Series – Ethics / On Human Nature

Human Nature – Is There a Pattern?

One of the most fundamental debates in all philosophical landscapes is about the human nature. Do humans have an innate and immutable nature? What does it mean to be a human?  Is he what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet[1]?

Starting to answer these questions on the scientific footing we have definitive theories and some empirical data corresponding to the theory that a human being has innate faculties that enable him to discern right from wrong. Consider example of language – we do not consciously make efforts to remember the rules of grammar and apply them precisely to the sentences that we utter in everyday conversations, it seems to happen on its own, in a way spontaneously, like we had an innate faculty which functioned in the same way as our respiratory system, that is – without our conscious effort to do so, this is perhaps the best definition of innate. So the way we are endowed by faculties that help us construct coherent logical grammatically correct sentences, does a similar faculty exist for our discernment of right from wrong?

It appears that it does: John Mikhael of Georgetown University has presented theory, evidence for something he terms as ‘Universal Moral Grammar’, which works in a fashion similar to linguistic grammar. These faculties are understood to be innate and a result of evolution, where the human organism became complex enough to host language and morality. Consider the scenario of a Truck driver suddenly diverting from the route of the truck upon seeing a child cross the road, in terms of survival value he has not made a wise decision because he has put his own life in peril because of a possible accident that may occur due to his divergence from the route, it would have been more survival valuable for him if he had just run over the child, this explains that during evolution human beings did realize some innate utility of serving the members of the tribe and special care for children, where individuals stake their own survival. Although it must be noted here that science has still not approved this theory, it is still under trial.

Next attribute that gives us an understanding of innateness is the curiosity or urge to know what the right thing to do is, this is most certainly innate, because human beings have evolved to be curious, in fact just imagine your pet cat or dog being perplexed at the sight of a strange object and its curiosity to decipher its significance in its life. We have for long asked questions like: What is the Good Life? Why is there evil when there is God? It may be case that answer to these questions may be different for different people and contingent on a lot of other circumstances which govern their lives, there can still be traced a uniform set of dictums which constitute the moral code in almost every social group subjected to such study (like to not lie and not steal). With this we can imagine a lot of ‘moral relativism’ among groups living on the planet, but there are certain fundamental answers which do have a uniformity and universal appeal. This gives us hope for the future where the world is getting more and more connected and all sorts of cultural clashes are sprouting.

We however in the spirit of liberal democratic setup provoke you to ask questions about morality and find your own answers. Try to avoid invoking authority and try to base your morals on reason alone.

Maybe you can create a moral system that is so effective that it one day becomes a code for the community, meeting our universal goals of peace, brotherhood and prosperity and justice,  the way Buddha formulated the moral code for his Sangha which is still followed in all Buddhist traditions with little divergence. It has all the qualities of becoming a global ethic for everyone to follow. It is in the same way as Apple created Macintosh and everyone in the world started using it.



[1]What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” – Shakespeare, Hamlet