Human Nature and Western Civilization

William H. Young

Over the twentieth century, the doctrine of social constructionism expounded within American universities—human nature is a blank slate to be shaped by culture and the state—replaced the Western concept of human nature that began with the Greeks, with profound and tragic consequences that threaten our very future as a nation.

Our founding order was rooted in the Western idea that man has a common human nature with universal instincts, which includes a mix of innate but unequal potentialities to be actualized through nurture from childhood by self, family, education, religion, and culture. The baser traits of a mixed human nature must be constrained by moral and ethical traditions, religious mores, and limited government. Through their inherent nature and such nurture, individuals are seen to determine their own fate. The founders established a government, along with a civil society and commercial economy, shaped by that perception of human nature.

But in our European-inspired universities of the late-nineteenth century, a new belief—human nature is socially constructed—grew into an article of faith in American academic sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology. The superorganic or group mind, instead of the individual mind, became a basic tenet of academic social science. A new political science - progressivism, also based on social constructionism—was formulated to overcome the limits of the founding order. Rather than continuing the Founders’ emphasis on individual opportunity and responsibility, progressivism emphasizes equality—the achievement of equal individual results through construction of the self by expanding the scope of once-limited government.

Progressive elites and many social scientists posit a Rousseauian “general will” of the whole people which a Hegelian administrative state then implements to transform human nature and perfect man and society, by granting entitlement rights to social justice and redistributed wealth. Progressivism has engendered an unrealizable expectation of entitlement to lifelong sustenance by the state. It has spawned an unsustainable culture of dependency and debt. It has placed an immoral financial burden on future generations for present benefits. It has driven America to the brink of incoherent and insolvent governance.

Once again, in our European-inspired universities of the late-twentieth century, postmodern multiculturalism magnified the theory that differences among individuals are group-based, focusing on social reconstruction of the undeserved status of privileged groups in favor of historically-oppressed groups. Rights are socially determined from needs and deficiencies of individuals within grievance groups rather than derived from those features of human nature that individuals share. Postmodern multiculturalism also added the dogma that knowledge and reality, as well as the individual and behavior, are socially constructed.

Postmodern multiculturalism is an assimilation of beliefs in: cultural and moral relativism and political correctness; postmodernism; multiculturalism, identity-group diversity, and proportional representation; radical egalitarianism; and gender feminism. It subsumes the 1960s’ consciousness that American society is unjust and oppressive. It rejects the American founding order. It helped achieve long-overdue recognition, equity, and rights for blacks, women, and minorities. But it also propagated radical beliefs and approaches that contradict the Western ideals and principles on which America was founded.

From cultural and moral relativism came the beliefs that there are no standards of right or wrong, good or bad stemming from transcendent ideals or traditional wisdom. There are no eternal truths, only passing assertions grounded in the presentism of contemporary culture, which replaces religion. Uninformed opinions and multicultural trivialities are as valid and important as hard facts. Political correctness prescribes the nature of discourse and adulterates societal valuations. Adolescent sentiment substitutes for mature judgment. Narcissism replaces character. These are “acquired characteristics” of human nature imbued by social science through social constructionism.

From postmodernism came the concept that socially constructed illusion is acceptable as reality—the denial of objective truth or facts arrived at through reason, science, or humanistic studies.

From diversity came the identity group over the individual, through preferences.

From gender feminism (along with expressive individualism, the sexual revolution, and the welfare state) came disintegration of the family and sacrifice of children.

From educational pedagogy—peer-group constructivism, socially constructed self-esteem, and radical egalitarianism—came the failure of public schooling.

The doctrine of social constructionism—the basis for Marxism—has been catastrophic over Western history for individual liberty and responsibility in private, social, economic, and political life and flies in the face of the lessons of Western civilization. The Greeks, Christianity, the Renaissance, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Burke, the British Enlightenment (Locke, Hume, and Smith), Darwin, and Freud addressed many facets of an essential human nature through which man, adequately nurtured and properly governed, can determine his own future.

Ironically, a new science—evolutionary psychology—confirms the wisdom of the American founding order and its Western concept of human nature and confutes the destructive doctrine of social constructionism. Evolutionary psychology is a biologically-informed humanism and better appreciation of the wondrous complexities of the human mind and intelligence, combining sciences of the mind, brain, genes, and evolution. This new science establishes that there is psychological unity of an immutable human nature with universal instincts beneath the superficial differences of physical appearance and parochial culture.

Moreover, evolutionary psychology has elucidated the following features of human nature that connote a natural social order: complex adaptations have evolved to benefit the individual within the social contract (our founding) tradition; the most common ethos of humans is reciprocity (our exchange economy), not communal sharing; group-based approaches are naturally divisive; there is an inherent primacy of family ties and differences between the sexes; some degree of natural inequality exists even in fair economic systems and learning; and humans are envious zero-sum thinkers.

How do contemporary philosophies comport with those discoveries? Progressivism still ignores human nature and seeks egalitarian freedom from want or natural inequality by granting ever more economic rights from a near-insolvent state—based on communal sharing. Progressivism reinforces envy with increasingly class-based economic demands. Postmodern multiculturalism advocates divisive group-based policies and undermines the family. Both replace individual reciprocity and responsibility with rights.   Diversity diminishes communal reciprocity and trust.

At a time of urgent societal need for enlightened intellectual leadership, our colleges and universities would do well to consider anew the wisdom of Western civilization (as recommended by NAS) and discern and deploy the scientific insights of evolutionary psychology, to advance beyond the doctrine of social constructionism to a proper vision of human nature that should form the basis for our future.

This is the first of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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