Understanding Human Nature In Relation To Peace And Conflict

What is your understanding of Human Nature? How does that understanding relate to your notion of peace and conflicts as well as your assessment of the possibility of peace?

Although the societies around the world which form out of different cultures will express different values, with some of these societies, or states, are popularly considered to be more peaceful, for example Switzerland, and some less so, for example The USA, the basic universal human nature will have a massive impact on how the people in these societies relate to one another and furthermore how these societies act towards each other.

Almost all political philosophers have made observations on human nature and how these pertain to the needs, wishes and responsibilities of the state. These can be analysed to discover their suggestions as to the possibility (or impossibility) of peace.

It is important to begin by noting that human nature is too complex to be defined accurately in its entirety, therefore approximations and generalisations must be made. We also may not be able to consider what we believe to be human nature on an individual level as being accurate when viewing the society as a whole, as the volume of people can have distorting effects.

It is reasonable to consider that â??human natureâ?? would be the ultimate arbitrator? when considering the possibility of peace. All other aspects of humanity; technological, industrial, educational, political etc are fluid and show historical progression, however human nature remains static.

Finally it is necessary to state that for this analysis â??peaceâ?? will not be defined as only the absence of violent international conflicts, but as the formulation of a society in which all conflicts are resolved trough peaceful means.

Plato suggested that whilst human nature is complex it can be seen to comprise of three central elements: Wisdom, Spiritedness and Desire. All of these elements being present in everyone in various ratios. He theorised that if the populous can be effectively managed into a sustainable society peace would be achievable, however, desire acts as a stimulus creating a â??feverishâ?? society. These desires for luxury and convienience (which are clearly present in modern, western society â?? exemplified through materialism involved in iPhones and designer clothing) are the central cause of conflict as there is a scarcity of resources. Following Platoâ??s theories, to create a peaceful society it would be necessary to revert from our feverish society to sustainability. Unfortunately this would almost definitely require the use of force to oppress the peopleâ??s desires. This implies a use of force to create peace, obviously being contradictory. Furthermore, restricting personal freedoms can easily lead to internal violence such as rioting and civil war, as is currently being seen through the spread of democracy in traditionally oppressive regimes in the Middle East.

Whilst not strictly referring to human nature, Aristotle stated that the final development of the human race is to achieve â??the good lifeâ??, the capability to pursue virtues such as; practical wisdom, courage, justice and moderation (the last being difficult in Platoâ??s â??feverishâ?? society) This â??good lifeâ?? is dependant on the individualâ??s ability to control the desires of human nature. If everyone was willing to pursue these values a peaceful society would be the result. The problem arises when trying to create a society in which everyone shares these values, importantly, without resorting to force. Aristotle stated that â??man is by nature a political animalâ??, it is therefore conceivable that through political means such as education and public awareness campaigns Aristotleâ??s â??good lifeâ?? society would be achievable, although currently we are obviously ineffective at implementing this and it is difficult to imagine this being achievable.

The theories of Plato and Aristotle are highly important and relevant when analysing human nature, however when considering the idea of the â??possibility of peaceâ?? I feel they show too much idealism. The ideas of both philosophers, if implemented would, in theory, create societies of sustainable national and international peace, however there is not sufficient focus on the negative aspects of human nature and how the problems created by this can be resolved in the real world without expecting too much of the individual.

Niccolo Machiavelli, introduced â??realismâ?? to political theory regarding both human nature and peace. A defining summary on his view of human nature being, â??how one lives is so far different from how one ought to liveâ??. Whilst Plato and Aristotle suggested that the populous required what could be described as a â??cultural revolutionâ?? (not in the Maoist sense), Machiavelli felt the masses shouldnâ??t be expected to change, as he considered this â??unrealisticâ?? but that their weaknesses should be manipulated in order to reduce violence to an acceptanble minimum as a wholly realised peaceful society is never achievable. In my opinion, in attempting to achieve anything realism is a necessity, if ideas and implementation strategies are not relevant to the underlying aspects human nature there will be no progress.

Hobbes refers to a â??state of natureâ?? in which it is natural for humans to be at war in order to protect self interest, as in nature we observe the survival of the fittest. In this state of nature peace is only achievable through the forming of a social contract. This reflects his idealism as to achieve peace every member of the society must be willing to accept the social contract, even when it does not act in their favour, sometimes even attacking their self interest. The limits of any societyâ??s willingness to accept the social contract is widely apparent in the modern multiplicity of actors in the political sphere, with more and more groups protesting and petitioning to affect public policy to protect their self interests. It is also suggested that the state should only use its power to protect the populous and enforce the two agreements which form the social contract. However, in modern, industrial society the state has far more responsibilities, especially concerning economics, that this â??passiveâ?? state seems impossible without having significant effects on modern consumer capitalism which would in tern restrict the gratification of desires, thus creating conflicts. Hobbesâ?? social contract theory also states that the state/society is not natural, this suggests that mass, peaceful acceptance of a state is not a part of human nature. Even if we can achieve everyone living peacefully in a social contract this would only prevent internal conflicts, internationally there would still be a state of nature.

Immanuel Kant and the enlightenment period introduces what is, in my opinion, the most important idea when considering the possibility of peace. â??Historical developmentâ?? states that society progresses over time, that nothing is impossible in the future. Viewing only 19th and 20th century history this theory is evident in the industrial and technological spheres, and in politics and sociology we can also see a growth of values such as personal liberty, universal human rights and compassion and concern for the under-privalidged. When considering these advancements it is not too difficult to imagine that in centuries time maybe the mass acceptance of Aristotleâ??s â??good lifeâ?? society (or even David Cameronâ??s â??big societyâ??) will be possible. We can even see that some of Kantâ??s original ideas for â??perpetual peaceâ??, which seemed so alien at the time of his writing have since been fulfilled and indeed the absence of these seems inconceivable to modern man, for example, â??a state belongs to the people, it is not the personal property of anyoneâ??, even in states with monarchical regimes few would consider the state to be an asset of the monarch. Whilst Kantâ??s ideas are theoretically sound, it is difficult at present to imagine a time when this â??perpetual peace is an accepted fact of daily life, despite the massive growth in popular support for peace as shown in anti-war demonstrations in the USA and UK over the Afghan and Iraq wars in the last decade. One interesting statistic concerning â??perpetual peaceâ?? which comes from Kantâ??s studies (the specification that for international peace states would need a republican government) is that no two democratic nations have ever been at war with one another (though nazi Germany against the Allies in world war II being an anomaly to this â?? understandably due to the incredible atrocities which occurred), and it can be observed that most 20th century wars were borne of the conflicts between political ideologies, often democracies fighting communists, fascists or dictators, and indeed it appears that two democratic and politically developed countries entering into conflicts against one another would go against public mood in both nations. It is therefore reasonable to consider that if all nations were democratic there would be a significant reduction in violent international conflicts. This information combined with the growing spread of democracy in formally oppressed states (particularly in the Middle East, although also potentially spreading to China in the near future) give a tangible image of international peace being established in the not too distant future. Kant also discussed the â??Universal Right of Humanityâ??, involving ideas which led to the development of the UN declaration of human rights. Personally I believe human right is not a factor of human nature, when considering the widespread humanitarian atrocities (particularly genocide and persecution) in nazi Germany, Maoist China, Russian Gulags, Rwanda, Guatemala and many others over the last century, it seems unlikely that empathy and compassion pertaining to peace is a fundamental factor of human nature.

Karl Marx observed during the industrial revolution that the ability to produce (food, textiles, machinery, technology, etc) was an intrinsic part of human nature. He theorised that conflicts arise in society because of the creation of two classes: those who have the means of production and those who donâ??t. Therefore to eliminate conflicts you need to eliminate class divide through abolishing private property. However, a peaceful transition to this communistic society would require the entire populous to accept the new system. I believe it is human nature to desire to be perceived as being superior to others, what Hobbes refers to as â??vain gloryâ??, this would obviously cause a reluctance among those who posses the means of production to relinquish that, thus necessitating force and an almost inevitably violent transition.

My own thoughts on human nature as it relates to the possibility of peace are that in order to achieve peace society needs to be more aware of the emotional and cultural violence inflicted on people. Even if you manage to achieve international peace through any method there will always be individuals who due to a myriad of factors see violence as the only acceptable response to the society they observe. People like the Unabomber, Charles Manson, etc. I believe the actions of these people not to be borne of human nature but as a product of social human nature; the abstract creations and ideals of human society which then can make individuals feel they are separate from humanity as they cannot understand these abstractions of things such as love, success, lonliness, good and evil.

In conclusion I feel there four central points when considering human nature and its relationship with peace.

Realism is important as in order to create complete peace we must begin by reducing violence, I believe this cannot be achieved though idealistic stratagies requiring every human being to be accountable to a high standard, especially as the masses are largely apathetic. Methods must be established and implemented based on reasonable targets if they are to be affective.

Whilst in the present day humanity is so distant from achieving peace that it seems impossible, and the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Kant seem so unrealistic to implement I agree with the idea of Historical development so far as saying that although it appears impossible now, that does not mean there is no hope for the future.

I feel international peace is within the grasp of humanity as it relies on good governance, or in Platoâ??s theory, the Philosopher King. However, I feel true, complete peace may be impossible as it would require such a dramatic shift of social attitude.

Both Plato and Marx acknowledge the importance of desire creating conflict, humans will inevitably protect their self interest, there is a scarcity of resources and thus there will obviously be conflicts arising when deciding who gets what when. It would be possible to control our desires in Platoâ??s self-sufficient society, however we have gone so far past that I feel it would be impossible to globally return to self-sufficiency.

Copyright Richard F. Lancaster 2011

All Rights Reserved


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