Are we good or bad?

Are humans fundamentally good or bad?

That’s a large question philosophers, thinkers, and theologians have grappled with for more than two millennia.

According to historian, Rutger Bregman, Western civilisation has been shaped by a negative view of humanity.

Christianity’s doctrine of Original Sin has contributed significantly, along with the work of psychologists like Sigmund Freud who delved into the realms of the human unconscious. Historical events like the Holocaust have rightly disturbed many and left lingering concerns about what humans are capable of.

For myself, I don’t accept the Doctrine of Original Sin. I think it represents a misreading of the Genesis text. (Of note, there is no such doctrine in Judaism, and Jesus was unaware of it.)

Nonetheless, my own study of history and life today lead me to describe human nature with considerable caution. I believe that deeply encoded self-interest, along with tribalism, explain much human behaviour.

It is a question of the way we make sense of life. I think it was Albert Einstein who noted that humans can only ever perceive life and other people through their own eyes.

I don’t believe humans are morally obnoxious or utterly selfish. Rather, I think we make meaning from what is at hand, seen through our own eyes, and driven by unconscious needs.

Displays of kindness, altruism and generosity constitute welcome and pleasing exceptions.

Much of what we would require to be balanced in perspective, let alone generous, is beyond our reach.

Rutger Bregman thinks otherwise. He claims that humans are fundamentally co-operative and he leans to the notion that people are good.

If he is right, I have a lot of rethinking to do!

Bregman cites William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies.’

It paints a dismal picture of what happens to humans… children … when they live outside the constraints of civilisation.

Bregman discovered a real-life counterpoint to ‘Lord of the Flies.’ In the 1960s, a group of Tongan lads stole away on a boat and were shipwrecked on a remote, uninhabited island called ‘Ata for a year.

When they were rescued, they were in excellent physical shape and had survived by cooperating and looking out for each other. With the care of his friends, one of them survived a broken leg.

What emerged beyond the careful eye of civilising influences was goodness.

I’m not convinced yet; there are more issues and questions that need to be addressed. I am still intrigued.

What his work does highlight is how deep-seated assumptions that we make about human nature fundamentally shape the way we engage the world. (It’s worth trying to ascertain your own beliefs in this regard.)

From a religious perspective, I stand more with the Jewish than orthodox Christian view: Humans can choose between good and evil.

I would also add that we need much more self-awareness and knowledge to exercise that capacity in a way that will reshape the world.