Are People Inherently Good Or Bad?

I believe that people are inherently good.

I know this goes against CNN, the nightly news and many religions, but here’s my proof.

When we do bad things, we need to justify it. If I yell at someone, I want to explain WHY it was okay to yell at them. Even serial killers often have a reason. It’s a CRAZY reason, but it’s still a reason.

We want to say that others deserved it. And whether it’s true or not (and there’s great debate as to whether anyone DESERVES to be uncared for or yelled at or hurt, which can be heard in parenting circles all the way through our justice system), the fact that we want or need another person TO deserve it, makes me believe that we are good.

Why would we need a justification if we were inherently bad? We would just be mean and hurtful. We wouldn’t need anything more than to do it. We must have some sort of conscience or moral compass.

However, if we are inherently good, why it’s so difficult to be nice to others? Why is the cycle of mean —> justification —> mean —-> justification is so comfortable and common for all of us?

Perhaps, if we believe that we are all inherently good, if we treated all people like they were all rushing to the hospital to say good-bye to someone they loved, then we would not find ourselves having to justify our own behaviors. We wouldn’t have justifications if we were all just a little more understanding of our humanness.

And while this is helpful when someone cuts me off in traffic, it doesn’t work when someone purposefully rams his car into me. We cannot give people a pass for every behavior. People will get hurt.

And I do believe in a moral compass. A sense of lines that we do not cross. I think that we all have lines — they are right around when we start justifying our behaviors and what makes us so GOOD.

However, if we are all good and all moral, who figures out where the line is? What is a justification and how do we know when we are confusing justification with morality? There are people who could use this essay to justify banning homosexuality, which I would never support because it goes against my moral compass.

In some ways, this is why we have a justice system. Although when studies come out about darker-skinned African-Americans getting tougher sentences than lighter-skinned African-Americans, and when the Supreme Court rules that corporations are like people when it comes to political campaigns, it’s difficult to feel like justice is blind or able to fulfill this need in all areas.

We also have voices and votes and feet. And while I don’t believe that there is some inherit evil to people, I think that sometimes we stand up against actions and attitudes that are hurting others even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular.

I don’t think the rainbow flag outside of our home has endeared us to some of our neighbors. But I believe that the gay teenager walking through our neighborhood knows someone cares in a state which may be one of the last to support gay rights in all of its laws.

Do I think that the people who tell that boy he’s wrong, are evil? No. But their slurs and intimidation at school, home, and church, should not be tolerated. While others will tell me that the boy’s “lifestyle,” which should not be tolerated.

Are our moral compasses different? I think that only one of us is hurting someone. Perhaps “do no harm” is a place to begin.

I wish the world was black and white. Good and evil. It seems easier than being forced to search my heart every day for the right words and actions. To know when to stand up and when to stay seated. To try and understand people and forgive their humanness without letting others get hurt.

I love people and believe in their goodness. But I still hate what they do.

It is uncomfortable to feel both.

It is unpopular to believe both.

But it is exactly where I want to be.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

16 thoughts to “Are People Inherently Good Or Bad?”

  1. Wow. I can’t believe you took on the greatest and oldest problem known to mankind.
    I believe that we are born good – in God’s image. However, bad, evil, whatever you want to call it, is a pretty strong force. And unfortunately we fall victim. Or our parents or teachers or mentors teach us to veer towards bad rather than good. Maybe not explicitly, but I believe the way we are treated and loved by others can build up or chip away the good.
    Oh yeah, and God did that whole free will thing, that really messed up the whole “the world is black and white” thing.
    I’m with you though. I get really tired of other people choosing to be bad.

  2. On Mother’s Day 2002 I left on a month-long cross country road-trip with my boys then ages 5 and 7. It was a gift to myself for finishing my degree and getting into grad school.

    Alex, it was the best thing I have ever done. Because people, or at least the people I met in that month I spent on the road were not only good, they were kind, and generous, and forgiving. We met a couple in a hotel in Estes Park, Co who offered us a place to stay in Salt Lake City. They made us dinner, let me do some laundry, took us to the Bingham Copper mine and watched my youngest so I take my oldest to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Oh…and then they sent me a tape of the performance we watched after we got home. You know how those crazy Mormon cult people are…simply evil.

    My mother did not want me to take that trip. She couldn’t fathom why I would want to make a trip like that ALONE! Endangering the lives of my children! Post 9/11! She bought me a book for graduation called “The Gift of Fear,” and I think that just about sums it up.

    I don’t think people are inherently evil…I just think they are afraid.

  3. I also agree that people are inherently good. But so many of them are also inherently MORONS, so the good is often cancelled out by the stupid and ridiculous things they do.

    They mean well, really.

  4. I guess I don’t really believe in a good/evil dichotomy or the idea that people (as a whole or individually) are inherently good or bad. I think we all need to try to see the good in other people, and try to act in a way that brings out the good in other people. But you’re right, it’s very hard to see the good in people when they are hateful. I really, really struggle with that.

  5. Most of the time I believe that people are inherently good but every now and then I’m not so sure. People can do some pretty awful things. I’m a licensed therapist and have witnessed some of these things in connection with people with whom I have worked. I have also had a couple of experiences in my personal life that have pretty deeply shaken my faith in people and left me dumbfounded at certain people’s ability to wreak such tremendous and painful havoc.

    Sometimes I just don’t know.

  6. I couldn’t love this post anymore. Seeing your flag got me all choked up. My brother is gay and watching him struggle over the years just to be himself is heartbreaking. I want to take the pain away for him and I want him to see a rainbow flag flying high down every path he chooses to take. Thank you for this.

  7. I totally agree with you. I think people are good. I love a LOT of very good people who hold very opposite moral beliefs than I do. I do not think that they would hurt someone on purpose…they just have a differing “moral compass.”

    awesome post.

  8. I think your right, and I agree with the commentor that said “Most people are just afraid”. I think that fear and the need to catagorized people drive most of the stupid stereotypes that lead to hatred.

  9. I remember when I came to realize that one of the tenets of my faith tradition, (different from some other mainstream Christian faith traditions) was that people were created in the image and likeness of the Divine, and at the very center of what that meant: people are intrinsically good.

    My gut knew that. Your column brought my inner sense of knowing to words. Anyone who has watched a child grow in the warmth of a loving family knows how the goodness arrives in this world, how it grows, how it passes to the next generation.

    At our center, people are fundamentally good.

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  11. Your post reminds me of something my Mom has said about her siblings when they are at odds, “I love you, but I don’t like what you are doing.”

    I believe people are good. I try to look for the good in people and hope they can see past my flaws. I think life is to be enjoyed and in order to do so, we need to help one another and not be so critical of each other… or even of ourselves.

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