Are We Fundamentally Evil?


In the past 100 years, we’ve committed nine out of ten of the most deadly genocides, killing tens of millions of people. During that time-frame, there have also been more than 200 wars. Given these facts, it’s easy to assume something must be wrong with us: That human nature is violent and cruel. This view has been supported by highly recognised philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, who said that outside civilization people descend into a war of all against all. Meanwhile, the Abrahamic religions (which collectively count more than 50% of the global population among their followers) teach through the concept of original sin that we are all born evil. The belief that humanity is evil by nature is clearly widespread, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. This is especially true since evidence used by thinkers like Hobbes and religious leaders tended to be merely anecdotal and theoretical. In the twenty-first century, however, we need more than that. We need scientific evidence to prove that humans are fundamentally evil.

This scientific proof is what scientists at Stanford seemed to deliver in the 70s. During the now infamous Stanford prison experiment, college students were randomly assigned to the role of guards or prisoners. The guards soon implemented physical punishment and sleep deprivation, causing the study to be cancelled in less than a week. Another similar experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale. It involved a scientist ordering a participant to electrocute an actor, who pretended to scream in pain. As the experiment went on, the participants were told that the voltage slowly increased. The study found that 65% of participants were willing to give the actor a potentially lethal shock (450 volts), merely because the scientist told them to do so. 

Further research then challenged the applicability of the Stanford prison experiment’s findings. A study found that people willing to sign up for a prison experiment were initially more aggressive, narcissistic, and authoritarian than people willing to sign up for an unspecified psychological study. They also had lower empathy than the general public. As a result, we can’t know if the average person would react the same way when put into a situation of a prison simulation as the higher-aggression person. Meanwhile, research found that people who were willing to give lethal shocks in Milgram-style experiments tended to be more trusting than those who refused. For this reason, they weren’t necessarily cruel sadists. They were just convinced that the scientist wouldn’t ask them to do something wrong and therefore decided to obey their instructions. This is reminiscent of Rousseau’s view of human nature. According to this influential French philosopher, people are fundamentally good. It is society that corrupts our peaceful nature and prompts us to hurt each other. Common causes of bullying involve the desire to fit in, imposing group conformity, and the want to become more popular. In cases like these, living in society leads to a desire to gain status in our group, which then leads us to mistreat others. 

Whether or not this view is correct, it is undeniable that in order to study our fundamental nature we must look at what we’re like outside social structures. Traditionally, this analysis was done by imagining a state of nature. This was essentially a thought experiment. It asked us to consider what humans were like prior to forming societies. Unfortunately, this analysis is unreliable. It’s unclear if there ever was a true state of nature, as even the most isolated tribes have their social norms and structures which could influence morality. Luckily, modern science has developed another approach: Studying babies. Children younger than three don’t have a conception of what others think of them yet, essentially freeing them from social pressure and social conditioning. As such, the behaviour of very young children should reflect only their nature.

 A study was conducted where a play with a mean puppet and a nice puppet was shown to one-year-olds. Then, the puppets offered the babies graham crackers, with the mean puppet offering two and the nice puppet only one. Despite it being against their own self-interest, the babies chose one cracker instead of two to avoid dealing with the mean puppet. This is in line with evidence that young children punish others who misbehave by ostracising them and giving them less help. The study shows that babies behave morally even when against their own self-interest, suggesting that people are not inherently evil. However, the babies’ principles only went so far. If the mean puppet offered eight crackers instead of two, most of the babies chose it instead. 

It would be difficult to assert that we are solely fundamentally good when our altruism is so conditional. However, we can’t claim we’re evil. Although this might seem insignificant, believing we’re evil can change how we live and interact with others. Thinking others are immoral, violent, and self-interested makes us crave control and security above our own freedom. Hobbes even went so far as to advocate an absolutist state capable of keeping everyone in line through terror. While this view is extreme, it certainly isn’t unique. Law and order policies often expand surveillance or militarise police and eliminate due process in the interests of providing security. Although it can be argued that these policies are often designed to counter real threats like terrorism and gang violence, it is undeniable that when we fear each other we seek security at any cost. In an age of democratic regression, we can’t afford to fear each other without reason. This is especially the case since fearing others can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, research has found that treating lower income young people as potential future criminals may actually increase crime rates. We can’t afford to believe we’re fundamentally evil. This will only cause us to act upon our malicious drives and encourage us to trade freedom for security even when there is no real threat to us. 

Featured image by: NEOSiAM2021 / Pexels

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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