Born Bad, Why People do Bad Things

(Cross-posted @ Freedom Democrats and Daily Kos)

There is a strong strain among Liberals especially, and Civilized people generally, to believe that we are all born good, and it is our faulty environment that turns us to the dark side. This is not a new concept. It’s been hanging around for some time. And for good reason. Sometimes people really do get “programmed” to do bad things. There is a mountain of evidence that shows children who grow up in abusive households are far more likely to become abusive themselves.

But, is that the way it always works? Is that the only way people become bad? Do people become bad at all? Or, are some people, in fact, born bad?

Barbara Oakley, of the New York Times, argues that we may need to rethink some of our fundamental assumptions about human nature.

Researchers at King’s College London have recently determined that if one identical twin shows psychopathic traits, the other twin, who coincidentally shares precisely the same set of genes, has a very high probability of having the same psychopathic traits. But among fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, the chance that both twins will show psychopathic traits is far smaller. In other words, there is something suspiciously psychopath-inducing in some people’s genes.

And of course, these are just those with the psychopath genes. There are far more gradations of “bad” lurking out there, and most of us harbor some form of them or another. There may even be just as many genes for “badness” as there are for “goodness”, depending upon your particular view of what “bad” actually is.

How do we deal with ourselves if we all carry genes that make us bad? And more over, how do we effectively structure a civilized society?

Certainly by assuming people are good, before they prove to us otherwise, is a humane strategy (akin to the legal “Innocent until proven guilty” stance). But, should we trust ourselves? Government itself (up to a point) is not inherently bad, its the practical reality that Government must be run by PEOPLE that causes the problem. (Same with large corporations.) “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is the refrain. And of course, while that argument is rather simplistic, at the most basic level, it’s true. People kill each-other all the time with a whole myriad of means. It’s in our nature to find fault with those who seem different or don’t fit in somehow with our own perception of the Good, and act violently toward them.

Philosophers have long argued that there is no such thing as a truly virtuous act. That at the deepest of levels, we are all self-serving. Each doing what we must to further our own interests and in the collective further the interests of our species. But, this view has never sat well within the dark caverns of our gut. We prefer to think of ourselves as compassionate, loving, and huddled together against the violence that lurks beyond our understanding.

For the present, let us say that a vast current of suffering impels living beings toward one another and binds them to love each other and seek each other out and strive to complete each other, each one remaining an individual and all others at the same time.”–Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life (pp 229)

We believe this, because we live this. It is the face of our reality. But, it is but one face, one face among many. And it is a failure to forget to watch your back and the backs of others.

The left, though very willing to accept the biological basis for the theory of evolution, is far too often just as antagonistic to the idea of human beings being not much more than a narcissistic talking ape as the Right-wing Christians are. We want to believe, if at the least, that we are more akin to the Bonobo, that sweet docile cousin of ours who spends it’s days touching itself and providing it’s neighbors with pleasure. Not the often violent and homicidal Chimpanzee.

But, alas we are more accurately a combination of the Bonobo and the Chimpanzee, both loving and volatile, sweet and cruel, good and evil. And, we can’t avoid it. Instead we must discover better ways to deal with our mortal natures by approaching them with a clear eye and an inquisitive mind.

We are all born just a little bad, some more than others. Denying this fact can have detrimental repercussions.

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