Pick Wayne's Brain

February 14, 2009

Are We Born Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , , , — Wayne A. Schneider @ 12:46 AM

I am posting this thread because I would like to have a serious discussion with everyone, but especially conservatives, about the core principles of our liberal and conservative philosophies. I am Liberal (well, Liberal-Libertarian, technically, according to PoliticalCompass.org; it only takes about 15-20 minutes to see where you fall on the political scale) and I want to have a serious discussion about why we think the way we do. I am not a philosophy student, just someone trying to learn things.

I am asking everyone who participates in this discussion to please be polite. I have tried to have such discussions on other sites (mostly ThinkProgress), and, unfortunately, the negative tone of some of the comments toward these people left them, shall we say, not in the mood to continue the dialog. I would not like that to happen here, so I am asking all participants to be respectful to the commenters personally even if you are being disrespectful to the comment itself. Remember to keep the two separate. I would like this to be a discussion of ideas, not of personalities. And since this is my blog and not someone else’s, I will edit and/or delete comments that I feel are too insulting to the person. Rip the comment itself to shreds if you wish, but don’t insult the person making it. I will hold myself to this standard, too.

One last thing before I start things off. This is only a conversation, not a competition. So, please, no wagering.

At the core of the difference between Liberal and Conservative beliefs is the question of whether we, as humans, are born inherently good or inherently evil. Thomas Hobbes believed that without some strong authority keeping us in check, mankind would devolve into a constant state of warfare. In contrast to Hobbes, John Locke believed that man’s natural state was not one of warfare. [Full disclosure: This are general summaries I got from Thom Hartmann’s great book “Cracking the Code”. Some day soon, I hope to sit down and read those links I put in above in full. It’s okay if you don’t right now, but they are there for your own edification.]

So, do you believe that humans are inherently evil and must be dominated by a strong authority of some kind? Or do you believe that we are inherently good, and that our natural state would be to live in cooperation with one another? When I think of this, I am always reminded of a great scene from “The West Wing”. After pipe bombs killed some students at a college and the perpetrators were caught, President Bartlett said of them, “They weren’t born wanting to do this.”

And remember, kids. Be nice.



  1. Wayne. The short answer is ‘yes’.

    The long answer is that the concept of good and evil is only an evolutionary survival technique. (much like the idea of heaven). And the judgement of who is good, or who is evil, is subjective and solely based on an individual’s, or society’s, collective experience and perspective.

    We are born with certain beliefs (genetically inherited), just like we are born with ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ responses. Survival tools. But, we are also born with the capability to adjust our beliefs to adapt to changing conditions. Also, a survival tool.

    The insurgent to some is a ‘good’ freedom fighter or patriot. To others, an ‘evil’ terrorist. The crusader is a ‘good’ soldier of God. To others, an ‘evil’ imperialist tool.

    As an individual evolves, so does society. The human ability to adapt beliefs to a dynamic world (to better survive) is at the heart of political discourse.

    Comment by backup — February 16, 2009 @ 12:46 PM

  2. Wayne. I took the political compass test. I’m slightly right (.62) and mostly libertarian (-5.13). Some of the questions were difficult. But, the test was interesting and I would recommend it to anyone.

    Comment by backup — February 16, 2009 @ 2:37 PM

  3. Thanks for coming by, backup. Sorry for the delay in posting. For personal reasons, I have been unable to spend more time at the computer.

    In answer to your second response first, my scores were more Liberal and Libertarian than either Mandela or Gandhi. (Around -7.5 on both.)

    Now, to the first. Saying “Yes” to the question of “Are we born inherently good or are we born inherently evil?” is, to put it nicely, ducking the question. I’m not talking about criminals born with an extra chromosome. Those people are not so much “evil” as they are “defective”.

    Conservatives, like Hobbes, believe that we are born inherently evil. Liberals, like Locke, believe that we are born good. I believe that, too. I believe that our natural tendency is to love and it’s hatred that we learn. Some people start learning that hatred from an early age, usually from parents. But they learn it, they don’t instinctively know it.

    Also, I must say I disagree with the idea that we are born with genetically inherited beliefs. We are certainly born with certain survival instincts (such as fight or flight, as you said, and also the inate ability to grasp), but to say we are born with certain beliefs makes no sense to me. That would imply that we are born with knowledge, and I have heard of no one who has proven that we are born “knowing things”, in the sense of understanding complex issues.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    Comment by Wayne A. Schneider — February 17, 2009 @ 8:45 PM

  4. wayne. don’t worry about responding, I understand. you’re right about the genetically inherited beliefs. I should have said ‘a genetic predisposition to believe a certain way. I personally look at the brain much like any other muscle. I think that cognition is similar to any other activity we do. I have kids. I notice that my daughter has similar form to my wife when she runs. (she didn’t learn it, it’s innate) My daughter didn’t have the knowledge (know how) to run when she was born. She learned how to run, but she has a predisposition to run in a certain way (and also to be faster or slower, based on her genetic makeup).

    People obviously aren’t born with beliefs. you’re right. But, I think there is an inherited response to situations. A response that helps guide future beliefs. Response examples that abound in the natural world. Salmon swim upstream, birds push their chicks out of the nest, and a mammal aggressively challenges anyone that gets close to the cubs. Those responses to information aren’t always, or even significantly, influenced by experience. Many times, they are genetically coded. Humans are animals. I think it works very similar for us.

    I may not to help you, because I am not significantly conservative (slightly right). Additionally, I question the premise that humans are born good or bad. I think each human is born with a random, almost infinite, response characteristics that will largely influence his/her existence. The successful responses will more likely to be past down, the unsuccessful ones won’t. And again, the determination of whether those responses are good or evil is subjective to the society that the individual is born into. (ie. Spartan adolescent boys killed as initiation to be a warrior; in that society, the killing was ‘good’.)

    I’ll think more about what you said and check back.

    Comment by backup — February 18, 2009 @ 11:34 AM

  5. wayne. I looked at my response. It doesn’t answer your question. Let me try this.

    My son is ADHD. (Wonder where he got it from). He’s a great kid, but he got in trouble at school, everyday. So, we homeschool him. When researching ADHD, I came upon the theory that because ADHD occurs in about 5% of the population, it wasn’t necessarily some defect, but more an evolutionary set of traits that had purpose in a tribal setting. The idea that the ADHD traits, mirrored alpha male traits that were important to the tribe. (those traits are no longer as desirable, because we no longer live in smaller tribes (10-20 members); but the characteristics still occur in about 5% of individuals, because human evolution hasn’t caught up to the change in society).

    Where I’m going with this: People are not born with universal traits. Some are black, white, big, small, strong, weak, and possibly conservative or liberal.

    As individuals evolves, so do societies. We have had hundreds of thousands of generations of tribal dead ends with a few that have resulted in today’s huge monotheistic tribes (Judaism, Christianity, Islam; and obviously others).

    Just as we have had a need for some portion of the society to be alpha males (until recently), is it possible that a successful society needs some portion conservative and some liberal?

    If the tribe had all alpha personalities, would the members constantly battle to extinction? If there were no alpha personalities, would the tribe expire due to the lack of determined leadership?

    If we were all born as liberal ‘lovers’ is it possible that our society would be overcome by more confrontational tribes or focused on compassion to the exclusion of productivity? If we were all conservative ‘haters’ is it possible that we would die out due the lack of compassion or support for struggling members of tribe?

    My proposition is that we are born neither good or evil. We are born the way we are. And the balance of who is a ‘lover’ or ‘hater’ has been achieved through millions of years of human evolution.

    Comment by backup — February 18, 2009 @ 2:10 PM

  6. wayne. additionally, nobody is going to be a proponent of hate. People are relatively averse to conflict.

    But, hate possibly serves some evolutionary purpose.

    It may be genetically ingrained in us to resist others that are different than we are. This may have some survival benefit. Think about how the Inca’s got decimated by the Spanish. The Spanish were from a different tribe. They brought foreign disease. Their intentions were not peaceful, but predatory. There is a lot more to it, but if the Inca’s would have resisted more strongly, maybe the chances for Inca survival could have been better.

    Hate is an evolutionary equivalent to adrenaline. Hate is a mechanism to heighten resistance to foreigners, people not like us.

    Again, I’m not a proponent for hate. I just see it as less right and wrong; and more of an evolutionary survival tactic that is holdover from earlier times; whether we need it or not.

    Comment by backup — February 18, 2009 @ 2:29 PM

  7. Except for some spots of brilliance, which Jefferson picked up when writing the Declaration of Independence, Hobbes and his “state of nature” are full of shit. Of course, that’s my opinion — ever so delicately stated.

    backup, “hate” does not serve an evolutionary purpose, but fear does. There is a difference.

    Comment by Zooey — February 21, 2009 @ 2:28 AM

  8. I agree that fear serves a purpose. I think that hate may only serve an evolutionary purpose in that it is an emotion that heightens the amount of resistance to a foreigner.

    Jealousy is a similar emotion that inspires (in most cases) the male to go to greater lengths to ensure the female remains chaste.

    Without those heightened emotions, the efforts to resist a foreigner or a competing male may be too lackluster to ensure survival.

    Comment by backup — February 21, 2009 @ 5:35 PM

  9. Wayne. I just finished the links you provided on Hobbes and Locke. I lean heavily towards Hobbes, although I disagree that a sovereign is the only alternative to the ‘natural condition of mankind’. I believe that any and all types of societal organization act to influence and temper the natural condition; not just the sovereign.

    I had more difficulty with Locke. Primarily his belief that ideas cannot be antecedent to experience. I agree with the author of the articles assessment that Locke underrates innate qualities in regards to education. And, as an agnostic, I disagree with the idea that an obligation to moral law depends on divine will.

    Comment by backup — February 22, 2009 @ 8:07 PM

  10. Late to the party…as usual. If you define good as beneficial to the survival and growth of society and evil as detrimental, I would lean towards the born inherently good side. Or rather with a stronger tendency towards good.

    Almost all societal behavior is learned. It can be self taught/trial and error or it can come from teaching. People like Hobbes think it better that it is done by the rote method. It appeals to their own standards and ego, a need for control. Locke has more faith in human intelligence and ability.

    Of the two, Locke’s ideas and methods are more likely to encourage independent thought which leads to curiousity which leads to discovery. The authoritarian control method stifles this process.

    As to the hate issue…hate is unresolved anger. Anger is just fear in drag (not my quote but I like it.) Anger is designed to provide a short term boost based in the fight/flight response. The human body cannot sustain anger. Instead it becomes hate which is invariably mixed with guilt and shame issues, usually on a more subconscious level.

    Under Hobbsian theories it is easier and even useful to use these issues to reinforce control. People who have been taught to think have more of a tendency to examine the issues that are causing the discomfort of hate.

    I must say it was interesting to read backup’s posts. Thanks for the contribution, backup.

    And Wayne, thanks for the test link. I came in with a -14.9 combined, almost evenly split.

    Comment by medjhiesco — April 25, 2009 @ 11:56 AM

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