Are humans basically good?

I’m generally a good person.  I tip 20%, brake for squirrels, rarely use curse words, have never been arrested, etc. Isn’t it funny how often people say that? “I’m a good person, ya know?”  Usually followed, (exactly how I did) by a list of reasons that prove it.

But you know what else people say quite a bit?  “Nobody’s perfect.”  I realize that “perfect” and “good” are not the same word, but it’s interesting to be in a culture where two almost-opposing terms are used more than please and thank you.

Sad box-person

“Is the heart of the human race, basically good?”

I know plenty of people, but since I can’t speak for them, I’ll examine myself on this one.  A friend recently bought me dinner.  We had agreed to go dutch, but she swiped the bill at the last second, and refused to take my money.  Several hours (yes HOURS) later, we got up to leave, and I forgot to thank her.  I, the “good person” had been blessed by my friend, and just completely forgot to feel grateful.  I don’t know what to call that, but the word that comes to mind certainly isn’t “good.”


 [goo d]

adjective, bet·ter, best.

1. morally excellent; virtuous; righteous.

I was not consumed with moral excellence, I was consumed with selfishness.  But since no one was intensely hurt by my actions, or lack thereof, it’s harder to call it “selfishness,” isn’t it?

“Well that’s not THAT bad.  It was a small mistake, more forgetful than malicious.”  But who are we, but a collection of small actions?  And if the heart of the human race is basically good, then making extremely small, good decisions should be a piece of chocolate cake, right?

So driving home, I’m hit with this sense of conviction.  “Phew,” I remind myself, “good thing I’ve never murdered anyone.”  But the second wave of conviction wasn’t far behind!  The underlying reasons I do all these “basically good” acts is self-serving too!  Maybe not 100%, but I don’t think anyone could deny the presence of some selfish influence.  The reason I tip 20%: because I want -and expect- good service, because I want the server to like me, and I want the people I’m with to be impressed with my generosity.

The reason I don’t often curse: because I want to be respected as an intelligent person who can use a wide array of terms to describe situations.  The reason I brake for squirrels?  So I don’t get blood on my car.  How inconvenient would that be?  The reason I’ve never been arrested: (notice I didn’t say committed a crime) is because I have a reputation to uphold.

But nobody’s perfect, right?  Many people in our world today would arguably maintain that if one person’s crimes against another weren’t physical, then it’s not as bad or evil as it could have been.  Stealing a purse isn’t as bad as hitting someone, verbally de-valuing someone isn’t as bad as punching them, raping isn’t as bad as murdering.

Let me ask this, how many people do you know who have been through something physically traumatic at the hand of someone else?  (Beating, raping, abuse, shooting.)  Maybe a few come to mind.  And these few were no doubt greatly affected by these experiences.

Now, how many people do you know who have been through something emotionally or relationally traumatic?  (Divorce, verbal threats, end of a friendship, breakup.)  Ummmm, let’s see, EVERYONE.  You.  Me.  My friend who bought me dinner.

Isn’t it strange that we consider these “little” things we do to one another to be no big deal and just part of life as “basically good” people?  But in reality, these selfish, hurtful things affect everyone we’ve ever met, more often, many could argue, than physical crimes against one another.

Basically, the things that we use as examples of our “goodness” are most often the culprit in dividing friends/lovers/families and causing our own happiness to deteriorate.  The very actions that we offer as proof that make us “not as bad as the people who do such-and-such” are usually the ones giving the “nobody’s perfect” statement its truth.

Less than perfect is, well, IMPERFECT, now isn’t it?  Synonyms include: flawed, deficient, below-par, and defected.  Hmmm.