A. Man as a Rational Animal
In most Western societies, a mental model of man as a rational animal prevails. Some of its advocates have highlighted what we share with animals, while others have emphasized rationality as a distinctive human characteristic. Regardless of the angle that one takes, what most interest us here are the implications that this concept has had in interpreting human behavior.
Many assume that, if man is a rational animal, the same scientific explanations for animal behavior can simply be transferred to understanding human behavior. This is a sort of ‘epistemological shortcut’ that, were it justified, could greatly facilitate the work of the social sciences. However, if it were not legitimate, as we hope to show in this and future sections, then it could lead to grave mistakes with destructive consequences, both for theoretical science and in its applications to organizing society.
1. Origins of the Concept
The term ‘rational animal’ was coined by Aristotle for the purpose of illustrating the structure of definitions and the way in which they reveal the ‘essential nature’ of phenomena. His definition of human beings placed us under the genus of animals, but differentiated by our rational capacity. Subsequently, Descartes pondered the idea in the second of his “Meditations on First Philosophy”, when asking “What am I?”, and then rejected it saying, “Shall I say ‘a rational animal’? No; for then I should have to inquire what an animal is, what rationality is, and in this one question would lead me down the slope to other harder ones.”1
As the notion that human beings were rational animals became increasingly popular, it was precisely those harder questions which made it one of the major mental models that sustained the myth of adversarialism as a natural condition in man. According to one version of evolution theory, human beings descend from monkeys and monkeys from other, lesser animals. Animals are assigned such attributes as aggression, greed, and fighting, motivated solely by immediate, material and selfish ends. Therefore, human beings are believed to carry in their blood these same characteristics, inherited from their animal forebears. The only difference would be that, being ‘more intelligent’, humans have been able to raise their adversarialism to a new level of organized, systematic aggression, which has enabled us to achieve supremacy over the other animals.
2. Why it is Problematic
One perverse effect of this concept is that it not only essentializes in man the adversarial features that are commonly attributed to animals, but it then builds these features into the structures of society, thereby raising those features to the rank of institution. This is then frequently used as a justification for war: since animals fight, it is 'natural' for rational animals to fight also.
This concept of man is also problematic because it constitutes a complicated sort of reductionism. By calling man a ‘rational animal’, first we place him at the next level down epistemologically, and then we treat the essential characteristic that differentiates him from that level as if it were a secondary trait, no more important than any other physiological feature. It is like saying that animals are plants with five senses, or that plants are minerals that reproduce.
This is not entirely incorrect per se; the problem is its reductionist implications, which minimize the enormous importance of that fundamental, unique characteristic. What differentiates human beings from animals, animals from plants, and plants from minerals, are qualitative features, not merely quantitative ones. The life in plants, the senses in animals, and the rational capacity in man are phenomena of entirely different orders, infinitely more important to their differentiated analysis than what each has in common with the rest.
However, for the time being, let us suspend judgment regarding the validity of studying man as a rational animal and look at some of the theories that were developed under this approach, the mistakes they have brought about, and a few alternative concepts.
B. Innate Depravity
According to a concept that has been especially well received among Western societies, human beings are inherently depraved, or ‘bad’. Different explanations are sometimes given to support this point of view. Some see man as a fallen angel who must strive to go back to his original condition in heaven. Others believe that he has inherited a sin that was committed by the common forebears of all humankind.2 Still others consider that for historical reasons God has allowed a ‘devil’ to reign in the human world for a certain length of time. Finally there are those who, observing the situation of the world, conclude that a flaw in the human soul compels us to wickedness.3 For example, in Romans 7:18-24 we read:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
These notions, despite their diverse variations and origins, have certain positive effects in common. They lead to the recognition that all human beings have the potential to commit acts that go against their individual and collective welbeing. This recognition can lead to the humility to admit our own weakness, imperfection and need for support from others, or from God. It can also lead to a healthy attitude of tolerance, understanding and compassion vis-à-vis the faults of others.
However, believing the human spirit to be ‘bad’ by nature can also lead to certain undesirable outcomes. For example, many efforts to improve the human condition focus more on attacking human faults than on cultivating our potential goodness. Numerous studies have shown that this approach tends to have the effect of strengthening the very evils that it seeks to eradicate. Furthermore, a belief in man’s inherent wickedness can often be used as an excuse to not make an effort to improve, under the pretext that we are ‘only human’, or that “the devil made me do it”. Finally, this way of thinking does not favor the development of a positive self-image, so important to strengthening a healthy personality.
This mental model of human reality, which has both a secular and religious version, emphasizes man’s defects, limitations, tendency to err, and supposed incorrigibility. In secular society, “he’s only human” is a phrase often used to excuse someone for his shortcomings while simultaneously affirming the limitations of human nature. This can lead to a compassionate understanding of the errors of others, but gives no motivation to overcome weaknesses and strive to become better.
C. Inherent Goodness
A second concept, more common among Eastern cultures, is that human beings are essentially ‘good’. This category also includes a broad range of ideas. Some simply say that by definition God is good, that therefore His creation must necessarily be good, and so humanity cannot be bad.4 Others believe that the human spirit is potentially good but needs to be developed. Finally, there are those who believe that the human soul can evolve spiritually until it becomes God, or that we are already a part of God understood as the sum total of all existing things. To explain the existence of evil in the world, some respond that although we are created good, society corrupts us.5
These notions also share certain positive implications. They lead to accepting that we all have the potential to behave morally, in ways that benefit all. They also have the effect of promoting a positive self-image, which favors the development of a healthy character. They focus one’s attention on the seeds of goodness growing in each person, which promotes the development of positive qualities. Finally, they tend to enhance the efficacy of efforts to improve the human condition, as they center efforts more on cultivating virtues than on attacking defects.
However, the concept of man’s inherent goodness can also lead to error. For example, some pedagogues who followed this philosophy believed that children’s inherent goodness should be left to blossom ‘naturally’ without adult intervention. However, most people need help to channel and discipline their talents and capabilities, and to avoid negative attitudes and behaviors. Furthermore, on a larger scale, these assumptions may dissuade some from resisting the evils of society, if they think that man’s inherent goodness means that these problems will solve themselves over time.
D. An Alternative Approach
Like so many things in life, when faced with two opposite proposals, often the truth is not to be found in either of the two extremes, but rather in our recognition of their complementarity. In this case, a third concept of human nature that is gaining acceptance in both East and West is that man has a ‘double nature’. Given the limitations of the concepts of innate evilness versus inherent goodness, this more balanced approach maintains the benefits of both models while avoiding their negative effects.
On the one hand, it accepts that latent in the human soul lies the potential for all of the goodly qualities that are attributed to God, such as love and wisdom, justice and mercy, power and tenderness, etc. This aspect of human beings, which could be called its higher nature or noble essence, would explain the statement that we are created in God’s image. It is as if to say that God has planted in the fertile soil of the human heart the seeds of His wonderful attributes.
On the other hand, it recognizes that human beings also have a dark side that goads us to selfish attitudes and harmful behavior. This aspect of our being, which could be called its lower nature, is what drags us down towards hatred and divisionism, oppression and injustice, perversity and corruption. The soul, like a mirror, can reflect the vices of the lower nature, or turn upwards to reflect more and more divine qualities.
These two human facets are continually struggling with each other, which has been the theme of many written and theatric works. It is as though our higher nature or essential nobility were the motivation and energy driving us to climb a steep, high mountain, with our lower nature representing the gravity and weariness that drag us down and slow our progress.
We said before that the concepts of innate evil and inherent goodness in humankind sometimes do not motivate us to cultivate virtues intentionally, because in response to the former we attack what is bad and under the latter we wait for goodness to blossom naturally. In contrast, the understanding of a double nature in human beings demands that we nurture positive qualities, because in the absence of light, all that is left is darkness. Just as we light a lamp to illumine the night, we can overcome our vices by developing virtues to replace them.
If we possess all the divine qualities in potential form, then our true destiny consists of developing those attributes that lie latent within our beings, just as the fate of a seed is to become a great tree, full of leaves, flowers and fruits. We know that a seed needs to be carefully planted and patiently cultivated in order to reveal its full potential and so fulfill its inherent destiny. Similarly, an effort is needed to bring to light all of the marvelous qualities that lie hidden within the human soul.
To recognize the existence of those attributes is the first step, but if we wait for them to flourish on their own, it is more likely that they will shrivel up for want of irrigation and be choked out by weeds. The choice is ours.
After reading the text, answer the following questions in your own words:
- Describe the belief that human beings are evil or sinners by nature.
- What are some of its positive or negative consequences?
- Describe the belief that human beings are inherently good.
- What are some of its positive or negative consequences?
- Is there an alternative approach? Please describe it.
- What might be some of its potential consequences?
1. Descartes, René, “Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated,” 1641, second meditation, on the nature of the human mind: that it is better known than the body.
2. See the doctrine of original sin: the innate depravity of humanity due to the primordial fall of Adam and Eve and requiring God’s grace to be saved.
3. For a Christian example, the 17th–18th Century Jansenism was a pessimistic view of human nature and freedom that stressed the damage caused to human nature by original sin and the power of concupiscence, exalted Christ’s redeeming grace as the sole means of regaining freedom.
4. See, for a Christian example, the 5th century Pelagianism, which denied the doctrine of original sin and stressed the essential goodness of human nature and freedom of human will to choose between good and evil, and that sin is a voluntary act committed by a person against God’s will.
5. See Rousseau and Pestalozzi.