Philosophy of Human Nature
Grand View College
Des Moines, Iowa
Philosophy of human nature seeks to interpret the question, “what does it mean to be human?” The question is important because one of our most important vocations in life is to understand ourselves. One watchword of the ancient Greeks was “know thyself.” If we knew ourselves we could have greater freedom and happiness in life. The human is a unique species in the universe and worthy of attention. The point of this course is to help develop greater self-awareness.
(Socrates, the hero of Philosophy)
This is a course in interpretation. The scientific word for interpretation is hermeneutics. It comes from the Greek god, Hermes who was the messenger god between the gods and people. In this course we will pursue truth through classical readings. We will be attempting to interpret human nature through the readings. Contemporary attempts to interpret human nature are dependent on these previous thinkers. You will be “in the know” once you are familiar with these writings. You will be able to compare and contrast these classical views with contemporary views that you are learning in other classes and you will see how they are dependent on the classical views. Also, you will be able to see how popular culture has been influenced indirectly by classical views.
The assumption here is that human nature is not reducible to scientific inquiry. Why classical readings? They help you understand that you belong to a great tradition. All our thinking is dependent on the past. When you master the thinking of the past, you are in a position to make intelligent judgments about contemporary society. If all you ever do is think about the world through the lens of contemporary perspectives, you loose sight of wisdom. Wisdom is gained only through reflection and meditation. This course gives you the opportunity to grow in your abilities to do such reflection.
This is meaty stuff but in this course you will gain confidence that you can handle tough readings. This will increase your skills in speaking, writing, and thinking.
This course fulfills the ethical thinking core. Human nature and ethics are intertwined. Hopefully ethics is accountable to human nature and vice versa.
HOW WILL WRITING ASSIGNMENTS BE GRADED?
AN EXCELLENT WRITING SAMPLE (A):
ESTABLISHES AND FOCUSES ON THE PURPOSE OF THE WRITING TASK
SHOWS A CLEAR AWARENESS OF THE INTENDED AUDIENCE
ORGANIZES CONTENT AND IDEAS IN A LOGICAL WAY
IS FLUENT AND COHESIVE
INCLUDES APPROPRIATE DETAILS TO CLARIFY IDEAS
INCLUDES NO MISTAKES IN GRAMMAR, MECHANICS OR USAGE THAT DETRACT FROM CLARITY AND MEANING
A GOOD WRITNG SAMPLE (B):
FOCUSES ON THE PURPOSE OF THE WRITING TASK
SHOWS SOME AWARENESS OF THE INTENDED AUDIENCE
ORGANIZES CONTENT AND IDEAS IN A LOGICAL WAY, ALTHOUGH TRANSITIONS MAY NOT BE FLUENT
INCLUDES SOME DETAILS TO CLARIFY IDEAS
INCLUDES SOME MISTAKES IN GRAMMAR, MECHANICS OR USAGE THAT DETRACT FROM CLARITY AND MEANING
A FAIR WRITING SAMPLE (C):
HAS SOME AWARENESS OF THE PURPOSE AND INTENDED AUDIENCE
ATTEMPTS TO ORGANIZE CONTENT AND IDEAS BUT IS NOT PARTICULARLY FLUENT OR OMITS TRANSITIONS
INCLUDES SOME DETAILS
INCLUDES SEVERAL MISTAKES IN GRAMMAR, MECHANICS OR USAGE THAT DETRACT FROM CLARITY AND MEANING
A POOR WRITING SAMPLE (D):
IS CONFUSED IN PURPOSE OR DOES NOT RESPOND TO THE TASK
DOES NOT PRESENT CONTENT IN AN ORGAINIZED OR LOGICAL WAY
INCLUDES FEW OR NO DETAILS
INCLUDES MANY MISTAKES IN GRAMMAR, MECHANICS OR USAGE THAT DETRACT FROM CLARITY AND MEANING
CRITERIA for Grading Class Participation
· Present, not disruptive.
· Tries to respond when called on but does not offer much.
· Demonstrates very infrequent involvement in discussion
· Demonstrates adequate preparation: knows basic reading facts, but does not show evidence of trying to interpret or analyze them.
· Offers straightforward information (e.g., straight from the), without elaboration or very infrequently (perhaps once a class).
· Does not offer to contribute to discussion, but contributes to a moderate degree when called on.
· Demonstrates sporadic involvement.
90 · Demonstrates good preparation: knows reading facts well, has thought through implications of them.
· Offers interpretations and analysis of material (more than just facts) to class.
· Contributes well to discussion in an ongoing way: responds to other students’ points, thinks through own points, questions others in a constructive way, offers and supports suggestions that may be counter to the majority opinion.
· Demonstrates consistent ongoing involvement.
100 · Demonstrates excellent preparation: has analyzed the readings exceptionally well, relating it to other material (e.g., other readings, lectures, discussions, experiences, etc.).
· Offers analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of case material, e.g., puts together pieces of the discussion to develop new approaches that take the class further.
· Contributes in a very significant way to ongoing discussion: keeps analysis focused, responds very thoughtfully to other students’ comments, contributes to the cooperative argument-building, suggests alternative ways of approaching material and helps class analyze which approaches are appropriate, etc.
· Demonstrates ongoing very active involvement.
On-Line Materials you must get
The Internet Classics Archive/Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachean.html (Books I-III, and VIII)
Descartes, Rene—Meditations on First Philosophy
Kant—Early Modern Texts.com
Some Terms You Need to Know
Philosophy: love of wisdom
Epistemology: theory of knowledge
Ethics: theory of the good or the right
Aesthetics: theory of beauty
Logic: the rigor of thinking or argument
Metaphysics: the theory of what’s really real
Inductive: all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore, Socrates is mortal
Deductive: 99% of college students are under age 50, Jean is a college student, therefore, Jean is probably under age 50.
Philosophy is concerned with questions such as “how do you know that you know,” “what are you made up of,” and “are universals more real than particulars.” While many of these questions seem unrelated to your everyday life, thinking about them helps you develop intellectually and makes you more confident in dealing with life.
Different images of human nature can be found in the authors we read: Becker, paradox between animal and angel; Rousseau, child of nature; Descartes, thinking thing; Kant, ethical agent; Aristotle, rational animal; and Augustine, image of God.
Ethics: Basic Terms and Concepts
Would you consider the following to be matters of moral concern or only of differing codes of etiquette?
In a supermarket, a housewife decides that she doesn’t want the ice cream after all, but instead of returning the ice cream to the frozen foods cabinet, she leaves it on another shelf where it quickly melts.
She brings her small children with her into the supermarket and thereafter ignores them. They run up and down the aisles, pick items off shelves, and tug at the customers’ clothes, while she does nothing. “She should keep her kids under control,” says one customer. “No,” says another, “she just has a different way of bring up her children. Who knows, her way may be best.”
Which of these would you view as matters of moral concern? Why?
overparking at a meter
cheating at cards
cheating on an examination
beating your dog
eating healthful foods
keeping your car in good running condition
cutting off your engagement
letting your garbage accumulate, so that it smells up the neighborhood
doing two hours’ work for eight hours’ pay
following another car so closely that you case an accident
going to the polls to vote in a national election
The following practices are variable from one culture to another. Do you think there is a right and wrong on these matters and why?
trapping birds and animals and killing them for sport
cremation of the dead, as opposed to burial
polygamy, in a nation whose male population has been decimated by war
polygamy, under nonemergency situations
using torture to extract military secrets from prisoners of war
mass executions without a trial
eating human flesh, in the belief that it will make men stronger warriors
killing rhinos in order to obtain their horns (in the belief that it will confer greater virility)
killing people who do not belong to the “master race”
Basic Ethical Concepts
Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
Beneficence refers to the obligation to do good, not harm, to other people. It is to act in the best interests of another person. It is difficult to decide who will determine what is good for a person. In most instance people make their own decisions. But who decides for the infant, the mentally incompetent, and other who are unable to make decisions? There are no simple answers.
Nonmaleficence means to do no harm. Here the ethical mandate is that we refrain from inflicting harm.
Autonomy refers to the right to make one’s own decisions and, conversely, to respect the choices that others make for themselves. However, there may be limitations to autonomy. For some individuals, autonomy may be a less central value than our values related to the family.
Justice refers to the obligation to be fair to all people. Questions asked here include: does age make a difference in what we consider just? Does justice imply that the government should provide what individuals cannot provide for themselves? What are the rights of one person when those rights affect the rights of another?
Fidelity refers to the obligation to be faithful to the agreements and responsibilities that one has undertaken. Questions: when responsibilities conflict, which should take priority? In reality, which does take priority? Do circumstances alter which should have priority?
Veracity refers to telling the truth. Questions: do you tell a lie when it would make someone less anxious and afraid? Sissela Bok concludes that rarely is lying to the sick and dying justified. The loss of trust in caregivers, the anxiety created by not knowing the truth, the loss of opportunity to deal with personal and family concerns, and other adverse consequences of not being told the truth far outweigh the perceived benefits of lying.
We will get more into these as we study the different philosophers. Here are the major theories for now.
The basic concept is that an act is right if it is useful in bringing about a good outcome or end. Furthermore, when issues compete they are weighed to determine which will bring the greatest good for the greatest number. The act is preferable that produces more total good. The action with the most positive consequences and the least negative consequences would be the preferred action. People use this approach when they support budget decisions to provide vaccines to thousands of children instead of an organ replacement to one.
In this theory, the moral rightness or wrongness of human actions should be considered independently of the consequences of the action. It is not the consequences that make an action right or wrong but the principle of motivation on which the action is based that determines right or wrong. If a homeowner shoots an attacking intruder, she is not guilty of murder. A robber who shoots a store clerk is. Motive is the deciding factor in whether the state charges a person with murder. The key factor in deotological ethics is never using people as a means to an end but to see people as ends-in-themselves. The fundamental humanity of people should always be respected.
This theory of morality focuses on people’s character. The ideal of this theory is that people should find happiness by developing their distinctive abilities or virtues. Virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean between cowardliness and foolhardiness. Virtue is a natural trait, but it needs to be developed in light of a public role or responsibility.
Responsibility ethics focuses not so much on achieving the greatest good for the greatest number, honoring the humanity of individuals, or developing one’s own native abilities. Instead, it is offering a publicly accountable defense of one’s actions in light of one’s given situation. H. Richard Niebuhr offers a theistic vision of responsibility ethics. He says, “God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions as though to respond to God.” God, here, is not so much a legislator or judge as one who calls us to care for our neighbor and the creation.
Questioning the Sources of Subjectivism in Ethics
Subjectivism is the view that what is right is what I feel to be right. Many people think this way. But, is this the truth about ethics? Just because I feel something is right, does that make it right? Or, do we need to find some kind of objectivity in ethics? In this section we will explore why our culture tends to look at subjectivism as plausible.
First Source: the Fact/Value Split.
The F/V Split is based on an outdated model of science which views science as dealing with wholly objective “facts” apart from any human interpretation. This position could be termed “verificationism” because it assumes that what makes for scientific truth is that it is verifiable. However, most philosophers of science recognize that this model of scientific method is far too simplistic a view of what scientists actually do. For over 4 decades, most philosophers of science have recognized that scientific facts are “theory-laden.” i.e. scientific facts do not come naked into the world but are packages in interpretations, scientific theories. The point is: scientific models remain open to dispute in our quest for truth.
There are further problems with the split. We aim for objectivity in science, as well we should. However, even science does not accomplish its work apart from metaphors. When we look at light as both a wave and a particle, are we not using metaphors to help us scientifically understand reality? When paradigms shift in science, or to use Lakatos’ terminology, when we alter “auxiliary hypotheses” in our “research program” in light of new evidence, is this not due to the fact that science is disputable and that it is the ability of a theory to adequately explain a situation that silence dispute? Even science can not scientifically demonstrate that its fundamental assumption about the nature of the cosmos i.e. that every effect has a cause, is true beyond a shadow of a doubt (David Hume).
The claim that science deals with objective facts that are indisputable while ethics deals with feelings is, at least from the side of science, simplistic and downright false. From the side of science, the fact/value split commits the sin of “objectivism” (R. Bernstein). Perhaps ethics can be seen as dealing with theories or proposals open to testing on the criteria of furthering the public good.
Second Source: the Values Clarification Movement.
VC got its start in 1966 with the publication of Values and Teaching by Louis Raths, Merrill Harmin, and Sidney Simon. VC is an outgrowth of human potential psychology. VC takes Carl Roger’s non-directive, nonjudgmental therapy technique and applies it to moral education. The VC founders were so committed to therapeutic nonjudgmentalism that they claimed that “it is entirely possible that children will choose not to develop values. It is the teacher’s responsibility to support this choice also.” The VC approach virtually equates values with feelings. One 8th grade teacher with a low-achieving class who used VC found that the four most popular activities were “sex, drugs, drinking and skipping school.” The problem with VC is that it gives the teacher no way of persuading students to do other activities. Furthermore, one can argue that VC, despite its claim of being value-neutral, actually conditions children to think of values as relative. Example: Values-voting.
The VC approach assumes that there is no objective truth is ethics and devises teaching strategies that reinforce this theory. However, this assumption is far from certain. Why should we assume that values that promote well-being for people and the earth are as irrational as values that hurt people and the earth? Another concern is that given the human disposition to be mimetic, is not clarification of one’s values tantamount to simply expressing the ideals of one’s peer group? The VC approach is anti-intellectual. At what point ought we to question our values, test our values, perhaps even reject our values, if in fact our values hurt others? An insight for ethics is that ethics is a rhetorical task, an attempt to persuade people by offering sound reasons for how to achieve a common good.
Third Source: the Moral Reasoning Approach
Lawrence Kohlberg reacted against VC by seeking an approach that would incorporate moral reasoning into student’s education. He especially favored an approach modeled after the “Socratic” dialogues, one that would stimulate thought and discussion by raising ethical dilemmas. For example, if I can save only my spouse or my baby from a burning house, who do I save? Many of these dilemmas are apt to leave students disoriented: do we want to concentrate on quandaries or on everyday morality? The “life boat” exercise is often quite artificial. An everyday moral dilemma is “ought I to cheat on this exam?” The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic. After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess (William Kilpatrick). Perhaps, the real ethical question is not how to solve certain dilemmas, but who do I want to be like. (Bettelheim).
Fourth Source: the Cultural Relativism
William Graham Sumner and Ruth Benedict historically have been the leaders behind this perspective. “Who is to say whether or not this culture is right?” Yet, in dozens of societies, civil rights and free speech are only words. If a child is taught that there are no right or wrong ways, just different ways, then a child will not be equipped to make sense of such facts or be able to order or judge them. Arthur Schlesinger: “The crimes of the West have produced their own antidotes. They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism…to advance personal liberty and human rights. It is to the Western standard that groups and individuals in other societies appeal when they seek to redress injustices within their own borders. It makes no sense to deprive our own children of that standard. It could be argued that the US has a common culture that is multicultural. I worry that this approach disempowers students. “Who is to say what is right?”-seems to be a natural question arising from CR. The answer is that in a democracy, you are to take responsibility for saying what is right or wrong.
Fifth Source: Utilitarian and Expressive Individualism
Robert Bellah has identified the “ontological priority” of the individual in North American culture. In our political philosophy, inherited from Locke, the individual is in a very real sense prior to the community because a just government presupposes the individual’s prior consent to be a part of this government. A wider ethos of individualism also pervades American life. Bellah identifies four varieties. Two important one for our work is (1) utilitarian: the Ben Franklin model of life that you can lift yourself up by your own boot straps if you work hard enough and (2) expressive: the Walt Whitman myth that nothing is ever important or as real as your individual self-expression (provided that you do not hurt anyone else). Excessive individualism undermines the quest to achieve the public good.
Challenging Ethical Relativism
One needs to distinguish ethical relativism (ER ) from cultural relativism (CR). CR is a sociological observation that different cultures do different things. Ethically speaking, this observation is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is the attempt to ground ER on the basis of CR. People do this by means of the cultural differences argument (CDA). The argument proceeds like this:
Different cultures do different things
Therefore, there is no objective truth in morality.
This is not a valid argument. Some people or cultures might believe that the earth is flat. This does not mean that the earth in truth is flat. Likewise in ethics, just because people disagree over whether or not slavery is right or wrong doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth about the rightness or wrongness of slavery.
James Rachels (Univeristy of New Mexico) approaches the issue indirectly with a reductio ad absurdum (reduce to absurdity) argument. He fleshes out the conclusions that would naturally be drawn if ER were true. He implies that you would not like the consequences of these conclusions and that you would naturally seek an alternative viewpoint to ethical relativism in ethics.
Rachels’ first point is that if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that other cultures might be ethically inferior to your own.
Examples: perhaps your culture eats healthy foods and another culture does not. Rachels implies that you would want to reserve the right to say that your culture promotes better health and overall well-being than another culture.
Perhaps your culture doesn’t practice slavery because it violates human freedom and dignity while other cultures promote slavery. Rachels implies that you would want to reserve the right to criticize slavery in other cultures as being wrong.
Rachels’ second point is that if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that your own culture might at times be ethically messed up and that you would want to reserve the right to challenge your own culture.
Examples: if you say you can’t criticize your own culture, then you might have to say that Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Junior or Oskar Schindler were wrong in criticize their respective dominant cultures. However, Rachels implies that you might want to side with these social reformers. If that is the case, then you would want to question ER.
Thridly, Rachels says that if ER is true, then you could not hold out for the possibility of moral progress in your culture and he implies that you would want to reserve the right to do this.
Example: if ER is true, then you would not be able to say that if your culture has become more tolerant in how it treats minorities it has gotten better. Or, you would not be able to say that if your culture permits women to vote that it is better than when it didn’t allow women to vote. What would make it ethically better in this latter case? The fact that democracy is more widespread among all its citizens.
While Rachels doesn’t prove objectivism in ethics beyond a shadow of a doubt, he undermines ER by means of its shortcomings, at least from the perspective of our considered ethical reflections. ER, for Rachels, is a discredited theory that is not able to well serve the needs of a modern democracy.