The Constrained vs. Unconstrained view of Human Nature

I am not sure who first developed these ideas, but I first learned about them while reading Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions: Idealogical Origins of Political Struggles.  In short, Sowell explains that, while there are many different forms under each one, there are really only two primary ways to look at human nature.  He calls the first the constrained view.  It is constrained because it sees human nature as permanently flawed: fixed and incapable of change.  Thus, those who hold a constrained view of humanity try to make the best of things by taking the failings of our nature into account when they organize human activities.  On the other hand, the unconstrained view holds that man’s nature is malleable: it can be purposely directed.  In short, those holding the unconstrained view of human nature believe that man is capable of perfecting himself.  For these people, there are no boundaries to what man can make himself to be.  Some have even boasted that man can be and even is his own god.

The following is from a post I wrote on another blog.  Note the last two paragraphs.  They are crucial to understanding the principles of liberty:

In his book, “A Conflict of Visions,” Thomas Sowell defines these opposing motivations and assigns the terms “constrained” and “unconstrained” to each. In discussing his interview with Mr. Sowell, Peter Robinson sums up the book’s major thesis:

 Then there is Thomas Sowell, the economist and political philosopher. He prefers an older way of looking at American politics–a much older way. In his classic 1987 work, A Conflict of Visions, Sowell identifies two competing worldviews, or visions, that have underlain the Western political tradition for centuries.

 Sowell calls one worldview the “constrained vision.” It sees human nature as flawed or fallen, seeking to make the best of the possibilities that exist within that constraint. The competing worldview, which Sowell terms the “unconstrained vision,” instead sees human nature as capable of continual improvement.

 You can trace the constrained vision back to Aristotle; the unconstrained vision to Plato. But the neatest illustration of the two visions occurred during the great upheavals of the 18th century, the American and French revolutions.

The American Revolution embodied the constrained vision. “In the United States,” Sowell says, “it was assumed from the outset that what you needed to do above all was minimize [the damage that could be done by] the flaws in human nature.” The founders did so by composing a constitution of checks and balances. More than two centuries later, their work remains in place.

The French Revolution, by contrast, embodied the unconstrained vision. “In France,” Sowell says, “the idea was that if you put the right people in charge–if you had a political Messiah–then problems would just go away.” The result? The Terror, Napoleon and so many decades of instability that France finally sorted itself out only when Charles de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic.

The threat posed to individual rights and liberty by those who hold an unconstrained view of human nature is that those people sincerely believe they hold a superior understanding of what is best for humanity: what constitutes our “perfected” state.  Consequently, they derive a sense of moral obligation – an imperative, if you will – to save mankind from itself.  Thus, they tend to force their will on others, even to the point of eliminating those who refuse to accept their master plans.  Whether people want to accept this or not, Hitler’s “Master race” was derived the American Eugenics movement, and both are excellent examples of an unconstrained view of human nature in actual application.  It doesn’t matter that both programs claimed to be based on “scientific research,” they both imposed the will of their leadership over the will of others – even to the point of murder.  This is as clear a violation of Natural Rights and Natural Law as one can find in history.

[NOTE: The threat of the unconstrained view of human nature is often coupled with a collectivist view of society.  Most of the regimes in the 20th Century that committed real atrocities were the result of a coupling of these two ideologies.  The individual who would understand the principles of liberty and seek to protect and preserve individual rights must be aware of these facts as they constitute his/her principal opponent.]

10 responses to “The Constrained vs. Unconstrained view of Human Nature

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  4. Great post. I am working my way through some of his audiobooks and though i had come across the constrained vs unconstrained idea before, some clarification seemed to be in order before i continued. Reading can at times confer some understanding that is harder to gain from solely listening.Seeing is believing 🙂

    • Silanga,

      If myu post helped you in any way (agree with or disagree with me — it doesn’t matter), if I helped at all, then I feel my effort is worth it. You have honored and humbled me, thank you :*)

  5. Excuse me? I confused about the different between the tragic vision and the constrained vision.

  6. I have butted my head againt people, nature, time, all my life with, reading thomas sewell books, i would now called an unconstrainted vision. By not taking enough in consideration the wisdomof those who came before me. I always though that hard work and persitence were all i needed to climb the highest pic. I am now 70 and nothing much has been accomplished in those lines. Taking myself as examples, i wamtef tp go against the norm by starting to play the piano when i was 50. After having failed miaerably to dance ballet a dream of mine, whoch i began again late at forty. I gained in posture though, but my turnout, the ability to rotate out the whole leg from the hips never improved because of a wrong position kept 40 years of a tilted pelivic. To start work a! turnout necessitates a good straight alignment.a nd without a minimally good turn out, the required balance for most movement is greatly undermined.

    In piano, the problems came mainlyfrom the time it takes to activate my fingers on the desired keys. I know in my head the keyboard and can recognize on the score the notes. I can also move the hand without looking to the right place (most of the time) but give me a new score and hesitation in most unatural passage ( like right hand 5 4 1 3 21) with the left hand(3 2 1 3 2 1) will take a long time to smooth out. There’s many coordinations problem in that move for me which might not have been there if i had learnt it at an early age. It looks like the pathway between eye and action is hard to smooth past a certain age. I have read lots of materials by great teachers, Deppe, leschinsky, gieseking, berstein ect…to not avail.

    • perhaps the problem is that you are trying to apply philosophical truths to material applications??? If so, this is a fallacy, which is why it not only doesn’t seem to work, but shouldn’t be expected to work.

      In the constrained and unconstrained view, Sowell is talking about a philosophical world view. The “constrained” person believes man can direct his own evolution (as a species). John Dewey flat-put said that man could become his own god, and the teachers were the prophets of this new religion. On the other hand, those who hold a “constrained” world view believe that human nature is fixed and beyond our ability to change. In either event, neither world view would be or should be expected to be of much use in learning ballet or piano because Sowell is addressing something altogether different than either of those two things.

      Not sure if this will help you much, but it is the correct explanation to what I perceive to be the main stumbling block in your comment. 🙂

  7. I have butted my head againt people, nature, time, all my life with, reading thomas sewell books, i would now called an unconstrainted vision, not taking n consideration the wisdomof those who came before me. I always though that hard work and persitence were all i needed to climb the highest pic. I am now 70 and nothing much has been accomplished in those lines. Taking myself as examples, i wamtef tp go against the norm by starting to play the piano when i was 50 after having failed miaerably to learn ballet a dream of mine, which i began again late at forty and went on relentlessly for 12 years. I gained in posture though, but my turnout, the ability to rotate out the whole leg from the hips never improved because of a wrong position kept 40 years of a tilted pelivic. To start work a! turnout necessitates a good straight alignment.a nd without a minimally good turn out, the required balance for most movement is greatly undermined.

    In piano, the problems came mainlyfrom the time it takes to activate my fingers on the desired keys. I know in my head the keyboard and can recognize on the score the notes. I can also move the hand without looking to the right place (most of the time) but give me a new score and hesitation in most unatural passage ( like right hand 5 4 1 3 21) with the left hand(3 2 1 3 2 1) will take a long time to smooth out. There’s many coordinations problem in that move for me which might not have been there if i had learnt it at an early age. It looks like the pathway between eye and action is hard to smooth past a certain age. I have read lots of materials by great teachers, Deppe, leschinsky, gieseking, berstein ect… but not a dent of improvement in my pathway eye-finger problem.
    I must admit thomas sewell books succeded in breaking my morale.

  8. Pingback: Dr. Thomas Sowell : Conflict | Rant A. Tonne

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