Common phrases refer to 'human nature' in some version or other. 'It was only human nature', 'Doing what comes naturally', 'It was only natural to think that'. But what is the human nature which is referred to? I shall suggest that there are various versions of human nature, and they have implications for how we see and treat each other, both at the individual and the social level.
At the level of what social scientists sometimes refer to in a patronising way as 'folk psychology', the phrases indicate a belief that human beings have a nature which leads/causes them to be sympathetic to another person's misfortune or pleasure, to express resentment at what is perceived as unjustified criticism, to feel guilty at the realisation that we have behaved badly, to be pleased with praise, to be attracted to and form bonds with others. Scientists and philosophers have not discounted these phrases but have attempted to go deeper than folk psychology and offer theories which they believe can explain such common sense reactions.
One such theory is to the effect that human behaviour, thought and action, can ultimately be explained in terms of the same kind of science which is used to explain events in the material world. The view can certainly be found in the Greek philosophers but its source in the modern world is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who saw human beings simply as complex pieces of matter in motion.
There have been various versions of this from the 18th century to contemporary sophisticated models. For example, behavioural psychologists have attempted to bridge the gap between common sense folk psychology and physiological models of human nature by introducing concepts such as 'drive'. Despite the variation and sophistication, all such models are based on traditional empirical science.
This approach to human nature has several important consequences. One is that it has led to what is known as the biomedical model of healthcare. If human beings are simply complex physiological mechanisms, then when something goes wrong with the mechanism, the appropriate remedy is obviously to fix the mechanism, say with pills or surgery.
Indeed, this is the view of how to fix human nature when something goes wrong which is to be found at the start of Western medicine in the School of Hippocrates. It is still the dominant view of medicine. Perhaps rightly so, at least for many diseases and injuries. But there are disadvantages. For example, it discounts the creative energies of human beings and their abilities to assist in their own healing processes.
Interestingly, alongside the School of Hippocrates, Greece also had the School of Asklepios. The Asklepian tradition is older than the Hippocratic tradition. The two traditions flourished together and were not seen as mutually exclusive. Asklepios is a shadowy figure in Greek thought. He was believed to be the son of the god Apollo (the god of healing and the arts) by a mortal woman.
The Asklepian tradition stresses healing, but in the context of our acceptance of our mortality. The temples of Asklepios, which were the centres of healing, contained harmless serpents (coluber longissima). It was thought to be the mystical hypnotic gaze of the serpent which was healing and the fact that serpents change their skin was also a symbol of healing. Moreover, the atmosphere of the temple and the quiet repose and dreams of the patients were important in the healing process, for the healing comes from within the patient. There is an important contrast here with the Hippocratic tradition of modern medicine where the emphasis is on external intervention.
The Asklepian tradition can be seen as an early version of psychoanalytic accounts of human nature. Freud is usually given the credit for introducing this view of human nature into the modern world. Freud's original interest was in the treatment of patients with neurotic symptoms but the various developments of dynamic psychology which have stemmed from Freud's work have had wider implications. These developments have profoundly influenced our conception of human nature and have modified the 'biomedical' approach of doctors, perhaps especially GPs.
The Asklepian tradition, of the healing gaze of the serpent and the changes coming from within the patient (as in changing one's skin), translates well into some aspects of the modern medical consultation. In a sense, the gaze corresponds to the doctor's attention to the patient, to the careful waiting and listening, and to acceptance of the particularity of the patient as a unique and important person in the context of our knowledge of our humanity. An approach of this kind is not manipulative and does not threaten the patient's integrity. Healing derives from the careful application of medical knowledge while constantly attending to the patient. It should be noted that the healing serpent of Asklepios coils round the staff which is the emblem of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
The influence of psychoanalytic theory has extended well beyond medicine. For example, psychoanalysts developed the idea of projection – the tendency (for defence purposes) for people to endow others with attributes they do not wish to recognise in themselves. This has led to the study of the projection of large groups onto others and is an important factor in the study of racism, nationalism and so on. In sum, this view of human nature has profoundly influenced not only healthcare but many other aspects of human life such as literature. For example, the 'stream of consciousness' novel or the 'unreliable narrator' novel show the influence of psychoanalysis.
A third and very different account of human nature is offered by Existentialism. Existentialism arose in the 19th century as a protest against the view that human beings have a fixed nature. The main tradition of moral thinking in the West from Plato asserted in a variety of ways, religious and secular, that human beings have a nature which can be expressed and realised in action. The existentialist thinkers from Kierkegaard to Sartre reject this view of human nature.
For existentialists, human beings have no fixed nature. We create ourselves in our choices. The emphasis is on human freedom to choose. Indeed, the nearest existentialist analogue to the traditional idea of moral wrongdoing is the failure to exercise one's freedom in authentic choice, and the seeing of oneself as determined by circumstances, environment or physical make-up.
Existentialism has influenced some schools of psychiatry and social work because it seemed to them to offer practical guidance in a way in which traditional academic philosophy did not. In stressing human freedom and choice, Existentialism brings home to those in healthcare the marked extent to which their clients lack these features, assumed to be basic rights. The school of existentialist psychiatry can be seen as a reaction to the manipulative assumptions of the bio-medical and psychoanalytic models of human nature.
Human nature is seen in a very different way by both the Judaeo-Christian and the Marxist traditions. All three of the bio-medical, the psychoanalytic and the existentialist traditions see the problems of human nature as fixable by human beings. This is not the case with the Judaeo-Christian or the Marxist traditions. There are surprising similarities between the two and one of them is their view that human beings are locked into a condition from which they cannot escape by education or reform.
For the Christian, mankind is locked into a state of evil – pretty plausible if you look round the world – and the only hope has come from the intervention of God in history. For the Marxist, the structure of society prevents human beings from having a complete understanding of their predicament, and human potential and creativity is limited by compartmentalising and specialisation. The Marxist would see the only hope as lying in revolution in which the dominant classes in society will be overthrown along with the economic structure which made them dominant, and a new classless society will then emerge. Dream on, or read Animal Farm
. There is a great deal more to be said about both views and both are still influential – but in a much more modified form.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow