Are People Fundamentally Good? 5

Here’s a good one for April Fool’s Day. How do you answer this question: Are people fundamentally good or are they naturally bad?

Why do we pity the fool?

Why do we pity the fool?

I’m going to play the naïve Rousseauean, instead of the devil’s advocate, and say people are good, society corrupts. You are probably going to disagree with me, but I think there is a case to be made here. I won’t simply embrace the noble savage in the end, because I really don’t think the answer to this question is all black and white. It certainly isn’t as simple as the following video makes it out to be. Or is it? You be the judge…

The fool’s retort…

If people are fundamentally bad:

1) Why do we fall for hoaxes in the first place? 

There is something innate in us that seeks truth rather than falsehood. That is why our first inclination is to accept what we are told as true, and on second thought we might question it. If our first reaction is to question something, that might be a good conditioned response, or it might be because we detect something fishy. Or maybe, some people are predisposed to question everything and everyone. If that is the case, I would have to ask, why the cynicism? It could be for a number of reasons, but whatever the case may be, it still comes back to the same fundamental truth. People don’t want to be deceived. They naturally want to protect their best interests, and that is a good thing. The underlying motive of wanting truth has to be something good within us, not something that society tells us to do.

2) The video suggest that children are narcissists by nature. If that is true how could education possibly overcome this flaw?

There are two fundamental principles of education we cannot overlook. The first is that the information one receives depends on the potentiality for the receiver to receive it (you might have to repeat that to yourself a few times before it starts to make sense). If I tell a child it is wrong to steal, I’m counting on the child to understand the difference between what is right and what is wrong (not just the notion of punishment and reward). Otherwise, if I have to punish the child for stealing, say, a cookie, my punishment won’t make any sense to the kid. Anyone who has ever raised children or worked with them knows that children have a strong sense of justice.

This brings us to the second principle of education. Educating is not about filling people with information as much as it is about drawing out of them the understanding they already have inside and directing that understanding toward proper behavior in particular circumstances. The idea is that they already know what is right and wrong, however, in concrete circumstances where they lack experience, someone needs to make it clear what is expected of them. But let’s not be fools. Kids are mischievous learners, and they like to push the envelope to see what they can get away with. Catch them in the act of misbehaving, though, and stare them in the eye and what do you see? The realization that they know what’s up — that they are culpable of something. Hold that stare and you can also see signs of remorse. Kids naturally want to do the right thing and they want to please adults too, not just themselves. Underneath the mischief is a fundamentally good child, who wants to be loved and who also wants to love as he or she should.

3) Why do we care about educating children if we are not fundamentally good?

The video’s narrator himself states, “How to make good people is the single most important project of all human life.” How can he justify this conclusion if he begins with the premise that people are not fundamentally good? How could this possibly be the world’s largest concern unless goodness itself were a fundamental concern, and how could goodness be a concern if we ourselves were not good enough to be interested in what is good?

He also says that laws must be put into effect in order to control people and compel them to be good. I don’t think that is the only reason we have laws. Many laws we have on the books are there in order to keep people safe, e.g., to keep children from being run over by cars in a school zone. It isn’t as though the drivers would not care about the lives of children if there were no reduced speed signs in those areas. The video overlooks the basic fact that we do care enough in the first place to make laws, which help us maintain a safe society. Not only is that a fundamentally good thing, it is a fundamentally human thing to make laws for this very reason. In other words, the things that motivate us to control human behavior is that we naturally tend toward preserving the things in our lives that we value as good.

If you are still skeptical about people being fundamentally good, that’s good. I’ll stop playing Rousseau now.

The problem with our saying that people are fundamentally good is the mountain of evidence we have to the contrary, and the video does a good job supplying that. Still, it only presents one side of the issue from just the perspective that people are not fundamentally good, without considering the contradictions in their own presentation, which I tried to point out. As I said earlier, it is not as simple as the video makes it out to be. I won’t pretend there’s a simple solution to this problem, which has perplexed humanity ever since cavemen and women tried to teach their cave children to behave themselves like good cave citizens, whenever that was.

Are people fundamentally flawed? I believe the answer is Yes. We have all been affected by original sin and we are prone to doing evil, as if by nature. Yet we are still fundamentally good, because God made all things “good, and he was pleased with what he made.” The point to Christian education is to draw on that good, while correcting and disciplining the bad. I believe to look at it in another way creates a self-fulfilling prophesy, which is detrimental to the very project of creating a better human society.

After all, if fundamentally, there is no goodness in us, what hope is there that we can ultimately achieve something good in the end?

5 comments

  1. I hate the argument from the selfishness of babies. Babies are helpless. It’s not narcissistic to want to live. Being a baby is probably really scary. Good post. Very balanced.

    • I agree that it was a lame argument. And it completely misses the point that people tend to take care of their babies “whims” rather than ignore them, precisely because we care about them. And the reasons we have laws against parental negligence is because we recognize that derelict parents are the problem, not their kids. In other words, the what the law reveals is the good side of human nature, where the evil that deserves to be punished is exception to the rule, not the norm of human behavior.

  2. Everything that exists is good inasmuch as it has existence. This is the type of goodness referred to in Gn 1, which context is the creation of things. The good of existence is fundamental to all other goods, for unless a thing exists, it cannot possess any other good. But, while existence is the most fundamental of created goods, it is not the most practical, for a defective tool is of little use to a craftsman, and a criminal contributes little to the common good. Accordingly, Christ declared that evildoers, even though they possess the good of existence, will go to everlasting punishment (Mt 25:31-46), as an unproductive branch is cast into the fire (Jn 15:1-6). God bless!

    • Absolutely. The good of existence is fundamental to all other goods, including the moral good. Although our good nature has been corrupted — and that goes for all of us — that moral good is in us, fundamentally, because we are made in God’s image and likeness. If that were completely destroyed, what hope would there be of redemption?

      Very soon, I hope, I am going to post a story about reform in the criminal justice system. I have an appointment for an interview tomorrow in order to get all the details for the case I want to write about.

      I strongly believe we have the obligation to correct the wrong doer, not just for our own sake, but I believe more importantly, for the offender’s own good. Christ has gone to great lengths for us. If there’s hope for any one of us, that hope should be there for everyone, before we write them off or cast them out for good. As long as there’s breath, there’s hope.

      God bless!

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