Are People Good?

“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Tolstoy.

The difference between progressives/liberals/lefties are libertarians comes down ultimately to their perspective on people. can you trust them? Are they basically good, with bad tendencies, or basically bad, with good potential? Do they need to be pruned, or controlled? The arguments we have about levels of reasonability or propriety are ones of degree, but they’re fundamentally undercut by a great divide. Are people good?

Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil; how evil was the result of shirking moral responsibilities or duties. I think the corrallary is that goodness has its own banality. How much does the world notice daily acts of kindness, how often is the good samaritan recognized? For something to be taken for granted, it must first be taken; for something to be overlooked it must first be seen.

We recognize shining moments of goodness, like the responders to 9/11 or the sacrifice that stalks the military. But the daily goodness of getting kids to soccer practice or getting dinner on the table is banal, but no less important. Today of all days, let’s reflect on the basic, subtle, banal decency of people.

Update: For example, consider this.

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7 Responses to Are People Good?

  1. Buffalo Gal says:

    I think the question of whether people are basically good or basically bad is worth pondering, but I disagree with the notion that how you answer will predict your political ideals. In discussing this very question last week with a liberal friend, he adamantly believes that people are basically good. And according to him, the good, enlightened people maintain their progressive policy stances because they believe (in my own proverbial paraphrase) that it is good and noble to rob from the rich to give to the poor.

    The question of whether people are inherently good or inherently bad is a moral one – not a political one. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both claim to be practicing Christians. But to say that their shared morality leads to a shared political ideal cannot be true – can it? To the extent that libertarians reject both the traditional left and right of politics, I think the question on the nature of man does very little to predict political preferences.

    • Aaron says:

      Well they’re two ways to approach the moral/political relationship; either your morals influence your political philosophy (distinct from your actual policy choices, which have many other practical considerations weighing on them), or they don’t. If they don’t, then you probably shouldn’t be advocating political choices based on anything except expediency.

      As far as Bush and Obama are concerned, there’s no discernible categorical policy difference to distinguish them, only one of degree. Whatever their private convictions may be, their public preferences lead me to believe they’re largely sympathetic.

      And your anecdote is self-contradictory. If everyone is good, how can it be good to abridge other’s moral standing and property rights? There’s no justification except an arbitrary and misguided “I know what’s best” at work there.

  2. Buffalo Gal says:

    I don’t disagree with you on any of those points. My contention remains that a person’s belief on the nature (goodness or badness) of man is not a predictor of political beliefs, as implied in your original comment: “The difference between progressives/liberals/lefties and libertarians comes down ultimately to their perspective on people.”

    I personally find my liberal friends’ argument devoid of logic. (I also disagree with him on the nature of man.) But that does not mean I can tell him that he’s wrong for the way his moral beliefs influence his political beliefs. In other words, people with the same moral convictions – or the same perspective on people – can manifest those convictions differently in politics.

    • Aaron says:

      If your friend’s moral claim is devoid of logic, doesn’t that mean it’s immoral?

      And I’m not claiming moral beliefs are a predictor, just an indicator. That is, if you observe someone’s political convictions, you can work backwards, usually, to their moral sentiments towards others. That is, of course, giving them the benefit of doubt and assuming they’re acting ‘morally’, by their own definition. Since none of us are perfect moral actors, there’s obviously some room for doubt.

  3. Buffalo Gal says:

    I suppose it depends how you define “morality.” In my opinion, stupidity is not immoral.

    We will have to agree to disagree. By the logic of “working backwards” from political convictions, both you and I should start at a similar point. But we don’t. Instead, you and my liberal friend “work backwards” to the same point, and I land somewhere completely different.

  4. Lord Elrond says:

    I think that before we delve into where and how morality effects our view on politics we must first define: what is moral? Is morality subjective too, to what we as individuals believe. Does the terrorist believe what he is doing is moral? Does the traditional Mormon believe polygamy is moral? Does Darth Vader believe killing all the Jedi is moral? It all boils down to personal and/or religious beliefs. Morality to one is different than it is to another. While our beliefs definitely influence our political parties they can’t necessarily correlate. Captain Spock’s logic dictates that the good of the many outweigh the good of the few or the one, but even logic can be influenced – as was Spock’s when he chose to put the good of Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy over the good of himself and the crew of the starship enterprise. If we are talking about logic, then you can’t refute an example from the galactic leader of logic.

    • Aaron says:

      I think there’s some confusion; when I said good and bad, I didn’t mean in a moral or ethical sense, primarily. I was thinking more in terms of positive or negative outcomes in the world, people create change which is either an improvement over prior conditions or not. This capacity for creative change is why free minds and free markets are so productive, innovative, and dynamic. That’s the main thing I was driving at, not a moral claim.

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