Is Human Nature Inherently Good or Evil, Selfish, Fixed or Changeable? (2002)

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Pinker argues that modern science has challenged three “linked dogmas” that constitute the dominant view of human nature in intellectual life. About the book:

the blank slate (the mind has no innate traits)—empiricism
the noble savage (people are born good and corrupted by society)—romanticism
the ghost in the machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology)[1]
Much of the book is dedicated to examining fears of the social and political consequences of his view of human nature:

“the fear of inequality”
“the fear of imperfectibility”
“the fear of determinism”
“the fear of nihilism”
Pinker claims these fears are non sequiturs, and that the blank slate view of human nature would actually be a greater threat if it were true. For example, he argues that political equality does not require sameness, but policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress doesn’t require the human mind to be naturally free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility doesn’t require behavior to be uncaused, only that it respond to praise and blame; and that meaning in life doesn’t require that the process that shaped the brain must have a purpose, only that the brain itself must have purposes. He also argues that grounding moral values in claims about a blank slate opens them to the possibility of being overturned by future empirical discoveries. He further argues that a blank slate is in fact inconsistent with opposition to many social evils since a blank slate could be conditioned to enjoy servitude and degradation.

Evolutionary and genetic inequality arguments do not necessarily support right-wing policies. Pinker writes that if everyone was equal regarding abilities it can be argued that it is only necessary to give everyone equal opportunity. On the other hand, if some people have less innate ability through no fault of their own, then this can be taken as support for redistribution policies to those with less innate ability. Further, laissez-faire economics is built upon an assumption of a rational actor, while evolutionary psychology suggests that people have many different goals and behaviors that do not fit the rational actor theory. Rising living standards, also for the poor, is often used as an argument that inequality need not be reduced, while evolutionary psychology may suggest that low status itself, apart from material considerations, is highly psychologically stressful and may cause dangerous and desperate behaviors, supporting a society reducing inequalities. Finally, evolutionary explanations may also help the left create policies with greater public support, suggesting that people’s sense of fairness (caused by mechanisms such as reciprocal altruism) rather than greed is a primary cause of opposition to welfare, if there is not a distinction in the proposals between what is perceived as the deserving and the undeserving poor.

Pinker also gives several examples of harm done by the belief in a blank slate of human nature:

Totalitarian social engineering. If the human mind is a blank slate completely formed by the environment, then ruthlessly and totally controlling every aspect of the environment will create perfect minds.
Inappropriate or excessive blame of parents since if their children do not turn out well this is assumed to be entirely environmentally caused and especially due to the behavior of the parents.
Release of dangerous psychopaths who quickly commit new crimes.
Construction of massive and dreary tenement complexes since housing and environmental preferences are assumed to be culturally caused and superficial.
Persecution and even mass murder of the successful who are assumed to have gained unfairly. This includes not only individuals but entire successful groups who are assumed to have become successful unfairly and by exploitation of other groups. Examples include Jews in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust; kulaks in the Soviet Union; teachers and “rich” peasants in the Cultural Revolution; city dwellers and intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge.


GMark1914 says:

Man is evil because he is separated from God.  Evil is a departure from that which is good.  The 20th century proves our nature;  it had more massacre then all the previous centuries put together.

GMark1914 says:

For every answer he had there was an exception.  Too many variables, too many things to consider, too many everything….  reminds of these verses in 1 Corinthians:  18Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20and again, "The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless."

Truth Seeker says:

Mostly evil

ctwatcher says:

I believe we all start out good, something happens created by an event or illness that might make one evil. Being selfish could mean just wanting to hold onto what you earned for many. Sharing makes one feel better if one has a bit of morals to begin with. That is lacking now. Almost everything can be fixed if the light is shined on it and the truth brought out so one can fix it. Use God's laws and you don't need man's laws.

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