Are people good? evil? or none of the above?
This question of human nature has interested thinkers since Socrates, and there has been no shortage of geniuses since who have tossed their hat into the ring in attempts at ending the debate. It should be clarified that the question is not concerned with human guilt—the religious idea that mankind is born righteous but inevitably falls or that humans are inherently condemned—rather, the issue is interested with the intent of the heart. Are people good? Are people bad? Or are people somewhere in the middle?
The optimist will opt for human beings being inherently good creatures. To make this case, they might point at humanity’s progression as we advance technology, explore the arts, fight diseases and hunger, and become more enlightened. One can easily identify some moral points that have seen significant improvement (e.g. slavery or treatment of women). A Christian might also stake our inherent goodness in our being created in the image of God or being born “innocent.” Anne Frank demonstrates this optimism most clearly: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
On the other hand, there are plenty who think people are naturally evil, and unlike the optimists above who believe that we are good yet occasionally stumble, the pessimist believes that we are bad yet occasionally transcend our nature. This case is probably most easily made from the Bible starting with God’s summation of mankind, “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and extending through the rest of the book. As seen in movements like Calvinism, historical theology has also highly favored this position.
And then there’s the middle view. For this neutral position, humans are tabula rasa with no inherent morality; we either are raised by the Spirit to do good or we fall into temptation. This seems to me the more scientific option. Our mind makes decisions, and their tendency toward evil or righteousness is relative to each individual.
It’s hard for me to decide between these. I refuse to believe that humans’ progress is not for the better, but the scope of human history is almost too much. War. So much war. I also think of a claim I once heard, “No civilization ended morally better than when it started.” Surely, history is what speaks loudest on the nature of mankind. It is impossible not to see the evil in the world. And while I accept John Calvin’s famous words that all people have “some notions of justice and rectitude,” I think they also have a tendency—whether some metaphysical burden or some psychological shortsightedness—to choose injustice and wrong-doing.
However, this sad truth, makes Paul’s words ring with greater reality: “You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” Our total depravity does not defeat us; we are not condemned to our predispositions; our nature is not our will.