Living ethics: Human condition v. human nature

By Michael Bugeja, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Donald Trump points to his head, wearing a red hat, and standing in front of an American flag.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Fountain Park, Ariz., on March 19, 2016. in Fountain Hills, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

When discussing political candidates, media often use (and sometimes confuse) the terms “human condition” and “human nature.” No one bothers to define them.

What, exactly, is the human condition? What is human nature?

The educational platform, Study.com, defines both. The human condition concerns our positive and negative qualities whereas human nature involves our emotional responses to those traits. “It seems the human condition connects us to each other and the universal story we are all telling together.”

Politicians tell stories. They want us to connect with them.

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for president, believes access to universal health care heals the human condition. She wants to end corruption because greed is part of human nature.

Bernie Sanders feels the same way, perhaps more intensely.

Joe Biden believes Donald Trump, a privileged billionaire, doesn’t understand the human condition; worse, Biden says, the president’s rhetoric appeals to “the worst damn instincts of human nature.”

It’s more complex (of course it is) when it comes to Pete Buttigieg. The Wall Street Journal complains about Buttigieg’s “abstract and slippery verbiage” that leaves us wondering what the candidate meant. “Will the former mayor of South Bend liberate us from the human condition?”

At his rallies, President Trump rarely references the human condition. When it comes to human nature, he uses nicknames — “Pocahontas,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie” — to describe rivals Warren, Sanders and Biden. His nickname for Mayor Pete is more complex (of course it is): “Alfred E. Neuman,” the gap-toothed mascot on the cover of the humor magazine, “Mad.”

“I’ll be honest. I had to Google that,” Buttigieg said when he heard it.

Pundits often associate Trump policies with the human condition. They explicate human nature to explain the president’s appeal.

The esteemed Brookings Institution posted this about Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s Middle East peace efforts: “To assume that the promise of economic improvement would outweigh ordinary human aspirations of a people who have painfully struggled for decades is to miss the nature of the human condition.”

That quote convolutes both concepts: human condition and nature.

In 2016, The Atlantic psychoanalyzed the president to prophecy how his administration would function. “If all human beings are, by their very nature, social actors, then Donald Trump seems to be more so — superhuman, in this one primal sense.” The psychology professor who wrote the rambling 9,000-word piece predicted the hallmark of the Trump presidency would be “winning at any cost.”

Some could have summed it up with a haiku.

The human condition also can be pegged to our metaphysical duality: consciousness and conscience. Consciousness tells us we come into the world alone, and we leave it alone. Conscience implies what is in me is in you.

It doesn’t matter how you think about these concepts — scientifically or theologically. You can say we are social creatures made of star-stuff who care about each other because of natural selection. Or you can say we are divine creatures made of soul-stuff who care about each other because of religion.

Fact is, most of us fluctuate between two polarities. Sometimes we’re alone in our struggles. Other times, we seem connected. We go back and forth. That is how it feels to be human, ciphering inner voices with differing messages, confounding us about our nature and identity.

Benjamin Franklin who helped program American morality with his 13 virtues — frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, humility, etc. — was just as perplexed as the rest of us.

In a 1782 letter to a theologian, Franklin wrote that human beings are more disposed to do evil than good, taking pleasure in killing rather than healing each other. We assemble great armies, Franklin wrote, to slay as many of the enemy as possible and then find glory in exaggerating the number.

As we approach the Feb. 3 Iowa Caucuses, we might ponder the conundrum about human condition and human nature. When Franklin wrote, frustrated about efforts to find lasting peace abroad, stakes were high. Monarchs were the norm. Democracy was an experiment.

In our time, stakes are so much higher. Armies can destroy the world in the short term. Climate change, in the longer. Health care may be a natural right for Americans who embrace life, liberty and happiness.

Which candidate can harmonize consciousness with conscience so that one informs the other? Whose platform intuits consequences of actions before taking them and accepts responsibility thereafter? Who affirms forgiveness, compassion, empathy? What can unite a divided nation?

Here’s another test for the best presidential candidate: Ask them to define “human condition” and “human nature.”

Then judge accordingly.

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