For the sorts of reasons I discussed last week, I have been strongly leaning for the past couple years toward Xunzi‘s negative dark view of human nature – or so I have thought. I observe my own tendencies and see just how hard it is to be good even when I really want to. Augustine, whose similarities to Xunzi run deep (as Aaron Stalnaker has noted), points to the behaviour he observes in babies: creatures not only of desire and greed, but even of jealousy and anger. It’s as we grow up that we learn to be good. And then, of course, there’s the history of human violence and bloodshed. I often find myself a little bewildered by the 20th-century philosophies that say philosophy must be entirely different after the Holocaust; the Holocaust would not have surprised Augustine. He knew what evil lurks in our minds.
One of the more common objections to such a dark view of human nature is that it leads to tyranny: if people can’t be trusted, they need an iron ruler to rule them. Such a view is most famously associated with Thomas Hobbes, and it seems that Xunzi held something like it, but I’ve tended to find it a bit puzzling. If we can’t trust people to rule themselves, how on earth could we trust an arbitrary sovereign to rule them? A dim view of human nature seems perfectly compatible with Winston Churchill’s endorsement of democracy: that it’s the worst form of government except for all the others. We need a strong system of checks and balances to hold down the dark tendencies of our leaders.
And yet. With reflection I have realized that I cannot endorse a view like Xunzi’s and Augustine’s, even modified in the latter way. Continue reading