Human nature is defined as “the nature of humans, especially the fundamental dispositions and traits of humans” (Human Nature, n.d.). Moral character refers to “the most important code of conduct put forward and accepted by any group, or even by an individual” (Gert). As humans, we tend to think about our actions and whether or not they qualify as being “good” or “bad.” There are many different attributes of a good person. For example, a good person is known to have the traits of treating others as their own, being honest, kind, and generous while making choices that would lead to a path of becoming a good moral person. However, not having these qualities does not necessarily mean that a person is bad. Humans are born to be good if they are taught right from wrong at a young age, but are later manipulated by society to act in evil or unethical ways. For instance, young adults are pressured to act in selfish ways as they rebel against someone or something, not caring about how it would affect others. Human nature and moral character are overlays of each other in regards to natural human behavior. This paper will explore the views on human nature and morality through the wisdom literature and ancient works of the Hebrew Bible, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
It can be seen through ancient ethical texts how human nature and moral norms emerged. Memphite Theology (4.2.1) suggests that Egyptian culture at around 700 B.C.E. developed themes and influences that started the evolution of Western ethics. Memphite theology refers to the creation myth of Ptah, the creator god, who is responsible for creating the universe’s entire existence. During his creation, “the male life-principles were made and the female life-principles were set in place,” meaning that a variety of ethics and beliefs arose through everyday life experiences that eventually became the norm (4.2.1). It is said that, “they who made all sustenance and every offering — through that word that makes what is loved and what is hated” (4.2.1). Society during the time of ancient Egypt suggests that people determined which life principles were good and which were bad, giving themselves ideas of what was right and wrong, along with the theme of good versus evil. The ancient Egyptians also believed in good and bad karma, “so has life given to him who has calm and death given to him who has wrongdoing” (4.2.1).
The Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament, provides various perspectives in answering the question of whether humans are capable of choosing and practicing the good, while also containing different aspects suggesting that humans are morally flawed and have trouble choosing the good. The Hebrew Bible also expands on moral codes and human accountability that reflect human behavior. For example, the Book of Deuteronomy suggests that God is loyal to those who are loyal to him. Chapter seven says that God “is the true God, the faithful God who, though he is true to his covenant and his faithful love for a thousand generations as regards those who love him and keep his commandments, punishes in their own persons those that hate him” (Deut. 7:9-11). This suggests that humans are competent in determining obedience and disobedience, meaning that they are accountable for their own moral decisions. According to Stewart, “within Deuteronomy, moral agency is located in the heart or mind” (6). However, “the problem of moral selfhood in Deuteronomy is that the heart can go astray” (7). As hearts go astray, people are morally challenged, in which they make false judgements and unacceptable actions. A mulish heart causes one to stray away from goodness, while testing the person’s heart and morality. Moses said, “I shall do well enough if I follow the dictates of my heart” (Deut. 29:18). It is clear that the Book of Deuteronomy encourages that humans are capable and responsible of their moral actions.
Ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 B.C.), believed that virtue is achieved through human relationships such as family and friends, love, and happiness (Ray, What Were Socrates’ Beliefs on Ethics?). He also concluded that being a good, ethical citizen required having to communicate with others rather than solitary contemplation. This method of having long meaningful conversations with others is considered as the dialectic. This is the best way to find and expand knowledge, and it also formed the foundation of modern philosophy and ethics. In addition to his belief on knowledge, Socrates viewed virtue as people developing relationships with family and friends, along with building a strong love within themselves (“Ancient Greece: Socrates”). People would find principles and virtues through these long lasting relationships, which would then guide them when making good or bad decisions. For example, having a close relationship with one’s own parents will decrease the chance of them choosing to do bad, which would lead to having culpability. This is because parents teach us what’s right from wrong at a young age. Socrates firmly suggested that “knowledge and understanding of virtue, or ‘the good,’ was sufficient for someone to be happy” (Ray, What Were Socrates’ Beliefs on Ethics?). He believed that no one could willingly do “bad”, or something negative and harmful to others, if they were fully aware of the value of life. After Socrates’ death, his student, Plato, added on to his teachings and continued to teach moral and ethical philosophy.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), along with Socrates, believed that virtue and happiness can be achieved through knowledge. However, Plato added knowledge can only be attained through reasoning and intellect. Plato’s philosophy consisted of his theory of forms, which includes logical, metaphysical, epistemological, and moral (Messerly). Logic suggests that words, or a proper name and pronouns, refer to a single form. For example, when we hear the word “dog,” we think of every and any dog that exists because there is only one true form, or essence, that forms them all. The key concept of this is that the form of the dog is unchanging and eternal whereas the dogs themselves are appearances of the true form. Metaphysics studies that there are unchanging forms that are ultimately real and exist independently. Epistemology is the form of knowledge including perspectives and beliefs. It is the study of knowledge and how one comes to have it. The moral form focuses on performing the “good” through participating in justice and equality. By using logic and reason, people would come to know the good, leading them to actually do the good. Therefore, it is important to have knowledge of the good in regards to virtue. Plato’s philosophy of each of the forms merges when responding to intellectual and moral relativism, which is the view that moral judgements are “true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others” (Westacott). This would then lead to Plato’s belief on the social aspect of human nature. He came to the conclusion that every human is not self sufficient. In other words, we need others, and we definitely benefit from our social interactions, leading to a more open mind. Humans feed off of each other’s thoughts, talents, attitudes, and relationships.
After Plato’s death, Aristotle took over the philosophy as did Plato when Socrates died. Aristotle took the works from Plato and Socrates and added his own views to the study of human nature as well.
According to Amadio and Kenny, like Socrates and Plato, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) believed that happiness is known as the highest human good, which is in accordance with virtue. He uses the Greek word, eudaimonia, which translates to human flourishing or prosperity (Amadio & Kenny). He believed that this happiness can be achieved by virtue. He defines moral virtue as a nature to act in the right manner. Moral virtue is learned through experiences, habits, and reason. Although Plato was his teacher, Aristotle didn’t agree with some of his philosophical theories. As Plato was an idealist looking at something in an ideal form, Aristotle believed in looking at the real world and studying it.
I believe the best measure of human nature and character development is choice. Choices are made voluntarily by our means of rationality. Therefore, I agree with the Socratic method, which consists of argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on questions that require critical thinking. Humans always choose to try and aim for the good in life, but people are often ignorant of what is good and tend to aim at what they think is good. This leads to an immoral issue. Through the teachings of ancient ethical texts, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the best way to develop good character and morality is to keep an open mind while having meaningful relationships with each other to gain knowledge and virtue in order to make good choices while living the good life.