A question I have been wrestling with of late is whether humans are essentially good or bad. Generally, I am inclined to believe in the positive side of humanity, but the relentless deluge of recent evil—anti-Asian hate crimes, gun violence, police brutality, and even our political divisions—has made it abundantly clear that human behavior is so often driven by deep-rooted selfishness and fear, and it is easier than ever to dwell on the negative.
There is an episode of Community, season one’s “Debate 109,” that neatly captures my current emotions. In the closing scene, Jeff Winger and Annie Edison are locked in a teeter-totter battle against rival City College’s debate team that seems unable to be resolved. For every point there is a counterpoint, a Hiroshima for every Mother Theresa.
In his closing argument, opponent Jeremy Simmons, who uses a wheelchair, goes off script. Revving up his motorized chair, he drives across the stage at full speed, tilts his chair, and launches his entire body perilously into the air, only to be caught at the last moment by Jeff Winger. Suspended in the arms of his opponent, Simmons forcefully declares, “He hates me, yet he caught me. Man is good!” Next, in a perfect manifestation of what makes the show so delightfully witty and surprising, Community adds a twist to the twist. Quick on her feet, Annie grabs Jeff and kisses him. Jeff then drops Simmons, and, as Simmons’ body falls to the ground like a stone, Annie proclaims, “He was horny, so he dropped him. Man is evil!”
Case closed. Right? Well, at least in the show.
Other sources I have consulted also seem undecided on human nature. The Bible, for instance, is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Calvinism emphasizes the tenets of original sin and total depravity, original sin’s extreme cousin. Yet this stands alongside the concept of imago dei and the regenerative power of grace, the latter providing at minimum the solace that humans can become good, even if they aren’t to begin with.
Chinese philosophers in the Ru tradition, or Confucianism, also disagreed over human nature. Mencius, who is revered as Confucianism’s second saint, said, “Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished with them.” Believing human nature to be essentially good, Mencius likened ethical cultivation to the growth of a plant, with all people possessing inner sprouts of virtue within. With the right soil, environment, water, and pruning, humans will, like a mature plant, naturally grow toward the good.
However, Xunzi, the next great Confucian thinker, believed that humans are bad. He conceived of humans as blank moral slates who, if not guided and corrected, would follow their innate dispositions into wrong action. Contrasted with Mencius, Xunzi’s preferred metaphors are harsh and require strenuous effort, comparing self-cultivation to the forced bending of wood or to jade carving. Though admittedly more pessimistic, he did not equate being bad with being evil, and emphasized deliberate effort and education as essential to reforming human desires.
In my heart, I prefer Mencius’s plant metaphor, as it suggests that, as long as humans make an effort, goodness and change will come about naturally from a gentle process. If goodness is inherent, we will eventually gravitate to take steps to improve ourselves and form a more just society. However, as I look at the turmoil and evil present in the world, along with my own stubbornness, I find Xunzi’s model much more compelling and realistic. Growth and moral cultivation, whether individual or collective, often requires violent rupture and pain. If this be so, I pray that we have the resolve to stretch and be shaped toward goodness, no matter how uncomfortable the process may be.