Nature or Nurture? That is the question specifically of this age and it is rooted in the fact that there is evil in the world. Bad things happen to all kinds of people. Nobody is perfect and some people are downright nasty. Reality includes poverty, disease, disaster, injustice, prejudice, heartache, hatred, anger, war and oppression and in general life is not fair. Why is that? Some people think it is nature and some people think it is nurture and we believe the fix must address our nature or nurture accordingly. Follow what I am suggesting here: The nature-nurture question is not just one asked by psychologists and scientists, it is how we think socially and politically.
There are people who believe the problems with the human race are rooted in our nature. We call such people conservatives, evangelical Christians, Founding Fathers. Such people believe the root of all our troubles, struggles, evil is in the individual person – unavoidably in each and every one of us.. Nobody is perfect. Everyone has flaws. And every one is capable of being corrupted when given the motive and opportunity. It is not that we are inherently bad people, but we are by nature self-oriented and will ultimately act, consciously or unconsciously, in our own self-interests even if it is at the expense of others.
In contrast, there are people who believe human problems are systemic, rooted in our nurture. We call these people liberals, progressives, mainstream Christians. Such people believe that people must be taught to become imperialistic oppressors (it isn’t natural). Prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like are all learned behaviors, taught by a corrupt and failed system. It is the system that is unfair, unjust and damaging to all. That is why we need social justice – to make life fair for all. Many believe that people are inherently good and given an equitable playing field, life would be much better.
For the nurture people, if we can just change the system things will be better. Thus the emphasis is on systemic changes. In economics, capitalism and free markets are seen as promoting greed and excess and creating poverty. Socialism and communism are seen as more equitable, cooperative and inherently more “fair.” With regards to law, criminals (even terrorists) are viewed as the result of poverty, racism and oppression. When those who have suffered from injustice lash out they need help, not punishment.
Education and the flow of information (media) are primarily important to overcome the competitive teachings of the past that cause things like war and instead promote the cooperative future. Religion in general and morality in particular are understood as primary oppressors. Let people do whatever is right for them and believe whatever they will. Remember, people are basically good and it is the injustice of the imperialist system that is wrong.
By contrast, nature people understand that the flaws are not in our stars but in ourselves. Religion and morality are the primary bulwarks against our flawed nature. They promote and encourage a better way, and at least in the case of evangelical Christianity, promise a cure for our brokenness. Surely there is greed and poverty, but at least competition insures lower prices and free markets allow the opportunity for everyone and anyone to succeed. Socialism, communism and any monopolistic tendency concentrates all the power and money in too few hands and that opens the door to inevitable abuse and ultimate oppression.
Criminal behavior is the result of people who are unable or unwilling to suppress their base desires and natural tendencies. Such people should be locked away from society for the good of society. The idea of letting people believe whatever they will and do whatever is right for them is asking for a massive rise in stealing, cheating, lying, even murder, given human nature.
Better to teach and promote (via the media) what the Founding Fathers believed: that the concentration of power inevitably lead to abuse. Power corrupts and the only solution to prevent people from following their self-interest nature is to have plenty of checks and balances. Yes, people are made free by their creator and that freedom should be acknowledged to the degree that people are willing and able to be self-restrained (primarily by the teachings of religion and morality). The less self-restraint, the more need for law, rules and regulations and the more likely government will become the very oppressor it was designed to overcome.
The founders understood that the American experiment would survive only until the people discovered they could vote themselves money out of the federal treasury. Of course, that is exactly what we have done with social security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare in its various forms, subsidies in all shapes and sizes, bailouts and thousands of government entitlements and programs. The trade off is hundreds of thousands of bureaucratic rules and regulations designed to restrain our unrestrained (“entitled”) lives and that limits our freedoms. Thus we have turned, and thus power is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
Nature people do not believe that people are inherently bad, but inherently broken and restraint in one form or another is necessary to keep that brokenness at bay. By contrast, nurture people believe that human beings are inherently good and only the system is broken – the result of centuries of imperfect knowledge and limited understanding of life, nature and the world in which we live. The thinking is now, surely, there are people brilliant enough to lead us into a new system (and new way of thinking) that will be more just and equitable than any that came before. But then, nature people might respond that even the most brilliant person in the world does not guarantee they know anything about love.
So is it nature or nurture? How did we come to this terrible divide? Two people won’t talk to each other in a civil manner but it is because they don’t understand each other.
When a nurture person hears a nature person talk about restraint (in words like self-reliance and being responsible for one’s self) all they hear is hate of human beings and an attempt to justify bigotry, prejudice and support the status-quo of imperialism, oppression and injustice.
When a nature person hears a nurture person talk about changing the system with terms like diversity, relativism, multi-culturalism and promoting ideas like social-justice, all they hear is foolishness and idiocy and for God’s sake wake up and start dealing with reality. Why should the people who have worked hard, tried to do right and played by the rules be punished? And the nurture person might respond with why should the people who have never had a fair chance in this life be saddled with poverty and hopelessness.
So is it nature or nurture? Whatever happened to the idea that it may be both? After all, the Founding Fathers set out first and foremost to change the system. They sought to design a system that would be more equitable and just than any in history. At the same time, though, they designed one with plenty of checks and balances to mitigate against human nature. Competition in the marketplace kept citizens from being enslaved to monopolists. Branches of government balanced each other and kept power from being concentrated. Local, state and federal governments each had their prevue. And mostly, they tried to make all governments as small as practical so the good people of the nation could exercise as much freedom as possible.
Overall, they did a good job. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we nurture a better system that takes into account the restraint necessary on human nature? All I can say for certain is neither the conservatives and libertarians nor the liberals and progressives have a clue. And as long as the people remain bitterly divided between the nature and nurture camps, we have no hope.
We may change. We are changing as a society, in our culture and in our politics, but neither side sees it as getting any better. On the one hand, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, bigotry and all are like ghosts that won’t go away and are even seen where they honestly don’t exist. It is like a whack-a-mole game. Every time we knock one down, it pops up somewhere else.
On the other hand, the whole nation is broke, millions are unemployed, people have lost their homes, jobs and relationships in this relativistic world are falling apart everywhere. The idea that we can take money from some people and give it to others is unworkable and unsustainable. More power is being centralized in fewer hands and, believe it or not, freedom is being lost.
We are changing, and honesty insists that we both recognize in our own ways that the change is not for the better. We have changed, but the only way we have any hope is to recognize that it isn’t a question of nature or nurture. It is both. And the solution need to take both into account.