Are We Born Good, Evil, or Empty Vessels? Essay
Are We Born Good, Evil, or Empty Vessels?
Am I good with occasional bad spots? Of course, says my mother. Am I evil and must I work to find good within me? You’ll never find it, says my third-grade teacher! Am I whatever experiences poured into my poor empty baby head? Yes, cries John Watson (Hall 1) from the grave – I could have made you a future “doctor, lawyer… even beggar-man and thief. ” Are these verdicts any less convincing than Mencius, Hsun Tzu, and Kao Tzu (circa 300 BCE, Austin 16 – 33)? Indeed, had Confucius not been vague (16), there would have been no disagreement? Why not? Because Confucius was right – he didn’t have to explain his reasons.
But saying something doesn’t make it true. Why does it follow that because we all can feel “commiseration,” “shame and dislike,” “reverence and respect,” and “approving and disapproving,” that we are “benevolent” and “righteous” (19 – 21)? Indeed, according to Austin (22), Mencius defined righteousness as “proper social behavior. ” I guess he forgot to tell little Jimmy who has taken to walking around with a finger up his nose and a hand at his crotch. According to Hsun Tzu (24), not only are we born with “feelings of envy and hate,” but also with a “fondness for profit.
” So that’s why Susie keeps pulling on her mom’s pearl necklace when she’s having her diaper changed! But it’s okay – just find her “good companions” (none of that nasty peer pressure for Susie) and a “worthy teacher” (33). In truth, it’s no wonder that from ancient times, the question of human nature has fascinated us. There never has been a time without one group of people inflicting cruelty on another group, seemingly for whatever reason was convenient (Braudel and Mayne). Put simply, “everybody always has to dump on someone” (John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, 1977).
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, philosophers developed theories based on deductive reasoning to reach the same conclusions as Mencius, Hsun Tzu, and Kao Tzu – Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke respectively. At least in America, during the early part of the nineteenth century, Locke’s position dominated both in legal theory (Koller 180 – 196) and experimental psychology (Hunt and Ellis 13 – 18). However, by the 1940s “dumping on somebody” was reaching a magnitude of inhumanity unique in civilization (Wiesel 2002), the Holocaust. Why did it occur? Were the Nazis just following orders?
Isn’t it normal to accept the opportunity to avoid knowing of the unprecedented suffering of your neighbors? Maybe it’s “the sins of the Jewish people” – thought some of the Jewish inmates at Buckenwald (Wiesel, 1958/1960 53). Does anybody believe there aren’t those who share Hitler’s conclusion: “I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the almighty creator”)? Nonetheless, it should be clear that “evil” is real – every minute of every day at least someone is engaged in a behavior that a civilized society would characterize as evil.
So, do we accept the theory that human nature is inherently evil? Only if we prefer to argue theory ad nauseum – rather than even peak at the work of those who have been answering questions once considered unanswerable by the scientific method. Of course, we can’t answer questions about theories of “good” and “evil. ” But what do we mean by the word “good. ” If this word includes the capacity to feel empathy towards others, there is evidence that babies are born with at least one characteristic central to the concept of “good.
” In a review of work since the exciting discovery of “mirror neurons” (Jaffe 20 – 25), cells that are activated in perceiving the experiences of others, we’ve learned that the same areas of the brain are activated in those perceiving and experiencing pain, findings that “suggest that mirror neurons play a large role in empathy” (22). While work with infants has been limited, one study demonstrated infants were sensitive to a person experiencing an angry reaction from another person (23).
So, if I can “feel your pain,” maybe the answer to the opening question is that only the theory that humans are born basically good has received any empirical support. While accepting a particular theory of human nature is premature, it should be clear that we have reached the point where deductive reasoning has left us spinning our wheels in space. Especially with advances in technology that allow us to study the brain, it’s time to test theories by phrasing questions in terms that permit use of the scientific method. If we are born sensitive to the pain of others, what happens to those “mirror neurons” when we are the ones inflicting pain?
How, then, did people born to empathize become Nazis? (“How the hell do I know,” said Woody Allen, “I don’t even know how the can opener works,” Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986. )
Austin, Michael. Reading the World 2007. New York: W. W. Norton. Burns, Robert. The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns 1909 – 1914. From Bartleby. com, 12 March 2001. Braudel, Fernand, and Richard Mayne. A History of Civilizations 2003. New York: Penguin Books. Hall, Richard. Behaviorist Theory. Retrieved 2 November 2007. Hannah and Her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. 1986.
University/College: University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 April 2017
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