Deciding Whether We’re Born Good or Evil

Doom and Gloom seem to be the norm with today’s pundits and prognostics when it comes to the survival of mankind in a world and at a time when a simple flick of a switch could annihilate all but the most rudimentary forms of life. The question of survival of the race has become a most urgent consideration for perhaps the first time in the history of human kind. We are at a time when even a slight miscalculation of intention could set off a holocaust.

As if this were not frightening enough, climate change might present us with an even more inevitable threat to our existence.

I’ve recently been questioned as to whether man is born good or evil. My first response was that he is certainly born good, until I was justifiably challenged with that assertion and with good reason. This forced me to the internet, as we do now, where I find that there are multiple philosophers with impeccable credentials holding opposite views.

I now come down with a bit of a hedge and agree with Abraham Maslow in saying that while he cannot say that man is born good, he can say with certainty that he is not born evil.

I realize that such an answer is a cop-out. It is nothing more than an admission that I simply do not know. But then, I am not alone in this for, as I said, indeed the most respected philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists and even neuroscientists differ widely.

Going back to Confucianism, while Confucius never stated whether man was born good or evil, Mencius, a follower of Confucius, claimed that all men have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. Hence, he insisted that man is good by nature. Xunzi, another student of Confucius, on the other hand disagreed, claiming that human nature is inherently evil.

With the Greek philosophers, Socrates believed that man was born to be good, but his student Plato believed that humans are innately evil. During the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes declared man innately evil while Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared him to be innately good.

One of the problems we encounter in a philosophic approach to the question is that, aside from the question of whether or not man is born good or evil, there is no understanding among philosophers as to the meaning of the words “good” or “evil.” They have been loosely defined as being “morally positive” or “morally negative.” But then, of course, for that to have meaning, one must define morality. So, I turned to one of the world’s most trusted dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries, to find the following

Morality — noun (plural moralities).

— principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

— a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.

— the extent to which an action is right or wrong.

The first definition simply returns us to the original question of good or evil. The second suggests that it is defined by whatever a particular person or society determines it might be, and the third is a reiteration of the first.

So, it would seem that the words “good” and “evil” are nothing more than abstracts with no concrete existence. Could that make the entire question moot by suggesting that, in terms of determining whether we are born good or evil with no understanding of either, we should just ignore it altogether? Most certainly not, and here I will assert my own definition of “good” and “evil” as briefly as possible.

Good is anything that might tend to increase the prospects for the ultimate survival of the human race. Evil is simply anything that might tend to threaten it.

Of course, I would expect to hear howls of protestation from devout Christians when they realize that this could even include a violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” But then, do we hear the protestations from them over capital punishment and acts of war? Of course not, for then, in order to justify their position by declaring such acts as “good” in terms of survival, they would then find themselves in agreement with my contention.

Let me be quick to point out, however, that I declare the acts of capital punishment and war to be the highest forms of evil in that they threaten our survival by destroying that most necessary of human inclinations. It is that we do possess empathy and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.

However, in our quest for an answer to the question of whether we are born good or evil, we can turn to science. So, we turn to the internet once more. A great love of my life sent me a 60 Minutes segment from Nov. 18, 2012 in which Leslie Stahl interviewed the psychologist Karen Wynn from Yale’s Baby Lab. The segment included clips of experiments which indicated that infants as young as three months may have been born with a sense of right and wrong. Using three different stuffed animal puppets, the following scene is played out as the infant looks on. As a neutral puppet struggles to open a plastic case containing a toy without success, the puppet we assume to be a good puppet comes to his aid, the case is opened, but as the toy is about to be retrieved the other bad puppet slams the case closed.

In a series of trials, the infants, when shown both the good and bad puppets, reached for the good puppet 81 percent of the times. Another experiment seemed to suggest that not only do infants distinguish between right and wrong, but, in making choices, they tend to act in accordance with what they see others do. This could explain an intrinsic need to socialize, which suggests a basic brotherhood.

So, do these experiments prove my original belief and contention that man is born good, and that we are meant to be our brother’s keeper? Perhaps it doesn’t, but it certainly supports those theories.

The same acts can, under different circumstances, be either good or evil depending on whether or not they might contribute to or threaten our ultimate survival.

My final contention, as a result of these latest experiments, is that man is born with a sense of right or wrong, and that he will also, in his intrinsic need to bond with others, tend to behave in accordance with the dictates of those he views as being similar, or in general, his society. Unfortunately, while this tendency may lean toward the idea of brotherhood, a sick society can be an undeniable source of evil.

While we may be suffering such a sick society at present, there is no reason to think that mankind, as he has in myriads of troubled times, will overcome. It is in his nature to survive.

By Nature, We Are Good

There is no doubt by nature we are good.

That is to say at least when we are born.

But could we live that way. I think we could.

But goodness is so often met with scorn.

That is to say, at least when we are born,

We’re pretty sure we come with empathy.

But goodness is so often met with scorn.

That’s how it is in this society.

We’re pretty sure we come with empathy.

But then, it’s dog eat dog and eye for eye,

That’s how it is in this society.

We’re told to get along we must comply.

But then, its dog eat dog and eye for eye,

So being good is difficult indeed.

We’re told to get along we must comply,

Although, too often, need will turn to greed.

So, being good is difficult indeed.

But could we live that way?

I think we could.

Although too often need will turn to greed,

There is no doubt, by nature we are good.

Harold G. “Hal” O’Leary of Wheeling has been prominent in the arts community for many years. He was the founder of Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre. In 2008 he was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame. He also was awarded and honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.