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[Chalice] Naughty or Nice: [Chalice]
Are Humans Good or Evil?

Presented December 13, 2009, by Paul Miller

Listen to a recording of "Naughty or Nice: Are Humans Good or Evil?"
28:09 minutes - 11.3 MB - Naughty or Nice: Are Humans Good or Evil? .mp3 file.

Hi, how are you all today? Have you been good today? Santa Clause knows who's naughty or nice, but I'm not so sure. The goodness and evilness of humanity continues to puzzle me.

Man's inhumanity to man is well documented, as are many examples of kindness, heroism, and self-sacrifice, often with no hope of reward. How can people be so kind and so brutal? Are humans inherently good, evil, or in between? And why?

I know that I am good . . . .mostly. My feeling is that most of humanity is rotten, but I like most of the people I know. Am I so good that I attract all the good people, and bad people stay away from me?

How about you? Are you naughty or nice? Of course, you know that you are a good person. How about the people next to you? That's pretty easy. We all know that only nice people come to our church. How about the fire and brimstone fundies at the Church of Holy Hypocrisy? How about the ignorant hothead who cut you off in traffic while giving you the finger? How about the mean spirited redneck warmongers who voted for Geo. W. Bush (twice!)? How about the ignorant bastards who are burning the rainforest , or the greedy speculators on wall street bankrupting main street? They're all rotten to the core! Surely, the mass of humanity is evil. They should be banished to some place where they can do no harm until they all eat each other!

But, of course, we are very nice.

Much of this talk is about evolutionary psychology, and much of the information is plagiarized from Steven Pinker's excellent book How the Mind Works. Evolutionary psychology tries to explain human behavior based on instincts that have evolved over millions of years. Instinctive behaviors that have helped preserve our genes were passed on through millions of generations, while those that did not were eliminated. The function of evolution through natural selection is not to ensure survival of the individual. It is to ensure survival of the individual's genes. Self-destructive behavior (much of it associated with testosterone poisoning) can often be explained by instincts that perpetuate one individual's genes at the expense of the individual, and at the expense of other individuals' genes.

Our instincts evolved in an ancient world that was hungrier, more competitive, and more violent than Quincy, Illinois, or even East Saint Louis. When we behave in accordance with our instincts, it may not be the best instinct for the modern world. Our instinctive behavior is not necessarily the right behavior, in the sense of being moral, ethical, or wise. As intelligent animals, our mind can over-rule our instincts. We are not bound to follow our instincts, though we usually do.

So why is it that you and I and most of the people we know are good, and the rest of humanity is mostly bad? Steven Pinker wrote:

"In numerous experiments . . . people are divided into two groups, actually at random, but ostensible by some trivial criterion such as whether they underestimate or over estimate the number of dots on a screen, or whether they prefer the paintings of Klee or Klandinsky. The people in each group instantly dislike and think worse of the people in the other group, and act to withhold rewards from them even if doing so is costly to their own group. This instant ethnocentricism can be evoked even if the experimenter drops the charade with the dots or paintings and divides people into groups by flipping a coin before their eyes! The behavioral consequences are by no means minor. In a classic experiment, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif carefully selected a group of well-adjusted, middle class American boys for summer camp, and randomly divided them into two groups, which then competed in sports and skits. Within days the groups were brutalizing and raiding each other with sticks, bats, and rocks in socks, forcing experimenters to intervene for the boys' safety."

It's easy enough to see why my ancestors' tribe would fight your ancestors' tribe over access to a limited resource, like a prime hunting ground. The instinct for tribal warfare is still with us on a grand scale, with whole nations warring against nations. You can watch a more benign substitute for tribal warfare this afternoon. Just tune in a football game.

Of course, in every war, both sides are right. Never is there a war when one side admits "we're wrong. We have no right to invade their country, kill the people, and burn their cities, but we're doing it anyway." If one side knows they are wrong, they could negotiate peace in no time, but this doesn't happen. How can it be that both sides are always right? Whole tribes, whole nations suffer from collective cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the unsettled feeling that arises from inconsistencies in one's beliefs, specifically the belief that one is both smart and nice. I really am smart and nice, and everyone else wants to think he is. So we subconsciously twist facts and use contorted logic to convince ourselves that we are right. We say things like "So what if we didn't find any nukes in Iraq? We know Saddam was making atom bombs." Or "It is the will of Allah that we kill the unbelievers."

Why are we humans so quick to deceive ourselves? Honesty is the best policy, unless you are a really good liar. In a competitive society, many people's prosperity depends on their skill at lying. Even ancient tribal societies had their politicians, lawyers, and salesmen, or the ancient equivalent thereof. People have developed the ability to detect liars. An observant, intuitive person is a better lie detector than a polygraph. The best way to lie convincingly is to believe your own lie. Humans have evolved the ability to deceive ourselves so as to effectively deceive others.

Thus, individuals, and whole nations, can fool themselves and believe they are right and the other side is wrong. My tribe has the right to kill your tribe, because we are nicer than you, prettier than you, smarter than you, and our god is bigger than your god. In truth, of course, these are specious rationalizations to justify picking a fight.

People can always find something to fight over; often a limited resource, like a prime hunting ground. Consider, for example, the Yanamamo tribe of South American head hunters. They are popularly called "the Fierce People" even though their fierce behavior is common among jungle tribes. Their language includes many words for edible things, including the word for people not of the Yanamamo tribe.

Some anthropologists have argued that the Fierce People suffer a protein shortage, and they are fighting over game. Not so. Amongst foraging peoples across the world, the best fed tribes are the most warlike. When some members of the Fierce People were told of the meat shortage hypothesis, they laughed and said "Even though we like meat, we like women a whole lot more."

Women? People kill and eat each other just so they can pick up girls? Well . . . yeah. Visit the local bar and grill late Saturday night when men are most primal. How many fights break out over the amount of meat in somebody's hamburger?

Remember that evolution is all about perpetuating one's genes. Access to women, and the more the better is the most effective way for a male to perpetuate his genes. Kill the men in the neighboring village. Take their women. Get twice as many copies of your genes in the next generation. Of course, you might get killed, but it is more likely that someone else in your coalition will get killed, and you won't, and you could get his share. It's like Russian roulette, where if you don't get killed, you have more offspring. You can check the math. No matter what the odds, the warrior's genes, on average, get more copies.

Modern wars between nations are not over women, but men's instinct to make war evolved over women. The love of money is not the root of all evil. Much evil comes from the love of women.

So far naughty seems to be winning over nice by a landslide , doesn't it? I almost changed the title of this talk from "Naughty or Nice" to " Naughty, Nasty, and Mean".

Of course, humans have noble instincts, too. Parents' devotion to their children is a conspicuous example. It is obvious why we have an instinct to care for our children. People without that instinct have no living descendants. The instinct to care for other people's children is not so strong. A mother would take a bullet to save her own child, but probably not to save the neighbor's kid, and not to save her stepchild.

Badness is easier to measure than goodness. Homicide statistics are easy to get, whereas acts of kindness are hard to quantify. It is often said that you are more likely to be killed by a relative in the home than by a mugger on the street, but it is not true. In a typical American city, a quarter of homicide victims are killed by strangers, half by acquaintances, and a quarter by relatives. But only a tiny fraction of killers kill blood relatives. Usually the killer is an in-law or a step-relative. A child is 40 times more likely to be killed by a stepparent than by a biological parent. If goodness can be measured by the tendency not to be bad, then much of our goodness comes from our instinct to protect copies of our own genes in our relatives.

Of course, we are nice to people to whom we are not related. We can even get pleasure from giving and sharing. In one experiment, people were given money. One group spent it on themselves, and one group spent it on others. The test subjects who spent on other people reported feeling more benefit from the money than the people who spent it on themselves.

There are practical benefits from this behavior. If I have extra peanut butter, and you have extra chocolate, we can both gain by sharing. If I kill an antelope today, I will share the meat with you in hopes that the next time you kill an antelope, you will share it with me.

In an ideal world, everyone produces what he can, and everyone shares freely. The world would be one big happy family, a Marxist paradise. But of course, in this imperfect world, there are cheaters. I am tempted to hide a few antelope steaks in hope that you won't know I'm not sharing, and you will still share with me. Humans have learned to spot cheaters, to recognize individuals, and to remember who shares and who doesn't. The golden rule is ideal in an ideal world. In the real world, the brazen rule works best; do unto others as they did unto you. This is also called tit for tat.

They have done computer simulations testing various alternative behavioral strategies. In a one-shot game, where each player gets one move and the game is over, the iron rule wins: take whatever you can.

When the players interact many times, the most successful strategy is cooperate on your first move, and after that, do what the other guy did on the previous move, tit- for-tat. Taking the simulation a step further, they simulated evolution by having each player reproduce in proportion to its winnings, and repeating the game through many generations. Players with the tit-for-tat gene took over the world.

Our natural tendency to show kindness to new acquaintances, and to reciprocate kindness or meanness, is an instinct that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Happily, in my humble opinion, this is also the most morally defensible strategy. (Or maybe I am just genetically programmed to think so.)

When we treat each other kindly, is it really because we are morally virtuous, or because of genetic programming?

You may have read the book or watched the movie A Clockwork Orange. It tells the story of Alex, a teenage gang leader whose joy in life is committing random acts of violence. He and his droogies spend their nights stealing, killing, raping, vandalizing, and generally having a good time. Alex represents human nature at its most evil. Eventually, he gets caught, and he is rehabilitated by the Lodovico technique. He is immobilized and forced to watch scenes of violence while he is given drugs that cause intense pain. Thus, he is conditioned to suffer pain whenever he sees, or even thinks of violence. He becomes a gentle person, and he is welcomed into society as a good citizen. But is Alex really a good person? He behaves like a good person, not because he wants to, but because he is conditioned to feel pain when he misbehaves.

Are we so much different? Humans have evolved a complex set of emotions; love, hate, fear, rage, guilt, pleasure, etc. which lead us to behave as we do. When we are at our worst, our emotions drive our behavior. Humans have evolved to compete, even to the extent of killing each other, because the killers are more successful at reproducing. Mean genes win, and the meek inherit the earth, six feet under. We have developed cognitive dissonance and the talent for deceiving ourselves so we believe we are right even when we are wrong. We have the instinct to cooperate and reciprocate, tit-for-tat, because this is the most effective strategy. We are most cooperative with people who carry copies of our own genes. When we are on our best behavior, are we really so virtuous, or is it just a trick of evolution?

Should we just adjourn to coffee hour for cyanide cookies and hemlock tea? Has evolution given us an inexorable instinct for selfish treachery? Writing this paper has been frustrating, because I still don't have the answer. Maybe whatever hope I have for humanity is just my own stubborn cognitive dissonance. But I am not giving up yet. The fact that you chose to come and listen to my rant is a hopeful sign.

Our species has made enormous progress. As bad as it is, the world is kinder and gentler than it was a few generations ago. It is increasingly obvious that there is more profit in sharing a peace dividend than in taking the spoils of war. The most peaceful nations are the most prosperous. Compare Sweden and Switzerland to Iran and North Korea. The civilization that makes peace, and cooperates, tit-for-tat, is most likely to survive and thrive. Education and communication are the best tools for peace-making, and they are more common than ever before.

Our mind, which has enabled us to become the most deadly predator on the planet, also enables us to over-rule our worst instincts. The human animal misbehaves when instincts operate unchecked by the human mind. We humans have the unique ability to predict the effects of our actions on others. This unique ability gives us the unique responsibility to use it. Like our animal brethren, we do both good and bad. Unlike them, we have the ability to know the difference. When our instincts lead us to be bad, and our mind chooses good, in spite of our nepharious instinctive nature, we truly are virtuous. There may be hope for us after all.

Closing words, by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama:

"I believe that in the 20th century, humanity has learned something from many, many experiences. Some positive, and many negative. What misery, what destruction! The greatest number of human beings were killed in the two world wars of this century. But human nature is such that when we face a tremendous critical situation, the human mind can wake up and find some other alternative. That is a human capacity."

©2009 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul 2009. Naughty or Nice: Are Humans Good or Evil?, /talks/20091213.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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