Panel Mulls Duality of Human Nature: Empathy, Lack of Same Draw Scrutiny

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Just how bad can two boys be? On April 20, when two middle-class students marched into a Colorado high school and gleefully shot and killed 13 persons, the nation found out.

Nine days later in Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Hero Fund pondered just how good people can get. It inducted 18 more North Americans onto a list of 8,275 worthy civilians who have risked their lives - and the 20 percent who gave their lives - since 1904 to save others.

Among the new heroes: Starletter Williams, 14, who pulled a North Carolina woman from her car before a train crushed it, and John Wojcik, 29, who dove into a raging New Jersey river to save a young girl.

Though public policy avoids the question whether human nature is good, bad, mixed or neutral, the quest to define it continues in more specialized areas of research.

"People don't dispute whether people are nice," said University of Kansas social psychologist Dan Batson, who has researched the topic. "The question is why?"

Mr. Batson was one of 30 experts who tried to answer that question at a recent "Empathy, Altruism and Agape" conference in Boston, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.

"Your view of human nature, human motives, affects how dependable you think people are," he said. "It also makes a difference on what resources we as a society think we can build on."

Statistics show the human resource is more good than bad, despite daily incidents in America of crime, greed, indifference or mental illness.

In a population of 270 million Americans last year, only 14.5 million criminal arrests were made, the FBI reported this week.

Independent Sector, a research group, reported yesterday that 41 percent of Americans volunteered an average of 182 hours in 1998, and 70 percent of U.S. households gave to charity that year, averaging $1,075 per contributing household.

In another positive vein, American Psychological Association President Martin E.P. Seligman last year urged a "reoriented science" of psychology because most people show mental "strength," not mental illness.

While scientists and theologians are eager to define human nature, that is an issue that policy-makers have usually avoided.

"Most experts and evidence suggest that an individual's actions and behavior results from a combination of nature and nurture," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, who has proposed a study of social problems by a Task Force on Culture. A forum will discuss the project tomorrow at the Heritage Foundation.

The "nature" side, Mr. Brownback said, delves into the "internal predisposition" of people, which is no small debate in biology, psychology and religion. The task force, therefore, will focus on the nurture side - the "external environment" of family, community, school and popular culture.

Similarly, a definition of human nature has not been necessary for the National Commission on Civic Renewal to measure civic health in its annual index, said executive director William Galston, a University of Maryland political scientist.

"We don't get that fundamental," he said. Instead, the index judges the country on American expectations on family order, physical security, reasonable associations by people and people doing a fair share.

Mr. Galston said, however, that the Founding Fathers of the United States did have a "rough-and-ready" view of human nature for which they designed a government of checks and balances, freedoms and controls. …