Political ideas in the United States have traditionally been differentiated along a continuum of right to left. Right is often characterized as socially and fiscally conservative, while the left is broadly characterized as socially liberal. However, this characterization can miss an important aspect of our view of humanity and how that view informs our expectations for policy. This aspect is our individual and collective views of nature and nurture, and to what extent each informs our understanding of what makes humans tick.
Those on the end of the axis towards nature believe that humans cannot be completely molded or changed. They believe that political institutions should be created to “fence-in” the negative aspects of that nature, while preserving as much individual freedom as possible.
People on the nurture end, often referred to as “social constructionists,” believe that humans can be molded by institutions, society, and language to form what they believe to be better societies. The manifestation of that society varies depending on the time in history and the individual beliefs and values of the social constructionist. The one thing that remains consistent is that there are those among us who have the ability to dictate what that society should look like. Thus, if individual people can be molded in order to create better societies, then they should be molded into better people, and institutions should be integral to that process.
What I aim to do here is to start exploring our political ideas along the axis of nature vs. nurture in respect to human behavior. This will not be an exhaustive or all-encompassing list, but a start. Of course, almost nobody believes that it is only nature or nurture to an extreme point, but we all fall somewhere on this spectrum for a variety of reasons.
Hungarian immigrant Balint Vazsonyi, in his prophetic treatise on political thought, America’s 30 Years War: Who is Winning?, stated that there really are only two lines of political thought. These two lines of thought work well for an axis focused on the different perceptions of nature vs. nurture.
- Anglo-American “regards human reason as bounded by limitations, and in need of moral guidance as it attempts to provide for the future.”
It’s characterized by limited but attainable goals and does not presume the existence of an end state. This is similar to what economist Thomas Sowell referred to as the “Constrained Vision.” It’s a view of humanity based on the limits of our ability to reason and having what he called realistic expectations based on trade-offs, and not solutions to social problems.
Anglo-American is a natural fit for someone who believes that human nature is fixed and that we are limited by that nature. This is the view held by America’s Founding Fathers who sought out as little government authority as possible, valued individual freedom and each person’s ability to reason for themselves, while acknowledging the tendency towards tyranny if too much power is gained by any individual or group of people.
There is no vision of a perfect society, but an acknowledgment of a best-case scenario based on trade-offs. Most people who share this worldview tend to be what in America is considered “the right.” This acceptance of the limits of humanity is why many who are opposed to this line of thought characterize it as “defeatist.”
Anglo-American thought looks to the past and takes the results of ideas as an empirical guide to the efficacy of those ideas themselves. Not as evidence of any failure of the ideas’ implementations.
- Franco-Germanic “may be characterized as attributing to human reason an unlimited capacity to comprehend, evaluate, and arrange the affairs of our world.”
Franco-Germanic thought believes that the only limits to humanity are those limits which the structure of society places on the human spirit. Proper sequence in charting the future course calls for the theory to be developed first, and for people and events to conform to it. This is what the aforementioned Thomas Sowell referred to as the “Unconstrained Vision,” whereas humanity, when not constrained by artificial bounds, would be able to use its reason to solve all social problems.
Franco-Germanic is well suited for a person that believes people can be molded into good people and good citizens. It is therefore incumbent on those who know the way to be guides to do just that. This is why the Franco-Germanic world view is popular with academics and intellectuals. Not only do they often feel a heightened sense of understanding society, but can even long to be recognized for that ability through influencing public thought and policy. Combining Descartes’ belief in the unlimited power of human reason, Roussseau’s philosophy that man should return to his natural state in which he is most pure and good, and Plato’s concepts of society lead by philosophers, this line of thought takes shape and is still today the underlying assumption in much of current political thought.
Policy goals, which include the idea of an end state of social equity, are reflective of this thought process. A social constructionist would say “If people were not bound by the corruption of institutions and other humans, they would be free to be good citizens in their natural state.” Any idea that assumes individual people are the problem or solution would be antithetical to this worldview. People on “the left” in America tend to view the world through this lens.
Equal Nature vs Nurturing Equality
We can see this stark difference in the ideas of the American vs. the French Revolutionary mindsets. For the Americans, in their Declaration of Independence, it is stated that “all men are created equal.” This is not a policy direction, but a postulate about the very nature of humanity. The idea being that all humans are created in the image of God, and that in itself dictates their equal worth. This is a statement on the very nature of people upon their creation and not a goal for which to create through government.
For the French, it was adding “-ity” to “equal” in their Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1793 that created a very different direction and outcome. The French believed that they could create social equality through nurturing people, using proper policy. Much like “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” the French in this statement declared the rights of all men to be “equality, liberty, security, and property.”
Instead of simply acknowledging the nature of those who would be governed, they sought to create equality for those they would govern as a matter of policy.
It is also important to remember that America’s Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war, and not its central policy statement. In declaring that all “men are created equal,” they were arguing that all men deserved to be treated equally before the law, which was not the case at the time. This is not the same thing as the idea that all men should end up equal and that the government should assure that to be so. The Americans understood the nature of humanity, and the French believed that they could nurture humanity into an egalitarian society.
The French Revolution lasted through ten years of executing several thousand of its own citizens, including revolutionary leaders and the king himself. For several years, there was hardly a day which passed when the guillotine did not separate someone’s head from their body. And the revolution did not end through a creation of institutions that would provide for an egalitarian society, but by a general, Napoleon, seizing control and using authoritarianism to take over and end the violence.
But by the time that the French Revolution started in 1789, the Americans had declared independence, won a war against a now foreign enemy, ratified a constitution to create its institutions, and elected its first president.
Ideas matter and words have consequences.
Do Nazis Nurture or Nature?
In a world that relies less and less on theological definitions of evil, we still need something to personify the worst a person or group of people can be. We have found that in Nazis and fascism. Everything that is politically bad is fascist, and anyone who is socially evil is a Nazi. But this does not take into account the ideas and goals of the Nazis in order to understand the “why” behind what they thought and how they intended to operate.
Much more than evil bullies, the Nazis were supported by many academics who provided intellectual arguments for their ideology. Nazis had their own versions of Descartes and Rousseau in academics like Nobel Prize winners Philipp Lenard, and Alfred Rosenberg: the apostle of racialism. Their ideologies came with an underlying assumption that individual people can and should be molded to the betterment of society, and thus government needs authority in order to do so.
On this axis of nature versus nurture, Nazis are on the side of nurturing. They believed that they could create a society through molding humans and attempted to do so through authoritative force. And this is why the argument about Nazis being true leftists has some validity. There is something that they share with others on the left, and that is a fundamental view of humanity. Both Nazis and those on the left lean towards social constructionism, which pushes them towards the same end of the nurture spectrum. The difference is in the vision of society they pursue.
Nazis wanted to use the German people as the gold standard, placing them on top of a racial hierarchy. Progressives today want to flatten or flip that hierarchy on its head. Even today, both groups utilize similar critical methods by which to understand society originally formatted in Frankfort.
At the opening of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in 1941, Wilhelm Grau stated that “…The institute acknowledges its indebtedness to the methodical critical school which has been developed in German scholarship.” This “critical school” made its way across the pond and into academic scholarship in the United States, and is today central to political thought on the nurturing left. The name “critical” is used for the purpose of describing ideas that are specifically critical of the liberal values which shape Western Civilization.
Those similar underlying philosophies along with the belief that the world pivots mainly on the axis of political power often produce eerily similar ideas.
“We demand that each separate people of a real independent will of culture may be allowed to develop its own idea of race and its own style of life up to the highest mark of perfection.” — Professor Dr. Friedrich Neumann from the National Socialist German Teachers Union’s vow of allegiance
Understanding race as a manner in which to view society and how it should develop has a long history which was once derided but is now seen as a source of strength for Critical Theorists. It also cemented a world view and created a moral guide for creating political change. The differentiation of races for the purpose of their own group’s political power is key to these views which are used to structure society.
“[For] African Americans, other people of color, and gays and lesbians, among other…identity-based politics has been a source of strength, community, and intellectual development.” — Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mapping the Margins
This common view of humanity as something to be purposefully shaped by its leaders and underlying theoretical standard for political thought is why these incredibly different groups tend to utilize similar tactics when molding society. Anton Semionovich Makarenko, Lenin’s expert on education, used language control he deemed “politically correct.” Adolf Hitler utilized what he referred to as “socially correct language.” Controlling language in order to shape culture was at the forefront of their methods, just as much as they are by social constructionists today.
And this is not to say that progressives and Nazis are essentially the same. Not at all. But in the way that a carpenter chooses tools effective when working with wood, those who believe it is their duty to mold humans will likewise use the same tools on the same materials even if they are aiming at different goals.
Conservatives & Liberals
In the United States today, conservatives and liberals are portrayed as being on separate sides of the aisle, but on the nature vs. nurture axis, they are both on the side towards nature. Although conservatives may lean further towards nature, neither has historically depended on what is earlier referred to as Franco-German political thought, which is associated more with progressivism. The differences between conservatism and liberalism tend to be more along innate personality types which affect world views through their respective openness to new ideas, but not sharply contrasting views of human nature.
Both understand the limitations of human reason and account for that in their expectations of political institutions, but whereas liberals tend to be more open to new ideas, conservatives tend to hold on to the existing structures. Today, many of those new ideas further towards the left are related to understanding human nature as moldable, which pushes some liberals towards ideas of social constructionism and progressivism. This may account in part for some of the additional polarization. However, the traditional tension between change and conservation is necessary, as most new human ideas are catastrophic, but not coming up with new ideas can be just as catastrophic when environments change.
Looking at the effects of these underlying assumptions about the nature of humanity can help to parse out why it matters. This is not an endorsement of either viewpoint, but an exploration of how those viewpoints affect political opinions or policy and how they tend to line up on the same sides of the nature vs. nurture axis.
- Nature: If you lean towards nature, conception and the resulting potential of the very first cell carry with it a definition of that individual’s humanity. Our nature as infants, children, and adults carry with it a direct connection to that very first interaction between those two gametes. Who we are today is very much a result of the manner in which the genetic materials first combined and not just how we were raised. There would be no difference between canceling the potential of that first zygote or canceling any other human being. The conservative and liberal split here tends to come more from a difference in theology and women’s power over their reproductive choices, but not normally due to a difference of opinion on the nature of humanity.
- Nurture: If you lean towards nurture, humanity is more defined by a belief that who we become is a function of how we are shaped by our environment. The story truly begins when a person is born. You see this in modern language that defines sex as “assigned at birth” as opposed to being an immutable characteristic outside of human decisions. Therefore, there may be less tendency to see the early stages of pregnancy as anything other than a mass of cells, far from a human to be considered having any rights.
- Nature: If one leans heavily towards nature, genes have a much stronger influence on our identity. Therefore, the initial act of conception, which is always a union of one part male to one part female, not only shapes that person but shapes humanity in our worldviews that are largely shaped by myths and stories centered on cycles of binary separations and unions. They understand that sexual differentiation that takes place in utero and in the first year of life has permanent effects on several structures both above and below the neck. Duality in our outlook, as expressed in thousands of years of creation mythology, would in part be explained by this idea.
- Nurture: A person who believes that our identities are completely socially constructed would have less of an inclination to take genetics into account. Our nature would have little to do with our identity and we would have more leeway in creating one for ourselves. The idea of “sex assigned at birth” is an outgrowth of this idea, positing that a person’s identity is constructed from the instant they are born and assigned one of two binary categories in which to develop. Furthermore, the person’s gender identity can change as the environment in which they live constantly changes and directly affects how they express this portion of their identity.
Guns and Self Defense
- Nature: Someone who believes that humanity is deeply influenced by its nature, sees that nature in every human being, whether good or bad. Therefore, the dangers of humanity are ever present in every human heart. Societal constructs can constrain our faults, but not eliminate them. That nature is ever present in people at all levels of our hierarchical structure, and we all have the right and responsibility to defend ourselves and others against it. Therefore, societal constructs will never eliminate the need for armed individuals as every birth of every human brings with it the potential not only for great good, but for great evil as well.
- Nurture: A person who leans heavily towards nurture wonders why we even need guns. If we form society correctly, we don’t need them. If we need them, that’s a reflection of an error in the structure we’ve created. Our current situation needs reasoned changes in policy to guide the citizenry to a place where violence is not a necessary option, much less the need for weapons.
Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but the start of an idea I had to separate our political ideas on a new axis. Adding another axis, something that illustrates the differences between two ideas on the same side of the nature vs. nurture axis, could be the next step.
I also find that this separation of concepts is helpful in understanding our current political divide and the source of much of the polarization. If it feels like you have not moved, but everyone else has, it’s probably because they have started sliding more and more towards believing that humans are much more malleable than they really are.