Are people intrinsically good or evil?

This is a post in which I ramble a bit, raise questions, and ultimately answer nothing.

It’s probably worth pointing out at the beginning that I do have a personality type that tends to give rise to cognitive ‘splitting‘, more commonly known as black-and-white thinking.

Norman Geras has an interesting post within which he takes issue with the premise that the prevailing view in our culture is that: “most people are naturally good, because nature is good”.

I certainly know of some Christians that hold the view that nature and man is utterly corrupt as result of the Fall. Of course, they don’t include themselves in this category, as they view themselves as “regenerated”. Obviously this type of thinking has led to atheist campaigns running under slogans such as: “We can be good without God”.

I will say that I’ve encountered this thinking mostly in the Protestant evangelical world, and would proffer that much of this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of concepts such as Calvin’s ‘Total Depravity’. Far from this equating to the common misconception that man is so depraved that he is incapable of good, it actually means that all areas of man are subject to depravity. A subtle but important distinction.

For me personally, to believe as I do that man is made in the Divine image, precludes believing that most people are intrinsically evil.

I do of course subscribe to the doctrine of the Fall and so do view humans as having an ‘evil’ bent; however, I also believe there is something in play that I would term as ‘restraining grace’, which operates through mechanisms such as the conscience on a personal level, and superstructures such as law on a societal level.

I observe Christians and non-Christians behaving in both good and evil ways. I myself know that even before I was a Christian I had the propensity for both good and evil within me. As a Christian, I would say that overall the evil has diminished, and that I am more alert and sensitive to the machinations of my dark side.

Those Christians that assert because of their conversion they are in some way intrinsically good, and that non-Christians are simply intrinsically evil, I believe deceive themselves.

I have certainly become a fan of the Catholic view that Baptism washes away original sin, infuses sanctifying grace and righteousness, whilst at the same time we retain Concupiscence, meaning that our passions or emotions can get the better of our intellect.

Having said all this, there is no doubt that there are some folk that exhibit a particular penchant for evil. I feel they have in some way ‘seared’ their conscience and hardened themselves against ‘restraining grace’ through repeated acts of evil.

That’s it for the moment.

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3 Responses to “Are people intrinsically good or evil?”

  1. Jane Chelliah Says:

    Mass murderers and such like are evil people. There is good and bad in most of us but not all of us. This is what I believe. I also believe that some people enjoying being bad. It brings them pleasure.

  2. Iconoclast Says:

    Rather than saying that people are good or evil it might be better to say that we are all ‘unholy’.

  3. Simian Says:

    A Humanist’s perspective on this:

    I’m reading Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’. (Subtitled ‘The Decline of Violence and its Causes.’)
    He argues very convincingly, and with many and varied sources and historical statistics, that mankind has become progressively less violent over time, and that contrary to what some would suggest, the World is a safer more tolerant place now than at any time in history.

    I would suggest that man is neither intrinsically ‘good’ nor ‘evil’. Rather evolution favours certain traits at certain times in certain situations. People’s behaviour can altered by external or internal abnormalities, so psychopathy is a result of a physical problem, and other attributes that lead to behaviour that most might regard as ‘evil’ will be a result of either physical, environmental or mental influences on the individual (or any combination of these), but these have purely material origins. It is perhaps inuitively obvious that (as Pinker confirms) the rates of murder as a %age of population has decreased more rapidly in more sophisticated societies than in less less sophisticated societies. Surely we cannot assume from this that those born into less sophisticated societies are ‘more evil’?

    Nature is not ‘good’. Nature is indifferent. Humans are as ‘good’ as the physical, mental and environmental influences to which they are subject make them. It is possible to alter a fellow human’s behaviour by altering elements of these influences. Thus someone who adopts a Christian way of life may well improve their behaviour towards others, and derive personal joy and satisfaction from this.

    But, it is possible to be ‘Good without God’.

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