What is human nature?

Question: What is human nature?

Stephen Walt: Well I think human beings are very diverse. You know one way of thinking about it is, you know, we’re all members of a single common humanity; but then we are separated by all sorts of individual and group characteristics – whether it’s ethnicity, or religion, or our physical characteristics, our relative intelligence, the particular things we believe. So we do have lots of common traits, but then we divide ourselves up into different tribes. Sometimes voluntarily we decide what we want to choose to be or who we choose to associate with, sometimes involuntarily. If you’re left-handed, that means you’re different than someone who is . . . who is right handed. My view, I guess, on human beings within that diversity we have the capacity to do remarkable things. And we have a great capacity for great generosity, and great wisdom, and patience. At the same time, most human beings have a capacity to do lots of very bad things; whether they do it intentionally, or whether they do it because they’ve been misled into doing them. And the problem is that the bad things we can do to one another can often, you know, be of extraordinary . . . extraordinary moment. So part of the human task now is to devise ideas and institutions that minimize those qualities. You know I . . . I actually believe we’ve made considerable progress over the last few centuries; but the question is whether or not the problems we are facing that we have to deal with as a species are going to exceed our capacity to develop solutions over time. I thought that the last few hundred years have gone fairly well, but there’s some pretty large episodes within that process that, you know, all human beings should regard as big warning signs. Something like World War I or World War II is a giant warning sign about just how badly human beings can screw things up when they’ve got the wrong set of institutions, or the wrong set of ideas, or the wrong people are in positions of leadership.

Recorded on: 10/8/07


Despite our common traits, we divide ourselves up into different tribes, says Walt.

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