Recently I have noticed that I am bothered anytime I hear/read something along the lines of:

  • one should leave the world better than we found it
  • one should try to improve the world
  • one should try to make the world a better place

I remember from The blank slate by Steven Pinker that there is such a term for the belief/view that humans can be improved, I believe it's called Human Improvability and it had something to do with whether or not "nature" is fixed or not.

I would like to know if there's a technical term that I can use to look up some bibliography and learn more about it.

End of the question

What follows is just context on how I got here, if the community feels it's not relevant to the question I will remove it.

The notion of changing the world has a similar flavour as the one about improving oneself (human enhancement), except that they refer not an individual but to an external system.

The reason it bothers me not because I disagree with it but because I don't really have a strong logical argument to defend it.

In part it's also due to agreeing with Nassim Taleb when he argues against interventionism in his book Anti-fragile. Taleb says something like, trying to intervene to improve the state of any complex/big system will most likely result in making it worse and he explains how he uses hokus pokus --convexity analysis or something-- to evaluate whether a given system is more likely to benefit or suffer from intervention.

I don't think I can evaluate the validity of Taleb's claims but I have to admit that he started me thinking about non-intervention a lot. Of course there are plenty examples where intervention was very successful, e.g., vaccination, same for the other case.

keywords: beneficience, benevolence, utilitarianism

  • 1
    I can suggest this book, "The way we are" by Allen Wheelis (Norton 2006). It's a short book. Your first reaction to it may be negative, but if you decide to finish it, it may begin to answer your question in an indirect way.
    – Gordon
    Sep 7, 2017 at 14:32
  • 1
    This book may contribute in a more direct way: "The meaning of human existence" Edward O. Wilson (2014). Though over the long haul it is probably the indirect "proofs" which will decide the question for you, and your question is very good.
    – Gordon
    Sep 7, 2017 at 14:39
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    Also, you only need to have to have an explanation if you're in doubt about it. Even if you tried to defend it with other reasons, eventually you'd have to stop. If you know you agree with the spirit of that perspective, then perhaps you don't need to have a reason?
    – Franz
    Sep 7, 2017 at 14:42
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    You seem to have two separate issues, duty to improve the world is called principle of beneficence in ethics, but "improving human nature" is something else.
    – Conifold
    Sep 7, 2017 at 18:00
  • 1
    I also wanted to add this study by sociologist Norbert Elias en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Civilizing_Process which you may want to read. it works well to read this while considering the Allen Wheelis's book. Your question is one of the best I've seen here, and I think you are approaching your investigation with a high degree of sophistication. I don't mean to directly answer your question. You might also want to read some of Edward O. Wilson's earlier books. No need to buy these books. Even smaller public libraries have interlibrary loan etc.; univ. libraries will have them too.
    – Gordon
    Sep 7, 2017 at 20:31

2 Answers 2


The belief/view you are looking for might be found in "be your brother's keeper", "do no harm", "don't be egotistical"!


Here's a summary of the comments which I believe answer the question. The main purpose of this answer is to allow future readers -- including me -- to have a starting point and show the different directions that can be taken:

Topics that could help form an answer

  • Beneficience and Benevolence relate to the discussion of performing acts for the benefit of others and also of being predisposed to perform such acts. This gets pretty close, however, I'm specifically interested in a technical term -- if there is one -- for the belief/dogma that one must/should be benevolent.

Related but not really fit as an answer

  • Utilitarianism concludes that the right action is the one that produces the most good. Why is this not an answer? Knowing what will produce the most good says nothing about why you should prefer that over doing something else.
  • Human Enhancement is about the ethics of human enhancement, specifically about medical/biological enhancement. This is not really directly related to the question but related in different ways: maybe we can change ourselves to want to be benevolent, then that would make it human nature, I guess.


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