Are Humans Inherently Good?

Whether discussing theories of international relations, religion, or philosophy, one question that always ensures lively debate is whether or not humans are inherently good or evil.   Most often the response turns out to be somewhere in the middle — we do good things and evil things, and there are humans of all flavors.   Yet I can’t help but answer that deep down, humans are good because they are a product of nature (or of God, if you so believe).

The Christian response to this would be that humans have “fallen.”  But if we look into the Adam and Eve allegory, it becomes a bit unclear how we should take it.   Humans have fallen not because they have given in to a change in nature causing them to be evil, but that they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. While in popular parlance that has come to mean an apple, think through what else this can symbolize.

We have a new kitten.  The kitten is playful, she is constantly jumping on my lap as I type this, and her behavior is neither good nor evil.  She’s jumping on my lap out of self-interest — I was petting her last night for 45 minutes as she sat there, and she apparently likes that.   But when she plays she might scratch or bite — at this point she’s small enough that it doesn’t hurt, but she’s not doing that out of malice.   I have known cats who seem evil though — who hiss and scratch anyone who comes close to them.   One such cat had been in a theater play as a kitten and the high school actors had tormented him — he appeared evil because he had very bad socialization to humans.

But most of the time we don’t attribute evil to animals or pets; they are in nature and acting out of instinct.  When they go bad, like a pit bull dog or cats like the one mentioned above, it’s blamed on the owners or instinct going awry.   The reason is clear: animals do not know the difference between right and wrong, or good and evil.   They are reactive and instinctive.   While science shows they have the capacity to reason — at levels we earlier did not expect — it’s not moral or critical reasoning of the kind we have.

But we have knowledge of our actions, and can reflect upon them.   Cats in a cat fight are reacting to stimuli, and probably don’t think much about how the other cat feels.  We have empathy, we can put ourselves in the place of others.  That knowledge separates us from most if not all animal species, and has led to the development of philosophy, religion, and the capacity to leave our world of instinct and nature and construct social realities designed from our imagination and creativity.

As we build words and act, two things happen: a) we see the consequences of our actions, and b) we empathize and emote as we contemplate our acts and the acts of others.   Here is where the concept of evil takes root.   We see consequences that we know harm others, and that gets magnified by our empathy.  We are then are able to imagine what it would be like to be ‘in the other person’s shoes.’   Crudely, we tend to define as evil those acts that lead to consequences that would be distasteful if they were to happen to us, and we see as good those acts which have an impact we would enjoy if done for us.

This seems simple, yet social reality is not simple.   Move away from acts where the consequences are clear and direct (murder, rape, theft) and layers of cultural rationalizations and abstractions cloud our vision.   All religions and moral codes have clear rules against murder, rape, theft, and physical assault.  Yet they also punish, engage in war (though less frequently than people imagine), tax property, and value physical prowess.   A soldier can go to war and get a medal for killing people he doesn’t know, even as his society condemns murder.

These rationalizations permeate every layer of our psyches and cultures.   Thus we end up constantly engaging in actions which, if done to us, would cause pain.   We recognize that at some level, but rationalize an excuse not to label that evil.    Here is where we start to lose ourselves.  Internal pain, self-loathing, and repression inflict inner wounds that lead people to shut down empathy and fall deeper in a pit of sociopathic behavior.    The knowledge of good and evil is inside us, but we harm ourselves when we block it out in order to justify actions we know deep down to be unjustifiable.    This can come out in many forms, of course, and people are capable of self-critical reflection to work through their actions and learn not to hate themselves for acts that they know were wrong.   Self-forgiveness is a key to mental stability, and probably necessary before other-forgiveness can take place.

So we’re good because we are in nature, but due to our knowledge of the consequences of our acts, plus our ability to empathize, we are able to create the concepts of good and evil, and apply them to ourselves and others.   Being imperfect (we make errors in judgment, are prone to emotionally over-react, probably a remnant from our need to flee or fight in nature), we torture ourselves over our mistakes, often without consciously realizing it.  (Freud would attribute that our superego, created as a response to our upbringing, what we are taught is good or evil).    To stay Freudian, the id is our instinctive playful self, acting in the world to fulfill desires and drives.

In a state of hunter-gatherer or early tribal nature, we are likely to find it easy to build customs and core rules to work through all this.   As society becomes complex, the abstractions and rationalizations for acts which create pain in others become harder to deconstruct and combat.  Nationalism, ideology, religious extremism, and many other ways of thinking and living obscure our capacity for calm, rational self-reflection and self-critical thought.

So we’re good, but we’ve constructed worlds that make it easy for good people to get sucked into a web of self-delusion and abstract rationalization.   One life goal has to be to work through that and examine our own lives and actions self-critically with self-forgiveness, not self-loathing.  Then as co-constructors of our social reality, we should act to fight against the abstractions and rationalizations that hide the reality of our actions and choices.   Like cats, we are playful rather than evil.  It’s just that our play has consequences, and we have the capacity to understand them.

  1. #1 by Juliano on September 18, 2010 - 22:07

    We have been made to set great store on our ever ‘superior’ reasoning capacity, and this self-aggrandisement has caused much badness. An arrogance and actual vile violence against animals for example.
    Descrates is in a line of ‘thinkers’ whicah has caused such misery for millions of animals ‘experiemented’ on—cats just like you cat, etc etc. He believed/thought/’reasoned’ that animals were machines, and that their cries of horror and pain of being tortured to death were really squeaks of an automata! What does such hideousness say about human ‘reason’?

    The Genesis ‘creation myth’ was a toxic myth designed to make you hate nature and your body! ALL the benevolent images which are pre-literal and thus very anceint and connected with the Goddess are maligned by the patriarchal cooption. They use words to subvert the imaginative associations of the images. So the Tree of Life which bears the sacred fruit of the Goddess/entheogenic fruit is forbidden, and the eating of it by the ‘seductive bad woman’ brings death to nature and thus the ‘fall’. So see what they are doing? They are causing you to split reality up into fragments. This divide and rile at a very deep level!

    The ancient symbol of the Serpent is very much demonized. Far anciently it is associated with the cycles of birth death and regeneration, as well as the entheogen.

    So my point is this. The very QUESTION of this ‘problem’ of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is made into prenicious propaganda by a warrior mindset which creates the very scenario of a CONFLICT between abstracted concepts which dont really exist on their own, but they want you to think that. Christianity rubs this in even more and creates the ‘Devil’.

    Solution? begin exploring theior tactics–which is toxic stories, and feel your way into how your cat feels ;))) FAR deeper content and natural than the shuddering awkward wretched wrecks these toxic storytellers have made most of us through our believing their crap!

    • #2 by Scott Erb on September 18, 2010 - 22:56

      I’ve read your response a few times and am still trying to understand exactly what you mean. In my mind, we are all playful creatures and the ideas of good and evil (and especially the warrior mentality you describe) cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviors and self-hateful emotions (which, of course, easily become other-destructive and other-hateful).

      When I reflect on the stories used, religious and otherwise, it seems to me the toxicity you mention comes out through fear. People fear their own desires, thoughts, and emotions because they can be abstracted into something “bad.” The natural becomes suspect, the abstract becomes privileged. Yet the abstract is the pathway to even worse behaviors:

      Re-connecting with the natural requires disengaging ourselves from the mode of thinking, be it Cartesian rationalism or religious “morality” in the form of unnatural rules.

  2. #3 by renaissanceguy on September 21, 2010 - 14:19

    In the biblical understanding of the world, cats were not intended originally to scratch or bite. The world was initially made perfect with no violence, pain, sickness, or death. Not only did the fall change human beings, but it changed everything. “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). So there is a sense in which a cat can be a “bad cat” without ascribing evil to it. Every cat is not the cat that it was meant to be, and compared to the perfect cat is a “bad cat.”

    The Bible also says that one day God will remake the world as it was intended to be. All nature will be perfect again. Then cats will be thoroughly good again.


    As for people, the exceptions prove the rule. Any time a person commits murder, it shows that there is something flawed in human nature. Most people do not murder, but the fact that some do shows that something is obviously wrong. At least a few human beings are obviously NOT inherently or naturally good, for goodness would, I think, presuppose that they would not murder other people. Add to that the number of people who rape and steal, and the picture grows worse. Then add those who gossip and backbite and connive and hate, and there is hardly anybody who looks inherently good.

  3. #4 by mike lovell on September 21, 2010 - 14:47

    I don’t know if humans are inherently good or evil, I know the fall didn’t make them evil, it just was….
    in fact without the fall, none of us would even exist here to have this conversation, as Adam and Eve would have been it, according to my understanding of things.

  4. #5 by renaissanceguy on September 21, 2010 - 15:11

    Mike, didn’t God command Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply before the Fall took place?

  5. #7 by Scott Erb on September 21, 2010 - 15:50

    Theologians generally see Genesis as containing two creation myths. When Israel formed, the different tribes had two creation stories. Starting on Genesis 2:4 there is a different story (different order of creation, etc.) I believe it was David who was attributed with putting the two together rather than having to choose between the competing creation stories. I first heard of this, by the way, in my Theology class at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, a Lutheran college with the course taught by an ordained Lutheran Minister. He noted that recognizing the human nature of how the Bible was written in no way undermined Christianity, and he had little patience for those who tried to say it could all be taken literally — he said that was utterly impossible to do thanks to numerous contradictions and historical facts.

  6. #8 by Juliano on September 21, 2010 - 15:52

    Hey Scott (I will put names by questes and answer with ‘me’)

    Scott: I’ve read your response a few times and am still trying to understand exactly what you mean. In my mind, we are all playful creatures and the ideas of good and evil (and especially the warrior mentality you describe) cause us to engage in self-destructive behaviors and self-hateful emotions (which, of course, easily become other-destructive and other-hateful).

    me: I agree, so I dont understand why you dont understand, because that is saying what I am. 🙂
    Yes, we ARE playful creatures, with potential for good and bad like other animals.
    But what the controlling mindsets have done is choose to manipulate these natural propensities.
    So for example, way way back many many centuries before the writing of the Genesis ‘creation myth’ peole seemed to be at home in the natural world, because we are natural.
    One of the most ancient symbols of the natural and sacred process of life was the Serpent. The serpent was a metaphor, or arhcetype, for the eternal cycles of birth, death, and regeneration. No problem.
    HOWEVER, what the writers of Genesis do is subvert that ancient meaning and overlay it with what I am calling TOXIC myth. by this I mean a myth that loses ahny sense of benevolence and life. Instead it is rigid dogma intended to divide us up from a whole sense of being.
    hence in the Genesis myth the serpent is cursed, and Eve is blamed for bringing death into the world. Thus the story makes us FEAR death. Suppressed is the awesome understanding that death is as sacred as life, and it is all a sacred continuum. With such a myth playfulness and sponataneity are being oppressed to the service of a slave-holding mentality!

    Scott:When I reflect on the stories used, religious and otherwise, it seems to me the toxicity you mention comes out through fear. People fear their own desires, thoughts, and emotions because they can be abstracted into something “bad.” The natural becomes suspect, the abstract becomes privileged. Yet the abstract is the pathway to even worse behaviors:

    me:That is a great article and I have left a comment.
    Yes we agree. It is all abstractions. It seems that these oppressing mindset push a world of abstractions onto us so much so we become split OFF from our ‘body’ and ‘soul’ and ‘nature’. They all become these separated terms.
    Its not only the Bible writers who have done this, but also classical philosophers, both west and eastern.
    THINKING seems to do this. I am not anti-thinking but something happened whereby thinking assumes promience over sensuality and feeling for SOME groups who then—armed with violence, and using clever toxic propaganda techniques–coerce people to think their way.

    Scott: Re-connecting with the natural requires disengaging ourselves from the mode of thinking, be it Cartesian rationalism or religious “morality” in the form of unnatural rules.

    me: Yes–we HAVE to think because thinking is a natural capacity. But we also have to know our deeper feeling sense also. One of the BIG reasons for the irrational so-called ‘war on drugs’ which includes entheogens, is that the latter can be THE Medicine which will undo their many many many years of propaganda and heal our rift with the natural

    For other members here—If I am not mistaken you seem to take the Genesis story as literal?
    From my research I dont think it is. it may have historical events to do with it, but its main emphasis is to ensure the authority of the writers of it is successful, and to do that they do the age old tactic of divide and control. They divide us from our being and that includes our being in relationship with the natural world.
    When they do this means we are uneasy,up-set. mistrusting ourselves, fearful, and that is why many of us cling to their authority EVEn though it is many hundreds of years since the story was written! it has a hold on a lot of people–even those who swear they have no time for religion.

  7. #9 by renaissanceguy on September 22, 2010 - 12:50

    Scott, yes, that is the theologically liberal view. It is mostly speculation, based on an unwillingness to take the text at face value.

    Conservative, orthodox Christians see no contradictions in the two creation accounts. The second one seems merely to be a summary of the first. It’s possible that it stems from a second oral tradition, but it still is completely compatible with the first.

    Mike, I’m sorry to disagree, but Genesis 1:28 contains the command for Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. It’s one reason to think that the Fall took place very soon after creation.

    • #10 by mike lovell on September 22, 2010 - 14:11

      well, when i saw your question, I asked my wife ad she was the one who said after…I wasn’t sure. And I went with it, because they hadn’t been mulitplying prior to the fall from what I have read.

  8. #11 by Black Flag on December 15, 2010 - 05:19

    On good and evil:

    As you pointed out – and I agree – good and evil is a man made. The Universe, itself, does not judge.

    A pious man and an evil man can both step off the same cliff, and will meet the ground at the bottom the same way. Universe carries no measure of good and evil.

    For me,
    good = the manifestation that is a consequence of being aligned with the Universe
    evil = the manifestation that is a consequence of being in contradiction with the Universe

    Human evil is created when a man attempts to manifest a contradiction – such as “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote”.

    Where one man cannot steal, a group of men cannot steal.

    But somewhere between -here- and -there- an institution claims a right to steal on behalf of some men. The contradiction manifests, the consequence can be nothing but evil.

    What is Right for some men is a merely a privilege to others or out-right denied, and so on.

    One merely tests for the existence of contradictions where one witnesses evil – it is an absolute cause and effect.

  9. #12 by Xain on April 23, 2017 - 14:25

    This is a rather oversimplified view of morality and humans in general.

    Knowledge of morality doesn’t change our actions and we aren’t fundamentally good. Primitive man had no problem killing other humans or raping either. It’s just based on in group and out group. That’s what it boils down to. If you are in the in group then you’re good, if not then everything is permissible. Also note that morality is essentially subjective. These actions humans do aren’t inherently good or bad but we judge and label them as such.

    Your point about rationalizing the bad is weak also. Humans didn’t need rationality for their actions in early days, but as we evolved we needed to rationalize and justify everything we do (including your claims about our inherent goodness and the desire to do good). Rationalization is just the excuses we give for why we do the things we do “good” or “bad”.

    It’s also based on in group bias. It’s taboo to harm the in group but not the out. That’s the same for many animals. Not to mention your comment about animals and morality is just wrong. The simple fact is that we don’t know if they have a moral code because they cannot communicate that to us in any meaningful way.

    • #13 by Scott Erb on April 23, 2017 - 19:22

      We don’t really know much about primitive humans. I suspect that you may be wrong that they had “no problem” with murder and rape. It’s just a guess in any event. Whether or not morality is inherently subjective is also a question that has considerable debate. Whether or not rationalization emerged with evolution is also just a guess. We know so little about human pre-history, even though it lasted at least 50,000 – 150,000 years, while recorded history is much shorter. Your last sentence can be applied to primitive humans too – we don’t know about their moral code. It could be that there is an inherent morality hard wired into us, part of essence as humans. Or maybe not.

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