Good. Evil. Neither?

I love debating. It really is too bad my high school didn’t have a debate team. I would have excelled. Plus, I’d probably be a better debater now.

Over dinner one night recently, as our food digested and we finished our drinks, a good friend and I spent about 40 minutes trying to decide if humanity was inherently good or inherently evil. Forty minutes, I know. Humankind has spent millennia pondering the same questions, yet we were determined to provide answers in less than an hour’s time generations before us couldn’t.

We talked about government and organized religion. We talked about war and peace. We talked about selflessness and greed. Yet, we eventually came to an impasse. We were deadlocked with two opposing camps – the same two, differing viewpoints with which we’d started our conversation. He says humanity is inherently evil. I say humanity is inherently good.

Driving home I called my mother. I’m the oldest of her five children. If anyone could answer this question it’d be her.

“Mom, in each of your five children, when we were very, very young and were just beginning to interact with other people, was our first inclination to share with others or to be selfish and keep something for ourselves,” I asked.

Silence. She paused for a bit. So long, in fact, I had to inquire as to whether she was still on the line.

“Each of you shared,” she said. “When you were small, you’d give me your pacifier. When you sat down to eat in your high chair you’d pick up pieces of your food and try to give it to other people.”

Aha! My mother had backed up my argument. Humanity is inherently good. Our first, natural inclination upon interacting with other humans is to give. But, not so fast. Motherly wisdom had an addendum.

She continued, “But when you all were about two or three years old, you started to develop your sense of self. Everything in the house, whether or not it actually was yours, became yours. Your toys were yours. The sofa was yours. The TV remote was yours. Everything was yours. And when you wanted to tell others it was yours, you’d scream, ‘Mine!’”

I quickly responded, “Yeah, but that was after we’d been tainted by other humans around us. After we’d witnessed, consciously or subconsciously, selfishness from the folks around us.”

Like an old sage inviting you to continue your own quest for knowledge and self-discovery, motherly wisdom left the question open-ended: “Maybe. Possibly.”

4 Responses to “Good. Evil. Neither?”
  1. KipEsquire says:

    “In every culture, in every language, the first word a child learns is, ‘Mama!’ The second is, ‘Mine!'” –Source unknown.

  2. Good reflection, Matt. It’s a question with which I’ve wrestled for years, as a professional theologian and just as a fellow human. I’ve reached the point where I’m inclined to think that we have equally the potential for good and evil and why some of us manifest one over the other has myriad answers at best, but usually can be answered only by “I don’t know.” Guess I’m getting more comfortable with mystery in my old age. Anyway, good piece. Glad you shared it with us!

  3. Jarred says:

    Like David, I think we inherently possess the capacity for both good and evil. After all, morality is about actions, and actions are spawned by choices. It’s not until we start making our choices that our morality is cast.

  4. Sam.Lynn says:

    I think the first step in answering your question is to define what exactly constitutes good and evil. Then once you have these definitions you can explore the problem of the nature of good and evil, are they strictly dualistic or is their a morally ambiguous space. Then finally you can begin to figure out if humans are inherently good or evil.

    Then again I’m prone to over thinking things.

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