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Raw Concepts: Human Nature, Personal Nature

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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.

20 Responses to “Raw Concepts: Human Nature, Personal Nature”


  1. I think you have to be very careful with the term “human nature”

    there may be some very basic instincts and needs for a baby, some biological necessities, like nutrition and care. but even these most basic things, e.g. how a mother devotes herself to a child, are culturally defined. there is no thing as “human nature” extracted / unconnected from society. humans are embedded in society and so are all their “traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms”.

    I write this because to my impression (popular) sciences makes this mistake very often: problems arising out of social-economic circumstances are projected onto “human nature”. And this is stupid because its wrong and it leads to wrong remedies and glorifies or at least distracts from social circumstances. Where society needs to be criticised and changed, people start either to whine “how bad humans are” or to shrug because “thats the way humans are”.

    and please dont reduce phenomenons like “monetary opportunism (theft), sexual opportunism (rape, paternity fraud), or political opportunism (tyranny)” to the term opportunism. That is just bullshit and completely beside it.


  2. and please dont reduce phenomenons like “monetary opportunism (theft), sexual opportunism (rape, paternity fraud), or political opportunism (tyranny)” to the term opportunism. That is just bullshit and completely beside it.

    Opportunism is defined as “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others.” How is what I said bullshit?


  3. I think you have to be very careful with the term “human nature”

    there may be some very basic instincts and needs for a baby, some biological necessities, like nutrition and care. but even these most basic things, e.g. how a mother devotes herself to a child, are culturally defined. there is no thing as “human nature” extracted / unconnected from society. humans are embedded in society and so are all their “traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms”.

    Where did I claim that “human nature” could be extracted or treated as unconnected to society? Or that genetic influence could be extracted or treated as unconnected to environmental influences? All this is a given.


  4. Anonymous said:

    there is no thing as “human nature” extracted / unconnected from society. humans are embedded in society and so are all their “traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms”.

    All their traits, including their moral intuition and their truth claims about human nature?


  5. The naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy if you explicitly accept it as your meta-ethic.

    In reply to anon: “there is no thing as “human nature” extracted / unconnected from society. humans are embedded in society and so are all their “traits, behaviors, coping mechanisms”.”

    Humans are quite different from insects, from otters. Humans are definitely a particular kind of organism and we have behaviours, inner mental life – nature – arising from this.

    Now, there is a subtlety here. We by nature form societies. Some of our behaviour (etc) is the product of the inevitable dynamics of societies – we see this in children raised by wolves, for instance, who after a certain age can never learn to speak. Do we accept behaviours arising inevitably from living in societies as human nature, given that the reason we have societies in the first place is basic, biological human nature?


  6. Paul Murray: Isnt that circular reasoning? The naturalistic fallacy isn’t a fallacy if you accept it as your meta-ethic, sure, but accepting it as your meta-ethic in the first place requires you to commit the naturalistic fallacy.


  7. Really enjoying how you’ve tied in personal psychology into these posts about human nature in these last couple of posts.

    I’ve struggled for some time now with a blog quote from this year that says something along the lines of “you are fine the way you are, AND there’s always room for improvement.” While I recognized that the use of AND serves to lead us away from a shame-based motivation for self-improvement, I didn’t fully embrace the idea until thinking about this particular post, i.e. TRAITS may be maladaptive and needing improvement/calibration re: present circumstances, but I, as a person, am fine. That was the big disconnect that I couldn’t get past until these last few posts.

    Thank you for writing, your blog is a big asset in my thinking/growth these days.


  8. about the opportunism-point:

    I think its bullshit because: theft, rape, paternety fraud and tyranny are just very different things, caused out of very different motivations. For example theft is commited because people are excluded from the goods resp. money via private property. They dont go the way prescribed by law. That is very different from the way of ruling a state via tyranny. Right now I just cant give an adequate definition of tyranny, but to connect it to theft or rape or anything else via opportunism is very arbitrary. Nothing is said by that. And moreover, substantiate theft by “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others.” misses the point. People are excluded from private property, and they practically disregard this law. You put it as if stealing is directed against the owner of something. In some cases it may be a sideeffect, but only that.

    And worse; by this you do exactly what I am arguing against. You reduce things happening in a society caused by the way society works (in our case: capitalism) to a human trait: opportunism.

    Another example

    you write “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.”

    I would say no, thats wrong. It’s important to understand in what way the socio-economic system including politics and states work. E.G. profit is not a human trait, it is a necessity in capitlism. National growth is a necessity for the state, too. No matter what characteristics a politician has, in his/her function he/she has to take care for economic growth.


  9. Okay, so Anonymous left the same comment on my fan page, and I told him over there that it’s not enough to just call my point “bullshit” and leave it at that, because it gives me nothing to respond to. So he came over here to explain his point on why he thought it was bullshit, hence his follow up comment, which I will respond to now.

    about the opportunism-point:

    I think its bullshit because: theft, rape, paternety fraud and tyranny are just very different things, caused out of very different motivations.

    The differing motivations don’t have anything to do with whether or not they can be considered opportunism. Opportunism is defined as “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others.” So it doesn’t matter if someone is stealing because they are dirt poor and oppressed or because they are rich, thrill-seeking sociopaths. If they are taking advantage of an opportunity to take someone else’s stuff without regard for the consequences it has for other people, they are opportunists.

    For example theft is committed because people are excluded from the goods resp. money via private property.

    Theft is done for a variety of reasons, not just because people are excluded from private property. Look at Bernie Madoff. There are plenty of thieves who have lots of private property and the money to afford to buy the goods they steal but choose to steal them anyway. There are plenty of dirt poor people with no access money and little private property who never steal, even if given the opportunity.

    There are multiple types of people who become thieves besides the type you describe, and not everyone who fits your description becomes a thief. Regardless, all thieves are opportunists. They perceive an opportunity to get something for nothing and pounce on it, regardless of who it hurts.

    They dont go the way prescribed by law. That is very different from the way of ruling a state via tyranny.

    Tyranny is cruel and oppressive government rule. This still falls under the definition of opportunism. The tyrant is taking advantage of opportunities without regard to the consequences it has for others. His power gives him plenty of opportunities, and he abuses those opportunities for his own benefit at the expense of the people.

    Right now I just cant give an adequate definition of tyranny, but to connect it to theft or rape or anything else via opportunism is very arbitrary.

    Why?

    Nothing is said by that.

    Says who? And why? Because it doesn’t work for you, you declare nothing is said by that? Maybe to others, plenty is said by that. You seem to be fond of just definitely declaring what is valid and isn’t valid with extreme confidence just based on your personal feelings. How can you just declare so definitely “nothing is said by that?”

    And moreover, substantiate theft by “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others.” misses the point.

    Whose point?

    People are excluded from private property, and they practically disregard this law. You put it as if stealing is directed against the owner of something. In some cases it may be a sideeffect, but only that.

    Okay, you lost me. Who is excluded from private property? All thieves? Like I just said, not all thieves are excluded from private property. And I don’t get your point about how stealing isn’t directed against the owner of something, and how the damage to the owner is just a “sideeffect.” Stealing by its very definition is an act against the owner of the good you are unlawfully taking. The fact that the owner is injured by the theft is not just a side effect of stealing, it’s the primary part of the act that makes it stealing.

    And worse; by this you do exactly what I am arguing against.

    So my argument is worse because I am doing exactly what you argue against? If I didn’t accept your original premise from your last comment to begin with as being valid, why is the fact that I am arguing against it a strike against the validity of my argument?

    Do you get what I’m trying to ask here? You made a point about how you define human nature, and claimed I was misdefining it. I disagreed with your premise. Since I disagree with your original premise on how you define human nature, it’s not some strike against me that I continue to do exactly what you argue against, since I never agreed with your point in the first place.

    Just because you declare how you personally feel human nature should be defined doesn’t mean I’m obligated to accept your definition and tailor my future arguments to be consistent with your definition. Especially if I explicitly have already said I disagree with it.

    You reduce things happening in a society caused by the way society works (in our case: capitalism) to a human trait: opportunism.

    If an act is caused by the way society works, that has nothing to do with whether or not it is opportunism. You may use the fact that the act is caused by the way society works to argue that the opportunism is somewhat justified or forgivable, perhaps, but it’s still opportunism.

    Another example: Think of crime. I may steal because I’m hungry and poor and downtrodden. I may steal because I think it’s fun, even though I’m rich. Either way it’s still a theft and still crime. The judge may consider mitigating circumstances and go lightly on me, or the DA may choose not to prosecute, but none of that changes the fact that the act in both scenarios is still theft and is still a crime.

    you write “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.”

    I would say no, thats wrong. It’s important to understand in what way the socio-economic system including politics and states work. E.G. profit is not a human trait, it is a necessity in capitlism. National growth is a necessity for the state, too. No matter what characteristics a politician has, in his/her function he/she has to take care for economic growth.

    I suspect you are very stuck on some Marxist vs. Capitalist worldview and are filtering everything through that. Financial profit specifically is not a human tendency, but accumulation and hoarding is. This accumulation and hoarding can take shape in different ways in different cultures. It can be accumulated animal flesh in a hunter-gatherer society. It could be accumulating crops and property in an agricultural society. It could be accumulating rank and position in a communist society. It could be accumulating profit in a capitalist society. But the human nature isn’t so much the specific form of significance and power that people strive for, but the fact that within the value system they operate in, human beings will strive to accumulate whatever matters within that particular culture.

    Complex cultures and civilized societies in general are an aspect of human nature. Animals, for example, don’t form them. So it’s perfectly valid to include things created by culture and society as part of human nature. Under certain conditions, humans tend to react by creating culture and civilization.


  10. first of all for clarification: Right now I do not try to say anything about human nature, except that we don’t know much about it. In my opinion, behavior, traits, coping strategies, can only be deduced from (evolutionary) biology to a very small degree. There may be some truth in it, but to my impression it’s the other way around; the reasons the way people act caused by socio-economic circumstances (sc.) are projected onto biology.
    That said, what I do not wanna do is put another view next to your view about human nature and then go on and argue that mine is right or better. Or at least I dont wanna do that it and I try to be careful not doing it.

    Your defintion stealing is “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others” can’t be true. It’s easy to think of and find examples where thieves did think a lot about the ones they have stolen from and about the consequences for the other ones and themselves etc. They may had some conclusions about that, which led them to think its ok anyway. Maybe others didnt take into rerard the consequences for others, some did. I guess the same holds for tyrants. At least it’s conceivable, so logically your definition is wrong.

    You wrote I describe “a type” of thieve. I just didnt do that. Please read my comment again if you still think I did. Nor did I “made a point about how (…) define human nature”. I didnt.
    What I tryed was to give the objective reasons for stealing, the sc.-basis for it. In the first place, that has nothing to do with personal motivations. It certainly leads to it, but thats another topic. That is: private property means that all people are excluded from goods and money. Correct me if I’m wrong. Without this basis, stealing could not be possible. This is not my little Utopia, this is a logical truth. Again: correct me if I’m wrong.
    I dont know Bernie Madoff, but no matter how rich he was, the things said in the paragraph above hold for him, too. Everybody is excluded from goods in capitalist societies via private property. Thats one aspect of Equality. (It works best this way I guess, maybe only this way given this Equality is accomplished in a society for once, but thats my speculation)
    So that was my point when I wrote “And moreover, substantiate theft by “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others.” misses the point.”
    That said it should be clear that I perfectly agree with you in writing ” Either way it’s still a theft and still crime.” But I guess I dont share your moral jugdement about stealing in particular ind crime in general. But lets not discuss morality here. I always find that tedious.
    I can perfectly live with being called a marxist, although I didn’t read him so much.I’m not stuck in any worldview, although I do have certain convictions. What I really appreciate is when you take my arguments seriously anyway.


  11. If rephrased as “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others”, would the definition still be acceptable to you, Ricky, and would you cease to have such a problem with it, Anonymous?


  12. oh yeah, great…

    in the morning by taking my breakfast I am “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others”

    after that by using the toilet I am “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others”

    then by brushing my teeth I am “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others”

    then by going to the supermarket I am “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others”

    etc.

    do you see what I mean? “taking advantage of opportunities without regard for or despite the consequences for others” is just an empty phrase, saying nothing, applicable to everything.

    In my comment above I wrote a lot more.


  13. Anonymous, at any point are you inconveniencing anyone else in pursuing those opportunities? If eating breakfast, using the toilet, etc required you to have adverse consequences on someone else and you still insisted on doing them because you could get away with it, that would be opportunism.


  14. To use your toilet example. Yes you use the toilet every day. That doesn’t make you an opportunist because you haven’t demonstrated a disregard for consequences to others in your use of the toilet. If, on the other hand, you cut the line to the bathroom and sneak in out of turn when someone isn’t paying attention so that you can use the toilet, then in that case using the toilet is opportunistic. It’s only opportunistic when it can be shown to be accompanied by a disregard of consequence to others. With some acts the disregard for the consequence to others is part of the very nature of the act, such as with rape, robbery or tyranny. Not so with the examples you gave


  15. no. when I use the toilet I use fresh water, so this is not available to others anymore. By eating breakfast I smutch the kitchen, the bathroom by brushing my teeth. By buying products in the supermarket I do practically accept and hold exploitation up. I may or may not think about it, that doesnt matter. (I dont know if your point is that the committer did not think about it. Because that was my argument in the comment above, he may or may not think about it, in the first case he may come to conclusions to do his urination, theft, rape, tyrannical act etc. anyway. So in the second case the adverse consequences must be seen objectively.)

    We’ve come to this point because I critized your reduction of very different acts to one alleged aspect of human nature, that is opportunism. I try to show that your opportunism aspect is either wrong or meaningless. I do this because I’d like to discuss the actual social circumstances that define and lead to acts that you call opportunistic. My hypothesis is, with your reduction to human nature you do not only conceal these circumstances, you produce ideology, which facilitates those.


  16. Anonymous: either you’re not getting my point or you get it but disagree. Either way, fine. I don’t see either of us convincing each other, so I’m moving on.


  17. If I’m not getting your point, make it clear.

    If I’m getting it and disagree, this should be made clear so far. If you do not have any argument against it, you’re proven wrong. If it’s not clear, you can tell at which point. then its up to me to make it clear.


  18. Seriously dude, get over yourself. I’m not obligated to argue with you until I convince you of my point. I feel I’ve made my point clearly, and you claim i havent or you disagree. Fine. So be it.

    You can’t demand that I continue arguing with you. That’s some infant tantrum type behavior. Your arrogance and self-importance are mind-boggling.


  19. I’m just very sure about some views about some aspects of the world we live in and in seeing people looking at it in an misaligned way, because I did so for a long time, and I know there are good reasons to do so. and I am impatient in discussions. This may seem like arrogance, maybe there is a little arrogance. I am certainly not egomaniac.


  20. You may not intend to be arrogant and may be pretty oblivious to the ways in which you are, but trust me, you do come off pretty arrogant and angry to boot.

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