Something that pops up often online when discussing human behavior is something called the naturalistic fallacy, which is when someone argues that because a behavior, trait, or instinct is natural, meaning that it’s human nature, that behavior, trait, or instinct must also therefore be considered desirable and good. This is also called “the is-ought problem,” where someone concludes how things ought to be based on how things are.
Since the theme of my blog is human nature, I run into the naturalistic fallacy often. Many people believe that describing how things are, or traditionally have been, implies that things should continue to be that way. For example, there are people who will call other people “Darwinian failures” because they don’t breed. But Darwin to my knowledge never prescribed reproduction as some type of universal duty for all humans. Rather, he described the mechanism by which the processes of survival and reproduction work in species. This idea that people are morally obligated to reproduce and continue the human race is an example of the naturalistic fallacy.
That’s why I think it’s important to occasionally take the time to clarify just what human nature means. Human nature is a collection of traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms, and instincts that at some point in history helped the human race psychically and physically survive and reproduce. This doesn’t mean that every one of these traits, behaviors, or instincts is still very useful to us in surviving and reproducing. Some of these are now maladaptive in modern society and cause us more harm than good. Also, in the developed modern world, surviving and reproducing are relatively easy thanks to available technology and resources and thanks to how society is structured to protect it’s less fortunate members. Since basic survival and reproduction no longer occupy a lion’s share of human concerns in the developed world as they did in past eras of human existence, we’re now able to evaluate our evolved behavior by other standards in addition to basic survival and reproduction value, such as whether it makes us personally feel happy, fulfilled, self-actualized, and content.
Since we’ve been discussing here, here, and here how concepts in evolutionary psychology also have similar counterparts in personal, individual psychology, I want to explore how the concept of human nature has a similar counterpart among individuals as well, something I call Personal Nature. Personal nature is a collection of traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms, and instincts that at some point in history helped a person psychically and physically survive and possibly reproduce. This doesn’t mean that every one of these traits, behaviors, or instincts is still very useful to the person in surviving and reproducing. Some of these are now maladaptive in his current life and cause him more harm than good, making his life and relationships dysfunctional.
Just like some people commit the naturalistic fallacy with human nature and think just because something is natural for humans, it is desirable and shouldn’t or can’t be changed, some people commit a similar fallacy with personal nature and think that just because something is natural for them as individuals, it is desirable and shouldn’t or can’t be changed.
It’s important to understand human and personal natures, so that we can figure out what our strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies are. That way when he try to improve ourselves either on a societal level or an individual level, we know what we’re working with and what we’re working against, and can therefore plan more effective strategies than if we went in flying blind. For example opportunism is a part of human nature, whether it’s monetary opportunism (theft), sexual opportunism (rape, paternity fraud), or political opportunism (tyranny). By understanding human nature, we can craft society with safeguards to protect against this. Another example: I may not fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy and believe that I’m morally obligated to marry and have kids. But it’s in my interest to understand that the urge to settle down and procreate is part of human nature, so that I’ll realize the challenge I’ve undertaken by making my choice, and what the social consequences will likely be. On an individual level, I may know that my personal nature includes a tendency to procrastinate, so I may create an organization system that creates an incentive for me not to procrastinate. The danger is when we start looking at human nature and our personal natures as blueprints on how to live life, or unchangeable obstacles.
The great psychologist Alfred Adler coined the term “Life Style,” and what he meant by the term is something similar to what I’ve described here as Personal Nature, although the term lifestyle has evolved to currently mean something much different. That’s something we’ll get into next post.