Are People Inherently Good Or Evil Essay

One hundred and fifty years in prison. Shame brought to his family for bankrupting so many friends. Suicide by his son. These are the costs Bernie Madoff incurred for running a decades-long Ponzi scheme that appropriated an estimated $18 billion from investors. If Madoff was just maximizing his income, then why did so many cheer when he did the "perp walk"?

On the other end of the spectrum is Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who at age 18 left her comfortable home to become a missionary, never to see her family again. Agnes, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, devoted 45 years of her life to helping the impoverished. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and after her death was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, a critical step toward sainthood. In 2010, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, there was a worldwide celebration of her service to humanity. Why did people across the planet praise her selflessness?

Human beings are highly social creatures. Because of this we are intensely interested in what others are doing, and why. We need to know who is good and bad and therefore who we want to avoid and who we can tolerate.

All of us recognize virtue and vice when we see it, with virtues generally being actions that benefit others and vices entailing selfish acts. The moral philosopher Adam Smith (also the "father" of economics) argued in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments that virtue derives from our innately social nature in which we cannot help but share in the joy and pain of those around us. Smith argued that when we do things that cause others pain, we also feel pain. Because our biology causes us to avoid pain, we typically avoid such actions. Similarly, we enjoy pleasure and vicariously experience pleasure when we do something that brings happiness to others. This "fellow-feeling," or what we would now call empathy, is what maintains us in the community of humans. This is a critical requirement for a social creature. Smith was the first to clearly make the case that it is our social nature that motivates human virtue and is the reason why we vilify vice.

For the last ten years my lab has put this Smithian idea to the test by searching for a neurochemical basis for virtue and vice. We have focused on the chemistry behind behaviors because people seldom offer clear explanations for why they are doing what they are doing. Motivations matter because they ascribe meaning to actions. So, we have people make decisions that are virtuous or selfish while measuring their brain activity.

This research has largely confirmed Smith's argument for why humans can be virtuous. We have shown that virtuous behaviors are caused by the brain's release of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin. When oxytocin is high, costly caring and helping behaviors follow. When we inhibit oxytocin release (for example, in experiments where I've administered testosterone to volunteers), virtue wanes and selfishness dominates. Oxytocin release makes us feel empathy and by doing so increases our sensitivity to the feelings of those around us. I recently published an article reviewing these findings. 

By finding the brain mechanisms driving virtue and vice, we have also added subtlety to Smith's views. For example, we have identified why variations in a women's menstrual cycle affect her trustworthiness, and why high social status males are less likely to be cooperative and more likely to violate sharing norms. We have also shown that context matters. We are a highly adaptive species and what is appropriate in Guadalajara may be inappropriate in Kansas City.

So are humans moral or immoral? The biological answer is that we have evolved behaviors that increase our chances of survival and reproduction. When in a stable and safe environment with enough food in our bellies, having a biology of morality sustains our place in the community of humans who help ensure our biological imperatives. In highly stressful, resource poor environments, we'll step on whoever is in front of us if it helps us survive. The exceptions to this rule are the five percent of the population who I've found do not have an oxytocin response and are pathologically selfish like Madoff, and another few percent who are nearly pathologically virtuous like Mother Teresa. The rest of us vacillate between good and evil.

We're a complicated species--both moral and immoral as our environment and physiology dictate. But, mostly the moral dominates. Not so bad for a complicated big-brained mammal.

Good Or Evil?

Are humans basically good or evil? The question might be unsound, but an evolutionary view of the human condition needs a coherent story about the moral character of human nature. Why? Because people mean something when they ask this question, and when they encounter evolution-based narratives of the human condition, they often find those visions of human nature to be morally unacceptable. For example, a critic of The Better Angels of Our Nature said that if human nature truly were as the author described, then humans would be depraved.

What is Human Nature?

See Human Nature for a summary of what we believe human nature is like, and Human Origins and Original Sin for how we got that way. Humans are cooperative and competitive, peace-loving and violent, friendly and suspicious, and all for reasons that make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Human behavior can be understood as Adaptive Behavior, but it is common for the connection to reproductive success to be somewhat subtle. This is partly because complex and overtly pointless behavior (like a symphony orchestra) is a hard-to-fake signal of individual fitness in competition for mates and social status.

What is Good?

Is this evolved nature good or bad? See Evolutionary Ethics for a more in-depth analysis, but the evolutionary perspective is that humans have evolved to be both cooperative and competitive, both generous and self-serving. These forces must remain in balance for a society to function, but people need little encouragement to watch out for their own interests, so most moral and legal guidance aims at promoting beneficial cooperation. Furthermore, our moral senses are the product of evolution, a sort of rough-and-ready summary of “what works” in relationships between individuals and also between individual interests and the group interest.


Any story about humans being inherently good or evil is a myth. That means we can't say whether the story is true or not, but it also means that we think these stories are very important. Perhaps our legends of the Golden Age waft up from our Collective Unconscious as memories of the Dreamtime, when we were all hunter-gatherers (see Human Origins and Original Sin). Almost all religions agree that we are both good and bad, and have many stories explaining why, such as the Fall of man, Pandora's box, the Apple of Discord, and so on.

With the lens of Cultural Evolution we can see particular myths, such as the Christian myth of Total Depravity, as being both adaptive for the religion (by encouraging converts who want God's help in being a better person), and also adaptive for groups that adopt that religion (by reminding members that they have to constantly work at cooperating better.)

We wouldn't say that humans are depraved, but we rather like saying that we are “weak in every part”. It nicely captures the truth that we are only strong when we work together, and summarizes a great many scientific findings as well. In particular, our Positive Illusions: we are not as smart or as virtuous as we think we are. Our socially approved stories of how morality works are incomplete. We don't work either the way it subjectively seems that we do, or how we are taught we should behave (and strive to appear to behave). This is for both implementation and adaptive reasons.

Although the evolutionary perspective is new, the resulting human failings were well known to Jesus, Buddah and the other authors of the wisdom literature. We frequently fail to follow moral rules, and often act in self-serving ways. But what would it really be like if we followed rules without considering the context or always sacrificed our own interests? We think that there is much to Aristotle's idea that moral behavior depends on finding a satisfactory Tradeoff between goals, what he called the Golden Mean. Doing so invariably depends on the specifics of the situation, and it simply would not work to always favor the other's interests over our own or those of our own group.


We are the way we are. Without humans there is no morality, so asking whether humans are moral is either meaningless or obviously true (by definition). A humanist says we must define what it means to be good, not because we are so good, but because there is no alternative. Without us there is no evil either. Morality is neither the free standing world of reasoning imagined in ethics, nor the ideological certainty of theology. It's a human achievement with ancient evolutionary roots (see Human Origins and Original Sin).

A far more meaningful question is, given human nature, what environment best reinforces the good? That is, what promotes human flourishing? Evolutionary thinking about human nature has been driven mainly by a desire to understand how we got to where we are, so it doesn't come with a pre-packaged political program. However it is safe to say that, just as evolution is anathema to religious conservatives, traditional social progressives will also find much to dislike. See Evolutionary Politics. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker argues at length that violence has declined both from prehistoric conditions and during historic times. Great change is possible in the human condition, even though human nature has likely changed little during this period.

· Last modified: 2014/04/26 21:22 by

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