Are Humans Naturally Peaceful or Violent?

A different question allows us to cultivate the best qualities of human beings.

Posted Oct 11, 2019

 John Hain/Pixabay
Source: John Hain/Pixabay

We humans have a penchant for either/or choices. Whether in politics (red vs. blue, capitalist vs. socialist), religion (heaven vs. hell, Christianity vs. Islam, etc.), or framed in the media (jobs vs. the environment, Left vs. Right), we often choose our camp and take a side. 

But either/or thinking isn’t usually helpful if our goal is to increase our knowledge, build understanding, collaborate with others, solve problems, and create a more peaceful world. Dichotomous thinking tends to hinder conversation and the exploration of creative possibilities. Side-taking often constrains the search for what is actually true and leads us to dig in our heels and shore up evidence for our side, rather than remain open to a variety of perspectives and find deeper and more nuanced perspectives.

So why did I title this post as an either/or? Because knowing our penchant for side-taking, I thought it would be more likely to generate readers. Yes, my title is clickbait; I actually think the question is silly.

And yet, the reason the title may attract readers is because so many people have a strong opinion on this question. Some argue that humans are inherently aggressive, violent, and competitive, cooperating only for personal gain, while others believe that humans are inherently compassionate, peaceful, and loving, acting aggressively and violently only in unnatural circumstances or when they are afraid.

Isn’t it more reasonable to perceive humans as capable of horrific cruelty and violence as well as astonishing altruism and peaceful collaboration (and everything in between), and to notice that the great majority of the time we get along pretty well, while remaining imperfectly kind, unintentionally inconsiderate, self-serving and helpful in near-equal measure? Humans can even be cooperative and competitive simultaneously. Think of team sports, in which we collaborate peacefully with our teammates to compete (sometimes violently) with another team.

But what remains true, no matter where one falls on the “What is humanity’s essential nature?” spectrum, is that we are capable of nurturing, reinforcing, and cultivating our more peaceful natures (which is what humane education seeks to do), and that we can also become violent based on the situations and systems in which we find ourselves, as demonstrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment.

The important question isn’t “What is our inherent nature?” but rather, “How can we cultivate the best qualities of human beings in ourselves and others?”

Here are some answers to that question:

  • Practice mindfulness, Naikan, or some other reflective practice that reinforces awareness of our impacts on others. This might include passage meditation, during which we might recite passages, poems, or scriptures that call upon us to be more peaceful, kind, and generous.
  • Identify the qualities that you consider to be among humanity’s best. Write them down. Choose one each week to embody to your fullest extent. Keep a journal of the effects on yourself and others. Reflect at the end of the week about the impacts of this practice.
  • Complete this self-reflective questionnaire and allow it to help you put your values into practice in more far-reaching ways over time.
  • Assess the true price of your everyday choices, from what you eat, wear, and buy, to the energy you consume. To do this, choose an item/food that you regularly use or consume and ask and research the answers to these two questions: 

1. What are the effects of this item (positive and negative) on people, nonhuman animals, and the environment?

2. What alternative(s) might do more good and less harm?

With your new knowledge, you will be able to make more informed, compassionate, and peaceful choices.

  • Commit to never sharing or posting hateful, violent, hurtful, or even snarky comments and memes on the Internet. This is much harder than it seems because we are more inclined to express ourselves less kindly and politely in writing than in person. After making this commitment, take the next step and practice posting truly respectful responses whenever you disagree and feel reactive online.
  • Have conversations with people who hold views that conflict with your own, with the agreed-upon intention to communicate respectfully, build understanding, and find common ground.

The more we practice anything, the better we get at it. So why not practice peacefulness and kindness as often as possible?