A. Nicot – Assignment 7: Good and Bad

Yeah so I’ve been having more problems. Repeated apologies.

Given everything you have read in this book both about the protagonists and the people in the countries where they worked, what is your answer to the question “are people basically good or evil”?  Given all we know about how we are all products of our cultural upbringing, can we meaningfully ask if some cultures are basically “good or bad” as well?

The question of whether or not humans are innately good or bad is a question that seems unanswerable. It has been debated for as long as there is philosophy, and I’m unlikely to provide a good answer in this short essay.

St. Augustine of Hippo

First, let us examine the nature of thought versus action. Often intent is cited in defense of actions deemed “bad” in order to make their perpetrator appear “good.” Let us create an example: Jack shoots a baby. This, to the eyes of most, is a bad thing to do. Jack however only shot the baby because he thought killing it would create world peace (how is unimportant). Does Jack’s noble intent make his act any less terrible? Is Jack less of an evil man because he thought he was doing good? Let’s also think of the concept that one could believe one is doing good when one is doing bad, or that one could know one is doing bad but wants to, through the bad, do good (ends justify the means).

These are a few extremely basic scenarios, but we can already see the problem with trying to use human actions in and of themselves in order to judge whether humans are fundamentally good or evil. We always want to factor in intent, and rightly so. But if good intent or ignorance does not make any act less evil, does it make the perpetrator less so? That’s the issue. I could cite the Rwandan genocide as an example of terrifying human cruelty and human evil, and then I could pull the Christmas Truce of 1914 out as well to demonstrate the fundamental goodness of man.

We should probably take a less specific approach to the question in order to make light of it. Instead of talking about what humans have and could do, let’s talk about what humans are, philosophically speaking. The views I am most familiar with evolve from the perception of Christian cosmology and require a certain interpretation of the story of the Fall of Man from Christian scripture, but the concept is philosophically developed enough to not require direct references (though it is important to know whence these ideas are extracted). Essentially the question relies on the notion that humans are a Fallen race. In other terms, we are inherently corrupt. In Christian cosmology, this corruption was originally absent, and humans were mirrors of the divine nature of God – the act of original sin resulted in the creation of the state of original sin: humans are no longer reflections but distortions of this nature.

The Christian thinker Pelagius (whose mode of thought is known as Pelagianism or the Pelagian Heresy) supposed that humans are capable of both good and bad, but neither is inherent to man. As our eyes are capable of seeing but are not by nature used for good or evil, so he saw humans. Free will alone is enough reason to say that humans aren’t capable of perfection, as the possibility itself exists that human actions and intentions can be evil. So humans are fundamentally capable of being and doing both good and evil. Augustine of Hippo, challenged this view by arguing for the inherent corruptibility of man – original sin. The argument’s crux is dependent on whether human action or human will is what makes us evil, Pelgius favoring action, Augustine favoring will. It is also important to understand that in the Catholic tradition which grew out of Augustine’s thinking, the goal of human life is to repair the corruptibility to become reflections of divine nature once again, using our free will to overcome our inherent wrongness.

Now this deals with matters spiritual primarily, but that is the most basic level at which we analyse our own morality. Later on in history, at the dawn of the Modern era, philosophers became more interested in the secular explanations of morality and how it relates not necessarily to the individual but to society as a whole.

Thomas Hobbes – John Locke

We can therefore examine how cultures are affected by the debate on human nature by using examples from this period, the foremost of which (in the English world) are Hobbes and Locke’s respective views on human nature. The two were not contemporaries but are often presented in a dichotomy due to their starkly contrasted takes on who we are as humans. Are any particular cultures good or bad? Certainly it can be easily determined that some cultures are in fact superior to others. But are they necessarily morally superior? If one takes the concept of tabula rasa developed by Locke, wherein all humans are born blank slates and are imprinted upon by the cultures they live in and the circumstance of their life, then cultures which produce evil people must be evil cultures, and conversely. But we see quite clearly that in this mode of thought most people, not being evil (or at least not noticeably so)  would mean that no culture is fundamentally evil, but some individuals within cultures lead lives that lead them to becoming evil within that culture. So clearly evil is then not a trait of cultures. If cultures were evil, continuing on this side of the debate, then they would produce exclusively evil people. So it must be the people themselves that decided to be evil, or are fundamentally evil by nature. This latter one however challenges the blank slate hypothesis. Therefore evil is the product of free will. If one uses this logic, one falls back again on Pelagianism, which I mentioned earlier.

Hobbes however viewed human nature as a fixed entity that is molded by the world we live in. He argues in Leviathan that humans, without authority to keep them in place, would revert to barbarism and be evil towards their fellow men. So he clearly sees culture as being a positive force to control humans so that their evil instincts are suppressed. Humans can therefore only do good collectively, by pooling their skills and interests to work for the benefit of all. So Hobbes argues that we are fundamentally flawed and will tend to do evil naturally without controlling mechanisms. He was not well received by Christina authorities in his time as his argument relied a bit on determinism with regard to the idea that humans will do evil, but his premise, that humans are flawed intrinsically, was not that far removed from Christian positions. When we’re looking at Emergency Sex, we can plug in these two anthropological views of human nature, leaving aside the more individual and philosophical nature of the spiritual approach I covered earlier. Emergency Sex seems to support a more Hobbesian view of human nature, wherein humans, when not rigidly enforced, revert to a state of barbarism.

Cain, Kenneth. “How Many More Must Die before Kofi Quits?” Editorial. The Observer. The Guardian, 03 Apr. 2005. Web. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/apr/03/theobserver1>.

Cain, Kenneth, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone. London: Ebury, 2004. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas, and Richard Tuck. Leviathan. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Locke, John, and P. H. Nidditch. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. Print.
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