Are People Basically Good?

Are people basically good?

Writer Dennis Prager argues that how we answer the question leads us to different political views:

“Earlier this year, I had a debate/dialogue with two left-wing students at the University of California, Berkeley … My final question to them was ‘Do you believe people are basically good?’ Without a moment’s pause, both students said yes.”

Prager thinks that people are not basically good. He thinks that the record of human history, including the Holocaust, conclusively disproves the idea. I agree.

But if people aren’t basically good, it doesn’t mean that they are basically bad.

I would argue, instead, that we are basically free. Normally, we can choose in any situation to be good or bad. The choice might be easier or harder, but it’s still our choice.

Of course, it’s important to define what it means for people to be good, bad, or free. Good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things. As Alexander Pope observed in his Essay on Man (1734):

Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree.
The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise,
And even the best by fits what they despise.

Good people are those who usually do the right thing. By learning and living, they’ve practiced “doing the right thing” until it became second nature to them. As a result, their habits and emotions automatically support that choice. They occasionally slip and do the wrong thing, but they recognize it as wrong. They feel guilty and try to make up for it.

basically good person would be a good person by default, “out of the box” with no assembly required. We don’t come like that.

Conversely, bad people are those who often do the wrong thing. They learned to behave immorally in the same way as good people learned to behave morally. When they do the wrong thing, their previous thoughts and emotions support their choice. They don’t feel guilty. They either don’t think about the people they hurt, or they see their victims as suckers who deserved what they got.

Free people are intelligent enough to understand life situations and the relevant moral principles. They can choose rationally between alternative courses of action. They are not compelled to make a particular choice, whether by external coercion, overwhelming emotion, or intellectual confusion.

If you’re not free, then you can be neither good nor bad because your choices are not your own. Someone or something else is making the choices for you. Your actions can still be good or bad, but your moral responsibility for them is reduced. It’s why insane people are not held criminally liable for crimes they commit as a result of their illness.

Four complications

Four factors complicate how we make moral decisions.

First, we have a dual nature. We are animals, but we’re also intelligent beings.

The animal side of our nature is amoral. It wants what it wants. Sometimes, our animal impulses are helpful. Normal people instinctively protect children and feel empathy for other people who are suffering. At other times, our natural impulses are harmful. Normal people instinctively react with hostility toward members of groups that compete with their own group. That can lead to social discord, racism, or war. Our moral choices emerge from the interplay between our impulses, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.

Second, people’s individual biology differs. Our natural impulses and abilities can make it more or less difficult for us to do the right thing. Our individual biology inclines us to be more or less aggressive, excitable, calm, or empathetic. Depending on the situation, those traits might or might not be helpful.

For example, as shown by the graph at the beginning of this article, about 16 percent of people have high levels of empathy. They are naturally inclined to care about the welfare of others. In peaceful situations, they find it relatively easy to be good. In dangerous or violent situations — which are all too common on earth — they find it much harder: it’s easy for them to care and hard for them to shoot. Conversely, about 16 percent of people have very low levels of empathy. They find it easy to shoot but hard to care. Most people (68 percent) are in the middle. They go whichever way they’re pushed.

Third, individual people’s experience and virtue differ. Like our biology, our life experience and past choices make it easier or harder for us to do the right thing. Trauma and suffering can make us bitter and angry, or noble and generous. As American writer Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Fourth, people’s culture and moral expectations differ. Good people usually do “the right thing,” but only a few moral values are universal. For non-universal values, different societies define “the right thing” in different ways. We don’t automatically know what that is. We have to learn it.

With all those complications, it’s impossible for most people to be basically good. It depends on us as individuals, on our societies, and on our circumstances. The best general guide, albeit an imperfect one, is another quote from Hemingway:

“What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Christianity, Judaism, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Are People Basically Good?

  1. J P says:

    I suspect that many young people believe that they are basically good and assume that most others are like them.

    I think culture and expectation is a factor. In some places you can set an unattended bowl of candy out on Halloween night and it will last all evenings. In others that bowl will be empty in 10 minutes.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I agree. It’s a very common error. I call it “the libertarian fallacy,” because libertarians often assume that everyone else in society is like them: educated, relatively responsible, and concerned about doing the right thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would strongly caution you against reading people like Dennis Prager! Poorly informed right wing ideologue and not conducive to virtue. The old Mencius vs. Hsun Tzu question — “are human beings basically good?” doesn’t mean very much. Compared to what? Rocks? Dogs? Idealized conceptions of human beings — gods, angels, saints? A better question is — what practices and strategies encourage understanding and compassion. Prager’s methods — strawmanning the opposition, and asking cutesy debating questions like “Are human beings fundamentally good” do not.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I agree that it’s a very complex question, to which I’ve hardly done justice in 800 words or so.

      Unfortunately, political arguments are usually pretty stupid. Prager didn’t invent that. My book (due out on December 3, by the way) devotes about half a chapter to how arguments can be productive and helpful for all concerned. That requires figuring out how to bypass the rhetorical chaff and focus on the real issues. But if it were easy, everyone would already be doing it.


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