dividends for their own success than simply cheating and running. The law is an attempt to make this choice “more obvious” by putting a direct penalty on undesirable actions, making the line of reasoning a little easier for the less rational in the populace.
It is also possible to have a worldview, and this is the particularly sinister Hobbesian or Machiavellian view, that people are both cunning and malevolent. If this is the case, the only recourse is to make people act outside of their nature. Indeed, not only is distrust of everyone to be expected, but there’s no authority to look to for protection who isn’t subject to the same rule- they can’t be trusted, they will seize power and abuse it. Hobbes is the more primitive philosopher, and his answer to the cunning-and-evil dilemma is to put the most cunning and evil of them all in charge, the better to protect the people under the power of the ruler. Obviously he didn’t phrase it like that, but in effect creating a single all-powerful ruler in such an environment will only magnify the problem. Machiavelli addresses the issue more accurately by saying yes, it is the most cunning and evil who will be in charge, and the more cunning and evil he is the better a ruler he will make because cunning and dirty tricks are the best way to get ahead. An extremely pessimistic view, but at least it’s internally consistent. It’s actually very difficult to disprove that argument because it contains within itself its own genesis, but I believe it fails on the grounds that people would shy away from a world like that and attempt to make it a more pleasant place to live in for themselves and others.

Whether people are rational, whether people are social, whether people are natural leaders, natural followers, etc. Indeed, there is always a huge debate over what properties we can ascribe as natural to humans, and which ones are learned or inculcated, and by whom they are or should be conditioned by, whether it’s the parents, the community, the government, the religion, etc. Different philosophers have proposed different traits as being innate, and I imagine that at some point some thinker has claimed each and every imaginable aspect under the sun must be natural and innate. The oldest anachronism of this type is that humans are innately social beings, and indeed this is backed up by recent discoveries in biology, anthropology, and genetics. If we are innately social creatures, then we will congregate into groups and there is no modification you can make to the human condition that will overcome this. You can compensate for it by conditioning behaviors, but the natural tendency will still exist. The idea of human nature is actually a special case of the naturalness argument which argues that people have both a natural ethical decision-making faculty and also makes a statement about the tendencies of that faculty. The argument that there is no such faculty can be used to construct nihilism, pragmatism, and numerous other theoretical frameworks. The same can be said of any given property that you wish to ascribe as natural to humans.

What properties are innate to a person, and what properties can change through the course of their lives. This is a similar issue, but quite distinct, from the question of whether a person has the capability to change themselves, and to what extent such willed self-change is possible, or what properties or aspects can be changed this way. The same question applies to other vectors such as parents, the state, etc. Innateness is distinct from natural appearance in that a property that is innate is dependent entirely on physical (or other immutable) composition. A naturally emergent property is merely said to exist, with no particular emphasis on how or why it is that way. If it’s innate then it is a product of the human physical (possibly soul or spiritual) existence. If it’s not innate then it is acquired at some point over the course of your life. Note that non-innate properties can still be natural. For example, humans lack the capability to walk at birth so it’s not truly innate (I use a philosophically difficult example because this is highly debatable, I apologize, but there is no example of something that is obviously not innate but is natural) but it is natural because it is a naturally emergent behavior. A better example may be language, where it could be argued that a natural faculty for languages in general exists, though perhaps not innate, but the faculty for any particular language such as English is definitely not innate (although it also probably isn’t natural because saying “humans naturally speak English” is obviously wrong. We can get around this by citing a particular unspecified instantiation, such as “Humans naturally speak some language” but this is rapidly becoming too complicated to use as an example).
An argument for extreme nativism puts total emphasis on innateness. The entire course of your development is preprogrammed into you as a baby, and is fully contained within your existence at any point in time. Extreme nativism is a more or less extinct line of reasoning. The opposite end, what has been called “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” is the idea that you have zero internal programming at birth- you are totally blank, and you acquire a mind and life over the course of your life. While this seems a lot more reasonable, purist tabula rasa thinking is also more or less extinct. It’s clear that there is some mixture of the two going on, but exactly how much of each is present is not entirely clear. I dislike this phrasing of the issue, but this debate has been called “Nature vs Nurture.” I hate saying that because nurturing is a natural process- indeed humans have certain parameters for raising children encoded into our genes (preying mantises have different ones…).

Part and parcel of the natural human condition debate is what is mutable about human nature, and what is immutable, which of course form a continuum between hard wiring and total flux. A certain trait might be imparted at birth, but still be changeable such as through changes in gene expression. My hair color is different than it was when I was eight (I was blonde, now I have brown hair) and this is a property that is usually associated with genes and assumed to be immutable. We usually assume that the Nature side of the debate assumes immutability, and the Nurture side likes mutable traits. There is no requirement that these assumptions be the case, but nevertheless they tend that way. It makes intuitive sense because after all, if you were born without a certain trait, it must have been installed at a later time and must therefore be reversible, right? Wrong. Conditioning received as a young child is often highly immutable and tough to change, and mental models touching core beliefs are often very difficult to change as well, even if they are destructive.

The reason why these human properties are axiomatic is that for the most part you can come to any conclusion you like and have it result in an internally consistent model. These are fundamental building blocks from which you can construct any theory you like. While someone may disagree with you on axiomatic grounds, a direct proof of their argument will not be sufficient to disprove or otherwise dislodge your position. As it should be, an argument made from such axiomatic points can be incorrect from premises, or improper in logic, and pushing an alternate position will not influence the impact of an argument made by someone else. There is an immense possible composite-theory space that can be created just from the extremely few basic axioms I have chosen to mention here, and there are many, many, many more that can be used reasonably.

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One Response to “Axiomatic Human Properties”

  1. Cleveland Says:

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