Are People Any Damn Good?

Are People Any Damn Good? September 1, 2015

Are people any damn good?

Of course there are at least a handful who are, the occasional bodhisattva or saint or tzadik; and at least a handful who aren’t, the genocidal maniacs and the slavers and the greedheads and the people who park their expensive cars across two spaces. But if we lined us all up along some saint/sinner axis, with the Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings, the Buddhas and the Jesuses at one end, and the Hitlers and the Pol Pots and the Stalins and the Maos and the Christopher Columbuses and the Andrew Jacksons at the other, how would it all balance out? Would the median human being be closer to Gandhi or to Hitler?

The fact that we’ve been arguing about that question for thousands of years tells us that the answer is a close thing, I suppose.


Image courtesy of  ratch0013 at
Image courtesy of ratch0013 at


If the answer is that we’re closer to Hitler, then we’re just screwed. There’s no long-term hope, our self-destruction is just a matter of time, and we might as well get it over with and make room for the next species to give this sapience thing a try. (I kind of favor the squirrels myself.) We can’t rule out the possibility, but it’s not a useful working assumption: if it’s true there’s nothing to be done. Just as a doctor trying to save a patient must assume that the patient is savable until the evidence is overwhelming, if we’re interested in the future of the human race we have to make the working assumption that we can have a future.

But there’s a dangerous idea that sometimes gets floated: we are closer to Hitler, closer to the demons, surely damned by human nature…except that Doctrine X can turn the tide, save us from reaping the fruits of our karma, can change our sinful nature. Doctrine X may be a religious idea — “accepting Jesus as your Savior” being a leading example, but I was recently raising my eyebrows to see a leading “hard Polytheist” comment how humanity is irrational and incapable of acting in its own long-term best interests, and so Only A Religious Approach Can Save Us. But the proposed savior could also be an economic doctrine (Marxism, “free-market capitalism”) or a technocratic bit of authoritarian progressive social engineering — eugenics, alcohol or drug prohibition, etcetera.

To be clear, I’m not opposed in the least to progress, or to to encouraging progress; I’m opposed to having someone’s idea of progress forcibly implemented on us will-he-or-nil-he. Which is, after all, what Hitlers and Stalins and Pol Pots and witch-hunters and Inquisitors do; evil bastards are usually all about The Good Of The People, they just may not include certain people in The People, and they may be willing to Sacrifice A Few For The Good Of All.

If people are good, then over the long term that goodness will flower without extraordinary intervention. We can of course encourage it, we can tend to the garden with a gentle hand and help that goodness grow, and that’s very worthwhile work.

But over-engineering the garden ruins the fruit, give us those cardboard supermarket genetically-engineered tomatoes instead of those succulent products of the sun and soil that grow naturally on the vine. Our goodness, too, must be rooted and watered, must flower in its own time and be pollinated. In order to bear fruit it depends on the world around it. But it is not a machine to be redesigned, nor even a hothouse flower to be surrounded by artifice. It grows naturally.

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