Arguing Fundamentals – Can Humans be Fundamentally Good?

Last week, the Editor-in-Chief, Mike Graziano, raised the issue of whether or not human beings are fundamentally good or bad.  In doing so, he also sparked an argument with the Assistant Editor of the Opinion section, Tali Zangari:

 

Tali Zangari: Mike, last week when I read your article I had to stop for a minute.  How can you look at the world we’re in, and all the people helping each other, donating money, clothes, and supplies to the needy, and say that humans are not fundamentally good?

 

Mike Graziano: Well that’s not what I was really trying to get at by the main poin of my article.  I do realize I was somewhat all over the place in it.  But what I was really trying to get at is when people are placed in survival situations or are in an enviormentwhen it’s either ou or them;  most people will sacrafice the other person for their own survival.

 

TZ:  But isn’t the point behind that saying that when humans are put into a risky situation they immediately become selfish?  And somehow, I don’t think that’s right.  Looking back into history, although Germany initially allowed Hitler and his Nazi regime to take over, thousands of people risked their lives hiding Jewish people in their homes or smuggling persecuted people out of the county at their own personal risk. Had they just stayed out of it, they would have been safer.  This isn’t being selfish or cruel, is it?

 

MG: No, not really.  People are equally selfish or kind depending on a huge multitude of situations, experiences and teachings.  That all depends on the individual.  What I explained was the fact that anyone, and I mean anyone, who is thrown into a situation where it could be them or someone else; or survival means you have to do things you would never normally do… That is when the animal in us all comes out. And on the flip side of what you said, thousands of people accused their neighbors or pointed out people of being Jews to save themselves, or for the sheer fact that they didn’t like Jews at all.  So that works both ways.

TZ: Mike, there will always be exceptions to every rule.  I think we both need to understand that, but what I, and I’m certain many readers, got out of your article last week was general pessimism towards the human race as a whole, saying that innately, when our instincts take over, we put ourselves first without any other thought to the contrary.  I can come up with thousands of examples proving that wrong.  I do agree that our instincts will allow us or make us do things that we wouldn’t normally do, but these aren’t all terrible things.  In fact, most of our instincts will make us protect our young or our loved ones, regardless of the physical cost to ourselves.

 

MG:  Well of course!  That is your young, your family, your wife or husband…  At the same time of course someone may sacrifice themselves for someone else they love.  But that first part, is an instinct; it is something almost all animals do.  Which is exactly what I was trying to get at, we are animals and we will never get rid of our instincts.  Don’t think of what I wrote as a steel beam.  But rather as aluminum, its flexible.  In the same movie I quoted “The Mist,” there are numerous times when people sacrifice themselves for others or do what you say would be the right thing.  I was framing my thinking about the individual, by themselves, totally separated from any loved ones.

 

TZ:  I’m not denying our being animals.  My issue with the article you wrote is that you didn’t seem to articluate that people can also commit incredible amounts of good at great cost to themselves.  Although our animals instincts tell us to avoid danger, our ability to reason and free will (which along with opposable thumbs, seperate us from animals) can override those instincts and send us straight into danger to help those in need.  For example, in your article you mentioned how so many Katrina victims were overtaken by their instincts, but you neglected to mention the hundreds of people who left work or school, drove across the country, and put themselves in harm’s way to help save and assist complete and perfect strangers.

 

MG: Did you not read what I just wrote?  How can I possibly mention everything, remember a piece of aluminum, not steel.  And when your life is in danger, we, being humans do have free will, but the way we act is so far from that.  Our bodies and instincts take over completely and that free will voice is a lot smaller then it was before your life was threatened.  I never blocked it out; i just chose not to speak about it.  We do amazing things in the face of huge amounts of danger.  But, again, in a specific situation like I said before.  We act differently.

 

TZ:   My point is this: you mention a lot of negative points about instincts and human nature, but you never once pointed out the positive, and since you were kind of downing the entire human race, I felt a little offended. I admit,  people have done truly horrendous things to save themselves.  But in the same light, people have also done incredible things in the same kind of situations, or in the same situations.  Your coverage of the issue was biased and incomplete, however, and that is what I am addressing.  I think that someone needs to stand up and say that fundamentally, whether by instinct or by free will, good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle.  When our instincts take over and we must choose to fight or flee, we then become a little more than the average animal because we are using our free will.  And most of us have nothing to be ashamed of.

 

MG: I know I mention a lot of negative points, twas the intro for the negative side of the human animal (which is what I wrote about, not the positive at all).  But do you think I do not believe that humans will ever do the right thing in dire times for a second? Look at the movies I chose, the books for God’s sakes!  They all have something in them that shows the good in people, and as you said free will; I know people do good things, I just didn’t write about it this time.  You seem to keep ignoring that fact.  And I disagree with your statement, there is no good or bad people, there are just people that do good and bad things depending on a lot of circumstances at the time. So calling what I wrote to be biased is incorrect; and if you think otherwise, I suggest you take a stroll up to the Philosophy department and have a nice long chat with them about it.

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