Is Racism Part of Human Nature?

For whatever reason, some people really love speculating about human nature. Human nature was a pretty popular topic amongst philosophers in the past (not so much in the modern era). But despite all the thought that has been directed at figuring at what exactly human nature is, there isn't much agreement. What does it take for a particular trait or quality to qualify as 'human nature'? It can't be specific to a group of people, no matter how large that group. It can't be specific to a particular time period either - if it's human nature, it is shared by all humans every where and at every time. That's simply what 'human nature' means: that which is common to all humans.

One of my commentors, Franklin Henry Paine, made the following argument that racism is part of human nature:

Racism does exist today among all classes and races of people in all countries. It is intrinsically human nature to think of oneself as superior, and to think of one's group, as superior to all others. It is not necessarily right, it is just a characteristic of human nature. Therefore, the fight against racism is really a fight against human nature and must be fought individually as a battle of will versus nature. Food for thought.
from the discussion on my post "Can Racial Minorities be Racists?".

To begin my response, there is an important distinction that needs to be made:

Formed Groups and Imposed Groups

Another commenter, gman, made the following claim:
Why else are groups formed, other than to further the shared cause and beliefs of the individuals within said group. Isn't that how the human race works? Racism, with regard to the human race, is universal. And that's because groups run the world, not individuals. And groups always will vie for dominance on this planet.

This claim fails to take into account the fact that there are different kinds of groups. Some groups are actually formed by people. There are groups that people in general choose to join - political groups, religious groups, etc. When these groups are established for the purpose of bringing together people of particular beliefs or for particular causes, it usually okay to claim that people of those groups believe/want certain things - those on which and for which the group was founded.

But racial groups don't work this way. You don't sign up for whichever race looks most appealing to you - you are a member by birth. These are imposed groups - groups that exist because people have decided to classify others according by whatever criteria. There is nothing intrinsically important about race. It just happens that race has been used as a criterion by which to classify people in the past, and that continues today. But any number of other features could be used - (natural) eye color or hair color, face shape, etc.

Group Association

For the moment, let's grant that it is human nature to think of oneself as superior to others (more on this later). And let's also grant that it is human nature to think of the formed groups one belongs to as superior to others. There is still the question of whether or not it is human nature to think of imposed groups you belong to as superior to others.

It is a fact of the matter that many people have and at least some still do think of their racial groups as superior to other racial groups. But is this part of human nature? If it was true that people think of the groups they belong to as superior to others, they would have to think that all groups they belong to were superior - any group they had ever thought of, at least.

So if you have brown eyes, you would have to believe that the group Brown-Eyed-People is superior to the Blue-Eyed-People group, and all others. Groups differentiated by eye color are just as real as groups differentiated by race. And we do in fact sometimes consider people as grouped by eye color. Same goes for any other quality you could think of - hair color, face shape, height, shoe size, etc.

Now ask yourself - Do I really think that the Oval-Faced-People group is superior to the Square-Faced-People group? Chances are, you probably don't. You might have a personal preference about which face shape you would prefer to have if you had your pick, and you might find a certain facial shape more attractive than others. But that doesn't mean that you think one is superior to others - especially when you recognize that your favorite is just a matter of personal taste. It doesn't mean that you will necessarily discriminate against people with face shapes other than your favorite, or that you will have some prejudice against them.

Another reason the claim that it is human nature to see "your group" as superior is untenable: You may have noticed that you belong to lots of groups. You potentially belong to as many groups as any person decides to come up with based on whatever criteria they choose. So which one is "your group"? You could make it a combination of other groups you're in: you could belong to the Fair-Skinned-Big-Eared Blonde-Haired-Blue-Eyed 5'8"-Tall-Size-9-Shoed People-Who-Like-Snickers-Over-KitKats Group. If you kept extending that to include every classification you can think of, eventually you will be the only person who fits into that group. So that can't work out with this claim - then the claim would simply be that everyone thinks themselves superior to others, no talk of groups needed.

If this claim was true, it would require a backing argument about which group or groups counted as "your group". But how would such an argument work? Not everyone identifies with every (or most) of the groups they belong to. Simply belonging to a certain race doesn't mean you have to identify with that racial group any more than belonging to the People-Who-Like-Snickers-Over-KitKats Group would make you identify with that group. If the argument used whatever groups people were most often classified into, the same problem would arise - just because you are often classified in a certain way doesn't mean you consider that group as being part of your identity. And in any case, it isn't clear how people are most often classified. Race might be used frequently, but so is gender, national origin, educational level, occupational level, etc.

I think I've given some compelling reasons to reject the claim that people always think that "their group" is superior to other groups simply put. This doesn't work, I've shown, for imposed groups. But maybe it does for formed groups:

Formed Groups

There are somewhat better arguments for the position that it is human nature to think that groups you are a member of by choice are superior to other similar groups. If you didn't think one group (religion, political party, etc.) was better than the others, why would you join it instead of another one?

But even this claim is, I think, pretty clearly false. Let's look at a less serious example to begin with: recreational sports teams. You join up with the local recreational soccer league. You're a bit late and everyone has already formed even teams, so you get to pick which team you want to be on. Now at first, you'll likely think the one you pick is the best. Four months and eighteen losses (out of nineteen games) later, the season ends. Do you still think your team (group) is superior? Probably not, even though it is a legitimate group that you yourself decided to join.

And now for something a bit more serious: religion. Your decision to be a member of whatever religious group (assuming you join one) has much more to do with your core values and beliefs than the soccer team example does. And in the case of religion, it is true that many people do in fact believe their religious group to be superior to all others.

But if it's human nature to see your chosen formed group as superior to all others, every member of every religious group must think this. But this just isn't the case. There are a considerable number of people out there who respect other religions (most or all other religions in some cases) and do not see theirs as superior. A common sentiment of such individuals is that all religions are "just different ways of getting at the divine" - something like that. For some people the focus is narrower - they might think that within Protestant Christianity, all sects are equally good and it's just a matter of what style you prefer. In all cases, it is not true that people think their own group superior to all others. Some don't think their group is superior to any others at all.

Individual Superiority

Okay, so it isn't human nature to think of your group (whichever group that might be) as superior because not everyone thinks that, as they would if it was really human nature. So how about individual superiority?

Well, I'd have to reject this claim as well. The easiest way to reject it is this: do you know anyone who truly believes that another person is better than they are? I'm sure everyone knows someone like this. I'd be willing to bet that most people believe that there exists (or did exist) some person who is superior to (or equal to) themselves. If you don't think there has ever been someone who is at least your equal, you must either be a narcissist or a really, really cool person. Congratulations.

And let's not forget depressed people who think that everyone is superior to them because they are the worst person in the history of the world. Most of us have probably come across someone who thought something like this at one point or another. This also shows that it can't be human nature to think yourself superior to everyone else - otherwise, everyone would think that.


It might be objected either that exceptions to these alleged rules (everyone thinks their group is superior, and everyone thinks themselves superior) only occur in people who aren't functioning normally or that exceptions only occur when people have "overcome" their human nature.

As to the first objection, I should point out that 'human nature' is not normative. It isn't about what 'normal' people should be like - claims about human nature are descriptive claims about what people are like. So if you find an apparent exception, you either have to give up the claim about human nature you're working with, re-work it in a more complicated fashion that accounts for these exceptions, or deny that the person who doesn't have that quality/trait is human.

The last option isn't going to be very convincing ("If you don't think yourself superior, you aren't human!"). The second probably won't work - you'll just end up with an extremely complicated description of part of "human nature" that looks very much like an ad hoc theory (one you just keep modifying to fit the facts that didn't originally fit it), which doesn't then seem like a real theory/description. So you have the first option left: just give up the claim and recognize that whatever trait/quality you thought was part of human nature is in fact not a part of human nature. Maybe it's prevalent in the modern era in a certain culture, or in all cultures - but not everyone shares is, and it may not be the case the most people in the past have.

And the second objection - exceptions to human nature only occur when individuals overcome human nature. This one is a stretch to. To begin with, you will have to re-formulate what it is you're calling human nature. You can't say that it's human nature to think yourself superior to everyone else if that can be "overcome". You'd have to say something like: "Unless they get the idea that they should change, people will think themselves superior to others." But to get such an idea, some human must have come up with it. And if a human can come up with the idea to change on their own and then enact that change, it severely weakens your claim about human nature.

To talk about human nature as it is "without interference", you'd probably have to study a group of people who were born out in the woods somewhere, completed isolated from society, its language, and its ideas. Then you might be able to see what people would be like without external influences that might make them "overcome" certain aspects of their human nature. Even then, it is unlikely that you would find much that is the same across the board in every environment for every individual.


Making claims about human nature is bad news. 'Human nature' doesn't mean what most people in any particular society happen to be like. Human nature transcends individuals, societies, and eras. If you find an exception to 'human nature', your idea of human nature is probably wrong. If people can "overcome" certain aspects of human nature, those probably aren't really aspects of human nature.

Beliefs of individual superiority are not part of human nature. Neither are beliefs that "your group" is superior. Racism is clearly not part of human nature.

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