You Be Bad

“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” – Anne Frank

“People are inherently evil. Religion is the only civilizing force; without it, we’d all be reduced to a savage state, a state we’re really on the brink of all the time.” – My brother (paraphrased)

My brother recently revealed to me his belief that all humans are inherently bad. This surprised me, though after a long conversation with him and a bit of contemplation, I was more surprised that I hadn’t recognized it earlier. It ties together everything that has always baffled me about his religious beliefs.

One of the most rational, thoughtful and intelligent people I know, he has been a fervent church-going Christian for years despite the obvious illogic of its tenets. I never understood his religious rigidity, and figured he would one day cast it off, finally defeated by the innumerable very sound reasons for non-belief. A loving God who sends every non-Christian to Hell? A virgin birth? A miraculous resurrection? A God who answers ordinary people’s prayers while babies starve? One reading of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian” should be enough to put any sensible person off Christianity — how was it that my brother continued to believe?

With his “inherently evil” comment, I finally understood the answer in a visceral way. The essential basis of any religion, it seems to me, is fear — fear of being shut out of heaven, for the most part, or simply of falling short of some higher celestial standard. But what did my brother — a person who has never worried about what others thought of him; who in fact is one of the most self-possessed, likable and outwardly easy-going people I’ve ever known — have to fear? At last I see a possible answer: He fears the “evil that lurks in the hearts of men,” as the saying goes. Or, perhaps, the evil that he believes lurks within his own heart.

After all, wasn’t he the one who, when we were kids, lit tiny firecrackers and stuck them into frogs’ mouths, then tossed them high into the air to see them explode? Wasn’t he the one who took delight in picking on his little sister, reducing her at times to tears for sport? Wasn’t he the one who lied so easily when he’d broken something in the house, or flouted a parental rule? Was this history enough to convince him that he was in fact inherently bad? And not just him — but everyone?

When Internet videos first became available in the late 1990s, my brother sent a few around to his friends via email, and he included me on the distro list. There’s one I remember vividly: a young female reporter is sitting in the back of a large truck. She’s doing some sort of intro, sitting there chattering away happily, with a black curtain obscuring the view of whatever’s in the truck. Suddenly, there’s a tremendous explosion. Fire blows out of the truck, a motorcycle comes racing out, and the resulting concussion knocks the woman out. She falls to the ground like a rag doll, her hair flaming.

I watched this video and was completely horrified (yes, it’s now on YouTube, and no, I’m not going to link to it). Who could find this entertaining? The woman looked like she was dead, and the video ends before there’s any indication if she was okay. Now, I’m as big a fan as anyone of those harmless little “America’s Funniest Home Videos” showing people having sledding mishaps, diving board accidents, whatever — as long as they show the person bouncing up at the end, waving, happy, unharmed. But this was different. This felt cruel and strange. And my brother was sending it around as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

Let me clarify: I don’t think my brother is essentially evil because he sent those kinds of videos around. But I do think there’s a clear difference in temperament and nature between people who find that kind of thing entertaining and those who find it distressing. Those who find it entertaining must not feel any empathy or compassion for the people involved. Those who find it distressing do. At the risk of being terribly reductive and judgmental, could that be considered an element in the difference between being essentially “bad” and “good”? It is arguably the qualities of compassion and empathy, after all, that keep the world from sliding into the kind of savagery and / or anarchy my brother references.

I have always believed that most people are good, with obvious exceptions. Perhaps that’s because I have always seen myself as being essentially good, despite the fact that I can be petty, peevish, even occasionally mean (though I always feel terrible afterward). Admittedly, I try not to think about the vast and overwhelming examples of bad human behavior all around us, which perhaps makes me more of a Pollyanna than anything. I wouldn’t like to be a police officer, for example, or a psychiatrist for the criminally insane, or a social worker at a home for abused women. Selfishly, I think it would be too distressing for me; it would thrust the sad reality of cruelty into my daily life, and I don’t want it there.

So, maybe I’m just in denial. I’m interested in what all of you think, especially since I think of you all as essentially good people, who experience compassion and practice consideration in most of your dealings. Are people inherently good? Or inherently bad? And why?

45 responses to “You Be Bad”

  1. Adriana says:

    Oooookaaaaaaay, I’ll bite.

    I have a hard time answering that question myself, not least because it gets too tricky to define “good” and “evil.”

    As newborns we don’t know where “I” end and “other” begins. Maybe we inherit some personality traits from our parents that can manifest themselves a myriad of ways depending on the circumstances of our upbringing. Hopefully we are taught by our parents and our community to be compassionate and ethical. Maybe these lessons are neglected. Maybe we don’t learn how to recognize the sanctity of the people around us.

    And then we have people who grow up in the worst circumstances and turn out to be resilient, wonderful adults and the kids who have seemingly ideal childhoods who grow up to be sociopaths.

    Most of us are somewhere in the middle. We each have the capacity for great acts of love and destruction.

  2. Scotty says:

    I liked your post quite a bit.

    I have a hard time trusting anyone who assumes the worst in others. You know the people I mean — the “who stole my…?!” people. I’ve been the victim of many crimes, but I still have a hard time imagining anyone stealing my wallet. So I still leave my keys in plain sight, sitting on the driver’s seat (of course there are boundaries to my trust in others).

    Maybe my naiveté is just that, but I like to assume the best in people as a mini revolt against the predominant clutch-to-property-mentality.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    Yo Mr. Dogfight, what an interesting post. Good v. Evil? Republican v. Democrat? Selfish v. selfless? Saints v. Sinners?

    It takes balance, Dawg.

    But, like my man Marley says, “Don’t worry, about a t’ing, ’cause every little t’ing, gonna be allright”…

  4. Ruben Mancillas says:

    so says the guy who wouldn’t believe that nice woman just trying to get some gas money to get to her poor injured husband.

  5. Bryan says:

    Your post has me thinking (again) about Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I saw over the wkend. As a couple of us talked about afterwards, it’s tough to realize that such a tough film to watch — no sympathetic characters, everyone struggling to keep a head above the shit in the cesspool — aims to serve as a mirror of sorts, asking you to identify (if not sympathize) with one character or another. Even if you’ve never behaved quite as terribly as these characters, in other words, maybe you’ve done *something* you’re ashamed to own, maybe you’ve hurt someone, intentionally or not. That kind of approach would assume we all have something creepy about ourselves to cover up.

    But I tend to fall more on the optimistic view of human nature side. I think most people are good. I think really bad people have chemical problems or are victims of social institutions that make it difficult to remain good. Woo-hoo! A latter-day Godwinian in the house! Naive as ever. I would have gone to the guillotine with the Girondins, I know.

  6. Scotty says:

    Ruben, please refer to the parenthetical part of my comment. I also view most fantasy trade offers a mildly suspect.

  7. Dave says:

    I tend to agree with you, Literacy, that fear is the essential basis for religion, but I wonder if there isn’t some kind of personal religion that takes a more positive emotion as its core — maybe awe at the universe, love for one’s fellow beings, something like that. I don’t know — my own religious experiences had a lot to do with fear and with controlling and ordering an out-of-control reality.

    In any case, I think this post gets Evangelical religion and maybe conservative American (Western?) religion generally right. Most conservative political thinkers support religion for exactly the reason your brother does. In fact, many neo-conservatives and most Straussians are not themselves believers but are committed to supporting religion as an essential civilizing force in the lives of the rabble. (For “civilizing” it’s fair to substitute “controlling”.)

    Act 3 of this recent This American Life episode is the story of an evangelical Christian losing his faith by confronting a demon in a college classroom. He has a great discussion of the role fear plays in conservative Christianity.

  8. Scotty says:

    I tend to agree with you, Literacy, that fear is the essential basis for religion…

    I see fear as a tool of control for every brand of dogma: religious, political (left or right), secular/scientific.

  9. Bryan says:

    by the way, #3: MARLEYFAN!

  10. Dave says:

    Fear can be a tool, but I was thinking of it more as something that is, an emotion that occurs for whatever reasons, and that we each have to find ways of dealing with. There are lots of scary things in the world, including the evil that other people do, and religion can be a way of making sense of the scary things while distancing ourselves form them, fleeing from their reality. But I also agree that people who want to control others often do it by creating or foregrounding fear. Preachers talking about hellfire, politicians talking about terrorism. And then they have a ready-made solution, like Prof. Harold Hill selling a Boy’s Band to keep the young ones moral after school.

  11. Marleyfan says:

    Fear This!

    I believe that most people are doing the best they can. My good friend believes that people are lazy. We are both right.

    As a juvenile P.O., people think tend to think our jobs are harder than most, and that we constantly live in a world of hurt, dissappointment, and fear. I’ve been here 15 years, and am always looking at all the good we’re doing, and tend to focus on the positive aspects of the profession. I regularly remind staff about the prosocial friends my children have within school and church, just to remind them that the MAJORITY of kids turn out just fine…

    MARLEYFAN LIVES- He’s been out of civilization for a week, and has been terribly busy the last couple months. In addition, he enjoys writing about himself in the third-person format.

  12. glad to hear you’re still alive. i worry about hunters during elk season.

  13. LHD: The lead article for the current N+1 is about the politics of fear in the current “war on terror” & left-wing environmentalism alike. Thought you’d find it interesting.

    (H/t 3 Quarks Daily)

  14. Jeremy says:

    For what it’s worth, I think most people are inherently good. Except me–I’m for sure inherently bad. I mean, I’m for sure inherently a bad-ass.

    Actually, I have a really hard time with such absolutes like “good” and “bad” or with the idea that people are generally one or the other. I do tend to believe that most people are pulled in the direction of their own self interests, and sometimes pursuing these self interests can be construed as “bad” (usually when these self interests conflict with others’ self interests) and sometimes they can be construed as “good” (usually when these interests coincide with others’).

    (At the same time, I think people who email videos to other people are pretty much bad).

  15. TC says:

    Plato points out that nobody ever does anything without thinking that it is the right thing to do (in other words, “good”). If you commit theft or even rape, it’s because you believe that you are somehow justified in doing that. If you recognize that your act is illegal or otherwise frowned upon, and decide to go through with it anyway, it will be because you’re convinced that “society’s rules” are inappropriate, not applicable to this situation, oppressive, unfair, or whatever. This appears to prove that all people “are good,” at least in the sense that they “intend to do good,” but it isn’t satisfying. Maybe that means that when we ask this question (are people good?) we mean something other than “do people intend to do good according to their own idea of the good?” Maybe instead what we mean is: “Do people intend to do good according to reasonable notions of the good, regardless of what they themselves may incorrectly think of as good?”

    Another question is, what about (1) somebody who lives what we would call a moral life, but mostly because he is afraid of being punished for acting “immorally”? Is this a good person? Surely this person is in a different moral category from (2) the person who abides by a moral code because he believes in it. I think that most people behave morally, but I haven’t decided whether I think most people do that for what you could call “practical” reasons (the first category) or for “virtuous” reasons (the second category). Can I say that I believe people are good without necessarily believing that most people are in the second category? I would like to. Also, I might indeed think that most people are in the second (“virtuous”) category.

  16. Dave says:

    Plato points out that nobody ever does anything without thinking that it is the right thing to do (in other words, “good”).

    Plato’s totally wrong about this. You and I may be attached to seeing ourselves as good people, but I’ve done things I thought were wrong as I did them, and I’m convinced by learning about people whose lives are very different than mine that plenty of people are less attached to a good-guy self image than I am.

  17. TC says:

    But surely if you did them, you thought they were right according to some standard of rightness. For example, I often drive too agressively and know that this is wrong in the sense that it is mean and dangerous, but at the time I also feel something like “it’s not dangerous because I am an excellent driver, and meanness is permissible here because driving would be too annoying for everyone if slower drivers were allowed full deference.”

    The earlier comment about This American Life reminds me that there was a story this week (Act 1) about a breaking-and-entering gone wrong. The thieves end up killing two women in front of their respective children. I really find it impossible to believe that you could do this crime while knowing that it is wrong. At the time, I think you must believe (1) that you need to kill the people so that you can get away with your theft, and (2) that you should be allowed to get away with your theft (for example, because “justice is the will of the stronger”).

  18. Kate the Great says:

    I’m having a hard time putting myself into this whole discussion, and I think it’s because I don’t think of things or people in terms of “good” and “bad”.

    I identify with #2: I was constantly corrected by my mom as a kid because I was always convinced that a sibling of mine stole something I was missing. My little sister did swipe things, at one point, she though were cool, much like a magpie or a squirrel, and stash it under her bed. She just put it all under her bed; so for a time, if I was missing something, I would automatically get on my hands and knees and glance. Does that mean Holly was “bad” in that she swiped things as a kid? Is a klepto considered bad? My gut tells me no, and if I searched for a more specific adjective like “impulsive”, I’d be able to find one that fits better than “bad” or “good”.

    Was I bad for always assuming the worst? Well, I’ve always thought of myself as a pessimistic person. I assume the worst (which came out in our anarchist discussion) often out of people, I’m often mildly sardonic, I’m quick to notice people’s class though it doesn’t mean I won’t talk to them… And yet many adults I’ve encountered and befriended in a mentor sort of way always remark that I’m an extremely optimistic and inspiring person. Does that mean I’m inherently good?

    Maybe I just want a more specific adjective.

  19. Kate the Great says:

    (I just found the Best of 2006 post. I’m thoroughly looking forward to The Best of 2007. You guys crack me up.)

  20. Miller says:

    #17: Yes, but if you believe in these hypothetical standards, are you inherently bad? I think that most justifications of murder, especially when it comes to covering your own misdeeds, would be the justifications of someone who isn’t a good person. Just because you think your actions are right doesn’t necessarily mean that you have morally sound intentions. The only exception I can think of, in this case, is self-defense. I’d like to think that people are inherently good, but that fact that utilitarianism has basically died out (in our government the most, ironically, given the proclamations of our leader(s)) makes me a little apprehensive.

  21. Scotty says:

    Was my snarky comment on today’s post an example of someone doing something wrong even though he knew it was wrong? Is this comment, in the context of this post and TC’s comments even snarkier?

    I’m on a snarking rampage, and need to be stopped!

  22. Dave says:

    21 isn’t snark. But the comment to which it refers was, and may indeed be a nice example of knowingly doing something wrong.

  23. Scotty says:

    Thank you for your support, David.

  24. Dave says:

    More seriously, TC, you really can’t recall ever having acted badly while knowing it? You’ve got an unblemished record before the tribunal of your own conscience?

  25. Dave says:

    You’re a bad person, Scotty.

  26. Scotty says:

    You’ve got an unblemished record before the tribunal of your own conscience?

    Put so eloquently.

  27. Scotty says:

    Wait, I’m one comment behind on this…

    Yes, David, I am indeed so very bad.

  28. Scotty says:

    More to the point, I’ve been studying for an insane IR midterm for the last several days,and this has put me in the most squirrely of places.

  29. Dave says:

    the most squirrely of places

    An acorn tree?

  30. Scotty says:

    An intellectual oak, yes.

  31. Stella says:

    #29 might be my favorite comment of ’07.

    Btw, is TGW denying daylight savings time?

  32. Scotty says:

    Good job, aiming between so many of my comments to find Dave’s.

  33. Literacy H. Dogfight says:

    Taking over the comments section for your own self-centered snarkfest = just the kind of evil behavior I was talking about. I believe we have our answer. People, even those who seem nice, are inherently bad.

  34. Dave says:

    Oh shit, there’s no such thing as an acorn tree, right? Acorns grow on oaks?

    TGW is still observing Daylight Savings Time. It’s Standard Time that’s the real enemy.

  35. stephanie wells says:

    I am not saying this to start something, but in all honesty, the kind of driver TC describes him/herself as being is, every time, the person who pushes me over the edge into thinking that people are inherently mean and selfish after all. When I’m not on the freeway I can usually maintain my belief in the opposite. TC, cut it out, and I’m not even joking. You make everyone around you angry and resentful and even afraid.

    As for “good” and “bad” people, I think I had this very discussion with Literacy (if that IS your real name), over whether or not racism makes someone inherently a “bad person.” We disagreed, though I won’t say which side who was on. But I do think the problem is, as Kate mentions, in the oversimplified semantics of “good” and “bad” (very Bush-administration reductive). Very thought-provoking post.

  36. stephanie wells says:

    p.s. The video example is an interesting divider. I can’t even bear to watch things where people are humiliated, let alone hurt. Yet Scott’s sister, who is a much much “nicer” (or even “gooder”) person than I am in every way, dies laughing when someone trips and falls (according to him; I’ve never seen her do it). I’m extremely uncomfortable and upset for the person when that happens. I have a snarky mouth; she doesn’t. Who’s “bad”? (I’m bad, I’m bad, come on, you know it, and the whole world has to answer right now just to tell you once again who’s bad . . .)

  37. Scotty says:

    Yes, TC, as the person who consoles Stephanie when she gets home from her commute, I beg you to not drive like an asshole (especially on the 405 N. between 5:30 and 6:15 PM).

    Literacy: I think it became a squirrelfest, which is a little more sympathetic, right?

  38. Tim says:

    TC said, The thieves end up killing two women in front of their respective children. I really find it impossible to believe that you could do this crime while knowing that it is wrong.

    Would you say the thieves were deluding themselves, though? There is a difference between doing something for self-preservation or profit and doing it because you think that it’s “good.” Anyone who actually believes that ‘justice is the will of the strong’ needs only a kick in the head from someone stronger to re-think his position and broaden his perspective to take into account the well-being of others.

  39. LT says:

    For you, Literacy. Basically, this guy demands we abandon our concepts for good and evil (in the link, discussed as “love and evil”) or redefine our terms.

  40. LT! I hear you’re an honest woman!

  41. LT says:

    Totally honest for three days now…but perhaps not as honest as Honest John.

  42. TC says:

    #38: I do think the thieves were deluding themselves in thinking that the killings were morally acceptable. I mean, Hitler is another classic example. One assumes that he sincerely believed that the Holocaust was a good thing to be doing. If someone is “bad” according mostly to the degree to which he persuades himself that bad things are good, then I become very interested in approaching the original question here by asking, “What are the factors that influence whether someone deludes himself in this way?”

    #35 & 37: Harumph, I thought my mea culpa was going to get me some cred. Fortunately, I now live in Manhattan.

  43. AW says:

    Another great post with interesting discussion to follow.

    I just had to weigh in about the Anne Frank quote that opens it. My graduate work centered on her diary and my memory is that this quote comes from Anne’s own revision of her original text. ie, Frank actually wrote two diaries–the first, a day-to-day account of her time in hiding, and the second, her own revision of that original account, which she hoped would be published after the war. Not surprisingly, the first diary is sprawling and an expected mess, while the revision is much tighter with an organized narrative.

    What this all has to do with the epigraph at the top and the discussion of good and evil that follows? That there is plenty in both Frank’s original diary and the revision to argue that people are inherently evil. Her life in hiding–and eventual death in Bergen-Belsen–witness this. The original diary is also actually much darker than the revision (which is the text most people are familiar with). Nevertheless, as Frank revised, she looked for goodness around her (probably to keep her sanity and to give her hope that she would survive the war). Hence, I see her quote above as full of the ambiguity that her two diaries represent. She was not the naive seer-of-good-in-all that history sometimes writes her off as. Taken in context of the larger diaries she generated, this quote represents only one moment in the textual life of Anne Frank trying to make sense of evil and goodness in the world.

  44. AW says: (For anyone who is interested in a text that compares the different versions of the diary side-by-side).

    (and I’ll shut up, now. thanks to everyone for great posts and interesting comments).

  45. AW says:

    43: s/b “that follows it”