The Inherent Goodness of Mankind

Are we inherently good or evil? Generally, most arguments seem to fall into one of two theological camps.

On the one hand there is the belief that man’s nature was originally good but that due to disobedience this nature changed to one of being inclined towards evil. This disobedience had the side effect of bringing ‘sin’ into creation, and every person is now afflicted with this disease. So though man was initially good he has now inherited an evil nature by being born with ‘original sin’. In this case it seems that ‘sin’ is a tangible force somewhat along the lines of gravity or magnetism, invisible, powerful yet corrupt. The corrupting influence of this force acting upon man can be seen in the way even small children will slip easily into cruel and selfish behavior patterns and it is up to parents to (hopefully) teach them how to behave kindly towards others. But where did this force come from? How could a created being’s actions bring such a deadly and destructive entity into nature?

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On the other hand some say that every child is born innocent and pure yet learns to become selfish and ‘sinful’ by those who have authority over him as well as his family, friends and enemies. What we call ‘original sin’ is nothing more than the self preserving and naturally selfish instincts that we are taught to cultivate when we first become self aware. If children were born into cultures that truly were in accordance with God’s design then there would not be the opportunity for them to learn how to become ‘sinful’. Many of us who are parents would tend to disagree with this argument yet our pride may blind us to the fact that our children learn selfish, as well as kind, behavior from us.

I feel a strong pull towards this second argument. What sways me most is the amazing quality that humans have of naturally developing relationships. We instinctively crave companionship and in the process cultivate love between ourselves and others. This goes counter to what is found throughout the animal kingdom and how Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche describe mankind. It is not ‘natural’ to love, yet it is the most natural thing that man can and will do. It is only through the corrupting influences of others that we learn to sacrifice love, the true reward, for rewards of more immediate and material gratification.

As Henri Nouwen puts it in ‘Jesus and Mary: Finding Our Sacred Center’, “Before I am sinful I am innocent: that is, before I participate in the evil of the world, I am touched with goodness….I have to claim that goodness in me. It belongs to my deepest self.”

The idea that we are completely flawed at heart and require a divine savior works well for those of us who struggle with our internal demons. However, when we stress the inherent evil nature of mankind, inflicted upon every living person through the descent of original sin, we risk trivializing the passion of humanity and in the process may push others away from the open arms of God.

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  1. #1 by atheistperspective on July 6, 2007 - 6:42 pm

    We are neither inherently good nor bad, we are simply born into a moral time within which we try to fit as best we can. Ultimately people are products of family and society.

    In any case what is good to one person is evil to another, To decry someone as being evil we’re judging them from a position which we feel is good or just. But that does not make it so.

    Take your average wholesome Christian family a few years ago. Most would tell you that slavery was just, that slavery was justifiable through biblical teaching. Would you keep a slave now? No, of course not. There’s a changing moral zeitgeist and our notions of good and evil change with it.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on July 6, 2007 - 8:39 pm

    Ah, so glad to hear from the atheist camp. As I’ve said before, you guys have a tendency to hit many nails on the head.

    Anyway, you make some good points, especially concerning changing times and mores. But wouldn’t you agree that some mores don’t change? I mean, even though the Church leadership at one time thought it was acceptable to disembowel heretics, the majority of the people at that time would have considered it to be evil.

    If the choices that way make have no ‘value’ then why bother making them? The argument that altruistic behavior is bred into us for the good of the herd doesn’t ring true to me. Are the Nazis and the Taliban mere aberrations- mutations of a sort? Nope, their just normal folk who have ultimately chosen themselves over others, in the most extreme fashion.

    Thanks for visiting. Liked your site, http://www.atheistperspective.com/ , so I added it to my blogroll. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in some thoughtful ideas from an atheistic perspective.

  3. #3 by atheistperspective on July 6, 2007 - 9:34 pm

    Hi Christian. Not many people are glad to hear from the Christian camp 🙂 It makes a nice change!

    I would agree that some morals don’t change. Except I’m trying to think of one and I can’t! Perhaps in a specific society some morals remain consistent, murder for example has always been immoral in, for example, Sweden. But we might then want to discuss whether murder itself can be moral, what if it’s pre-emptive? Pedophilia is another one I thought about, hasn’t that always been immoral? Not really, no. What about theft? Nope, it’s actually been virtuous in some cases, take Robin hood for example. 🙂

    So I was inclined to agree with you as I started writing but I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think morality is constant at all. Or do you have an example?

    With regards to the church, sure, some did disagree. Two things interest me here. First, one might then assume that the church/religion is not the great source of morality that some might have us believe, and second, I don’t actually believe that a majority disagreed with them. But I could be wrong.

    “The argument that altruistic behavior is bred into us for the good of the herd doesn’t ring true to me.”

    I’d disagree. First there’s evolutionary reasons for altruistic behavior. If you accept evolution (I know many Christians don’t) then there’s a very good reason people are, and must be, altruistic. Group selection is also an important factor.

    Even if you disagree with that, I very much agree with Hobbes. In the Leviathan he argued for a ‘social contract’ which I believe is very much a reason for the way we behave. I think the Gene comes first and then social factors second but I just can’t put our behavior down to being inherently good or evil. I find it very difficult to even understand what that means.

    “Are the Nazis and the Taliban mere aberrations- mutations of a sort? Nope, their just normal folk who have ultimately chosen themselves over others”

    Okay, here’s something I know very little about but am learning fast! I reckon you might find this incredibly interesting if you aren’t already aware of it.

    What if I said that Hitler was not a bad person. That he had no choice over what he did, no control over his actions. That he was simply a product of his own experience and others are much more worthy of blame than he?

    Sounds strange huh? Well, I’ve been reading a lot , doing research and speaking with cognitive neurologists and Ev-Psychs and I’ve stumbled across the notion that we have no control over what we do, we have no free will whatsoever. I’m not just talking about determinism here. This is much more extreme than the idea that our lives are determined.

    When you go to the shop and make a choice between a steak and a salad, you believe that you are choosing, that you are free to decide what to have. There’s a lot of research out there, a lot of very educated people, psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists at the top of their respective fields that would say that your mind is tricking you into believing you have a choice. That there’s very little about your life that rests within your own control.

    Interesting? I think so. The problem is I don’t know enough about it to debate but I can answer some basic questions. Its all fascinating stuff and at first it sounds ridiculous. But the more you think about it, you realize it’s not so silly after all!

    This is particularly relevant to this discussion about morality, good and evil because we assume we have the choice to be good or bad when, it seems to me, that we don’t.

    Thanks for the link btw!

  4. #4 by Christian Beyer on July 9, 2007 - 1:25 pm

    Hmmm…..OK, I’ll bite. If what you suggest is true, that all our actions are pre-programed (or pre-ordained, as some of my Calvinist friends might suggest), then how do we account for our feelings of regret? Or even more so, what of feelings of guilt? I guess you could say that we are programmed to have those feelings as well.

    How do we explain the actions of people like Gandhi? He was willing to die of starvation rather than accept the violent actions of his people. How does sacrifice become programmed into his genes? It would seem to be that meme would have been bred out of the species. Could he have been a mutation?

  5. #5 by atheistperspective on July 9, 2007 - 3:45 pm

    Well it’s not so much about a meme, or being programmed, although I suppose there are arguments for that, but it’s more about the notion of free will and our actions as being reactionary. Regret very much would work with this idea, indeed, it might even be seen as evidence of it. We know there are certain things we should not do, yet we still do them We then regret doing them. If we had free will, why did we choose to take such actions?

  6. #6 by Christian Beyer on July 9, 2007 - 8:05 pm

    We are weak and will ususally choose the actions that provide the most immediate gratification, especially as it gratifies our egos. Because of the circumstance most of us experience from early childhood onward we are all essentially very insecure people. We are trained to feel threatened by others, even those we love, and to prefer an existence in which we are stronger, better, smarter or prettier than those around us. We learn to shun the ugly, the weak, the lame, the ‘stupid’ (which hints at natural selection).

    So we make decisions out of fear; fear of failure, fear of being embarrassed, fear of being left out, fear of drawing attention to ourselves. Or we make decisions designed to feed our egos; more money, more fame, more power.

    It would seem that a merely materialistic world would find no problem with this type of world view; in fact that it precisely the current wisdom. So we have absurd and meaningless television programs like Survivor, You’re Fired, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire etc. etc. We become voyeurs and can’t sate our appetites for the pathetic and sick – the various ‘reality’ shows, our obsession with Paris Hilton (who the hell is she, btw!?) Although we emulate them it makes us feel better about ourselves to see beautiful and rich people f_ _k up. We are envious of the perfect, hate the imperfect and we love to see them fail. We can hate Martha Stewart as well as Tammy Faye Baker.

    But we can CHOOSE to change the way we are, although initially it may take discipline and work. It also takes a different world view, one of optimism, generosity, charity, forgiveness. Without a doubt those who choose these different ways of living are happier, although from a materialistic perspective they may be no better off, in fact they may even suffer pain and trials because of their choice.

    There are too many stories of people who have made 180 degree changes in their lives for me to think they were inclined this way in the first place. Unless we consider the fact that we are ALL inclined this way in the first place and it is the great aberrations and deviations of life that push us in the other direction. And that is the point of my article.

    Maybe if a very caring, loving and nurturing person had stepped into Hitler’s life at an early age things may have turned out differently. But to have made a difference it would have required the deliberate actions (choices) of two people; Hitler and this possible mentor.

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