Are people basically good? or bad?

I asked a question recently around various haunts online. Are people basically good or bad? I was surprised that nobody took the bait on this question. After all, I see many people post strong opinions on a variety of subjects and I wondered as to an underlying belief.

First, the question could be a false dichotomy in that it is forcing one to choose one or the other. Thus at the outset it is an unfair question to begin with. The evidence seems quite clear to me that people are a rich complex interaction of selfless, selfish, concerns that can only sometimes be delegated into coarse categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And any attempt to come up with an all serving method of doing so is as ultimately futile, it seems to me, as trying to figure out the grand calculus needed to ascertain an action as good or bad according to strict utilitarian definitions (regarding the amount of happiness).

I asked this question because I am genuinely interested. Take for instance a common cry from some conservatives out there (conservative in name only, for not a one that I’ve had any serious dealing with can cite me the foundational tenants of conservatism outside of some ‘God-Guns-Gold’ cry) in that people who are unemployed, poor, asking for government assistance, are all lazy people. They are generally quite shrill and vocal in their adamant stance that these people are all slackers who are parasites off the hard work of the honest people in the world (meaning like them). We have, then, a classic In-Group/Out-Group stance. The out-group is, to sum up a long list of faults, ‘bad’. Adding to this oddity is that this group of ‘bad’ people grows with the addition of many other ‘bad’ groups to where it is a small minority of people who are exactly like the narrowly defined in-group who are good and the rest are bad. Who is good?

Before we look at who is good we must look at who is bad. There is an idea of that one small bit of ‘bad’ will do away with a great majority of good. This idea is expressed very well in Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Happiness Hypothesis”, which I enjoyed very much, though I have great reservations as to his latter book and its ties to social darwinism (to be fair, I’ve not read the latter book but have this doubt based off of interviews and press releases I’ve come across). I’ll sum it up like this. One rat turd will make us hesitant to eat a pint of ice cream. It ruins it for us. Yet add a spoonful of ice cream to a pile of rat turds and we think no better of the feces than before.

If we can find one element about a person that bespeaks of their character, we know all that we need to know about them. At least this is the approach by the ignorant of which I speak. If a person has a Prius it is assumed the person votes liberal and if the person votes liberal they must be for women’s right to choose abortion and if they choose abortion they are killers and if they are killers they are godless. Does this sound strange? Try it with the next conservative (I really hate using this word, for the dignity of conservative political thought is done a disservice by calling today’s hateful bigot a conservative. Where have the real conservatives gone? Can they not eclipse Limbaugh and Hannity?) Tell a conservative that a new worker in the workplace has rainbow sticker on their car. If you have this person’s trust you’ll soon hear how this person is assumed to be gay and if they are gay they are deviant and if they are deviant they are untrustworthy and if they are untrustworthy they cannot be allowed parent’s rights because they are bad.

It really is amazing the number of times I hear this sort of thing.

So what is bad? Pretty much everything. Suppose I wish to recycle. Why in the world would I want to do this? It must be that I have environmentalist attitudes. What does this mean? It must mean that I’d prefer all industry to be strangled by draconian regulations in order to save a single tree. Why would I do this? Because I hate people and like trees more. Why do I hate people and like trees? Because I am a godless atheist who doesn’t follow the command to have dominion over the Earth. Why? Because I’m bad.

You may think I am making this up. Try it. Wear the most unassuming outfit you can (blend in with conservatives) and go to a bar or church and strike up a conversation. Remember, you are to pretend that you one of them in order to let them speak frankly, though this isn’t necessary much of the time as they’ll happily tell you that you are immoral, evil, and bad.

So the reason I asked the original question was that there is this really unexplainable anti-government feeling among these so-called conservatives. Government equals bad, always and forever, amen. Yet they celebrate the Founding Fathers as near saints while forgetting these dudes all created a system of government. Rarely is the question ever asked ‘when is government good’? It is a truism to them that the government can do nothing well and only private enterprise can do anything well. EVER! We are already seeing our prisons and schools go the way of privatization. There is a big push among Southern states to get religious charters in school and do away with public school altogether. This way ignorance can be perpetuated without answering to government at all. Yes, let me be clear, if you outlaw evolution in your biology class and perpetuate the fake science of creationism, you are perpetuating ignorance. Let the hate mail begin.

Another belief is that capitalism is good. Here is the funny thing, capitalism is the only example where I can get someone to see shades of grey. Government is always bad (always) and other things are always bad (communism, socialism, Justin Bieber songs, etc… ) and yet capitalism can have its multitude of problems, its injustices, its greed, its devastation to communities, families, environment, etc… pointed out and I’ll get the person admit that it isn’t perfect, meaning it has a little bad in it but it is still mostly good. At least it isn’t communism, which is all bad… always.

Now here is a problem. We cannot trust government because, for one reason, people are inherently bad and power corrupts. Yet we can trust business and capitalism because this greed and competition has been turned on itself. In what way does turning greed upon greed limit the effects of greed? This notion of competition is cited in some alternate reality where there are many businesses on a level playing field. Yet this is not the case. There are huge… HUGE corporations that have taken control of many smaller companies. Where is the competition? And how can we trust the people who run these? The very, very wealthy who readily spend billions in political actions that go against the majority of The People control more and more of our country. How can we trust them? Because they are essentially good, some answer.

In what universe does this make sense? In what way does it make more sense to trust a corporation, whose SOLE purpose is to make a profit over a government, whose existence is brought about by a will of the people for self representation?

If people are basically good, we can trust our government (and our corporations) and can look instead to systems in place that affect ethical behaviors (such as a system built on greed). If people are basically bad, then we cannot trust our government NOR can we trust our corporations. Yet given the choice between the two it makes more sense to put less power into the hands of a few powerful individuals and corporations instead of a system of government where power is shared with checks and balances.

And if people are neither good or bad, but a complex mixture of the two? If so, then it doesn’t make sense to proclaim government is bad and to put blind faith into corporations, knowing as we do, that power can and does corrupt, and that retention of power into the hands of The People is of primary importance.


5 thoughts on “Are people basically good? or bad?

  1. I think the problem in answering this question may be the labels themselves. The right versus wrong stance. The one or the other viewpoints that come from an egoic point of view. I write to offer this: People can choose to be bad or good and its only in the identification of or judgement thereof that gets in the way of peaceful understanding. Life is. It just is. It isn’t to be judged right or wrong, good or bad. Its just the way it is. The question then becomes can we allow it to be the way it is or are we going to continually try to “fix” it to meet our own agendas, ideas and or beliefs about the way it should or shouldn’t be? Can’t it be both Creation and Evolution instead of one or the other when its clear that both sides of the argument see their side to be true as fervently as the other does and science supports both if one is willing to look unbiasedly? Its like when Einstein proved light was both a particle and a wave after years of debate as to it being one or the other. It seems that if we can begin to see without preconceived notions of what bad and good is or looks like, I think the question may then become irrelevant allowing us to see something else, create something new, by seeing with entirely new eyes.

    1. As usual, Starla has a good point. I should clarify that the ‘creationists’ of which I speak are the likes of the ‘scientific creationism’ mold, a specific argument by Christian fundamentalists in this country to perpetuate an anti-science view. Their approach of ‘scientific creationism’, also known as ‘intelligent design’ does not qualify to be labeled science at all and is, at best, ‘pseudoscience’. Its purpose is not about understanding as it is purely political. Outside of such religio-political endeavors, any serious investigation into the nature of reality does indeed depart outside of our neat categories of ‘religion’ and ‘science’. The question of ‘what is consciousness’ alone is one such question that, unless you are a die-hard religious-minded person or physicalist philosopher, is thus far proving impossible to truly define the parameters of, much less understand it.

  2. When you ask the question “What is conciousness? Don’t immediately let the mind tell you something about it because its answers will be irrelevant. It just can’t understand that which it is not. That has been the problem with over thinking this stuff. Brilliant minds like Stephen Hawkings are no doubt deep thinkers who have pondered the question in ways that some minds can never grasp. However that is the limitation of this thinking and other types of deep religious study. Its taking you in the wrong direction. Away from the Truth. The Truth is so simple. its not as complex as the scientific minds would like to believe. It is an experience that can be had in every moment when we aren’t thinking so much. When we can quiet busy minds chatter for even 5 seconds there is an experience that is happening before the thoughts and when felt, can be understood to be something other than thoughts, something observing the thoughts. That is conciousness. It isn’t to be found in some ancient text or through some spiritual guru. It is simply the being that moves us. The Source of all life. The God Factor, The spirit molecule. The Universe. Or simply consciousness. Call it whatever but it need only be noticed, recognized, nurtured and it grows, expands and becomes the more prominent force in your life if you can get out of the way of the mind!

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