We humans have a penchant for either/or choices. Whether in politics (left versus right), religion (heaven versus hell, Christianity versus Islam, theism versus atheism, etc.) or in the media (jobs versus the environment), we often fall into camps with one side pitted against another.
I find such either/ors unhelpful. They tend to prevent conversation and expansion of our thinking; to constrain examination of what is possible and the search for what is actually true; and to encourage us to dig in our heels and shore up evidence for our side, rather than remain open to a variety of perspectives.
This happens even when we talk about human nature. Are humans naturally peaceful or violent? There is no dearth of evidence for those who believe that humans are inherently aggressive, violent and competitive, cooperating only for personal gain. Nor is evidence lacking for those who believe that humans are inherently compassionate, altruistic, generous and kind, acting aggressively and violently only in unnatural circumstances.
To me, it is far more reasonable to perceive humans as capable of horrific cruelty as well as astonishing altruism — and everything in between — and to notice that, most of the time, we get along just fine together but are imperfectly kind, unintentionally inconsiderate, self-serving and helpful in near-equal measure. Or to notice that we can be both cooperative and competitive simultaneously. (Think of team sports, in which we cooperate with our teammates to compete with another team).
But what remains true, no matter where one falls on the “what is humanity’s essential nature?” spectrum, is that we are capable of nurturing, reinforcing and cultivating our more compassionate natures, and that we can change to become more evil (as demonstrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment) as well as more kind (as demonstrated by the effects of humane education).
Not surprisingly, our experiencing cruelty frequently results in our being more aggressive and violent, while kindness often transforms us in ways that lead to greater compassion and generosity. And this isn’t just true of humans; it’s true of other species, as well.
Watch this incredible, deeply moving and powerful example of the ways human kindness transforms an abused and aggressive dog:
This film serves as a reminder that all of us, human and nonhuman, can change, and that our essential natures include the capacity for both ends of the loving-kindness spectrum. If you find yourself with a lump in your throat as you watch this video, it’s a testament to the human capacity for empathy and love.
The real question, to me, isn’t “what is our or other species’ inherent nature?” but rather “how can we nourish the best qualities and the greatest joy in ourselves and others?”
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons.