Liberalism & Human Nature

 liberals share an optimistic attitude towards human nature. This is based upon an assumption that our behaviour is determined by rational interest rather than irrational emotions and prejudice. We are therefore governed by reason and should be entrusted with as much freedom as possible.

The liberal belief that humans are rational creatures holds several implications. Firstly, it promotes the view that we are free to choose our own path in life regardless of what society dictates as the ‘norm.’ Liberals firmly believe that we should be allowed to express ourselves fully as guided by our own free will

John Locke: For the classical liberal John Locke,  understanding human nature meant  a belief in an original and positive ‘state of nature’ which pre-dated the state. In this state of nature existed certain inalienable and natural rights, laws and liberties, such as the right to own property and to live in peace. In order for the individual to flourish, therefore, the state needed to protect these basic rights, but otherwise should leave the individual alone to prosper and pursue their own interest.

Through the power of reason, open and free debate and a measured discussion of views and opinions, society will progress and consensus will emerge. In large part this harks back to self-interest and a belief that everyone in society ultimately shares similar (and reasonable) goals. There is then no problem or challenge too great for human reason to overcome. 

Liberalism also embraces a high level of idealism. This optimistic view of human nature contrasts with political beliefs structured around a God-ordained natural hierarchy such as the feudal system and an absolutist monarchy. It also differs from the pessimistic view of humanity espoused by thinkers often on the right wing of politics who are influenced by the notion of original sin.

In certain schools of Christian thought, this emphasises the innate sinfulness of humanity, a concept often termed ‘total depravity’. Humans, being inherently sinful creatures, cannot save or help themselves; politically this means the need for a leader figure (e.g. Hobbes’ Leviathan) to save them from themselves. Liberalism also rejects the notion of fatalism — God/Allah wills it. By contrast, liberals believe that humans shape their own destiny, both individually and as a society. In summary, liberals believe that human nature is inherently:

■ rational and reasonable

■ capable of progress using the gift of reason

■ equipped to progress and develop, in an atmosphere of open debate and toleration

■ free of the need for an overarching, all-powerful authority figure

One area of difference among liberals over human nature is that classical liberals believed strongly that human beings are essentially self-seeking and self-reliant. The modern liberal view of human nature, by contrast, is more rounded, seeing humankind as more sociable and willing to pursue higher goals (such as education and artistic endeavour) collectively rather than as individual pleasure seekers.

Betty Friedan, saw that left entirely unchecked, human nature could produce (and indeed had produced) gender inequality unless power and opportunity were more evenly balanced between the sexes.