Are people good?

Sometimes clients wait until the very last minute of their sessions to ask impossibly complex, even if brilliant, questions. In the last blog post, “What are your ‘givens’?”, I noted Diane asked me, “what is the meaning of life” quite literally as she was walking out the door. To find my answer (yes, I actually had an answer), go read that blog post.

I recently had another doozy of a question put to me by a client with basically no time to even think of an answer, let alone actually answer it in any meaningful way. As we were about to end our zoom session, having already looked at the calendar to make sure we had sufficiently booked out future appointments to avoid any gaps, Kim said, “I know we are out of time for today, but I wanted to ask you a question, and I really need you to be honest in how you answer it. Do you think people are good?” 

Before I tell you how I answered the question, you need to know a few things about the context of the question. First, Kim is wicked smart, and has a bullshit meter stronger than the radar system at NORAD. Second, she doesn’t ask these kinds of questions lightly, and the answer I give might end up spinning around in her head for days or weeks. I know this because Kim and I have known each other for a long time, and she can be quite serious with these kinds of questions, and the trick for me is to avoid causing needless ruminations if I can. So, I had to be honest and tell her what I really believed. I also had to be very careful not to say something that was potentially too dark or weird or open to strange interpretations. I needed to be as clear as I could. Third, I was plum out of time and had to be done with the session. I feel myself about to sweat now just writing all these considerations down recalling our conversation a few weeks ago (I wasn’t actually sweating at the time though). Finally, I was very sympathetic to Kim’s current state of mind, who’d been jerked around pretty significantly by a number of people over the past couple of years, so the question was appropriate, germane, and arose from a place of anger, mistrust, confusion and as-yet unresolved pain.

Here’s what I said (and I hope this is an exact quote and if it is not and Kim reads this blog post, I will definitely find out): “No. I guess I don’t think people are good. But I think they want to be.” I had exactly zero seconds to explain this. To my relief, in response, Kim merely said, “That sounds exactly like something you would say. Thank you for being honest.” We ended the session. 

I’ve had this conversation on my mind quite a bit since it occurred a few weeks ago. For one thing, I will be having a follow-up appointment with Kim very soon, and may need to explain myself if I can. It is possible that she is completely satisfied with my response and we will not even return to her question or my response. Kim might also want to spend a couple of sessions discussing it further, which I would be happy to do. Either way, the question and my answer deserve further consideration and explanation, in case others have the same question.

Years ago, this question came up in a “philosophy” contest. The contest asked a simple but deep question, a single question, with a binary option. You had to choose either way, and then justify your answer. I think the question was “are people inherently good or bad?” I never entered the contest, but I remember wanting to, planning to do it, and then became distracted, and missed the deadline. So, here I am again, with a new opportunity to offer my thoughts on this topic. 

In a nutshell, I think people are mostly good, not because they are inherently good, but because they are in fact not inherently good, and in many ways have the potential to be very bad, but they often choose to be good, they strive to be good, to overcome their not very good tendencies. In my old office, I had something like 17 monkeys scattered around the room, in various shapes and sizes. I did this intentionally, to remind myself, and if it came up with a client, to remind them, we are animals. We are basically, and technically, in the group of mammals called primates. We are not very different from Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutans. Anyone who disputes this is simply not looking at noncontroversial and well-settled biological facts. 

We are also arguably, as far as we know right now, the cruelest and nastiest species in the universe. Maybe an alien race will come along and prove they are even more nasty than us, but that hasn’t happened yet. Consider some of the more recent evidence. Slavery. Rape. War. The Nazis and the Holocaust. Pol Pot and the killing fields. Stalin and Ukraine. Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The machetes of Rwanda. The US, slavery, and genocide against the Native American peoples. Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd. Putin and (again) Ukraine. Mass extinctions (the carrier pigeon, buffalo, snow crabs, sperm whales, all manner of other endangered and recently extinct species). Vast and unspeakable animal cruelty in our food chain. Last, but not least, and maybe worse than all other evidence of our darkest tendencies: the subjugation of half the human race (women) by the other half (men), denying them intellectual, political, social, economic and sexual autonomy in all but a tiny sliver of human history (and even now continuing in many places) through the brute force of actual and threatened male physical dominance and violence.

Is there any other species that does these kinds of things? No. We don’t just do it, either. We do it intentionally. We do it because we can. I sometimes ask clients to reach inside their mouth to feel the sharp point at the tip of their incisor teeth. I ask them, “what is this tooth for?” If they don’t know, I tell them, “it has just one purpose—to tear flesh from the bones of other animals (and yes, often enough in our species’ history, other humans). I suggest they never forget that the process of natural selection decided to keep this tool handy through tens and hundreds of thousands of years, that it is a marker of what kinds of nastiness we retain within us to inflict death and destruction upon other sentient beings in our vicinity. Only by remembering this, by being honest with ourselves about our darker capacities, can we be sure we do not give into them and live by codes of conduct meant to control and reign in these tendencies. Our awareness and honesty about our darkness form the guardrails against careening into cruelty.

So, in consideration of even this short list of items among a much larger list of atrocities committed every day of every year of every decade of every century of every age by every nation that groups humans together, how could I possibly in good faith say people are inherently good? To the contrary, even a cursory review of our history could lead anyone to conclude that humans on balance are wholly without moral merit, that we are doomed to terrifying cruelty and disregard for anything like fairness, justice, kindness and the good of all, or anyone. Yes, our history is quite discouraging. And yet….

One of the core arguments in favor of religion, as stated by none other than Saint Paul in the New Testament, is that we humans need a god, and a religious code, to help us from giving in to these tendencies, to keep us away from our strong pulls toward sin (he seemed especially concerned with “sins of the flesh”). I think Saint Paul would want us to never forget we’d been kicked out of the garden of Eden eons ago for giving in to our sinful nature. I am not here to undermine or support those kinds of arguments. I leave that to the clergy of various churches to address. Whatever you might think about all of that, it does speak to our desire to be good, to be better than at least an undeniable part of our nature that must be controlled, in whatever way we can find.

Religion, and especially this argument in support of it, validates the second part of my response to Kim. Recall, I said, “No. I guess I don’t think people are good. But I think they want to be.” Religion, in nearly all forms, encourages people to be “good” by whatever measure they happen to define “good.” People join religions, or they stay in religions, in at least some measure because they hope that by doing so, they will have the tools, the support and the guidance to be good, to be a better person than they would otherwise be if they were not part of that religion. Yes, there are other reasons people adhere to religious beliefs and institutions, and yes, there are also debatable points on which religious definitions of “good” are something worth adhering to. That’s not the point I am making. I am simply saying that, if you look at the number of people that adhere to belief systems and institutions they think will help them achieve the status of being “a good person” at whatever level, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of people want to be good, even if, as recited above, it is also very clear that humans have within them, and I do mean all of them (us, me, you) some not-good-at-all traits and capabilities. Also, I recognize there are plenty of religious people who do very bad things, and plenty of nonreligious people who do really good things. So, religions are not the only option for people to figure out how to be good. They are just one very popular option.

Here’s another take on the question. Isn’t it possible that, if humans were basically good, then being good wouldn’t have that much meaning? If you don’t have to try for a thing, if it just happens, then when it happens, is it worth celebrating? And if you have try really hard, all the time, to do the right thing, when it would often be easier to just give up, give in, surrender to your baser instincts, then doing the right thing is worth celebrating, worth every bit of gratitude and recognition we can offer. This is my way of saying that part of what makes humans not only good, but downright wonderful, beautiful, and amazing, to the point of drawing our tears when we see it, is that we are quite often good in spite of having the choice to be bad. Literature, music, film, poetry, theatre, art and the local news offer nearly infinite stories of humans trying to do the right thing, even when the consequences for doing so bring them ruin, death, pain, anguish and disillusionment. We cheer on all the Davids against their Golliaths. We are humbled by stories of incredible generosity. For Hitler and the Nazi’s there’s also Schindler’s List, the family that hosted Anne Frank and her family. For Putin, there’s also Volodymyr Zelenskyy. For the Confederacy, slavery, Jefferson Davis and John Calhoun, there’s also the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th and 14th Amendments, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. For George Wallace, there’s also Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is not an equivalency test. It is just a demonstration that there are both very bad people, and also very good people in all times and places.

None of us are perfect. Most of us have at times in our lives done things we know are bad, that we wish we could undo. Some of us struggle with these things more than others, but we all struggle. A very few of us don’t care one way or the other, feel no guilt whatsoever when they do something harmful or wrong. I’ve met a couple of these people—one of them was a foster brother of my biological brother, and a few others I met while working in the prisons as a therapist. But they are very, very rare. Even in the prisons, I think I only met at most 3-5 men, of the hundreds of prisoners I knew, that fit the category of a sociopath. Most humans, maybe almost all humans, genuinely want to do good things, and be good people. They might still succumb to their darker instincts, or weigh the benefits of doing things they know are wrong and make unfortunate decisions, but I believe it eats at them—most, but not all of them. 

There are probably libraries of books on why people do good things when we humans so obviously are capable of doing horrible stuff, so I won’t delve too far into that topic here. A quick glance at some of the reasons is worth the effort though. Simply put, for most of us, it simply feels much better for us to think we are doing the right thing. When we do the right thing, we can (and should) feel pride, self-satisfaction, contentment, and recognition of the esteem of others, and at times even joy. When we do the wrong thing, we can (and should) feel some variation on guilt, shame, remorse, grief, regret. The emotional rewards and punishment systems linked to our moral selves do not outright control us (which is why we sometimes do bad things even though we don’t feel good about it), but they offer plenty of incentive and encouragement to give the right choice due consideration.

Where does this leave us with trust? How can we trust others and also have such a dim view of human capacity for awful behavior and motivations? I suggest a balanced perspective that recognizes the very low but nonzero possibility that people do things that might hurt you—knowing that everyone you meet has within them the capacity to do bad things, under the right circumstances, but the kinds of circumstances that would make most people do bad things rarely exist, and since most people want to be good, and do good things, nearly all of the time, people will make the right decision, do the right thing, and be good, most of the time.

For instance, I don’t go shopping assuming everyone I see wants to take my wallet, but I do lock the door to my house and car when I leave them unoccupied and I do keep track of my wallet more than my chewing gum. When I have worked for others, I don’t assume every employer I’ve had wants to steal money from my paycheck, but I did look at my paystubs because there was an HR director at one job that did this very thing (and thankfully went to jail for it). When I drive on the highway, I drive defensively, assuming that most people are making good, rational decisions, that they want to get to their destination safely, but knowing that a few might think they are sober but are not sober enough, that nearly everyone is not holding their phone texting while trying to watch the road, but a few might be. I watch for cars that swerve, and when I see it, I avoid that car. I am just validating what you all do, but I am also being honest, direct, forthright, and very much aware of it. I am never surprised, even if I am very disappointed or even frightened, when I encounter someone doing something that is both obviously wrong and also harmful. I don’t live in fear, but I do live in awareness. I pay attention to the incredible beauty of people reaching for the “better angels of their nature” and acting with integrity (doing the right thing even when no one is watching, or when the consequences will be worse for them). I also pay attention to the ever-present possibility that someone is clouded in their thinking, distracted by mental illness, or other unseen pressures, and then act in ways that are harmful to themselves, both morally and physically, and to others, and I do my best to avoid them, wherever possible. 

I am happy to report that, after having done therapy for almost exactly 20 years now, my estimation of the “goodness” of people has increased dramatically. I had feared at the outset of my therapy career that I might become jaded, fearful, or resigned if I spent all of my time listening to clients tell me the worst they have done. It turns out my fears were unwarranted. I want clients to share their worst. It helps them unburden themselves from being stuck in shame, so I can help them find a way out. But that’s not what we spend most of our time on. We spend much more time talking about their hopes, dreams, wishes, ideas, decisions, and actions toward becoming better versions of themselves, and they do so, repeatedly, with courage, depth, honesty, and strength that I did not and could not have anticipated when I started as a therapist. For this, I am so grateful to be able to be a therapist, and yes, for being part of the human race, despite its many flaws—I get to be part of the struggle to be good, with others, and within myself, as often as I can, and watch so many others doing exactly the same thing. Okay, enough gushing here, time to wrap up!

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.