Is Human Nature Good Or Evil?
One of the biggest questions that humans face is whether they are inherently good or evil. One camp, the Rousseauians, believe that there is an essential goodness in people, while Hobbesian cynics see selfishness and competition as the driving forces behind war-ridden societies.
New research, however, is giving this old debate a twist. A study on babies has shown that even the youngest of humans have a sense of right and wrong.
Dostoevsky’s Darker Side
Human nature has been a central topic of debate for centuries. While some theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau have held that humans are inherently evil, others have argued that our good nature far exceeds any evil we may commit. Dostoevsky falls into the latter camp, writing novels such as Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground that explore the depths of human egoism and the ways that radical ideology can influence a person’s actions.
Dostoevsky’s works often focus on the abysses of the soul, the struggle for redemption and the search for meaning in a world that seems corrupt and without purpose. Using painterly psychological portraiture and a complex storyline, Dostoevsky’s characters are pushed to their limit by moral dilemmas, mental anguish and the pressure of the unfulfilled will. In this way, Dostoevsky’s fiction reflects the existential crisis of the modern world. It also provides a unique insight into the nature of human suffering. This makes his work both thought provoking and engaging.
Human Nature as a Whole
Talk of human nature is common in everyday discourse as well as in the writings of philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Despite this, there is much disagreement over what the concept of human nature actually entails. Some think that it simply refers to a set of properties shared by humans, or that it refers to a normative set of standards against which the development of any human behaviour should be evaluated.
Others take a more Aristotelian approach to the notion of human nature, using it in a classificatory sense that picks out those features that belong to the biological taxon Homo sapiens. This is the view that most contemporary evolutionary biologists adopt.
These theories tend to be more optimistic about human nature than the more cynical views of those who believe that there is no such thing as an inherent goodness in humans. They assume that if the obstacles of war, persecution and ignorance were removed from society then mankind would be able to live up to its potential for virtue.
The question of whether human nature is good or evil has been debated for thousands of years. Recent studies on the behaviour of babies, for example the ‘Big Mother Study’ from Harvard, suggest that infants favour altruistic behaviour over their own interests. These findings may counter some of the more pessimistic views on human nature held by Freud and Hobbes, as well as those who believe that we are born with a bad nature that must be repressed.
The Christian doctrine of original sin was formulated by the North African theologian St Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). It taught that because Adam disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit, his guilt and sinfulness were passed down through heredity to his descendants.
Some argue that this interpretation of Paul’s passage is flawed. For example, it doesn’t explain why some humans can’t sin personally, such as infants and the severely mentally handicapped, when “all have sinned.” Geerhardus Vos rejects this argument by arguing that there is another way to understand original sin.
For many, morality is a belief that there are certain behaviors that everyone should be required to do. It can include everything from respect for others to not killing them. This belief can also be religious.
Other philosophers believe that humans have a natural ability to be moral. They view this as a result of their evolutionary history. They believe that it is part of their biological nature to want to reproduce and pass on their genes.
Some psychologists have taken this idea of natural morality a step further. They have found that a number of non-human primates seem to have some form of morality. However, they still think that this is not a good thing. For one, they do not see that this is a system that would be endorsed by rational people. They also tend to conflate morality with concepts such as etiquette, law, and religion. This may cause them to miss the fact that morality is something that can be separate from these other domains.