Whether we see humans as essentially good or essentially selfish and violent has been central to our politics, our account of society, and our vision for social progress. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously defended the former account and Thomas Hobbes the latter. Wojciech Załuski reappraises Hobbes and defends his pessimistic account of human nature.
The question of whether human beings are more prone to do evil or to do good is usually posed in psychological terms: it leads to an inquiry into human predispositions with a view to deciding whether ‘evil’ predispositions prevail over ‘good’ ones, or vice versa. As a result of this way of inquiry, several different views of human nature were distinguished, with the two extreme ones – usually called ‘the Hobbesian view’: human beings are inherently evil, and ‘the Rousseauian view’: human beings are inherently good, and some more nuanced ones located between them (by the way, these standard names of the extreme views are rather misleading, e.g., Rousseau’s complex view of human nature was much more pessimistic that it is usually presented).
I wish to propose a different way of inquiry, which will consist in looking at this question not from the viewpoint of the ‘subject’ (the predispositions of human beings) but of the ‘object’ (the nature of evil and goodness).
The conditions imposed on a truly good act are very restrictive.
I shall advance the claim that human beings seem to be more prone to do evil than to do good (as the so called ‘Hobbesian view’ – or some variety of it – implies), and the explanation of this fact can be gainfully sought in the very nature of evil and goodness (in other words, I shall defend the Hobbesian view – or some more nuanced variety of it – but on different grounds than it is usually done). Let me present some arguments for this claim.
The first argument is the commonsensical observation that it is easier to harm than to help someone, to kill that to enliven (the latter obviously being impossible), to destroy than to create, to make unhappy than to make happy. Thus, it seems that, in so far at least as great good and great evil is concerned, it is easier to do evil than to do good.
The second – more sophisticated – argument rests on the Aristotelian account of virtue and vice. This account implies that while it is difficult to be virtuous (in any given circumstances, a virtuous action can be done only in one way, called ‘the mean’), which is why virtuous actions are rare, beautiful, and morally glorious, it is easy to fall into vice: it can be realized in many different ways (e.g., according to Aristotle’s account, in given circumstances, you can manifest fortitude only in one way, but you can be cowardly or reckless – two vices opposed to fortitude – in many different ways).
In fact it is difficult to be virtuous, not only because – to be virtuous – one ought to choose a unique morally good action (‘the mean’), but also because this choice must have some additional features: it must flow from a stable emotional disposition to make such choices, should be made deliberately and disinterestedly – only for the sake of its moral beauty. Thus, the conditions imposed on a truly good act are very restrictive.
It must be noticed, however, that the Aristotelian account also implies that it is not easy to commit a truly evil act. For in order to call an act truly evil, it must be committed by a wicked (evil) person, and to call a given person wicked it is not enough that this person tends to make morally wrong choices (which are indeed easy to make): these choices should additionally flow from a stable disposition (a deeply rooted feature of character) to make such choices.
If we look at evil and goodness taking into account both outward action and motivation, we can say that goodness is more difficult than evil, for the simple reason that morally good acts are less numerous than morally bad ones.
So while it is apt to say that evil is easier than goodness in so far as the outward actions are concerned, it should be added that evil and goodness – if analyzed in terms of their motivation – are both difficult. However, if we look at evil and goodness integrally, taking into account both outward action and motivation, we can indeed say that goodness is more difficult than evil, for the simple reason that – as was mentioned – morally good acts are less numerous than morally bad ones.
Furthermore, if we do not construe evil motivation restrictively – as thoroughly evil motivation (i.e., as a stable disposition to make evil choices), but more loosely – just as the lack of virtue, i.e. of a stable disposition to make good choice, then, clearly, it can also be said that evil motivation (now understood as any kind of disorder in one’s soul) is more frequent and easier than the moral one (based on virtue). This line of argument jibes well with Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite’s (De Divinis Nominibus, IV)’s wonderfully concise and precise phrase: "evil results from each particular defect, but good from the whole and entire cause." This is why evil is so easy, and good so difficult.
One can try to justify the claim that it is easier to do evil than to do good also in a different, somewhat speculative, manner: by treating it as a special case of the general physical principle – the second principle of thermodynamics – which says, roughly, that (in closed systems)) entropy (the measure of disorder) never decreases, i.e., that that chaos (disorder) is more probable than order.
Human beings are more prone to do evil than to do good, not because of their psychological makeup but because, by its nature, evil is easier than goodness.
Now, if we interpret an evil act as a factor bringing some kind of disorder, one can say (let me repeat: somewhat speculatively), that by doing evil we somehow ‘imitate’ or even ‘follow’ the above mentioned physical principle (though, on the other hand, it should be stressed that this interpretation of evil acts as disorder-generating admits of exceptions, and the exceptions may be quite numerous, embracing various types of organized crime: the Holocaust committed by the Germans on the Jews required an enormous amount of ‘organization’; the oppressive and cruel rule of the Germans in Poland during the World War 2 was organized, from the institutional point of view, in a demonically effective manner, in the form of the so called Generalgouvernement, etc.).
To summarize, if any of these arguments is sound (the first two ones do seem to me sound, the third one requires a deepened analysis and may prove to be flawed), it can be said that human beings are more prone to do evil than to do good, not because their psychological makeup is, overall, turned more to evil than to goodness, but because, by its nature, evil is easier than goodness (especially: great evil is easier than great goodness).