Human Nature or Human Nurture?

Don’t worry, this is not a post about nature or nurture as it relates to raising children, though I do have some thoughts on that…

I read an interesting article this morning on vox.com entitled How the Enlightenment sold us a twisted view of human nature. It’s really a plug for a new book by David Wooton, but it was still a very interesting article that got me thinking.

The article does not use the term Human Nurture, but after reading it, that’s what popped into my mind, and I think it’s a reasonable way to compare the two schools of thought discussed in the article. Does human nature drive our behaviors and how we’ve structured society or do humans, themselves, actually nurture a set of behaviors to create the society that they desire? As with most things, I don’t think there’s a clear, simple answer here. But the article made me think about how there has been a lot of nurturing of society over the centuries, driven by some of the darker sides of human nature: greed, power, and control.

Now look, I’m not one of those all hierarchy is bad kind of people. I realize that individuals and society need some structure. And of course, there are great leaders that can help people and society grow. No, what I mean is that there are times when those in power create a set of rules or societal norms that drive the kind of behvaiors, and even compliance, that they want in order to attain more status. And that, in effect, creates the society. People just start to believe this is how it is and forget that it wasn’t always this way.

For example, the article talks a bit about morality and how our views have changed over the centuries. It’s a good reminder that things don’t have to be the way they are, and indeed, that they haven’t always been this way. I find the modern world’s focus on status particularly disheartening, especially using position and money as measures of worth or value. The article points out that before the enlightenment it wasn’t this way:

What mattered wasn’t so much whether you succeeded or failed but rather what kind of person you were. It was about honor, self-respect, dignity, reputation, and a clear conscience.

But then there was an effort to change that:

And then the field of economics starts to take root as capitalism emerges as the dominant economic paradigm and people start to say, “Well, we can modify behavior by tinkering with the system of rewards and punishments. We can nudge people into doing what we want them to do by giving them small rewards or punishments.”

I guess what this all means to me is that, as always, humans can create the reality they desire. This can apply to a single individual or an entire society. The article is a good reminder that we all get to choose our path, and those choices can end up having a broader impact than ourselves.

It’s also a good reminder that we should all think more. That’s a pretty broad statement, but I mean it that way. We should think more about why we’re making the choices we’re making and why society behaves the way it does. And we should certainly think more about what we’d like to be, and what we’d like society to be. Just thinking about these things can cause small changes in our behaviors that drive change.

There are many changes in the world I’d like to see. The thing on my mind after reading this article is that maybe we can get back to a place where character matters most. Where success isn’t about money and status, but rather, the kind of person you are. Changing a society takes time. But if we think about what we want to be and let those thoughts change us, then slowly we will see those changes occurring around us. We will be the ones nurturing a better world.

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