What Makes Men Good?

 

shutterstock_105095180Nothing. If history has taught us anything, it is that mankind excels at doing bad while pretending to be noble and otherwise.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but the last century has proved beyond doubt that human beings are not getting better. In fact, the opposite has occurred: we’ve regressed. The myth of progress be damned and forgotten evermore. Sure the last century saw many positive examples of growth – technology and applied science come to mind. And, yes, this growth has been at an unprecedented level too – since 1915 we have had the invention or upgrading of planes, automobiles, vaccines, indoor plumbing, freezers, dishwashers, modern medical advances such as the heart transplant and chemotherapy, television, radio, mobile phones, satellites, and the computer. I could go on and on, but I shall stop where I am. Human technology and its use has been a definite benefit.

But the story of the last century encompasses much more then the good uses of technology. it also saw the rise of three totalitarian threats (the legacies of which are still with us), which nearly wiped out all life on earth; two unbelievably destructive great world wars; genocides (I use the plural because even in our “enlightened age” they occur still); mass torture; starvation; a Cold War (that included multiple actual wars); the unleashing of political tyrannies never seen before, whose great claim was making many of their subjects never to be seen again; the rise of police states to a level Orwell could not envision; biological warfare; chemical warfare; poison gas; gulags; concentration camps; the emergence of religious violence and the deaths of 200 million people. More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up until that point.

So why do people seem to think we are improving, that our better angels are calling us home? Many of our secular liberal/libertarian friends seem to think it: Stephen Pinker and Michael Shermer both have written books on the subject. Of course, they are wrong – and the reason can be seen or stated very simply by reference to human history and, more particularly, human nature. Jews and Christians both acknowledge the profound corruption of human nature. Many pagans, who realized the harsh fact that human beings are not good, historically did the same. The very idea that people are good, which is believed by many on the left, is an Enlightenment fantasy dreamed up in 18th century France. It is a very young and wrong idea.

There is a great Russian story about human nature (which Thomas Sowell mentions in his great Dismantling America book):

There is an old Russian fable, with different versions in other countries, about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them was that Boris had a goat and Ivan didn’t. One day, Ivan came upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubbed it, a genie appeared. She told him that she could grant him just one wish, but it could be anything in the world.

Ivan said, “I want Boris’ goat to die.”

There are variations of that story in many other cultures across time and space. What it lacks in narrative it gains in telling us something profound about human nature. That we have in us something very bad, despite the fact that we’re capable of goodness.

The really odd thing is that the myth of progress – the idea that human beings are getting better and more humane and kind— is beginning to come back with force in liberal mind. No matter the evidence to the contrary, people still return to it. This could be very dangerous. Those who fail to learn lessons from history are doomed to repeat it. And none of us want to see the 20th century repeated. I don’t, anyway. God willing and hopefully…

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  1. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    I heartily agree, and I am curious about how the more libertarian of our fellows feel about your thesis.  This strikes me as the central idea of true conservatism.

    • #1
  2. user_1100855 Member
    user_1100855
    @PaddySiochain

    Thanks. Too many libertarians are libertines on too many issues for me Lucy, its a real problem. For all  them and us.

    • #2
  3. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    The difference today is that we’ve added hypocrisy to the mix. We’re much, much better at pretending the progress has taken place and hiding the truth from the view of others. At least when we had a stronger religious ethic in the world we owned up to the problem.

    • #3
  4. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @PainterJean

    I had a conversation here on Ricochet wherein a poster said that he thought people were becoming less likely to follow false philosophies, that Western Civilization was winning everywhere, and that people were getting better. I disagreed, and mentioned reading St. Augustine’s Confessions  while leaving atheism, and being struck by how humans were the same —  prior to that I had been guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”.

    People mistake advances in technology for advances in human affairs. And there’s certainly progress if one uses primitive man as a comparative, or conflates cultural adherence to the moral code given by  the Judeo/Christian tradition with human change. This is more likely to be found in liberal and libertarian circles, probably because of the secularism in those camps.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    It’s not a question of WHAT makes men good, but WHO makes men good.  Married, devoted parents, one of each sex.

    • #5
  6. Devereaux Inactive
    Devereaux
    @Devereaux

    And FAITH, RB49. Yes, you need families. But you need a binding culture, and that comes from faith.

    Paddy speaks of all the atrocities of the 20th century. They are ALL the result of aetheistic ideas of the supremacy of Man – a wholly laughable idea. Yet it persists. Part of it comes from progress in science, which is equated with Man’s rise in status. Yet the lesson of “smart people being entirely too stupid to run things” never seems to get through the smart people’s skulls.

    • #6
  7. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @SaintAugustine

    Liberals and conservative both like to say that their ideas are vindicated by history.  I suggest the following thesis for the consideration of the Ricochetti.

    When conservatives say their ideas are vindicated by history, they are looking to the past as confirmation from experience that their ideas are correct.

    When liberals say their ideas are vindicated by history, they are looking to the future in which they assume that nearly everyone will come to agree with them.

    • #7
  8. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Lucy Pevensie:I am curious about how the more libertarian of our fellows feel about your thesis. This strikes me as the central idea of true conservatism.

    I resemble that remark. A few comments out of the gate on where I agree with my fellow conservatives:

    1. I believe wholeheartedly that mankind has a fallen nature and defaults to selfishness, meanness, manipulation, and violence.
    2. I believe that this nature is highly resistant to change and that we have more in common than not with our ancestors.
    3. I do not believe that mankind is perfectible. There is no utopia on the horizon.
    • #8
  9. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Did you answer your own question? (Assuming that was your title and not the editor’s.)

    How is there any good in the world if every single person is inherently wicked? Even if one assumes humans are inherently wicked, it seems to be a very weak kind of wicked that is easily changed for the vast majority of people brought up in (classically) liberal surroundings.

    Why do you think libertarians see accepted morality as getting better? See if you can answer it without calling libertarians naive. Hint: It has nothing to do with technological progress. That’s just an analogy.

    • #9
  10. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Now, that said, here’s where I gather we disagree.

    1. I do not agree that moral innovation ended in either 34AD or 1776. You say we’re guilty of projecting our moral standards on the past; I think you’re too dismissive of the incredible moral progress made in the past.

    To whatever extent slavery exists today, it pales in comparison to what came before; if there’s a civilized age with less of it — or when the practice was held in such wide contempt — I’d like to hear about it. Same goes for the beliefs that petty disputes should be mediated, rather than solved through vendetta and blood feud. The de facto acceptance that men should be free and unmolested has, similarly, never been in greater vogue.

    Yes, things are still a mess and, yes, it could collapse again. But compared to the historical baseline, we’re doing pretty well.

    • #10
  11. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Now, as to some points where we disagree:

    Paddy Siochain: Sure the last century saw the growth in many positive ways – technology and applied science come to mind – at an unprecedented level too – since 1915 we have had the invention or upgrading of planes, automobiles, vaccines, creation of more university labs, indoor plumbing, freezers, dishwashers, modern medical advances such as the heart transplant and chemotherapy, television, radio, mobile phones, satellites, and the computer to say the least. I could go on and on but I shall stop where I am. Human technology and its use has increased for definite.

    2. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the moral dimension entirely from technology. This example is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, but there’s a very strong argument that the abolition of slavery had more to do with the invention of steam and water-powered industrial devices than with moral suasion. It simply became cheaper and more economically efficient to build a machine than to enslave dozens of one’s fellow man.

    Or as one humble Ricochet editor put it:

    • #11
  12. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Paddy Siochain: More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up till that point.

    I have great difficultly believing that. Citation?

    • #12
  13. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    3. It’s one thing to say that human nature is ugly, resistant to change, and that efforts to build utopia on earth will all fail miserably. It’s quite another to say that it’s absolutely fixed.

    • #13
  14. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    Posts like this puzzle me. I remember a similar one a year or so ago along the lines of the country going to hell in an hand basket.

    My question to folks that accept this thesis- if we really are disgusting dogs (no offense to dogs who on the whole are fun, loyal, and friendly) and we are not improving, why fight against our nature? 100 or 1000 years of depravity is either a reason to turn the page and try and improve, or excuse to wallow in the much. But you have to choose and live your life accordingly. I find the observation that we are fallen to be only the first half of the sentence. I’m curious to hear you complete of the phrase “man is fallen and therefor…”

    • #14
  15. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Paddy, what about Adam Smith’s observation in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” that men “not only desire to be loved but to be lovely”?

    What makes people behave?  Not laws, certainly.  Otherwise, the crime rate would be 0.  But why do we see the crime rate decreasing?  A lot of reasons could be cited, but in all reality we have a society full of people who generally follow the law.  Why is that?

    Smith’s observation, of course, that there is prior restraint built into us in the form of our conscience which generally precludes people from breaking the law in the form of “hurting people” or “taking their stuff.”

    We desire to be loved and to be lovely.  Rare is the person whose moral compass is so malformed that this doesn’t take precedence over the crass cost/benefit analysis of “how much would it take for me to sacrifice my scruples?”

    • #15
  16. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Paddy, a question:

    Assume you had both a time machine and a garuntee of access to the best of modern medicine for you and your loved ones (I’m attempting to remove the technological factor). What wiser, better age would you have preferred to live in?

    • #16
  17. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Paddy Siochain: More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up till that point.

    I have great difficultly believing that. Citation?

    The 200 million number is a little hard to swallow as well.

    • #17
  18. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Mark Boone:When conservatives say their ideas are vindicated by history, they are looking to the past as confirmation from experience that their ideas are correct.

    When liberals say their ideas are vindicated by history, they are looking to the future in which they assume that nearly everyone will come to agree with them.

    I think you forgot to include “[[drops mic.]]”

    That was awesome, sir.

    • #18
  19. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    It seems to me that what makes this post conservative is more the question it asks, than the answer it gives.  Only conservatives ask whether mankind is good or bad (fallen).  Lefties never ask that question.  Lefties try to devise a utopian civilization in which it does not matter whether man is good or bad, because individual men are given no choices in how they behave.  Everything that is not mandatory is forbidden.  There you have it – the essence of the leftist enterprise in one sentence.  A Utopia where everything that is not mandatory is forbidden.  

    As for my own conservative self, I fully accept that man is a mixture of good and bad, of noble and debased, of heroic and evil.  That’s just how it is.  Obviously.  And I’m fine with that.

    I’m also fine with the equally obvious fact that the “nature” of man will not change, absent millions of years of evolution or divine intervention.

    Thus, as a true conservative, I believe that the best we can do is to make things a little better with each generation.  Give more freedom to more people.  Improve the quality of their lives.  Discourage assault, murder, rape, and theft.  Judged by that metric, it seems to me that the United States has made progress at home, and spread those values to many other places in the world.  No Utopia in sight (thank God), but I’ll take the progress we have made with gratitude.

    • #19
  20. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Tom Meyer, Ed.

    Paddy, a question:

    Assume you had both a time machine and a garuntee of access to the best of modern medicine for you and your loved ones (I’m attempting to remove the technological factor). What wiser, better age would you have preferred to live in?

    Any one where there was such a thing as honor and a whole lot less of this:

    It’s actually a question as to whether or not those people will again hold the reins of power in this nation…and we’re the [expletive] as far as the advancement of the human condition and civilization go. Sure, there are plenty of counterfactuals about humanity getting better and better, but if we can’t get over the exceptionally low hurdle of the Clintons we’re just blind squirrels on a lucky streak.

    • #20
  21. user_1100855 Member
    user_1100855
    @PaddySiochain

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Paddy, a question:

    Assume you had both a time machine and a garuntee of access to the best of modern medicine for you and your loved ones (I’m attempting to remove the technological factor). What wiser, better age would you have preferred to live in?

    There is no perfect age, I just want people to be honest about our moral failings and not pretend because we live in the 21st century that we are better than those who came before.

    • #21
  22. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    My daughter was a born with a genetic disorder that, if she’d been born just 2 decades previous, she’d have died.  But she didn’t die.  She was diagnosed and treated and now is as normal as any 15 year old.

    BOOM!

    World=Better Place

    You can focus your thoughts on the negative crap that goes on, or the positive.  Of course bad things still happen in the world.  Of that there is no doubt.  There is still evil in the world  But there are a lot of great things that happen in the world, too.

    • #22
  23. Ricochet Moderator
    Ricochet
    @DougWatt

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Paddy Siochain: More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up till that point.

    I have great difficultly believing that. Citation?

    Majestyk:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Paddy Siochain: More people died in the 20th century from secular regimes than all the wars in history up till that point.

    I have great difficultly believing that. Citation?

    The 200 million number is a little hard to swallow as well.

    200 million deaths in the 20th century is not beyond the realm of possibility. One might want to follow the link to this website.

    All change is not necessarily progress. When men become gods conscience becomes whim. I will not dispute the fact that some men have great minds and that there have been great scientific achievements in the 20th century, but reason is not just confined to science. Scientists are just as willing to rationalize when they comment on matters outside their area of expertise just as the non-scientist is.

    • #23
  24. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Paddy Siochain:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Paddy, a question:

    Assume you had both a time machine and a garuntee of access to the best of modern medicine for you and your loved ones (I’m attempting to remove the technological factor). What wiser, better age would you have preferred to live in?

    There is no perfect age, I just want people to be honest about our moral failings and not pretend because we live in the 21st century that we are better than those who came before.

    We’re not inherently better, but we’ve developed better morals. We have the benefit of proliferated moral technology that our predecessors didn’t have as widely available.

    I think most of this disagreement can be attributed to semantics or reading too much into what others are saying.

    • #24
  25. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Here is a novel thought: some people are good, some people are evil, most people are in between. That’s the way it has always been and will always be.

    If you think of it in terms of economic incentives, there are more incentives to be good today than ever before. Therefore, humanity in general is more good than it has been. If the economy goes to hell, some of these incentives to be good will disappear and more evil will come out of the wood work.

    • #25
  26. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Did you want to ask, in your title, “What Makes Man Good”?  Did you mean our species?

    If that’s the case, I think the question is invalid.  Only individual people can be good.  And many are, in individual circumstances.  And many want to be.  And many try to be.  We all have finite strength, finite intelligence, finite knowledge, finite tenacity, a finite capacity for good, a finite capacity for bad, and some of us just seem to be bad apples.

    I’m not sure I agree entirely with your calculus, either.  Not every death in WWII, e.g., was an evil death.  Even if there were evil choices and actions on both sides of the conflict, in sum, our side was good and the other side was evil.  And our side had to kill them to stop them.  There was no alternative available to us that allowed liberty and life for everyone on Earth.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Paddy Siochain: What Makes Men Good?

    So, an easy question then…

    • #27
  28. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Paddy Siochain:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:Paddy, a question:

    Assume you had both a time machine and a garuntee of access to the best of modern medicine for you and your loved ones (I’m attempting to remove the technological factor). What wiser, better age would you have preferred to live in?

    There is no perfect age, I just want people to be honest about our moral failings and not pretend because we live in the 21st century that we are better than those who came before.

    I didn’t say “perfect”; I said “better.” Given that you wrote:

    Paddy Siochain: [T]he last century has proved beyond doubt that human beings are not getting better, in fact the opposite has occurred: we’ve regressed.

    …I took you to mean that we were once better than we are now. If I’m reading you right — I don’t see how I’m not — I’d like to know when and where you thought life was better.

    • #28
  29. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    raycon and lindacon
    @rayconandlindacon

    FightinInPhilly:Posts like this puzzle me. I remember a similar one a year or so ago along the lines of the country going to hell in an hand basket.

    My question to folks that accept this thesis- if we really are disgusting dogs (no offense to dogs who on the whole are fun, loyal, and friendly) and we are not improving, why fight against our nature? 100 or 1000 years of depravity is either a reason to turn the page and try and improve, or excuse to wallow in the much. But you have to choose and live your life accordingly. I find the observation that we are fallen to be only the first half of the sentence. I’m curious to hear you complete of the phrase “man is fallen and therefor…”

    … as a creation of God, he cannot be whole without the redemption that his Creator has provided.  It is not that man continually does evil, it is that man cannot do good without the taint of evil that pollutes his soul.  It is here that the term “sinful nature” get’s it’s meaning.  It is that nature, rather than individual acts, which defines our need for God’s provision.

    • #29
  30. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    I’ve got the left telling me that because I am male, I’m a potential rapist.  Because I’m white, I’m a racist.  Because I’m not poor, I have more than my fair share.  Because I have a car I’m raping the environment.

    Then from the right, I hear that I’m a wicked wretch because I’m human.  I don’t know how anybody can stand my company.

    • #30

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