By Vincent Lyn
What makes a person good or evil?
‘GOOD’ means a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. … ‘EVIL’ people are those who are unable to empathize with others. As a result, their own needs and desires are of paramount importance.
The great philosopher Thomas Hobbes raised an investigation:
“Suppose that someone is strong enough to harm us at their pleasure, the rational thing to do is to form an agreement with others to protect ourselves against that person or get rid of them. There is strength in numbers. But, if we can band together for mutual protection from an individual, then we can also agree upon common rules that mutually protect us from each other. That is, to make and live by a social agreement by which all of us accept limitations on our liberty in exchange for common security.”
Whether humans are born good or evil has been debated by philosophers for centuries. Aristotle argued that morality is learned, and that we’re born as “amoral creatures” while Sigmund Freud considered new-borns a moral blank slate. Anyone who has read “Lord of the Flies” will expect children to be fully-fledged sociopaths just waiting to be freed from their adult-imposed shackles to start a cult and brutally attempt to kill each other.
The argument over whether humans are fundamentally good or evil has been raging on in earnest since 17th and 18th-century philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau put forward opposite theories of human nature and morality. Hobbes believed the natural state of man was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” while Rousseau believed we are all born good, it is civilization that turns us evil. Hobbes describes humans needing society and rules to reign in their instincts in order to thrive; later Rousseau openly criticized him, arguing instead that man would be gentle and pure without the corruption of greed and inequality caused by the class system imposed by our society.
While it’s generally acknowledged today that the answer must lie somewhere in between, neuroscience points to some interesting mechanisms of the brain that give rise to our behaviors, everything from helping someone in need to committing acts of violence. Research by Yale University shows that babies have innate goodness and they are born with a sense of morality. While parents and society help develop a belief system, they don’t start from a blank slate. One-year-olds are capable of passing moral judgment.
The Enemy Lies Within
Our nature is inherently good. We are born with an ability to distinguish right from wrong. But we are not exempt from acting violently or selfishly. That’s what cynics get wrong when they want to describe our nature as evil. They only see one side. And use wars and violent acts to make their point. We should not confuse an act with our nature. That wars exist doesn’t mean that humans are predisposed to violence.
As education expert Alfie Kohn said, every society has made pottery, but that doesn’t mean we have a pottery-making gene.
The good and bad debate is endless. We are not either good or bad, but both. Buddhism encourages us to be cautious about opposing concepts. Thinking in binary terms is deceiving. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin. We must integrate both.
“Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil.” — Marcus Aurelius
The struggle between good and evil causes more violence. It creates a sense of moral superiority that divides people. It creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. The story of good and evil sells because it’s easy to understand. It feeds on deception. Once we label someone as evil, we don’t want to understand them. We see them as the enemy. When we label people, we lose the opportunity to address the causes of their actions. Hate, bigotry, and desperation seed more violence. If you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first — in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth. Hate is induced. But so are empathy and tolerance — nonviolence can also be taught.
Our mind is a constant battle — even if we don’t notice it. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The battle-line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”
Xunzi, one of the most influential philosophers of the classical period in China the world has ever known. He systematized the work undertaken by Confucius and Mencius, and has been largely responsible for its continuance as a living tradition for over 2,000 years.
Xunzi’s most famous dictum is that “the nature of man is evil; his goodness is only acquired training.” What Xunzi preached was thus essentially a philosophy of culture. Human nature at birth, he maintained, consists of instinctual drives which, left to themselves, are selfish, anarchic, and antisocial. Society as a whole, however, exerts a civilizing influence upon the individual, gradually training and molding him until he becomes a disciplined and morally conscious human being. Of prime importance in this process are ceremonies and ritual practices, rules of social behavior, traditional mores and music (which Xunzi, like Plato, regarded as having a profound moral significance).
Xunzi’s view of human nature was, of course, radically opposed to that of Mencius, who had optimistically proclaimed the innate goodness of man. Both thinkers agreed that all men are potentially capable of becoming sages, but for Mencius this meant that every man has it within his power to develop further the shoots of goodness already present at birth, whereas for Xunzi it meant that every man can learn from society how to overcome his initially antisocial impulses. Thus began what became one of the major controversies in Confucian thought.
Two wolves are fighting inside your mind to see which will take over. One is full of anger, greed, resentment, and doubt. The other wolf is full of joy, compassion, kindness, and clarity.
Which wolf will win? The one you feed the most.
The Power of Choosing Good and Evil is Within the Reach of Us All!
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency