Are Human Beings Good By Nature?

By L. Alfred James

In Luke 11:13, Jesus says something that sounds a bit strange: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Within the context (see 11:1) it is clear that Jesus is talking to his disciples. He is not talking to the religious leaders who are plotting to kill him. He is not even talking to Jewish people who are agnostic or disinterested in religious things. No, he is talking to his own followers, those who are committed to him. So why does he call them evil?

The answer can be found in the Christian doctrine of original sin. This is the view that human nature is warped, perverse, bent toward darkness. It is the belief human nature has been corrupted since humanity chose (through Adam) to rebel against God. The Bible says, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:11). Sin is universal. Everyone is guilty. This means that human beings do not become sinners by sinning. They sin because they are sinners. Human beings are disobedient “by nature, deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Something is wrong with us. We don’t just make bad choices. We are bad.

This doctrine runs counter to some very common beliefs about human nature. The common view today is that human beings are naturally good. They are born spiritually pure and innocent. Thus, the only reason that people get corrupted and do evil things is because of the influences of society. Indeed, many politicians and public intellectuals proclaim that our most fundamental problem is the uneven distribution of wealth, or the pernicious influence of capitalism, or Eurocentric ideals, or some other bad influence that comes from society. The main idea here is that human beings are corrupt only because society corrupts them.

Who’s right? Are people corrupted by society, or are they born with an evil streak?

If you consider the evidence the answer is actually pretty obvious.

The Behavior of Children

You never have to teach children to hit their siblings. You don’t have to teach them to be selfish and to refuse to share with others. Many parents have raised their children in isolated areas, totally uninfluenced by others. (For instance, I know someone from a desolate part of British Columbia who never interacted with other children until he was a teenager.) Guess what happens: their kids still turn out to be selfish. William Kilpatrick, professor at Boston College, says, “The business of snatching toys, refusing to share, hitting little sisters, and lying outrageously to cover it all up begins early enough in the child’s life to suggest that the fatal flaw of man lies not in his environment but in his nature.” A mother asks her child, “Why don’t you do right instead of doing wrong?” and the child answers, “Because it is so hard to do right,” or “Because I do wrong without trying.”

Marriage

You’ve seen it many times: When two people are dating—enthusiastically in love and talking about marriage—each one thinks that the other person can do no wrong. When two human beings are madly in love like this, you’d think that when they finally get married and live together under the same roof, they will experience endless tranquility, bliss, and harmony: nothing but peace and increasing happiness.

Well, take a look at the divorce rate in the United States. Almost 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce.

Honestly, marriage is really hard. If and when you get married (if you aren’t already), you will find that you are always battling your own selfishness, your spouse’s selfishness, or (most likely) both. Nearly half of all marriages lose that battle.

How is it that a situation in which two people who are so crazy about each other becomes so volatile, tense, and charged with hostility that it leads to divorce? How do you explain that if people are good by nature?

Society

Let’s think about this claim that society is what makes us corrupt. Of course, we all agree that society is messed up in some way or another. We have enormous problems with theft, violence, immorality, corporate greed, corruption in government, and a very long list of other problems. We lock our doors at night, avoid dark alleys in certain parts of big cities, and make sure that important promises are put in writing. Yes, society is corrupt.

But there is a real problem with the logic of this argument: society is made up of human beings.

If human beings are good by nature, how did society ever become corrupt? How can basically good people create a sick culture? If society is to blame for making people bad, from whence does the badness of society arise?

Your Own Experience

Everyone, even if they are raised in a good home, finds that they occasionally violate their own moral standards or principles. They find within themselves a “split” nature. To be sure, they have a conscience that influences them to do what they believe is right, to live up to those standards. But they also find desires that influence them to do things they believe are wrong, things that totally violate those standards.

If we are honest, we will admit that we have forces inside of us that motivate us to behave in ways that our own conscience condemns. We all stand condemned, not by some foreign set of standards, but by our own set of standards. We are conscious of our guilt. We all have moral principles; and we all know that we often violate them.

It seems to me if human beings were good by nature then it would be the case that most of us would, at the very least, live up to our own standards of right and wrong. But we don’t even keep our own rules, let alone the rules that others impose on us, or the rules God imposes on us.

Summary

We are selfish from birth, even when we are free from society’s influence. You don’t need to teach kids to be selfish; they do it automatically. This selfishness rears its ugly head in our relationships with other people, even those we fall madly in love with. (Hence, the ridiculously high rate of divorce.) This should not be the case if human beings are good by nature.

“Society is corrupt!” you say? Sure, but how did it become corrupt? If people are born good, then society should be good—and we shouldn’t need locks on our doors, police to keep us safe, and contracts to protect our financial interests. But we do. We shouldn’t need to exert enormous amounts of energy to train children to restrain their selfishness, to be responsible. But we do. We shouldn’t find an internal inclination to regularly violate our own moral principles. But we do.

The evidence is quite clear. We are not corrupt because of society. We are corrupt because we have a corrupt nature. We all need help, desperately.

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