It’s crazy how much depends upon this foundational question. People have debated the issue for thousands of years without reaching a definite conclusion. It still divides us. No foundational concept affects our social and political views more than this debate about whether we are basically good or bad. This idea about where evil comes from determines what needs to be fixed. Where are we going to put our money?
Now it’s very important to understand that the question is not whether or not man is worthless. As a matter of fact, the side of the debate that says that man has a natural inclination toward evil also holds that man has more intrinsic worth because he was created in the image of God. The human race has great value because of the wonder of the body augmented by belief in a moral soul, and because of the potential to aspire to divine purpose and goodness. It’s important to understand that the “naturally evil” side does not see babies as evil like Hitler was evil. It sees them as hopelessly selfish compared to a perfectly good God. Theologians speak of original sin, but I think that a religious vocabulary complicates the discussion as much as a philosophical vocabulary does. It’s really about a perfectly good God. Take a perfectly good God out of the equation, and evil doesn’t mean much.
Let’s look at the other side. The “naturally good” side of the debate ignores the existence of a perfectly good God, whether the participants are religious or not. Good and evil are not black and white but dark gray and light gray. Although babies are selfish, it’s natural and OK. They are innocent because they are blank slates that can be taught to be good. There is a huge assumption here that people are logical and that our human will naturally falls in step with our logic. Good education and a good environment are supposedly sufficient to make people good enough for all practical purposes. Since they say there is no perfectly good God, it’s acceptable to be selfish if we don’t overstep the selfishness of our neighbor. People aren’t really good. It’s just that selfishness is not bad, as long as it is controlled.
Much more can be said, but I want to look at the focus. Those who think we are basically good focus their efforts on education and social causes. Since they don’t need to worry about absolute morals or the human will, most of the work of forming character is eliminated. Education prepares people for work and allows them to be creative. Social causes are meant to create an environment in which all opinions and lifestyles can exist with dignity. The focus is on the outside, the social environment.
Those who think we are naturally evil, with respect to a perfect God, focus on the inside. For them, the real battle is the moral conflict within the will. Discipline is important in education because the will determines behavior more than knowledge. We must learn to dominate our desire in order to create a moral society. Getting along with others is simply not enough, because bad behavior violates the nature and expectations of a perfectly good God.
The political issues that divide our nation are not really political. They are the result of a nation being divided over the question of whether we are basically good or bad and whether or not there exists a perfectly good God.