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Human nature

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Article Summary

Every political philosophy takes for granted a view of human nature, and every view of human nature is controversial. Political philosophers have responded to this conundrum in a variety of ways. Some have defended particular views of human nature, while others have sought to develop political philosophies that are compatible with many different views of human nature, or, alternatively, which rest on as few controversial assumptions about human nature as possible. Some political philosophers have taken the view that human nature is an immutable given, others that it is shaped (in varying degrees) by culture and circumstance. Differences about the basic attitudes of human beings toward one another – whether selfish, altruistic or some combination – have also exercised political philosophers. Although none of these questions has been settled definitively, various advances have been made in thinking systematically about them.

Four prominent debates concern: (1) the differences between perfectionist views, in which human nature is seen as malleable, and constraining views, in which it is not; (2) the nature/nurture controversy, which revolves around the degree to which human nature is a consequence of biology as opposed to social influence, and the implications of this question for political philosophy; (3) the opposition between self-referential and other-referential conceptions of human nature and motivation – whether we are more affected by our own condition considered in itself, or by comparisons between our own condition and that of others; and (4) attempts to detach philosophical thought about political association from all controversial assumptions about human nature.

Citing this article:
Shapiro, Ian. Human nature, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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