Are humans innately good, or innately selfish?

That’s a fundamental question when it comes to discussing morality, law and society. If humans are innately selfish, then the only way society functions is by the majority forcing everyone to behave, through tools of social control like government, religion and culture. Without such control, the argument goes, society would disintegrate into a Darwinian anarchy where the strongest reigned through force and cruelty.

In addition, this worldview lends weight to the idea that only an extrahuman authority — such as God — can effectively impart a moral code, for if humans are naturally immoral or amoral they simply would not bother to develop one. In such a view, religion is not merely a tool for enforcing whatever society defines as morality; it is an essential source of morality that transcends society.

If humans are generally good, however — if they are hardwired for altruism, for example, or if our social nature makes us seek approval, and render cooperation and compromise common and successful survival strategies — then the importance of religion and tradition and government all shrink. They are still useful as founts of distilled wisdom and as a way to enable or compel group behavior. But they are not in and of themselves a necessary component of virtue.

The reality, of course, is as variable as the human experience. Like any other distribution, human behavior follows the bell curve. So even if most humans are innately good, there will be some that misbehave. And if our natural state is despotic anarchy, there would still be a few selfless saps trying to help others. Throw in other considerations, like love of family or economic ties, and the picture becomes more muddied still.

That said, a couple of recent developments shed some interesting light on the subject.

(Continued over at Midtopia)

  • BenG

    Interesting post, because it sheds light on a relevant and important issue with new insight. As you put it, you can be moral without religion, and you could be religious without morality. A simple question to illustrate this point; Were people moral and religious before the birth of Christ or the profit Mohammed? Would you consider the priests who stole huge amounts of money from their followers donations to be moral? There’s been so many examples in the news of religious people doing very immoral things, and we all know people who do good things but may not go to church every Sunday.
    The idea of altruism being genetically motivated, as part of our evolution and for our own survival is very understandable. I like the idea. It explains why some people find it so easy to help others, why musicians enjoy sharing their talents, why preachers like to preach. It’s not just ego, profit, or getting over on someone. It feels good for a teacher to share knowledge and watch the ‘light bulb go on’ in the student. Thanks for sharing, it was a good read.