Machiavelli's The Prince has a rather low view of humanity. He paints humans as fickle, and ready to turn in desperate moments. This may be attributed to the fact that he was in exile and lived in a turbulent political time period.

His observations do generate discussion on human nature. People around the world currently participate in a global economy, actively work towards world peace, and share technological innovations. People also engage in human trafficking, theft, and war.

In search for some optimism, who would be Machiavelli's opposite? How would one convince some one like Machiavelli to believe in the good in people?

  • People are naturally whatever might be effective in getting their way. 1% of people (and animals, apparently) are born sociopaths. It must help group survival some of the time. Like during a war.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 30, 2022 at 2:33
  • @ScottRowe The first part makes sense. When would a sociopath benefit a group? Don't sociopaths specifically go against a group?
    – DdogBoss
    May 30, 2022 at 4:12
  • My favorite example is the sharpshooter in "Saving Private Ryan" - someone who believes in what they are doing and is very focused. Just give him a job that no one else wants and make sure he's on your side. Probably many autocratic leaders have saved their group from peril, and statistics say that sociopaths are greatly overrepresented in leadership positions. Sometimes we even vote for them.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 30, 2022 at 11:01

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

Are people naturally cooperative or selfish?

Or both? Or both! But cooperation is not a question. No one disputes humans are a social animal. What you be better off asking after is 'are people naturally altruistic or selfish or both? Both! Or maybe you might be asking 'are people naturally cooperative or antagonistic or both? Both! Let's explore.

Long Answer

The Philosophy of Human Nature

In search for some optimism, who would be Machiavelli's opposite? How would one convince some one like Machiavelli to believe in the good in people?

First, Machiavelli wasn't engaged in moral philosophy, but political philosophy. Today, such politics has become known as realpolitik. In a way, Machiavelli was a pragmatist, because republics (in his case the one of Florentine) have always struggled to find a balance between cooperation and disagreement. The US republic innovated by birthing itself as a constitutional republic free of monarchs who used to intervene in affairs. But he was interested in human nature, so on to the broader question.

Human nature is quite a broad philosophical question, and what it means to be altruistic and selfish are of course likely to draw out strong beliefs of distinction. And, there's no shortage of philosophical thinking on this topic. Let's take a quick survey of some philosophical Q&A from Plato, Machiavelli, Marx, and modern cognitive science to preface a brief introduction.

What's important to understand is that understanding human nature is a complex project. Even in old religious texts from thousands of years ago, arguably very fundamentalist, morally absolutist guides to human nature, people are observed as both. A quick tour of the swath of thinking philosophy has to offer:


Read Are people inherently good according to Plato?


Read How much ethics did Machiavelli convey in The Prince?


Read The Effects of Marx's Moral Character on Communism

Cognitive Science

Read Are there any prominent modern philosophers with a background in neuroscience?

A Naturalized Epistemology as a Guide to Human Nature

Philosophy draws inspiration from many places. Certainly the great philosophical thinkers through history have outlined the complexity of human behavior and relations. What might be most relevant as we move into the twenty-first century is the contributions of a naturalized epistemology. Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science have a lot to say about action (SEP) and human morality (SEP).

Whereas there was the brain in Ancient Greece, now neurologists have outlined distinct pathways leading to philosophical ideas like NCCs. This means that while humans are experiencing actions and thoughts, scientists in a rough way can see what parts of the brain involved. This has been very impactful in the philosophy of language where Wernicke's and Broca's Areas are implicated in semantics and syntax two notions highly important in philosophy, particularly since the linguistic turn.

Two important works on human nature for the philosophically inclined that come out of contemporary science are Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The first goes back a ways, and tries to understand the biological origins of eusociality. Most recently, Tomasello has explored such themes in his works such as Why We Cooperate. Why is it that if genes and individuals are supposed to be biologically selfish for survival, we see such cooperation in the animal kingdom? Then answer is complicated in technical terms, but amounts to the notion that a rising tide raises all ships. Related organisms share genes, so if one organism helps kin, in a way it helps itself. Of course, explanations like these have controversial teleological overtones (SEP).

In the other direction and in line with Pinker, modern social justice advocates may overestimate human cooperation with folk psychology. Communism and libertarianism are both largely failures as a product of political philosophy when it comes to actual political systems in practice. Neither has been successfully implemented. Of course, both have many advocates, but this may be more as a new religious movement, than anything else. Communism overestimates human beings willingness to cooperate, a fact notoriously lampooned by George Orwell in Animal Farm, and libertarian economic policies in the US have repeatedly met poor outcomes; its influence on other sectors of the economy are noticeable, where US health care consistently ranks as the worst health care in the developed world based on cost and clinical outcome. It seems humans need a certain level of government to get along in groups.

  • And for the record, both the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis would be very much philosophical thinkers opposed to realpolitik, since both men are more concerned with morality than politics.
    – J D
    May 29, 2022 at 16:57
  • In the wikipedia link you sent on Reaganomics, it says that effects are still debated. Reagan came into an economic situation after a long period of inflation which was stopped with a recession. If you want to criticize libertarianism, a more apt example would have been Benjamin Bernanke and the housing crisis - banks took advantage of NINJA loans, which would have been more to your point about overestimating cooperativity.
    – DdogBoss
    May 29, 2022 at 17:11
  • 2
    If we are talking about rather recent work on eusociality as a natural trait of humans (and, in fact, higher apes), I'd not miss out on Tomasello's works on shared intentionality.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 29, 2022 at 18:04
  • I'll affirm Klocking's statement... and I'll change the link to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickle-down_economics#Criticisms
    – J D
    May 29, 2022 at 22:11
  • @PhilipKlöcking Adding link. google.com/books/edition/Why_We_Cooperate/… looks good. I'll order a copy.
    – J D
    May 29, 2022 at 22:12

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