CC 300 HX: Human Nature

3 Credits – Cross-listed with PHIL 290
TR 3:00-4:15 pm – Professor Woodward

Many people have an intuitive sense of what “human nature” is. Sometimes they appeal to their intuitions as a way excusing behavior (“It’s human nature to want to win” or “it’s in our nature to sin”), and sometimes as a way of condemning behavior (“Terrorism is inhuman” or “if she had an ounce of humanity, she would apologize”). What do people mean when they make claims like these?

Questions about human nature are relevant to many contemporary ethical controversies. Is technology altering our human nature, and if so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do human beings exhibit a special moral status (such as dignity or sanctity) in virtue of their nature, and in contrast to non-human animals? Are some sexual behaviors more or less ‘natural’, and would that tell us whether we should engage in them?

Is there really such a thing as human nature? If so, how do we determine what it is? If not, where does this leave us?

In our attempt to answer these questions, we will survey:

(1) The Teleologists: Classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who believe that human nature is an ideal to which we must aspire (even if nobody actually meets that ideal);

(2) The Mechanists: Modern, scientific thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Steven Pinker who believe that human nature can be discovered by scientists, since humans are just biological machines;

(3) The Existentialists: Recent, radical thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Soren Kierkegaard who believe that human nature is a blank canvas on which each of us must paint a life.

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