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Are Humans Fundamentally Good?

by Nyarlathotep1 min read21st Jun 202025 comments

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I've been doing some reading on political philosophy recently, with a focus on the works that influenced the founding fathers of the United States, and one of the ideas that comes up a lot is the idea of the social contract. One of the assumptions that drives this theory is that humans are not fundamentally good.

Are humans not fundamentally good?

In real live examples of anarchy, does society devolve because humans are not fundamentally good or because of some other reason?

I am an absolute newcomer to political philosophy so forgive me if I am misrepresenting social contract theory.

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My favorite treatment of this question (as a question of philosophy) comes from Xunzi, who wrote an essay called "Human Nature Is Bad," which begins:

People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort.

The good things that make up civilization, he claims, come from deliberate adherence to codes of conduct and from principles that are adopted through deliberate effort, instead of listening to one's nature.

He, of course, is drawing a distinction between one's reasoned habits and instinctual emotions as if reasoning were not itself an instinctual process, but this seems like the right call to me; the decision relevance of whether humans are fundamentally good is whether, in times of uncertainty, they should trust their 'base nature' or their 'cultivated disposition,' and whether people can be trusted to do the right thing without instruction or systems, or whether those need to be carefully constructed so that things go well. (Hence the founders working carefully on the social contract and institutional design.)


As a questions of history, it depends a lot on what you think is "good," and what you mean by "fundmentally." Pre-state peoples varied widely in their customs, habits, and ability to leave records. What records we do have--like the fraction of excavated corpses who died from human violence--suggest humans now are much less violent than humans then. The development of human civilization does seem to have been progress; if humans 'sprang into existence' as 'good', we would expect things to look quite different.

In real live examples of anarchy, does society devolve because humans are not fundamentally good or because of some other reason?

Many of the things that we think of as markers of civilization, like careful planning and investment in the future, grow much rarer in times of significant uncertainty, like periods of anarchy. The categories you propose feel a bit strange in trying to make sense of this situation. Like, if I decide not to plant a tree because it's a bunch of work for me now, and I don't know who will eat the fruits in the future (since someone else might take the tree from me), one could say the absence of investment is due to my rational pessimism. Or one might say this is because humans don't fundamentally respect the property rights of others, which is a sign that human nature is bad. Or one might say this is because humans don't naturally believe in the lie of private property, which is a sign that human nature is good. Or one might say that this is not because of deficiencies in human nature broadly construed, but because of the actions of a handful of assholes who ruin everything for everyone else.

This is pretty much all I needed to know. Thanks so much for the response, I'll check out the essay you mentioned in the beginning.

Humans aren't fundamentally anything. We're highly variable, complex calculators, without much input validation on what we learn about or how we react to novel stimulus.

Exactly this. Studying behaviours and averaging it has reduced us into easily categorisable beings. The complexity just goes out of the window when the question itself has a design constraint that the answer is expected to meet. My idea is that even if there is an irreducible unit to which you can be reduced to—which I don’t think there is—the temporally emergent aspect of interactions with a larger whole such as the society that are combinatorially so large as to be intractable just do not allow for a siloed theory/inquiry to explain it all.

1Nuffle1yWell said. I was caught up in the "what is good" trap and didn't think to question how valid being fundamentally anything was.

I like your take on the question. It's different than anything I've ever seen discussed about this topic, thank you!

Also, is that a Lovecraft reference in your username?

2Dagon1yIndeed. ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. I've been using it too long to change now, but it's kind of imperfect - it has enough historical and biblical usage that it's not available on most sites, and far less clear than yours that it's a reference rather than a given name. I do have a friend who tried to name his son "Yog Sothoth", but he was overruled.
1Nyarlathotep1yYour friend is an absolute legend. My username on Reddit is Yogge Sothothe. Dagon is without out a doubt the best. You too, are a legend.

It's complicated:

  • most people are capable of feeling empathy towards other humans, but some are psychopaths;
  • empathy can be turned on/off depending on whether the other person is perceived as "in my group" or "outside my group", which happens for various reasons;
  • care for other people is balanced against care for myself;
  • there may be strategic reasons to appear better/worse than one would be otherwise, e.g. one can help others to signal wealth, or hurt others to signal they are not to be messed with;
  • even when people agree on what is good, it is often difficult to coordinate on sharing the costs;
  • people with good intentions may do bad things, e.g. because they have mistaken beliefs.

I probably forgot a few important things here.

My personal approach is that most people are good, but the few bad ones can do disproportionate damage -- it is much easier to hurt other people than to help them, easier to lie than to find out truth, easier to break things than to fix them.

Important perspective and addition by Viliam here. My approach is usually intersectional in that the intentions of people are informed by their intersectional social positioning and often informed by the position of the one they are affecting in an interaction.

This makes a lot of sense. It also still supports social contract theory in a way.

I like that you started off by stating that it's complicated. That is pretty much the best thing you could do when approaching something that is, well, complicated, because all too often people will try to offer a very simple answer to a very complicated question.

Often the problem isn't inherent goodness or badness, but the incentive structure that an environment creates, and whether people's natural tendencies to want to be high status results in benefit for everyone or not. In an environment with no one who has the exclusive right to the use of force, violence becomes a means of acquiring resources and status. If you set up the rules correctly (and people view you as a legitimate source of laws), people are incentivized to work towards the common good.

"[D]uring the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. . . . In such condition, there is no place for industry . . . no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation . . . no commodious Building; no instruments of moving . . . no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brut
... (read more)
1waveBidder1yI'm vaguely pointing at the role of game theory [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_theory] and the resulting mechanism design in shaping what actions are viable. The tragedy of the commons [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons] is a classic example where some mechanism is needed to prevent a common loss. It can be easy to portray people in such a situation as greedy, but the mechanism works for altruistic people too. Escape without oversight requires everyone to be selfless, which is a totally unreasonable bar.
1Nyarlathotep1yGame theory is something that I see mentioned quite often, but I am totally unfamiliar with it. Do you have any suggested books, papers, or videos you believe may give me a entry-level understanding of the subject?
1greylag1yThis may not be entry-level, but Axelrod’s The Evolution of Co-operation [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation] might be an enlightening deep/broad dive.
1Nyarlathotep1yThank you for the recommendation, I'll add it to my reading list.
1waveBidder1ySo for something interactive which helps build intuition, this is a great game [https://ncase.me/trust/] about the prisoner's dilemma (goes in the same direction as what greylag linked actually, but with much cuter animations, and can serve as intro). If you want something with more substance, I don't think I can beat a thorough reading of the wikipedia page followed by choosing a book from their further reading section which matches what you're comfortable with.
1Nyarlathotep1yThis game looks really interesting. Thank you! I often hear people say that wikipedia is not a reliable source of information. In your opinion, is the true?
1waveBidder1ynot at all, and especially not for subjects with intro textbooks. That said, it's just a starting place, and it's almost worth as much as a source of references as an actual overview.
1Nyarlathotep1yGotcha, thanks :)
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[-][anonymous]1y 8

Any reasonable answer depends entirely on what you mean by “good”. Though the flavour of the question makes me think you might find The Goddess of Everything Else enlightening,

Thanks! I'll check it out.

Rutger Bregman just released a book on this topic called Humankind: A Hopeful History where he argues humans are good and dismisses some of the historical arguments that humans are bad with examples.

I second this book recommendation. I just finished reading it and it is well written and well argued. Bregman explicitly contrasts Hobbes' pessimistic view of human nature with Rousseau's positive view. According to the most recent evidence Rousseau was correct.

His evolutionary argument is that social learning was the overwhelming fitness inducing ability that drove human evolution. As a result we evolved for friendliness and cooperation as a byproduct of selection for social learning.