A comedian friend of mine used to always want to argue on road trips about whether people are “mostly” good or bad. It was an extremely annoying argument, but he couldn’t seem to let it go. We had contrasting views on the subject. He thought that, at their core, most people were fundamentally good, whatever that means. Look, if philosophers are still trying to define morality and what it means to be good after thousands of years, two comics in a Camry aren’t going to slapdash a definition together.
I think it bothered him that I didn’t see him as a “good” person. Which I can understand, nobody likes to feel “bad”. But I never implied that he was “bad”. It’s not my fault that society, especially a society dominated by Christian belief and either/or thinking, stresses the duality of good and bad. It’s a spectrum, and I’d bet most people are about dead neutral. But if I said that to any given person, I’m sure they’d be upset to hear that I don’t think they’re good. When you say neutral, people hear ‘bad’, because we’ve been so trained to see things as one or the other.
[I think it’s analogous to being funny. Everyone wants to think that they’re funny. I think stand-up is one of the few careers where a 20 year stand-up veteran could walk into a room full of people that have never attempted it and say, “I’m the best person here at stand-up comedy,” and probably 10% of the people in the room will think to themselves, “Well hold on, I haven’t tried yet.”
Being funny is perceived as a positive thing socially, so people want to be thought of as being funny. But being funny is a spectrum too. Most people are neutral, they’re funny amongst friends but couldn’t make a room full of people laugh with just a stage and a microphone. To actually be funny you have to put work in, just like being a good person requires good deeds to be done. I really dislike the phrase “naturally funny” for this reason. If someone is “naturally funny,” it just means that they’ve exposed themselves to a lot of humor and have developed a good sense for it because that’s what they enjoy. If you don’t use it, you lose it. That’s why older affluent people (other than most successful comedians, who still immerse themselves in comedy) always think they’re funny but never are. They have enough money that they don’t NEED to laugh about stuff, and their sense of humor withers.]
There are a lot of ways that I think that this preconceived duality have negatively affected our society. If being good is both doing good, and not doing bad, then most people will prefer to not do bad things and call themselves good. Which is problematic because while everyone pats themselves on the back, there is no actual good being done. When people tell me I’m a good guy, I try to correct them and explain that I don’t feel I’m “good”. Not because I feel the need to wear a hair shirt. I just figure that while I might do nice things every once in a while, I have to assume my overall contribution to society is remarkably neutral. Then they say something like, “Oh you’re not that bad!” and I have to explain that yes, I’m not that bad, but you probably aren’t that good either.
[Then an old fashioned gun fight must ensue for them to recover their lost honor, and a ragtime piano player is shot in the melee. “See? You’re not a good person, you shot the ragtime piano player. Oh, I shot him? Well, I do hate ragtime.”]
Another way I’ve seen this thinking have a negative influence is how your average person perceives the “other.” The “other” is a term coined in philosophy, specifically phenomenology [Never play scrabble with a psychologist], used to describe the way people perceive people that aren’t the self, us, or the same. I’m not going to get too much into it, [You should read up on it, it’s profoundly interesting.] but essentially our minds naturally seem to categorize things that we identify with as “self”, and other people who display those traits as “us” or “the same.” It’s generally a subconscious thing and people don’t realize that they do it, but it is at the basis of all kinds of racism and tribalism within society. [I’ve read that childhood ends when a child stops perceiving their parents as “us” and starts perceiving their parents as “them.”]
So we have this psychological predisposition to categorize people into groups, which was probably evolutionarily favorable because it caused our ancestors to be wary of things that weren’t familiar. But you can probably see how nowadays, when living in a melting pot society full of different beliefs and traits and cultures, how this could cause a lot of societal strife.
[Especially if, say, I don’t know, maybe a hostile foreign power co-opts these psychological chinks in our armor and uses propaganda to convince 30% of the country that a lifelong conman/sleazeball/rapist/racist/reality television actor is actually the successful businessman he played on his television show and is a instead of a hopelessly inept and psychologically damaged man that is in deep debt to Russian oligarchs. Just thinkin’ a thought.]
What scares me most about this modern political climate is how easily people are getting lost in propaganda. If we start with a person that identifies themselves as “good,” [Maybe because they weren’t yelled at enough as a child, who can say?] and we set them in a town they never leave, and almost everyone in their town looks/thinks/talks and acts like them, they will associate these things that they share with their neighbors as “good” traits. Good is no longer tied to morality, it becomes associated with familiarity. Under those circumstances, it’s going to be crazy easy to unite them against anyone different. Look at high school football games, how ferociously do students hate the opposing team for no reason other than they’re from a different place?
Now let’s zoom out to the rest of the country. Every community feels this effect. But on the national scale we have two political parties to split the country by, and oh god is this a popular technique to exploit voters. No matter which side you’re on, it feels amazing to believe you’re on the “good” side.
What’s happened recently is even more frightening. Everything is drawn into absolutes and you’re expected to be with one side or the other. One of the Democrats biggest weaknesses is their propensity to appeal to the morality of constituents. But the religious right is caught in the cognitive dissonance of, “Well we’re the religious ones, so we’re good. Republicans are like us, which means they’re good. If you aren’t like us, you must be bad.”
Republicans that aren’t as religious seem to identify strongly with being pragmatic, so the moral appeal doesn’t register with them either. The latter is particularly infuriating to me [The former I don’t let bother me, because there is just no reasoning with the ultra-religious] because a lot of Democratic policies are marketed as “the right thing to do,” which allows Republican media to spin it as a waste of money, even when in actuality the policy would have been an economic stimulator in a roundabout way (e.g. SNAP, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap/economic-linkages/ ). With the combination of duality based thinking and tribalism, most people can’t stomach political talk from anyone that doesn’t think like them, so the pros and cons of these policies aren’t adequately discussed and, go figure, the two parties can’t come to a reasonable agreement because they’re operating with different facts and figures.
In fact, this style of thinking has been so internalized in our society that political discussion never makes it past talking points and dog whistles. Each side has their own terminology, and using the opposite side’s terminology causes a psychological cascade in the listener that ends the conversation before points are even made.
Obviously there are a myriad of reasons for why we are where we are. However, I would like to bring it back to the original question: “Are humans mostly good?”
If they are, how come every time someone gets caught doing something terrible, the only thing they’ll say in their defense is “I’m only human?”
We’re “only” human. In context meaning: “At my core I can be no better than my biological predispositions allow me to be, so cut me some slack.”
Somehow, our base instincts are something we have locked and loaded as an apology, but we’re still mostly good right? How many people have these two concepts compartmentalized in their heads, never to meet in the open battlefield of analysis?
I think that’s why the current political climate bothers me so much. I spent my entire life valuing education and intelligence. [“Knowledge is power,” right? When was the last time you heard someone say that?] We as a species have the ability to overcome the psychological vestigial traits holding us back. We have infinite potential for problem solving. We might be the only species in the universe with these capabilities. The United States allocates almost 600 billion dollars on a military budget. Could you imagine what would happen if we as a species realized that war was only holding us back? 600 billion dollars could ensure that nobody goes hungry again. It could give children a better education than we can imagine. We could give universal healthcare, and actually treat mental illnesses. We could reach our potential as a species and create an oasis of the Earth.
But we probably won’t. Sorry, but we’re only human.