What is the true nature of humans? Are we perhaps just wired to be evil? Are we born good? In the sense of environmental determinism, are we simply products of our society?
In addressing these questions, among others, I will engage in a philosophical and psychological investigation of the origin of good and evil in this article. I hope it provides you with a framework to have a clear understanding of the true nature of humans.
This article will be in the style of a Socratic dialogue, where I will make you, the reader, a participant. I hope you have a good time on this page.
I Think, Therefore I Am
A differentiating curse that separates humans from animals is our burden of consciousness. Consciousness is sentience and awareness of internal and external existence. In layman’s English, it is the state of being aware. Being aware of your actions, of good and evil, of being alive, of your surroundings, etc. The entire idea that you can perceive the world as it is, and understand your place within it.
We are the only animals that are aware of the fact that we are sitting on this blue rock that is floating in the middle of nowhere, which exists among other planets in a universe that exists within a galaxy that is one out of over 100 billion galaxies.
It isn’t so fun being conscious. You can easily find yourself in existential dread, trying to find a meaning to this boring and evil existence. A quote by existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre captures the consciousness dilemma of humankind. He said, "Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."
What about good and evil? Being aware of our own capacity for good and evil in the consequential decisions we make on a day-to-day basis isn’t so fun either.
Battling with the idea of consciousness is where René Descartes comes in. For his First Principle where he used the Latin phrase “cogito, ergo sum”, usually translated into English as "I think, therefore I am", he became the first modern philosopher to grasp the philosophical proof of existence based on the fact that someone capable of any form of thought necessarily exists.
This idea of consciousness is what separates us from other animals. This is what makes us higher animals. Most wild animals do what they have to do to survive. But humans can kill for the pleasure of it, shame, embarrass, carry out genocide, declare war on a country, have an existential crisis, mid-life crisis, etc.
If you have to go by the theological account of human nature, then gaining consciousness of good and evil began after we ate from the tree of knowledge. Followed by the metaphorical embodiment of evil and good in the persons of Cain and Abel. Since there were technically the first two humans that were born (by biblical account), rather than being made from clay (Adam and Eve).
You could draw from the fact that Cain killed Abel that the heart of man has been the battleground of good and evil.
In Genesis 1, there is a claim that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” So then, if we have all been created to be good, where does evil stem from? Is it that we have the capacity for good, or is it fundamentally the idea that we are simply good, and the reason we are evil is because of society, capitalism, and other claims that we can lazily shift responsibility unto? Wouldn’t that be convenient?
It is in our hearts that evil lies, and from our hearts, it must be plucked out. You simply have to look around. Evil is prevalent everywhere, but good is hard to find. This is why the entire history of humans has been bloodshed.
A famous quote by Jordan Peterson resonates well with this context “read history like it is about you.” The people that committed all the atrocities of the past were also humans. The chances that you would have had the superior morality to act differently from the mob who seek to survive (no matter the cost) is very low.
Modern humans like to hold some level of higher morality as though they are the better versions of their ancestors. “If I lived in 18th century America, I definitely would have helped the slaves escape”, “If I lived in Nazi Germany, I would have risked my life to save the Jews”, “If I lived in pre-colonial Africa, I wouldn’t have captured other Africans to sell to the Europeans,” No. You wouldn’t have.
We all like to think we are good people. We like to project evil unto other people. So then, what is the true nature of humans? The categorization of good and evil people can be recognized once we must understand what justice is.
I read a book last year by Christopher Browning. The book is an actual documentation of the lives of the ordinary people of Germany (Third Reich). It started in 1933, right after Adolf Hitler got hold of office.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles limited the number of military personnel of Germany, but Hitler bypassed this by recruiting police forces from all around the country. He drafted young men into the army, and between 1939-45, these young men found themselves shooting down pregnant women, lynching people, burning, raping, etc. All forms of atrocities you could imagine.
Most of these men had PTSD, some could never return to their old selves, and a lot of them committed suicide. PTSD is usually borne of you watching yourself do something against your nature, not just by remembering bad experiences.
To Friedrich Nietzsche, Hitler would be acting on a slave morality. His hatred for Jews stems from jealousy and the fact that they were in high positions in Germany, and the idea that they might have sabotaged the success of Germany in WW1 (1914-1919) from the inside. This led to a series of pogroms in Poland. And also, the incarceration of millions of Jews at death campus. The most famous one being the Auschwitz concentration camp.
From the perspective of Hitler, he was doing the best for the German people. He was saying and doing what they wanted. Like Cicero, Hitler was a good orator.
But no, Hitler was evil to the core. In his Barbarossa Decree (1941), he ordered his troops to kill every Russian they meet on their way to Moscow. At the same time, he was busy moving Jews to camps on trains that could have been used to restock the frontlines. Just like the Armenia and Rwanda genocides, Hitler was keen on eradicating the Jew race.
Just like Machiavelli, Hitler is the metaphorical embodiment of Evil today. Especially in the political space. Americans are fond of calling one another Nazis, especially when they have political differences.
But back to the point of good and evil.
So, would we say then that Hitler was born good, but he became a product of his time? But does this mean he was born good, but corrupted by “society”? Whatever abstract entity that might be.
Let’s venture into the different opinions on the true nature of humans.
Most of the philosophers that existed before Niccolo Machiavelli were mostly idealistic in their approaches. Philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Han Fei Tzu, St Augustine, etc, were all idealistic.
Machiavelli became the father of modern political science after he wrote his most famous book “The Prince”, which centred around man’s nature for power and domination which had been masked by the false idea of his true nature as introduced by Christianity in the empire of Rome.
Machiavelli was a renaissance philosopher, which meant that he wanted people to remove their pretentious masks for peace, and for the ruler (prince) to rule arbitrarily. His entire philosophy centres around the utilitarian moral philosophy which is basically “the end justifies the means” type of mentality. This same philosophy is what drives Eren Jaeger. But I will defend that war criminal, any day.
Machiavelli’s book is where tyrants like Joseph Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, etc, all learnt from. Since it removes all moral obstacles out of their way and therefore enables them to be evil overlords, even if it means condemning their souls. Hitler is a single cause of over 20m+ deaths, 50m+ for Stalin, and 70m+ for Mao.
As Lord Acton said, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The evil in you can manifest once you are in a position to dictate the affairs of others.
Enlightenment philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and John Locke had differing views on the true nature of humans in relation to good and evil. They were the Social Contract theory philosophers.
- Thomas Hobbes
Much like Machiavelli, Hobbes was a realist. He believed that like in the state of nature, where humans lived before they started living in walled settlements was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
In the natural state, man is aggressive and selfish. Hobbes also considers humans to be naturally vainglorious and so seek to dominate others and demand their respect. The natural condition of mankind, according to Hobbes, is a state of war.
A state of restlessness, he called it, where The miserable consequences of this drive for power and the competing “desire of ease and sensual delight” and “fear of death and wounds” lead them to establish a government that can direct their affairs. He called this government the Leviathan. Just like the axe of Kratos.
In his argument, the only stopping someone from robbing you in the daytime is that there’s a government that has outlined a series of texts that go against it. The same text is what is making you operate within codified accepted behaviour. In the religious, this would be the Ten Commandments. But to us today, it is the constitution of the country.
If man is intrinsically good, what is the need for the many rules that guide and restrict our behaviours? It becomes a question of justice.
So, maybe justice is simply accepted norms and conventions that our behaviours are tallied against, and the outcome determines whether we are good or evil. Outside of our society, we can also determine what is good based on the Universality Principle that was propounded by Immanuel Kant.
It is a moral theory that demands that we should consider doing an action only if it becomes acceptable for everyone else to do it. This means “what would the world be like if everyone starts doing the same thing you are doing?.”
Kant believed that engaging in this thought process is how we may arrive at the answer of what determines good and evil.
- Jean-Jacque Rousseau
This man is the direct opposite of Thomas Hobbes.
Rousseau believed that our human nature is inherently good, and we are pure beings. But we get corrupted by society over time. Our Human Nature is that we are born naturally pure, healthy and able to survive.
He argued largely that the introduction of private ownership of property is why people engage in all forms of evil. He believed that property, more than any other human institution, is the ground of evil and corruption. He basically gave a giant middle finger to capitalism.
I wonder how much he will have to say when he finds the number of corpses that are a result of failed socialist experiments. After all, the roads to hell are paved with good intentions.
Carl Jung said, “If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences—and infer the motivation.” And I think it is particularly obvious that most socialist philosophers act out of their hatred for the rich, not their love for the poor. George Orwell laid out this idea in his book “Road To Wigan Pier.”
Is it then fair to say that capitalism as a mode of economy merely emphasizes and pushes the greediness and selfishness of man to the extreme? Is this where evil lies?
Jean-Jacque Rousseau, before the advent of heavy industrialization and consumerism idea, thought humans to be noble savages. As such, the noble savage symbolizes the innate goodness and moral superiority of primitive people living in harmony with Nature.
To play the devil’s advocate here; could you imagine the validity of that claim? The idea that humans lived peacefully in the pre-historic era when we were fighting mammoth elephants and sabretooth tigers. In the palaeolithic era when the survival rate was even lower than before the Agricultural Revolution that started 12,000 years ago, it will be hard to argue that humans lived more harmoniously then than they do now.
But here is an argument for Rousseau on the nature of humans. Do you think he is right in his estimation? That we were good before all the aspects of modernity and conveniences of life made us evil? Well.
Just like Hobbes, he believed equally that humans came together to set up a government that will oversee their activities, and help them live in harmony.
- John Locke
Locke is a pretty simple guy. He follows Aristotle’s logic of the human mind being an “empty slate”, or as he originally called it, “tabula rasa”.
Just as the idea implies, he believed that the human mind is born with no pre-wired idea of good and evil. That they are free to define themselves but most importantly defined by environmental determinism. Which is an argument that you are the product of whatever society you find yourself in. You inherit their culture, conventions, norms, traditions, etc…
For example, if you were born into a society that captures foreigners and tortures them in the name of a god, the idea that you could be a messiah that will go against that age-long tradition will be very low. But the chances that you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between right and wrong, and rather just go along with the evil tradition is very high.
In essence, how you are socialized is what will determine how good or evil you can be. After all, you are a product of your society. Taking the life-savings of people who live across the globe may be deemed acceptable in your society for example, and you may therefore not see any evil in it. It is a moral conundrum.
Going by the account of Protagoras who said “man is the measurement of all”, it is easy to determine what is good and evil basing our understanding of justice on how action might make other people feel. By taking this route, you’d be condemning crusades and jihads. Since their measurement of good and evil is “dictated” by a supreme being. Therefore, a god, by this account shouldn’t be the measurement of good and evil.
Especially in the past when people justified horrible things in the name of gods. For example, the Spanish Inquisition, virgin sacrifices, genocides, Aztec Empire’s human sacrifices, etc.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s try a psychological approach of good and evil.
The Biology Of Good And Evil
Beyond the field of philosophy, psychologists analyse the origin of good and evil differently. Or to put it generally, they analyse the human psyche differently.
Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. His major field was Cognitive Development, which basically means the development of the ability to think and reason. Also, since his focus was on children, it’ll be of great service to this article if I can explain his ideas and how they relate to the understanding of good and evil.
Piaget was interested in how children perceive the world, and how they grow to be rational individuals at different ages. Most psychology research have found that the rational part of an adult’s brain isn’t fully functioning until around the age of 25.
So, are children born evil, or good? To combat this, Piaget studied children, and he discovered that the part of the human brain that disciplines humans, develop their personality, help them become social, etc… When that part of the brain is not developed by the age of 4, such a child can easily become a juvenile, delinquent, antisocial, violent, etc, when they become adult.
That part of the brain is called the Prefrontal Cortex. This brain region is responsible for cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour. Just as I’ve previously explained.
Clinical psychologist in the person of Jordan Peterson also noted that children are usually aggressive around the age of two. Especially the boys. They come with an inbuilt sense of aggression. At the age of 2, they usually would kick, bite, and steal.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine. He lamented that he doesn’t believe we are born good. He backed this up by adding that children already know how to be nasty before you discipline them and teach them to be good.
Maybe our years of evolution from the different ages and eras have made us aggressive right from the start. Would this disprove the ideas of Jean Jacque Rousseau on the nature of humans? Because if you remember, he argued that we were born good, but ultimately became corrupted. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Back to the man of the hour, Jean Piaget. He recommended socialization as a way of moulding these children into upstanding people. As a kid myself, I was meek, so I got bullied a lot by kids that appeared bigger. And today, I don’t reckon that they were thought not to bully, lie, steal, or kick. It simply is the case that they weren’t socialized enough to help them realize those are unacceptable behaviours.
But socialization could go wrong. Child-soldiers are made out of these kids who have a capacity for aggression and don’t know right from wrong. When you praise a kid for doing something (whether good or bad), you reinforce the behaviour of said thing and they, therefore, see it as the right mode of existence.
If this behaviour continuously gets reinforced by the age of 25, there’s a chance that said behaviour becomes the child’s identity.
This behaviour can be good. It can equally be evil.
The Greeks were fond of attributing myths to human behaviours that were beyond rationalization. A person that is throwing a fit for no reason could be said to have been possessed by the god of anger (Mars). In the more traditional and religious sense, it’ll just be explained that the person has been possessed by an evil spirit.
Or more recently, people would shift away responsibility from themselves and project it unto someone like Satan. As if they are not capable of evil. Only good.
In truth, we all have a bit of Hitler in us. We have evil in us, just as we have good. Our hearts are the battleground for these two powerful entities. From Gandhi to Jesus, Mohammad, Abraham Lincoln, our parents, our friends, our siblings, lovers, family, neighbours… They could be all we need to believe that good takes supremacy over evil.
You shouldn’t always have to fight evil with evil. It is like Gandhi said, “an eye for an makes the whole world blind”. I am also not the most religious person, but here’s a quote from the bible; “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. It might help navigate your way around humans. You don’t have to be a Muslim or a Christian to hold that philosophy.
There are times when our lover, friends, Hitler, Stalin, parents, landlord, boss, employee, classmate, etc, are all some of the most evil people we know. But the truth of human nature begins with us – humans.
This is the burden of being conscious. You can make the world a better place. Change starts with you. It starts with me.
Hold your litter in your pocket, be nice to the waitress, smile with the bikeman, tell your friend how much they mean to you, and hug your parents.
Goodness lies in your heart, as does evil. Because truly, you are the origin of Good and Evil.
Thank you for reading through this piece. I hope you found it insightful. If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to drop them in the comment section.
Also, if you are interested in reading more of this, I will recommend two books: Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Remember to like, subscribe, and share with your friends. I hope to see you again next week. Cheers!
About the Creator
I am a Social Scientist, specifically a student of Political Science. I attend Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria. Writing is a tool of exploration for me. I hope you'll stick around for my journey into uncharted territories.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Well done , I hope one day I can become a better writer like you
Amazing Work!!! Well done...
Very interesting take on the good vs evil debate and breaking down the major philosophers who are known to have expressed their opinions on this matter. Good job.
Interesting arguments here. One small thing: it is 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau' (you forget the last 's' in his middle name). Otherwise, this is an interesting piece of work.
In Genesis the bible also depicts the first thing stated as "bad". As God said "It is not good for man to be alone." I would have to concur. Another term we use which highlights this same element but from a different angle is when we say "If left to his own devices(...)". Another term might be "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." All in all, I like to think that virtue and righteousness are not so much a duality to evil as much as a evolution out from it. By the way that consciousness of the brain works there is an inherent hatred for all things of hypocrisy and falsity. Neutral synapses survive harmonically with the life experience of the body and being when those synapses allow for fluid and accurate pathways of association-based recollection and identification. We feel the headache of cognitive dissonance when we experience synapses at-war with each other, literally neuron cells fighting for right to survival, which is awarded to the neural associations connecting the most fluent pathway - which also inherently means the most logical and accurate. When we have denials, or hypocrisies, those play out in our lives by causing very real strife in our experiences through our inability to apply proper activity upon reality and through our sufferings in our intersocial relationships to others - which we are fundamentally reliant on for genetic survival and for general safety and access to resources. Therefore by the very nature of how consciousness itself is made possible through the unfolding of awareness from a cellular level, it is best for the individual itself to strive towards righteousness, while it is elementally catastrophic for the individual to be negligent of it's own hypocries, denials, or lazy in its inaccuracies of associative cognitive reltions to the world around it. It might even be more accurate to not think of things in terms of "good or evil", but instead in terms of intelligent or less-intelligent. Perhaps evil never did exist in all reality. Only stupidity.
Are we good or are we evil? The first answer is simple: Yes. Understanding what that means & what we do with it is as simple or complicated as we make it or allow it to be. The more aware I become of the consequences of my actions, the more complex just doing the right thing becomes. When I was a child, it was simple. I either behaved as my parents expected (& required), or I didn't. I was either good or bad. At the age of 63, I have come to realize that no matter what I do, someone will get hurt, whether anyone actually benefits from it or not. It's, as far as I can tell, always a mixed bag. The best we can do is to do the best we can. To me, goodness is most completely defined by two words: love & grace. Caring for one another as best we can, allowing for all the ways we fall short, & continuing on together. It is always aspirational. Goodness is something to which we aspire, not only as an individual, but as a people, society, nation, world. Evil exists to the degree in which we miss the mark (the root definition of sin). But missing the mark also allows for a greater positive response, the kind that tend to move us to tears. Does that mean that we should do evil so that goodness might abound? As the Apostle Paul said, "By no means!" And yet, it remains true that, with every bit of evil we experience (whether by commission or infliction), there always remains the possibility of an even greater good. Ah, but I ramble. Let me finish by telling you a story. While having lunch with René Descartes one day, I was telling him about the funny things that happened with the pack of dogs which always followed me on my walk. I told him about Mollie (the matriarch of the bunch) & Roscoe (one of her many sons), & how Roscoe had been pestering Mollie for quite some time as we were walking around the ballfield across from the school. Instead of turning around & making him stop, Mollie just held her head high &, while Roscoe wasn't paying attention to where he was going, walked him right through a metal guide wire for an electrical pole. Well, that guide wire clipped young Roscoes all through his tender regions. Needless to say, he quit pestering mom for the rest of our walk. "So tell me, René. Do you think Mollie was conscious of what she was doing & planned it all out?" René responded, "I think not." And just like that, he disappeared. Sorry, old joke, but I just felt I needed to share it.