Philosophers have always treated human nature with suspicion. From Plato's legend of the ring of Gyges to Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, the belief has been that human nature is fundamentally bad, and that if people could get away with it, they'd rather steal, rape, rob, and kill.Because of this, one theory goes, people enter into a social contract. To avoid mutual destruction by their raging selves, they give up some of their freedom in exchange for security. The social contract theory, as one example of political philosophising, sounds reasonable. But is the premise correct? Is human nature really fundamentally bad?
It seems to me that however destructive human nature can be in theory—indeed, if we assume that man has free will, then he is capable of committing anything—in real life, man's own body, its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, forces him to co-operate with others rather than try to destroy them.
In real life, we do not think about this much; rather, we co-operate with others by habit instilled in us from childhood. We are trained to behave decently by our own family. Our parents do not want aggressive and unruly creatures bothering them, so for their own comfort they train us to be nice. And we continue to be so throughout life—and those who are not, as we often find out, may not have had that early socialising experience.
But let us pretend that there was no socialising milieu in one's childhood. Let us pretend that somehow a man did not realise that his mother was his only source of food and comfort, and he did not learn to please her. And let us pretend that it did not occur to him later in life that other people were useful to him too, and somehow he failed to master the skill of ingratiating himself with them in order to obtain what he needed. Let us pretend that, instead, the man was dropped from the sky into the world, not knowing anything at all about how it operated. Even then, it is my argument, he would be forced rather quickly to be nice rather than bellicose.
Dropped into the world, the man would promptly discover that his body needs to be fed every four hours and go to sleep every sixteen. His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and any contact with sharp, hard, or heavy objects, especially if the contact is made at speed. Even walking barefoot, he would observe, can be painful. He would find that the food his body demands so often is not readily available, and to fight for it with other people and animals a few times a day is painful to the skin. It is also risky to try to steal it, for getting away is difficult with the skin being so sensitive. Every night he would learn how physically complicated it is to find a safe shelter to hide from those he might have angered during the day. With his body getting hurt so easily and tired so quickly, he would calculate that it is more energy-efficient to try to engage others in a peaceful exchange, where he would trade for his food something of value to them: a thing he might have, a service he might perform, even a promise he might fulfill in the future.
Even if he were bigger and stronger than other men around him, he would understand that he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours—a third of each day on this planet—he would be as defenseless as a baby, and need to have someone he could trust next to him. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst human nature could not be mean under these circumstances all the time. The vulnerability of his own body at night and its dependence on non-poisonous food during the day would make him behave decently—at the very least to his closest circle.
This is what the man dropped from the sky would discover: however base and wild he might wish to be, his needy body keeps him in check. And philosophy, as fearful as it is of human nature, should acknowledge that it has an ally. The body is not a millstone to which the wing-flipping free will is oh-so-regrettably shackled, but a sensitive vessel playing a noble role. 'Don't be too cocky,' says the body to the free will trapped inside, 'or we will both get hurt.'