Getting to the Root: Are People Basically Good?

Are people basically good? It’s a simple question, but the way you answer it has a profound impact on how you view the world. It drives conclusions about how society should be organized, including economic policies, political systems, the nature and purpose of the law, and much more. This question is at the core of the worldview difference between liberals and conservatives. I suspect most people would say that people are basically good. Sure, we all do bad things from time to time, but at their core, most people are good. I did a quick Google search to see if I could confirm or disprove that suspicion. I did find one recent survey that asked the question. I’m not one to put much stock in a single survey found out there on the interwebs, at least not without knowing more about the methodology. For whatever it’s worth, this survey does align with my expectations, indicating about two-thirds of Americans believe that most people are basically good.

The problem is, these people are what I like to call wrong. If the Bible is true, then anyone believing that people are basically good is completely, totally, objectively, and unambiguously wrong. That idea is diametrically opposed to the narrative of the entire Bible, which states that we humans are a fallen, broken, morally corrupt people who are lost and hopeless without divine intervention. Let me throw just a handful of verses your way:

  • “…every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” Genesis 8:21
  • “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20
  • “No one living is righteous before you.” Psalm 143:2
  • “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” Isaiah 53:6
  • “No one is good—except God alone.” Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19
  • “…There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Romans 3:10-12

Of course, this doesn’t mean that people never do anything good. In fact, most of us–including most unbelievers–try quite hard to be good. The point is that in spite of our best intentions we all fail. We all tend to be selfish and look out for what we believe is our own best interests. In spite of our best intentions, we are unable to keep our inner lusts, selfishness and pride contained at all times. Somehow, in some way, our “dark side” will find expression.

This fact seems rather obvious. We all do bad things. Even small children illustrate this. No child has to be taught to be selfish.

So, how do those who believe in the basic goodness of humanity reconcile this disparity between human’s supposed good nature and our obvious bad actions? Well, if our “badness” isn’t a result of an inner problem, then it must be some external corrupting influence. If this were true, it would mean that people were “perfectable,” if only we could just provide right environment. Under ideal conditions, people wouldn’t become corrupted, and their basic inner goodness could be preserved and find expression.

This is clearly not a biblical perspective. Of course, our environment matters and influences us. However, even the most ideal conditions will do nothing to address the core problem of our sinful nature.

Now, I generally shy away from political issues on my blog, but I do want to give a few example of how one’s view of human nature impacts their perspective in many areas.

For example, many conservatives are bewildered that liberals believe that ripping down flags and monuments will end racism. Conversely, liberals are shocked that conservatives can miss the obvious fact that removing racist symbols and language from our environment would prevent people from picking up racist ideas in the first place. At it’s core, this disagreement is not about flags, monuments or television shows. It’s a worldview issue about human nature. Is racism primarily the result of fallen human nature, or is the result of societal problems?

This fundamental worldview difference impacts a host of social issues. Is violence the result of human nature, or of external things like video games, guns and social inequality? What about welfare and unemployment programs? If people are inherently selfish, there will be a tendency to take advantage of these social programs. If not, their inner goodness will naturally lead most to take no more than they need and strive to become productive for themselves and for society.

What about economic systems? Communism and socialism can only work if people are willing to put society’s interests above their own. Capitalism, on the other hand aligns self interest with common good, at least in situations where free market principles can properly function.

What about the role of government? Do we need laws to keep people’s “badness” in check for the sake of society, or to create a society where people’s inner goodness can flourish?

My descriptions of the various issues above are definitely oversimplified, but hopefully they’re sufficient to illustrate how one’s view of human nature leads to radically different perspectives on many issues. The next time you come across someone coming to different conclusions than you about some issue, try to identify the real root of the disagreement. Often, it will be a fundamental worldview issue that;s at the core.

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