Are Humans Naturally Peaceful or Violent?

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.


Michael H.
Mike H4 years ago

You said it

Arild Warud

Most likely a bit of both.

Romola Hunter
4 years ago

Ralph was certainly a victim of human abuse, non human animals are so forgiving of humans, I think we all have the potential to be violent, the majority of humans will use violence to protect, the rest of the human population use violence because they have an rage inside them they cannot control, or they get pleasure from inflicting pain.

Dumitru Z.
Dumitru Z.4 years ago

Human being is yet so simple and so complex designed by The Creator. So simple, because in essence there is no evil and no good part in his behavior, but only the primal need to gain knowledge which are more than necessary for survival. An uneducated human being is conducted by it's helplessness in any kind of achievments. He / she accumulates plenty of frustration due to the not's or have not's caused by the lack of knowledge. The educated one will find a way to get all he / she wants / needs. And here is made the difference between violence and personal inner balance. And so complex, because gaining knowledge is an exhausting process not agreed by many of our human mates.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G4 years ago

I'm inclined to answer they're violent.

KKathy Niell
Kathryn Niell4 years ago

Interestingly enough, last night I was reading a back issue of Smithsonian magazine in which infants were tested to determine if kindness and altruism are inborn or learned.
As young as six months of age, babies are drawn to "the good guy" versus "the bad guy" in trials. At eighteen months of age, they demonstrate helping behaviors without being prompted. Perhaps we are all born "good" but learn to be otherwise through our experiences in life.

John Doucette
John Doucette4 years ago

I think the author is correct being against either/or options. But I think it too much of a generalization to focus on humans as a species. Yes, we are a species but we are also individuals. I think there are people who fall naturally at every point on the scale. It also overlooks the effect of nurture on us. We humans can think, beyond simple survival. I don't think the deliberate cruelty we inflict on each other to be natural. After all, only humans wage war.

Joseph Belisle
Joseph Belisle4 years ago

I have to agree with the author. EVERYONE is capable of doing horrible things and doing wonderful things. Even those in the habit of doing one side of the scale or the other are capable of doing the opposite of their norm. And being capable of almost anything, the author's statement is correct. What do we choose to do is the real question. Do we make life better for our having lived or do we make it worse. This is what pushes me into particular camps and to stand against those who choose themselves over others and make the world a little worse for their energies and efforts. It puts me at odds with others, but in life you have to make stands. Not standing against tyranny of all kinds is giving into them by default.

tin leng lim
tin leng lim4 years ago

Don't know if a human is naturally kind or evil but I know Eldad is an angel for saving the lives of many dogs that has been abandoned on the street.

Ken W.
Ken W4 years ago

I just don't know ask George Zimmerman ?????????????