“Opinion considers the opposition of what is true and false quite rigid, and, confronted with a philosophical system, it expects agreement or contradiction. And in an explanation of such a system, opinion still expects to find one or the other” – G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit
Does human nature exist? Or are we purely products of circumstance given to behaviors because of the systems by which we are molded? In our political discourse, we like to straddle the fence. Some idolize the past while the future is all doom and gloom with little hope. Others look back and see barbarism, placing their faith in a future where social conditions can be manipulated to improve our lot. In different ways, they accept human nature as something pushing us forward, the other as something holding us back. Both think tinkering with institutions yields net improvement.
I don't imagine solving this question in a blog post, but I’d like to explore it nonetheless. It seems to me that the answer must lie somewhere between the poles of complete historicism and a static human nature. I believe that human beings yearn both for good and bad; we have the capacity to love, but are also drawn to selfishness. Much of existence is an experiment in exploring this dialectic.
But the dialectic is influenced by our culture. As a recent article in First Things argues, China’s Confucian heritage (and perhaps its increasingly Christian one) have affected the country’s economic stability. Weber made a similar case about Protestantism and Capitalism over a hundred years ago. There’s a reason Italians and Spaniards take long breaks throughout the day. I’ve heard such stereotypes reiterated across Europe: Germans think Austrians are lazy pseudo-Italians; Austrians think Germans are uptight and work-obsessed. Culture and historical circumstance can't be discredited; they are lenses that refract our very nature, either feeding into our desires or helping us resist them. Power may always corrupt, but a society that places an emphasis on honor may help obviate (if not remove) abuse by authority.
It’s that parenthetical that really requires attention. If, like me, you believe in human nature, then you don't expect evil will disappear. Even feudal Japan, with its emphasis on personal honor to the point of suicide, experienced corruption. At the same time, however, it cultivated numerous folk heroes renowned and (at times) infamous for their dedication to honor: Takeda Shingen, Uesugi Kenshin, and the 47 Ronin, among others.
Such an emphasis on honor did not, however, mean an end to all negatives. In fact, cultivating “honorable” behavior seems also to have unleashed a certain kind of imperialism. Japan invaded Korea in the sixteenth century; the horrors of nineteenth century and twentieth century resurgent Japan are well documented.
There's at least one primary takeaway from this. No one should expect institutional manipulation to result in pure benefit. No policy can or will please everyone, and neither will any political or cultural decision enhance all the good parts of our nature while suppressing every bad one. We can and should, however, recognize that improvements can be made, at least improvements from our individual perspectives. It’s our duty to fight for what we believe right with passion and tact. It seems to me enough for one man’s lifetime to analyze human nature and then set out to qualify it with institutions, policies, and pamphlets.
In this sense, The Kierkegaardian dictum that “subjectivity is truth” rings with a striking clarity. Nature and nurture aren't opposites, but exist in a complicated and dizzying dance. Our duty isn't to disentangle them, but to live in the face of their complexity, always prepared to weigh how our decisions alter one and thereby feed or starve the other.