Is human nature basically good or bad?
Answering that question requires at least three decisions. First, one must define the terms good and bad. . Both good and bad have had multiple definitions. Yet assessing human nature requires clarity of terms
Good, it seems to me, denotes that which gives or enriches life and bad denotes that which takes away or diminishes life. From a Christian perspective, those definitions cohere with the ideas that God is creator intends life for the living, ideas that resonate deeply throughout the Scriptures.
Second, one must define human nature. Is human nature strictly a result of one’s genes, i.e., one’s physiology? Probably not. Physicists pondering the nature of the cosmos increasingly identify emergent properties, a sum greater than the total of the parts. In other words, atomistic reductionism of the kind favored by many atheists (and others) fails to account for the complexity of existence (which is very different than arguing for God's existence).
By human nature, I connote a person’s basic orientation, i.e., does a human tend to give and to enrich life OR to take life and to diminish it? Observationally, I note that some humans tend to practice reciprocal altruism (loving their neighbors with the hope of being loved in return, i.e., choosing what they think are win-win behaviors) frequently. Other humans more frequently engage in a winner take all competition that may enrich their life but does so at the expense of others.
Third, which of those orientations is most prevalent, i.e., is human nature basically good or bad? On the one hand, I find assessments about human progress extremely difficult (cf. Ethical Musings: Is progress possible?). On other hand, this is not an easily avoided question. One’s perspective on human nature colors how you expect others to treat you, whether you think most people tell the truth, whether you presume most people try to do what they perceive is right, etc.
The historic Christian answer of original sin taints every human seems inadequate. Christian theologians and biblical scholars debate whether the idea of original sin accurately identifies a Scriptural theme. Furthermore, observation reveals considerable disparity in human behavior and orientation, disparities not aligned with Christian or even religious commitment, i.e., some bad people self-identify as Christian and some good people self-identify as non-religious.
The killing of Trayvon Martin highlights the danger of presuming that people are bad and out to take advantage of one. A neighborhood watch shot the young, unarmed man for being the wrong race and in the wrong place. The bad – the neighborhood watch unwilling to trust the local community to provide policing and expecting others to be bad – killed the good, Trayvon Martin.
The killing of Trayvon Martin reminds us that stereotyping people is always morally risky and often morally wrong. The best foundation for moral judgments (and such judgments are inescapable, Jesus’ purported warning against them notwithstanding) is to look at each person as an individual, assessing that person’s actions as good or bad, beginning the relationship with an expectation that the other is good. Hope for the best from another, even if prudent concurrently to prepare for the worst.
We expect military leaders to be persons of strong moral character. A U.S. Army staff sergeant faces 17 counts of murder for shooting innocent and unarmed Afghans in a recent rampage. Extenuating circumstances – the man’s fourth deployment in a decade to a war zone, financial pressures, frustrated career ambitions, and alcohol – do not alter the facts: a trained warrior wantonly killed innocent people. (This is not to presume the guilt of the accused, who under law, is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If the Army arrested the wrong soldier, another soldier is guilty; some American warrior killed those Afghans.)
If the accused is guilty, was he a bad person? Or, more worrisome, was he like you and me: good, but when under a certain level of stress and placed in certain circumstances, acted in an uncharacteristic manner? If the latter, under what level of stress and in what circumstances do you act in an uncharacteristic (i.e., bad) manner?