Is Man’s Nature Fixed? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Recently I read an incredibly thought-provoking book written by Thomas Sowell, called A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles.  In this book, Sowell traces out two conflicting visions of the nature of man, the constrained  and the unconstrained.  Sowell argues that these two visions have been at odds for centuries and the conflict between them lies at the root of most of our political, moral, judicial, and economic ideological battles.

The constrained vision sees human nature as fixed.  Man is egocentric and morally limited.  In addition, his intelligence and ability to reason are also limited by his nature.  Those with the constrained vision do not so much seek explanations for why most men are self-interested and morally fragile, but they seek explanations for why the rare man seems to act unselfishly.

The constrained vision accepts man for who he is and seeks to build incentives to channel man’s imperfect nature in positive directions.  These incentives rely heavily on traditions and family, with government playing a limited role.  Placing power in the hands of the intellectual and moral elite is a great mistake, under the constrained view, as human nature inevitably leads to corruption when power is concentrated.

The unconstrained vision sees human nature as pliable and perfectible.  Man can overcome his egocentricity through intellect and reason.  This view is optimistic that man is ever rising higher and higher in his capacity to act morally, in the best interests of all mankind.  Those who hold the unconstrained vision are perplexed as to why so much of humankind is egocentric and morally corrupt.  They conclude that societal institutions are to blame because man’s nature cannot be to blame – it is corrupted by outside forces.

The unconstrained vision rejects the current state of man as a self-interested and intellectually stunted creature.  It seeks to lift human morality and intellect by asking the best and the brightest to devise and implement solutions to our shortcomings.  We are well served by giving power and influence to those few who have advanced intellectually and morally further than the rest of us, the true exemplars and visionaries.  It is only they who can lead the way.  Finally, human reason trumps tradition, which should be discarded when it no longer serves any obvious purpose.

Sowell argues that those people with the constrained vision tend to line up on the same side of most political, judicial, economic, and moral issues (e.g., size of government, judicial activism, capitalism, gay marriage).  Likewise for those with the unconstrained vision.

How do you see human nature?  Do you find yourself leaning more toward the constrained or unconstrained vision?  Make your choice in the poll below, and as always, please leave comments about your choice, if you care to.

In a couple days, I will weigh in with my viewpoint and explain why I think one of these visions is more biblical than the other.

  • Cindy

    Maybe this was addressed later in the book, but I find it interesting that neither of these views seem to define man as a creature designed by a higher intelligence. By adding that divine element I think both visions can be accepted. Man, in his natural state is constrained, but through a renewal by God, he is unconstrained in the most infinite sense!

  • Sowell actually mentions in the book that religions that view man as sinful are more at home with the constrained vision, with perfection being reserved for God.

  • I would think that Christianity makes the distinction both difficult, and unnecessary.
    The reconciling factor is the doctrine of the fall.
    Man was perhaps made for one thing, has become constrained, and may one day have those constraints removed (“It has not yet appeared what we shall be, but we know that we shall be like Him” paraphrasing 1 John from memory).

    There is perhaps more hint in that, once we had entered into rebellion through eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we were restricted from access to the tree of life. Once evil had become a reality for us, we were constrained in order that the evil be constrained until it is finally healed.

    Therefore, Since I think it is more in line with God’s ultimate plan, purpose and intent for us, I answered unconstrained (and how that squares with finite v. infinite, I’ll leave for another post!)

    -R. Eric Sawyer

  • Bill Pratt

    I definitely agree that God’s plan for Adam and Eve was more in line with the unconstrained vision. However, as I say in part 2, the Fall has placed us squarely into a constrained human nature. When we are debating political policies, we should always remember this. The utopia of the unconstrained vision cannot happen until Christ returns.


  • Bill Pratt

    Well said, Cindy. Since the book was mostly about two visions of man and what those visions mean for crafting political policy for the here-and-now, I think we should focus on man in his natural state. There will be no need for politics in heaven!

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