Last Quarter Topic: Are Humans Inherently Good or Evil?For the last quarter each year I choose a controversial topic since students are working on refining their argumentation skills. We are...

Last Quarter Topic: Are Humans Inherently Good or Evil?

For the last quarter each year I choose a controversial topic since students are working on refining their argumentation skills.

We are reading Huckleberry Finn, which will tie into this nicely, but I also bring in History, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy etc...on this end-of-the-year topic.

It seems to me that I'm finding a TON of information proving humans evil (Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Study, Nazis, Genocide) but I am definitely struggling in trying to find information proving humans GOOD! (Sad, isn't it!!)  I am finding individual instances such as charity and volunteer work, everyday citizens that have saved a life, etc...but am finding it harder to find BIG instances on the same scale as the big ones I listed for evil.

If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

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mstultz72's profile pic

mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

We do a literary and morality mock trial using Camus' The Stranger, "The Guest," and "The Myth of Sisyphus."  Instead of humans being evil or good (it's easy just to qualify that one), we put the universe on trial:

Is the universe benevolent or absurd?

or

Is the natural world sensate or insensate?

It's a nice way to do existential questioning without hitting too many religious hot buttons.  The results are eye opening for the students.  They turn into little philosophers in no time.

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

We actually discussed something similar in class quite a while ago, and I don't know that it will really work for your debate.  But one of the things that shows both positive and negative about people is how people react to being on a battlefield.  You can find all kinds of specific incidents of individual behaviors where someone sacrifices their life to save others (read a brief account of the battle on Iwo Jima in WWII) even others whom they barely know, and you can also find accounts of incredible cruelty and barbarism by those involved.

You can also find group actions like the rather large groups of soldiers that observed an informal truce on Christmas during both WWI and WWII and promptly went back to trying to kill each other afterwards.

Again, I think many of these stories and examples provide evidence for both sides, and often right on top of one another.  But your question made me think of it so I thought I'd share.

scarletpimpernel's profile pic

scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

My students and I discuss this issue every year in class, not just in my AP Lang. class but also in my English 3 (American Lit.) class.  What I have found is that many students' inclination is to argue that they believe mankind is inherently good, but then they struggle immensely to support their claim in a logical manner. 

In regards to post #6, I would find it very difficult to steer them away from using religious examples because the very topic addresses the core of all worldviews and religions.  I teach a very diverse group of students, but I try not to force them to divorce their philosophy (which for many of them is a religion) from their argument.  If you don't want them to support with religious examples, I would contend that this is  not the best topic for avoiding religion.

Just a note on many of the examples of humans being inherently good listed above--most of those examples stem from humans trying to correct the evil of other humans (Civil Rights Movement, Suffrage, Liberation of Concentration Camps, etc.).  Perhaps a more powerful example would lie in average humans who live each day doing something for others (similar to #8).

While I do agree that bad news sells better than good, my students always counter that by questioning why we seem so surprised when someone becomes a martyr, sacrifices his/her life for another, etc.  They contend that if we are truly inherently good, those "good" actions should not seem surprising or rare.  As you can see, my students give me a lot to think about!

hero5's profile pic

hero5 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

The first thing that sprung to my mind about humans being inherently good would be all of the people who choose careers that are service oriented wherein the return is less than what they give. I do not know if there are any studies on this but surely there would be. I am thinking of teaching (of course), nursing, really any kind of philanthropy. Of course society could always use more people willing to do this, but it seems like the number of people in these careers is growing, not dwindling.

charcunning's profile pic

charcunning | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted on

Abolition! Suffrage! Civil Rights!

Thanks!! These will definitely work, and they meet the criteria of "group efforts" of good!

I knew if I asked on here I'd get help!

I want to steer away from the religious things because I have a pretty diverse class in terms of religion--Muslim, Mormon, Christian and Catholic--and finding something of each would be hard--also, when you talk about religion it's easier to find more bad than good too sometimes!

Thanks everyone! :)

timbrady's profile pic

timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

Although it may not seem "modern," you might want to read Butler's "Lives of the Saints."  (http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/lots/index.htm)  There are many stories of heroism and self-sacrifice in their stories and, taken collectively, the offer a very positive view of what good we are capable of.  Another wonderful example took place in the very concentration camp you alluded to above.  Fr. Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, offered his life in place of another who had a family.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Kolbe).  Although he is only one person that I am aware of, I have heard many stories of similar kindness in these most horrible circumstances.  You might also want to read a book by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Walter Ciszek. "With God in Russia."  It is an incredible story of suffering and heroism in the Gulag.

I'm not sure that these are not on the scale you are looking for, but they are impressive and speak to the goodness we are capable of.  It is interesting that evil tends to take over and do harm on a gigantic scale and that good often works more quietly, but just as effectively.  But even St. Paul was aware of our tendency toward evil:  "The good that I would do, I do not; the evil I would not do, that I do."  Our nature always seems to find evil easier; but there is much heroism in the world that testifies that good is possible.

(I am sorry if all my references are to religious people/events, but I am most familiar with these since I have heard them since I was a kid.  There are many other examples from many other areas of our experience.)

dbello's profile pic

dbello | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

Last Quarter Topic: Are Humans Inherently Good or Evil?

For the last quarter each year I choose a controversial topic since students are working on refining their argumentation skills.

We are reading Huckleberry Finn, which will tie into this nicely, but I also bring in History, Sociology, Psychology, Philosophy etc...on this end-of-the-year topic.

It seems to me that I'm finding a TON of information proving humans evil (Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Study, Nazis, Genocide) but I am definitely struggling in trying to find information proving humans GOOD! (Sad, isn't it!!)  I am finding individual instances such as charity and volunteer work, everyday citizens that have saved a life, etc...but am finding it harder to find BIG instances on the same scale as the big ones I listed for evil.

If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

It is an unfortunate reality that we can always find more information regarding the lowest of the human experience faster than the highest of the human experience. The bottomline, bad, evil, negative anything finds its way into the popular mainstream much faster than the good, compassionate, and positive. An interesting societal topic in and of itself. To address your topic, The Enlightement philosophy (intellectual) led to the philosophy of Humanism, both of which are rooted in the goodness of humanity, and the potential to do good as opposed to evil.  Furthermore,The United States is a nation that is firmly rooted in the tradition of reform. Reform by definition is the act of raising the quality of life for those less fortunate. Temperance, Abolition, Suffrage, Free Education, All of those who sacrificed their lives to liberate Europe (not just Americans), Those who fought for Civil Rights, Alcolohics Anonomous, Project Head Start (much of these actions funded by the American people, either by taxation or donation, donation dollars usually surpass taxation). There is a great deal of good within the human experience, unfortunately the late 20th century mentality has highlighted the 'bad of the human experience because it sells more newspapers than the good'...something to think about.

cburr's profile pic

cburr | Middle School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

This isn't an academic citation or anything, but I would say the mere fact that the vast majority of humans commit themselves to raising their offspring -- and in many cases doing so with love and sacrifice -- supports the 'good' hypothesis.

You could argue that widespread adherence to religion supports the idea that humans are fundamentally good, although that argument could be turned around to say that humans need the threat of damnation to resist evil impulses.

sandybakke's profile pic

sandybakke | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

Detrick Bonhoeffer (Luthren pastor), Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Catholic) stood up to Hitler's third Riech in spite of the consequences. Corrie ten Bloom and her entire family risk everything to help hide and protect Jews. She was the only survivor.

Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, certainly has worked hard to help build school for girls inremote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Excellent book.

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