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A Great Debate: Is Humanity Essentially Evil?

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Donald Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again," turns on the ambiguity of the word "great." Does it refer to worldly power as expressed through military might, material prosperity, cultural dominance? Or does it highlight the moral dimension, as seen in fairness, justice, charity, humility, and generosity? The two definitions do not normally coincide. Mr. Trump leaves no doubt as to which definition he intends, but another man running for the presidency, Jimmy Carter, emphasized the latter version by proclaiming that Americans are good at heart.

Yet his observation, invoking the idea of American exceptionalism, also worked against his creed as a devout Christian committed to the idea of Original Sin. According to this doctrine, there are no exceptions to human depravity--an idea plausible if one accepts the Sermon on the Mount's equating bad thoughts with bad actions. We all have wicked thoughts, as Carter himself confessed in a notorious Playboy interview.

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But if there is an inconsistency in Carter's stance, it reflects a deep divide in the entire philosophical community. St. Augustine had much to do with establishing, after Paul, the idea of Original Sin. He thereby (unlike Jesus, incidentally) placed himself in the category of those who think that humanity is essentially evil. He cited as evidence his youthful stealing a bunch of pears for no reason other than the joy of wickedness, as well as the selfish and tyrannical behavior of those little creatures whose beauty and innocence we normally gush over--infants.

Such pessimistic ideas were rebelled against during the Enlightenment, when thinkers claimed that human beings are born good or at least neutral. The litmus test of behavior by babies was revisited by the godfather of Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire, who contrasted the innocent behavior of infants with the aggressive actions of newly born serpents and tigers. That proved for him, pace Augustine, that people are born good.

Why then is there evil in the world? Because, replies Voltaire, people are led astray by bad leaders. That answer raises a host of new questions, but at least Voltaire inclines to optimism.

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Both viewpoints have had their proponents. The amoral un-Christian Machiavelli certainly seems to subscribe to the worst beliefs about human behavior, and Augustine's provocative remarks obtained a sort of vindication 1700 years later when the atheist Freud theorized that male babies want to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers. On the other hand, Rabelais, anticipating Voltaire, asserts that at least some human persons, if properly trained, can function as exemplary characters without the taint of Original Sin.

This debate is not confined to the West. Some Chinese philosophers, followers of Confucius, without the benefit of Christian Revelation to accept--or to rebel against---are as divided on the matter as their Western counterparts. Thus Hsun Tzu insisted that man is born evil, with a desire for gain, strife, envy, hatred, lust. Goodness can be acquired but only with great effort. Tzu Ssu and Mencius, on the other hand, believed human beings to be innately good, while Kao Tzu held that human nature is neither good nor bad. Another thinker believed that circumstances determine how a person will behave, or, to put it differently, some people were born good and some bad.

At the other end of Asia, the Hebrew tradition confronted this matter in at least one memorable instance. For two and a half years, the Schools of Rabbis Shammai and Hillel disputed whether human beings should have been created. "They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created." This conclusion daringly puts God and his Creation on trial, or at least subjects Him to philosophical judgment. It suggests that God Almighty erred.

What the passage means, practically speaking, is that the paintings of Leonardo, the music of Bach, the plays of Shakespeare, the science of Newton, the technological marvels of Edison and Jobs are not good enough to make up for the horrors of slavery, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. The price paid for civilization and culture is just too high. Humanity being incorrigibly evil, the human experiment was a mistake.

Returning to the Western tradition, we find a curious counter judgment in Karel Capek's R.U.R. In this science fiction play of 1920 (which gains in relevance daily), the robots originally meant to serve us by lightening the load of work which humanity bears have become so powerful that they rebel and then dominate mankind. Faced with the unintended long range bad consequences of human inventiveness and even with the possible extinction of humanity, a character draws the obvious conclusion (one which some thinkers have drawn about splitting the atom), "It was a crime to make Robots." Yet the protagonist Domin, who had thought that a human civilization based on the exploitation of robotic power would (in a quasi-Marxist hope) eliminate hard toil and usher in a utopia, concludes that, even if he knew the disastrous outcome, he would do it all over again. "No, I don't regret that even today,"[on] the last day of civilization. It was a colossal achievement".It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labor." In other words, the human experience was worth it; the sheer creativity, no less than the noble intention, redeemed the catastrophe. The splendid Scientific and Industrial Revolutions that made robots possible are some sort of tribute to mankind for not having been passive while on its brief visit to the universe. Capek would stand with Pascal in seeing man as a thinking reed--that is, we go under with the rest of creation but we at least know that we do, which no other species does; that little detail, as well as our reshaping of the world, appears to gives us our dignity and raison d'etre. Implying that we are not essentially evil, merely the victims of our ingenuity and the consequent runaway technology, he seems to reject the pessimism of the rabbis.

 

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.

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