The Myth of the Goodness of Humanity

I’ve often heard of the “goodness of humanity”, as if this is congenital and dominant in our natures. Really? I say that’s a bunch of Utopian crap–a delusional, insular, Pollyanna, head-in-sand worldview that ignores blatantly obvious reality.

There’s a reason toddlers in the sandbox take more than give. We have to learn civilized behavior. Some never do, at least to legal or tolerable levels; the rest of us learn, but choose to ignore the lessons when convenient.

It’s this simple: If humanity were fundamentally good, we wouldn’t have to be taught how to behave! We would just be benevolent, kind and loving, instinctively. Alternatively, if we need to be taught specific methods to express that “innate goodness”, individuals wouldn’t revert to barbaric, selfish, greedy, violent, shortsighted, lazy basis that resides in us all.

My temptation here is to call our behavior animalistic, but that does great injustice to most animals I’ve known. Are there good people? You bet, but fundamentally, we as a civilization suck at morals and ethics.

Furthermore, if humanity fundamentally were good, if we truly lived the ethics of excellence, service, integrity, self-restraint, and delayed gratification, then these things would not happen:

Ruminate on those a bit. Read, then re-read. Let those sink in. Then consider that it’s just a tiny, tiny fraction of the real world, and just over the last few months of time. Most crimes, for example, are never prosecuted; most bad deeds by friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives never make headlines. It can be depressing if you let it. I choose not to, because we have free choice in both our behavior and our attitudes.

The purpose of this is not to offer specific solutions to all of humanity’s problems. That’s too large of an endeavor, obviously, just by the tip-of-iceberg sampling represented above. I’ve offered some solutions throughout the history of this BLOG, and periodically will propose more…but never could cover them all. No, instead, the point of this entry is simple and straightforward–to hit you with reality and reject the notion that “human nature” is basically good. What you do with that reality is, of course, your choice.

Can people do good and great things in spite of their fundamental self-centeredness? Absolutely! Indeed, most of us do. For example, many of us who are parents sacrifice time, money, and effort for our kids because we love them and care about their well-being. Our soldiers, sailors and airmen enlisted voluntarily and make great sacrifice to serve our country. Individually, we’re there for our best friends, and so on. Unless you are sociopathic, you can and have done some commendable good for people. This is not an indictment of the right things you or I have done–but instead, an acknowledgment of the evil around us (and to at least a small extent, in all of us).

Most folks lead double lives, balancing their sinful and generous sides–sometimes within the same minute. Have you ever abused anyone, anytime, verbally or physically, for any reason? Then you acted with deliberate malice toward another. Have you used addicting substances, then told a child or friend not to? Then you hold a double standard. Have you advocated a sociopolitical position beneficial to your self-interest but detrimental in some way to others (taxpayers)? Then you are putting self above country. Have you criticized greedy bankers and/or governmental profligacy while racking up discretionary credit-card debts or otherwise mismanaging your own personal finances? Then you’re just spouting cheap, hollow talk and not living according to your own rules.

Have you told a “little white lie” or pretended not to be displeased, just to spare someone “hurt feelings”? Then you have committed dishonesty, regardless of the motivation. Maybe you rationalize that lie as the lesser of two evils. Well, guess what: even the lesser of evils is still evil! To me, relativism doesn’t excuse wrongdoing. I’m sure many of the people involved in those events above similarly would rationalize, if on grander scales. “I only beat up one little wimp for his money…I could have killed him instead!”

History has countless examples of greatness over evil. Some people have performed tremendously beneficial and good acts, regardless of their imperfections. Famously benevolent figures such as Lincoln, M.L. King, and Mother Teresa–all of whom would freely admit they were far from pure even in their uncommon service to others–come to most folks’ minds straightaway. Obviously, for us Christians, Jesus represents the ultimate example of this, as the only sin-free human, knowing he was eternally blessed but nonetheless laying his physical life on the line in an agonizing manner for the sake of all who wish to experience the ultimate glory of God, eternally. That’s a free choice, of course.

Free will is what we have. Most of us (including yours truly) have done some dumb things with that, just not dumb enough to have been killed or jailed. Those whose deeds led to the headlines above took it to egregious extremes and did not get away.

Let me be clear on this: I am far from perfect. I don’t hold others to higher standards for behavior or effort than myself. That’s the essence of the Golden Rule, remember? However, nobody is harder on me than I am; and my standards are high. I demand excellence and integrity from myself first, then from others, knowing perfection isn’t possible and I sometimes screw up and fail to deliver the goods sufficiently.

When I call out somebody–or society at large–remember, it is rooted in the very same expectations I have for myself…nothing more. It is most certainly not “passing judgment”, it is demanding high standards and holding people accountable. If you don’t know the difference, learn the difference. Accountability is the enforcement arm of integrity. In oneself, accountability is known as “conscience”.

Make a mistake? Okay, we all do sometimes. Do something about it! Get up, dust off, admit and atone for the error, then learn from it so you will not choose to make it happen again. [And yes, mistakes are chosen!] Don’t act like you’re entitled. Humble yourself in genuine remorse before those you’ve wronged (most of all, before God, if you are religious, as nothing is hidden from Him).

Finally, consider again that if everybody were to demand excellence, service, integrity, self-restraint and delayed gratification from themselves, then much of humanity’s problems would be minimal, and the headlines above would not happen! The only thing holding civilization together is the collective mass of still-imperfect individuals who do have such expectations, first of self, then of their children, friends, and associates. That mass seems to be shrinking in influence…

Reality is that humanity is and will remain fundamentally selfish, and as such, the greatest and only eternal answer is outside ourselves. In the face of the pervasive wrongness all around, and sometimes within, there is hope…and it’s not in our own natures.


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