Are Humans Innately Good?

A Christian friend I grew up with recently asked me, “What do you mean when you say that humans are innately good? (I, most assuredly, am not) What causes us to do bad things?”
I replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way. How many bad things do you do every day? Do you wake up and spit on the cat? Do you drop your brownies in the trash bin instead of the toilet just to annoy everyone? Do you knock your wife one for not cooking your eggs just so or burning the toast? Do you walk outside to get the paper and kick the neighbor’s new puppy just for kicks and giggles? Do you run all the red lights and kill a few people on your way for work every day because you have nothing better to do? Do you have a few affairs each week and cheat on them with a whole set of other affairs you are having? Do you steel what you want and do anything you like regardless of the consequences?”

Additionally I commented, “If you’re not innately good, we can reasonably assume, you’d be doing these things and worse, and more than this, we can guesstimate that you’d revert into a wild poop slinging wilder-beast monkey man who masturbates too much. But low and behold! This is not the case. You’re civil, and you try to be a good and respectable person. This is innate goodness, plain and simple.”

So, admittedly I must disagree with those who think like my friend. Unless you’re a psychopath or a sociopath we can deduce from life experience that most sane people are not bad… they’re mostly good most of the time. Not always, it’s true, but most of the time. Granted there are a lot of assholes out there… but they’re not “rape your poodle” evil. They’re just unthinking, uneducated, stubborn A-holes who need better disciplining.

If you do more good in a day than bad, no matter what you may believe, you’re more good than bad. It’s that easy!

What I think most Christians are getting hung up on is that they’re mixing the concept of pain and suffering with cruelty and the will to power and coming up with the concept of sin. But Eastern philosophies have addressed suffering quite elegantly… and it’s not a lack of morality due to any supernatural cause so much as a natural condition.

But because many Christians are all hung up on this moral high horse, they’ve proceeded to set barely conceivable and quite nearly impossible standards for what it means to sin because they believe in the metaphysical nature of sin–even without ever having a clear concept of what it means to sin other than it has something to do with transgressing God’s law–which itself is subject to interpretation. Metaphysical claims not withstanding though, even if you are a sinner, odds are, if you are a mentally healthy individual, you are still probably doing more good than bad. So what causes us to do bad things you might wonder?
We’re NOT perfect! We’re each of us fallible, imperfect, and prone to make mistakes. Some more than others, depending on our circumstances, how we were raised, cultural upbringing, our mindset, and numerous other conditions and factors. It’s one of the stamps of our animal imperfection, our biological weakness as mere primates. Welcome to the human race!

Christians are basically creating their own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and using what they know—whether they get it from their holy leaders or from the Bible directly–to try and formulate ways of thinking which tie into the ecumenical whole. But this is, in all intents and purposes, relative moralizing.  Which means they are doing what Atheists and secular humanists do when we practice moral relativism.

How we derive our notion of a sense of “good” and “evil” is mainly a cultural and social phenomenon which varies according to the beliefs and customs of each individual set of peoples. This also makes it relative according to our philosophical understanding of what “good” and “bad” means in our everyday discourse.

But I think there is a higher goodness which transcends our very notions of it. It is the goodness we have yet to achieve. It is the evolved version of goodness, if you want to think of it in natural terms, and it is unknown to us because we have not yet met it. It can only be glimpsed on the horizon, a direction we are moving toward, it is reflected in what the Buddha taught: Not to do any evil, to cultivate the good, to purify one’s mind. When we do progress enough thus enabling ourselves to accomplish such a feat, it will make the achievement that much more meaningful. Call it a truism if you wish, because it seems so obvious as to actually constitute a truth. But the Buddha also taught good and evil were consequences of pain and suffering, which themselves were illusions. So again, we know the concept of “good and bad” resides in our minds.

For this same reason we know the opposite of goodness is that which brings unnecessary suffering into the world. Suffering is a natural state, part of existence and partially because we have advanced sensory nervous systems which have evolved to alert us to specific dangers, but excess and unjust causes of pain and suffering threaten our well being and safety. I feel, if life cannot exist without such evils, then death must be the ultimate evil, and so goodness is that which alleviates the suffering and strife and helps us progress to a happier, healthier sort of existence. Basically, this is good and evil as it exists in its natural state.

The ethical concept of good and evil, however, is definitely subject to individual and cultural interpretation. Although I’m an Atheist, I agree with Sam Harris that Buddhism contains “spiritual” types of experiences which can enhance our lives. In his book The End of Faith he goes on to explain:

Without denying that happiness has many requisites—good genes, a nervous system that does not entirely misbehave, etc.—we can hypothesize that whatever a person’s current level of happiness is, his condition will be generally improved by his becoming yet more loving and compassionate, and hence more ethical. This is a strictly empirical claim—one that has been tested for millennia by contemplatives in a variety of spiritual traditions, especially within Buddhism. We might wonder whether, in the limit, the unchecked growth of love and compassion might lead to the diminution of a person’s sense of well-being, as the suffering of others becomes increasingly his own. Only people who have cultivated these states of mind to an extraordinary degree will be in a position to decide this question, but in the general case there seems to be no doubt that love and compassion are good, in that they connect us more deeply to others. (Harris, p.191)

But more than this, many of the philosophies of Eastern philosophy are much more sophisticated than any Western religion. The reason for this is Western religion is mainly comprised of stories, myth, fables… and the philosophical complexity of them only comes after the fact when people are trying to grapple with the ideas and make them fit according to their world views. And then there is religion to regulate exactly what you’re allowed to think, and so you are inevitably faced with the wearisome ultimatum to either follow suit, follow the herd trying to avoid the black sheep at all costs, or be ostracized for your lack of faith. If you choose the prior, you are stuck with living the unexamined life, because you’ve never stepped outside of the framework of your religious faith long enough to see what it looks like from the outside. According to Socrates, the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Why? Because you’re not living according to what you have come to realize by yourself, you are living according to the direction of some higher authority, enslaved to the ideology of an institution, and this is organized religion in a nutshell. Eastern religion starts off with the ideas, and asks you to think about them that you might become enlightened, and be set free. This is, in my humble opinion, a much more philosophically advanced position to start from. It just so happens to also be the more reasonable option, since under the religious scheme you risk the danger of being perpetually indoctrinated, suppressed, controlled and are never truly free–even when freedom is promised you in return for your faithful obedience. Whereas, to side with Socrates, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, and the sages you can set yourself free, and liberate your body, soul, and mind.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula states, “Buddhism recognizes that humans have a measure of freedom of moral choice, and Buddhist practice has essentially to do with acquiring the freedom to choose as one ought to choose with truth: that is of acquiring a freedom from the passions and desires that impel us to distraction and poor decisions.”
There is something, however, genuinely humanistic about Buddhist philosophy which gives me hope that humans can still progress beyond their own feeble mindedness and become something better. It’s a hope I subscribe to mainly because I tend to be somewhat of an optimist, a rarity among skeptics and atheists. I guess it’s just another one of my many appreciations.


  1. There are many animals that you could call "good" also, even by human standards. Penguins that are faithful to their mates for life, that take care of their young in horrifying weather conditions, for example.

  2. Good stuff, at least I like your style. Before I comment I should ask should to please define "good and bad". But for the sake of blog world I'll just roll with it. "Christians are basically creating their own sense of right and wrong" Oh, Ok pot.I like what Buddha said but how does he know what evil is? Or what truth is? Who sets these principles? Man?"So we know that good and bad is just in our mind" So then I guess all the suffering in the world is just in our mind. Whew, that's a relief."…relgion regulates exactly what your allowed to think…". really?"…where as, to side with Socrates, the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, and the sages you can get yourself free, and liberate your body, soul and mind" Or you could just do what the hell you feel like.I do like your style, I know my comments are weak, but don't have the energy to sypher what all you were saying. Hope all is well with you all. peace. feeno

  3. Feeno-I think the problem you might be noticing is that I really didn't set out to define what goodness is.But, that said, I do toward the end, give a definition for what good and evil mean in the natural world–which is what I agree with the Buddha on. Good and evil are just extensions of pain and suffering. That which alleviates our pain… is good. That which compounds our suffering, is bad.This is why I tried to distinguish that ethics is different than morality. Morality deals with good and evil, which as far as I can tell can be defined purely in naturalistic terms. Ethics is what you, and most Christians mean, when they talk about the concepts of "good" and "evil." Ethics are tied directly to social, cultural, and political philosophies which seek to define practices which can bring about the greatest good, and this is developed by humans.According to my understanding, good and bad being extensions of pain and suffering, are also relative, because as the Buddha taught pain and suffering is only an illusion. I wouldn't go as far as to say that, because pain and suffering are certainly real, but if you look at it in terms of "our perceptions" then, yes, we our allowing outside stimuli to inform us about what his good, that which does the most good for us, and what is inherently bad, that which would cause the most harm.I see no contradiction here. We are still creating our own definitions of "good and bad" even as the consideration of ethics may vary from culture to culture and person to person. But the bottom line is, we know what good and bad are, and can distinguish between the two, precisely because they exist naturally. If they did not, we would have no basis for defining any such concept of right and wrong.The addition of God, or any divine authority, only complicates things–because if you examine what these God's say, they more often than not reflect real world political agendas of their corresponding time periods, showing the anthropomorphic stamp of the bad human touch, and by this recognition could not possibly be authentic. While the more theological bits are complicated by their nebulous meanings, and so each individual then must develop their own personal meaning, and this is what I call relative moralizing; which is, in effect, the same thing secular humanists and nonbelievers do when we practice moral relativism. In the end, we each bring our own interpretation to the experience or content and depending on our overall beliefs… you will attribute “good and evil” to God, although there’s absolutely zilch for evidence of this, and I will agree with the naturalists who posit that it exists naturally, because as far as I can tell, that’s the explanation with the least amount of cognitive dissidence.

  4. Robert-You're absolutely right! And beyond this, animals have shown great cognative capabilities. Seals and Walruses, for example, have shown intuition and logic when solving critical thinking problems which outstrip that of a 4 year old human child! (For more on this, see: NOVA Science Now, season 4, episode 4)Also, animals have shown altruistic behavior in the wild. Which shows morality exists in the animal Kingdom separate and apart from humanity.See: show altruistic behavior all the time. They'll even leave their master's side to go save a stranger. Other times, they'll ignore a stranger in need if their master needs aid. Dogs can be trained to help epileptics, like my wife, and safeguard them from serious injury before a seizure ever occurs!Cats do it too. I had a friend in college whose house burned down, and she was dead asleep after having worked 3 back to back consecutive shifts. Her cat came into the room and started "clawing" her to get her to wake up. When she did, smoke was already coming through the bedroom door. She grabber her cat and escaped through the bedroom window.Animals are amazing.

  5. Animals are amazing indeed. Every night when I plop my fat ass on the sofa my little beagle mix(mutt) jumps on my chest while my boxer mix(mutt)lays at my feet. Sorry to go off topic but animals are cool, especially our pets.Peace out Amigos, feen

  6. Tristan->"Christians are basically creating their own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, and using what they know"They sure do Tristan.Calling some words in some biblical book "divine word of god",is only a fancy yuppy type name for them otherwise being called "deep thoughts of ancient men".I find it very hard to understand why folks of faith even today will still question us, who is setting the boundaries with decisions of morals.Or how will we know whats moral etc.Its like they simply think their morals really must have likely like magic, come from some place so very specially different to everyone else.Seems they are just so sure it really has to be the "god/s" that are involved in these matters as they read their special belief book for the particular faith/god/s they belong to,yet they forget to notice other people born into other cultures and other countries with another type faith belief book also happen to fully believe its actually their "god" who`s the one!! for all the boundaries of moral are supposed to be set from.Tristan->"But this is, in all intents and purposes, relative moralizing. Which means they are doing what Atheists and secular humanists do when we practice moral relativism." Yes i agree its exactly the same as what atheists do.Thats why we still even happen to share many of the same truisms.If morals really had anything much to do with the involvement of outside supernatural forces of "good" and "evil",we should be seeing evidence of two very opposite types of thinking of whats thought morality.We dont see that at all.We dont see non believers thinking its a great idea to stone folks to death,and thankfully christians have even evolved onward to also agree it wasnt really such a great idea after all.Most of us all still agree that rape is a bad thing and so is stealing and violence etc.In my opinion this fact is some good evidence for proof of just how relative all our morals are to us humans and our society around us.

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