It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Misuse of 'Human Nature' in Law and Social Policy and Bankruptcy of the 'Nature-Nurture' Debate

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Debate about legal and policy reform has been haunted by a pernicious confusion about human nature, the idea that it is a set of rigid dispositions, today generally conceived as genetic, that is manifested the same way in all circumstances. Opponents of egalitarian alternatives argue that we cannot depart far from the status quo because human nature stands in the way. Advocates of such reforms too often deny the existence of human nature because, sharing this conception, they think it would prevent changes they deem desirable. Both views rest on deep errors about what it is to have a nature and how genetics works. Human nature, like the nature of anything else, is a set of potentials to behave certain ways in given environments, not a nonsocial genetic something that inevitably produces the same result in any environment. To say that existing inequalities, are due to our genes, inalterable because heritable, ignores that genetic propensities may be differently manifested in different environments. Heritability has meaning only relative to an environment and a population and implies nothing about inevitability. A better sort of inegalitarian argument is that a proposed reform, given our nature, would be too costly even if possible. However, this sort of argument is too rarely supported by evidence and generally ignores the costs of existing inequalities. But egalitarians err in supposing that, if behavior is unconstrained by biology, the status quo is easily alterable. The environment may be extremely hard to change. Legal and policy debate should adopt a correct understanding of human nature as a set of propensities and ask of any proposed reform agreed to be otherwise desirable what and how alterable are its causes, genetic, environmental, or more accurately both.
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Archival date: 2017-03-21
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