Are people born good or bad?


Fact Box

  • A 2007 Yale Infant Cognition Center study revealed that babies as young as six months “overwhelmingly preferred ‘good guys’ to ‘bad guys.’”
  • In philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous book The Social Contract, he theorized that “human beings are good by nature but are rendered corrupt by society.” In contrast, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that morality was acquired--specifically through practicing reason. 
  • A Georgetown University study led by Abigail Marsh, Ph.D., found that the right amygdalas of “extraordinary altruists” were significantly larger than those of psychopaths.  
  • University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands’ book “Can Animals Be Moral?” suggests that “social mammals such as rats, dogs and chimpanzees can choose to be good or bad.”

Suzanne (Bad)

Everyone is unique. But while many can possess kind dispositions, human nature is generally selfish, disobedient/resistant to authority, unkind, and destructive. People are taught morality; it doesn’t come naturally. Parents must actively teach their children to share, be kind with their words and hands, respect property, show empathy, be honest, etc. Everyone from siblings to strangers fight; even twins fight in the womb

If people were born good, the outlier—not the norm—would be the “bad” folks. Sadly, mean people fill up every crevice of our world. They manifest on the internet as trolls, bully others in the classroom and boardroom to further themselves, riot, loot, and destroy property, murder, kidnap, rape, assault, and more. Even if we are taught to resist our natural impulses to take, tear down, and take out, we all still carry selfish instincts into society, perpetuating the problems that recur throughout human history. 

Governments exist to “restrain evil” because, by default, humans descend into anarchy, chaos, and tribalism instead of utopian, peaceful societies when left to our own devices. Constant wars show how humanity is bent towards conquest, greed, and destruction. Hunter/gatherers had to fight and take to survive. Scientific materialism asserts humans reached evolutionary status via “survival of the fittest.” Everyone is born with the instinct to survive. A newborn’s instinct is to search for their mother’s milk. This early dependence and need shape a child’s base morality and behavior. In later life, when someone perceives they don’t have enough to survive, that instills selfishness and a willingness to step on others to get what they need. It’s all very primal, and ultimately, natural to being human.

Bre (Good)

Research indicates humans are not born with a moral “blank slate” but are actually born good. Infant studies reveal an innate preference for prosocial behavior, including demonstrating altruistic actions shown to precede the possibility of infants learning these actions. With this proven inborn capacity for kindness and evident instinctive morality, it’s clear to scientists that goodness is, in fact, our predisposition. Even in adult studies, cooperation is shown to be a natural reaction. Moreover, our first impulses are selfless ones. Neurologists have found biological mechanisms linked to altruism in humans, and by interrupting certain impulse control centers, they can measurably increase altruistic behaviors, which implies we are fundamentally unselfish by nature.

The motivations for the overall goodness of people and general cooperation are apparent. Evolutionary and societal gains clearly favor working together over malice-driven actions. It’s also known that we possess an instinctive sense of empathy. For example, anyone who sees a total stranger’s young baby about to fall backward off a seat will naturally attempt to catch the child. This is because helpfulness and civil behavior are ingrained in us; they aid in our survival

When we colonize and live in large groups, prosocial behavior and getting along with others create favorable modern living functionality. For these reasons, such behaviors are unmatched by any other species. While many facets of the age-old nature vs. nurture debate may find themselves landing somewhere in between, in this case, nurture is the one to blame for the corruption of our established, automatic sense of goodness.

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