Humans are Inherently Good
By Lauren Reed
The following was originally written and performed for BUGHOUSE! on August 5, 2019. Lauren went up against Dave Belden on the topic“People: Inherently Good or Scum?” Dave’s argument won over Lauren’s. You can listen to the live event on our podcast here.
At first, I was pissed at David [Himmel] for making me argue that people are inherently good. I didn’t think that people were good. People are garbage. But then I started diving into research to prove this argument that people are good. Genuinely, fucking good. It wasn’t easy, but after some compelling research, I have actually changed my mind. For all the fucked up stupidness that people like to put each other through, I truly believe now that we are all inherently good and are trying our best. We may fail a lot. But we really are good.
Exhibit A: Love. Love, actually, is all around. With few exceptions, we inherently love our families and our friends. Exhibit B: Look around you. Look how many people are currently not murdering someone.
That’s good. High five, all of you.
We need to cover a few things first. We live in a world full of complicated problems that can make it seem like we’re all evil. We will go to bat for our own circles first, which we are supposed to do, because it’s good to protect our communities. But of course, this can cause conflict, and on a large scale, lead to war. So who is good and who is evil? It just depends on what side you’re on. No one person will ever be perceived as entirely good or evil. It’s impossible.
Because there is no good without evil. And there is no good or evil without people.
So, evil is what makes arguing for the existence of good so easy. If everything were good, it wouldn’t be good, it would just be. Good has to have an opponent or it wouldn’t be anything at all. It’s why Satan gets a seat at the table. If there is a God and there is a heaven, without Satan and hell, what’s the fucking point? Heaven without Hell would just be purgatory. Evil is what makes good good. Good is what makes evil evil.
Now, without people, nothing you do matters. You could be isolated on an island and do everything you can think of to be “good” or “bad” but it won’t matter. It won’t make any difference at all if it can’t affect someone else. Good and evil are dependent on the effects they cause to people because good and evil are made up human constructs. Therefore we must be present to determine if an action is good or evil. And the line is thin. And the line changes constantly. And one person’s idea of good is someone else’s idea of evil. The grey area is practically the entire spectrum of good and evil.
An easy example: I can buy a pair of shoes for a homeless man walking barefoot in the rain. But if I haven’t even considered the child laborer that made the shoes- that work in terrible conditions for very little pay, am I good or evil? Some would say I’m good because it’s all about the intent behind the action. Others would say I’m evil because I should’ve thought about the child laborer.
But what does it really mean to be inherently good? What does that look like? Is it as simple as not murdering? Well, after a lot of reading, I’ve discovered that according to science, “good” consists primarily of two traits: empathy and cooperation.
So, empathy. Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and economist, describes empathy as “Changing places in fancy with the sufferer.” Empathy is a shared experience. It creates a bond and it is inherent in humans and many other mammals. We are all born with empathy. There are many studies suggesting that at six–eight months, infants begin to show emotional and cognitive reactions — suggesting early signs of empathy, when presented with situations to elicit an empathetic response. It’s how any of us can truly care for another person. Empathy is how babies survive. It’s why your mother didn’t throw you in the garbage the thousands of times she probably wanted to. In fact, empathy is so ingrained, that the natural response to a person who lacks empathy is to assume they are dangerous or mentally ill. And people that lack empathy probably are.
Okay, so cooperation. Cooperation is so deeply ingrained and inherent in animals that almost all species rely on it for survival. Humans are highly social animals and have to cooperate in a society to maintain security, health, income, and connection. Our cooperation begins with family, friends, and coworkers, and branches out from there. This is good, as it ensures ease of survival and the knowledge that people have your back and you have theirs. It’s a great win-win support system. It also plays very well, surprisingly, with a human’s innate self-interest. Cooperation and self-interest go hand in hand because cooperation protects our self-interests of survival and success. Of course, our self-interest is still there, waiting to come out, but if we weren’t largely cooperative within our many circles we would be left behind in solitude to fend for ourselves. So cooperation works very well for us, even more so than being selfish assholes. And we inherently know this.
To prove my point: A group of researchers from Harvard and Yale performed a large study where they had people play ten different economic games where cooperation led to a greater group outcome but less personal gain and selfishness led to greater personal gains, but a less ideal group outcome. They wanted to see if people’s automatic impulse was to act selfishly or cooperatively. Whatever a person’s automatic response was, it would point towards the inherent response in that person. What they learned was that when people were given as much time as they wanted, those that acted the fastest were the most generous and cooperative and those that gave themselves time to reflect were less generous. When people weren’t given time to reflect and had to decide quickly, they were far more generous overall. This shows evidence that the inherent reaction in humans is to work for the greater good of the group. It’s when we have a chance to sit and think about it, that our self-interest starts to take over.
Another study at Yale took a large group of infants and showed them all, individually, the same puppet show with three characters that were represented as shapes. One of the shapes is struggling to climb a hill. Another shape comes to help push from behind and the third shape arrives to push back from further up the hill. After the puppet show, the children were presented with the helper and hinderer shapes, and overwhelmingly the infants reached for the helper. The researchers believe that this suggests that even as infants, there is an expectation about how people should act and a preference for cooperation.
So look, in the end good doesn’t always win. And that’s okay. Because we need evil to remind us why we need good in the world- and why we need to be the good ones to combat the evil ones. It’s easy to see the evil, especially after this past weekend, but good IS everywhere. And I promise you, if you start looking around at everyone that’s just trying their best, trying to be empathetic and cooperative the best they know how, you’ll see good 1000s of times more than you will evil. Good just becomes mundane because it’s commonplace and evil gets more press because it isn’t as prevalent in our everyday boring lives. That’s because most everywhere you look, people are being inherently good.