Are Human Beings Basically Good?

Good People All the Way Through?

What does it mean to say that humans are basically good? It is by no means an immediately obvious statement. On some days, days like we have all seen in recent weeks, the contrary appears far more likely. What is usually meant by it is that people intend to be good: people want to be good, want others to be good, and want others to think they are good. Perhaps, by basic, we mean something like essential: there is some essential, intrinsic feature of human personality that is good. All the mess, the evil in the world, is really done by those with good intentions whose life as gone off course for some reason.

Here are some arguments to support the idea:

The effort argument: If people were not basically good, they would not put so much effort into doing good things. People do put a lot of effort into doing good things. Therefore, people are basically good.

The input argument: Wrong input is some circumstance or physical impairment that causes people to go against their intrinsic goodness. For example, a poor uneducated child might be more likely to end up doing evil despite wanting to do good. Perhaps research will show that most evil is carried out by people with wrong inputs. Therefore, it is likely that wrong inputs causes good people to do evil despite their basic goodness.

Rousseau argued for a version of this. He suggested that human beings are corrupted by their social environment particularly when property is involved (owning stuff, for Rousseau, could only lead to envy and strife). The nature of man, however, is peaceful and harmonious.

Here’s an interesting argument from the founder of Scientology: Let’s call it the self-destruct argument. According to L. Ron Hubbard, human beings work against their own evil acts in order to restrain themselves, even destroying themselves in order to stop themselves:

Man is basically good. He is basically well-intentioned. He does not want to harm himself or others. When an individual does harm the dynamics, he will destroy himself in an effort to save those dynamics…. the person who incapacitates himself with illness or gets himself in an accident is putting ethics in on himself by lessening his ability to harm and maybe even by totally removing himself from the environment that he has been harming. When he has evil intentions, when he is being “intentionally evil,” he still has an urge to also stop himself. He seeks to suppress them, and when he cannot do so directly, he does so indirectly. Evil, illness and decay often go hand in hand. 

Hubbard thought his theory explains why criminals leave clues to their crimes. They desired to be caught and prevented from evil.

The reasons given fail partly because they only make sense if one already assumes the conclusion. But more importantly, they fail because they rely on some knowledge of human intention that is inaccessible and some method of quantifying good acts that is humanly impossible.

Consider Q. Q does an evil act; he murders someone in a fit of rage, for example. However, just the night before, Q bought flowers for his wife and took her to dinner. Q does both an evil act and a good act. The question is: how would we know what the intentions are in either case? If you say, “by the act,” then Q intended to do evil on the night after he intended to do good, but it is not clear that this tells which intention is intrinsic or essential or any more basic to Q. He appears to have both intentions for evil and intentions for good.

Perhaps we could count all the good actions and all the bad actions that Q has performed over his life. Of course, actions can be pretty small things. Perhaps, when all the counting is done Q has performed  more non-evil actions than evil actions. Does this show anything about his essential intentions? I don’t see how it can. For Q could quite possibly have performed only the evil actions and yet retained his human nature. One might argue that this is naturally impossible, but that’s not what the argument suggests. An essential property is a property without which the object ceases to be identifiable as in the class, “human.”If it is possible that Q perform only evil actions and yet retain his human identity then good intentions are not an essential property of being human.

Perhaps, then, the claim is only that human beings are generally well intentioned; they mostly intend the “good.” In that case, it’s all down to numbers. The problem is that even if we did have access to Q’s life is such a way it is very difficult to know how we would count actions. Assigning one point for each action in two different columns won’t work very well. What if one action is so gratuitously evil as to outweigh all the good actions? Murder is a contender for such a score. It only took Stalin a couple of sentences to condemn millions to death. Do we count each death he ordered or just his one action of ordering? And does each murder get more bad points than brushing one’s teeth gets good points? And what about thoughts and desires? Do they not count for anything? What if Q had no affection for his wife and only took her out to dinner only to keep the peace. He has no love, but does all the right things. How do we score the dinner? The point is that counting sounds good, but in practice is downright fiddly.

Perhaps one might say that wrong inputs caused Q’s evil actions. He is only angry because of some wrong input, perhaps the discovery that the victim of the murder bought Q’s wife flowers and took her to dinner the night before Q had. But what reason do we have to think that inputs did not cause his good actions in a similar way to his bad action? There seems no reason to suppose that inputs don’t cause all Q’s actions in which case there is no sense in which Q is basically good. He is more likely to be neutral and at the beck and call of circumstance. On this view, it is difficult to see any way in which Q has any choice in the matter. I don’t think human beings are neutral things either, but that is a discussion for another day. Here we are focusing on whether or not we have good reason for thinking that human beings are basically good. 

As for Hubbard’s rather creative argument it is difficult to see how the conclusion follows from the premise. It is a stretch to say that clumsy criminals and suicidal evil doers are best explained by the innate decency of the criminal. No judge worth his or her salt is going to apply leniency for the defendant because he rather thoughtfully crashed his car into a tree as he drove away from the bank with all the loot. In any case, the argument assumes what it seeks to prove. Come to think of it, so do the other arguments. Indeed, that is the trouble with trying to prove the innate or basic goodness of human beings: one just has to assume it.

Neither is it any good merely assuming the contrary: that humans are basically bad. It is no more clear how we would show that to be true any more than we can show that humans are basically good.

No, I just don’t think any such assumption can be evidentially supported. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can point at and say: “see, there, that” and settle the case either way. In other words, it seems if we want to get a reason together we’ll need to look elsewhere.

Of course, you might wonder what I think. Actually, you might not wonder at all (“some blogger says…” isn’t good motivation for holding a view). So, I’ll need something a little stronger. How about God? He would know wouldn’t he? So, here’s his two cents, at least what I think are his two cents.

First, there isn’t anything apart from God that has anything like essential or necessary goodness. God has it and no one else does. God also has intrinsic goodness. He is good in and of himself and would have it in any context, any relationship or in none. Human beings, however, have, along with the rest of creation, extrinsic goodness. We are good in virtue of being created by God who declares his creation good (See Genesis 1 for God’s appreciation of his work). Human goodness, then, is relationship and context dependent. Of course, the Bible records an all too brief period of innocence and then our story goes downhill pretty quick. As a result of the first sin God condemns human beings to death. He does so because humans, now that they are subject to a “fallen” or sinful nature, are prone to evil. They love not God and they act against his will. They are guilty to the core.

According to the Bible, sin is not merely about actions, but about the heart, the orientation of our souls: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9) Notice the facet of deceit. Human evil is not merely about intention followed by action, but about a propensity to falsely judge our own actions and motives. How much more difficult would it be to count our good actions and bad actions if we could not trust our judgement as to which is which. Evil in human beings even robs them of the ability to tell the difference: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20).

Human beings, then, have some kind of goodness and some kind of badness. Human beings are good in virtue of being created by God and especially in virtue of being made in God’s image, but they are also bad in virtue of their sinful nature. A human being is not intrinsically good, but only good because he is a part of an essentially good God’s creation. He is not essentially evil, but evil in virtue of a fallen, sinful nature that gives him a propensity to think, love and act against his creator. 
What the non-theistic-basically-good proponent needs is some more basic fact in virtue of which his view is true. And I don’t think he has one. He just has to stipulate it and then interpret everything else in light of it. The Christian story, on the other hand, has a more foundational, fundamental point to make about human moral nature. And it is by far the more coherent. That’s not to say it is more likable. One is forced to admit a guilt for sin that is ultimately worthy of God’s wrath. One is also forced to treat human beings accordingly, preserving the life of the smallest and weakest at personal cost on the one hand, and punishing wrong doers (through the God ordained means of family, church and government) on the other. But this is not about palatability; it is about what is true and what is false. 
One final point: basic human goodness evades a crucial worldview issue – salvation. In a sense, the basically-good view is an object lesson in evading a question altogether. There is no need to be saved since there is nothing to be saved from. You see, I think we ought to be entirely good. In fact, total and complete goodness, or “holiness,” is what is required for God to pronounce his favor on us again. The trouble is we don’t have any such thing. We are not “basically good” in God’s opinion, but deserving of wrath. What we need is essential goodness, but we can’t have it, not on our own. God has all of it! Yet in Christ, God’s perfect sinless goodness is revealed to us. There is indeed some human who has essential goodness and essential sinlessness. His name is Jesus. And it is his goodness that we need. And he offers it to us. He took our sin and bore it on the cross, taking the death we deserve. And in that exchange God offers to see us as he sees his perfect Son. But you have to accept his free gift. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.