Are people inherently good?
Megumi Tamura | Thursday, May 6, 2021
I don’t see enough movies to be able to watch the Oscars and actually follow along, but I did see a video floating around social media on the night of the Oscars of Chloé Zhao making her speech after winning best director for her film “Nomadland.” Besides the incredible fact that this made Chloé Zhao the first Asian woman to ever win an Oscar for best director, I was also moved by her acceptance speech, in which she recited a quote from a classic Chinese poem that translates to “people at birth are inherently good.”
As I reflect back on my first year of college, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about these words. With everything that has happened within the past year — from a global pandemic that has taken millions of lives, to a summer of protest for racial justice, to a presidential election, to a rise in acts of violence against Asian Americans, while beginning to experience college in the midst of it all — this year has been a lot. There’s been so much bad — so much to be angry, heartbroken and upset about — but there has also been good — moments that have made me see the goodness of human nature in my family, friends, community and complete strangers. Within this rollercoaster of emotions — of good and bad, of joy and sadness — I thought I would write my last column of the year on a question I’ve found myself contemplating: Are people inherently good?
This question is, of course, one that has been thought about and discussed among theologians and philosophers for centuries. In philosophy, there’s Thomas Hobbes on one hand, saying humans in their most natural state are immoral, brutish and self-interested; while, on the other hand, Rousseau stated that human nature is moral, gentle and pure. Does our naturally bad nature necessitate society and government, or is it society and government that corrupt our natural goodness?
Aristotle believed humans are not immoral or moral, but amoral from birth. He said we are naturally rational beings who have the choice and ability to develop moral and intellectual virtue. John Locke and Sigmund Freud supported the theory of tabula rasa, which states humans are a “blank slate” at birth, and their nature is molded by their social environments.
This seemingly philosophical and abstract question has even entered into the scientific realm, with experiments that test our inherent nature by studying human instincts and cooperation. All of these different beliefs, theories and studies still haven’t provided an explicit answer that’s guaranteed to satisfy everyone. Yet this question is important to consider in the midst of a world that sometimes feels full of evil, injustice, corruption and unkindness.
This is where I turn to my reflections of the past year in order to examine this question. In what felt like a bizarre and, at times, unfortunate year to start my college career, I can recall countless times where I’ve seen the good. Whether it was small moments of laughter with my friends in the Gateway Program as we trekked the infamous Holy Hike along Dorr Road, quiet nights on the 10th floor of the library surrounded by other students and feeling like we were all struggling together, receiving kind and encouraging emails from people who read my Viewpoint columns, seeing how passionate students are about making the world a better place, calling my family and feeling my heart warm with love for them, or texting my friends back home and seeing all of their achievements and adventures, I’m convinced that people have a capacity to be and do good.
Even nationally, seeing a vaccine be developed in record time and offer a glimmer of hope for the end of this pandemic, viewing the largest movement in U.S. history of people across the nation and globe protesting police brutality and racial injustice, and seeing one of the highest voter turnouts in the U.S. in more than a century, has all solidified my belief in the human capacity for good. Just as easy as it is to say people are selfish and nasty, this year has made me learn that people are also selfless, kind and decent.
Maybe we as human beings are not inherently good. Maybe we are. Maybe we’re a mix of good and bad. Perhaps human nature is too complex and complicated a thing to place it on a dichotomy of good and bad. I don’t know if there’ll ever be an answer that will convince everyone, but I do know that we as humans at least have a capacity for good. As I finish up my first year of college, I want to remember this lesson and let it influence how I see the world and how I see myself. Regardless of whether we are inherently good or bad, we have a potential for good. It’s up to us to access that good.
Megumi Tamura is a first-year in the Gateway Program. She is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys going to museums, watching political debates and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.