Are People Inherently Good?

When you think about other people, do you consider that they are inherently good? That they need to struggle with the forces of the world that would make them behave against their better nature?

Or instead, do people start out as essentially greedy, selfish, and lazy? And if they are lucky or disciplined enough, they can overcome these inherent faults to lead a worthwhile life?


Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable podcast, where Michael and Lee discuss the questions ‘How do you define success?’ and ‘Is happiness the most important purpose of life?’


Even if you believe the answer is somewhere in the middle, is it closer to one side or the other?

Does your opinion change on the person or people you are considering? Do friends and family fall into one camp, but strangers in another? What about how you view yourself?

How does time change your answer? Do you think you would have answered this question differently, say, 10 years ago? Is the answer different for children rather than adults?

Finally, what does your answers say about you, and how you view the world?

Related questions: What does it mean to be a good person? How do you judge yourself? To what should we aspire? Who are your role models?

3 thoughts on “Are People Inherently Good?”

  1. People are neither inherently good nor bad. Instead, they are inherently prone to self-preservation. Self-preservation can lead people to take actions that are good or bad as determined by a group or the powerful within a group. It may also be gauged as good or bad based on the impact their actions have on their environment.

    One significant factor to consider within this question is what the rules are for a community. These rules can promote cooperation or competition. Cooperation, good? Competition, bad? Hmm. That depends on your perspective or status within a group. Our society, by and large, promotes competition. Competition creates winners and losers either within a group or between groups and who gets access to the resources within their environment — usually, over the long term, creating a huge and building wealth imbalance.

    In my book, setting up rules that, by definition, creates losers is a bad system.

  2. Similar to Michael, I would say that people are neither good nor bad. I would instead say that people take *actions*, and those actions are good or bad, rather than the person.

    However, to answer the intent of the question rather than the question itself, I choose to be somewhat hopeful about society in general, and the individuals that make up that society in particular. So I think the majority of people — at least, the ones I’ve met and would extrapolate to most people — are kind, generous, thoughtful people.

    However, there is something about the human mind that makes us fear and distrust the “other”. That probably came about through evolutionary selection as a survival mechanism. So we’re probably hard-wired to have serious doubts about people that we don’t know.

  3. As Michael Dahl said, “…they are inherently prone to self-preservation.” I think anything after that is acculturation – learned from the people you are surrounded by.

    Self-preservation is, for the most part, self-centered, though it includes a lot of instinctive behaviors: bonding with caregivers, learning the lessons they give you (purposefully or inadvertently). And that leads to the acculturation, which leads to all the other good/bad behaviors.

    That said, I do believe there are some differences in even newborn brains. Propensities for different ways of interacting with the world. More engaged/less engaged; easygoing/stubborn… but the line between “inherent” and “learned” and how we interact with the world is still largely unknown. I mean, there are so many external forces that shape us that aren’t simply genetics – including the prenatal environment (hormones, nutrients, drugs, stressors)… They affect us, even though we don’t understand how, yet.

    Does that mean humans are innately “Good”? Depends on what is “good.” Also, I definitely think it’s unlikely that greed or laziness is in any way inherited. People raised with sincere love will almost always end up “good” — though there are plenty of things that can derail that. This speaks to our malleability, for good or ill. And people who are raised without that social support often find it elsewhere because humans are inherently social, psychologically, so they can end up good.

    The TL;DR is that most people are generally good, but it’s not at all inherent.

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