It’s an attractive propo­sition to believe that humans are in essence inclined to do good, and that our moral failings are a corruption of this natural state of benev­o­lence. Paradoxically, there is also a case to be made for the opposite: that humans’ true nature is driven by base and amoral appetites, and that civilization is but a thin veneer that obscures our funda­mental state of depravity.

These two views of human nature seem to be irreconcilable—but are they?

Where Being Good Matters

Before exploring the question whether we are inher­ently good or bad, it is worth pointing out that questions of “goodness” and “badness” (or “evil,” if you will) exist only in a societal context. One of the inescapable contra­dic­tions of being human is the tension between the urge to be an individual and the urge to be part of a group. It is on the group side of that equation that matters of morality arise.

After all, a hypothetical “last person on Earth” would find it very difficult to do something immoral. She may pick a apple from a tree, but if there was no one else to claim ownership of that tree, it could never be deemed “theft”. She may say out loud, “My mother’s name was Napoleon Bonaparte!”—but if there was no one there to hear her, you could hardly call such an untruth a “lie”.

The question whether an action is good or bad is answered between people, not by the individual. This makes perfect sense, because human life as we know it is utterly dependent on the community of people that we are a part of. That community encom­passes much more than the tens or thousands or millions of people that constitute it: it is also charac­terized (and fueled) by the flow of infor­mation, goods, ideas, and services between all those people.

It is that inter­change and the choices we make as we partic­ipate in it, much more than our simple classi­fi­cation as Homo sapiens, that make us human. And it is in that context that questions of morality and our supposed inherent goodness or badness become relevant.

Group in Crinolines by Wassily Kandinsky (1909) (source)

The Case for Inherent Goodness

It is no coinci­dence that across cultures and conti­nents, the basic “rules” of what it means to be good often overlap. Whatever the local circum­stances and tradi­tions are, such a moral landscape will have developed to serve a singe purpose: the survival of the community and the individuals in it.

Just consider an imaginary tribe whose moral code says it’s perfectly all right to chop other people up with a machete, to rape women and children whenever you feel like it, to take as much wheat from the granary as you please without paying for it. There can be little doubt that this tribe will, sooner rather than later, self-destruct.

For a shared moral framework to both endure and be practical, it must be aligned with our biological needs as organisms and with our social needs as community members. In other words, if “being good” is good for you and for the people you love, then it makes sense to lead a moral life. Of course, people come in all kinds of sizes and flavors—but those with the inborn incli­nation to do what’s right will be confirmed in their behavior by the group, while those whose instincts lean towards antisocial acts will be checked and corrected.

There will always be ethically ambiguous situa­tions and occasional excep­tions, but on the whole the golden rule of treating others as you yourself would like to be treated is, quite simply, the sensible thing to do. This is not mandated by a higher power or imposed by authority; it’s a direct conse­quence of people’s shared appre­ci­ation of their mutual interdependence.

The Case for Inherent Badness

As near-universal as humanity’s default moral guidance is, it is equally universal that those rules get broken. Big time. Again and again and again.

What’s worse, the very framework that underlies our ethical principles is itself a continuous subject of discussion and contention. Not only don’t we live by our own rules, and not only do we squabble over what those rules should be; we can’t even agree on how to agree on what the rules should be in the first place.

For the longest time, religious tradi­tions were the de facto custo­dians of humanity’s moral compass. They took to this task with such vigor as to assume—out of hand and erroneously—that without religion, no morality was even possible. And look at what happened. From Christianity to Buddhism, from Judaism to Islam and beyond, each of these faiths has inter­nally seen dispute after dispute, schism after schism, conflict after conflict. It is appar­ently very difficult to practice what you preach.

However, schools of thought that offer guidance on non-theistic (or only tangen­tially religious) grounds have often fared no better. The classical Greeks and Romans had their slavery, the French Enlightenment had its Terror, communism had its gulags, and capitalism has its callous disregard for the conse­quences of simple bad luck.

Apparently, no matter how hard we try, the worse angels of our nature keep getting in the way. If even the self-proclaimed defenders of virtue and right­eousness so readily and repeatedly succumb to violence, intol­erance, indif­ference, and cruelty… what hope is there for us mere mortals?

The Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David (1977) (source)

The Semantics of Us

As we’ve seen, our natural incli­nation to recip­rocal kindness and generosity is linked to the community we belong to, but it is also limited to that community. It doesn’t matter how you draw a border around a conception of “us”—as soon as you cross that boundary, all bets are off. This is in essence a matter of semantics, but one that can have great consequences.

It means that in practice, if you choose to, you can place anyone and everyone else outside of the realm of full moral consid­er­ation. All you need to do is label them “not us”. To complicate matters even further, we belong multiple commu­nities at once: a faith, a nation state, a town, a political party, an extended family, a marriage…

If you push through, you will eventually (by defin­ition) get down to a community of one. If our hypothetical last person on Earth should unexpectedly happen upon another “last person”, neither of them would hesitate to fight or even kill for that last piece of meat, that last mango. In the end, it’s #mefirst.

Towards a Reconciliation

Whether or not we humans are innately good or bad, we are certainly not by nature critical thinkers. Our minds jump to conclu­sions, gener­alize unnec­es­sarily, draw incorrect infer­ences, and casually entertain a whole host of other logical fallacies.

This kind of shoot-from-the-hip thinking clouds the issue as well as our judgment. Perhaps it’s more productive to eschew the either-or format that this discussion is often framed in.

Let’s take, on the one hand, the idea that humankind is naturally of a noble and innocent dispo­sition, but has been corrupted by some fall from grace or ascent to perverted complexity—a view that can be found in places as diverse as the Christian doctrine of original sin and the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

And let’s take, on the other hand, the opposing notion that every person is born in a natural state of wickedness, depravity or beastly selfishness, but can be redeemed by embracing salvation or a social contract—a view that can be found, for example, in (again) Christian teachings and the works of Thomas Hobbes.

Finally, let’s now assume that both of these views are mistaken.

What if, even though good as well as bad impulses are evidently present in our behavior, the presumed “natural” state of the human mind is neither angelic nor demonic? What if that distinction is just a conve­nient cultural simplification—our way to avoid dealing with the fact that we are, in effect, always both?

Janus by Christo Coetzee (source)

The Hard Work

It seems to make sense that to an unbiased observer, the supposed choice between man-as-good and man-as-bad is based on a false dichotomy. Likewise, the polit­i­cally expedient distinction between us-as-good and them-as-bad may not be very helpful either.

But embracing that very fact is where the hard work begins. It means that we are all good and bad at times; that we are all conflicted, fragile and confused. It opens up the door to accepting that being imperfect, damaged, insecure, vulnerable, and irrational (to name just a few) is, somewhat uncom­fortably, what being human is all about.

That goes for all of us. And therefore, it goes for all of “them” too.

The walls we conjure up between us—be they predi­cated on race, gender, faith, age, nation­ality, or something else—have very real effects, even if the walls themselves are imaginary. The idea of an inherent and inalienable human nature that is funda­men­tally moral or funda­men­tally immoral belies both the complexity of the challenges that face us and the richness of our capacity for addressing them.

It may serve us well to accept the fact that we are neither light nor dark but, when viewed through the prism of enlightened humanism, creative spectrums of light that include all the colors of our humanity.

• • •

Top image credit: The Good and Evil Angels by William Blake (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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