Are Humans Inherently Good? Or Not?

A recent news story alerted me to a classical distinction between two philosophers, Hobbes and Rousseau. They were diametrically opposed with their views on the basic human condition and the effects of society on that human condition.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was an English philosopher. Hobbes declared that primitive human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to Hobbes, it is civilization that steps in and rescues humanity from our primal depravity. In this view, human nature is a nasty thing that human culture rescues.

The view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) is that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” According to Rousseau humans are naturally and innately good and it is “civilization” that turns man into a “beast.”

So, which is it? It cannot be both, although I suppose a certain amount of gray area is possible. Still, the view of a parent could have implications for parenting based on which view the parents espouses. But, the implications for disciplining a child, for example, can be significant for whichever view a parent believes.

Clearly, in the novel Lord of the Flies, humankind is inherently evil. Without the discipline and instruction provided by society, children would grow into savages that seek to do great evil upon one another (namely, kill them).

But note that these philosophers lived before the time of Carl Jung. From his viewpoint, the apparent dichotomy fades. As children grow, their psyches undergo a process of individuation. Yes, it is true that the ego produces raw desires such as “feed me, feed me” or “that’s pretty, I want that, I need that.” And so on. It’s the uberego (superego, in English, although I despise the name) that looks long term and provides a conscience that suppresses the self-serving desires of ego.

But I think parents have so much more of an influence than society as a whole. It’s not that the British kids got stranded in Lord of the Flies and digressed into savagery because they were separated from society, it is because they were separated from their parents. And it is the parents that provide that inner voice of wisdom, suggesting for example that delayed reward can be much more desirable in the long run than short term satisfaction (the ego is only concerned with the now).

And so yes I would believe that Carl Jung would suggest that children might not be inherently evil and bad as suggested by Hobbes, but that without the guidance of adult parents these children would be constantly pulled by the wild urges that pull at the psyche without the mitigation of consideration of consequences. Remember, the lure of the dark side is powerful.


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