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The problem with arguments based on human nature

3 Mar , 2017  

By  -  
Amit is the co-editor of Consented

“Well, it’s just human nature” is a line often trotted out to justify the widespread violence, greed, corruption and hate we see in our world.

The argument goes that humans have always been this way and so we cannot fight it. We must just accept things for how they are. Those making these claims tend to do so to justify the harsh realities of capitalism.

Capitalism is inseparable from greed, violence and human rights abuses. It is a system that has its obvious winners and even more obvious losers – all of which is the supposed “natural” state of affairs.

Yet such thinking is a lazy get-out-of-jail-free-pass that exonerates the person using this claim from interrogating the world’s systems of oppression or from actively trying to find solutions. It also acts to justify many of the crimes perpetuated by Western states (who are characterised as benevolent) because these crimes are simply said to be unavoidable in the context of “human nature”.

First and foremost, the claim is not correct. There are vast examples throughout history of communities (particularly outside of the Western world) being welcoming to outsiders, peaceful and not reliant on greed, accumulation and hierarchies.

As such, when we talk about human nature, we need to ground it in its proper context. What we mean by this is that we, people socialised under conditions of capitalism, know of no other way to live. Admitting this reality would be far more truthful than simply suggesting that we have a biological urge for violence, etc.

In terms of human history, this is a new phenomenon. Capitalism’s roots are grounded in the colonial period, enabling it to spread across the globe and become embedded in our common-sense understanding of the world.

Its system of economics places huge emphasis on the individual, rather than the community and undeniably encourages greed, corruption, violence and human-rights abuses.

Whilst some may point to the violence enacted by communists to counteract such analysis, the crimes committed by Stalin et al must be regarded as a reaction to dominate narratives of capitalism, in which we are all conditioned. Capitalism is violent and likewise encourages violence as a reaction to it.

Secondly, the notion of what is natural and what constitutes “human nature” has long been intertwined with pseudo-scientific arguments that have a dark and often forgotten history. We should be aware of these histories before making such arguments, given the power dynamics that they serve to recreate.

Arguments relating to “human nature” are not dissimilar from the pseudo-scientific arguments made during the colonial period to justify the supposed natural superiority of the West over the Rest, as well as justifying the “biological” superiority of whites over Others.

We can draw links between ideas of “human nature” and so-called “natural” differences that were backed up with pseudo-science that involved the measuring of people’s skulls to determine the superiority of Europeans.

European eugenicists attempted to explain the dominance and the supposed superiority of the European race in this manner and in turn determined the “natural” order of the things.

Thus, we should always be wary of any arguments made that try and define what is and isn’t “natural”, which is why the notion of human nature must be grounded in the relevant colonial context, as it was not too long ago that Europeans were arguing that certain bodies were not human, because they were not white.

We should then be wary of making these arguments and perhaps instead look to unpick why we think in such a manner. We need to focus on the way in which the world has been shaped under the logic of capitalism and propose viable solutions.

And even if we do retreat into the argument of “human nature”, why can’t we try to subvert this and improve our society? Why do we have to be condemned to violence, greed, corruption and the worst ills of modern times?

The main issue is that under capitalism we’ve become used to justifying the cruelty it produces. We need to stop doing this and delve deeper in a bid to create a better world.

Repeating the argument of “human nature” only serves to reproduce the logic of capitalism by presenting it as something that is natural to our lives and that can’t be challenged.

The argument of “human nature” is a baseless excuse which gives capitalism an easy ride and further implies gross limitations of human beings that go against human histories, particularly outside of the western world.


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