Good Man, Bad Man
@19 December 1998


The unconscious assumptions that govern all our daily lives and opinions are almost incurably simple-minded. Philosophers have hoped that by making them explicit they can make them sensible. They are betrayed by their own selectivity, and an iron law of forgetting, which says that for every flash of insight from a stray mind in the marketplace, for every principled action by a functionary with momentary power, there will be a million acts of stupidity in the name of this slogan or that.

My purpose here is not to convert, but to remind myself, so that at least I do not betray my own fleeting intentions from this rational moment or that. Perhaps it is best to start with the most submerged of all our cultural assumptions: the sense of what is good and bad, and what to do about it.

Hsun Tzu (Hsun K'uang) believed that people are naturally bad and have to be coerced into virtue. Another stream of belief (Mencius, 373-288 BC) held that people tend to natural goodness. These are themes we see played out in almost every human group. It puzzles me that the topic remains so opaque. The problem is not so much what is "good" and "bad" -- every subculture has a pitch on that -- but rather the distribution of these tendencies in human populations.

With a backdrop of a half century of experience, this latter question strikes me as rather simple. For years I have been teaching people who have been victims of the most barbaric government, sometimes for generations. If mistreatment were a formula for the generation of evil, then these folk ought to have been permanently warped. In fact, by and large, they are amazingly nice folk, whose decency has survived every kind of attack.

On the other hand, one doesn't have to go too deeply into an Australian workplace to fine betrayal, cruelty and dishonesty. This is in one of the most enlightened civilizations on the planet where food is plentiful, and the threats to life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness are minimal.

The conclusion which I am drawn to then, is that, as with most natural phenomena, the tendencies to "goodness" and "badness" follow a normal distribution curve in the population. I sense that beneficence is favoured in the largest number of individuals (maybe an outgrowth of the need to nurture), but only favoured weakly. That is, most people are easily lead astray either by misinformation, or by temptations of money, status, sex, ambition etc. However, their attachment to "evil" is likely to be as weak as their attachment to "good".

All the historical evidence suggests that attempts to bias these tendencies towards "good" on any permanent basis are doomed to failure at the mass level. Certainly no religion has ever "saved the souls" of the masses. Nor does universal secular education show any signs of creating the perfect man or woman.


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Good Man, Bad Man " copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2000

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