Opinion. The Intrinsic Nature of Man by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. The Intrinsic Nature of Man by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. The Intrinsic Nature of Man by Hal O’Leary. Today, on the weekly section on Yareah of Hal: Just Hal. Enjoy your day, friends!


drawing by Leonardo da Vinci


I’ve recently been questioned as to whether man is born good or evil. My first response was that he is certainly born good until I was justifiably challenged and with good reason. This forced me to the internet, as we do now, where I find that there are multiple philosophers with impeccable credentials holding very opposite views. I now come down with a bit of a hedge and agree with Abraham Maslow in saying that that while he cannot say that man is born good, he can say with certainty that he is not born evil.” I realize that such an answer is a cop-out. It is nothing more than an admission that I simply do not know. But then, I am not alone in this for, as I said, indeed the most respected philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists and even neuroscientists differ widely on this most important topic.

Going back to Confucianism, while Confucius never stated whether man was born good or evil, Mencius, a follower of Confucius, claimed that all men have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. Hence, he insisted that man is good by nature. Xunzi, another student of Confucius, on the other hand disagreed completely claiming that human nature is inherently evil. With the Greek philosophers, Socrates believed that man was born to be good, but his student Plato believed that humans are innately evil. During the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes declared man innately evil while Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared him to be innately good.

One of the problems we encounter in a philosophic approach to the question is that, aside from the question of whether or not man is born good or evil, there is no understanding among philosophers as to the meaning of the words ‘good’ or ‘evil’. They have been loosely defined as being ‘morally positive’ or morally negative’. But then, of course, for that to have meaning, one must define morality. So, I turned to the “The world’s most trusted dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries, to find the following

noun (plural moralities).

– principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

– a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.

– the extent to which an action is right or wrong.

The first definition simply returns to the original question of good or evil. The second suggests that it is defined by whatever a particular person or society determines it might be, and the third is a reiteration of the first.

So, it would seem that the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are nothing more than abstracts with no concrete existence. Could that make the entire question moot by suggesting that, in terms of determining whether we are born good or evil with no understanding of either, we should just ignore it altogether? Most certainly not, and here I will assert my own definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as briefly as possible.

Good is anything that might tend to increase the prospects for the ultimate survival of the human race. Evil is simply anything that might tend to threaten it.

Of course, I would expect to hear howls of protestation from devout Christians when they realize that this could even include a violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. But then, do we hear the protestations from them over capital punishment and acts of war? Of course not, for then, in order to justify their position by declaring such acts as ‘good’ in terms of survival, they would then find themselves in agreement with my contention. It’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’ Let me be quick to point out, however, that I declare the acts of capital punishment and war to be the highest forms of evil in that they threaten our survival by destroying that most necessary of human inclinations. It is that we do possess empathy and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.

However, in our quest for an answer to the question of whether we are born good or evil, we can turn to science. There is no question but that science is more exact than philosophy can ever or even try to be. So, we return to the internet. A great love of my life sent me a 60 Minutes segment from November 18, 2012 in which Leslie Stahl interviewed the psychologist Karen Wynn from Yale’s Baby Lab. The segment included clips of experiments which indicated that infants as young as three months may have been born with a sense of right and wrong. Using three different stuffed animal puppets, the following scene is played out as the infant looks on. As a neutral puppet struggles to open a plastic case containing a toy without success, the puppet we assume to be a good puppet comes to his aid, the case is opened, but as the toy is about to be retrieved the other bad puppet slams the case closed. In a series of trials, the infants, when shown both the good and bad puppets, reached for the good puppet 81% of the times. Another experiment seemed to suggest that not only do infants distinguish between right and wrong, but, in making choices, they tend to act in accordance with what they see others do. This could explain an intrinsic need to socialize which suggests a basic brotherhood.

So, do these experiments prove my original belief and contention that man is born ‘good’, and that we are meant to be our brother’s keeper? Perhaps it doesn’t, but it certainly supports those theories. These experiments may also lend credence to my definition of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The same acts can, under different circumstances, be either good or evil depending on whether or not they might contribute to threaten our ultimate survival. Although I generally support our legal system in its attempt to legislate behavior in terms of good and bad, I must admit that justice is not always served. Mandatory sentencing, for example, represents a gross miscarriage of a justice, which eliminates discretion on the part of judges. I have always been one to maintain that human behavior cannot, by law, be codified. But, in the absence of divine authority, we have little choice.

My final contention, as a result of these latest experiments, is that man is born with a sense of right or wrong, and that he will also, in his intrinsic need to bond with others, tend to behave in accordance with the dictates of those he views as being similar, or in general, his society. Unfortunately, while this tendency may lean toward the idea of brotherhood, a sick society can be an undeniable source of evil offsetting or counteracting all the good we may have brought with us.

I fear we may have one such society now.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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