Published April 3, 2023
BY EMMA BROWN
Every morning since I turned 11, I’ve read the newspaper. I’ve always wanted to know what is happening in the world around me. But what’s the cost of my curiosity? I’ve been a loyal reader through the turmoil of the #MeToo movement, the fear of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the horror of images of children kept in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s enough to make me wonder if people will always subject each other to barrages of disappointment and horror.
Are we really that evil?
To Thomas Hobbes, yes, yes we are. The English philosopher’s most famous book, “Leviathan,” established his belief in widespread human malevolence through his assertion that people are inherently evil because we possess a ceaseless desire for power. In a society without government or laws, we will act selfishly, motivated only by our most basic survival instincts. To mitigate our proclivity towards violence and destruction, Hobbes suggested that people ought to create a society with a singular executive, or “leviathan,” who can control human nature by imposing strict laws and regulations. The philosopher introduced the idea of a social contract or an agreement between individuals within a community. For Hobbes, the contract should require people to forfeit their freedom and autonomy to a leviathan in order to live in harmony.
While Hobbes asserted in absolute terms that humans were born evil, German thinker Immanuel Kant believed that humans had a propensity towards malevolence, but not everyone was corrupt. Kant believed in a universal moral law based on ethical maxims and categorical imperatives in which there is little wiggle room. Among humans exists a “radical evil,” or a widespread propensity to act in violation of those universal laws, according to the philosopher. Though people aren’t necessarily born evil, they have a dangerous inclination towards immorality.
John Locke, one of the most prolific Enlightenment era thinkers, disagreed wholeheartedly with Hobbes and Kant. Locke is best known for his assertion of “natural rights,” or a person’s intrinsic claim to life, liberty and property, and this notion informed his evaluation of the human disposition. The English philosopher believed that in a natural state, humans will act according to the Law of Nature, which dictates that people should not harm each other’s life, health, liberty or possessions. Locke believed that in such a state, people would be free to act as they please and, as a result, would act in accordance with the Law of Nature because at their core humans are governed by their inclination towards reason and tolerance.
Though Locke’s view of human nature is more optimistic than that of Hobbes and Kant, that in no way suggests that his logic is flawed.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevian philosopher, agreed with Locke’s assertion that while a state of nature is characterized by a lack of government, it is not indicative of a lack of moral reasoning. In fact, Rousseau argued that humans were better off in a state of nature because without the rigid social structure implemented by social classes, people are governed by “amour de soi,” or a love of self, which caused them to only desire base-level satisfactions, such as sleeping and reproducing. In such a society, Rousseau asserted, people are able to fulfill their needs without becoming destructive.
However, when a government is imposed upon people in a state of nature, humans become motivated by “amour propre,” or vanity. In a community that encourages competition and the accumulation of wealth and power, people become focused on establishing their dominance over others. Essentially, rather than living for ourselves, we become focused on living for others, which causes us to lose sight of the need to fulfill our most basic needs.
Rousseau’s thinking agrees with all the others in that humanity is susceptible to corruption, but that doesn’t make people intrinsically evil.
Life makes it easy for us to become pessimistic about human nature, but that doesn’t mean that we have to succumb to that mindset. Do some people do evil things? Absolutely. Examples of such behavior exist all around us. But does that make humankind as a whole evil? No.