Evil,  Human Nature,  Politics

Governing and Human Nature

Consider the present state of political discourse. Isn’t it, at least in part, a discussion about evil and what to do about it? Of course, it also involves thinking about some things as evil and other things as good. But once a political group has decided what they think is evil, the debate is all about what to do about it. Debate over the environment is about what to do to confront the bad effects of successful economies. The debate over wealth and poverty becomes a debate about how to shrink the income gap. The same is true of debates over firearms, border control, the moral status of the unborn, and a plethora of other issues.

What a politician has to do is attempt to restrain evil without removing other features of overweighing value. Good governance restrains evil without diminishing other valuable features of human life. Thus, to govern well, one must have a grasp of the nature of human beings. Indeed, any political philosophy begins with answering that question. You can’t govern anything unless you know what it is.

One way to think about human nature is in terms of sameness and difference. We are both one kind of thing and yet each of us is unique. John Feinberg writes insightfully on this matter. First, he says we are all the same in certain ways:

“At a minimum, [God] intended to create a being with the capacity to reason…with emotions, a will that is free…a being with desires, intentions…and the capacity for bodily movement. Moreover, he intended for us to use those capacities to live and function in a world that is suited to beings such as we are. Hence, he created our world which is run according to the natural laws we observe, and he evidently didn’t intend to annihilate what he had created once he finished his creative work.” (Feinberg, The Many Face of Evil, 167-168).

In some ways, humans are all very much alike. We have similar intellectual equipment, basic needs, and, to varying degrees, capacities to desire, hope, imagine, and plan. However, in other ways, human beings are incredibly diverse. We prefer different things, hope for different outcomes, love different people, have different tastes and so on. We are, as Feinberg puts it, not identical with our stereotypes:

“God didn’t intend each human being to be identical in respect to these capacities. For example some might have certain desires to the same degree as another human, but in no two people would all these qualities of humanness be conjoined so as to obliterate individuality of persons. My claim is more than that no two people are numerically one; it is that the character traits of any two people wouldn’t be so similar as to make them stereotypes of one another.” (Feinberg, 168).

It turns out that our differences are also part of what God intended when he made us. He did not intend that we all want the same things nor to the same degree. That’s a good explanation for the incredible diversity of his creation. He created blueberries and turmeric and apples and cows and peas.

The complexity of the world of human life is due both to our similarities and to our differences. We all fall in love, but not all with the same person. We all like to eat, but some prefer cabbages to ice cream. When you multiply the complexity by the number of people on the planet, the complexity is beyond the mind of even the brightest big data collector.

Feinberg uses the complexity of human nature to argue that God cannot remove evil without radically changing the nature of human beings or making the world into a much worse place than it is: “In order to see why it would be undesirable for God to turn our world into a utopia, we must see what God would have to do to produce a utopia” (172).

So, what could God do? God could, of course, wipe out all human beings. This would end moral evil as we know it in an instance. Alternatively, God could eliminate objects of desire or desire itself. These solutions entail that God would have to destroy the world or us in order to remove our desires.

What else could God do?  He could vigilantly police our desires and intervene as soon as they become desires for evil. The trouble with this solution is that almost any desire can become a desire for evil. Innocent desires for food, love, friendship, and achievement can soon turn to gluttony, infidelity, factiousness, and pride. Still, perhaps God could intervene only when a good desire goes south. Feinberg asks us to imagine what such a world would be like. We would be put on pause as soon as an evil desire is initiated and only let go again once a good desire has replaced it. Life would come practically to a standstill. Every time a desire goes the wrong way, God would prevent it going any further. But, in practice, this entails constant road blocks to ordinary life. We would be constantly stopped in our tracks until our focus moves elsewhere and then stopped again moments later.

Another option is to radically change human nature. God could make us into super-humans, beings able to transcend evil desires. After all, don’t we Christians believe that we will one day live in glorified bodies? And if we don’t sin in glorified bodies, then why didn’t God just make us that way in the first place? Feinberg replies that God could have done so, but it is clear that he does not intend it to be that way. God intended to make us non-gloried first. God clearly thinks non-glorified human life is an inherent good, a beautiful thing of great value. Though deeply sinful, human life is of inestimable value – life, that is, as it is in its non-glorified state.

Now consider the options above in comparison with some political proposals for solving evil in our societies. Consider God’s first option for removing evil – annihilation of the human species or of the whole world. It might seem that no one is proposing this for consideration of public policy. Perhaps, but people sometimes talk as if human life is an intrinsic evil due to the plight of the planet. Some more ideological environmentalists call human beings a plague on the earth or parasites. Although not explicit, talk of this nature implies that we ought to treat human beings as a threat and respond accordingly.

Of course, anyone suggesting such actions may not win many elections, although some have won elections by proposing that there are portions of human beings that should be eradicated. Not only is this an evil in itself, but this is clearly against God’s intentions for his world. A less radical version of this view is anti-natalism, the view that human reproduction is an evil. Some are leading the way, voluntarily restraining from motherhood. Underlying such actions is the idea that humans are bad for the world.

Just as some suggest that God could limit or remove the objects of our desires in order to lessen evil,  governments sometimes try to manage the environment of its people so that their desires, if not eradicated, are severely limited. When I visited East Berlin not long after the wall came down, it was gray, uniform, and ugly. In a place like that, one wonders how desire for anything–including life itself–could be present. However, when governments try to limit perceived (and real) evils by removing anything desirable, they make a worse world not a better one.

Governments sometimes attempt to restrict desires by policing them constantly. Most commonly this has been attempted through education. If a person becomes enamored with a forbidden object–certain music or a religion–that person is whisked away for re-education. Governments can start early by tightly controlling the desires of children in school. In our era, there is the additional tool of the media. It too can play a part in discouraging certain beliefs, hopes, or wants. By shaming religious people, states can reduce religious expression and, in time, remove the hope that religions offer to people. Instead, media can impress on the people that the state is all that matters.

But just as God’s intervention would bring life to a standstill, this kind of government intervention does the same. Incentives to do something different evaporate. People are scared to think without first okaying it by an authority or checking for social media ire. Any imagination present must be private, never seeing the light day. Life comes to a halt when the reigns are too tight. 

What about the option God has to make some form of super human rather than the non-glorified human he has made? Some political theories actually assume that humans will transcend themselves and become a different kind of thing. The Communist Manifesto says as much. Reaching the utopia of communism is not merely an adjustment in social structure but a change in the nature of human beings. Unfortunately, for Marxists, reality–what God made us to be–won’t change just because we say so no matter how heavy the hand of government becomes.

Just as some politicians seek to quell differences between humans, others seek to challenge features of our nature which are the same. This is particularly true of moral norms. If we are the same in some ways, then we have functions that are proper to us. Recently, a whole host of normative features of human nature has been challenged. But no matter how hard we push, no one can overturn an objective normative feature of human nature. We may be malleable, but we are not plastic. We can adjust, but we don’t transform into something else. And there are no exceptions. This is vital for righteousness. If there is a right to life, it is universal. This also means that we have to accept human beings as we find them and not believe that government can change their fundamental nature. A government is supposed to restrain evil; it cannot eradicate it. Only Christ can do that.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.