Thursday, April 14, 2011

Are people essentially good?

One of the most cliché philosophical questions is whether or not people are essentially good or, perhaps, essentially evil. (One of my favorite sayings goes “That there is a devil, there isn’t any doubt,/ But is he trying to get in us, or trying to get out?”) I have always leaned toward the view that people are essentially good. The key word in that declaration, however, is “essentially.”

People are also complex biologically and psychologically. (Indeed, this complexity is related to the unity of body and mind; the two are not merely intertwined and interdependent but functionally identical.) Any complex system is more vulnerable to disorder precisely because of its complexity. Disorders of many if not every kind are possible because of our complexity. Thus, human beings are easily corrupted. This means that we cannot rule out the existence of essential goodness. Goodness is fragile, especially when it is based in innocence and its attendant ignorance. Experience will tend to corrupt.

It is one thing for a young child to be basically good, having had no experience of the world beyond what psychiatrists Fairbairn and Winnicott called “a good enough mother”—that is, a nurturer who makes all reasonable efforts to provide adequate care. It is quite another thing to grow up and make one’s way in the world beset by people who have not had good enough nurturing by parents and others, and who have actually had inadequate nurturing. So many complex beings, corrupted by the weak and craven impulses of those around them, cannot do anything but challenge even the most well-adjusted people, tempting them to indulge even the smallest tendencies toward weakness and cravenness in themselves.

We humans might well be essentially good, but it takes more than essential goodness to prevent us from succumbing to evil. Goodness can only prevail if it is fostered by the intellect. It comes to be, as we grow up and grow old, that we can continue to be good only if we understand why it is better to be good and why it is wrong to succumb to evil.

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