Are People Basically Good?


Recently, on his weekly “Fireside Chat” series, Dennis Prager began by posing a question. That question is the tittle of this post and its a question that is truly worth considering.

Prager is a somewhat observant Jew, that is he takes the Torah seriously, that God exists, has certain requirements for his creatures, and he believes that people are basically not good, not that people are intrinsically evil, but that the inclination of people is not toward the good.

Prager’s argument is built around a simple question: why do we have to teach kids to be good?

Having raised two boys, I struggled with the fear that I wasn’t doing enough to make my sons be good people. I lost count with how many times that I had to get them to say, “please” and “thank you,” to be kind, to be considerate of others, especially when one of them was on the autism spectrum, and to help him find his place in life and break him out of his shell. And that struggle, Prager addresses in this episode.

Prager begins the episode by expressing a simple maxim: “An idea has to be good for everyone to be a good idea.”

This simple maxim simply destroys any concept of relativism. This is not to say that there aren’t certain things that aren’t relative to cultures, such as foods, dance, practices, or clothing. However, truly good things have to be universals. That’s why the question of whether or not one believes people are basically good is relevant, and forms what Prager calls, “…a major dividing line in the way that people look at society.

How one answers the question even informs a foundational assumption that essentially determines all other beliefs that a person holds with regard to how a culture or society should approach specific issues.

While Prager would not see it this way, as a believer, I would see this question as providing a tool for peering into a person’s worldview and grounds for measuring its coherence.

Prager says the question for him is not whether a person believes in God, but rather what they believe about people, in that religious people (Christians and Jews for Prager) contrasts against secularists by providing a ground that if one doesn’t believe in God, they will necessarily shift that burden of goodness over to humans.

The Impact of Relativism

The question of basic goodness, with regard to people, raises all kinds of interesting problems that need to be sorted out. As Prager argues, goodness stems from wisdom and notes that, “You can’t be wise if you don’t understand how flawed human nature is.

Results of a recent poll I ran on Twitter

If one does not understand and accept, as something of a first principle, that human nature has something wrong with it, dare we say that it has certain depravities that, if left unchecked and unmitigated, will spiral into debasement, then human evil will not merely be surprising to us, it will drive us into depression and madness.

What needs to be recognized before moving forward, is that even though one may believe that people are not basically good, is not the same thing as believing the proposition that people are basically evil.

The basic essential contention of moral relativism is that—based upon an examination of cultures—that there is no clear moral knowledge, something that is based upon the recognition that there was something of a moral diversity between Western and Eastern cultures. This became especially an issue in the mid-20th century with the rejection of colonialism and a concern regarding basic human rights, wherein a statement was made that moral values there was no way of showing that one set of moral values was better than another’s. However as concern over human rights has grown, this position has moderated somewhat in order to avoid conflict.

However true the fact of relativism might be—that is the observational fact that there are certain value and behavioral differences between cultures—the simple fact is that if one tries to live it out on the individual level that things quickly become untenable and irrational. The fact that a person might say that they believe that moral relativism is true is immediately undermined the fact that they expect and actually demand people to behave a certain way and posses certain values betrays the fact that there are certain objective, even absolute values that exist which transcend any cultural differences.

This means that if moral relativism were true, and that people were basically good, there would be no need to teach moral truths. In fact, to assume that there are moral truths defies the assertion of both relativism and the belief that people are basically good because—and Prager sticks the landing on this point—there would be no requirement to teach goodness to people.

Where is this contradiction seen most clearly? In the “social justice” movement, a movement that is steeped in both moral relativism and the belief that people are basically good.

To demonstrate this Prager examines an assertion that is commonly made by “social justice” proponents: “All white people are racist.”

Wait, “he begins, “people are basically good, but those same people are also racist?!

The moral math simply doesn’t add up because there’s two competing assumptions at work, aside from the twisting of language used by these people, first that “white” doesn’t often refer to skin color but rather ideas, and that “racism” has nothing to do with an ideology and attitude, but rather socioeconomic position.

Simple Truth

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes makes a simple point: “God made man upright…

That point is that God made men for the purpose of being morally upright, after all they are meant to be imagers of God. That is that man is supposed to be the living image of God’s goodness.

Then the scene changes. Something else happens, man desires not to be what he was made to be, but to be something else. Instead of a conduit for goodness that flow out to fellow creatures, man becomes his own worst enemy, and as a result death and destruction and heartache follows.

Prager articulates the fact that if the expectation of people is that people are not basically good, then to meet a good, kind person becomes a welcome treat and a pleasant surprise, because it defies the expectation. Rudeness, callousness, and even pure, unadulterated evil become easier to accept as a natural consequence of life. That is not to say that such should simply be accepted, rather it doesn’t rob anyone of their joy in life. It actually drives us to call out for people to be good, to cultivate it in our children, and to reprove and rebuke evil.

The assumption that people are basically good, creates an attitude in people that there’s nothing essentially wrong with them that needs to change. It makes men’s hearts hard and self-righteous. It causes people to shift the moral burden off themselves and makes them cruel.

If a person believes that they are basically good, then nothing that they do can ever be morally wrong, because their goodness populates their works. They have judged themselves to be good, and if they are good then whatever they do, by definition, is good. They have become God in their own eyes. And that should scare you.

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