Understanding the Dark Side of Human Nature
Daniel Breyer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Illinois State University, where he also serves as the director of the Religious Studies program. Dr. Breyer received a BA in Classics from the University of Montana, an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University.
Dr. Breyer’s research explores what it means to be a person and which features of ourselves we think are most important but also most puzzling. With this focus, he has addressed questions in the areas of epistemology, ethics, moral psychology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and Buddhist philosophy. He has been invited to share his scholarship at celebrated venues such as the Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy, and philosophers have discussed his work in leading publications. Dr. Breyer has been awarded competitive research grants for projects in both philosophy and religious studies, and he has been selected to participate in multiple interdisciplinary summer institutes funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John Templeton Foundation.
Dr. Breyer’s students and colleagues have repeatedly recognized him for teaching excellence and instructional innovation. At Illinois State University, he has been awarded prestigious teaching awards, including the Outstanding University Teaching Award for pre-tenured faculty, the Kenneth A. and Mary Ann Shaw Teaching Fellowship, and the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding College Teaching Award for the Humanities. He regularly teaches popular courses on Greco-Roman, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian philosophy as well as courses on special topics like luck, evil, and blame. Dr. Breyer’s passion for teaching has also motivated him to teach philosophy outside the boundaries of the traditional classroom to elementary-age children, high school students, the general public, and fellow faculty.
Dr. Breyer has published on a wide range of topics, including value theory, divine foreknowledge, reflective luck, epistemic justification, cognitive agency, free will, and moral responsibility. His articles have appeared in top journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, and Sophia.
01: What Do We Mean by the “Dark Side”?
Most of us think of ourselves as good people—reserving the concept of the “dark side” only for science fiction or psychopaths. But that’s not really the truth of human nature. We’ll begin to explore how the dark side relates both to our tendencies toward immorality and evil and to some of the most problematic aspects of the human condition.
02: Our Fundamental Nature: Good or Evil?
Are people fundamentally good, fundamentally evil, or neither? To develop a sophisticated answer to this basic question, we reach back to a more than 2,000-year-old debate between great Confucian philosophers. Do you agree with optimism, pessimism, dualism, indifferentism, or individualism? Which theory of human nature speaks to you and frames your view of the world?
03: What Is Evil?
You probably have some ideas about what it means to be “evil.” But in order to fully examine the dark side of human nature, we need to go deeper—questioning both whether evil actually exists and what it means to call an action evil. Referencing a wide range of thinkers, some ancient, some contemporary, you’ll explore the ontological and conceptual aspects of evil.
04: Moral Monsters and Evil Personhood
Most of us have done something “bad” or immoral in our lives, although we wouldn’t consider ourselves evil. But where exactly is that line? What does it take for us to label a person evil? By considering four models of evil—the Evildoer, Dispositional, Affect, and Moral Monster models—you’ll begin to develop your own views of when an individual is, and is not, evil.
05: Evil and Responsibility
Are psychopaths responsible for their actions? You might be surprised to learn that many psychologists and philosophers think they are not, due to their inability to recognize important moral facts. Guided by a variety of philosophers, you will consider how much responsibility evil-doers can and should accept for their crimes—and in what ways they might not be so different from the rest of us.
06: Sin: Original and Otherwise
How would you know if you had committed a sin, and what would its consequences be? From the words of Jesus to Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and modern theologians, you'll explore the Christian concepts of sin and how they relate to a secular notion of evil. Is it even possible to sin without a divine lawmaker? Indian Buddhist philosophers say that it is.
07: Dark Thoughts and Desires
Have you ever daydreamed about doing harm to another person? If so, studies show you're certainly not alone. Are our darkest thoughts and desires simply a fundamental part of our human nature? Why can't we seem to suppress or eradicate them? Explore potential answers to these fascinating questions with help from 6th-century Tianti Buddhist philosophers and modern-day evolutionary psychologists.
08: Suffering and Its Causes
Why do we suffer, and how can we avoid it? The Buddha addresses these questions directly in his Four Noble Truths. Although sometimes erroneously condensed into the pessimistic “all life is suffering,” you’ll learn about the Buddha’s optimistic path forward. But do the Buddha’s teachings carry truth for us in the 21st century? An evolutionary psychologist provides a fascinating answer.
09: The Problem of Expectation and Desire
We turn to the 2,000-year-old Hindu Bhagavad Gita to study the roles played by our desires and expectations, and why we are so often disappointed in our lives. But how could we live without desire and expectations? One path provided by the Gita—being so absorbed in an activity that we lose our sense of self—leads to the experience we know of today as “flow.”
10: The Fear of Death
We are all going to die. How do we respond to that knowledge? Learn why the Roman philosopher Lucretius believed that our fear of death drives us to act against our best interests. And why the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi wondered if our negative view of death even makes sense. Either way, fearing death seems to be part of what it means to be human.
11: Existential Anxiety and the Courage to Be
Have you ever wondered whether life has any meaning at all? Given the immensity of the universe, how could we be anything more than an inconsequential blip? Learn why so many philosophers who've grappled with this existential anxiety conclude that our lives do have value, and how one theologian finds meaning specifically in our courage to face ourselves in the world as it really is.
12: The Goodness of Grief
Could grief ever have a good side? If you've ever suffered its agony, you know grief can feel like the very darkest side of human nature. But as you explore the many ways in which philosophers and psychologists have grappled with this issue for millennia, you'll learn that grief just might be one of our most important opportunities for self-knowledge and connection to community.
13: Homo necans: Why Do We Kill?
Is there something in human nature that drives us to kill others or is it a biological aberration? Watching the news would certainly make you wonder. And if a drive to kill does exist, is it activated by nature or nurture—is it genetic or situational? Studies have supported both points of view. The shocking truth we do know is just how much we all have in common with those who kill.
14: Nightmares and the Dream Self
Who are we in the worst of our dreams? Explore why Freud believed our dreams reveal important aspects of ourselves—both the conscious and unconscious. Learn how Augustine coped when he dreamed of actions that went against his most profound beliefs. Even when we have no idea how to interpret a particularly disturbing dream, it still becomes an opportunity for learning about ourselves.
15: Varieties of Self-Deception
When we hold two contradictory thoughts in our minds at the same time, have we become liars, lying to ourselves about something we know cannot be true? Or are we just harmless wishful thinkers? Is self-deception an adaptation that has given us an evolutionary advantage? Learn what you can do to try to avoid deceiving yourself about your own life.
16: Varieties of Ignorance
Explore the concept of ignorance through the writings of two Indian philosophers who lived centuries apart, Shankara and Ramanuja. Is ignorance a lack of knowledge, or is it wrong knowledge? Learn why some modern philosophers describe ignorance as a complex social phenomenon with the potential to bring out the dark side of our nature—and what we can do to counteract it.
17: Weakness of Will
Have you ever eaten a donut when you knew you shouldn't? Socrates would have been shocked! He didn't think it was possible for people to act against their own best interest. Explore many potential explanations for why we sometimes do what we said we never would. Is it a question of a simple failure to follow through on our intentions, or could we be suffering from ego depletion?
18: Luck and the Limits of Blame
Two people go to a party, become legally drunk, and drive home. One kills a pedestrian, the other encounters no one. Should we judge them differently, or the same? Many philosophers have addressed the role of luck and its moral implications in our lives. As you explore their various perspectives, you might not find any easy answers. But you might think twice before placing blame.
19: Victim Blaming and the Just-World Hypothesis
In the Old Testament Book of Job, his friends blamed Job for the tragedies that befell him. After all, if the world is a fair and just place, then victims always get what they deserve, right? Explore whether or not we can eliminate victim blaming while maintaining that the world is, in the end, a fair and just place.
20: Retribution and Revenge
We’ve all heard of people who decide to take the law into their own hands to exact revenge on a perpetrator who harmed them or someone they love—even if that person had already received society’s punishment. Why do we so often feel that need for vengeance? Uncover what we can learn today from the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, as he struggled to reconcile the tension between retributive justice and revenge.
21: Forgiveness and Redemption
What was your reaction when members of the Charleston, SC, church publicly forgave Dylann Roof, the young man who had murdered nine of their members? Could you imagine yourself forgiving him? Did that forgiveness seem morally right or wrong to you? Explore how Christian and Buddhist philosophers explain forgiveness and the redemption of human sinners. Do you believe anyone is truly beyond redemption?
22: The Elimination of Anger
If you could eliminate anger from your life, would you? Should you? Anger can be dangerous, but righteous anger can also be motivating. What if you could eliminate anger, but replace it with the motivation of compassion and loving-kindness? You'll examine and broaden your thoughts on this powerful emotion by learning from the Buddhist philosopher Shantideva, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, among others.
23: Being Peaceful in a Troubled World
How can we find internal tranquility and remain peaceful in the midst of such a troubled world? It isn't easy, but it is possible. Brain science has discovered that we mirror the behavior of others, and anger can beget anger. But kindness can beget kindness, too. Explore some Christian and Buddhist guidelines for confronting the dark side of human nature without spiraling into the darkness of violence, rage, and fear.
24: The Allure of the Dark Side
Have you ever been morbidly curious about death, violence, or evil? Do you have a fascination with horror movies and love being terrified on roller coasters? Explore how psychologists and philosophers describe the benefits of our fascination with the dark side. As you grapple with death, anger, fear, and dark thoughts, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about yourself—and what it means to be human.