Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Before we tackle the issue, let’s become aware that this is not an abstract question. It is not the kind of dry, bookish problem that we normally reserve for ivory-tower philosophers who have nothing better to do than split imaginary hair all day long. Instead, this is a vital question — a question about life itself. Anyone who has the slightest interest in life cannot afford to ignore a question like this.
The practical significance of the question is undeniable. In order to live as social beings, each of us needs some understanding of what people are really like, what they truly are deep down in their essence, how they actually look like behind their everyday masks. We need this understanding in order to guess the contents of other people’s inner worlds and predict the nature of other people’s most likely reactions. This is important because, as social beings, we must adjust our own behavior in response to our guesses and predictions about other people. We perform these adjustments on a moment to moment basis, with the aim of enhancing our ability to fulfill our needs and promote our interests. The accuracy of our guesses and predictions determine the extent to which we are able to fulfill our needs and promote our interests. In turn, the innumerable guesses and predictions that we make everyday about other people’s feelings and reactions are closely tied with our basic presumption about the morality of human nature, i.e., our conscious or unconscious sense of whether humans are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil.
If we find ourselves interacting with other human beings, this in itself is sufficient evidence that we already have some sense of the basic goodness or depravity of human nature. Such a sense, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, determines the kind of guesses and predictions we make about other people, which, in turn, determine how we organize our individual and collective lives, how we structure our families, societies, and governments, the kind of laws we prefer, the sort of politicians we vote for, and even the way we act in our most ordinary moments.
How do we know whether human beings are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Each of us must grapple with this question and come to a conscious understanding about the morality of human nature — an understanding that is based, preferably, on a broad range of relevant and correct information and is arrived at as a result of serious, thoughtful reflection. For if we do not deal with this question methodically and deliberately, we would continue to live according to an unconsciously held answer; we would continue functioning on the basis of a tacit presumption that we acquired or formed many years or decades ago, probably on the basis of our socialization or our limited and improperly remembered personal experiences.
It’s difficult not to take a cynical stance on this issue. Any study of human history will convince most of us that there is something really crooked or wicked in human nature; that there is more evil in the human makeup than there is good; that the evil in our nature is more basic while the good is merely accidental. Corruption, in other words, is our default setting, which isn’t very easy to change. We are also likely to arrive at the same conclusion by only a few months of reading newspapers and watching television news.
But there is a problem with taking such a position. If we assume that human nature is fundamentally evil or corrupt or immoral, then we would act as if everyone is a potential enemy and nobody can ever be trusted. When in doubt about someone’s motive or intention, our first response would be to assume the worst, unless the other person proves his/her innocence. We would remain armed all the time, both literally and metaphorically, with our defense mechanisms in a state of permanent alert — always looking out for the next threat or attack. We would be suspicious of our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our spouses, and our children . . . everyone. And they would be likewise suspicious of us.
Wouldn’t our negative assumption about human nature then become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
And yet, there is plenty of evidence indicating that people are very often nice and friendly and helpful, and that they do not always harbor selfish and malevolent desires against each other. Research in neuroscience, anthropology, and primatology has shown that there is something inherently good in human beings; there is in our nature a quality that expresses itself in acts of kindness and benevolence, empathy and altruism, cooperation and forgiveness. This is not a marginal or rare quality, but a significant and central part of what makes us human. In fact, our very existence is a proof that there is far more goodness in us than depravity; if human beings were fundamentally evil and selfish, they would have destroyed themselves a very long time ago. Given the high degree of interdependence that is so characteristic of our species, we would not have survived for thousands of years if it were not for our instincts for cooperative and selfless behavior. This natural goodness has to be acknowledged as real and valid and relevant, despite all the violence and corruption that human beings are also undoubtedly capable of exhibiting. Indeed, the fact that we find violence and corruption abhorrent is itself a strong piece of evidence indicating that our basic, default nature is good. If we weren’t good at some deep level of our being, we would never find anything wrong with cruelty, injustice, or bloodshed.
Obviously, this argument solves only part of the problem. It doesn’t tell us why we act badly. It doesn’t explain all the negative and dark aspects of human behavior that we find so powerfully illustrated in our history books, the aspects that we observe in our daily interactions with other people and that we encounter within ourselves during moments of honest self-examination.
If we are basically good, why do we so frequently act in morally undesirable ways? If we are inherently predisposed toward morally desirable behavior, what is it that so often hinders us from realizing this potential?
We sometimes hear that a human being is both an angel and a demon; if we have within ourselves the ability to be good as well as the ability to be evil, what is it that pushes us toward the latter and away us from the former? What makes the demon stronger than the angle? If we are far more virtuous than we are evil, what is it that allows a small part of ourselves to enlarge disproportionately and overshadow all of our natural goodness?