Misconceptions of Left vs. Right (Part 4): Nature vs. Nurture

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In this analysis of frameworks applied to the left vs. right dichotomy, we’ve covered the origin of the left/right dichotomy, as well as the authoritarian vs. libertarian, liberal vs. conservative, order vs. chaos, and equality vs. hierarchy frameworks, as well as the Chesterton’s Fence analogy. And yet there are still many more interpretations of left vs. right that shine a new light on one aspect of ideological differences. In this article we consider the question of nature vs. nurture.

When categorizing ideologies, one must remember that an ideology isn’t simply a list of policy positions, but rather an entire worldview with a rationale used to justify certain policy positions. One must take rationale and first principles into consideration when comparing ideologies, especially when they overlap.

It may seem odd that a debate on human nature can be applied to political ideology. And yet this framework (while not perfect) does point out an obvious different in left and right.

The nature vs. nurture debate is no longer about whether the answer is nature or nurture. A majority of us understand that both play a role in human nature. The question is how much of a role does each play. To get even more specific, how much of a role does each play for each characteristic of human nature? Is it 50/50, or 70/30, or 80/20 or none of these? Like the left/right dichotomy, there are many different positions one can take along a spectrum.

Nurture

Left-wing ideologies tend to be more utopian in their view of humanity, believing that human nature is more malleable and can be changed by the political and economic structures in place. When one reads anarcho-communist literature, they will not see much on incentive structures to deal with traits like greed. Instead, the belief appears to be that greed is a human characteristic that is either nonexistent or significantly less present in the minds of people in communist societies. Greed is not innate to human nature, but rather a result of capitalism.

Extreme leftists view humanity along the lines of tabula rasa, otherwise known as The Blank Slate, which claims that personality is a blank slate from birth, and is developed over time entirely by experiences. Psychologist Steven Pinker, in a book of the same name, explains why such a view is incorrect.

Nature

By contrast, right-wing ideologies tend to view human nature as far more rigid and innate. The claim is that many characteristics (like greed and selfishness) are innate to human nature, and a societal system of incentives and disincentives is needed to encourage the right decisions. As Milton Friedman argued, all societies run on greed, but capitalism manages it in a way that is beneficial.

This concept of bad characteristics being innate to humanity can be seen in the concept of original sin, which is more prevalent on the right. Sins like lust, greed, and envy are qualities that are innate to human nature, and while each person has the free will to manage these qualities, they are part of human nature.

Moving to the far-right, we see the polar opposite of the tabula rasa view, with a collectivist bent. The more extreme white nationalists see nature playing an overwhelming role in humanity, and nurture playing a far more minor role. This leads to the more pessimistic view that assimilation of different racial groups into one nation is impossible. Racial differences are believed to be too rigid to be managed by shared culture.

Flaws

What are the problems with overlapping nature vs. nurture and left vs. right? For one, it’s not the full story. This dichotomy is just one small part of the constrained vs. unconstrained vision (to be covered later in this series) that Thomas Sowell offers in A Conflict of Visions as an alternative to the left vs. right dichotomy.

It is also surprisingly similar to the equality vs. hierarchy dichotomy already covered. If humanity is malleable, equality of outcome can be achieved. If human nature is more rigid, then hierarchies are inevitable.

This framework also becomes problematic when considering the original left and right during the French Revolution. They were revolutionaries vs. royalists, and to define their key differences as nature vs. nurture becomes difficult, especially when many other frameworks can be better applied.

This framework is also limited by its lack of morality. Moral theories are a key component of political ideologies, and the nature vs. nurture dichotomy only assesses what left and right believe to be true about human nature, not what is moral and immoral.

The problems with this assessment is less about the exceptions to the rule and more about its simplicity. This dichotomy is best used as a small part of a greater framework of ideological categorization.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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