Human Nature: A Conservative, Classical Liberal & Libertarian View

Understanding human nature is a fundamental starting point for anyone attempting to build a coherent political philosophy. Generally speaking, there are two views: Human nature is either fixed or malleable. Traditionally, conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals fall into the camp that believes human nature is fixed but with tendencies toward both good and evil. Progressives, liberals, socialists, Marxists, and others view human nature as malleable, that is, it can be changed.

In this library topic you will find readings articulating six major tenets of the conservative view of human nature summarized below. (For brevity's sake, we simply refer to this perspective as conservative, acknowledging that many classical liberals and libertarians share the view.)

First, conservatives believe that as the result of either natural (i.e. biological and cultural evolution) or supernatural forces (i.e. God), there is such a thing as human nature, which is composed of certain permanent and universal features. Given these features, there exist rules of social behavior and moral conduct that have endured through time because they have been readily ascertained by all societies in all time periods.

Second, from the conservative perspective, humans are neither naturally good nor evil. Man has a dual nature, capable of both good and bad, and hence he requires social influences such as those from family, religion, and community to provide moral education and guidance. Therefore, society, and by extension government, is natural and necessary. However, family, religion, and community should be the preferred sources of social influence rather than the coercive power of the state.

Third, the conservative maintains that the full development of each person's capacities and morals do not only require social influence, but most crucially liberty. No person can reach his or her full potential when having to persist under oppressive or tyrannical conditions. Thus, the purpose of lawful government in a well-functioning society is the protection of individual rights, especially of freedom of conscience, freedom of association, private property, free trade, and equal protection under the law. 

Fourth, the conservative view stresses the fact that despite the universal features in human nature, there exist important individual differences among humans. Apart from obvious physical and sex differences, people have different talents, skills, and interests. Protecting liberty means respecting these differences, thus allowing their benefits to the individual and society come to the fore. Indeed, equality of outcome is an illusory and dangerous quest, often pursued at the expense of equality before the law.

Fifth, the conservative believes that we should be hesitant about change. Pursuing progress for its own sake, we run the risk of dismantling those social, political, and legal institutions that have enabled society to flourish; once abandoned, it is almost impossible to rebuild them.  

Finally, the conservative warns that human nature is not infinitely malleable and perfectible, as some philosophers have claimed. A deliberate attempt to design and create social order in order to achieve certain desired social outcomes without regard to the limitations in man's nature is futile and even destructive. As proof one need only consider the atrocities committed under communist, socialist, and fascist regimes.

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This site provides a short review of Thomas Aquinas ideas on human nature and virtue.  The site is more of an outline, which makes it quite easy to read and to see how his ideas come together to make his point about human nature and morality.

“A growing scientific discipline called evolutionary psychology specializes in uncovering the truth about human nature, and it is already illuminating what we know about the possibilities of human social organization."

“The key political lesson of...

Opitz shows how the American founding is based on the principle of equality before the law. "Equality before the law is the practical application of this understanding of the nature of the human person. Equal justice means that a nation’s laws apply, across the board, to all sorts and conditions of men, regardless of race, creed, color, position, pedigree, income,...

In this article, Opitz defends four propositions about human nature:

"1. There is a strong instinct in all men and women to be free to pursue their personal goals.
 2. There is a universal need in each of us to call something our very own; an instinct for property.
 3. There is an upward thrust in human nature to live a life that is not simply more comfortable, but...

This article compares and contrasts several kinds of conservatism and liberalism, and relates it to America's founding principles.

"For their part, social conservatives offer a richer notion of humanity than any version of liberalism. Society is a nexus of mutual dependent souls, each of value in himself and each in need of...

"The complexity of human nature reveals itself in the relationship of morality and liberty. We would prefer to live in an idealized world–a utopia–in which each person is moral solely because that is the right behavior. Sad as it might be, that is not the reality that God has given to us. Humans are not motivated by pure spiritual purposes. Humans are not moral...

Based on the findings of the natural sciences, Tiger proposes a list of nine "vitamins" required by human nature, including social contact, reproduction, parent-child connection, gender specific behavior and communal protection.

"Three kinds of evidence indicate that men and women have different natures. First, male and female hormones change behavior.

Second, differences between men and women appear in cultures around the world: Men, in general, are aggressive and assertive, and women are nurturing. These differences do not seem to result from culture...

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A chart comparing the Index of Economic Freedom from the Heritage Foundation for 2010 to the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.

Analysis Report White Paper

This is a speech by Dr. Greg Forster, who has written a book on moral law. His thesis is that natural moral law (the belief that humans have a natural sense of right and wrong) has been a tremendous force for Christian political thought in Western civilization. He believes it is important to remember as our nation was founded on these premises.

"This article first considers Aquinas’s metaethical views. Those views provide a good context for understanding his unique synthesis of Christian teaching and Aristotelian philosophy."

Younkins gives an overview of Aristotle's philosophy, including his views on the goal of human life and what is required to achieve that goal. For Aristotle human nature strives toward flourishing.

"This article will examine those elements of Augustine’s thought that bear on the issue of the proper tasks of political authority and will explore his insights for the light they shed on the appropriate role of government in a decent society."

In this essay, Hutchison writes about the historical element that is important to consider when looking at human nature. He looks at how well the loose fit of conservative politics of conservative theology can function.

In this installment of the Templeton Foundation's Big Questions series, leading scientists discuss the question of how much of human nature is explained by human nature.

Praised by both conservatives and liberals in the nineteenth-century, Burke has generally been considered throughout the twentieth-century to be the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

Forte believes that if we continue to use the Greek school of thought, reason, and add in the faith provided by Judeo-Christianity, we will have the best government possible.

Few studies have examined the effects of over-controlling parenting, or 'helicopter parenting,' in college students. Some studies have found that college students of over-controlling parents report feeling less satisfied with family life and have lower levels of psychological well-being.

Cicero further distinguished the higher law from the laws of governments. He declared it was quite absurd to call just every article in the decrees and laws of nations. What if those laws were enacted by tyrants? . . . The essential justice that binds human society together and is maintained by one law is right reason, expressed in commands and prohibitions.

Based on his book The Great Disruption, Fukuyama explores in this article the causes of the deteriorating social conditions in Western societies that occurred between the 1960s and the 1990s. In the process he explains the origins of social order as rooted in human nature.

This essay discusses "what it means to base democratic government on the notion of natural rights, what these rights are, and what they mean for public policy" by comparing "three revolutions' theories of natural rights: the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution."

Feulner discusses "the roots of modern conservative thought that undergird our nation and which for more than 50 years have explicitly reinforced the idea of ordered liberty." He focuses on Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.

Video/Podcast/Media

"Dr. Steven Rhoads shows, sex distinctions remain a deeply rooted part of human nature. In Taking Sex Differences Seriously..., Rhoads assembles a wealth of scientific evidence showing that these differences are 'hardwired' into our biology. He explores disparities in aggression and dominance, in sexuality and nurturing. He shows how denial of...

"Is religion a universal instinct hard-wired into the human genome and key to the survival of civilization? Or, is it an archaic concept destined to be replaced by a more scientific view of human nature? Can faith and science coexist? Even in modern societies, and despite the rise of secular institutions that have assumed many of religion's enduring roles, faith...

"There is a growing debate among conservative thinkers and pundits about whether Darwinian theory helps or harms conservatism and its public policy agenda. Some have argued forcefully that Darwin's theory provides support for conservative positions on family life, economics, bioethics, and other issues, while others have countered that the effort to justify...

"David Rose of the University of Missouri, St. Louis and the author of The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the book and the role morality plays in prosperity. Rose argues that morality plays a crucial role in prosperity and economic development. Knowing that the people you trade with have a principled aversion to exploiting opportunities for...

"Our conceptions of human nature affect every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political movements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that a biological understanding of the mind will be used to justify inequality, subvert...

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"But the fact is certain; and wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people, arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion. Man has certainly an exalted soul; and the same principle in human nature, -- that aspiring, noble principle founded in benevolence, and cherished by knowledge; I mean the love of power, which...

In my reasonings on the subject of government, I rely more on the interests and the opinions of men, than on any speculative parchment provisions whatever.

"Besides the natural law and human law it was necessary for the guidance of human life to have a divine law. And this for four reasons: First, because it is by law that man is guided to the performance of proper acts in view of his last end. And if indeed man were ordained to an end that did not exceed the measure of the natural faculties of man, there would be no...

"I have sometimes thought, that it was scarce possible to assert any thing concerning mankind, be it ever so good, or ever so evil, but it will prove true. They are naturally innocent, yet fall naturally into the practice of vice; the greatest instances of virtue and villainy are to be found in one and the same person; and perhaps one and the same motive produces...

Augustine's response argued that the "City of God" was not an earthly kingdom to be achieved through Roman power. While Christians have a responsibility to the City of Man, he argued, it cannot achieve perfection. Consequently, he argued for a strongly Christian culture, but full realization of the limits of what can be accomplished with temporal power.

Tocqueville's famous analysis of the American economic and political system, as he observed during his travels of the country in the 1830s.

"These are loose fragments of journal in the hand-writing of John Adams upon scraps of paper scarcely legible, from 18 November, 1755, to 20 November, 1761. They were effusions of mind, committed from time to time to paper, probably without the design of preserving them; self-examinations at once severe and stimulative; reflections upon others, sometimes, not less severe upon his friends;...

"[I]n public affairs, there is no government so ill, provided it be ancient and has been constant, that is not better than change and alteration. Our manners are infinitely corrupt, and wonderfully incline to the worse; of our laws and customs there are many that are barbarous and monstrous; nevertheless, by reason of the difficulty of reformation, and the danger...

"TO WHAT expedient, then, shall we finally resort, for maintaining in practice the necessary partition of power among the several departments, as laid down in the Constitution? The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government...

"THE number of which the House of Representatives is to consist, forms another and a very interesting point of view, under which this branch of the federal legislature may be contemplated.

Scarce any article, indeed, in the whole Constitution seems to be rendered more worthy of attention, by the weight of character and the apparent force of argument with which it has been assailed."

"Burke accepted the existence of human nature but distrusted attempts to understand it on purely rational grounds. He saw man as an imperfect creature subject to the whims of passion who required the constraints of evolved and customary institutions. Political society could not change this basic fact, and only magnified the need for moral constraints. Burke had...

“Western civilisation is founded upon the Bible; our ideas, our wisdom, our philosophy, our literature, our art, our ideals, come more from the Bible than from all other books put together. It is a revelation of divinity and of humanity; it contains the loftiest religious aspiration along with a candid representation of all that is earthly, sensual and devilish…"...

"I have received your Inquiry in a large volume neatly bound. Though I have not read it in course, yet, upon an application to it of the Sortes Virgiliancæ, scarce a page has been found in which my name is not mentioned, and some public sentiment or expression of mine examined. Revived as these subjects are, in this manner, in the recollection of the public, after an oblivion...

Hobbes argued that a state of nature (an environment without a government imposing order) would be "the war of all against all" and life in such an environment would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

"A writer, under the signature of Massachusettensis, has addressed you, in a series of papers, on the great national subject of the present quarrel between the British administration and the Colonies. As I have not in my possession more than one of his essays, and that is in the Gazette of December 26, I will take the liberty, in the spirit of candor and decency, to bespeak your...

John Stuart Mill was a British political philosopher and politician. In this classic essay, he argues that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

"But there are several degrees of relationship among men. To take our departure from the tie of common humanity, of which I have spoken, there is a nearer relation of race, nation, and language, which brings men into very close community of feeling. It is a still more intimate bond to belong to the same city; for the inhabitants of a city have in common among...

There is nothing in the science of human nature more curious, or that deserves a critical attention from every order of men so much, as that principle which moral writers have distinguished by the name of self-deceit.

A Christian humanist, Pico argues that God created human beings with free will, so that they may choose what they become. Upon man God "bestowed seeds pregnant with all possibilities, the germs of every form of life. Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him. If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will...

In his Pensées, Pascal defends Christianity against rationalism and skepticism. His observations about human nature closely fit the conservative view:

"358. Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute."

"418. It is dangerous to...

"[B]y inward reflection and examining the feelings of our hearts, we shall be convinced, that we have this moral power {or Conscience} distinguishing between right and wrong, plainly destined and fitted to regulate the whole of life; which clearly discovers to us that course and conduct, which alone we can entirely approve; to wit, that in which all kind affections...

It is said the wise Italians make this proverbial Remark on our Nation, viz. The English FEEL, but they do not SEE. That is, they are sensible of Inconveniencies when they are present, but do not take sufficient Care to prevent them....

"Queen Elizabeth by her letters patent, bearing date March 25, 1584, licensed Sir Walter Raleigh to search for remote heathen lands, not inhabited by Christian people, and granted to him in fee simple, all the soil within 200 leagues of the places where his people should, within six years, make their dwellings or abidings; reserving only to herself and her successors, their allegiance and one...

Pope Leo XIII critiques socialism and capitalism, defends property rights, and lays out guidelines for justice in society within the Catholic traditions of human nature and Western Civilization. He places responsibilities upon how labor and employers behave toward each other. Additionally, he outlines the roles of the individual, the family, fathers, the church, society, etc. 

Full...

Wilson's speech was printed in the Pennsylvania Packet on October 10, 1787, and it was soon reprinted throughout the states, receiving more coverage than the more detailed arguments made in The Federalist.

"To give the usual opportunity of appointing a President pro tempore I now propose to retire from the chair of the Senate; and as the time is near at hand, when the relations will cease which have for some time subsisted between this honorable house & myself, I beg leave, before I withdraw, to return them my grateful thanks for all the instances of attention & respect with which they...

Kirk examines ten general principles of conservatism expressed in America today. The first of these is that “there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.”

“This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or...

In this work, Lewis defends a universal law of morality.

"The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution is a five-volume collection compiled by Jonathan Elliot in the mid-nineteenth century. The volumes remain the best source for materials about the national government's transitional period between the closing of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and the opening of the First Federal Congress...

"In response to Hamilton's Full Vindication, the Rev. Samuel Seabury blasted back in the New York press on January 5, 1775. The 'Westchester Farmer's' A View of the Controversy between Great-Britain and her Colonies . . . (London, 1775) mocked his adversary's facile invocations of 'natural rights of mankind,' declaring that 'Man in the state of nature may be considered as perfectly...

IN REVIEWING the defects of the existing Confederation, and showing that they cannot be supplied by a government of less energy than that before the public, several of the most important principles of the latter fell of course under consideration.

Alexander Hamilton explores the proposed role of the judiciary in the U.S. federal government. The independence of the court and a discussion of judicial review is included, and Hamilton argues that interpretation of laws should be left to the judiciary under the power of judicial review.

"By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect...

"Each one should act the part he is fitted for by his nature. Other beings are fitted to be subservient to the rational; as all inferior beings are subordinated to the superior; and the rational are formed for each other. What the structure of human nature is chiefly adapted to, is a social communication of good; and, next to this, is the command over all bodily...

"A reviewer of the original edition in 1970 of The Perfectibility of Man well summarizes the scope and significance of this renowned work by one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century: 'Beginning with an analytic discussion of the various ways in which perfectibility has been interpreted, Professor Passmore traces its long history...

The rapidity with which events in 1775 were hastening a final separation between Great Britain and the Colonies, naturally suggested in many minds reflections upon the position in which the people of the latter might be placed after removing the foundation of all recognized authority.

Aristotle, one of the best known Western philosophers, concluded his work on ethics with the statement that he intended to look into "the whole question of the management of a state." The Politics was his effort to do so. He examines the origin and purpose of government, and then discusses Plato's The Republic and other proposed and existing forms of government.

Locke's Second Treatise develops his descriptions of the state of nature along with natural law. His work was extremely influential in the founding of America and its Constitution.

Montesquieu was a significant advocate of separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and his discussion of law contributed significantly to the concept of rule of law.

"Smith expresses his general system of morals, exploring the propriety of action, reward and punishment, sense of duty, and the effect of numerous factors on moral sentiment.

In so doing, Smith devised innovative theories on virtues, conscience, and moral judgment that are still relevant and accessible today. Though somewhat surprising to find a philosopher of Smith's abilities...

"I, on my part, may, perhaps, in a course of papers, penetrate arcana too; show the wicked policy of the tories; trace their plan from its first rude sketches to its present complete draught; show that it has been much longer in contemplation than is generally known,—who were the first in it—their views, motives, and secret springs of action, and the means they have employed. This will...

"In the transaction of your foreign affairs, we have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations, and especially of those with which we have the most important relations. We have done them justice on all occasions, favored where favor was lawful, and cherished mutual interests and intercourse on fair and equal terms. We are firmly convinced, and we act on...

These are submitted to consideration and I shall be happy, if they are found conducive to remedying the evils and inconveniences, we are now subject to, and putting the army upon a more respectable footing.

"[T]here are as real and the same kind of indications in human nature, that we were made for society and to do good to our fellow-creatures."

"It may be added, that as persons without any conviction from reason of the desirableness of life, would yet of course preserve it merely from the appetite of hunger; so...

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