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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