Are people inherently good?
The Bible, Confucius, Sharia law and the Constitution of the United States of America are all historical examples of guidelines that set out the proper behaviour of people. This begs the question: if people are inherently good, altruistic may be a better word, and act for the greater good of their communities why have certain behaviours been mandated again and again through thousands of years of history? Agreed they all have their nuances. But fundamentally they all state a series of rules, rituals, principles or laws that are to be followed without question. There are, of course, cases where the rules have evolved – the best example in Western culture is the evolution and reinterpretation of Jewish law by the Christians and even differences have evolved between different Jewish and Christian groups.
If we look at the Bible, after the great flood that eliminated human kind, with the exception of Noah and his family, Genesis Chapter 20 verse 21 states “...I (God) will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth..”. Confucius wrote his Analects at a time when China was in the throes of civil war and the country was in desperate need of cohesion. I could go on.
Perhaps Richard Dawkins (or in fact, Charles Darwin) is the most enlightened of all the great thinkers of the last few thousand years. The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, depicts the biological phenomenon that genes work towards a state of stable expression through their passive or inherent (but not conscious) propagation until such time that they are dominant in a given community (gene pool). Altruism in this case, states that sacrifice is a necessary part of the process to propagate the genes. Altruism is therefore a critical part of selfishness ie. The unprecedented expression of the gene to as high a level of frequency as possible until it is consistently and stably present throughout the gene pool.
If this form of selfishness is indeed our inherent behaviour, law and order exists to counteract our biological imperative. So are we inherently good? In terms of propagating successful or ‘fit’ genes – and I am talking about humans here – we are built with the nature to propagate and advance our species. You could argue that the great works of philosophy and religion spanning more than 5 thousand years have developed as a means of controlling mankind – this statement in itself is one that has been debated for years. But to take it a level further, you could argue that religious and philosophical texts of spiritual means actually exist to oppose human nature. Is our view on whether we are inherently ‘good’ skewed by the filters that these texts place on our apparently open minds? Is our nature, our biological imperative, constrained through the social constructs of religion, law and spirituality? If the human heart is evil and evil is the norm, can you argue that evil is actually good because it is the nature of the populous? As Shakespeare says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2). Democracy exists to represent the thoughts of the masses on proportional basis (at least that is the intent). Therefore I propose that evil hearts are the norm and evil is good and laws exist to prevent society and the human species from progressing towards its full potential.
Then, as Isiah Berlin famously wrote, "few new truths have ever won their way against the resistance of established ideas save by being overstated".
I am an atheist who believes that we have responsibility for our actions and that our actions must safeguard our communities and the future of the planet. Still, an interesting debate and one that I hope we can all enjoy.