"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."--Lord Acton.
Lord Acton wrote these words in a letter to Mandell Creighton in 1887 expressing his opposition to the adoption by the Catholic Church in 1870 of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. The observation and its context are worthy of a separate post--at a later time.
Lord Acton's words very quickly became a universally quoted aphorism because they encapsulated so succinctly a truth that was almost universally recognized as accurate. More to the point of today's post, his words could only be accurate if another often heard saying was completely inaccurate: "People are basically good."
If people are basically good, then how could power corrupt? That's a rhetorical question. It couldn't. Power corrupts by removing the fear of retribution and responsibility. That can only mean that power corrupts by allowing a person to show who he is deep down--to act on his most basic impulses.
One occasionally meets people on both sides of the religion question who make statements about believing that people are "basically" good. Some non-believers embrace this notion as part of their non-belief. They reject religion, in part, because they find the idea that people are "born in sin" and psychopaths in need of the threat of divine punishment to be objectionable.
While it is true that the notion that humans are "born in sin" is objectionable on just about every measurement of truth and wisdom, rejecting it in such a visceral manner that one adopts an equally false notion is not a wise thing to do. Accepting falsehoods because of their emotional appeal is what religious people do. It is what deluded people do.
Given that the sinful nature of mankind is such a common tenet of religion, one might be surprised to find believers who think and say the exact same thing. But they exist--in large numbers. Religious people who believe this are often the type who have led sheltered lives in small towns, where they attended private religious schools, public schools where everyone was from the same background, or were home schooled. They were fully immersed in the fantasy that school prayer is meant to foment: The notion that everyone in the U.S. is a Christian just like them. Having spent their whole lives feeling like they were in a cocoon of like minded people, where everyone was a brother or a sister, they have no emotional grasp of the hostility people show toward those outside their perceived group (and sometimes in the group).
I grew up in a heavily protestant area, where man's sinful nature was a given. It was taken for granted that we were all psychopaths held in check only by the threat of god's punishment. Frankly, it was clear to me that the part about inherent evil was true. It was, and is, clear to me that people have bad impulses that they must keep in check using their higher critical faculties. My experiences with humanity in general have left little doubt in my mind about that. I haven't seen or experienced a lot of "goodness" from others, and I don't think my experiences are all that out of the ordinary.
The first few times I heard someone make the assertion that "people are basically good", I was just as astounded as if the person had asserted that people aren't animals. Oh, wait, bad example. People actually do assert that idiotic notion in all seriousness.
Maybe a better example would be comparing it to the assertion that people are immortal or have "real" invisible friends... Wait, those don't work either. I am getting nowhere with this attempt at an analogy because no matter how crazy a notion might be there are people who believe it. Suffice it to say that I thought, and still think, that the notion is patently false. These days, though, I think I have a better understanding of what people mean when they say such things.
The "people are basically good" statements are classic examples of people saying something because of the emotional message inherent in it. In this case, the focus is so completely on the emotional content that the speaker seems to be completely oblivious to the semantic content.
People are basically animals. That is our origin. That is where our most basic impulses come from. It is only in recent evolutionary history that we have developed the capacity to be more. This capacity, however, did not replace our basic animal natures, it merely rests upon that nature and has only a limited capacity to control it.
Among those basic impulses is the instinct for herd behavior. This instinct was necessary for survival during our evolutionary history. It ensured that the individual stayed with those like him and feared (disliked) those not like him. It is in the nature of man to find those different from him to be discomforting--even threatening. Those with sufficient intelligence and character can recognize this phenomenon and overcome it. Others act on it.
It is also in the evolutionary nature of man to strive for status and the rewards it brings. If the core beliefs of your group are questioned--thought to be completely untrue--by another group, that is a threat to the status of your group. A threat to one's status engages the most primitive of our animal instincts and invariably leads to conflict or even violence. That is the reason atheists are targeted for abuse, discrimination and violence.
(I will say this again: If atheists are cantankerous, it is because of the way we have been treated. The mere admission of one's atheism is enough to cause one to be targeted for discriminatory acts that exceed all bounds of decency. I have lived through this personally.)
Another problem with the "people are basically good" nonsense is that those who say it don't really mean it. First, many people seem to take everything personally and when they speak of "people", they seem to really be talking about themselves. But, that is not what the word means. The issue isn't whether "you" are good or not, but whether human nature can be described as good. (Frankly, I have found this to be a warning sign that the person may be pathologically narcissistic. There is no other reason to take everything personally. Inevitably, those who do this turn out to be religious--precisely because they can't separate their ego from the ideas in their head.)
Likewise, the word "basically" is used to mean something other than its literal meaning. It literally means the basic nature of the creature, which in the case of humans means our most nonrational, animalistic urges. Those urges are not, on the whole, good by my morality. If they are by yours, then your morality leaves something to be desired to my way of thinking. What people often mean, however, when they use the word "basically" in this context is: "on the whole" or "underneath it all". Obviously, there is an implicit acknowledgment of evidence to the contrary in the use of such a phrase--or a single word in its place.
So, usually what someone means when he or she says "people are basically good" is: "I am good, underneath it all." This statement, to me, smacks of a guilty conscience trying to defend itself in the face of evidence to the contrary. First, the person felt a need to defend him or herself when there had been no accusation--a clear sign of a guilty conscience. Second, the addition of "underneath it all" implied by the term "basically" is revealing. Obviously this is a reference to some sort of evidence to the contrary--probably the source of that guilty conscience.
An inevitable and perhaps subconsciously intended result of embracing the "people are basically good" philosophy is to implicitly embrace a "blame the victim" philosophy. The (non)thinking goes this way: If a person is good, then when he does a bad thing, it must be because he was provoked or otherwise influenced by external events.
This is, I think, the flip side of believing the idea as a defense mechanism against guilt feelings, just like religion. Believing that "people are basically good" allows the person not only to feel good about himself in spite of the evidence to the contrary. It also allows him to place the blame for his misdeeds on others. In that way, it is often similar to the "motivation equals justification" rationale one often hears from the morally and philosophically challenged and it is likewise a clue regarding the person's internal moral character--or lack thereof.