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Human Nature and the Ethical Life

Philosophers have been debating human nature for centuries, but in an era of increasing political vitriol and partisanship, the issues at stake are gaining new relevance. To understand what we should expect from our leaders, we must first consider what to expect of ourselves.

NEW YORK – Does human nature exist? The answer has implications for anyone concerned about ethics. In an era defined by amoral political leadership and eroding social values, thinking about the essence of humanity has never been more important.

The philosophical concept of “human nature” has a long history. In Western culture, its study began with Socrates in the fifth century BCE, but it was Aristotle who argued that human nature was characterized by unique attributes – particularly, people’s need to socialize and our ability to reason. For the Stoics of Hellenistic Greece, human nature was what gave life meaning and contributed to their embrace of cosmopolitanism and equality.

Ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Mencius believed human nature was innately good, while Xunzi thought it was evil and lacked a moral compass. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, human nature is fundamentally corrupted by sin, but can be redeemed by embracing God, in whose image we have been created.

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