Working hypothesis: behind every political worldview are assumptions or ideas about human nature.


“…conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectibility. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent--or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerable ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order.” Russell Kirk, Ten Conservative Principles

Now compare to:

“People enjoy their work if it is meaningful and enhances their lives. They work out of a sense of responsibility to their community and society.” Democratic Socialists of America

“…an ideal human being cast from a mold rich in Marxist-Leninist principles, [t]he 'socialist personality' was meant to have an all-round education of 'head, heart and hand' and to possess a wide range of virtues which took their cue from societal requirements rather than individual interests.” Angela Brock, The Making of the Socialist Personality

“With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. ... Individualism will also be unselfish and unaffected.” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism

None of this is to say that human nature is merely a social construction. There is such a thing as “species-typical” behaviors, after all. If other animals have natures, why not humans?

This is how I think about human nature: human nature is whatever is generally true of Homo sapiens. Human nature is about capacities and tendencies, which individual humans possess to a greater or lesser degree. Human nature does not dictate what an individual human will or should feel, think or do in any given situation. But considerations of human nature should inform political decisions and policies.

That cats hiss when threatened is part of cat nature, even though not all cats hiss when threatened. However, only a really dumb cat politician would propose a law to ban hissing. Because the hiss will out. It’s cat nature. Same principle with human nature and human politicians.

Without further ado, here are some examples of what I consider human nature:

  • Humans are social animals

  • Humans have limited memories and attention spans.

  • Humans are concerned about how people evaluate them

  • Human show a preference for scarce over abundant goods

  • Humans engage in social comparison

  • Humans are alert to status signals

  • Humans care about their own status

  • Humans want to belong

  • Humans track what others are paying attention to.

  • Humans can imagine other people’s intentions and goals

  • Humans are capable of sympathy

  • Humans have the sense of an objective reality that is separate from subjective experience

  • Human learn some things more easily than other things

  • Humans have a sense of fairness

  • Humans appreciate reciprocity

  • Humans disapprove of free riders

  • Humans have the urge to punish or hurt moral offenders

  • Humans understand the difference between morality and desire

  • Humans engage in impression management

  • Humans rationalize behavior

  • Humans are prone to either/or thinking

  • Humans divide people into in-groups and out-groups

  • Humans feel more sympathy for members of their in-group

  • Humans dampen or amplify emotions the better to achieve goals

  • Humans dampen or amplify emotions the better to do the right thing

  • Humans exercise self-control

  • Human self-control has its limits

  • Human nature builds on human nature, e.g., motivation to manage impressions depends on the ability to discern other people’s mental states.

  • Human nature is both input and output of the process of becoming human

There are political ramifications to each of the above examples of human nature. Someday I’ll elaborate.

Note: That the ‘ought’ of political agendas typically assumes an ‘is’ of human nature is probably why so many research psychologists conduct studies with clear political agendas, e.g., purporting to show that people are naturally averse to inequality. Unfortunately, many of these studies are poorly designed and their conclusions overstated.


Michael Tomasello (2019) Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny. Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press