Discuss: Are People Inherently Good?

A friend emailed after having a terrible time at a social gathering. Various people had teased her and made hurtful remarks.

“I know you believe that all people are good, but I’m just not seeing that,” she challenged.

Her email gave me pause. Did I believe this? I wasn’t sure.

What I do believe is that we all have the potential to do good, but we don’t always actually do it. The reasons we fall short are many. Here are only a few:

  1. We’re under the influence of anger, envy, greed, apathy or another negative emotion that prevents us from being our best selves.
  2. It’s not convenient. Case in point: Over the weekend, I didn’t give money to a homeless person at an intersection. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the money and it wasn’t out of greed. It was merely because he was standing toward the right of my car and I didn’t feel like reaching across the passenger seat to hand money out the window. (And, yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this).
  3. Often, being good requires us to share something we would much rather keep to ourselves, whether it’s money, food off our plate, or our umbrella.
  4. It’s scary. It’s not easy to stick up for the person all of your friends are making fun of. It’s a lot easier to go along with group think, even if that group think is wrong.
  5. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we’re justified. I’m guessing that slave owners in the 1700s found a way to mentally justify their actions. I doubt they thought of themselves as bad people despite the widespread suffering they inflicted on others every single day.
  6. We’re tapped. Without enough rest, few of us are capable of being our best selves.
  7. We’re distracted. Who has time for good deeds when she’s in the middle of a hot game of Words for Friends?

I could go on. Could you?

Perhaps most interesting: many people accidentally harm when they intend to do good. Think of the man who does the dishes because his wife has been complaining about how he never does anything around the house. Then he announces that he’s done the dishes because he’s so happy that he’s finally been able to do something good for his wife. She, however, responds with irritation because she can’t believe he feels he deserves an award for something she does everyday.

Or think of the friend who is trying to cheer up another friend, but accidentally says something hurtful and doesn’t even realize it.

Or the person who posts something to Facebook thinking that he’s just brightened the days of many, only to later realize he’s just pissed off 568 people and he doesn’t know why or how.

I’m guessing you can think of many examples from your own life.

Perhaps most important is this: it’s pointless to worry too much about whether other people are good or bad. After all, blaming other people for our misery never gets us anywhere. It doesn’t make us any happier and it doesn’t change the world for the better. It only mires us in an unfulfilling holding pattern.

What’s much more fruitful is this: continually trying to be a better person. I can’t work on you, but I can work on me. I try to start everyday with the intention to do good and bring light into the lives of others. I do this despite the fact that I always fall short of this goal. I lose my temper. I daydream while my kid is telling me something she thinks is very important. I forget to check in with friends. I fail to help those who are less fortunate and I get irritated that my puppy does things that puppies do. And, sometimes, I don’t even remember that I want to be a good person.

But that’s all okay. None of that makes me a bad person. It just makes me human. It’s also what makes life rich and interesting.

So I wake up the next day, and I try all over again.

How about you? Do you believe some people are good and others are evil? Discuss.

Note: I’d like to periodically feature posts on life’s big questions so we can all hash them out together. What big life questions do you think I should cover?

Side note #1: I’ll run Part 2 of balancing marriage with parenthood later this week.

Side note #2: If you are reading this by email and would like to comment on the post, click through here. That will take you to the blog where you can leave a comment. If you merely reply to the email, your comment goes into my email inbox and I’m the only person who can see it.


12 comments… add one

  • Marcelina Hardy January 30, 2012, 4:25 pm

    I do believe some are good and others are evil. I think that some people are just born with the need to do bad things that illicit some sort of response from people. When you think of people who murder others or make it their life’s mission to make other people’s life miserable, I just can’t think that they are good people. It may be that everyone is born good but they become evil because of some awful thing happening to them. It’s unfortunate really…
    I’m new to your blog and it’s a pleasure to read what you have written…
    Marcelina Hardy´s last blog post ..What to Do After You Discover an Affair

  • kristin January 30, 2012, 4:45 pm

    I believe what the Bible says is true: Everyone has the ability to make good choices, but we all have a tendency to sin (make bad, selfish or just plain wrong choices). It is the essence of being human, is what separates people from God and is the source of the deepest feelings of emptiness that many people face (even when they have plenty).

  • Kathy January 30, 2012, 8:50 pm

    There are evil people in the world. There is no doubt.

    Your friend’s situation makes me wonder, if the people that were “mean” were jealous of her or if she was having an “off” day. Many times I think someone was mean, when it was me that was off balance that day and was taking everything the wrong way.

    This is why I like “The Four Agreements”. First point: Don’t take it personally. I had a hard time understanding that, until I read the book. People have their own “sh*t” going on, and they can take it out on others. So it really has NOTHING to do with you, it’s their’s and their’s alone.

    • Rocky July 31, 2013, 9:52 am

      i don’t mean to offend you Kathy but i feel like no one is evil.It’s just the situation which makes them do certain bad things..
      Like if a guy is not getting any attention or love from his parents then he’ll get frustrated and he’ll bully at school but if someone shows affection towards him then i think he’ll gradually stop doing that..
      It’s just the situation which is bad and not the person..

  • Amanda January 30, 2012, 9:41 pm

    I think that there are people who are born with their wires crossed. When the crossed wires mix with nasty-nurturing you get your sociopaths, “Evil people” etc. Your Bundy your Hitler.
    You also have people who choose because of their nasty-nurturing to rise above it, your Dave Pelzer(A Child Called It), the thousands of Holocaust survivors who remain true to their faith & heritage.
    The sadder aspects of human nature are when we group together to pull someone down. I believe at that moment we make the choice to be there in the negativity. Or not. Or through passivity do nothing at all.
    All are choices that we make, and have responsibility for. So. What I think I’m trying to say in a really long winded way is that we can choose. Choose the light, or not. Choose the gray & live with the fact you didn’t do anything while somebody else got hurt. But the majority of the human race has the option to choose. What we choose is up to us.

  • Gay January 31, 2012, 11:58 am

    Good, good, good!!!!! I just know we all have within us seeds of peace, and seeds of war, as Thich Nhat Hanh says. We can water the seeds of goodness, or we can water the seeds of evil. Sometimes other people do the watering for us, with wonderful or terrible effect, during childhood and later. I just know in all my cells that there is the light of goodness in each of us; in some, though, it seems to burn brighter. Like you, Alisa, I try to be the love I want to see in the world. And often I slip up. As you say, I can only change myself. So I pray, “Bless them, change me.” Or, sometimes, when I’m feeling bereft and alone, “Bless them, bless me,” cuz change is happening whether I like it or not (standing still just isn’t in nature’s plan). I try to behave in a way that creates opportunities for others to be at their best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I haven’t thought of a better way, yet.
    Gay´s last blog post ..Words to Quiet Any Heart

  • Liz January 31, 2012, 1:27 pm

    Ive seen a bit of positive change in my marriage that came from my being able to identify what my intentions were if my husband was hurt or annoyed by my actions. Saying I’m sorry doesn’t kill me if i can restate what my actual intentions were, and delivering it with a hug is even better if I can manage it. I also try to remember that my husbands intentions are never hurtful even though they are sometimes thoughtless. Maybe my restatement of my intentions also sets a better tone when we talk about what we need to work through. Seems like common sense to many others, but I’ve just started doing this!

  • elena clark January 31, 2012, 10:29 pm

    I belive that all people are mostly good, it’s the bad experiences in our lives that brings out the evil in us. I think we all would like to always be good and helping to others, open minded and forgiving. I try to treat people as I would like to be treated by others, and it works for the most part.
    We all learn eventually that by doing bad things in life will only come and bite us back. Being good or bad It’s a path we choose. Staying true to ourselves and our values will keep the evil seed from growing inside us. Just like a good gardener would take care of it’s garden by weeding and nurturing those beautiful flowers, we also could take good care of our feelings and thoughts, and make sure to grow just the good ones.

  • Sarah Liz February 6, 2012, 4:19 pm

    I believe that 99% of all people are inherently good. While I do believe some people come into this world from below, and most of us come DOWN (Heaven/Hell, Good/Evil, Dark/Light type of thing), most of us DO want good for others. It’s evident all around.

    I think it’s a never-ending circle; the more good we have, the more good we want for others. The happier we are inside, the easier it is to be happier for others.

    I agree we live in a world filled with greed and guilt and anger, but we don’t have to tune into that all the time. I see people every day opening doors for each other, saying please and thank you, being kind. I think it’s what you choose to experience.

    As far as being a good person, I can’t say I always am in every little action I do. But I think a “good person” is defined differently at different times in one’s life. I think doing good is about doing what YOU know is right, for you and for others, never purposely hurting another person and taking the higher road and choosing higher thought, no matter what.

    I agree that when most people are rude and irritable it is absolutely not about you, it’s about them. If we really knew what someone was going through we’d have a lot more compassion for each other, but our society is so surface-based. That being said, I know that I’m a lot nicer to everyone when my bills are paid, I’ve had enough sleep, enough to eat and my family, friends and myself are healthy and happy. That counts for a lot. If one of those is off, it is harder to be nicer to people, however, that’s percisely when I (and all of us) need to be. And it just goes to show that goodness (and happiness) is an inside job, not outside in. If we go around relying on “when” things are perfect, it’s an awful long wait! LOL!

    I like what you said, Alisa, about how being human makes life rich and interesting and we can always try again tomorrow–bravo! Amen!

    I try and monitor myself throughout my day and then at night, go over what I did good and not so good. There are certainly times I could’ve been nicer to any given person but I also think that I’m a very kind person and am well-mannered, and those always comes from a sincere place. “Good and nice” are often gateways to being taken advantage of so I think it’s a fine line between the two. What you give out you get back, that’s what I think.

    I was taught to help people, so I do my best. Helping others, not enabling them or doing things FOR them, DOES feel good and so again, it comes back to you.

    I think most people do sincerely want the best for each other. I believe most people do not harbor ill will towards others and those that do, I choose to stay away from.

    It is about choices and perception. It’s also about, when it comes to your spouse/partner, believing that THEY are a good person. I mean, who chooses to marry (or be with) a bad person, right? If you were smart enough to choose them, than they must be a good person, and you know you’re a good person, and so it’s just good and good. Are some days better than others? Yes. Does it mean good people never mess up or never hurt each other? No. Absolutely not. It’s about being in tune with your partner’s inherent goodness and keeping your faith in that, no matter what. It makes marriage, and all relationships, a lot easier.

    Many Blessings,
    -Sarah Liz :)

  • Bern February 29, 2012, 8:30 pm

    I like Sarah Liz’s comment – very well put! I also think that the majority of people are good, but there are a significant number that are psycopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, borderline, etc that are not. For the majority though, one of the keys to being a good person is to accept that you’re not perfect, but having a willingness to try to do better!

  • angel July 5, 2012, 10:24 am

    You are what your parents teach you to be by their example. If they spank you for instance, you end up thinking that hitting (however mild), is a good solution to everything.

    If they treat you with the same respect they demand from you, and discipline you in more constructive ways, you eventually become a better person, because you have a better example to imitate.

    This is called. “Monkey see, Monkey do.

    Have a great day.

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