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Free «Human Nature and War Issue» Essay Sample

Human nature theorists differ from cognitive theorists in their views towards the causes of war and violence. Humanists argue that war and violence are inherent in man and thus, we cannot avoid them. They believe that violent actions by human beings are natural. The paper presents the arguments of Pinker, Wilson, Stoessinger, Lorenz, and Ghiglieri in support of this view. On the other hand, cognitive theorists believe that wars and violence are conditional and, as a result, they are avoidable. Furthermore, the paper includes the ideas of Fry, Zinn, Grossman, Fahey, Floyd, and Kahan in support of the cognitive view. The essay expounds on the arguments of the two schools of thoughts and gives an opinion on the same. It favors the cognitive theorists view on the causes of war and violence. Moreover, it exposes the shortfalls of the human nature theories as well as the strengths of the cognitive theories.

Human Nature and War

Cognitive theorists give a more compelling reason for violence and war than human nature theorists do. War is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today. Debate on what causes war and violence has raged on for an extraordinary long time as scholars have different views on war. Some of them see it as an inevitable practice of human nature (human nature theorists), while others hold that it can be avoided altogether (cognitive theorists). History has produced strong advocates against the war who have favored dialogue and non-violence instead of military conflict. Of notable mention are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. These two people staged successful resistances without resorting to bloodshed and violence. Such anti-war activists believe that every problem in the world has a solution through dialogue and compromise. This paper analyzes the arguments for war as presented by human nature theorists and cognitive theorists.



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Human nature theorists have argued that humans are naturally violent. This view holds that humans are inherently violent and leaders of the state are only vehicles of expressing the violent impulses. Pinker, Wilson, Stoessinger, Lorenz, and Ghiglieri, among others, are some of the theorists that favor a humanistic view towards the causes of war. Below are presented the arguments proposed by each of them.

Pinker (2002) has argued that the world of old times was more violent than the current one. He thinks that we are now living in the most peaceful age. He points out at the evidence of a violent history as depicted in the mass killings in the Old Testament, as well as crucifixions in the New Testament. There are also the gory killings in Shakespeare and Grimm (British monarchs who carried out beheadings of their relatives), and the fathers of America who fought against their rivals. Piker goes ahead to quantify the brutal practices of the past. He says that tribal warfare was approximately ten times as violent as wars and genocides experienced in the 20th century. Murder in medieval Europe was almost thirty times more than what we are experiencing today. Besides, slavery, sadistic punishments, as well as unjustified executions were prevalent features of the past millennia.

Pinker (2002) argues that the profound violence of old times has vanished. Today’s wars only kill a fraction of what they used to in old times. Rapes, hate crimes, violent riots, and child abuse has all declined in an amazing fashion. According to him, it is necessary to take note of the inner demons that make people crave for violence, and the angels that guide as away from such tendencies. The spread of government, trade, cosmopolitanism, as well as literacy, have made people control their impulses, empathize with the predicament of others, do away with toxic ideologies and use their powers of reason in the reduction of the temptations to violence. As a result, Pinker (2002) forces readers to reconsider their deepest opinions about progress, modernity, as well as the nature of humans. He describes violence as something that individuals cannot control on their own, for there is an unexplainable force that predisposes to it. This is purely the human nature perspective regarding violence and war.

Besides, Wilson (2012) believes that war is inevitable, as it is part of our nature, and, most importantly, has shaped it. He does this by presenting Malthusian ideologies concerning human numbers and resources. Wilson (2012) says that human beings are subject to sustainable capacity. The size of the population increases and depletes the extra resources when we have surplus resources. This creates equilibrium between the population and resources. There is, thus, constant species competition for resources, a tendency that also explains natural tendencies such as predator, prey and parasites. The result is that the strong reproduce, while the weaklings die. Thus, conflict is part of nature. Each generation witnesses conflicts that regulate the population and keep the equilibrium.

Like Pinker (2002), Wilson (2012) argues that war has been part of humanity all along history. He adds to this perspective by pointing to the evolutionary roots of the human species. Therefore, humans have inherited their warlike traits from their ancestors, a fact that leads them to the current violent acts. Besides, these behaviors and dispositions become observable when there is a proper environmental context. The last phrase is critical as it means that if we change the environmental context, we may change the expression of war and violence. However, the salient point is that human nature is competitive. We will always seek something for our competition. Even when there are enough resources to cater for everyone, there will always be another reason to engage in conflicts. An excellent example is the recent world's penchant for sports. It may be true that the sports, like the football World Cup, are a way of satisfying the inherent competitive nature of humans. If not for resources, humans will compete for the sake of pride. In the extreme, such competition might lead to war and other acts of violence. Thus, Wilson argues that, given by our nature, the possibility of becoming violent to each other faces us forever. Again, this is a purely human nature theory on the cause of war.

Stoessinger (2007) adds to the human nature theory by analyzing the causes of war, beginning from World War I to the current day. He emphasizes on the central role of the personalities of people who take their nations into war. Stoessinger states that the perpetrators’ fears as well as hopes mostly inform their decisions on war. Using ten case studies on significant international wars, Stoessinger (2007) argues that war is not a faceless entity that unfolds in inexplicable ways. He takes a critical focus on the leaders who begin wars guided by their selfish agenda, and not taking into account the peoples’ best interests.

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For instance Germany, under Hitler, adopted a racist fascism referred to as National Socialism. Hitler believed that the Germans were a perfect people and that it was their destiny to make the rest of the world subject to them. They picked the Jewish people as subjects of their hatred and tried to exterminate all the Jews in Central Europe. Hitler further waged war with a goal of dominating the whole world. Although these happenings did not directly cause the Second World War, they seriously much contributed in some way. People who followed these dictators had the conviction that the leaders would make them dominate the world. According to Stoessinger (2007), Hitler’s unstable personality led to the unjustifiable wars that caused immense suffering for millions of people.

Lorenz (1973), a behavioral scientist, has expounded on the theory of human nature by arguing that human beings are violent in nature. He posits that various stimuli can trigger human aggression, the most frequent being situations when there are perceptions of rivalry or threat. Lorenz (1973) came up with the theory of innate aggression that attempted to explain why human beings have indulged in acts of violence throughout the history. The theory purports that human beings are naturally aggressive, warlike, as well as violent.

If the theory of innate aggression is true, then the cause of war and other violent acts lie in our biological nature. However, the theory has faced many criticisms from the day of its foundation. Critics, especially cognitive theorists, have pointed out to the presence of cultures that value cooperation instead of violence. This leads to the conclusion that aggression is, in fact, a learned cultural response and not a human instinct. Thus, the theory that we have spontaneous and natural reservoirs of aggressive energy might not be the absolute truth. The theory also suggests that human beings reduce their violent tendencies by venting out aggressive energy. The name of this process is catharsis, and it follows on Aristotle’s arguments that we can do away with unpleasant feelings by watching tragic dramas. However, studies have proved otherwise, for instance, studies by Albert Bandura on the observation learning theory. The more we expose ourselves to violent acts, the violent we are likely to become.

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Ghiglieri (2008) explores the roots of human’s violent behavior by using biological, historical, psychological, anthropological, and sociological sources. He starts with rape, moves on to murders, wars, and then genocides, later shows the male predisposition to violence. His views draw from both research and personal experiences, having been both a primatologist and a soldier. He explains that male violence is primarily innate and a product of many years of evolution.  Ghiglieri (2008) refutes that rape is about power and not sex and that only irrational beings can bring genocides. He favors the position that all these atrocities are innate, and men cannot do anything about them.

In addition, Ghiglieri (2008) argues that most of the human behaviors have their basis in biology. He gives examples of chimpanzees and apes that are violent creatures. He justifies that human beings are violent creatures too as they share similar origins with the apes. Besides, this proposition would lead to the view that evolution extends over time, which includes assorted accidental changes that might result into making us not behave like apes given the right, social context. Thus, the social context has made us evolve away from the apes and not towards them, a fact that Ghiglieri (2008) seems to distort.

On the other hand, cognitive theorists view violence as a learned trait, which can be unlearned as well as relearned (Post, 1998). According to them, instincts do not drive violence as proposed by the human nature theorists. Human beings are aware of how violent tendencies come about and, as a result, can know how to avoid them. Some of the theorists that support this view are Fry, Zinn, Grossman, Fahey, Floyd, and Kahan. The below part of the paper describes the ideas of these theorists.

Zinn (2008) envisions a world in which we can achieve justice by using struggle without war. He uses World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, Gulf War, among others, to justify the need for the use of common sense, pacifism as well as equality in foreign policy. He lays down a scathing attack on the foreign policy of it which has neglected the moral principals of being accountable, responsible, hopeful, and truthful. He argues that the government has a duty to ensure that the citizens inform themselves and not merely follow blindly the leadership’s behaviors or predilections. According to Zinn (2008), we can use other means rather than war to solve our differences. This lies in the use of common sense to establish right or wrong. The theorist speculates that we can prevent wars and violence as it involves making rational decisions. Thus, according to Zinn, war is not instinctual and is avoidable through cognitive processes.

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On the other hand, Fry (2007) has used archeology and data from hunter-gatherer bands to debunk the notion that war, violence and conflict are ancient and inevitable. He has presented data to disapprove the view that humans have an inborn instinct of aggression.  Fry notes that warfare appeared only recently due to changes in social organization and the rise of states. His anthropological studies have revealed a correlation between the increase in the complexity of the society and the likelihood of conflicts leading to war. Thus, unsophisticated societies like hunter and gathers are relatively unwarlike than kingdoms and chiefdoms.

Besides, Grossman and Christensen (2004) have analyzed the physiological processes that entail killing a human being. According their research, most human beings have a phobic 0-level response when it comes to violence, which means that soldiers need training in order to kill. Moreover, they pinpoint the physical problems in sonic perception as well as post-traumatic stress disorders. The theorists have provided coping mechanisms to deal with physiological and psychological effects resulting from war and violence, especially to people who have killed at work, such as soldiers and police officers. Grossman and Christensen (2004) have argued that certain video games mirror how the army trains its soldiers to kill. It was indicated that exposing children to violent video games, such as light gun shooters where the player holds weapons like game controllers, cognitively train the players on how to use weapons. Such games harden players emotionally on how to commit murders by simulating the destruction of thousands of opponents in one video game.

Grossman and Christensen (2004) note that, naturally, soldiers restrain from killing even when they have the opportunity. However, through intensive training and drills, the soldiers overcome their fears and restraint and, as a result, commit murders. It is essential to note that these actions haunt the soldiers long after commission. The theorists propose psychological remedies after the war, so that the soldiers unlearn their violent behaviors as well as to overcome their post war conflicts. Grossman and Christensen (2004) hold that there is significant psychological cost on the soldiers or police officers who kill, if they are not psychologically prepared for the outcome. This is especially significant if the killing lacks the support of their commanders or peers, and if the soldiers or police officers lack a justification for their actions. Accordingly, Grossman and Christensen (2004) back the cognitive theory on war as they suggest that violence is something learned, and, as a result, can be unlearned.

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Fahey (2005) has expounded on religious opinions and war. His work has presented the dilemma of Christians when faced with war, peace and military service. He presents an imaginary case study where both men and women should enroll for war, including students who are more than 18 years. The author goes ahead to present the various moral arguments of students on the need for war. Fahey narrows down to four approaches to wars developed over the years as Christians looked at what to do. These include pacifism or nonviolence, just war, holy war and the world community referred to as global citizenship.

Fahey (2005) masterfully explores the rich traditions of nonviolence and just or unjust war, including the ignored discussion of Holy War. His ideas on the new category of the world community are particularly intriguing in a globalized world like the current one. He proposes that there is no need for war as we are one global entity. Fahey (2005) tries to show how war is a mental process that people are aware of and can choose their destiny. The author seems to discredit the human nature theorists who argue that humanity and war are inseparable. Fahey (2005) explains that the use of moral reasoning can guide humans away from the practice of war and violence.

Besides, Floyd, Prentice-Dunn and Rogers (2000) analyzed various theories concerning the cognitive reactions of human beings. The theories tried to explain the way protective behaviors come to being. These included the heath believe model, protection motivation theory, the reasoned action theory, therefore, the subjective expected utility theory. These theories shared the idea that motivations towards protection came from perceived threats as well as the desire to prevent potential negative outcomes. This research was an attempt at analyzing why people behave in different ways when faced with problems. Despite many efforts to discourage violence and wars in the world, countries still resolve for war. Countries do this as a precautionary measure and not merely because of instinctual reasons.

Floyd et al. (2000) also found out that self-efficacy was a crucial determinant of motivational, cognitive and effective causes of action, a principle backed by the work of Fahey (2005). Fear is also a determining factor in the choice of actions. Thus, individuals might choose to perform violent acts because of the fear of what could happen if they do not intervene. For instance, the United States of America could have opted for war in Iraq, because of the constant fear of the presence of weapons of mass destruction. It is essential to note that Floyd et al. (2000) do not consider war and violence as something beyond the nature of humans. They view humans as thinking beings that go into war or violence due to an active cognitive process. This view is in line with the cognitive theories concerning the cause of war as it means that humans are aware of their actions. If human beings realize that fear might be directing their pursuit of violent solutions, they might abscond such ideas and choose peaceful means of solving problems.

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On the same note, Kahan (2005) posits that if human beings become skeptical, logical, reasoning and adhering to the principles of scientific research, then they would achieve the highest opportunity of discovering the truth. This is a crucial step for decision makers, as it will make them to avoid illusionary practices like the indulgence in war and violence. It is critical to note that people will use whatever reasons present to justify their course of action, such as the need for war. However, if the decision maker relies on scientific reasoning, he or she would differentiate facts from half-truths, and choose the best course. For instance, President Bush used all possible half-truths to justify the need for violently removing Saddam Hussein. The result was the loss of many lives and the lack of the evidence to justify the war. Kahan (2005) argues that if President Bush and his henchmen had used scientific reasoning, the most likely outcome would have been restraint from the war. Since, the use of facts instead of wrongly perceived cultural values would free the world from uncalled for violence. This view supports the cognitive theorist argument that war is avoidable.

The movie documentary Soldiers of Conscience depicts an outstanding example of the nature of humans on war (Weimberg et al., 2009). It shows the reluctance of American soldiers to pull the trigger on Iraqi enemy combatants, despite getting the chance to shoot. Four of the eight soldiers in the movie become conscientious objectors to the war, which means that they are not willing to kill because of moral, religious or personal beliefs based on conscience. The four other soldiers in the movie believe that they will kill if it becomes necessary. All these soldiers wrestle with the morality of committing murder because of war. They view morality of killing, not from a philosophical perspective, but from the perspective of the soldiers’ experience (which is an abrupt decision in combat, which they cannot forget or undo).

This film does not show the audience what to think or what the situation is like in Iraq today. On the hand, it presents a large story concerning human nature and war. The soldiers, despite the intensive training, propaganda, and social endorsement, have an unforeseen inhibition when faced with the decision of taking human life. This tendency took by surprise the many American generals who had come up with training techniques on overcoming reluctance to kill. The moral contradiction of individual soldiers seemed to surpass the extensive training the soldiers had undergone. The film shows that there is immense mental and emotional burden faced by soldiers, especially, to those who have ended the lives of many people in the recent wars involving America.

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The movie Soldiers of Conscience successfully shows the cognitive nature of humans when it comes to violence and war. Despite brainwashing by intensive drills and trainings, the soldiers could still think of the morality of committing atrocities and choosing against such acts. As a result, violence is a learned behavior that can be unlearned. Human beings have an inborn authority that compels them not to take human life, and, as a result, if they use rationality, they will avoid any acts of violence.

The evidence shows that human beings have the choice of becoming warlike or peaceful. The belief in a violent human nature, though widespread, is inaccurate in many aspects. First, it generalizes behavior of the whole species based on the experiences of a few people. Thus, people, in extremely warlike societies, likely will overestimate human’s propensity towards war (Post, 1998). This point is especially significant to the United States, as it is one of the most violent societies in today’s world. The country has used military intervention around the world for more than 150 times (Ghiglieri, 2008). In such a society, we find massive popularity of the traditions that support the human theorists’ view on the causes of war, such as the work of Freud, Lorenz and other sociologists.

The idea of catharsis is also controversial, as Ghiglieri (2008) effectively points out. Of course, we might feel relieved, at least for some time, after acting aggressively. However, the problem is that, if the individual reached his goal, it means that reinforcement has occurred. Thus, in the long-term, the individual has an increased likelihood of portraying further acts of aggression. Accordingly, reasons for the catharsis have more explanation in leaning than in instincts.

Besides, the mass media plays a crucial role in furthering outdated opinions on violence and war. Fry (2007) argues, “If all we know about aggression is what we see on television and read in the newspapers, then what we know is biology of the 19th century”. The entertainment and media industries tend to favor Lorenz’s flawed model. They do this by confirming the idea that humans have a profound aggressive energy that requires venting out. News reporters have exploited humanists view on war because it is easy to explain and guarantees fascinating news stories (Fry, 2007). People favor this view both psychologically and ideologically, it is a concept that might explain the popularity of the human nature theory on the cause of war.

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The Seville statement refutes the views on biological predisposition to war using some outstanding facts (Zinn, 2011). First, it is scientifically wrong to argue that human beings have inherited tendencies to make war from their ancestors. The reason for this is that warfare is an unusually human phenomenon, which does not appear in other species. Though war is biologically possible, moreover, it is entirely avoidable. Besides, it is unscientific to argue that, in the process of evolution, there was a selection for aggressive human behaviors more than for other behaviors. Empirical studies reveal that the ability to cooperate and to achieve social functions that are relevant to the group’s structure brings the achievement of status within the group. In addition, science has revealed that there is no genetic programming for violent behavior into the human nature. The point of the agreement is that genes do not give raise to individuals with natural predisposition to violence.

It also beats reason to say that we naturally have violent brains. While humans possess the neurological apparatus to act violently, research has shown that there is nothing in the neurophysiology compelling someone to act violently (Zinn, 2011). Above and beyond, the argument that war is a result of instincts or any single motivation is wrong. Modern war technology exaggerates traits associated with violence in the training of combatants as well as in the seeking of support for violence and war from the population. However, the conclusion is that biology has not condemned humanity to war. Humanity can free itself from the quagmire of biological pessimism. War and violence are not in humanity’s evolutionary history or the genes. The same way humanity invented war is the same way it can invent peace.

To sum up, based on the evidence gathered, the cognitive theory presents a more logical and compelling explanation for the human conflicts which lead to war. Human beings are not inherently violent. They learn the habit. Accordingly, they can, as well, unlearn the habit and realize there can be a world without violence.


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