Chapter 3.5: How bad are we? How good can we be?

How bad are we? How good can we be?

Those are the sorts of questions we don’t usually ask ourselves when we talk about big issues like politics and economics, but what we think about those things usually boils down in part to what our answers to those basic questions are. We might have better conversations about those systemic issues if we were more transparent about how we answered those questions.

There is a school of thought that says that we are thoroughly, irrevocably depraved, all but irredeemably so. To the very limited extent that there is good in human interaction, it is literally miraculous. In all likelihood, the things that appear to us to be good ought to be treated with suspicion, because there’s a fair chance that they are masking devious motives or only seem good to us through our own rotten biases. If this is your general outlook, the best thing we can do is keep any one individual, group or institution from amassing enough power to do any real damage through their evil deeds. Like parents babyproofing a house, we want to keep governments and corporations from getting so big that they can’t be reined in, metaphorically keeping the toddler away from the chainsaws. 

There is an opposing school of thought that says that good is our very essence, and that any evil we see is the result of misunderstanding and bad environments. If that’s the case, if everyone who commits a crime is really just a product of a system that closes off the options to do good and leaves only relatively bad choices instead, then we can work together to create better systems, to dispel misunderstandings, to provide people with the environments they need to flourish. Power is not a problem in itself; it just needs to be channeled properly.

A priest friend tells a story of a teacher talking to a class who asks “If everyone who is good was colored gold, and everyone who is bad was colored blue, what color would you be*?” To which one of the students answers “I’d be streaky.” And that’s the third school of thought: we’re streaky. We can see the true, the good, and the beautiful around us and in our lives as evidence that we have good in us. And we know that we often choose bad things over good ones because we have bad in us, too. We can help each other as a community by encouraging the good and making the bad choices harder rather than easier.

Do you think we’re good, bad, or streaky? How you answer will affect how you approach questions about society, politics and economics.

*My priest friend points out he uses blue and gold because they are Norte Dame’s colors, and he’s a grad. I use them because gold is one of Wake Forest’s colors, while blue is shared by Duke and Carolina.

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