No, People Are Not Basically Good

And other encouraging news!

By: David McCaleb
David McCaleb is a writer and national bestselling novelist. Books →


Ever heard someone say, “people are basically good”? Though I wish it were the case, it isn’t, and I can prove it. In fact, the opposite is true. Don’t get me wrong, I want to believe our default setting is founded in virtue. I observe greatness in people all about. And when I stare at myself in the mirror each evening as I brush my teeth, my inner monologue reassures me. “You did good today. You’re a decent guy.” First, why do I talk to myself in second person? Next, newsflash: anyone who says people are basically good is gaslighting themself. Because even a little introspection and thought evidences we are, unfortunately, debased.

But this isn’t bad news! Read to the end, because acknowledgement of our inner enemy ushers in a newfound freedom.

What If…

First, consider what life would look like if goodness was our natural state. Evil would take effort. When we headed to work, we wouldn’t need to lock our home. We would start our car without a key, and on the drive the streets would have fewer police because no one would selfishly endanger others by discourteous driving. At work, we would enter the building without a badge or security check. Everywhere, expensive equipment would be unlocked and computers unsecured. Banks would exist for convenience purposes only because the thought of stealing would be like holding our breath – it would go against our nature.

But this scenario has never occurred. Even more, it only suggests people aren’t basically good. To assert that our core tendencies are the opposite – that basic human nature is evil – we need proof. To that end, I present four witnesses:

Witness Number 1: History

History is the strongest proof against the goodness of mankind. Yeah, pretty much all of it. To be sure, there is much good in human history to be celebrated. However, evil is also present. And often, it’s the canvas upon which good must be painted. But just because good exists, doesn’t mean evil doesn’t, nor does it prove it’s our default nature.

So, of all elements of history, let’s reflect upon just one: war. In doing so, we’ll disregard any battles fought over limited resources needed for human survival, and instead focus on the other 99% of human conflict. In such cases, what could cause one people to require the killing of another? Is our coexistence that intolerable? No. Did you catch that point? War doesn’t start by itself. Rather, it is initiated by people. By us. And because aggressor nations are not trying to survive, we must, therefore, deduce that war’s origins are from a more sinister place within.

“But isn’t the evil of war a learned behavior?”

No. If war had gradually developed over time, maybe. But this violence is ancient and fills human history to bursting. Even Algerian cave art from 5,000 years ago depicts an intense battle scene. Other archeological evidence shows war goes back twice that far. And instead of decreasing, which would be the case if humans were basically good, it sprouts everywhere we reside. In the last century alone, there were 267 wars 1 with total deaths estimated at 110 million 2,3. And the number of wars have increased since 2011 4, meaning our condition appears to be worsening as of late.

Now, here is where it gets personal. Some argue that wars are created by a few people, usually those in leadership, and that their evils shouldn’t be attributed to all. However, this argument fails in the light of the complicity of the masses. For example, consider Hitler, someone almost universally regarded as evil. His accomplishments required millions of government and military actors to carry them out. Further, neutrality is not a luxury offered when faced with such evil. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The inaction of the citizen masses was complicity, indicating the same evil existed within as that perpetrated from above. And guess what? We are the masses.

Plus, Hitler isn’t an anomaly. History is full of nations of war and their complicit citizens. Consider the evils carried out by the people of Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the Kim dynasty of North Korea; how early Americans treated the native Indians; or the acts of the Hutu’s, the Taliban, Hamas, and the list goes on. Such malevolence is present not within a few, but within the masses. I’ll say it again, we are the masses.

Witness Number 2: Industry

Ready for the good news? Sorry, but the need for certain industrial sectors also proves that evil is hardcoded into humanity. Have you ever considered the amount of work expended simply to counter humankind’s non-virtuous tendencies? This effort carries an enormous price tag. In fact, if people were basically good, the need for much within the following industry sectors would be eliminated:

  • Police Forces: local, state, and federal
  • Courts: local, state, and federal
  • Jails, penal institutions, and correctional centers
  • Security: including all cyber/electronic security, security guards, lock manufacturing, and video monitoring
  • Department of Defense – Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, Coast Guard, and National Guard. This department cost $776 billion in 2023 9
  • Department of Homeland Security. $82 billion in 2023
  • Department of Justice (including the FBI). $38 billion in 2023
  • Director of National Intelligence (including the CIA). $72 billion in 2023
  • Department of State, $60 billion in 2023

If people were basically good, life would be easier, the federal budget would be balanced, and the world far richer. Instead, we require these industries to protect us from each other. Why? Because evil is present within.

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Witness Number 3: Logic

The logic I proclaim is simple. Let’s call it common sense, and here is how it flows:

If people were basically good, thieves would wake up wanting to go to work to earn money so they could have something to share with others (to do good). It would only be through supreme discipline, like a mental gym workout, that they could conjure ways to steal. But instead, today thieving is common.

Not convinced? Then consider the single human desire to possess something of another person, otherwise known as jealousy. Envy within isn’t fussy; it can be stirred against items, money, position, privilege, influence, or even talent. Initial emotional reactions to situations are a good indicator of core nature, because they haven’t yet been filtered by higher processing. So, what would our first response be if we were in line for a promotion at work, which we deserve, but a coworker received it instead. If basically good, it would be happiness for our friend’s success and trust in management’s assessment. But if evil, it would be surprise and jealously. Feel free to gaslight yourself, but I know what my first reactions would be.

“That’s a stretch. A little jealousy can’t be an indicator of a deeper evil.”

No, jealousy is a powerful indicator of inner evil. It’s the tool of choice of tyrannical dictators to inspire their citizens to slaughter one another. Why? Because they don’t need to instill it, but rather stoke a fire already burning. Remember my mention of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China? He wielded it skillfully, inspiring one class to violence against another, eventually killing more of his countryman than Hitler and Stalin combined 5. Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia from 1976 to 1979, killed almost 25% of his own people through jealousy-based manipulation 6. Granted, some societies may need reform. But when carried out by machete, these actions are hard evidence of humanity’s inner evil.

And jealousy is more alive today than ever. Polish the surface of the divisiveness within politics and human relations, and you’ll find jealousy staring back at you. And we haven’t even touched upon pride, greed, mockery, or anger, among others.

Make no mistake, jealousy springs from the very presence of evil.

Witness Number 4: Parenting

Anyone who says people are basically good has never been a parent. God made kids need naps just so we parents can maintain a semblance of sanity. You want to see humanity’s core nature? Work daycare.

I’m the proud father of two amazing adults, however they arrived in the birthing room void of any concept of good, or awareness of the needs of others. After becoming a father, I routinely felt the need to apologize to my parents. I learned how I’d taken them for granted. It is only with great effort, years of discipline, and the combined efforts of family and community that children grow to become productive members of society, because their default setting is anything but that.

What is “Good”?

Now, we haven’t even defined terms yet. However, I saved this until now for effect. When someone says, “People are basically good,” the term good is offered without context. Each of us, therefore, interprets it according to our own devices. Why is this a problem? Because we’re notoriously unreliable.

Most people define good in a societal context. In other words, good is what the prevailing sentiment of society considers to be beneficial. However, society’s view of good changes. Often. Drastically, in fact. Take LGBTQ+ for example. A mere thirty years ago, marriage among same-sex couples was scoffed at. Most said it would never happen. Hollywood routinely mocked gays in movies and TV shows. They were a term of derision, the butt of jokes. Now, society (within the U.S. for my foreign readers) places LGBTQ+ into the good category. And this isn’t the only time such shifts have occurred. We find similar powerful examples in the civil rights movement, women’s rights, and slavery. How were these things ever even an issue? But shifts go both ways. In both Greek and Roman society, pedophilia was socially acceptable and even celebrated. Appalling.

The bottom line? Humanity’s definition of good is unreliable and vastly wavering. What is evil today may be good tomorrow, and vice versa. We don’t even know what good is.

Look Up

Where’s the upside I promised for following me down this rabbit hole? After all, I just asserted that people are basically evil, that good only comes with effort, and that even chasing “good” is a fool’s errand because what’s good today may be considered evil tomorrow.

To find good, we need to dig deeper. But into what? Certainly not into ourselves. By now I shouldn’t be the only one that doesn’t trust what’s down there. We cannot look within, so our gaze must be drawn without.

The goodness we observe all about us – the beauty, the meaning, the purpose, the creativity, the complexity and interdependency of the world and nature and society – this magnificence all originated from somewhere. But it wasn’t from us. It was created. And it’s a good that is ever present, isn’t fickle, and doesn’t waver with the whims of society.

Our world offers many views of who this creator may be, but I can only provide witness from my own experience, so here it is:

  1. No one is basically good. In fact, even when someone addressed our creator (Jesus) as good teacher he responded, “Why do you call me good?…No one is good – except God alone.” Mark 10:18. But what about my good deeds? Don’t they count for something? Nope. “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” Isaiah 64:6.
  2. Quit trying. The answer to our inner evil is a gift right in front of us. It cannot be earned through efforts. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
  3. This gift comes when we acknowledge our inner evil and ask our creator for help. “…the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 6:23
  4. Once we accept this gift, goodness follows. It turns out we were created, “…to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

The newfound freedom of which I spoke? Goodness comes from our creator and not us. In fact, any good thing I do was teed-up for me by God. Selfishly, I wish I could take credit. But with that desire also lands the despairing weight of the need to produce good. And what is good? And how much? So, the only way to dislodge that burden is to surrender it to my creator. And that, my friend, is delightfully encouraging news.

Want true goodness? Look outside yourself. Look up.

 


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References

  1. The Polynational War Memorial
  2. Bastian Herre, Lucas Rodés-Guirao, Max Roser, Joe Hasell and Bobbie Macdonald (2024) – “War and Peace” Published online at OurWorldInData.org.
  3. Wimmer, Andreas. 2014. War. Annual Review of Sociology 40: 173-197, citing: Eckhart, William. 1992. Civilizations, Empires and Wars: A Quantitative History. McFarland.
  4. Vox
  5. The Washington Post
  6. Wikipedia

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