Are we innately good or bad?


How a train car reminded me of cruelty and caring

So I just got to Vancouver for a week-long sustainability conference. The first thing that hit me as I climbed up to the Sky Train was, thankfully, not a messy present from the apparently perpetually-circling seagulls. No, it was a memory and a thought about good and evil.

You see, my friend Jon wrote a great one-man show called Big Shot that zooms in and out of a shooting on the Sky Train. You meet all these characters that are part of this moment on the train, and start to feel less and less comfortable calling any of them “innocent” bystanders.

All of them have acted in morally ambiguous ways leading up to that instant, from a cop profiling people on the street to an old Japanese man pickpocketing from people he feels victimized by.

What the play said to me is that it’s incredibly easy for our moral order to be ripped away by one disruptive event, and that it doesn’t make sense to call people good or evil. The truth is that we’re all capable of both.

We’re capable of killing — violently, cruelly — but we’re also capably of building something new, of deep caring and altruism, as long as it makes sense to us. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight, think of the climax where the Joker gives two ferries full of passengers a bomb and a choice.

One is full of prisoners, the other is full of ordinary citizens. Both are given the switch that will detonate a bomb on the other boat. And they’re told that if one of them doesn’t press the button, they’ll both be blown up. I won’t give away what happens, but it shouldn’t surprise you that the passengers on each ferry start to seriously discuss the worth of the lives on the other.

Within a matter of minutes, a boat full of “good” people and a boat full of “bad” are both struggling to make their choice.

We could have a whole other discussion about how to define “good.” For right now I’ll leave that to my friend Dan the philosopher and say I mean something that’s generally useful to the community’s health and well-being and either helpful or not overly harmful to an individual.

What our political leaders think we’re capable of

Unfortunately, if you were to ask most of our political parties whether people are naturally good or bad, the honest ones would answer, “Bad, of course!”

Almost all of our laws and regulations are based on the worldview that people have inherently bad tendencies that must be tempered and restricted.

I’m not just talking about the logic behind the federal Conservatives’ strategy of answering crime with the threat of more and more severe mandatory jail time. You can also see this in the way we think about pollution. We assume that industries will pollute as much as they can get away with, so we set caps on emissions and runoff. Maximums.

Markets are mostly designed the opposite way: to harness people’s tendencies to want to consume, make a profit, and invest, and to channel that motivation to some desired end. The way this is structured in most societies ends up making some of us very rich and some of us very poor, of course.

But what if we took some lessons from this way of thinking, to positively harness our motivations?

Giving force multipliers to good

How can we reinforce and encourage the “good” things we’re capable of? What would that look like when city councillors sit together under a big glass pyramid and come up with policies?

What about setting a minimum threshold for a lumber mill to make their river healthier? It’s not so unreasonable to imagine a world where we have minimum quotas for the health and diversity of the species living in the river they sit beside.

What about setting up matching grants for business owners and residents who have an idea to make their neighbourhood more attractive with a new awning or some new benches?

Actually, that second idea has already worked in cities like Seattle and Portland, and a couple years ago Edmonton’s City Council was kicking around the same proposal.

I wrote a story about it at the time, when Councillor Janice Melnychuk set up a community investment fund for projects like that in Alberta Avenue. At the time, she was hoping that people living and working in the area would come up with proposals for things like public arts projects and new streetlamps. I haven’t had a chance to follow up with it since, and I’d be very interested to see where it’s at now.

What do you think? Does moving away from punishment-centred thinking mean encouraging hooliganism? What do you think we naturally are?

2 thoughts on “Are we innately good or bad?

  1. This is a great, thoughtful post.

    You pose an interesting question, and one that, given your premises here, makes sense. However, I’d like to engage with some of those premises and see if they hold up to a little bit of poking around.

    You write about “positively harness[ing] our motivations.” This is a noble sentiment, to be sure! The overall sentiment of your argument in this piece seems to be, “if we could manipulate the direction and affects of our motivations such that we humans acted in a generally healthy way (rather than a destructive way), then perhaps the punishment-based logic of our moral-judicial system would not be necessary.”

    My thought here is that we ought not to paint our moral-juidical concept of punishment with too broad of a brush. There are different ways of deploying and understanding punishment that can mean significantly different things both to punishers and to those who are punished.

    For example: do we punish to create a long-lasting feeling of guilt in the person being punished? Or, is punishment more of a reflexive reaction to something not going the way we’ve envisioned it going? Imagine that my cat bites my hand, and that in response I thwack him solidly and push him off the couch. This is punishment, surely, but not of the sort that intends to create a long-term feeling of guilt in my cat.

    My cat, too, does not modify his behaviour because he feels guilty about what he has done, feels bad for my wounded hand and the pain he has caused me. But, he does realize that, as a result of his chosen course of action, something has gone wrong. The world has responded in such a way that is not conducive to the continued health, success and happiness of my cat. He may, thus, modify his behaviour in order to elicit better results the next time around.

    While in both situations, the effect is the same (my cat will likely not scratch me again), the evaluations behind both ideas of punishment are radically different.

    Deleuze, reading Nietzsche, writes about “culture as training.” The logic here is that the moral, political and social formative influences of culture do have a proper role; to train individuals under its purview such that it is no longer necessary. Train members until they are trained well enough to act well without constant supervision and behavioral discipline. Much in the same way that I “train” my cat that the world does not respond productively to errant scratches, culture in its healthy, “proper” role trains those it influences what the world will, and will not respond productively to.

    Of course, the sort of “training” a culture will provide can depend crucially on the foundation of that culture’s evaluations of the world. If a culture’s evaluatory foundations are not in line with “reality” (ie. with what will really work, with what will really go well in the world, in robust, natural, complex systems), then it will train those it influences in quite unnatural ways. At the same time, “reality” will not support the unreal moral, political, social and scientific evaluations of that culture, and the two (the “culture” and “reality”) will emerge at odds with one another.

    In these circumstances, culture’s role will no longer be to exhaust itself, to work itself out of a job; because it is out of step with “reality,” it will have nothing to give way to. It disagrees with what it (properly) should have been striving towards: the production of a society that is trained to act in step with “reality,” with nature and those approaches to the world that will really work, that will really turn out well and be successful and productive. Because of this disagreement, it has to sustain itself indefinitely.

    Enter guilt! Guilt is also an effective way of modifying behaviour, but it leaves a lasting, affecting nametag along with it. A criminal in society who has been made to feel guilty because of a crime may well not commit that crime again; but it will not be because the criminal learned that his actions were not in step with reality and his cultural training. Instead, the criminal will modify his behaviour because he cannot make up for what he has done, and thus will fall in line with his culture because of a desire to repay.

    Anyone who has ever dealt will feelings of guilt before knows that they are next to impossible to get rid of, even after innumerable attempts at material or emotional repayment to the one you feel guilty towards. Guilt, in this sense, can be a paralyzing experience. The same is true of the criminal’s guilt; it is nearly impossible to repay, and will stay with him for a long time, and will affect him in unforseen and perhaps castrating ways. Guilt is the tool of the unnatural culture, that trains its members until it realizes that it cannot let go.

    It’s probably quite clear which evaluation of punishment I am in favour of: the former. Of course, we are not cats, but neither does this mean that guilt must necessarily be the driving force behind our culture’s use of punishment. I do think that punishment has a role in our culture and the way that it trains its members, but I also think that we have to be very clear what we intend to use punishment for. We must also be very careful about the sort of training our culture aspires to provide its citizens.

    The war on drugs is a particularly (and unfortunately) real example. Over the past decade we have seen an increasingly large body of evidence build up suggesting that our current methods of controlling drug use and economics have failed miserably, and that substantially different approaches (ie. decriminalization, focus on treatment and harm reduction; see Portugal’s decriminalization case) are more effective than the culture of guilt surrounding drug use that has been propagated in the past century or so.

    Many of these “radical” approaches to drug policy are based on, as I used the word before, “reality.” There is empirical evidence of their effectiveness, especially in contrast to the unreal, ideologically-stubborn politics of current drug policy in North America. If our culture had spent the past 50 years “training” us to understand drug use in these ways, rather than the unreal and naturally-unsupported evaluations of drug use many of us still hold today, then I wonder where our society’s drug problems would be?

    tl;dr Great post, but I’m skeptical that “punishment” is a monolith that must be done away with entirely. I think it can be useful in achieving the very goals you’ve laid out in your post; but that usefulness depends on thinking very critically on the desired AFFECT of punishment, as well as the sort of cultural training we are hoping to achieve that found and support our use of punishment. We must remain firmly attached to a critical, empirical and scientific notion of “reality,” and set aside our more reactionary moral sensibilities, if we are to train ourselves successfully.

  2. Well, to your eloquent argument, I have to agree that punishment shouldn’t automatically be excluded as a behaviour modification tool. You already know I think guilt is a poor motivator because it’s externally driven. That’s kind of along the lines of what you mention, about it needing constant cultural reinforcement of how terrible the person is. I also think it can be paralyzing, rather than creative and productive.

    You’ve pointed out a really interesting distinction between that kind of punishment and punishment to train an individual. I went to a TED Talk at my office a few weeks ago where we talked about the “moral toolbox” that liberals and conservatives in North America are comfortable using. In the video, Jonathan Haidt says that people more on the liberal spectrum are very cold to the idea of using moral values relating to group loyalty, authority, and sanctity. I think punishment largely follows as a tool from strong moral foundations around loyalty and authority, so it’s interesting to put that in his (somewhat simplistic) frame of asking us to consider the usefulness of the whole toolbox.

    The video’s available here:

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