Are Human Beings Good?

Are Human Beings Good? September 3, 2023

Image by Kalhh.

“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” – Ernest Hemmingway. 

Are people innately or naturally good? The answer to that question has implications beyond one’s own worldview (although that is also important). The goodness or lack thereof of human beings affects interpersonal relationships, philosophical anthropology, government, and theology.

So as to properly examine the issue, it is necessary to define what it means for someone to be “good.” Since the question of whether people are naturally good can only be addressed in general (and not whether a particular individual is good), the question of human goodness relates to human nature. Therefore, having a working definition of human nature is also beneficial. 

While the definition of human nature can vary, it generally refers to those traits and characteristics that are true of all human beings across space and time. Furthermore, human nature entails the essence or quiddity of a person. That is to say that nature is the foundation for what a thing is. From the perspective of Catholicism, the definition of human nature must include a rational soul made in the image of God. It is essential to clarify that Catholicism asserts that essence or nature precedes existence. That is to say that it is God who constitutes human nature. While this may seem almost self-evident to people of faith, it is not settled. 

Modernity (i.e., secularism) takes a dim view of the concept of a human nature. Several reasons for this skepticism exist, but essentially the modern mind denies an extrinsic teleology or a purpose to life. Since the nature of a thing includes its purpose, human nature is often gainsaid. Nevertheless, it suffices to say that human nature encompasses rationality, speech, and sociability. All of this goes to what it means to be human. But what does it mean to be “good.” 

From the perspective of philosophy, something is good if it is desired. Such a definition is essentially ontological. Something is good because it exists, and it exists because it is desired. This claim requires an explanation. First, we must distinguish between an ultimate cause and proximate causes. Catholicism asserts that the ultimate cause is God. Proximate causes are events that are the immediate cause of a thing. The proximate cause of a child is its parents. The ultimate cause of the child (and the parents and everything else) is God. 

Now, nothing can cause itself to come into existence. Therefore, everything that does not exist necessarily requires an extrinsic cause for its existence. What is ultimately caused is willed by the one that caused it, and what is willed for is desired. Since God has willed the universe into existence, it must be that God desired everything that exists to be. This is what is meant when God looked at everything he had made and found it very good. (Genesis 1:31).

Before continuing, it seems necessary to address an obvious problem with the claim that something is good because it exists. Evil – in its various forms – exists. Is evil “good”? The answer is that evil as a subsistent substance does not actually exist. Properly defined, evil is a privation of what ought to be. For example, blindness is the lack of what should exist, viz, sight. 

In addition to the ontological “good,” it is possible to categorize “good” as subjective and objective. A subjective “good” is only relative to the individual who perceives it. Therefore, the concept of a subjective good is conditioned by the individual’s emotions, opinions, and experiences. The individual(s) (i.e., the subject) determines whether a thing is good or not. In opposition to the subjective is the objective. Something can be considered objectively good if its “goodness” is independent of anyone’s conceptions of it. 

Having thus far sought to explain human nature and the concepts undergirding what “good” is, I address the question that spawned this paper. Are human beings good? Or, rather, are humans objectively good?  

“No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18). These words, spoken by Christ Himself, seem to suggest that humans are not innately good. Yet the claim that only God is good seems to contradict what God said of His creation (See Genesis 1:31). 

How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? First, by reiterating that something is good if it is desired. Moreover, a thing is desired to the extent that it actualizes or fulfills its nature. If God has created human nature, then God desired the existence of human nature, which means that human nature is good to the extent that it is fulfilled. That leads to the question of how human nature is fulfilled. Thomas Aquinas provides the answer. “Grace perfects nature.” It was that Grace that was partially lost at the Fall. I say partially because if God had entirely withdrawn His Grace, human beings would cease to exist. Still, this partial loss of Grace means that human nature is corrupted and, therefore, cannot be perfected by its own power. That is to say that we cannot, of our own accord, repair the damage done to our nature. Since we did not create our nature, it cannot be repaired and thereby perfected by us. If that conclusion is correct, then human beings cannot achieve a state of being good by their own efforts.

If human goodness necessitates the perfection of our nature, and we cannot achieve that state, it must be that human beings are good only to the extent that they are reconciled with the One who can perfect our nature: God. Fortunately, this reconciliation has been made possible by the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ.

If what has been said is true, human beings, in their fallen state, cannot be said to be “good.” Only by being “grafted” onto Christ – in and through the sacramental life of the Church – can our nature be perfected, and we may be considered good.

About David Schloss
I am a convert from Judaism to Catholicism with a background in philosophy. It is my hope that my articles can help further the understanding of the Catholic faith while making clear that faith is not the absence of reason, but its fulfillment. Fides et ratio. You can read more about the author here.

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