31 Aug

Leroy S. Rouner (ed.), Is There a Human Nature? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997)

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 08/31/03

"In our day, however, serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the idea [of a universal human nature], no matter how human nature is interpreted. The questions arise from the pluralism of contemporary American culture and the rapidly increasing interdependence of various world cultures. We are now mindful, in a new way, of how peoples in different cultural situations deal with their lives on the basis of different foundational values. If their values can be so different, what common ground makes it possible to claim a universal human nature?" Leroy S. Rouner (ed.), Is There a Human Nature?

In Is There a Human Nature?, Leroy S. Rouner notes that the concept of a nature that all humans in all times and places share has become nearly archaic in recent eras. Throughout the twentieth century, optimism about the goodness or possible perfection of human beings has also waned. People, then, are left wondering if they can make any claims about what sort of beings humans are, or about how they should act. The essays in Is There a Human Nature? explore both of these questions. Rouner writes, "So what follows is both a study in the metaphysics of human nature and the ethics of being humane, since we eventually become who we have consistently understood ourselves to be."

The first part of the book, "What Does It Mean to Be Human?", explores that very question, considering if all people share a set of certain properties and what they may be, how liberal democracies honor or squelch human nature, and philosophy's relationship to human nature. The essays included in this section are: "Is There a Human Nature?" (by Bhikhu Parekh); "The Human Need for Recognition and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy" (Daniel O. Dahlstrom); "Human Nature and the Founding of Philosophy" (Stanley H. Rosen); "Reason and Will in the Humanities" (Knud Haakonssen); "Natural Law: A Feminist Reassessment" (Lisa Sowle Cahill); and "Is There an Essence of Human Nature?" (Robert Cummings Neville). The second part of the book, "The Human Struggle to Be Humane," evaluates how the theories about human nature are or are not manifested in how people actually live. Its essays try to explain why humans are faulty, how Confucian ideas about the self can enrich Enlightenment ideas of the self, and what happens to people's ethics when their survival is threatened. The essays included in this section are: "Human Intelligence and Social Inequality" (Glenn C. Loury); "Fall/Fault in Human Nature/Nurture?" (Ray L. Hart); "The Place of the Human in Nature: Paradigms of Ecological Thinking, East and West" (Graham Parkes); "Humanity as Embodied Love: Exploring Filial Piety in a Global Ethical Perspective" (Tu Wei-ming); "Why Good People Do Bad Things: Kierkegaard on Dread and Sin" (Leroy S. Rouner); and "Lifeboat Ethics" (Sissela Bok). [Posted September 2005, ALG]