Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Are We Good?

On the old “Are people essentially/born good or bad?” question, I avoid the good/bad problem by altering it to ask, “Are people born socially acceptable?” The answer is “No.”

People are not naturally considerate. Worse, they are often not even aware of the consequences of their actions, so even those who are considerate have a tendency to be oblivious douchebags. We need things like parenting, education, love, punishment, ethics, shame, etc. There are even people who received all those things and still transgress – look at Bernie Madoff, a billionaire who steals. I’m almost positive most people would revert to poo-flinging without society.

It’s hard to imagine this to be the case if you live in a developed nation, and we can’t really test it by performing the necessary experiment (which is even given the ominous name, “The Forbidden Experiment”). Suffice to say, one needs only look back through history at the things people do that are socially acceptable (or even expected) at one time, but are considered crude or barbaric now. Slavery, treating women like property, pederasty, genocide, cannibalism… those were our ancestors, some only a few generations removed.

It’s not that we’re bad, we’re just confused. We’re born wet, bloody and crying, full of needs and wants, and all we can do is scream. Independence cannot be expected of an individual until at least around 15, and some people are never able to take care of themselves. All we know is what we see, and the people who want to be seen are often clueless. Ignorance is almost forgivable.

Yet despite all the obstacles, skeptics abound among the young. Of course, once they are busied by work and no longer have time to waste thinking (not to mention all that fancy book learnin’ that gets beer'ed away), they tend to settle down into a comfortable routine of family values and fag hating.

No matter how educated we are now, there will always be an endless stream of new people to laugh at us when we’re old for what we did. It’s always a child who points out that the emperor has no clothes.


  1. There is an interesting video on the development of moral sense here.

    In essence, it says that the "capacity to have moral categories" is within the human, like the "capacity of acquiring languages".

    And as the languages are different for different groups and evolve through the ages, moral codes can also be different and evolve according to culture and time.

    In this sense you are right: humans are (normally) born with the ability to learn a language, but no one teaches it to them, they will not, and it might be too late after a certain age (see wolf children or hospitalism).

    I suppose it's the same for the moral code: somehow, you have to learn it, even if you possess the ability of acquiring it.


  2. PS: I am not sure that today's moral is better than the moral of the 1950. It focuses on other priorities, and meanwhile the old priorities get forgotten.

    Morals always tend to have blind spot where they themselves are immoral. As an atheist, you will easily spot the immoral aspects of the big religions. However, I suppose that it is much more difficult to see the dark spots of your own ideology (in practice, when deployed on a large scale, as the big religions are).

  3. I don't hold to Kant's notion that every action we take must be judged against the measure of whether it would be good or bad if everyone did it. Although I don't think morality is completely relative, only that exceptions abound.

  4. I did not mean Kant.

    I rather meant: Some failures of a system cannot become visible unless the system has a certain amount of power. Therefore, to compare things comparable, you have to compare systems of same size/power.

    i.e. you cannot compare minority atheism with the catholic church when it ruled over Europe and South america.

  5. If anything, you can compare majority versus minority and see that attempting to enforce any ideology as a majority will result in problems. If anything, things are best when there is no majority ideology, only many compatible minority ideologies.

    Perhaps this is why Europe couldn't get its act together under the ideological monopoly of the Church until the schism.

  6. Yes, that's what I thought:

    But then I stumbled on a blog called "Abandoning Eden" and I had to realise that an ideology can do damage even if it applies only to a small minority (in a free country).

    Why? because in a family structure, parents wield a lot of power, even if they can't impose their views on a larger scale.

    Of course, this can happen in any ideology.

    (I was quite shocked when I read about abuses taking place in "sexually liberated" sects that sprung up in the wake of the 68 movement.)

  7. The family structure is a tough pill to swallow for social liberals. However, unless we start being born with some modicum of independence, I can't imagine a system better than what we have. In theory, schooling should counter-balance the damage down by harmful parents. The problem is, we give too much power over education to parents. Parents should not be allowed to send their children to private schools for religious indoctrination, let alone home school them and prevent any outside interactions.

    I'm sure there will always be kids who grow up to reject their parents' ideology (and undoubtably some will suffer for it, even after they leave). Even children who grow up to be nearly identical to their parents "suffer" through parts of childhood.

    None of this is meant to diminish the suffering of those who have parents who scar them for life. I know about the kinds of groups you speak of, and I think most agree that sexual liberation is not an ideology that translates well into childhood - certainly not in a shame culture which stigmatizes sex and goes out of its way to make anyone who experienced sex as a child feel dirty (which is part of the "compatible" clause I mentioned earlier regarding multiplicitous minority ideologies).

  8. s5- but an ideology of a very small group can do far less harm than the ideology of a large group. My parents may have done harm to me (although really, have they? What harm other then making my adult interactions with them unpleasent?), but I was still able to get past that, becuase in our wider society we believe that people can be different religions than their parents, we believe people can move out of their parents house before they are married, that women can have jobs, that people can marry people of other religions, and have free choice in who they marry, etc. If my parents' ideology were the dominant ideology, we would all be living with our parents until we marry someone that our parents picked out for us, and I would not have a job because according to my parents women are 'naturally' better at childcare and should not focus their time on a career.

  9. Yes, of course.
    What I wanted to say is:

    It is difficult to compare moral systems, because our view tends to be sharpened towards our priorities and we tend to overlook any factor that is not part of our priorities.

    STupid example: when we come to the Philipines, we are shocked about the poverty (dirt, crime rate, infant mortality, whatever), when Philipinos come to our countries, they are shocked about the way we treat our old people.

    They are not shocked about our affluence. They are shocked about a factor that seems quite irrelevant to our culture (= that is not a priority).

  10. I responded to this post about moral because it is a theme that interests me a lot and I hoped it would be a fruitful exchange of ideas: try to find together, through example, theory and refutation, what this thing "moral" is...

  11. The internet... fruitful exchange of ideas... *screen explodes*

  12. I recently wrote about "goodness" also.

    Although, I take the contrary belief in that people are mostly good... and there is a naturalistic reason for this.

    But at the same time, we are fallible, weak, prone to make mistakes, fearsome, bothersome, and more often than not make imperfect decisions.

    This also has a natural explanation.

    As such, there is a fine balancing act we must do between the two to maintain peace and harmony.

    I talk about it more on my blog. Have a good one!

  13. as morality is a social construction, the question of people being born good or bad doesn't really occur. the moral code is as much part of socialization as learning how to speak. in fact, even speaking doesn't work without a cultural embedded code of morality giving meaning to what is said.

    as often as i wish society and all its absurd consequences far away, i have to admit and acknowledge that humans are unfortunately social beings. beings with 4/5 unused potential...

  14. Tristan: I knew I forgot something! My post was originally my response to yours, which I never posted because it became absurdly long and went off on its own point.

    I guess my overall response to your post is I disagree that we're basically good, although we're also not basically bad.

    Kayoz: Yeah, it all comes down to what ethical code you're comparing against. Also, there's nothing wrong with misanthropy or being a hermit... if anything, it is proof that you are still sane.

  15. One of the things I forgot to consider was how education can affect morality.

    Tribal societies will be amiable with each other but downright hostile to outsiders.

    If one views this in moral terms, one might say they are immoral for their intollerance of others.

    Thus you statement that we are more likely to be inherently bad, rather than inherently good, can be justified.

    However, if you choose to look at their tribal reaction as a natural cause, say instinctual survival, then the protection and survival of the clan is the highest good they could achieve.

    In this case, good is inherent and evil is that which seeks to diminish the greatest good.

    So I find that good is inherent in the natural sense. Which was what my post was about.

    Suffice to say, the individual and groups entire notion of "good & evil" is social, cultural, and depends on numerous outside factors. But these factors are also naturally causes, and that's why, in the natural sense, I agree with Eastern philosophy which relates the concept of ethics to an instinctual desire to avoid pain and suffering.

    Anytime something threatens that balance, causing more harm than good, evil arises as a bi-product regardless of social norms. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are good examples of this effect where immense suffering which has the potential to end life, becomes the greatest possible evil.

    So I wasn't disagreeing with you about how we perceive right and wrong, but I must stick with my original hypothesis about the natural state of good and evil.


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