Human Nature: A Conservative, Classical Liberal & Libertarian View
Understanding human nature is a fundamental starting point for anyone attempting to build a coherent political philosophy. Generally speaking, there are two views: Human nature is either fixed or malleable. Traditionally, conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals fall into the camp that believes human nature is fixed but with tendencies toward both good and evil. Progressives, liberals, socialists, Marxists, and others view human nature as malleable, that is, it can be changed.
In this library topic you will find readings articulating six major tenets of the conservative view of human nature summarized below. (For brevity's sake, we simply refer to this perspective as conservative, acknowledging that many classical liberals and libertarians share the view.)
First, conservatives believe that as the result of either natural (i.e. biological and cultural evolution) or supernatural forces (i.e. God), there is such a thing as human nature, which is composed of certain permanent and universal features. Given these features, there exist rules of social behavior and moral conduct that have endured through time because they have been readily ascertained by all societies in all time periods.
Second, from the conservative perspective, humans are neither naturally good nor evil. Man has a dual nature, capable of both good and bad, and hence he requires social influences such as those from family, religion, and community to provide moral education and guidance. Therefore, society, and by extension government, is natural and necessary. However, family, religion, and community should be the preferred sources of social influence rather than the coercive power of the state.
Third, the conservative maintains that the full development of each person's capacities and morals do not only require social influence, but most crucially liberty. No person can reach his or her full potential when having to persist under oppressive or tyrannical conditions. Thus, the purpose of lawful government in a well-functioning society is the protection of individual rights, especially of freedom of conscience, freedom of association, private property, free trade, and equal protection under the law.
Fourth, the conservative view stresses the fact that despite the universal features in human nature, there exist important individual differences among humans. Apart from obvious physical and sex differences, people have different talents, skills, and interests. Protecting liberty means respecting these differences, thus allowing their benefits to the individual and society come to the fore. Indeed, equality of outcome is an illusory and dangerous quest, often pursued at the expense of equality before the law.
Fifth, the conservative believes that we should be hesitant about change. Pursuing progress for its own sake, we run the risk of dismantling those social, political, and legal institutions that have enabled society to flourish; once abandoned, it is almost impossible to rebuild them.
Finally, the conservative warns that human nature is not infinitely malleable and perfectible, as some philosophers have claimed. A deliberate attempt to design and create social order in order to achieve certain desired social outcomes without regard to the limitations in man's nature is futile and even destructive. As proof one need only consider the atrocities committed under communist, socialist, and fascist regimes.
More About This Topic...
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- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
- Darwinian Conservatism
- New Library Topic: Human Nature: A Conservative, Classical Liberal & Libertarian View
- The Human Nature Project
- American Founding and 19th Century Quotes on Human Nature
- Human Nature: Fact and Fiction
- Philosophy Pages
- Liberal Feminism
- 20th Century and Contemporary Quotes on Human Nature: A Conservative, Classical Liberal View
- Aquinas' Moral Philosophy