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Do you think people are natually good or evil?

Recently, I spent a lot of time looking at the John Locke vs. Thomas Hobbes debate and have been wondering what the people in the TED community think on this debate. Are people naturally good and fair? Or are people vile and cruel in their natural state?

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    Apr 13 2012: An old Cherokee told his grandson, "My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger jealousy, greed, resentment inferiority, lies, and ego. The other is good. it is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth."

    The boy thought about it and asked, "Grandfather, which wolf wins?"

    The old man quietly replied, " The one you feed."
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      Apr 14 2012: So true Linda!

      Thanks for sharing that one!
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      Apr 15 2012: Nice one Linda.
      I suggest we are feeding the bad wolf a lot of the time with selfish consumerism and political power trips and national interest.
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        Apr 15 2012: I agree. I will admit that I feed my bad wolf on a regular basis. They are gonna be going at it until I no longer walk the earth.
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    Apr 17 2012: Realistically speaking, humans only act on the basis of their self-interest. And this is neither good, nor bad. There is no such thing as an altruistic act, because every action we take is in connection with ourselves. But this is not to reflect negatively on human nature; it is merely that self-interest dominates, among various other factors. All human characters - such as empathy or hatred - are linked to this.
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    Apr 13 2012: I think people do whatever they think will make them feel better at that moment. The good or evil is all in the choices that they make, such as buying a surprise gift for a loved one, cutting off that car in traffic, sticking that needle in their arm, maling sure that co-worker gets demoted or fired. People themselves are motivated by the desire to feel good. It is the actions that are good or evil.
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      Apr 15 2012: You hedonist! Great response.
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      Apr 15 2012: Good one Verble. Got me thinking.
      I think your point says a lot about motivation.
      We do positive and negative things to feel good or avoid pain.

      Is there any selfless act?

      Perhaps in seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, some people may consider the impacts on others more or less.
      The intent and consideration for others behind the act may still be a factor.

      Perhaps the cause or agent behind the actions must take some responsibility for good or bad actions or outcomes that they caused.
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        Apr 15 2012: Thank you, sir for the compliment.

        As for any selfless act, I can thinkof only one in all of human history.

        But at the end of the day, since we know of good and evil, we know inherently if our actions are good or evil. Often we may try to justify our evil actions are for a greater good, but that's just rationalization.

        However, if a human being were naturally good or evil, then our salvation would be meaningless, because there would be no level playing field, as it were.
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          Apr 16 2012: Well, perhaps doing "good" things for others because it makes us feel good, or avoid guilt has a good outcome - even if not truly selfless.

          I agree if we analyse of actions or planned actions we have a sense on whether we are crossing some lines in terms of our internal values. Perhaps some of these are cultural and some instinctual for the entire species. Perhaps cultural or social influences can distort these values, or perhaps just our primal base instincts take over at times.

          I guess some think this conscience for want of a better word is from god or part of our spirit/soul. could be. Or could be something more naturalistic.
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    Apr 13 2012: If people were vile and cruel they wouldn't have survived long enough to create civilization. With civilization new rules and relations distorted our natural ways. This called for justice to correct any perpetrator of law. Laws that invented right and wrong, good and evil to protect the community and most of all, the interests of those that made the rules.
  • Apr 16 2012: I'd say we clearly have the capacity for both. Discussing what comes more natural almost seems irrelevant. It's more complicated than that.

    I like to think of this old question as a paradox

    We as individual and collective rational actors *should* always choose good because the contrast between the two has never been more clear with the exchange of media. And yet still, plenty of evil and atrocious things take place in all the earth's nations even the developed "first world" ones albeit at much less of a rate than third world counterparts..
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    Apr 26 2012: Take a cursory glance at the panorama of human history. Looks pretty grim to me. It would take a heck of a salesman to get some altruistic alien society to adopt us. I'm going with naturally evil.
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    Apr 26 2012: I'm not sure, whether the definition of good and evil is the same as the definition in my opinion?

    For me evil is imposing the will of the ego out of tune, while the good is an attempt to adapt to very little use of the ego in his role. I chose this definition on the basis that as soon as we were born, then we didn't have the ability to force an out of tune, but an attempt to adapt naturally to achieve harmony.

    When we had just been born, there is no ego involved in our efforts to adapt, but instead we rely on the will of another which is a hidden desire that comes from our deepest self.

    But over time, then we are the experts to satisfy the ego and more use of the ego rather than leaning back to the source of the will that we experienced during just been born. It is much closer to the resistance by the other party without being able to be harmonized for the purposes of the common good.

    In short, as soon as you use a lot and so strong ego, then you'll be closer to trouble than if you use very little ego and desires are in harmony with a true mastery of the ego.

    So, naturally (without involving such a huge ego), we are good. There's nothing wrong with the ego, but if we get too caught up in the ego, we will tend to bring trouble adapting to the other side.

    Less or more ...
  • Apr 26 2012: I assume you are judging GOOD OR EVIL in relation to the benefit of damage one subject do to another (in an absolute way instead of a relative way).

    Well I don't engage on a debate based on opinons in this case so I give you an empirical approach. I remenber studies on this subject.
    - One was on babys under a year of age. They put 2 kids toguether in a situation that one needs help (he can't catch a tool or pencil or things like that) and watch if the other kid help. They repeat with different babies many times. The result was that 50% help the mate and the other 50% really don't care.
    - Other studies on adults show the half of the population is honest "by nature" and the other half is fine with the fact of lying.

    So in this aproach 50/50 may be a good answer. Of course afterwards there are groups when one of two conducts is feeded vs. the other. Thinking in professionals careers we see two specific groups like scientists and sellers. One is very engaged with true facts and the other with providing more profitable stories (false stories many times).

    In my opinion the environment hide the "natural" inclination too soon so you can't figure out that passed the early years of life.


    On the subject of denying responsability of our actions the things go worst:

    There is an experiment when a (fake) doctor say a person (the real subject of the experiment) to apply a deadly (and fake) electroshok to other person (the actor). - I can't remember the name of that experiment. If anyone can help I appreciate that -
    Every time this experiment is done the results are always the same. It show that 2 of 3 people apply the electroshock IF the doctor take responsability for damaging or killing the othe guy.

    That result really scares me.


    And the fact that many people ACT among THEIR WILL despite the nature of the fact he/she is facing, suffering or enjoying is matter for other talk ...
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    Apr 26 2012: Hello Maris, any question that deals with good vs. evil is bound to spark strong debate. But thank you for bringing up the topic!

    I feel more inclined towards Thomas Hobbes ideas than those of John Locke. But as with most things in life, it is not black and white. I am not 100% for one nor 100% against the other

    In my view, at a most basic level, the natural state of humans is that of an animal that has evolved some wonderful traits, but who also carries a huge genetic baggage that at times result in not-so-wonderful behaviors. None of those two is more "natural" than the other

    And it is very pretentious to think that humans own either one of those two traits. In some primates there are traces of a basic but very clear sense of empathy and justice, of cooperation for the betterment of others and the suffering of other's misfortunes. These traits precede humans and could even precede primates.

    The same holds true for that innate fear of strangers, territorial-ism, the tendency to protect one's nest. These traits are even more ancient.

    We must be humble enough to recognize that pro-social behaviors and anti-social behaviors are not entirely human made. Probably not even remotely human made.

    We must be conscious too that no amount of culture has ever changed somebody's dna. Even if we were to spend years helping someone whit a genetic variation that reduces his feeling of empathy for others. If he happens to have a child, and the child inherits the same genetic variation, then the help provided to the parent is completely lost to the child. That part of nature is so rooted that it does not change a bit, even with all the weight of nurture against it.

    But during our lifetime we can change our brain structure, and we can improve a child's experiences to change her brain structure as well.

    The more we accept the inevitability of our dual nature, and the more we understand it at a physical level, the better prepared we'll be to paint a brighter future

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    Apr 25 2012: I suggest avoiding the terms good and evil. They are loaded terms and have so many different interpretations as to be nearly meaningless for this sort of discussion. We might all agree it is evil to kill a child. However we may disagree on whether it is good to circumcise boys and girls as this is their cultural gods will.

    I suggest being a bit more specific and dropping the religious connotations.

    Are people naturally selfish or selfless. Compassionate, emphatic, cooperative or primarily concerned with their own interests, what they can take, their own pleasure even at the expense of others pain and suffering.

    We seem to have evolved to a point where we have a bit of both.

    To reduce this to a binary, black and white proposition is overly simplistic.
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      Apr 25 2012: I would agree that when talking about natural states it might be good to avoid terms like good and evil, and definitely the words themselves come so overloaded wi meanings that it would be hard to have a valid discussion, but since those words are intrinsic to the question, and not to discuss them is to invalidate the argument.

      I agree with you that people are selfish or selfless, but I would also argue that those are characterisitcs, which are brought about by the mixture of upbringing, personality, experience, etc.

      And spot on that we can never reduce ourselves to a simplistic explanation. Human beings are immensely complex, and simply pasting labels like good or evil on individuals is painting with too broad a brush..
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    Apr 22 2012: There are two answers.

    It is an acheivement to increase empathy. It is an acheivement to increase wisdom. It is an acheivement to increase rationality. It is an acheivement to increase self control. Thus, it appears that goodness is something we acheive through the expansion of culture.

    But, it is in our nature to develop along these lines.

    In the beginning we are an arrow pointed more or less at a target. We could be pointed away from the target, but we are not. That is good. But we are not yet an arrow that has reached it target. Thus, we also lack goodness.
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    Apr 18 2012: I think that the competitive socio-economic environment that we are in, that promotes competition, certainly makes it easier for evil to surface. It's a lot easier to be good in a "good" environment.
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    Apr 17 2012: I was hoping someone would bring this up but I guess I will. We have had some good discussion regarding the individual as the moral agent (determines good-evil). I would like to know of anyone's experience when society is the moral agent and the individual is only a participant in the morality of the society. Any comments?
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      Apr 25 2012: Interesting question. I was a nuclear trained technician aboard a nuclear submarine. We all had to get submarine qualified, which required learning the various systems of the sub and getting signed off. When I went to the forward part of the boat, I realized that I was getting the run-around. I asked why this was so. They said "you do it to us so we are just giving it back to you". I said "when have I done this to you?" They said "maybe not you directly, but all you engineering people who think you're so smart".

      I realized that there was an issue here. I said "I'd like to make a deal with you. You help me with what I need to know and I will help your people learn what they need to know". After several weeks, one of my comrades passes me, nudges me in the shoulder and says "traitor" as he walked by. I said "what do you mean by that?" He says "giving all the forward pukes the answers." I said "I'm not giving them the answers, just helping them to know were to find them." He says "same difference".

      I began to question the others. I found that many of them felt the same way. They felt that they had to show their authority by belittling others. I felt that by doing so, they were revealing their own dark side. I fought this mentality for some time. Eventually it paid off. Our boat received a special citation for efficiency because I refused to change my position.

      I have since realized that this mentality exists in many walks of life. People put others down in order to make themselves look more important. It's the standard in soap operas. Do as you please and find ways of justifying it. As for me, I am a Christian and refuse to put other people down. I will find a way to prevail so that others feel better about themselves. I feel that I was born with this quality. I have found that not all people are born with this quality, but it begins to wear off as the benefits begin to reveal themselves.
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        Apr 25 2012: Sir, if TED would allow me to give you 20 thumbs up for this post, I would.
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        Apr 25 2012: Wow great example. Kudos for sticking to your over riding values and not caving in to the social pressure.
  • MR T

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    Apr 16 2012: I think people are naturally altruistic, but will also naturally screw other people out of what they want, you can see both of those things in kids.

    I think most people learn that both can be successful, but it also depends on which behaviours the people around you pick too as to the risk involved with the latter.
  • Apr 15 2012: I like to hope that most people are good rather than evil. Shocking news stories and media sensationalism aside I think that I do see more evidence for people being and more importantly doing 'good' than I do for 'evilness'. And my personal thanks to Don Wesley for bringing the Zimbardo TED talk to my attention (check his post for the link)

    As others have said on this thread I guess the answer in part depends on how you define natural. What is the natural state of humanity? My thought is that we can take the natural state of humanity to be the hunter/gatherer societies. I suppose we can take violence levels amongst different socities to indicate some level of good vs evil.

    Now I have seen some evidence that the per capita murder rate amongst hunter gatherers is actually shockingly high, much higher than in the most deprived inner-city areas in industrialised nations. The theory being that city dwelling 'civilizations' have tamed those natures that were useful to us in the ansestral state but mal-adaptive for settled socities. In brief us as 'wolves' have become us as 'dogs', we've selected for tameness as time goes on.

    I am slightly wary of this 'just-so-story' theory however as the relatively poor level of medical care could explain some of this and the statistics that I've been able to find for per capita murder rates are always cautioned by reference to unreported crime, ploitical manipulation, differences in legislation etc. Also it is important to note that what we could call institutional violence such as warfare and executions could well be considered violence on the evil-side(?)

    So does anyone know of any reliable statistical evidence regarding violence or even good vs evil natures between different forms of socities? And what are your thoughts on this theory in general, has our goodness level increased over time, or not, or stayed the same?
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      Apr 15 2012: Interesting

      [ Now I have seen some evidence that the per capita murder rate amongst hunter gatherers is actually shockingly high, much higher than in the most deprived inner-city areas in industrialised nations. ]

      You wouldn't have a link Terry,it's the first i've heard of a study or stat conducted with this in mind.It's out of curiosity only if you have one?
      • Apr 16 2012: I have been trying to find some reliable statistics and decent over-all comparison studies but there doesn't seem to be much out there. At least not for what I am specifically looking for. was the first thing a search engine threw up, he cites murder rates per capita amongst hunter gatherers as ranging from 1 per 100 to 1 per 3,500.

        If we compare these to modern countries we see in the most recent stats for top of the chart Honduras the murder rate is 86 per 100,000 The diference looks quite stagering with the least violent hunter gathers having a murder rate 11 times greater than the most violent country.

        However, I'm not entirely sure that these figures are directly comparable as hunter-gatherers have no access to anti-biotics, blood transfusions and so on. Plus as I stated above even the figures quoted above for murder rates by modern country should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. It is listed via COUNTRY rather than via society for a start, different countries having different socities within them.

        Still it would make an interesting project for a post graduate anthropology student to find a way of weighting the statistics to account for these differences...
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          Apr 17 2012: Thanks Terry

          I'll get right on and have a read of them.I wonder if anyone would have thought of a project of this kind,it would certainly get them noticed.Thanks for the time, we have such crap search engines.
  • Apr 14 2012: I believe that good and evil are relative and ambiguous terms. If we can agree on one definition, it might make it easier to discuss.
  • Apr 14 2012: GOOD!
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    Apr 14 2012: It may depend how you define good and evil.
    As a species by most reasonable definitions we are a bit of both.
    As individuals, some are worse than others.
    Part of the definition may reflect the freedom to choose to do good or evil.
    Some acts of evil are worse than others.
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    Apr 14 2012: well as a matter of fact, its upto the institution that makes one good or bad. Famous example of it in our society in Pakistan, are little kids trained for suicide bombing. The're programmed like a computer....and attached with a certain goal to obtain. Once a 17 year old suicide bomber in our city was caught and interrogated about what is ethically right...and do u know what he said???...he said" you cant see what i can see, angels are walking by calling for me to blow urself up....cuz they are waiting for me in heaven"...So my frend...we are all institutionalized to be good or bad in one way or the other by the society we live in
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      Apr 14 2012: Khushal - what you say makes a lot of sense.

      Traditional societies that have been allowed to develop without any western influence (examples: Amazonia, Papua New Guinea etc), while showing tribal rivalries and disputes, are essentially free of the truly offensive acts of politically and commercially indoctrinated evil we experience in our own society.

      I think this means that our default, without any influence of unsustainable greed, is to stabilise as 'good'. Not only that, but if we were to submit to the natural forces of nature in that way, we would have a better relationship with the planet that sustains our lives.

      This sounds like regression to something from the stone age, but in fact it will eventually be seen as progress, given that we are all currently living in such huge numbers on the back of crude oil and the finite revenues that go with it.
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      Apr 15 2012: Good point.

      Its hard to agree on what is good and what is evil depending on culture, context, programming etc.
      One person terrorist is another persons freedom fighter.
      A peacekeeping force or an invasion.

      Thats why I like to bring it back to what is hopefully a relatively universal theme -what improves the human condition.

      Nice if we could dump religious indoctrination. There are enough competitive forces, self interest and politics without it.
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    Apr 14 2012: Only about 2% are "naturally" evil, rest are all good.
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    Apr 13 2012: They are good
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    Apr 13 2012: The answer is not black and white. Some good families have a black sheep among them. Some are born where evil is taught. Some see good as evil and evil as good. When in desperate situations, some would do things that they would not normally do out of instinct to survive. Some are capable of finding solutions that avert evil whereas others react to the situation.

    Not everyone has the capacity to become a Hitler, but Hitler did. What made him different? Was he born that way? Would he have turned out different under different circumstances? We could argue the issue all day and may never find the answer.

    I choose to look for the good in others and turn a blind eye to the bad. It brings it out in them when I am around because I help them to see it in themselves. I also practice what I preach because people learn by what they see more than what they hear. If you want to see good in others, show them the good in yourself.
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      Apr 15 2012: Interesting point.

      I suggest many of us have the potential to follow Hitler in the same circumstances.
      He had broad appeal.

      Some in Rwanda. Normal people slaughtering their tribal neighbours.

      Nationalism, tribalism, racialism, religion can be twisted to evil. They may unit the tribe but divide us as a species. In a sense we are still pack animals.

      Still I don't want to be done over by some other tribe, nation. Maybe the uber wealthy 1% are a tribe unto themselves.
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    Apr 13 2012: I do not know....but you could increase your goodness and the same applied to evilness.
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    Apr 13 2012: I don't understand what you mean by "naturally", "natural state".

    What is a "natural state" for people?
    • Apr 13 2012: Could the words nature, natural, have evolved out of man's inability to explain? Consider how widely the words are used and listen to the topics in which people employ the words.

      More mystery!

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        Apr 13 2012: Exactly.
        And in our case, if you go through the headache of finding another word for "naturally", you realize how strange this question of good and evil is.