Questioning Good-Ness

By Mr. Chew Cheng Lim, Physics Lecturer from A-Levels Department

Questioning Good-ness [Humans are not, by nature, good. We have to work for it. ]

A great many people live in the assumption that humans are, by nature, good – that they want to do good, that deep down inside is a good person, who is kind and gentle and wants everyone to be happy. C S Lewis called it Universal Morality. The Chinese immortalised this sentiment during the 13th century in the opening lines of the 三字经 (the “Three Character Classic”) thusly:

人之初 People at birth, 性本善 Are naturally good. 性相近 Their natures are similar, 習相遠 Their habits make them different.

Like any popular delusion, it is seductive. Of course we want to believe we’re good people surrounded by other good people! We all see ourselves as the protagonists in the story of our own lives. The especially thick-skinned may just keep telling themselves that “maybe somewhere deep down he had a good soul” as the judge passes sentence on some acquaintance who made a hobby of fashioning household objects out of human body parts1.

The fact is we are not all that far off from animals. Animals in the wild live by rules imposed upon them by nature and the vagaries of Fate. We built upon the rules of Nature and call it culture, law, social mores and norms; whatever floats your boat. They are fictions that, for the most part, bind us together into cohesive communities and generally help us get things done without worrying too much about getting stabbed in the back2. But, as Heath Ledger’s Joker pointed out, they are fictions and they are so very fragile.

My readings into human nature have told me many things I wish I never knew, not least of which is what can be achieved in Rwanda with a mixture of overpopulation, in-group mentality and a lot of machetes. To try to imagine the scale of what happened there, to put yourself in their shoes – it just ruins the mind.

But it happened. As did any number of atrocities inflicted by humans on humans in history that were simply too ugly and too numerous to mention in history textbooks in school. Where was the good soul then? Who turned around and said “No, I will not kill these people, because it’s wrong”3? How many died needlessly as men in suits and plastic smiles prattled over the distinction between “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”?

In the face of such horrors, those who would speak of an innate goodness in the hearts of men look ridiculous, like a hamster before a pack of hungry wolves. But this is not to say we are all monsters waiting to be given the opportunity to inflict great suffering for our own selfish aims. What we are is what circumstances make of us. Our every action is the product of the confluence of disposition and situation. In all of us resides the capacity to be monsters, or heroes. Most of us will be bemused bystanders. Or victims.

It is unconstructive to comfort oneself with naive assumptions of human nature. It takes a measure of strength and courage to cast aside our hubris and gaze unflinchingly at the animal inside,

1 Specifically, Edward Theodore Gein. Not for the faint of heart. 2 I am led to understand that merchant banks and certain political parties abide by different rules. 3 Not enough, obviously.

Acknowledge it, and conquer it. It takes intellectual honesty to question oneself constantly, guarding against hypocrisy, to doubt one’s own righteousness and to remain vigilant against the insidious spectre of dehumanization.

Our species has struggled with the question of how to get enough of us to just get along with one another since the first humans allowed themselves to follow a leader. Now here we are, ensconced in our separate nations, borders drawn in the blood of millennia of conflict… and yet, connected.

With the Internet, we are in the birthing pangs of a new stage in the evolution of human culture. Gone is the age of Cold War-era propaganda, with governments teaching people to hate one another. Of course, there is no shortage of people with agendas fomenting hatred, but it is easier than ever to look across the fence4 and find out that your supposed enemies aren’t all that different from you. There is no mysterious enemy out to threaten your way of life. Your prejudices, your preconceptions, and quite often, your own cherished values are the enemy.

Question your goodness. As a priceless gemstone must be polished, so too must we be diligent in maintaining our stature as moral beings.