Opinion: The humanitarian in human nature


Published: 06-18-2023 7:30 AM

John Buttrick writes from his Vermont Rocker in his Concord home: Minds Crossing. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.

Every day the evening news includes at least one story that necessitates the warning, “the content of this story may be offensive to some or inappropriate for children and youth.” We read in the newspapers about wars and rumors of wars, about cruelty and torture, blockading food and medical care, and about profits valued over people, politics ahead of principles. Can you imagine a visitor from another world being exposed to these reports and then returning to their home world to answer the question, “what is the nature of those earthlings?”

David Brooks of the New York Times writes, “the worldview that prevails in our culture (is) that most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.” Yet our experience reveals a plethora of mean-spiritedness overwhelming our culture. Many people are awash in anxiety, despair, and helplessness brought on by the fear that the goodness of human nature may be only in our imagination.

We are being pushed to question the character of human nature. The assumption has been that, all things being equal, humans are programmed to act out of empathy and love of neighbor – do the right thing for flourishing relationships with one another. For example, one of the ways we critique the actions of governments, industry, and society is to urge “humanitarian” action, meaning being sensitive to the needs and well-being of human beings.

However, the daily news suggests it will never happen. Instead, we are faced with that biblical lament, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out … For the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, David Buss of the University of Texas argues. “They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.”

For example, as an army medic, I believed I was rescuing people from injury and death. We medics were convinced that we were doing good by facilitating the healing of the physically and emotionally wounded. Some of us were conscientious objectors to participating in the lethal actions of war. We were committed to the belief that our example of service and caring would spread until human nature’s values were transformed from heroic battle to war no more. However, our pride quickly fell during a conversation with our supervising doctor. Our doctor explained to us that medics participated in the continuation of war by mending soldiers so they could return to the fighting. “What (we) do is not the good (we) want to do.” Nothing seems to have changed since the first ancient battle for tribal dominance, territory, and food.

However, Martha Nussbaum, in studies at Stanford University, argues for an ethical concept of an ever-evolving human nature. She turns to an Aristotelian postulate that human nature includes the activity of internal evaluation. Human nature possesses intentional control over activity, rational thought, and the ability to evaluate actions and ideas. It is human nature to plan, imagine, and change. Nussbaum “leaves open the possibility that as human nature may change significantly, there may be significant changes in what it means for humans to flourish and therefore in what is ethically required.”

Even though it seems human nature is locked into its own self destruction, it is possible it may evolve to be guided by a new ethic of care for one another. There are so many of us already on the path: from meeting a passing stranger with a simple smile and greeting to those numerous volunteers and workers who participate in revising systems that will feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, release the captives of injustice, take the glory out of war, break the perceived cultural barriers, and nurture the earth.

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If that visitor from another world was able to observe these things, perhaps they would report that human nature not only has a tendency toward destruction but also includes ethics developed through thinking and evaluating situations and ideas. There is hope reveled in the human nature that expresses a sense of humor, as well as a penchant for art and playfulness. One day the ancient self-inflicted nature of cruelty, war, and domination will fade away. Human nature will mature and flourish and the earth’s mother nature will flourish as well. How is that for an introduction to the evening news.