causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (51): Nature or Nurture?

Album cover of Frank Zappa's "Them or Us"

Album cover of Frank Zappa’s “Them or Us”

Are we born as blank slates, and do we get our violent and malevolent inclinations through upbringing and social contact? Or are we born evil? I can’t possibly answer those questions in a blog post, or anywhere else for that matter. But we can get some clues if we focus on one type of rights violation, namely racism.

The available evidence seems to suggest that people are not naturally racist. I’ve discussed some recent findings here. Human evolution has indeed fostered a strong sense of group solidarity, and the dark side of this solidarity is a natural tendency to define outsiders as enemies. This is problematic from the point of view of human rights because it means that the interests and rights of outsiders are routinely discounted. However, “groupism” isn’t necessarily the same as racism. Outsiders can be virtually anyone: foreigners, heretics, infidels, Manchester United fans etc. Race can but doesn’t have to determine the inside-outside border. In fact, throughout much of early human history, when contact between races was the exception, groups have defined insiders and outsiders on other grounds than race. Racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the words of Robert Wright:

So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races. (source)

It seems we are ourselves responsible for the rights we violate. We can’t accuse nature or evolution.

More on groupism here. More posts in this series here.

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3 thoughts on “The Causes of Human Rights Violations (51): Nature or Nurture?

  1. I think that people are very suspicious of anything which they do not understand. That suspicion translates itself into fighting what they may perceive as a threat to life the way they know it.

  2. Psychology is making huge advances in understanding whether we are born or become evil. The most important finding is that, contrary to accepted wisdom, when it comes to an inclination towards hatred, violence and greed, we are definately not all the same. In fact a small percentage among us, those with dangerous and untreatable personality disorders, are responsible for the vast majority of violence, prejudice and suffering.

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