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Does it exist? Does it change?
Is there such a thing as human nature? Is there some essence we humans share, simply on account of being human, and that, presumably, distinguishes us from other species? If there is, is this nature constant over time? Or has it evolved, making us today essentially different from our human predecessors?
Part of the answer depends on what it means to be human. In times past, members of certain tribes and races characterized other tribes and races as less than human. This was done, for example, to justify aggressive war, enslavement and other forms of ill treatment.
Yet in most cases those doing the characterizing seem not to have meant non-human in the modern scientific sense, as signifying a different species, a group unavailable for breeding. Interracial interbreeding, though often frowned upon in public, was hardly infrequent.
What these people really meant, when they labeled others as non-human, was that the others didn't share the same nature as those doing the labeling. If asked whether there was such a thing as human nature, they would have said no, or at least not a single human nature.
The question gained salience during the Enlightenment, with the emergence of a conception of human or natural rights. People had possessed rights before, but they were typically associated with membership in a particular group. "Civis romanus sum" — "I am a Roman citizen" — was a powerful passport in the days of the Roman empire. Christians accorded rights to other Christians, and Muslims to Muslims, that were not accorded to nonbelievers. The rights of Englishmen did not apply to Frenchmen, Irishmen or, as it turned out, Americans. The rights of men did not apply to women, nor the rights of adults to children.
Sorting out who could claim which rights took centuries. It hasn't ended even today. The concept of human rights is not a universally honored principle, notwithstanding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the United Nations in 1948. China and other autocracies do not recognize even civil rights for their own people, let alone human rights for those of other countries.
Human and natural rights aside, the question of human nature touches many other aspects of human life. Do people in different times and places share a common emotional makeup? Does the death of a child elicit the same response in parents of different cultures or of different historical eras?
I had to answer this question, or try to, when writing a book about Benjamin Franklin. Franklin lost his younger son, Francis, to smallpox when the boy was four years old. I have children, who were not much older than little Frankie when I was writing the book. I tried to imagine what I would feel if one of them suddenly died. But even as I did so I wasn't sure I could legitimately extrapolate my imagined feeling across almost three centuries to Franklin and his actual feeling. Infant and child mortality was much more common in Franklin's day; did that inure parents at all? The best answer I could come up with was maybe yes, maybe no and maybe more for some people than for others.
Or consider the value placed on personal freedom. These days the most common mode of punishment for crime is incarceration—the denial of freedom. Three hundred years ago this was not so. Corporal punishment—the inflicting of physical pain—was more common. The idea that a guarantee of a place to sleep, food to eat and shelter from the elements constituted punishment would have seemed ludicrous to many. But as more and more people came to take the necessaries of life for granted, the loss of freedom came to seem more severe.
Other evidence, however, points toward stability in conceptions of human nature. Among the oldest admonitions to virtue, shared among various religions and cultures, is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Kant updated this to the categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In whatever formulation, the idea is that each individual should measure the good of others by what seems good to that individual. We are all sufficiently alike, the argument goes, that this is the most ethical code of behavior.
But is it a good code of behavior? To cite a trivial counterexample: If I like chocolate ice cream, the best birthday dessert for me might be chocolate ice cream. But that wouldn't be the best dessert for you if you like strawberry.
At the high school I attended in the late 1960s and early 1970s, discovered misbehavior produced punishment. Under certain circumstances, the student miscreants could choose between corporal punishment and detention. Some preferred taking their medicine all at once and were out of the vice principal's office within five minutes—although most didn't sit down for another hour or two. Others avoided the pain but paid in tedium.
If I were a philosopher, I might be content to debate the question of human nature forever. But as a working historian I have to devise some rule of thumb on the subject. If I thought there were nothing we humans share across time and distance, I would have to find another line of work, for I would despair of understanding anything about anyone not just like me and living right now.
In fact, I've read enough old letters and diaries to conclude that people in earlier times reacted similarly but not identically to the way people react today to various kinds of events. Franklin did grieve for Frankie, but he understood, in a way people today often don't, that death is an unavoidable aspect of life. He saw with his own eyes much more of death than most of us do, and to some degree he got used to it.
So my rule of thumb is this: I allow for an essential human nature, but I don't assume it. I let the individual humans I deal with speak for themselves, in their own idiosyncratic but partly predictable ways.