What is human nature?
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher, novelist, and professor of philosophy at Princeton University. Appiah was born in London but moved as an infant to Ghana, where he grew up. His father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer and politician, was also, at various times, a Member of Parliament, an Ambassador, and a President of the Ghana Bar Association. His mother, Peggy Appiah, whose family was English, was a novelist, children’s writer, and social activist. In 1970, Appiah's great-uncle, Otumfuo Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, was succeeded by his uncle, Otumfuo Nana Poku Ware II, as king of Ashanti.
Appiah was educated abroad in England, ultimately graduating from Clare College, Cambridge University, in England, where he took both B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the philosophy department. Since Cambridge, he has taught at Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Duke, and Harvard universities and lectured at many other institutions in the United States, Germany, Ghana and South Africa, as well as at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.
Appiah is the author of several books including "The Ethics of Identity," "Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers," "Experiment in Ethics," and "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." He has also written three novels and reviews regularly for the New York Review of Books.
He currently serves as President of the PEN American Center. He has homes in New York city and near Pennington, in New Jersey, which he shares with his partner, Henry Finder, Editorial Director of the New Yorker magazine.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Well unlike many modern humanists, I do believe in something like human nature, and I think that our sort of psychological natures, and especially our social psychological natures, are constantly being drawn upon in the life of societies and institutions to shape what their possibilities are.
So for example, the salience of identities is deeply rooted in a feature of human beings, and a feature of our psyches of a need for this kind of identity, and the solidarity that goes with it, and the meaning that comes from it. Which if it weren’t in our natures, these things wouldn’t matter. Identity wouldn’t matter. It matters only because it matters to us as humans. And it matters to us as humans because of the kind of creatures that we are.
So I think that’s one of the places that I start.
But I think that I also want to say because of how I think about our psychologists, I think that it’s crucial to recognize that the institutional context in which people live makes a huge difference again as to what their possibilities are.
I’ve never committed a serious crime. I’m pretty certain that if I’d lived and been raised in certain kinds of environments, I would have committed a serious crime by now. So I’ve been lucky to live in an environment which hasn’t made committing serious crimes an attractive option for me, or one that I can live with psychologically.
It follows from that that you want to make a world in which nobody is in the situation which would tempt anybody to commit a crime. There are, I think, people – we tend to call them psychopaths or sociopaths – that are people who may be more easily tempted to those things in normal circumstances. So we need to keep an eye out for them.
But most people won’t commit crimes if they have reasonable amounts of resources, and a family that loves them, and a community that makes sense to them, and a decent police force.
So I think looking back on history reinforces for me both the persistence of human nature and the importance of institutions. The importance of organizing the world in ways that respect our natures and allow us to do, given our natures, to lead good lives and behave well towards one another.
Recorded on: July 31 2007
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