Liberalism on human nature
Posted by Nicole Berry on April 12, 2010
During the 18th Century new religious, political and philosophical ideas were emerging under the umbrella term of ‘The Enlightenment’. During this time, liberalism was establishing itself as a political ideology, bearing new ideas about human nature and from this the ideal role of the state.
Both types of liberalism (modern and classical) have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham perceived humans as rational beings who act in their own self-interest by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Classical liberals would argue that if humans are inherently reasonable and self seeking, then a successful society can based on meritocracy without the need for an overbearing state to control us. Jeremy Bentham argued that the state should only intervene in the case of ‘other regarding actions’, i.e. cases in which an individual’s freedom imposes upon another’s.
The modern liberal T.H Green suggested that people have a natural desire to enhance others’ welfare as well as their own. Hence, people are both philanthropic and egotistical. In redefining what it means to be free after viewing the negative outcomes of the Industrial Revolution, this philanthropic instinct suggested that the state should help those in need, enabling them to achieve the same fulfilment as others through the provision of state welfare ( as proposed, for example, by the Beveridge Report in 1942). In the economic sphere, however, the state should remain firmly in the background.
This optimistic view of human nature regards the state as a precautionary observer with limited interference, contrasting with the austere paternalism necessitated by a conservative’s pessimistic view of human nature.
Should we be so optimistic about human nature?