Quick, without thinking, off the top of your head:
Are people born generally good?
Chances are you find yourself on one side of that question or the other. It’s one I ponder often.
In support of the “Good:”
Anne Frank says, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Do you agree? Genesis says that we are created in the image of God. What do you think?
Or, supporting the “Bad”
You’ve got good ol’ John Calvin, of Total Depravity theology: “For our nature is not merely bereft of good, but is so productive of every kind of evil that it cannot be inactive.” Or Martin Luther: “But what, then, is original sin? … it is his inclination to all that is evil……”
And a “prophet” of our own time, Stephen King: “The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.”
But here’s a related, and important, question:
Do you think you can tell the difference? Can you tell a “good” person from a “bad” person? (Please excuse the over-simplification here. I don’t think we can throw away the key on anyone, no matter what, and even the very best person has dark sides. But…..)
I used to think I had pretty good instincts, pretty decent radar for such things, having had, in my life, several lengthy run-ins with folk who were, to oversimplify, “morally bad.” Not to be too blunt, but do you think you could recognize a psychopath?
On one hand, I think most of us think we could. I was listening to Ira Glass’ podcast of “This American Life.” Here’s a link to the introduction, where Ira talks with “Cheryl” about her young son’s violent and anti-social behaviors (He’s tried to kill his siblings. He’s 8.) http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/521/bad-baby?act=0#play
It will leave you chilled. Once again, what I want to believe about people – and kids – is challenged. We know so much about brain function and anatomy, and that we all differ in our empathic abilities, and that kids “on the spectrum” (of autism and aspergers’) have fewer connections from the region of the brain that detects, interprets, responds empathically to another’s emotional state. But we also know about the brain’s plasticity, the ability to learn, to make and forge new connections, with the right environment. On the other hand, obviously there are limitations to that as well. Someone tested with a 70 IQ is not going to cure cancer, no matter how enriching and stimulating their childhood world. But our brains tell us “Of course, we can tell the difference between someone who is “bad” – that is, evil, immoral, with psychopathic tendencies!”
But what about James Fallon, author of “The Psychopath Inside: A neuroscientist’s personal journey into the dark side of the brain.” He says that if you have any indication that someone is a psychopath, don’t engage them, don’t try to love them, don’t try to change them. GET AWAY FROM THEM as fast as possible. And he considers himself one. http://www.ted.com/talks/jim_fallon_exploring_the_mind_of_a_killer
Okaaaaaaaaaay. But, a psychopath WOULD say that, wouldn’t they? But rats: Are people basically good? Or basically bad, and have to be taught how to be good? And do we just run from people who give us the willies? But the literature says true psychopaths don’t GIVE us the willies.
I don’t have any answers, other than I’ve learned to be humble about my brain – and my gut – reaction. After all, I had a psychopath to Thanksgiving Dinner, and no one knew it until it was definitively proven to us. Did we miss the signs? Or were there no signs to miss? All I know is that once again, I have personal evidence that our brains let us down all the time. It’s good to remember.