Ted Grimsrud—April 16, 2023
One of the difficult issues that often comes up in discussions about pacifism is the widely held view that human beings are inherently violent. A common version of this view holds that we are born with a disposition toward violence that is part of our genetic makeup, in part because violence is necessary to successfully compete in the dynamics of survival of the fittest that is characteristic of the human project. Hence, violence is natural, and pacifism is unnatural and unrealistic—and untenable.
Not all pacifists agree with what I will argue for about human nature here. In fact, I first developed the ideas about human nature that I believe fit best with pacifist convictions for a public debate with a pacifist who argued for what I describe below as the “hard-wired view.” My debate partner believed that the call to pacifism that Jesus made was actually a call to defy our basic human nature and make a conscious choice to embrace love. I admire people who take this approach, but I also think that most people who take the hard-wired view draw from it bases for anti-pacifist conclusions. More importantly, I think the more pacifism-friendly view of human nature I will sketch actually fits the evidence we have about human existence better than the other options.
Views of human nature
I will summarize three general viewpoints concerning human nature that I think represent the main options: the “hard-wired view,” the “blank-slate view,” and the “flexible view.”
(1) The hard-wired view posits that human behavior is largely determined by a quite thick reality of human nature. One main focus of many with this view is on our genetic make-up, asserting that our behavior is profoundly shaped by our genes. As concerns violence, the “hard-wired view” tends to see human beings as naturally violent. We are born violent, we tend toward violence, our work of minimizing violence should focus on finding relatively non-harmful outlets for these naturally violent tendencies. At best, we may redirect violent tendencies, but we cannot hope to live without violence.
(2) At the opposite end of the spectrum from the hard-wired view, we may speak of the blank slate view. This view asserts that it is meaningless to posit a “human nature;” we are all born with blank slates, and human behavior is totally shaped by our environments and is variable and non-determined.
(3) A second alternative to the hard-wired view we may call the flexible view. This view, which I hold, agrees with the hard-wired view that human nature is a meaningful concept, but would differ from that view by denying that human behavior is in any meaningful sense determined by genetics or, really, by any other unchanging element of human nature.
Continue reading “Are we inherently violent? [Questioning faith #21]”