Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Humans - Are We Good or Are We Bad?

Hi folks!

OK, this point continues to nag at me almost regardless of the topic under discussion. The main question is whether people are inherently bad (evil, greedy, grasping, cruel, destructive, stupid...) and manage under duress to achieve some rare moments of goodness, or conversely whether people are inherently good (thoughtful, caring, fair, intelligent, creative...) and occasionally perform acts of cruel stupidity.

To be clear: I belong to the "People are Good" camp. Moreso, I think people consistently prove to be almost preposterously good and only very rarely - and in often predictable ways for predictable reasons - behave badly.

It seems that there is something of a consensus in many societies today that people are inherently bad. What is particularly interesting is that this belief is very strong even in societies where the individuals in question enjoy personal freedoms and physical comforts beyond the wildest dreams of any human prior to the last few generations. Furthermore, I conjecture that this belief is a root cause of much of the negativity to be found in today's world.

Original Sin

The "Original Sin" myths of many religions set a baseline for the development of many of today's cultures and therefore bear part of the responsibility for the common malaise. It may have been an effective tool for societal control in days when even the brightest people thought that the space between stars was filled with ethereal jelly, but human development has outgrown whatever value this "built on a rotten foundation belief" can offer. Indeed, using "Original Sin" as a block in the foundation of an individual or a society *is itself* introducing the rot to that otherwise objectively sound foundation.

Focus on the Unusual

When any of us looks back on our lives, many of the moments which stick out among the years - and many of the stories we tell others - are the times when things went horribly wrong. When we look to see what is going on in the world around us - watching news, reading, talking to others - we often are interested in the abnormal events, looking for what has changed in the landscape around us.

This is a fundamental characteristic of any creature cognizant of its surroundings, and humans being (as far as we know) the most cognizant creatures on the planet, we should not be surprised to learn that much of the skill and art of our cognizance is centered around the comparative differentiation of data for the purpose of identifying unusual events.

We should also be conscious of this mechanism when evaluating our satisfaction with our environment, and recognize that the fact that we see a lot of negative information does not necessarily mean that we live in a terrible world or that people are inherently or statistically bad critters.

What I see in the world around me is a statistically small amount of bad stuff going on, in an ocean of good deeds.


Let's take a specific example - Stuttgart, Germany. I have been in this city a number of times and have walked around it with a good friend Frank Lange. It is a beautiful city wurrounded by mountains full of beautiful architecture and landscape, and populated by friendly people (as virtually every other place I've seen has been). What I see in Stuttgart is a place where for centuries people have been creative - building, gardening, working, and where on occasion terrible things have happened. In the mid twentieth century, there was a period of unprecendented violence and destruction, in the early 1900s there was another. Let's say to be conservative these periods were each a decade long (they were less), and that 20% of the twentieth century in Stuttgart was objectively on balance Bad. That leaves 80% of the century a period of creativity. Certainly an 80/20 ratio of creativity vs. destrucitivity is an intersting bit of data.


We find ourselves in an unusual situation for a species of creatures - we are so incredibly effective at surviving that much of our energy is now spent on controlling those abilities. Most other forms of life we are aware of strive and evolve to increase their ability to control the environment, mankind now spends much of its time attempting to foresee or reverse the impact of its ability to change its environement.

All of the evidence shows a lineage of individuals over the past million years who have incrementally increased their ability to understand the world around them, improving by steps their capacity to survive. Many of the most important characteristics developed early in the history of our sentient ancestors are what we intrinsically define as Good: cooperation, caring, teaching, cultivating, creating. Many of the characteristics we define as Bad are not unique at all to humans: war, murder, rape, theft, abuse.

Humanity is - to our current knowledge - the only example in the universe of life evolving to the point that concepts such as Good and Bad have any meaning at all. Reassuringly, it turns out that being Good is on average both a much more successful means of survival as well as a way of living that humans choose most of the time. I cannot help but be optimistic about our future, it looks pretty amazing!