"Humans are like trout"

In this last post in this week's mini-series on human nature, I want to move past Hobbes and Rousseau and give my answer to the question "Are humans naturally good or bad?"

But first, I want to comment on why this question sticks around. Obviously, the question "Are humans good or bad?" cannot really be answered. For two big reasons. First, the question is essentialist. And humans do not have a singular essence. As I will argue, humans are a mixed bag of tendencies. Second, "good" and "bad" from what perspective?

So, it is clearly a poor question to ask "Are humans good or bad?" But still the question lingers. Why?

Well, any systematic theory involving humans--for the theory to be descriptive, explanatory, or predictive--will need to take the measure of humanity. What kind of creature is a man or a woman? Thus, as we saw with Hobbes and Rousseau, grand political theories will need to specify the kind of creature they take man to be. In America today, we see views of man embedded in the political discourse between conservatives and liberals. Each has its own view of man (I will leave it to you to determine which political party is Hobbesian and which is Rousseauian). In short, to create a grand political theory one will need to specify man's "nature." And this specification will, of necessity, take an essentialist bent.

In a similar way, grand theological schemes will also need to specify the nature and capacities of man. For example, the doctrine of original sin or total human depravity is Hobbesian in theme: Man is base and corrupt. Other theological systems have more optimistic views of man. On my campus, the theologians typically speak of a particular theological system having a High View of Man or a Low View of Man. That is, theological systems tend to be either Hobbesian or Rousseauian. Consequently, most theological accounts of man tend to also have an essentialist flavor.

To illustrate this essentialist thinking in theology, a few years ago I went around to some of my theological friends with an admittedly bizarre question: Can a person sin on a deserted island? (That is, deserted until you showed up.) Putting aside blaspheming God or having sex with animals (two examples my students quickly came up with), it seems kind of hard to sin on a deserted island: You can't steal, lie, envy, covet, kill, gossip, cheat, or horde. But the minute you put a SECOND person on the island, well, every sin in the book is now possible. The point I was trying to make was that sin, as I saw it, was fundamentally a situational social issue. But most of my theological friends disagreed. Sin isn't situational, social, or behavioral. Sin is a Condition a State that Men are In. Note that these friends were not Calvinists nor did they believe in Original Sin, but they still had this essentialist thinking when they approached the issue.

To summarize, any grand political or theological system tends to require an essentialist account of man. And the most important account to give, for these theories, is about man's moral essence: Are humans good or bad? Thus, although this question seems ill-posed and naive, it continues to linger in the background of most theological and political discussions.

All this brings me to an ACU forum I spoke at a few years ago hosted by the Graduate Student Association which is mostly populated by Graduate School of Theology students. The topic was on Human Nature and generally was to dwell on the question "Are humans good or bad?" Given what I've just said about theological systems requiring an essentialist take on Man, it is no surprise that theology students wanted to discuss this High View of Man versus Low View of Man debate.

When it was my turn to speak, I opened with this comment: "I want to say that humans are like trout."

The profundity of this comment was generally lost on the audience. I also wanted it to be funny, but no one laughed. Oh well. Apparently you can't be profound and funny at the same time.

Here is what I was trying to get at. As a psychologist, I don't think about humans in essentialist terms. I'm much more descriptive. The question I ask first is not "Are humans good or bad?" but "What are the behavioral tendencies of humans?" Once this question gets answered, then perhaps we might get back to the "good vs. bad" issue.

So, I approach humans the way a naturalist would approach a trout. What are trout like? Where do they live? How do they find food? How do they relate to each other? How do they mate? What is their behavioral repertoire?

In short, social scientists don't typically ask if humans are good or bad. And fishermen don't have High vs. Low Views of Trout. What I was trying to do in the forum with the trout comment was to snap the theology students out of the spell of the whole "High vs. Low" debate. I don't think I was very successful in this, but that is what I was trying to do.

So, rejecting the High vs. Low debate, what are the behavioral tendencies of human nature? Well, that is a long list, but for sake of illustration I'll pick a few behavioral tendencies to illustrate how I approach the "good vs. bad" issue in humans.

Here are a few universal human tendencies:

1. Humans are social.
2. Humans are religious.
3. Humans have a moral psychology based on kinship bonds and reciprocity.

Are these tendencies good or bad? Well, it depends. And that is my point. To illustrate, let's consider the good and bad of humans being social creatures. Preachers talk all the time about the ideals of "community" and the demise of true community in American society. So, community would appear to be a "good" thing. But the communal nature of humans also produces a lot of bad stuff. Wars are inherently communal acts. Further, we have in-group bias, groupthink, group conformity, social pressure, social stigma, shame, social loafing, and good old fashioned social cliques. The point is, community can be good or bad depending upon how you use it.

How about the religious impulse in humans? Good or bad? Well, it seems good. But do I really need to begin the list of the evils associated with religion? So, again, the answer about the goodness or badness of religion is, it depends.

How about family values? Good or bad? Generally they are a good thing. But Jesus said, "If you love only your brothers..." So again it depends.

How about reciprocity? You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours is a good thing. How about an eye for an eye? Well...

And on and on.

So, are humans good or bad? Well, it depends. The evaluation of human goodness has to be, in my mind, a situational and behavioral assessment. Man has no essence. Thus, any theological formulation based on a High View or a Low View of Man is wrongheaded. Rather, Man is a suite of behavioral tendencies and biases that, depending upon the situation, can lead to virtue or vice. That is how we should think about the issue.

My conclusion is this: If theology wants to speculate on human nature it needs to move past the High vs. Low View of Man and wrestle directly with the object under consideration: Humans as they exist in the world. And you cannot know how humans REALLY are by reading the Bible. (This is not to say that you cannot learn about human psychology by reading the Bible. Of course you can. It is just that the Bible isn't trying to be the definitive statement on human psychology. If the Bible did make that claim it sure left a lot out.)

In many ways, this is what this blog is all about. This blog is an attempt to describe human nature bit by bit. This is the only way can go about this task--bit by bit--as man has no essence. And then with each bit in hand, we try to link each to a biblical or theological witness. I'm not a trained theologian, but I can collect the bits and make preliminary connections to theology. Others will have to clean up this work, theologically speaking. But this is the only way I see to go about this project. You cannot start with broad declarations of a High or Low View of Man.

And after I accomplish this task for humans, I'm going to start a blog about trout.

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6 thoughts on “"Humans are like trout"”

  1. Ever read the philosopher Mortimer Adler's essays on human nature?

    Adler: This egregious mistake consists in denying that man has a specific nature comparable to the specific natures to be found in the zoological taxonomy in the classification of animals according to their generic and specific natures. As the social scientists put it, the differences among human groups racial, ethnic, or cultural are primary; there is no common human nature in which they all share. As the existentialists put it, man has an existence, but no essence: the essence of each human being is of his or her own making. The French existentialist Merleau-Ponty sums up this error by saying, "It is the nature of man not to have a nature."



  2. On the "desert island" question (since I am still pondering the essentialist thing, with no sign of the ponder ending soon ;) surely even alone on a desert island a human could be greedy, and certainly lustful, probably angry (if only with the people they blamed for landing them there!)... for a moment I could not remember any more "deadly sins" but I'm sure they could be slothful too ;)

  3. Tim,
    I'm definitely not going to suggest that this "Can you sin on a desert island?" question is a very good one. However, to defend it a just little...

    You surely can be lustful or angry on the island, but both of those cases require a reference to another human being (if only in your mind). So, let us imagine a person left on the island from birth. (Of course this cannot happen, its a kind of theological Gedankenexperiment.) Could this totally isolated person sin? Perhaps. But the examples get kind of forced. The point I was trying to get at with the question was that sin seems to be primarily a social phenomena, a relational issue. And I thought that insight was interesting.

    But again, it's a weird question and I wouldn't want to defend it much longer than I already have.


  4. Sorry, I missed my vocation as a nit picker, or a Jesuit ;)

    Actually to a biblical scholar the idea that sin is interpersonal should come pretty naturally. After all humans are made "in the image" of a God who is (what Christians call) Trinity. That is the God we are in the image of has relationship in the fabric of the Godhead. And so, we are made as community beings, made for relationship (Gen 1:17 cf. Gen 2:18).

    Even when one thinks of sin "in the heart" (I know you discussed this earlier, but let's assume that one's will CAN sin) those sins are also interpersonal, sin against God.

    So, I can't go along with your imaginary experiment, a non-relational human is not possible, humans are relationships. But I largely agree with the point!

  5. Richard.  I was just doing some basic key-word search on your blog for topics I've been thinking about, and I just wanted to say that this post is really profound for a number of reasons.

    I've been doing a lot of ground-clearing and foundational-question searching for what I want my doctorate to really be focused on (working on the MA now).  Specifically, I've been thinking about why areas such as political theology and identity politics seem to miss the mark for me.  I've been articulating it more and more, but tonight I was particularly struck by the questions, Why/how is it so easy to divide people and set them against each other?  That is, why does it seem that humans are so prone to stratification?  Perhaps most fundamentally, why do people have such a propensity to see difference as division?

    I'm asking these questions aimed at approaching them philosophically, how they imply understanding theories of knowledge/truth differently.  Yet, of course, these questions are posed in such a way that various modes of psychological inquiry are indispensable.  Then I realized that the areas mentioned above (and even some post-structural theory that they start from) strike me as fundamentally short-sighted without a fuller understanding of human persons simply because they don't incorporate serious modes of psychological inquiry into what it means to philosophically analyze social structures and power dynamics.  Simply put, they don't include questions about the depth nature of the soul.  They make apparently unexamined assumptions about the kind of creature they're dealing with.

    I remember in a different post from a while ago (maybe a couple years or less), where you mentioned something about how you came at a particular issue differently than most philosophical approaches simply by asking the questions you were trained to ask - namely, dealing with understanding human persons.  I actually searched for the terms "question" and "trained to ask" trying to find that post when I came across this one.  Nevertheless, I'm realizing how much those questions have been the foundational ones in my attempt to fuse depth psychology, philosophy, and theology.

    Basically, I just wanted to say thanks, again, for leaving your blog posts up even 7 years after the fact.  Your blog has been indispensable to my intellectual development, and I'm honing in on exactly what I'm about and how that line of inquiry matters.  It's really exciting.

    I do, actually, have one question in the wake of this post:  Do you see all essentializing as mistaken?  I'm wondering specifically about Becker's work and the way you use it to make your argument in the upcoming Slavery of Death.  I, too, have been wondering about the nature/limits of essential categories, yet I'm not sure I'm willing to say that all forms of it are ill-advised if they can be shown to get the job done (thus, my pragmatic leaning).  Any further intuition on this?

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