The Enlightenment Sets the Record Straight

Negative characterizations of human beings abound. It is common to hear people assert that humans are naturally greedy. Or competitive. Or stupid. It should also be noted that the one making this declaration never includes himself or herself. The messenger is innocent. But the rest of us are judged as being wholly no good. Most of the apples are bad. This view is not new and has a rather rich history. Much of Christian dogma has cast a dim view of human nature. In the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, the doctrine of original sin holds that, due to Adam and Eve’s transgressions, the rest of us hit the ground at guilty. During the Reformation, the highly influential French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) built this notion into his joyless and strict theology and ethics.

In this essay, we will look at a string of philosophers from the Enlightenment who redrew what it means to be human. While many have deemed humans vicious creatures, we will consider some thinkers who felt this was not the case. They focused on our internal sense of humanity and the abundant goodness that can be found in people.

Every thinker we will look at—Shaftesbury, Butler, Hume, Smith, and Rousseau—had Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) in his sights. They felt Hobbes characterized human nature in a narrow, reductive way. Hobbes’s name has become a label denoting just such a judgment of humanity. “Hobbesian” now means the opinion that people are terrible and prone to violence. But while his viewpoint was indeed materialistic and mechanical, and he did feel that people needed the protection of a sovereign power, Hobbes does not say people are terrible. If you encountered Hobbes in high school or college, chances are the quotes you were taught came from Chapter XIII (around three pages in total) of his masterpiece Leviathan. Excerpts from chapter XIII are in all the textbooks and it is there where all the familiar quotes come from. In this section, I simply wish to do some corrective work on the subject. The goal is not to include Hobbes with the other thinkers we will discuss—he certainly stands apart from them, but he’s not the Grim Reaper either.

It is common for political philosophers to begin with a consideration of human nature. In order to properly investigate how humans should arrange and organize themselves in the best possible way, it stands to reason that we should decide on what is the essence of human nature; in a sense, that is what I am doing in this essay. We have to know just whom—or what—we are organizing. If people are naturally aggressive and vicious, this must be taken into account when designing systems of governance for them. Likewise, if humans tend to be kind and cooperative, we will need a much different system. The method many philosophers utilized was to consider humankind in a “state of nature.” That is, what are we left with when we subtract those systems of governance? What kind of creatures are humans when we consider them on their own, in the wild, with no overarching political or economic structure of any kind? This is not to suggest that this state of nature at one time existed; think of it more as a thought experiment.

Hobbes’s conception of humankind in a state of nature starts with the idea that everyone is more or less equal and free. The playing field starts level, for even body and mind; even the weakest person can conceivably kill the strongest. So I could potentially kill you and steal your apples, but you might kill me in the process. However, the threat of someone, or a confederacy of someones, killing me and stealing my apples does exist. No one is stopping them. Also, there is the risk of there being no apples. So, now we are in competition. The threat of scarcity also looms for Hobbes. And scarcity can lead to things getting ugly. But all in all, the Hobbesian state of nature is a set of circumstances where people are more prone to mind their own business. Someone could try and do me in to get my apples, but they probably will not. So if I see you out on the savanna, I’ll probably just ignore you, and you me. Leading Hobbes scholar Richard Tuck maintains,

The common idea that Hobbes was in some sense “pessimistic” about human nature is wide of the mark, for his natural men [people in a state of nature] were in principle stand-offish towards one another rather than inherently belligerent. ((Richard Tuck, Hobbes: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 65.))

For Hobbes, there are three principal causes of what he calls “quarrel”: competition, diffidence, and glory. The first could be the case where things are scarce and I might do you violence because I need your apples. The second pertains to the insecurity of the state of nature, where you might kill me and take my apples, so if I perceive you as a threat, I might club you over the head. And the third sees violence occur where I might want people to be impressed with me, so I club you over the head just to burnish my image. But what Hobbes does not say is that we are destined to do one another violence. He does not paint the state of nature as a place of bloodshed and wanton slaughter. The threat of that exists, but that’s it. Hobbes says,

[W]hen taking a journey, he armes himselfe, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his dores; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knowes there bee Lawes, and publike Officers, armed to revenge all injuries shall bee done him…. (Leviathan, XIII)

So, when I go to sleep, I lock my door (not dore, it’s 2022). Does this reveal anything about my philosophy of human nature? You lock yours, too. We all do. Are we all Hobbesian in the common, negative sense? No. He then says, “Does he [the guy locking his door] not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man’s nature in it.” (Leviathan, XIII) There, he just said it out loud. He is not accusing human nature. You lock your doors at night because someone might come in and kill you (and maybe take your apples). But that probably will not happen. You will sleep soundly and you and your apples will be just fine. So, Hobbes is making the case that there needs to be a power—a leviathan—something that proclaims officially, “No one is to kill anybody and take anyone’s apples, and if you do, you will be punished. We’ve got guns.” People need a “a common Power to keep them all in awe, and to direct their actions to the Common Benefit.” (XVII) And the power will “tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants, and observation of these Lawes of Nature….” (XVII) Nevertheless, Hobbes highlights in the state of nature this mutual fear of one another, this possible threat, life being potentially “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (XIII) without the necessary security arrangements. ((I guess I had to include this quote, even though it was with hesitancy. It gets quoted everywhere by everyone. It’s in all the textbooks. But it gets trotted out to suggest that Hobbes is saying that is what life in the state of nature is like. And he is not saying that. When you see a quote get used to death, something is usually amiss. Like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” concept or his “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” quote. One gets tired of seeing these quotes. They are overused, misused, and distort what the thinker was saying. The text—all of it—must be tended to.)) So, while Hobbes does not say what so many attribute to him, his emphasis is not on cooperation and sympathy, as some Enlightenment thinkers chose to do, as we will now see.

During the Enlightenment, thinkers began to cast human nature in a new light. Two philosophers who made early contributions to this new way of thinking were Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) in his essay “Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit” and Joseph Butler (1692–1752) in his influential Fifteen Sermons.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, better known as Shaftesbury, introduced what would become “moral sense theory,” suggesting that we possess a native capacity to experience and judge moral circumstances. As mentioned, in a challenge to Hobbes, Shaftesbury took issue with Hobbes’s reductive picture of human nature. In the “Inquiry,” Shaftesbury says that we experience “moral objects” much like we experience physical objects:

So, we experience moral judgments just as we experience a painting and approve or disapprove of it aesthetically: “There is a common and natural sense of what is sublime and beautiful in things; and someone who denies this won’t be taken seriously by anyone who has attended properly to the facts.”

Shaftesbury maintains this sense of right and wrong is natural and a “first principle in our make-up”:

Because a sense of right and wrong is as natural to us as natural affection itself, and is a first principle in our make-up, there is no theory, opinion, persuasion or belief that can immediately or directly exclude or destroy it.

Joseph Butler in his sermons influenced a long list of philosophers by also focusing on the moral conscience, that “principle of reflection” bestowed upon us by God (Butler was devout and became a bishop) to judge and regulate our conduct.

Butler maintains that it is too obvious to require the making of the case that we have something in us that leads humans toward the good. Yes, humans can fall prey to “ungoverned passions” and do one another harm, just as humans will do themselves harm. So, we are not divine, but we do have a nature. Just as leopards and flies have a nature, we too possess one. Our nature is acting in accordance with this principle of reflection or conscience. This faculty has an authority and, as he says, a supremacy and goes so far as to say (in the second sermon): “Had it strength, as it has right; had it power, as it has manifest authority; it would absolutely rule the world.” ((Butler, Fifteen Sermons, 31.)) Butler observes that we are oriented toward one another. We find “satisfaction and amusement” in our various interactions. As he observes:

There is such a natural principle of attraction in man toward man, that having trod the same tract of land, having breathed in the same climate, barely having been born in the same artificial district or division, becomes the occasion of contracting and familiarities many years after: for any thing may serve the purpose. (Sermon 1) ((Butler, Fifteen Sermons, 21.))

So, we bump into a fellow citizen during our foreign travels and form a bond. It seems silly that we do this. Why should I care, if I’m in Jordan, if I cross paths with an American? It is probably silly; actually it is quite silly. The point is that we all do this. It’s a reflex. And Butler says there’s a good reason for it. It lies at the center of what we are.

Shaftesbury and Butler influenced a generation of thinkers. Among the most preeminent were David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith (1723–1790). Both members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hume and Smith were not only intellectually simpatico, they were close, lifelong friends. Their friendship coincided with a renaissance that took place in Scotland, which up to that point had been a breeding ground of poverty and disease. In the early eighteenth century, Scotland then became the center of some of the most path-breaking and influential intellectual work in Europe—the capital, Edinburgh, itself got labeled a “hot-bed of genius.” ((Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 55.)) Hume and Smith played major roles in this story.

Hume was twelve years Smith’s senior, and by the time Smith wrote his two major opuses—The Theory of Moral Sentiments (first edition 1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776—the year Hume died) Hume’s literary output was winding down. Hume’s thought therefore had quite an impact on Smith. In many respects, Smith can be viewed as a revision or an expansion of what Hume was attempting to achieve. The two thinkers did see eye to eye philosophically, but this should not be taken to mean that Smith merely offered a retread of Hume’s work. Smith’s moral philosophy is far more developed than Hume’s, and in many ways superior.

To start with Hume, he challenged the history of philosophy’s assumption that moral judgments are the product of reason. Philosophers, for centuries, took the position that if I saw someone steal an old lady’s purse, my moral judgement of it was an intellectual event. I drew conclusions, using my reason, that the theft was wrong. Hume disagrees. My moral judgment of the theft is akin to getting nervous before I give a speech or getting jealous when I see what I perceive to be flirtation on the part of my date with another person at a party. (Maybe I’m wrong, but the initial feeling of jealousy I certainly did not choose; it was merely a response.) For Hume, I cannot access moral matters intellectually, because intellectual matters deal with two kinds of knowledge: statements like “All bachelors are unmarried men” or “x=x.” Or knowledge that requires empirical verification: “All bachelors are tall” or “water boils at 100C.” The former set produces no new information and the latter does, but you have to verify it. The statement “All bachelors are tall” is absurd, but it’s a type of knowledge or statement. Tall is not part of the concept bachelor—unmarried man is. So, Hume says that our moral judgments must be taking place elsewhere. For him, it is more of a “neck-down” proposition than a “neck-up” one. In his major philosophical work A Treatise of Human Nature, he famously concludes “Morality is more properly felt than judg’d of….” (Treatise, 3.1.2)

In other words, as I examine a murder scene, the only things available to my senses and my reason (my intellect) are the facts of the crime scene. I can do detective work, I can do forensic analysis, I can come up with hypotheses, question the perpetrator, do lab work, get statements from witnesses, etc. This is all that is available. The right and the wrong of the situation are not on display. I cannot examine the scene for immorality. I cannot take it to the lab. The immorality of the scene I brought with me to the scene. It is only when I turn my reflection inward that the sentiment—my moral judgment of the scene—reveals itself. It is in me, in the form of a feeling. I internally judge the murder as immoral; there is no immorality at the murder scene.

If Hume is right, this has broad implications for the species. For one, we don’t get our morality from religion or our parents, it is an internal sense that we have. (Hume was keen to remove God from the picture; his irreligious perspective—which he made no attempt to hide—was something that rankled among some of his contemporaries and prevented him from securing a teaching position.) Moreover, Hume is saying that our core sense of morality is biological. We possess an internal sense of right and wrong and it registers at the level of sense. If we see a heinously immoral act, like a child being abused, we will feel it. It is a response. This is not to suggest that we will always agree. Hume accounts for distance and “disposition of our mind.” If I am present at the scene when the murder took place, it is going to probably affect my day. If I see it on the news, it probably will not. If I read about it in a history book, it definitely won’t. I can also have bad facts and misjudge a situation, like the perceived flirtation at the party. But, I cannot have a wrong feeling. I’m not wrong for feeling jealousy, if that is what I perceived. Maybe I was wrong about the facts—my date was simply getting directions to a restaurant she thought I would like—but the jealousy was not wrong.

In a later work entitled An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (known as the Second Inquiry), Hume discusses the concept of virtue. He states that “It is the nature, and, indeed, the definition of virtue, that it is a quality of the mind agreeable to or approved of by every one, who considers or contemplates it.” (§VIII) In other words, we find the virtuous agreeable; we are hardwired to find such things of use as pleasing. Were we terrible creatures this certainly would not be the case. Hume continues with a bit of a literary flourish, “[It] cannot be disputed, that there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent.” (§IX) On a personal note, I really find this passage both beautiful and accurate. Some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame. Sure, we can proceed like the wolf and the serpent, but we are not the wolf or the serpent. We just have those moments. But the particle of the dove is in there. It is part of what we are.

On to Hume’s very good friend Adam Smith. This is the very first paragraph in Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments ((There are many editions of Smith’s Moral Sentiments, but I recommend the scholarly Cambridge edition: Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge, 2002).)):

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

“How selfish soever man may be supposed”—this is basically a shot at Hobbes. This view of humanity was alive and well in the eighteenth century. If anything it was worse. “[P]rinciples in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” We know this to be true if only we consult our own experiences. “[T]he emotion which we feel for the misery of others …” Again, we know this to be true. Your friend’s pet dies, you feel something. Your friend loses her job, you feel something. Even characters in a film—whom you do not know and do not exist—you cry, you feel sadness. “That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it….” “The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.” We are quick to write off people in prison as being lost causes, but Smith’s point is a sound one.

Smith’s moral philosophy is also based on sentiment and sympathy, which Smith uses in an all-encompassing way to “denote our fellow-feeling with any passions whatever.” ( But at times, Smith significantly departs from Hume’s approach. In a sense, it is more active we might say. Where Hume’s is a more passive transmission of sentiment, Smith employs what he calls imagination.

Put another way, it’s not a mere transmission of sentiment; I, through imagination, connect with the person’s circumstances. Rather than run through the technical aspects and specifics of Smith’s moral philosophy, I wish to center on his view of human nature, which permeates Moral Sentiments. In Part 3 of the text, Smith makes the following observation:

Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praise-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blame-worthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame. (3.2.1)

This is a powerful thought. “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.”

Smith highlights the existence and role of our conscience:

Nature, when she formed man for society, endowed him with an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren. She taught him to feel pleasure in their favourable, and pain in their unfavourable regard. She rendered their approbation [approval] most flattering and most agreeable to him for its own sake; and their disapprobation most mortifying and most offensive. (3.2.5–6)

At the center of what we are, Smith is saying, there is a native preference for approval. We seek praise and praise-worthiness. And it is through this native sense that we judge our actions and the actions of others:

He [the Author of Nature] has made man, if I may say so, the immediate judge of mankind; and has, in this respect, as in many others, created him after his own image, and appointed him his vicegerent [ruler] upon earth, to superintend the behaviour of his brethren. (3.2.31)

He likens the conscience to a tribunal, to “that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their [humankind’s] conduct.” (3.2.32)

I will close the Adam Smith discussion with what is probably my favorite Smith quote. Russian writer Anton Chekhov has a similar quote ((“Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”)) which gets more attention, but I like Smith’s better: “If we saw ourselves in the light in which others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reformation would generally be unavoidable.” This applies to individuals and whole societies. Humans are not very good at seeing themselves.

Another Enlightenment thinker we would be remiss to not include is the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788). Rousseau was an influential thinker who in part inspired Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Rousseau and Hume knew one another, were friends for a time, and then had a falling out. Rousseau is probably the only person to have had interpersonal difficulties with the illustrious Scot, as he was basically adored by everyone who knew him. But at that point Rousseau’s mental health was declining, so we can cut him some slack.

Rousseau in his essay Discourse on Inequality (known as the Second Discourse), reconsiders the state of nature we discussed with Hobbes, and how other thinkers have employed it. Rousseau maintains that the major political philosophers who used the state of nature as a point of departure—for example, Hobbes and English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704)—started with civilized man and not man in a state of nature. He argues that aspects of socialized life have been imputed to their descriptions of the state of nature. It is Rousseau’s position that humans do not need an overarching structure to provide them protection (Hobbes) or to ensure property rights (Locke). That we were (hypothetically) better off in the state of nature and that it was civilization and the overarching political and economic structures that have created our worst ills. “Man is born free,” Rousseau famously stated in The Social Contract, “and everywhere he is in chains.” It was modernization that put those chains on us. That we were healthier, stronger, more dextrous, and altogether happier in the state of nature. Interestingly, this is the general sentiment in the current literature. Roughly 12,000 years ago, humans transitioned from being foragers and hunter-gatherers to growing crops, attaching themselves to a given parcel of land.

But alas, we cannot return to the state of nature, so we have to make the best of it. It is in his descriptions of humankind in the state of nature that Rousseau, like all the thinkers we have discussed so far, cast humanity in a much nicer light.

At the center of his characterization of humans in the state of nature, Rousseau notes the role of pity in human life. For Rousseau, this “natural sentiment” of pity places a check on our behavior. As he states, “[M]en would never have been anything but monsters, if nature had not given them pity to aid their reason.” ((Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings, ed. Donald A. Cress, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2011), 63.)) He goes on to say:

Instead of the sublime maxim of reasoned justice [the Golden Rule], Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, pity inspires all men with another maxim of natural goodness, much less perfect but perhaps more useful than the preceding one: Do what is good for you with as little harm as possible to others. ((Rousseau, Basic, 64.))

He expounds on the concept:

Pity is what, in the state of nature, takes the place of laws, mores, and virtue, with the advantage that no one is tempted to disobey its sweet voice. Pity is what will prevent every robust savage from robbing a weak child or an infirm old man of his hard-earned subsistence, if he himself expects to be able to find his own someplace else. ((Rousseau, Basic, 64.))

And this is a thought worth meditating on. If we were naturally greedy and heartless, imagine what kind of world we would live in. Rousseau already said it above: we would be little more than monsters without this sense of pity. The world would be a nightmare. We might be tempted to point to the news as proof that the world is largely chaos and violence. This is false. If we were at the core unpleasant, the world would be a complete nightmare. And it isn’t. People want their children safe, for them to have good schools to attend, to get along with their neighbors, to have a job—one that pays something—and they tend to be touchy about foreign tanks on their streets. In the Middle East, in East Asia, in South America, in Europe, and all over the United States, I have encountered the same thing. This cannot be a coincidence.

So, very similar to Smith, Rousseau asserts we possess an innate sense and an inclination to not do harm. Likewise, similar to Hume, he calls into question philosophy’s age-old emphasis on reason being the sole source of our “repugnance at doing evil” ((Rousseau, Basic, 64.)): “[T]he human race would long ago have ceased to exist,” he states, “if its preservation had depended solely on the reasoning of its members.” ((Rousseau, Basic, 64.))

In fact, what are generosity, mercy and humanity, if not pity applied to the weak, to the guilty, or to the human species in general? Benevolence and even friendship are, properly understood, the products of a constant pity fixed on a particular object; for is desiring that someone not suffer anything but desiring that he be happy.

Rousseau selects a choice quote from the Roman poet Juvenal: “Nature, in giving men tears, bears witness that it gave the human race the softest hearts.” ((Rousseau, Basic, 63.))

We are seeing confirmation of this Enlightenment redrawing of human nature across the sciences, in primatology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and psychology. Hume and Smith are now the talk of the town.

Gregory Harms’s forthcoming book No Politics, No Religion? will be published by Political Animal Press and released this spring, 2022. Read other articles by Gregory, or visit Gregory's website.