What Is Human Nature? Philosophy of Rutger Bregman

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What is human nature in philosophy? Are humans benevolent or evil by their nature?

In philosophy, human nature has been debated extensively. Some philosophers argue that humans are naturally deceitful and cruel, seemingly with a lot of evidence to back us up: Throughout history, groups of humans have gone to war, committed genocide, and owned slaves. But despite our history of evil, humans are fundamentally good.

Here’s why the basic nature of humankind is inherently good, according to historian Rutger Bregman.

Modern Evidence: Evil Doesn’t Come Naturally to Us

What is human nature in philosophy—are we inherently good or inherently bad? In his book Humankind, historian Rutger Bregman claims that humans have evolved to be compassionate and cooperative. We survived by learning from each other and working together. We began to engage in war and violence not because it’s in our nature, but because the invention of settlements and civilization created more violent conditions.

But what does more recent evidence tell us about our true nature? Bregman suggests that modern scientific evidence offers a similar conclusion: that humans are fundamentally good and want to do the right thing. He discusses two modern scenarios that many people assume to bring out the cruelest, most selfish impulses in human nature: the prisoner-guard relationship and war. Bregman argues that while these situations can be brutal, humanity’s fundamental goodness shows through in each of them. 

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment

According to Bregman, proponents of Hobbes’s point of view—that humans are inherently selfish and cruel—often use the prisoner-guard relationship as proof that humans are naturally evil. This is largely due to a 1971 study known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Bregman describes the experiment: A team of psychologists led by Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo turned the basement of the Stanford psychology department into a “jail.” Zimbardo recruited 24 male college students, half of whom would play the role of guards and the other half the role of prisoners. After several days, the guards began to treat the prisoners with brutality—they subjected them to strip searches, emotionally and verbally tormented them, and even physically abused them.

Bregman notes that in interviews and articles after the experiment, Zimbardo repeatedly claimed that this cruel behavior was entirely unscripted. He said that merely telling participants to be a guard had brought out their sadistic tendencies—the evil that supposedly hides in all of us.

However, when Zimbardo released the archive of the experiment, it became clear that he’d influenced the guards’ actions. According to Bregman, Zimbardo met with the guards before the experiment began and told them to treat the prisoners with brutality. Due to Zimbardo’s interference, Bregman maintains that the experiment tells us very little about human nature. 

However, Bregman notes that a similar study conducted more recently, without unethical interference from the researchers, had the opposite result of the Stanford prison experiment. This was a 2002 reality TV show on the BBC called The Experiment, run by psychologists Alexander Haslam and Steven Reicher. Like Zimbardo, Haslam and Reicher divided participants into guards and prisoners. However, they didn’t give the guards any directives. By the end of the series, the prisoners and guards were sharing their food and playing games together, and they’d voted to create a commune. Bregman concludes that being a guard doesn’t automatically bring out our evil nature.

War: Soldiers Don’t Enjoy Killing

Another scenario that people often hold up as an example of humans’ inherent cruelty is war. Bregman suggests that traditionally, we think that soldiers enjoy killing because it allows them to engage in the type of primal violence that humans have supposedly committed throughout history.

However, Bregman argues that most soldiers actively avoid killing, and that it takes considerable training to make soldiers kill. Evidence from around the world suggests that historically, few soldiers fired their weapons in times of war. These numbers have only increased in recent years due to the military’s increased emphasis on conditioning soldiers to kill through combat simulations and exposure to violent images.

What Is Human Nature? Philosophy of Rutger Bregman

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  • Why humans are fundamentally good, not evil
  • How the Stanford Prison Experiment was misleading
  • How recent studies have debunked "Killer Ape Theory"

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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