By examining a single human being, it is possible to deduce whether or not they are good or evil, and does that represent the entirety of human nature? Good and evil are not qualities found in things themselves. It is impossible to focus the lens of a microscope, place a human being under, and discover whether or not that person is good or evil. Hence, the problem must be a question of philosophical analysis. Philosophers have been intrigued by the question: are humans inherently good or evil? From this question, one must conceptualize how humans lived in a pre social time, most commonly referred to as the state of nature.
Two incredibly influential philosophers that participated in the debate were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes. Rousseau, believing in the good of humanity and Hobbes, believing in the evil. However, humans are neither inherently good nor evil, rather they are self-preserving creatures and will adjust their morality to their environment.
By understanding goodness, evilness, and where morality comes from, humans prove to simply be self-preserving creatures. The terms good and evil are relevant in countless materials all over the world. They are discussed within religion, ethics, philosophy, and psychology. Good, also synonymous with acceptable, favourable, and great, often refers to conduct which is preferred and desired by the majority in a society. Its counterpart, evil, is the absence or opposite of that which is defined as being good. The sense of moral judgement is a universal concept found in languages and cultures around the world. When a situation occurs, humans apply whichever term they believe to be most accurate.
The things we label as good, are the things we find pleasure in. This is, however, a topic that may be subjective, as many people find pleasure in different things. Therefore, there must be something that is a relative good and a universal good.
Relative good is something that is good because people have applied the term to a ‘pleasurable thing’. Whereas a universal good is something that is good within itself. On the other hand, when applying the term evil, there are two forms, a broad sense and a narrow sense.
A broad sense of the word evil encaptures another two types: natural and moral evils. Natural evils are bad states of affair in which do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Moral evils, however, do come from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. The narrow sense of evil picks out the most morally despicable sorts of actions, characters, and events. This narrower sense typically is used in contemporary moral, political, and legal contexts and involves moral condemnation. The way in which we label things as either good and evil, is referred to as morality and ethics. Ethics and morals are what relate to right and wrong conduct.
The two terms are generally used interchangeably. In academic, legal, and religious views of the two terms, they have come to have separate definitions. Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source and morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Within philosophy, ethics and morality are synonymous, however the topic of which can still cause confusion. In ethics, things can be labelled as right however, that does not mean the thing is good. The good has to do with achievement of goals, what an individual believes is morally good. The right has more to do with laws and rules. What is good has to do with benefits and generally, what is good is the more difficult choice.
For example, a group of fifty people are stranded on an island with limited resources. Some of these people are severely injured and will most possibly not survive. The right thing to do in this situation is to continue feeding and caring for the injured. The good thing however would be to understand that they are already going to die from injuries, and make the decision to stop caring for them in order to have more resources. In modern societies, morality seems to be the same among most people. This may be because we have a single government that enforces goods and evils as laws. Without this social contract with our government, we would be in the natural state of humans.
The state of nature is the real or hypothetical situation where humans had no political authority. The theory attempts to capture what humans would be like in their natural state, with no outside political force dictating how they must act. The concept of a state of nature, real or hypothetical, was most influential during the 17th and 18th centuries. The long history of the concept has influenced philosophers to provide explanations of what they believe human nature to be. Philosophers then attempt to answer questions such as, “What was life like before civil society?”, “How did government first emerge from such a starting position?,” and “What are the reasons for entering a state of society by establishing a nation-state?” Although the state of nature falls within political philosophy, it also ties in within moral philosophy, and attempts to understand the human brain when left to their own devices. The concept also forms sides for a philosopher to take.
Are humans inherently good or evil when in the state of nature? One philosopher that strongly believed in the humanity and compassion of humankind was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.One of the most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived from 1712 to 1778. From an early age, Rousseau was heavily involved with the arts, music, and composing. One of his earlier works A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences discusses how science and arts have caused the corruption of virtue and morality. Rousseau’s stance was that humans are naturally good, however it is the progression of society and material objects that has led to the fall of humanity. Once humankind had emerged from their pre social state, they had become plagued by vices and sin.
Rousseau speaks in depth about the pre social state in his work Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. He begins in the hypothetical state of nature, a condition before society and the development of reason. By examining man’s motivations and desires, Rousseau comes to the conclusion that man, is like an animal, motivated by two key principles: pity and self-preservation. The only dividing characteristic being perfectionism. The flaw within Rousseau’s theory is, he stated that in man’s natural state, he is a solitary animal.
This has been proven to be incorrect; humans are naturally social animals and always have been. From then on, man’s natural state is slowly falling apart, as humans form into groups and language develops. The once key principles, pity and self-preservation, are replaced by amour propre, self love, which drives men to compare themselves to others, and to need to dominate others in order to be happy.As theories of the natural state can only continue to be theories, the only other human life untouched by social states is that of infants. Rousseau’s work Émile touched upon how to raise children and uphold their goodness. Rousseau suggested that children are born naturally good and the key to raising them was to prevent them from being corrupted by society. This encouraged parents of the time to view their children, not as blank slates, but as wise and good.
However this defending of goodness can never bring humans back to their natural state. Rousseau is very clear that a return to the state of nature once human beings have become civilized is not possible. Therefore, we should not seek to be noble savages, with no language, no social ties, and an underdeveloped faculty of reason. Rather, Rousseau says, someone who has been properly educated will be engaged in society, but relate to his or her fellow citizens in a natural way. Rousseau’s most famous quote, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”, tells us that freedom is necessary for humans to practise their natural state. In the state of nature, man is free to simply attend to his own natural needs and has few occasions to interact with other people.
Since individuals are always trying to deceive and overpower their fellow citizens to realize their own individual needs, they rarely act in an authentic way. Hence, humankind is never actually free and as Rousseau stated “everywhere he is in chains,” man is restricted by the fraudulence of society. Overall, Rousseau’s view of human nature is that man is naturally good. Through the corruption of society, man turns to sin and diverges from his natural goodness.
To contrast, the philosopher who takes a completely different stance on this subject is Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes was a critical thinker in 17th century England. He lived from 1588 to 1679 and is famously known for his political philosophy, his most notable work being Leviathan. Hobbes holds a negative conception of the state of nature. In his view, it represents a state of permanent war, a permanent threat to the continued existence of the individual.
The only way to avoid the chaos of the state of nature is have a social contract between subjects and a ruler, where the subject surrenders all rights and freedoms to the ruler in exchange for protection. Without a social contract, man is left to his own devices and from this, it is clear that man is not good. Human beings are physical objects, according to Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms.
Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomfort and pains which must be overcome. The three strongest desires in man are: the desire for land, desire for followers, and desire for power. Each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. Similar to Rousseau’s key principle of self-preservation, Hobbes agrees that this is a key desire. However having this desire leads to our animalistic, brutal behaviour.
Self-preservation leaves each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in our own self-interest, without regard for others. This produced what Hobbes called the “state of war,” a way of life that is certain to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The human condition is formed of five necessary parts, beginning with: all motives and actions are based on internal biomechanical processes. For example, if one is approached by someone who is strong enough to harm them, the rational thing to do would be to form an agreement with others to protect oneself. The process of this action is based on rational thought and the key principle, self-preservation. The second part is, good and evil depend on what the individual loves and hates. Hence, there can be no universal good or evil in the state of nature. This leads to the third part being, in the natural state, nothing is universally good or bad.
Humans did as they pleased and whatever they saw fit for the situation. The fourth necessary part is that there is no justice or injustice, everyone has the right to do whatever is good for themselves. Hobbes enforces his point of the lack of civil society by repeating the absence of universal laws. Only through a social contract can there be universal laws. Finally, the fifth part is that humans are naturally equal in power of mind and body.
It is impossible for one human to dominate the other indefinitely. Each necessary part to the human condition enforces Hobbes’ view that humans in the state of nature, live chaotic, unreliable lifestyles. This type of life influences humans to act in accordance to their own needs and overlook the needs of others. In regards to humans being good or evil, Hobbes takes an interesting stance to the topic. Hobbes did not explicitly state that humans are evil, he believed there was no such thing as an objective good or evil. Since people were naturally in a state of war, morality couldn’t exist until a social contract was made and a “Leviathan” was put in charge to create laws. However, by using modern laws imposed by outside forces, the actions of people in the natural state can be identified as immoral and evil. Hobbes painted a picture of the state of nature in a gruesome, unpleasant manner; highlighting the fact that humans are exactly that, gruesome and unpleasant.
They are entirely self-serving animals and the only way to keep their morals in balance, is to enforce a social contract. It is civilization that steps in and rescues humanity from our primal depravity. Humans are extremely complex creatures, one being drastically different from another. It is nearly impossible to say that one thing is absolute without doubt or debate among human beings. To say that “all humans are born good” or “all humans are born evil” is a massive assumption. I believe that humans are neither good nor evil. The complexity of the human mind allows us to use logic and reasoning in our everyday lives. Through this process, similar to what Hobbes states as a mechanical process, we can choose what would be good and what would be evil.
However the stance Hobbes took in relation to this mechanical process is that it is always self-indulgent. I disagree. By simply looking at the wholesome relationship between mother and child, it is clear that a mother would generally do any and all things to prevent harm to her child, regardless of her own wellbeing. In northern Quebec in 2006, a woman bravely fought a polar bear in order to protect her son and two other young boys. Many may claim that the heroic act was done in order to attract honour and glory. However when in a dangerous situation, an instinct, commonly referred to as “fight or flight” steps in, the mother knew her child was in danger, and took action. This displays that humans can be naturally good, however it is usually the more difficult path to take. The goodness in some humans does not mean that we are never selfish, in fact, most people do act in their own interest, but that does not make them evil.
By using our brains to understand our environment, humans tend to be self-preserving creatures. In different time periods, morality has changed drastically. However if people thousands of years ago lived in a way that we now view as morally wrong, that does not mean they were evil people. Humans in that time fit their morality in terms of their environment. For example, the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect in 1834, before then, slavery was the norm within society. In a modern perspective, morality and laws have developed and slavery is known as an evil act. However, back in the time when slavery was normal, those who participated were simply living by the norm. They adjusted their morality to fit the time period in order to attain a safe place in society.
It is hard to say that those people were evil, as they were only attempting to fit the norm. To add on, humans in modern society alter their morality in terms of how they may appear to others. Some popular luxury clothing brands promote the use of authentic animal fur in their product. Many consumers of the products would agree that killing animals for fur is morally evil, however, they may overlook the morality because of the product’s ability to provide the appearance of a superior economic status. This further demonstrates that humans are self-preserving creatures. They change their morality in terms of the time period, environment, and audience. If it is known that one action will benefit them, a person is more likely to adjust their morality in terms of what will provide the most benefit.
By looking at the goodness and selfishness that humans are capable of committing, it is clear that humans are not inherently good or evil. Rather than the only answers being good or evil, I believe that humans are born into the world without moral judgement. Meaning, we have no understanding of the good or evil actions we are capable of. People live according to a set of principles, and these vary among cultures. Humans are born not knowing how to act in a manner conducive to the welfare of a society. This is where I agree with Hobbes; humans generally need a set of rules or principles to follow, or they do not know entirely how to act. However I disagree with the way he encaptures the state of nature being, in his own words “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
” By the previous example of the woman saving her child, there was no rule or law that told her she must save her child. Overall proving that humans do not always need these principles to act morally or good, they simply exist as a moral guideline for us to expand on with our own judgement. The topic of good and evil is relevant in countless cultures, however most try to assign only one label to humans. Based on their environment, humans adjust their morality to better suit their needs; humans are neither good nor evil.
It is clear that humans are capable of committing disgusting, evil acts to their own kind. However they are also able to create beauty and goodness. Based on the arguments and theories from philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, both have faults in their opinions. It is possible for human nature to not only be composed of good or evil, rather it is composed of good and evil.