Humans Are Born Good: Are We Born Good or Evil

Categories: Being a Good Person

A famous philosophical thought experiment “trolley problem” brought up by an English philosopher named Philippa Foot, the question asked that a runaway train is hurtling towards five unsuspecting workers. Do you pull a switch to divert the trolley onto another track, where only one man works alone? Or do you do nothing? No matter what actions you have taken, there is always someone died. Are we considered as an evil people for letting the person crushed by the train if we diverted the train or we are good for saving those five people’s lives.

Because the border line of distinguish good and evil isn’t clear as we thought. Therefore, we can notice that it is really hard to determine whether people are good or evil by only judging on what they have done. In addition, this experiment also lead to another problem that are humans born good or evil?

Whether humans are born good or evil, this question has been arugued by philosophers for hundreds of years.

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Human nature are infinitely complex than just what we have seen. People can be a combination of good and evil at the same time. Some criminals who behave cruelly and brutally can be rehabilitated and eventually show some ‘good’ qualities such as empathy and kindness. So, in order to figure out whether humans are born good or evil, the first thing we should know is the meaning of being good and evil. On one hand, good means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own.

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Good also means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice if necessary. Some people that known as good people are Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. On the other hand, evil means unable to empathy for others. They are selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. They feel their own desires and needs are more important than any other things. Some famous examples would be like Joseph Starlin and Adolf Hitler. In a word, being good means showing some qualities which came from a sense of empathy and being evil is doing something completely the opposite of good. By viewing some debates, experiments and proofs about human nature, I believe that humans are born good. “Humans are born good”, this idea has been developed by both western and eastern cultures for centuries. According to an article “Are we born good or evil? (naughty or nice)” published by Tom Aglietti, a news writer from the BBC:

Maybe the two most famous opposing views on this debate are those of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes describes humans as ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’, needing society and rules to reign in their instincts in order to thrive; later Rousseau openly criticised him, arguing instead that man would be gentle and pure without the corruption of greed and inequality caused by the class system imposed by our society.”(paragraph 2)

In this quote, Aglietti states that Rousseau was totally believed humans are born good naturally. The reason of why people do bad things is because humans are corrupted by our society as we were growing up. In fact, Jean-Jacques Rousseau actually published an essay called “A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences” also known as “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts” in 1750. In this essay, Rousseau believed that since humans are gaining knowledge, people will also become courteous, used to be polite to others, and those who lack virtues seem to have virtues. This not only prevents someone from showing their true self by following the label, but also makes it difficult for people to really recognize the true colors of others. In other words, everything we presented might all be faked. However, the corruption of human nature does not change the fact that humans are born good, it only emphasized the problems of our society. Besides looking at the view from western culture, the idea about human born good has also existed in some Eastern Countries like China for thousands of years. According to an academic journal “Mengzi and Virtue Ethics” by Bryan W. Van Norden:

According to Mengzi, not only is there such a potential and such a course of development, but also (both for humans and for things in general) the full realization of the potential of a kind of thing provides a standard for evaluating an instance of that kind. Thus, when asked to clarify his teaching that 'human nature is good' (xing shin), Mengzi responded, 'As for what [humans] genuinely are (qing), they can become good (wei shan).” (paragraph 10)

Mencius is traditionally the most outstanding thinker after Confucius. He claims that human nature is good and believes that people naturally fight for virtue. Unfortunately, the negative elements of society tend to corrupt most people, and only a few may overcome them. This, however, is not proof of innate evil because a clear thinking person would avoid causing harm to others. Therefore, Mencius concluded the innate goodness of the individual, believing that it was society's influence – its lack of a positive cultivating influence – that caused bad moral character. By analyzing Rousseau’s and Mencius’ works of human nature, we can notice that two philosophers from two sides of the world had come up with the same idea which they both agree and claimed that humans are born good and our society is the biggest reason that influences us.

Another reason of why we are born good is because the concept of being good is in our genes. Therefore, in order to find out whether we are born good or not, the best way to prove it is through science. According to the findings of a 2010 study from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University by Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom:

Babies show concern at others’ pain and sorrow, make spontaneous efforts to console others, and spontaneously help others even at external costs to themselves, suggesting that helping others is intrinsically rewarding. Within the first few months of life, infants can identify whether a social interaction that takes place between third parties is a positive or a negative one, and this influences their own attitude (attraction or aversion) to whoever initiated the interaction.” (paragraph 47)

This experiment proved that babies were choosing the puppets because of their own actions and thinking rather than other variables like their preference or familiarity with a certain color or shape. Even the show was replayed with the shapes taking on the opposite role, the infants still mostly chose the shape that had taken on the role of the helper or supporter. They prefer good over evil. Moreover, another study from Kyoto University also had a similar approach and findings to the puppet study. According to the article “Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors” by Yasuhiro Kanakogi, David Butler, Masako Myowa-Yamakoshi, Yasuyuki Inoue, and Kazuo Hiraki, “For instance, 3-year-old children intervene in harmful interactions to protect victims from bullies, and furthermore, not only punish wrongdoers but also give priority to helping the victim” (paragraph 1) In this experiment, children as young as six months were shown videos featuring three Pacman-like characters, called ‘agents’: a ‘victim’, a ‘bully’ bumping aggressively against the victim, and a ‘third party’ agent.

The third-party agent would sometimes intervene to help the victim by putting itself between the victim and the bully, and would sometimes flee instead. After watching the video, most of the children had to choose their favorite character and the most chose was the intervening third-party agent who had tried to help the victim. In addition, Other studies that have also shown babies exhibit altruistic behaviour, like the ‘Big Mother Study’ from Harvard, where infants who didn’t know they were being observed still acted kind and were helpful to others, suggesting that this isn’t just a learned behaviour to avoid punishment or scrutiny. By comparing these experiments on infant, we can notice that there is a common result. All of the results do seem to suggest that babies are naturally presented some altruistic behaviours with parent teaching. In other words, the behavior of helping other people is not learned, it actually is born with us. Therefore, by presenting and proving that we are born to behave altruistic is another way to explain why humans are actually born good.

One of the points that shows human is born good is by showing some real life example. Perhaps a lot of people had watched the film “Catch Me If You Can”, but not a lot of people notice that the story of the film is actually from a real person called Frank William Abagnale. According to the article “11 Ex-Criminals Who Completely Turned Their Lives Around” by Vivian Giang and Samantha Cortez, “Frank William Abagnale was a world-famous con man by age 21. Now he runs a fraud consulting company.” (paragraph 3) Between the ages of 16 and 21, Abagnale had wrote $2.5 million in fraudulent checks and successfully posed as an airline pilot, doctor, lawyer and college professor. He was later apprehended by the French police and served five years in prison. However, Abagnale was released early under the conditions that he'd work with the U.S. government. In other words, Abagnale starts to use his special gift to help people. He works with consulting financial institutions, corporations, and law enforcement agencies on fraud and security. To date, he has serviced more than 14,000 companies. He went from fraud to a counselor. Moreover, another example of criminals turns good is Charles Colson.

According to the article “11 Ex-Criminals Who Completely Turned Their Lives Around” by Vivian Giang and Samantha Cortez, “Former Nixon aide Charles Colson spent a year in federal prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal and then started Prison Fellowship” (paragraph 6) Charles Colson worked as the former Special Counsel for President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973, and was best known for being part of the Watergate Seven. Colson pleaded guilty to Watergate-related charges and obstruction of justice. After he served in prison for seven months at the federal Maxwell Prison in Alabama, Colson made a change for the good while in prison. He converted to Christianity and became deeply impacted by the people he met there. Colson started Prison Fellowship, currently the world's largest prison outreach organization. What Colson’s touching program has done is that it helped many prisoners live a better life and strengthen their spirit. And the reason of why the fellowship was founded because Colson described that he could not forget those he had left behind prison walls. These two people have both showed one thing to the world which is that everyone has a chance to help others even your are a criminal. Furthermore, the reason why both Abagnale and Colson were able to turn their life back is because deep in their hearts, both of them are still good. And no matter what kind of person we have become, the good that stayed inside our hearts will never existed because we are actually born good.

One of the ways to prove that humans are born good is to focus on some of our behaviors. For example: we are naturally empathetic for others. According to an academic journal “Empathy” by Nancy E. Snow, “Empathy, or roughly, 'feeling with' another person, has fascinated philosophers as well as psychologists. Since empathy is frequently linked with altruistic motives and prosocial helping behavior, it seems to have implications for the quality of social life, as well as moral significance.” (paragraph 1) This quote presented that feeling empathy has to do a great thing to our life. The article described that feeling empathy is like the process of putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. This movement has shown that our ability to relate to other people who are close to us informs our own sense of self and led us to behave accordingly. For example: people would come together to donate money or participate the memorials after horrible events. Donating money or attending the memorial are the action of showing empathy. Therefore, we can conclude that presenting empathy for someone or something can be one of the reasons why we are born good.

Humans are born good, and there are four points that can prove it. First, by comparing eastern and western philosophers Rousseau’s and Mencious’ idea of human nature. Second, by presenting relevant experiments on infant and analyzed how the babies reacted. Third, by providing some real life examples about humans are born good like criminals turned their life back and became a good person. Fourth, by connecting the idea of we are born good with we are naturally empathetic. Even though there are a lot of ideas, reasons, and philosophies that can also proved that humans are born evil. However, I believe that this problem will never have a right answer and it will be kept argued forever because there is not a right or wrong answer. The only thing that matters is the reason of why you believe so, and the reason why I believed all humans are born good is because I think the society or the environment that we grew up with has a huge influence on our future behaviors.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Humans Are Born Good: Are We Born Good or Evil. (2024, Feb 07). Retrieved from

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