An Essay on the Question: Are Humans Inherently Good or Evil?

Written by: Karis Roenicke

It’s a debate nearly as old as humanity itself, a match sparked time and time again for each new headline. Regardless of if the news provides a grim or grin-worthy story, the idea of good versus evil remains alive. Whether the stance taken is black or white, there’s always the grey area in between. People are neither good nor evil, as every individual in modern society proves to be too complex, leading individual lives with varying circumstances surrounding events, and the linguistics of the argument itself prove to be problematic.

To begin, the complexity of humanity provides too difficult of a condition to filter people into one of two boxes. The idea that people are either good or evil as a species fails to recognize the issues posed when it comes to the functions of the human brain and the ways in which it is slowly molded over time. For example, many may dismiss humanity as evil due to the spawn of serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, but never consider certain conditions surrounding the growth of these murderers as people, most notably mental influences from home. The nature vs nurture debate focuses on why people begin to go on serial murder sprees, with nativists on the side of nature claiming that “all or most behaviors and characteristics are the results of inheritance.” (Kendra Cherry, verywellmind.com), adding in a description of scientific findings from research conducted on the trait of “perfect pitch”, an ability to “detect the pitch of a musical tone without any reference.” (Kendra Cherry, verywellmind.com) The researchers found that this trait is passed down through generations and could be directly linked to a particular gene, much like what is speculated through those in the crime community when it comes to serial killers — that it all goes back to one gene. However, those researches also discovered that “possessing the gene alone is not enough to develop this ability. Instead, musical training during early childhood is necessary to allow this inherited ability to manifest itself.” (Kendra Cherry, verywellmind.com), supporting an idea of nature being what truly allows a particular gene to flourish. To further support that claim, John Locke, a highly influential English philosopher and founder of empiricism, holds the belief of the human mind at birth being a “blank slate”, influenced only by surroundings. Another influential mind weighs in on the impact of others, Albert Bandura, using his social learning theory which says people learn through observation of the behavior of others. Bandura provides evidence through the Bobo doll experiment in which children are exposed to two adult models, one aggressive (verbally and physically) and one non-aggressive, seeing the way they react even when the model is not present according to which one they chose. The conclusion of the experiment is that the children exposed to the aggressive adult had mimicked the behavior when the model was no longer present.

The Bobo doll experiment could provide an explanation for the reasons as to why serial killers are made and people are not naturally evil. An example of a prolific serial killer is Jeffrey Dahmer, as mentioned by Alan Strudler in paragraph one of “Are Humans Good or Evil? Part Two.” While it’s easy for people such as Strudler to say that the existence of such a person is a reflection on society as a whole, evil entity, it’s important to consider the ways in which Dahmer’s childhood life made an impact. Dahmer was reportedly “subjected to his mother and father’s blistering arguments” as well as claims he was sexually molested by a male neighbor (Tom and Michael Philbin, The Killer Book of Serial Killers, page 113.) The exposure to violent arguments as well as the possible molestation brought about by the male neighbor at a young age could explain the reasons why he chose to kill so violently with such sexual motivation. Another serial killer from a broken home is Edmund Kemper, who was subjected to years of extreme abuse in his childhood, the most influential years to the mind. “As a punishment, his mom made Edmund kill his pet chicken, and then his dad made him eat it.” (Tom and Michael Philbin, The Killer Book of Serial Killers, page 144) being subject to that kind of treatment through his environment was rubbing off on Kemper, popping the limbs and arms off of his sister’s dolls and eventually moving to treating the neighborhood animals in a similar fashion. This could’ve been done in order to gain control of his life in which he was entirely submissive to the abuse forced upon him by his parents. The examples posed by these two serial killers show that human beings are not inherently evil, but molded by their environment, or their nurture. It’s easy to use serial killers as an argument for evil being natural, but people are so much more complex than that, with factors like childhood, abuse, and learned behavior needing to be factored in.

It’s also quite easy for some to say people are inherently good, with Clancy Martin’s argument in part one of “Are Humans Good or Evil?” focusing on the ideas of moral progress; “the fact that human rights are spreading in the world, slowly but undeniably, also strikes me as an undeniable improvement” and stating that, as a society, human beings now universally condemn slavery as opposed to Artistotle’s belief that it was necessary, are some ideas expressed in paragraph 9. However, there are plenty of modern examples proving that slavery is not universally condemned, “whether they are women forced into prostitution, men forced to work in agriculture or construction, children in sweatshops or girls forced to marry older men, their lives are controlled by their exploiters, they no longer have a free choice and they have to do as they’re told. They are in slavery.” (antislavery.org, “What is Modern Slavery?”), thus disproving Martin’s claim that people are inherently good and have morally progressed from the ideas posed by Aristotle. The existence of slavery, although not as it was in the south during the Civil War, is equally as horrible today, but goes unnoticed more easily. To argue that people are good due to the fact that society is past slavery is ignorant and downplays the severity of 21st century conditions in which slavery is occurring, helping the world turn a further blind eye to what’s wrong today. Although Martin’s optimism supports that people are inherently good, his claims are rooted in little fact and present a very average point of view, failing to think more critically and recognize the wrongs that still exist today.

To further the belief that humans are neither good nor evil, it should be noted that circumstances impact society’s decisions. For example, Clancy Martin mentions the “complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust” (Martin, paragraph 7) as a reason as to why human beings are evil, entirely disregarding the situations surrounding the lives of German people at the time. It’s simple to say that a bystander to a crime is just as bad as the one committing the wrongdoing, thus furthering the notion that humans are evil by not doing anything, but the claim ignores the circumstances surrounding the individuals. To combat the idea that German complicity reflects on human beings as evil, the quote “efforts to ‘coordinate’ religious life also followed the Nazi rise to power” (The Holocaust Encyclopedia) shows that a very essential part of one’s being, faith, was directly targeted by the Nazis. Religion is held so close to people and oftentimes serves as one of the most important parts of someone’s identity, so it’s likely that people will find it hard to directly rise against it, even if it becomes corrupt. Furthermore, labelling Germans as “complicit” (Martin, Are Humans Good or Evil?, paragraph 7) disregards the ways they were impacted when people did act against Nazi rule. By directing attention to the quote “University students formed the White Rose resistance group. Its leaders Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and professor Kurt Huber were arrested and executed in 1943 for the distribution of anti-Nazi leaflets.” (The Holocaust Encyclopedia), it can be seen that when people did attempt to rise up in opposition, they were killed, which frightens those who know of the situation surrounding the deaths. This fear instilled on the public weakens the chances of opposition to Hitler’s forces, with many unwilling to give up their lives due to whatever circumstances they may have in their own lives. Martin’s claim doesn’t recognize the possibility that many people had their own families to worry about, kids to feed, or a loving spouse that likely prevented people from willingly risking their lives just by knowing that they were, in some way, depended on by someone else. People are not evil for being bystanders, as it’s never known what stops them from acting.

Furthering the claim that people are neither good nor evil, it’s important to draw attention to the noticeable bias against evil, so it’s more likely for people to generalize society by labelling it as “good.” Considering the connotation of the word “evil” is highly negative in contrast to the neutral nature of “good,” it can be seen that human beings put themselves above the bad, as Strudler demonstrates through the quote of “they are rapists, torturers, sadists, and we are not.” (paragraph 2, “Are Humans Good or Evil? Part Two”), setting most of society apart from serial killers. However, are people much different than serial killers? To label that group of people alone as having the three traits determined to be “evil” is ignoring that many ordinary people are rapists, torturers, and sadists. Are people truly above the evil trait of sadism if society generally finds videos of people in pain to be humorous and enjoyable? Are people not torturers if they string romantic interests along or willingly act in order to hurt people emotionally? Are people largely unaware of the statistics involving rape, with “On average, there are 321,500 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.” (rainn.org, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics)? People are likely to put themselves above evil, defending their actions on a daily basis or drawing attention to the fact that other people are doing the same bad thing they did in an effort to distract from their wrongdoing and justify it. Even purely on a language level, humanity puts itself above evil with a natural bias toward seeing the general public as good. Eryn Newman from Washington Post claims that “people can be influenced by… the linguistic attributes of a word.” Purely by focusing on the differences in connotation between the two sides of the argument “good or evil”, there’s a noticeably heavier weight placed on evil, presenting the word as lower or more negative than “good.” This subconsciously influences people to stray away from associating something they’re part of (society) as something bad, as people naturally tend to put themselves above such a label, thus opting for the outlook of being generally good. The bias within the mere wording of the argument provides a barrier between truth, with the wall being the natural sway of people toward seeing themselves as something above what they are, thus making it impossible to decisively say whether or not human beings are good or evil.

To conclude, there are many factors that prevent people from being either good or evil. Most notably are that every individual in modern society proves to be too complex, leading individual lives with varying circumstances surrounding events, and the linguistics of the argument itself prove to be problematic in nature. People are more than just two sides of a moral compass, and to weed down over 7 billion people as one or the other is entirely ignorant to all of the ways in which that’s impossible. The world isn’t black and white; there’s an abundance of grey areas in everything on a daily basis, so there’s no reason to set this debate aside from the ability to be more than just two different opinions.

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