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Bringing the Soul Back In: A Spiritual Conception of Human Nature for the Social Sciences
May 1, 2011

The development of the modern social sciences has been intimately bound up with the Enlightenment belief that scientific investigation can be used towards the perfection of human society. Auguste Comte argued in the mid-19th century that society had evolved towards a scientific phase in which social problems could be resolved by way of reasoned analysis. Karl Marx, another father of sociology, offered a tremendously influential, self-consciously scientific analysis of capitalism and the subsequent inevitability of communism, through which poverty and inequality would be eradicated. Following in this Enlightenment tradition, disciplines like sociology, economics, and political science have in recent decades concerned themselves with the amelioration of devastating social problems like inequality, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, oppression, and violent conflict.

Yet, despite all the attention devoted by academic observers, activists, and policymakers, progress in remedying these still endemic social problems has been limited, uneven, and all too reversible. Why have the efforts of an army of social scientists working over several generations not yielded more tangible progress in combating our most pressing social problems? In this essay, I argue that the lack of a coherent conception of human nature has contributed to the frustrating results of our attempts to advance human society through scientific inquiry. I suggest that greater understanding of the human spirit can contribute to the overarching project of improving the human condition that unites all of the social sciences.

Speaking broadly and simplifying vastly (as limited space necessitates), two meta-paradigms concerning human nature have guided much social science research in the past several decades. On the one hand, there is a rationalist paradigm that theorizes human beings as egoists rationally pursuing their self-interest. This understanding of human nature provides the foundation for the discipline of economics and has become increasingly dominant in political science. In emphasizing that actions follow a “logic of consequences” in which decisions are based on how expected outcomes will affect an individual’s utility, the rationalist paradigm does not consider morality an inherent dimension of human action. In this framework, people are portrayed as largely amoral, only taking normatively proper actions if doing so benefits them personally or if they happen to derive unusually high utility from virtuous behavior due to idiosyncrasies in character.

In political science, the assumptions underlying the rationalist paradigm lead to a rather pessimistic outlook on the likelihood of arriving at morally agreeable outcomes. For instance, there is no reason to believe that a dictator will stop employing violence against his own citizens just because the international community urges that it is the right thing to do; rather, such behavior will continue until the leader’s incentive structure changes, making political repression too costly to continue. However, characterizing people as rational actors need not entail such a bleak outlook. In economics, for example, there seems to be an almost axiomatic faith in Adam Smith’s notion that the rational pursuit of self-interest benefits the entire collectivity.

In contrast to the rationalist approach, there is a normative paradigm that conceives of human beings as primarily concerned with aligning their actions to standards of appropriateness for particular roles and identities in different social situations. While the rationalist paradigm thrives in economics and political science, the normative paradigm is most prevalent in sociology. From this perspective, people are less concerned with doing whatever it takes to achieve their aims than with determining which actions are prescribed for given circumstances and behaving accordingly. In this way, actors do what is perceived as right for its own sake, operating according to a “logic of appropriateness” rather than a “logic of consequences.” In a sharp contrast to the amoral egoists that populate rationalist models of the world, human actors in the normative paradigm are conceived of as fundamentally moral beings, deeply influenced by what their communities consider right and proper.

While acknowledging the potential for a gap between standards of appropriate behavior and the capacity to adhere to those standards in practice, the normative paradigm tends towards an optimistic estimate of the possibility of achieving morally desirable outcomes. Problematic behavior can be corrected through moral suasion based on clearly articulated normative standards, without necessarily appealing to the self-interest of deviant actors, as in the rationalist paradigm. For instance, pro-democracy international institutions might be able to socialize officials from authoritarian countries into valuing democracy for its own sake, transcending their rational inclination to perpetuate oppressive arrangements.

How can we reconcile these profoundly disparate visions of humanity in analyzing and attempting to remedy social problems? Many acknowledge that social action can follow both the rationalist “logic of consequences” and the normative “logic of appropriateness,” but social theorists have yet to construct a coherent framework that can explain when action might follow one or the other logic. Far too much energy has been expended in unproductive debates in which analysts draw on limited empirical findings to assert the superiority of their favored approach.

To be sure, both paradigms are intuitively plausible, and one can easily find cases that fit the predictions of each. But both approaches are incomplete, and unable on their own to account for the full range of human behavior. The rationalist paradigm offers no explanation for why discourses about norms and morality comprise such an essential part of everyday human experience, while the normative approach fails to account for the pervasiveness of anti-social and immoral behavior. But if we are neither the self-seeking sociopaths envisioned by the rationalist paradigm nor the perfectly socialized automatons imagined by the normative paradigm, then who are we?

I suggest that social scientific analysis and policymaking might be well served by drawing on conceptions of human nature that derive more from the inherited wisdom of religious traditions and less from the abstract deductions of contemporary theoretical paradigms. The perspective I advocate takes up a broad theme of the Abrahamic faiths – the universal corruptibility of the human spirit, beginning with the transgressions of the very first human beings in the story of the Garden of Eden. In other words, I argue that it is analytically useful for social science research to conceptualize human beings as sinners.

With this characterization, I suggest that people are highly aware of and concerned with the normative prescriptions of the various social groupings to which they belong, and typically act to uphold and reinforce these standards of behavior. However, as the fallible creatures that we are, we fall prey to a range of spiritual lapses that lead us to use to violate even our most sacred moral codes. Common-sense reflection on the historical record of human behavior can shed light on how our penchant for sinfulness expresses itself. We have shown that we disregard the lives of others in the pursuit of profit and power. We dehumanize and oppress those whom we perceive as different from ourselves. We grow comfortable in positions of wealth and influence, protecting our own standing against changes that would benefit the rest of society. We think only of our own short-term gain rather than our long-term responsibilities to those who will come after us. We are indifferent to the suffering of strangers. We break promises, tell lies, and act hypocritically. We take for granted and hurt the ones we love.

Of course, our propensity for sinful behavior does not mean that we are only capable of depravity. Indeed, most of the time we follow the moral standards of our communities in an unreflective, straightforward fashion. And we are certainly capable of deep compassion and heroic self-sacrifice. But our spiritual imperfection means that we all have an inherent potential to stray from a righteous path, especially during extreme conditions like warfare, political instability, poverty, and economic depression. This potential is universal and timeless, and exists within men and women, rich and poor, traditional and modern, educated and illiterate, believer and skeptic alike. The exact nature of our vices, and the extent to which they impact other people, might vary according to our social positions (a prince’s failings can cause greater harm than a pauper’s), but corruptibility is something we all share.

Imagining human beings as sinners makes sense of the paradoxical views of humanity offered by the rationalist and normative paradigms while overcoming their limitations. This perspective incorporates the normative paradigm’s insight that people care about upholding the standards of appropriateness of their communities, but sheds the naïve expectation that they will almost automatically abide by these standards. This perspective also accepts the rationalist paradigm’s premise that people often engage in aberrant, self-serving action. However, while the rationalist paradigm suggests that people pursue their own satisfaction without considering the normative implications of their behavior, the view of humans as sinners recognizes that people generally aspire towards decency, even if they are sometimes susceptible to moral breakdown. Eschewing firm a priori assumptions about people’s inclination towards normatively appropriate behavior, the spiritual paradigm I propose starts from acknowledging our demonstrated capacity for both upstanding and immoral behavior. A social science research program built upon such a vision of humanity would aim to investigate the social conditions under which people engage in different types of behavior – virtuous and vicious – and draw upon this knowledge to design policies that will better confront the most lasting and pernicious social problems.

An inadequate understanding of humankind’s spiritual character can lead to two types of problems that have plagued modern attempts to shape our societies for the better. First, we often craft policies that rest on naïve assumptions about human nature, and which could only work in practice if we were saints rather than sinners. For instance, a laissez faire approach to economic regulation stems from the notion that allowing people to freely pursue their economic self-interest leads the economy to thrive. But this position underestimates the extent to which economic actors, left unchecked, are prone to greedy or shortsighted behavior that can harm society as a whole. The current financial crisis resulted from the creation of high-risk financial instruments that led consumers to take on mortgages they could not afford and companies to over-invest in dubious mortgage-backed securities. These policies enriched the finance industry and expanded the ranks of homeowners in the short-term, but the bursting of the housing bubble led to an epidemic of foreclosures, a stock market crash, a drying up of credit, and a global economic recession.

The policy of abstinence-only sex education is another case in which the likelihood of virtue is overestimated. This policy relies on the sexual restraint of young people to reduce pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. Such programs have been found to be ineffective because they fail to appreciate the difficulty of resisting the temptation to engage in risky sexual behavior for even the most steadfast advocates of abstinence. These examples suggest that policies too dependent on the proper behavior of those involved will tend not to be very successful.

A second problem deriving from our inadequate understanding of human nature is our tendency to divide the world into rigid categories of those who are righteous and those who are wicked, often succumbing to the hubristic assumption that God is on our side. Rather than recognizing that we are all equal in our potential for moral failure, we forget our own sinfulness, with the ironic result that those most ostensibly committed to social progress along Enlightenment principles can be guilty of the most brutal inhumanity.

Idealistic political movements have frequently illustrated such a dynamic. The French Revolution, for instance, produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, proclaiming liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression to be natural rights. Just a few years later, Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety launched a program of arbitrary executions to protect the revolutionary government from the perceived threat of internal enemies, an absurd blasphemy of the Revolution’s foundational principles. Similarly, the vanguard of the Bolshevik Revolution viewed itself as leading the world towards a communist future that would eradicate inequality and establish the conditions for universal human flourishing. Yet this project devolved into a paranoid police state that imprisoned and executed millions of kulaks, Cossacks, and other class enemies for the sake of the unquestionably righteous Revolution.

As casual observers of history, we tend to attribute such atrocities to the uncommonly evil character of the key figures involved: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao. But such horrors as chattel slavery, colonialism, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and the Darfur crisis are not simply the work of a single monstrous leader or a few bad apples. They require many hands, and arise from an all-too-human capacity to inflict harm on others, to be overcome with hatred, to turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice – in short, to be inhumane. The urge to dissociate ourselves from such evils is powerful, as we like to think of ourselves as good people, incapable of such savagery. But the history of human suffering is the story of allegedly good people doing terrible things to each other. Thus, we must accept any sin committed by another person as potentially one of our own.

Treading a righteous path – as individuals, as corporations, as nations – is difficult, but certainly not impossible. Bringing our aspirations for values like equality, liberty, and peace closer to fruition requires not just technical knowledge, but also attention to how the spiritual character of human beings shapes the implementation and effectiveness of policy initiatives. When we acknowledge the darker aspects of our nature, the design of policies becomes a matter of identifying and protecting against the sources of temptation we may face.

The structure of American political institutions might serve to illustrate a well-crafted policy in this regard. Wary of the concentration of power in the hands of any one entity, the drafters of American institutions dispersed authority among three distinct branches of government. While members of each branch have worked to enhance their own power, the separation of powers ensures an ongoing wrangling between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, the result being that no one branch can accumulate absolute authority. Instead of trusting political actors to refrain from power seeking, the founders anticipated the temptation to extend one’s reach and devised mechanisms to check that tendency. In this way, democratic rule has survived for over two centuries.

The modern social sciences offer an impressive array of techniques for acquiring systematic knowledge about human societies. But scientific knowledge will not lead the world on a linear march of progress if not coupled with an honest and accurate reckoning of human nature. Turning with humility to the insights into the human spirit offered by religious traditions may be the best way to appreciate and temper the shortcomings we have shared from the beginning.

P. Geoffrey Bakken is PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin.