Ideologies and HUMAN NATURE

What is it to be human?

What are we?

Who are we?

Where are we going?

These are some of the BIG questions in philosophy, sociology, psychology, literature, and, IDEOLOGIES.

LIBERALISM is essentially OPTIMISTIC and POSITIVE about human nature

We’re rational, reasonable creatures – most of the time.

We solve problems – most of the time.

We debate, question, discuss, argue, examine and evaluate our options – peacefully.

Together, we have the potential to solve problems and decide our futures.

There’s no need to be fatalistic and hopeless – things don’t happen because they ‘just happen’ or because God has decided this is how it’s going to be. We decide our own fates, nothing is preconceived.

‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’  From the Victorian poem ‘Invictus’ (William Ernest Henley) which typifies this positive view (and provided lines that Nelson Mandela would think on during his long years in a South African prison.)

Liberals also suggest that humans are conditioned by EGOTISTICAL INDIVIDUALISM.

This is an important concept: it means that humans have selfish interests and seek to advance their own happiness as a priority.

Egotistical individualism means that we will act in such a way to achieve outcomes that advance our own interests over the interests of others.

Can humans be rational, reasonable and egotistical individuals at the same time?

Liberalism says ‘yes’, they can.

Humans are innately rational  (which means we’re born this way) and egotistical at the same time.

Humans want what’s best for themselves whilst recognising the views and interests of those around them.

Liberals believe this works – we get along with each other but we will always seek what’s best for us at the same time.

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SOCIALISM shares a broadly optimistic view of HUMAN NATURE with Liberalism

Socialists believe that society is organised according to social class.

The ruling class have the political power and the wealth, the working class have little of either and are largely exploited by their richer rulers.

Where does this leave human nature?

To start with, there’s less of the egotistical individual in us as far as the socialists are concerned. We are generous to one another, we cooperate with each other and we usually try to act in way that is mostly unselfish.

We are not naturally inclined to be alone. We want to be with other people. We seek relationships, we crave friendship and we look to find common bonds and connections with the people around us.

If human nature is so positive, why do socialists have issues with social class and exploitation?

They believe we are essentially ‘good’ – generous, altruistic, cooperative, fraternal and friendly – but these true aspects of our nature have become lost.

Social conditions have changed us – industrialisation, urbanisation (living in towns and cities), capitalism, nationalism, competition and wars (among other things) have made us lose touch with who we are. We’ve lost sight of the value of cooperation with each other.

HOWEVER – socialism remains OPTIMISTIC about human nature. Because . . .

. . . We can change! No-one’s nature is fixed at birth. Human nature can be ‘nudged’ and shifted towards something that is better –  a future where we can reconnect with our natural desire to be generous, altruistic, cooperative, fraternal and friendly. 

If human nature is encouraged and allowed to develop and flourish in this way, society as a whole will benefit.

It’s this cooperative and collective state of affairs that should be our normal expectation and experience of life, not one framed by all the things that obscure our true nature.

What are the main similarities and differences in the way Liberals and Socialists view human nature?


Edmund Burke (1729 (Dublin) -1797) was a politician, political theorist and philosopher.

He is one of the key conservative thinkers and had a very clear view about HUMAN NATURE, which was basically PESSIMISTIC.

Burke thought humans were flawed and  imperfect. Unlike liberals and socialists, Burke didn’t think human nature was likely to improve: humans were just as likely to fail than succeed.

Liberalism thinks humans have a boundless potential to achieve: Conservatism disagrees.

Liberalism thinks human nature points to limitless improvement: Conservatism disagrees.

Where Socialism believes we are essentially ‘good’ – generous, altruistic, cooperative, fraternal and friendly: Conservatism disagrees.

This does not mean that Conservatives think we shouldn’t bother getting up in the morning.

They would encourage effort, hard work and initiative but will recognise that, because we are fallible and flawed, we may not always achieve our goals – because we are ‘imperfect’.


Noel O’Sullivan (1976) – people are imperfect and imperfectible in THREE key ways:

  1. We are morally flawed ( we want power and we’re prepared to exploit others to get it). For Conservatives, this is similar to the idea of ‘original sin’ in the Old Testament.
  2. We are psychologically limited and dependent. People like to ‘know their place’ in a social situation, if we can’t see ‘where we are’ then we are less likely to be happy.
  3. We don’t really understand big political ideas and the enormous implications of ideology – they’re simply too big to comprehend. We really have no clue where they’re going to lead us. We can’t trust them.This is because we are intellectually flawed. Given the choice, we would prefer to follow pragmatic and realistic solutions to our problems, not follow vague, big ideas.

O’Sullivan called this the ‘philosophy of imperfection‘.

We are human, but we are imperfect, in lots of ways – morally, psychologically and intellectually.

Human imperfection is therefore a key theme of Conservatism. We’re never going to be perfect as humans and we’re never going to construct the ‘perfect’ society that Liberals and Socialists think we can.


Ecologists think humans need to develop an environmental consciousness.

However, they don’t agree on how humans might achieve this.

Here’s how ‘Deep’ – ECOCENTRIC – Ecologists see it

Nature should have equal status with humans. We’re nothing special, were simply another part of nature.

We need to radically change the way we see the natural world – it’s not something that exists just for our welfare, it exists for itself, it has an INTRINSIC value.

If only humans could see the INTRINSIC value of nature then perhaps we would protect it more and exploit it less.

Worried about plastic in the sea because it’s poisoning the fish you wish to eat? You should be more concerned about the impact on NATURE ITSELF. Stop being selfish.

Worried about the number of cars on the road because the diesel fumes aren’t good for your asthma? You should be more concerned about the impact on NATURE ITSELF. Stop being selfish.

Worried that there may soon be no trees left to make nice furniture with? You should be more concerned about the impact on NATURE ITSELF. Stop being selfish.

Care for plants, cycle, turn the heating off, don’t pollute, save the whale, don’t eat cows, put the recycling bin out every Tuesday – all this is helpful but may not show full consciousness of the intrinsic value of nature. Are these activities for the benefit of HUMANS or for the INTRINSIC VALUE of NATURE?

Here’s another view – STEWARDSHIP. ‘Deep’ Ecologists might refer to this as ‘Shallow’ ecology

Less radical ecologists may favour the STEWARDSHIP model.

Stewardship – humans should care for nature and the environment. We have a duty of care to nature and we should protect it and pass it on to the next and future generations.

Deep ecologists disagree with this ANTHROPOCENTRIC view of human nature that places humans at the centre of the natural world.

Religion provides some of the basis for anthropocentrism with both the Bible and the Koran placing humans at the heart of a natural, God given, world.

‘Deep’ greens/ecologists reject the stewardship model because it does not address the INTRINSIC VALUE of NATURE.


NATIONALISM is a strong identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests.

NATIONALISTS support their own nation above the interests of other nations.

NATIONALISM is not the same as patriotism. Patriots may be proud of their country/nation for what it does. Nationalists rarely question the actions/behaviours of their country/nation, they support it no matter what.

NATIONALISM is a notoriously difficult ideology to define because it will appear in different forms in different places and at different times.

NATIONALISM, by its very nature, often stresses the unique qualities of a group of people and a culture. However, finding common themes in the way nationalists view HUMAN NATURE is possible.

The importance of CONSCIOUSNESS

Our consciousness is the state of being aware of, and responsive to, our surroundings. Our consciousness is also our awareness, and our understanding, of something.

Nationalists are conscious of their IDENTITY as a member of a particular national group.

This nationalist consciousness of identity might take several forms. Some of these forms may be more important to some nationalists than they are to others and will have an important impact on human nature. They include a shared consciousness / identity of

  • a shared culture – this may include arts, sport, literature, music and an agreed version of a national history.
  • a shared language – this is a powerful part of the nationalist consciousness as it sets the national group apart from others.
  • a shared religionnot for all nationalists (sometimes religion can find itself in conflict with radical nationalism) but religion can sometimes be the thing that binds a national people together. We can see this in some Islamic states, we may see aspects of it in catholic states in Europe and South America and we can observe its significance historically in the development of the Irish Republic from 1921 onwards.
  • a shared sense of geography – this may be seen in a strong sense of ‘land’ and national borders. It may be something that some groups who are ‘nations’ in many aspects do not possess as a nation state. The Kurdish ‘nation’ is a good example of this.
  • a shared sense of ethnicity – again, not a characteristic of all nationalist groups but a very strong factor in the way some nationalists express themselves. Japan, China and some Asian countries exhibit this type of nationalist trait.

RACE – the problem with NATIONALISM?

One of the potentially worrying aspects of nationalism occurs when human nature is framed in terms of race.

At its most extreme, a nationalist group may define itself a a superior race and use their position to oppress people of other races. This is RACISM.

This aspect of the way nationalists view human nature has taken us to some very dark places.

  • A recent example may be seen with the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
  • You will be familiar with the Final Solution in World War Two.
  • Europe has seen a more recent example in Bosnia in the 1990s.
  • South Africa under the apartheid regime is another recent example.

Nationalist distinctions of race don’t necessarily lead to death camps.

It is possible for nationalists to define national identity in terms of race as the most important human characteristic.

It comes down to the degree of superiority that becomes attached to the racial distinctions being made as to how ‘racist’ this particularly nationalist outlook may be.


Feminism is:

  • A recognition that women are disadvantaged and discriminated against. The main reason for this – gender and sex differences.
  • A recognition that society is essentially male dominated.
  • A more limited ideology than others you will study – it has a central appeal to approximately half the population.
  • A very divided/fragmented movement that has produced no political parties.

In 2012, the UK polling company ‘YouGov’ asked its readers a number of questions about FEMINISM.

The results give you a good starting point to understand some of the issues in modern FEMINIST thought. The comments are still open, perhaps you may wish to join the debate once you’ve finished reading.

Men and Women

Men are men, women are women – these are the BIOLOGICAL differences of SEX.

GENDER characteristics are not as easy to define.

Feminists argue against the idea that gender characteristics are innate and that women are seen as caring, sensitive, sympathetic and intuitive not because they were somehow born this way but rather because society has IMPOSED them on women.

Feminists argue that stereotyped gender characteristics are forced onto women by the PATRIARCHY (a society created by, and in the best interests of, MEN).

Theories of human nature are conceived of by men and frequently make the equation that HUMAN NATURE = MALE NATURE. Some of these theories believe that women were just different from men; others that they were inferior.

The Feminist view of human nature therefore develops around a fundamental disagreement on how society sees GENDER ROLES that are NOT ‘naturally’ normal because they are what MEN have decided they should be.

Types of Feminism

Liberal Feminism

  • Change through reform, not revolution.
  • Acknowledgement of the divide between the personal and political.
  • Women to be free from patriarchal control and allowed full self-determination.

Marxist Feminism

  • Women need to achieve economic equality – inequality is an expression of male economic power.
  • Women’s labour is too cheap.
  • Essentially – the main problem is capitalism: get rid of that and the position of women would improve.

Radical Feminism

  • Men are the problem – it’s all about patriarchy.
  • Women are more culturally and emotionally developed than men.
  • Women might be better off if they refused to have any kind of political connection with men.

3rd Wave / Post Modern Feminism

  • Sceptical about the idea of progress.
  • Accept that the liberal feminist agenda has largely been achieved.
  • Asks the question – ‘where next?’

Multiculturalism and Human Nature

  • Multiculturalism is an idea rather than an ideology.
  • It offers no over-arching political plan.
  • It offers no systematic view of how society should be organized.
  • It develops key ideas of tolerance, diversity and that can be traced back to LIBERALISM.

The importance of IDENTITY

  • We’re not the same as each other, we’re all different, our identities are DIVERSE.
  • We need to do more than simply recognize diversity, we need to celebrate, respect and promote it.
  • For this collective self-respect to work, diverse/groups and communities must respect other diversities in society.

The importance of COMMUNITY

  • Diverse identities/groups MUST see themselves as part of the COMMUNITIES in which they live and work.
  • The community is more important than the INDIVIDUAL – this is COMMUNITARIANISM.
  • Similar to liberals, socialists and some anarchists, multiculturalists don’t believe humans are the finished product, we’re flexible, we can change and we’re the products of the society we live in. If this is the case, then put humans in societies that are tolerant, diverse, happy, peaceful and cooperative  then we will be tolerant and understanding of our differences. We may even embrace them and celebrate our diverse lifestyles and cultures.


There is no single view amongst anarchists on what human nature is.

Anarchism as an ideology represents a number of political traditions and ideas that may be found in a variety of movements such as communism, collectivism and individualism.

The core belief of ANARCHISM focuses on the STATE and the view that it should be abolished because humans are capable of living together peacefully without it.

For anarchists, the state is unnecessary: it exploits us, it’s evil and it denies us our individual freedoms. It should therefore be abolished.

Anarchists can’t agree on what we represent as humans and what our true nature is. Anarchists may argue we are




‘In need of education’




Belinda could be good, she could lead a moral life, she just doesn’t know how to. She needs to live in a society that is morally perfect for this to happen. She’s in need of education.

Mathew was born ‘blank’, he came into the world with no basic nature. Whatever he becomes – good or bad – the world will have made him that way. His environment, his society, will make him what he is.

Alicia is happy to cooperate with other people as long as she can see what’s in it for her and that to do so is in her best interests. Alicia is egotistical and self-interested.

Imran is a rational, peaceful, sociable and selfless person. He will help people and try not to upset them with the decisions he makes. He’d rather cooperate with people than be in competition with them. Imran was born this way – he’s ‘good’ and lives an ‘altruistic’ life.

Christabel gets on with everyone and leads a life that is sociable and cooperative. This is her nature, her natural condition.

Clearly, anarchist thinkers disagree fundamentally on what human nature actually is. THREE key versions are on offer:

We’re self-interested and egoistic.

We’re like this because society has corrupted us. We could, if we wished, find a way out of this corruption by being educated into what a good and moral society looks like.

Or . . . we are all born good and naturally sociable and altruistic. Put us in the right society and everything will be fine.



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