Two Conceptions of Human Nature


Dan Hicks


July 23, 2012

In his essay “Two Philosophers Skeptical of Negative Liberty” in Libertarianism Defended, Tibor Machan comes close to a significant insight concerning the fundamental disagreements about human nature that motivate the high-level disagreements between (right-)libertarians, on the one hand, and egalitarian liberals and (democratic) socialists, on the other hand. In this post, I want to elucide the distinction that Machan draws, criticize it, and use the criticism to suggest a more accurate insight.

Machan’s foil is Amartya Sen’s account of freedom in his Development as Freedom. In conventional terms, Sen’s account is an account of positive freedom – substantive freedom to carry out certain actions or realize certain ends. Machan, as a right-libertarian, advocates a strictly negative account of freedom – freedom from interference by other people. But this disagreement over conceptions of freedom is based on an underlying disagreement, over human nature. Machan endorses a conception of human nature that he attributes to the classical liberal tradition:

If one believes that, as a rule or for the most part, human beings who are not being interfered with by others have the capacity (with some help from intimates, of course) to secure for themselves what they need so as to flourish in their lives, then one is going to emphasize being free from interference because the central condition that an adult needs to flourish is not to be oppressed by other persons – that is to say, not have other constraint them. Once oppression stops, normal adults can get innumerable tasks accomplished, various goals achieved …. The major obstacle to our advancing in life, based on this idea of human nature, is other peoples’ interference …. Once that is fended off … people will have the chance to exercise their initiative – their capacity to make the necessary moves to improve upon their lives – and flourish in life. Thus they don’t need to have other conscripted to serve them – they will find mutually acceptable ways to attain their peaceful goals. (272) The idea of human nature underlying negative rights … is that, providing one isn’t interfered with by others who have the choice to abstain from such interference, one is going to be more or less able to secure for oneself what is necessary for a reasonably prosperous, healthy, flourishing life. (274)

But he attributes a very different conception of human nature to Sen:

Those, however, who believe that human beings are ill-equipped to get ahead on their own – that they are either too ignorant, too weak, too poor, or in some other way deficient to pursue a fruitful life – will hold that being free from interference by others is not enough for human flourishing …. To make this possible, it is necessary to conscript others who are already well enough enabled to do work for those in need, ergo extensive systems of confiscatory taxation in systems of justice that characterize the welfare state or democratic socialism. (272)

In contrast, the positive rights … view tends to be supported by a passive conception of human nature. People are rather inert and helpless, even when nobody is intruding on them and nobody bothers them. They will basically remain poor even if the obstacles others’ intrusiveness creates for them are removed …. (274)

Finally, to state the disagreement in brief,

[T]he decisive issue is, ‘What conception of human nature is actually right?’ Are we self-movers, self-governors, and sovereign beings to at least a substantial enough degree that we can thrive in peace? Is our freedom from oppression sufficient enough to achieve a progressive forward-moving economic system? Or do we need aggressive support from above? (275)

Let’s call the two conceptions of human nature – or, as I prefer, conceptions of personhood – the classical liberal and egalitarian conceptions. I think the following two lists capture the major features of each of these two conceptions (as Machan understands them), along with a few of their important (purported) implications.

classical liberal egalitarian
independent dependent
active agents passive consumers
individual agency top-down management
negative freedom positive freedom
voluntary association state coercion
private ownership state ownership

I don’t think Machan is the only right-libertarian who embraces the classical liberal conception of personhood, rejects the egalitarian conception, or attributes the negative implications of the egalitarian conception to their egalitarian liberal and socialist opponents. Jan Narveson seems to do several of these things throughout The Libertarian Idea, as does Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I also think something like a disdain for the egalitarian conception motivates right-libertarianism throughout our political culture. For one example, it’s prevalent in the work of Ayn Rand. For another, I’ve also heard this from my brother – a libertarian-learning IT systems engineer who majored in beer and partying in college.

I believe that this distinction is an instance of a false dichotomy, which involves an “either/or” premise that ignores at least one relevant possibility or option. Machan is assuming that one holds either the classical liberal conception or the egalitarian conception, and that there are no other possibilities.

But the fact – and for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take it to be a fact – that human beings are dependent upon each other doesn’t imply that we’re not active agents, or that we do or must sit around, passively waiting for the state to distribute resources to us. It simply implies that our individual agency is quite limited. That is, there are relatively few things that we can accomplish on our own. We can and do accomplish much more when we collaborate with others, forming shared or collective agents. This is an important possibility that Machan has overlooked.

Machan might try to claim that he’s accounted for collective agents, recognizing “voluntary organizations, service groups, and so on” as an alternative to government meddling in private affairs. But collective agents aren’t exactly voluntary. Consider families. We do not choose our parents and siblings; while we do generally choose our spouses and choose whether to have children, we have only limited information about what these people will be like in the distant future. And even divorce does not completely dissolve all family ties, when there are children involved. Similarly, when we join a career or a profession, we choose to join the organization with only limited information about what that work will be like, and we generally must conform to the standards of behavior established by our predecessors before we have any decisionmaking authority within the organization.

Also, the fact that negative freedom is inadequate for us to carry out our various activities – a simple lack of interference doesn’t guarantee that we have access to the materials and resources that these activities require, if all of those resources are owned by people who will not let use them – or that a laissez-faire private ownership system is inadequate for general flourishing doesn’t imply that flourishing requires a bureaucratic welfare system or government control of all property. Again, Machan has falsely assumed that there are only two options – individual ownership or state ownership – and neglected a third option – collective ownership, by democratically-organized collective agents.

I believe that something like the positive view I’ve suggested in the last few paragraphs – one that recognizes both agency and interdependence, through semi-voluntary collective agents, and alternatives to both the free market and the state – is closer to the conception of personhood held by many egalitarians than the version presented by Machan. Consider this passage, from egalitarian liberal Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice:

The ability to join with others to give one another laws is a fundamental aspect of human freedom. Being autonomous in this sense is no trivial matter: it is part of having the chance to live a fully human life. In our day \ldots the fundamental unit through which people exercise this fundamental aspect of human freedom is the nation-state: it is the largest and most foundational unit that still has a chance of being decently accountable to the people who live there \ldots. [T]he nation-state and its basic structure are \ldots a key locus for persons’ exercise of their freedom. (257)

Nussbaum is speaking here of states rather than smaller-scale collective agents. But it is clear that she treats the state as a collective agent, a collaboration of citizens, rather than an alien force, imposing itself on citizens from above. More radical egalitarians might question whether the vast bureaucracy of the modern nation-state can really be a collaboration of all of its millions of citizens, but they would accept the underlying picture of human nature: neither utterly self-reliant John Galts nor utterly servile dependents of an alien state, but rather interdependent, social beings, who flourish by working together to achieve great things.

If this is right, the basic disagreement is best characterized as between an self-reliant conception, emphasizing individual agency, and a collaborative conception, emphasizing collective agency.