Are Human Beings Compassionate or Callous in Nature?

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016 at 7:57 PM
Are Human Beings Compassionate or Callous in Nature? by Emma Giering
Is humanity geared towards compassion of selfishness?

Editor Note: I wanted to start a new column of sorts where I will be discussing topics of philosophic and political nature. We're currently in the midst of a long political cycle, and perhaps instead of reflecting and recapping on past debates and statements, we should focus more on the underlying political theory that drives candidates to assume the positions they assume. In one of the political theory classes I'm taking, we are asked to reflect on some of these core questions that form the way the U.S. creates policy. I suppose I'll pick a handful of some of the more pressing ideas and give you my interpretations. It is from my interpretation that the reader will hopefully form their own perspective on a concept they otherwise may have never considered.

The question I’ll look at today is this: Are human beings estranged in essence?

The question might be hard to decipher at first, so breaking it down might be necessary. What is meant by estranged in essence? I believe it means: are human beings more inclined to be collaborative and compromising? Or are they more inclined to be self-serving and callous? This question touches numerous dimensions of our politics, especially in foreign affairs. Could there be harmony and mutual agreements reached between all the nations? The answer, your answer, will likely stem from the way you yourself have reacted to and manipulated the environment of which you were born. The advantages, privileges and perceptions you’ve formed are a mixture of what you internalized from watching others and assembling your own theory as to how the dynamics of daily living occur.

I personally think that humans are undeniably estranged by essence. Time seems to have been the largest agitator of the degree to which we’re all estranged. As we evolved throughout time, different theories began to intermingle and converge, split, and then reassemble. The result was a largely fragmented body of people, incapable of separating personal interest from the common good. There is something biologic in being human that provides for aggressive impulses to be acted upon. One of the many problems with politics, or so it seems, is that the people who are most able to effectively act on aggressive impulses rise to power. Power seems to grant itself time and time again to those unafraid of acting on primal impulses to scale the social hierarchy. Indeed, as my book for this course suggests, “if human nature is such that our deepest satisfactions are experienced in war and conflict, then there is little use in dreaming of universal concord.”

I readily believe that most power-driven humans thrive when cast into environments where perpetuating conflict is at the cornerstone of preserving the authoritative persona they’ve adopted. If there is no conflict for them to suppress or agitate, they become envied by others. Those who fall below their rank begin to plot against someone who is at ease when in power. Struggle makes the position of power seem undesirable. And it is precisely because humans are constantly at odds with one another that only a select few even have a vested interest in fueling the conflict, so as to deter others from wanting to inherit authority.

This is, of course, not to say that every individual has a different essence. My essence differs from the reader’s essence as the reader’s essence differs from other readers. Alas, you are free to choose if you believe this. Other theories suggest that my essence is your essence, while we are merely humans sharing a universal essence. If you subscribe to the latter, you’ll believe that it would be impossible for some humans to be estranged from their essence while other’s aren’t. It’s an all or nothing deal. You either think everyone is predisposed to dislike efforts to bridge cultural divides, or you think everyone is predisposed to be tolerant and accommodating to others.

The former, the theory that each individual has his or her own essence is my supposition. Ever met one of those people who you just feel uneasy around, only to later find out in life that they’ve done something reprehensible? To me, that’s just intuitive awareness of the human capacity for estranged essence. On the other hand, there are people in this world who exude tolerance and compromise — those whose essence is not estranged. It seems only natural to me that humans fall along a spectrum that ranges between the two. To be born into a condition where only two conditional binaries exist seems naive and unwilling to accept the variation in essence that occurs most predominantly over time.

So, I’ll take the side of Thomas Hobbes for now, but I eagerly hope to be proven wrong, because it is much easier to be a happy fool and pretend that humans are innately keen on compromise for the sake of unity. As a writer, someone who loves observing humanity, it pains me to admit that we’re just material objects, like rocks and trees, with considerably more intellect, but an object taking up space, no less. Hobbes viewed all material things to be external to one another, or “incapable of being united by bonds such as compassion, empathy, or common purpose.” Hobbes theorized, and to a large extent I agree, that only by force could the culmination of essences available to humans be controlled for general good.

The “control” in this theory came from the power of an absolute government. So, I suppose that ultimately hints at why I identify so fervently with liberalism. Given the atrocities that can be committed when estranged essences are allowed to manifest themselves in a unregulated fashion, it only seems right that an omniscient body, government, should oversee that essences are kept in balance. Oh, but what about the idiosyncrasies of fallible humans, often estranged essences themselves, taking on this challenge by exercising their lust for power under the guise of politics? How can a system run by the imperfect ever be perfect for everyone? It can’t, and the 21st century American public is realizing that too late as the body politic becomes more polarized than we have perhaps ever seen it before.

Human nature might dictate that we’re prone to disagreement, but nature got the best of us all, when all we had to do was make a conscious effort to defy it.

Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator and she can be reached at

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