This morning I saw a man on his morning jog stopping to pick up a broken beer bottle off the side of the street along with several other tiny pieces of glass that had broken off. It wasn’t even in his own yard, but he interrupted his run anyway in order to grab the sharp objects from the edge of the road. He carried them for two blocks, depositing them in the first trash can can he could find, then resumed his pace and ran around the corner, out of sight.
Why did he do this? Nobody told him to do it. It was early in the morning and no one else was out, so he clearly didn’t do it for praise. It could be that he just likes having a clean neighborhood, except that I happen to know this guy doesn’t even live on this street. Maybe he has kids himself and he was thinking that whoever lives in that house or in one of the neighboring houses didn’t want their own children wandering out to the edge of the yard and cutting themselves on one of the broken shards lying around in the grass. Who knows? The point is that he did it because he wanted to and nobody else made him do it.
In the grand scheme of things, this was an insignificant act. But it made me wonder: How many insignificant but decent acts of human maturity were exhibited this morning alone, in just this one neighborhood? How many people got up this morning, dressed and fed their own children, cared for their pets, and went off to work or school to fulfill their obligations there as best as they could? On top of that, how many people did some little thing to help another person whom they didn’t even have to help, but they did it anyway just because they wanted to?
I would wager that thousands of tiny microbenevolences were committed this morning, some of them routine and some of them spontaneous reactions to the needs of the moment, and no one is going to be saying a word about them. This is just what people do. Most people are basically responsible, and most of what they do in a given day is taken up with fulfilling their responsibilities, plus a few things beyond that which aren’t even in their “job description.”
Sure, we do bad things, too. And trust me, we are all going to hear about the bad things—the poor decisions, the malicious actions, the rude interactions, the misdeeds and misdemeanors. Those are the things that pique our interest, and those are the things which will be reported on in a public way. The worst things that people do today will make the headlines in the news tomorrow. That’s why they say “If it bleeds, it leads.” In the age of the internet, I would also add that the more bizarre or outlandish a person’s mishaps are, the more likely we will be to read about it in our social media feeds. Those are the stories that will get passed around the most. I guess you could say “If it clicks, it sticks.”
But this gives us an imbalanced picture of human nature. It’s not that these things don’t happen, it’s just that focusing on them represents a selection bias whereby we are made to dwell on the worst things about our species at the expense of the better things.
Human Nature: Good or Evil?
Think about how this affects our view of human history. Inevitably when the subject of human nature comes up—especially in discussions with Christian friends—the worst things that humans have done take center stage. Always.
But hold on a second. Is “history” really a fair and accurate picture of human nature? History is mostly a compilation of “the news” from hundreds of thousands of days crammed into a single narrative. It’s a digest of thousands of years of “bleeding and leading,” squished together into one big crap pile, leaving us with the impression that human beings are vicious, terrible creatures.
Very few historians will write about the people who didn’t start a war. And nobody writes about how many people didn’t lie, cheat, steal, or take another’s life today. Because that’s just the nature of news reporting and of history as well. The good things outnumber the bad things by such a large margin that it would take too long to catalogue them all. And besides, it would make for boring copy. I’m suggesting this unfairly biases our view of human nature.
Just try telling that to a Christian, though. So far I’m not sure I’ve been able to get a single one to acknowledge that selection bias is at work here, and I know exactly why that is happening. Their belief system utterly depends on a negative overall picture of human nature. In order to need a savior, there has to be something we need saving from, and for the Christian faith that has to include ourselves.
The very idea that human nature is essentially “good” or fundamentally “bad” is misleading anyway. Good and evil are labels we put on the world. They are useful words for us, to be sure, because we want to live in a world that is more suited to our own goals as a species. But we shouldn’t completely lose sight of the fact that those labels are still constructs—they are manmade descriptors which we superimpose onto a world that simply is what it is, whether we like it or not.
Is it good or bad that a lion eats other animals? It is neither. It simply is what it is. Nature does what it does whether we like it or not. Does that mean we ourselves cannot rise above whatever is “natural” in that sense? No, it doesn’t mean that. We can still reach forward in our long steady evolutionary march toward making our world look more like how we want it to look. We can still strive to build societies which minimize harm to our fellow humans, and ultimately to every other living thing, if possible. But in our quest for becoming “better” we need not forget that our ways of measuring that are artificial, and the failures of our species to live up to those aspirations only remind us that becoming something more than we already are won’t come naturally. It will take a great deal of work.
Toward a Balanced Humanism
People need rules. Human beings need supervision, whether we are essentially “evil” or not. Not everyone throws broken bottles away on their own. Someone threw it there to begin with, and someone else could have used it to cause another person harm. Believing in the human potential for “goodness” doesn’t mean we have to be naive. A realistic humanism will take into account both our capacity for doing wonderful, amazing things as well as our corresponding ability to do things which are despicable.
This is my only contention with the notion that human beings can be “good without God.” We are equally capable of being “bad without God,” as well. In our efforts to counter the anti-human rhetoric of historic Christianity, we don’t do ourselves any favors to lose sight of the fact that human beings still need guidelines and accountability in order to shape our collective behavior in a direction we truly want to go.
We’re neither good nor bad, we’re evolving.
A mature humanism will take that into account, and it will acknowledge the importance of maintaining the social structures we need in order to keep moving forward. We have to reinforce our own expectations in ways that help mold our own development into directions which facilitate the thriving of both our species and our entire ecosystem.
Difficult weeks like the one I’ve been having remind me that human beings still have as large a capacity for behaving badly toward one another as we do toward behaving commendably. Hell, this entire election season in my country has just about made me want to pack my bags and go live on a mountain somewhere for a few months. Peace out, call me when it’s over.
But no matter how badly my fellow human beings mistreat one another, myself included, I always come back to the little moments like I witnessed this morning. We lose sight of these little things because of the way our attention gravitates toward the worst things that we do. But that’s not a fair picture of who we are. We are capable of much better things, and it won’t do us any good to let the despair we feel during our terrible weeks eclipse all the thousands, no…millions of little things human beings do every day to take care of one another.
It’s happening all around us all the time. You only have to remember to look for it. If you really look, you’ll see it everywhere. And it gives me hope.
[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]