Let’s Settle the “Altruistic” vs. “Selfish” Human Nature Debate

Spoiler alert: Human nature is just… nature

Anna Mercury
6 min readSep 13

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Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash

The most destructive philosophical problem with humanity today is our belief that we, humans, are not bound by the laws of nature. When we think of animals, we don’t think of homo sapiens on the list. When we think of ecosystems, we don’t think of cities and strip malls. We’ve imagined, for far too long, that we can build an economy separate from ecology, and as a result, the entire world is out of balance and hurtling our species towards extinction.

As a result of this fundamental problem in our philosophy, we’ve muddled a lot of other philosophical debates. Existential questions that seem complicated and unknowable could be straightforward and known if we gave up on the erroneous notion that humans aren’t part of the natural world.

We are.

We are animals, who live in ecosystems, bound by the laws of ecology and subject to the same forces as every other living thing on the planet.

There’s one debate in particular that we’ve rendered pointlessly complicated through our inability to understand ourselves as part of nature, and that is the debate over human nature. What, we ask, is the character of human nature? What comes from nature and what comes from nurture? Are humans fundamentally collaborative and altruistic, or competitive and selfish?

We act like human nature is something mysterious and unknowable. Our opinions about human nature, and the behavior these produce, are full of contradictions.

Our strange uncertainty about the answer to these questions infects every walk of our lives with contradiction and confusion. Our social policies are rife with both trust in human altruism and fear of human selfishness. Our norms around education, parenting and interpersonal relationships are all caught between competing arguments about human nature.

If you look at the choices you made, even just today, some were based on an assumption that other people would be helpful and kind, and some were likely based on the assumption that other people would be selfish or untrustworthy.

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Anna Mercury

Level 5 laser lotus, writing for a world where many worlds fit | www.allgodsnomasters.com