Is Human Nature Good or Bad?
by Lisa Reyes
November 2, 2009
We come across different kinds of people and different kinds of personalities every day. We see this in our family, friends, co-workers and people we meet practicing our regular routines such as food shopping or going to the dry cleaners. Many of the times when meeting or coming across strangers we may judge them according to how personable they are. The serious or not so friendly person has a bad nature and the friendly, happy go lucky energetic person has a good nature. This is just passing judgment and is what we find more acceptable or reasonable, but not always the case. But is human nature good or bad? My stand on this matter is that human nature is good. I hear so many people complaining that there are “just not many good people anymore”, but what exactly does this mean? Aside from the fact that everyone has a different definition of what “good” is, we seem to spend less time getting to know one another and learning about the life journey one another has had and what events have molded our “personality” rather than what is in our hearts. When we turn on the news and see someone convicted of some heinous crime we often hear the neighbors interviewed say something along the lines, “I’m shocked, he/she seemed like a normal guy and was a great neighbor.” On the other hand we can look at popular images, though fictional, like Scrooge in the Christmas Carol and see an impersonal distasteful human being who was hardened by hurt but deep down had a golden heart that needed to be recovered. I believe we all know a Scrooge. Human nature, and by nature meaning what we “naturally” and originally are, is dominantly good.
Based on the Rogerian Theory, “Humankind is not evil; humankind is good and positive at its core. Wars and other violence do not lie at the core of humanity but are contaminants of society, even though society is not intrinsically evil. However, authoritarianism is evil because it justifies its actions by believing humankind’s core to be negative. The imposition of control upon others is based on mistrust in the goodness of others. (http://www.myauz.com/)” The fact that there is evil in the world is not what I argue. This cannot be argued as we witness shameful acts in wars, where in some instances soldiers fight beyond their need to, in such cases where there have been unnecessary continued abuse of enemies already captured and imprisoned. It is disturbing and discouraging when we see photos or videos of this, sometimes our own soldiers, laughing at their “game”. We even see things in less drastic ways in pop culture that the mainstream can easily relate to, for example, the uncompassionate actions of Kanye West’s unnecessary public humiliation to a young Taylor Swift during a heartfelt and grateful acceptance speech of an award. Both examples are of opposite extremes, but both have left many wondering, “What is wrong with mankind?” It’s enticingly easy to lose faith in mankind and wonder at times what the worth of goodness is. Though, are we born to act as such? Are we born with the desire to be “bad”, unpleasant and to create misery, sadness or discomfort for others? My answer is no. I believe that who each of us are is a combination of things such as upbringing and experiences and how we each individually react to those experiences. Two good natured people could be paralyzed in an accident. While one may just be happy to be alive and use their experience to make a change in other people’s lives, the other may remain to be bitter, angry, depressed and possibly spend the rest of their life that way. People handle their experiences differently, have different quality levels of support systems and also accept these things into their lives differently. This doesn’t make one or the other good or bad, just different.
The idea that some people are just “born that way” or born “bad” is also disagreeable. Rousseau states that “the child was a moral being who would come to know good and evil with later development of reason” (Cleverley, Phillips p. 34). The continued emphasis on the importance of affection for newborns and the fact that we even have volunteers in hospitals just to hold babies are examples that the majority of us believe and understand this, “… the kind of brain that each baby develops is the brain that comes out of his or her experiences with other people. Love facilitates a massive burst of connections in this part of the brain between six and 12 months. Neglect at this time can greatly reduce the development of the pre-frontal cortex. Early care also establishes the way we deal with stress. Babies rely on their (caretakers) to soothe distress and restore equilibrium. With responsive parents, the stress response, a complex chain of biochemical reactions, remains an emergency response. However, being with caregivers who convey hostility or resentment at a baby's needs, or who ignore their baby or leave him in a state of distress for longer than he can bear, will make a baby's stress response over-sensitive. (www.thisisawar.com)” When young children fall into our standards of “bad” they are often accused of being born that way because they are believed to be too young to have met societies standards of “experience” in order be tainted by that. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Babies have emotions. They feel love just as they will feel neglect. The person that is not given affection or loving attention as a baby may always carry that, and of course, may never understand why, since their memory cannot reach that far. One must also keep in mind that young children may not always understand their experiences as an adult may intend them too (like saying “No” to going out to play, perhaps because they just finished eating or need rest) or the fact that some children cannot verbalize what they feel emotionally and may be going through something that their well meaning caretakers aren’t even aware of. In the first case, they may take the answer “No” as rejection or lack of love, since they are too young to understand, and sometimes adults too easily say “No” and don’t have the patience for the “Why?” that children often respond with. Children are bright and even courageous enough to acknowledge that they don’t completely “get it” and ask “Why?” and yet many times adults are either too lazy to answer or too arrogant to acknowledge it as an innocent and valid question as opposed to a disrespectful challenge on the child’s part. Imagine how discouraging and dispiriting this could be to a child. Our response to that question can greatly alter the way the child absorbs and is impacted by the answer “No”. In the second case, we must be mindful that children cannot and/or do not always verbalize themselves. They may have experiences that caregivers are not aware of. These experiences could be as simple as rejection from peers or as complex as abuses such as sexual or emotional abuse. The latter two are not as visible as a bruise. Because of shame or confusion a small child may carry that throughout their life as well and those mainly in charge of them may not know where the potential “bad” behavior is coming from. As ridiculous as this may sound to some, Jim Carey’s version of “The Grinch” is a perfect example of how a child became “bad” after certain experiences and carried it into his adulthood. The movie surely depicts a cranky child, but a child who is loved and shows love. The child Grinch is taunted daily by his classmates but has affection for a classmate who shows him kindness. In the movie, he makes a gift for this classmate, but then remembers how he was ridiculed for having facial hair by his classmates. He shaves which results in wounds to his face and shows up to school the next day bearing his gift in hand and a paper bag over his wounded face. He is then instructed by his teacher to take the bag off his head, which leads to more humiliation through the torture of his classmates. He then flees off never to be heard of again and is always referred to as a “heartless soul”. As the story unfolds, it is the compassion and the “why?” questioning of a child that provokes his return and his journey to feeling whole again, showing viewers that he had a heart all along. He was always good, but certain events led him to become hardened and more importantly having someone believe in him led him to a life altering experience that helped him to release his emotional burdens of the past. Though the character is fictitious, it was created by none other than a human being and is a reflection of many people today. Perhaps if not fully aware, we are subconsciously aware of the fact that human nature is good and desires good because it is created in works of art.
While the presence of “bad” and “evil” in this world cannot be denied, these are things that are built up in humans and are not things that we are born with. I believe that the birth of evil did not come intentionally. We are human and we are not perfect. The smallest most seemingly insignificant action may set some off the path of “goodness” depending on how they are able to handle and how they perceive things that are done to them, just as life altering experiences may set them back on path. Yes, there are psychopathic murders out there doing evil things, but this still falls into the realms of mental illness which is just that, an illness; an extreme one, but not the TRUE nature of human beings. I’m not naïve to the fact that there are parents out there who do not raise their children well and do not instill good values in them, but this is something that was developed over time. All it takes is one act of neglect to throw a young child off course and if not in childhood then life experiences and then history just may repeat itself over and over again. To what level the impact is varies from person to person and experience to experience. Many people may simply develop unpleasant personalities due to their life experiences and perception of things and yet get judged as being bad, while the picture perfect neighbor may in turn be the one guilty of a murder. We are born good; experiences alter us in various ways and society teaches us to be judgmental. The most valuable piece of wisdom passed down to me when I felt dislike for someone growing up was “You never know what happens behind closed doors to make them that way.” Taken literally or metaphorically it still sends the same message. We don’t know everything about one another. We don’t know what crosses others have had to bear to make them the way that they are or “bad”, but the fact that the human race is dominantly good and desires good action is evident in various types of works of art, daily acts of kindness such as holding the door for someone behind us without thought, the way so many unite during disasters such as the World Trade Center tragedy and even the discussions taking place in this course study. It is only throughout the course of our lives that we develop tendencies towards negative actions and attitudes.
Cleverley, John, and D.C. Phillips. Visions of Childhood. New York: Teachers College, 1986. Print.
Gerhardt, Sue. "The Cradle of Civilization." 2006. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
Ridgeway, MD, Ian R. "Carl Rogers." 2005. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.