Fundamental Nature Of Man – Good or Bad?

Do you intuitively trust or distrust other people? This boils down to whether you believe the fundamental nature of man is good or bad. In philosophy, your worldview could be classified as either Lockean (man is good) or Hobbesian (man is bad).

Let me introduce you briefly to John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. I’ll explain in simple terms their opposing beliefs about the nature of man. Then you can choose which camp you want to belong to.

The nature of man according to Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) held the view that man, left to himself, would descend into “a war of all against all.” To prevent us from killing and otherwise hurting each other, government is needed. We grant the government our rights in exchange for its protection.

Hobbes thought that we cannot know the difference between good and evil, and cannot achieve peace by our own means. Civil society is thus based on a strong government telling us what to do. And peace is achieved when we do what we are told.

Hobbesians, therefore, believe that we are constantly at risk of being hurt by one another. Our assumption is that others are out to get us, and our instinct is to protect ourselves.

The nature of man according to Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) believed that man is by nature a social animal. For the most part, we are reasonable and tolerant. We tend to live in a state of peace and honour our obligations to each other. Occasional conflicts would arise and so it is important to establish boundaries of ownership.

Locke thought that people had an innate sense of right and wrong, even if we disagreed over the specifics. We are therefore capable of resolving conflicts in a fair and peaceful manner. The state exists to formalise our individual rights in the form of property rights.

Lockeans, therefore, believe that people are by nature good, and will deal fairly with each other.Β  Others will respect our rights, and so our inclination is to seek peaceful co-existence through mutual respect.

What do you think?

I’m generally Lockean in my outlook, because the alternative is not a very happy way to live. And I’d rather have happy as my default mode. I think that most people want to be good, and try their best to be. Still, I’m aware that evil exists and it would be naive to pretend there is no crime or injustice in the world.

My stance is therefore to give the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty, rather that guilty until proven innocent. So I will trust a person until that person gives me reason not to. Others will not trust until a person earns that trust.

What about you? What is your world view regarding the nature of man? Your fundamental belief will guide your interactions with everyone, so choose carefully.

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14 replies on “Fundamental Nature Of Man – Good or Bad?”

This question is very hard because I have been confronted by both kinds of people. I also find that if something is a matter of survival then one is more ready to knowingly do the wrong thing…

I did trust people. Wow but they eat you up & spit you out’.Have a look how they help the poor!!!It nice to say your lockeans.I belive it sad to to read these comments.May there priest would dis-agree

Hey Daphne, this is great food for thought. I tend to think that we are innately good, except our innate goodness is blocked over by pain – which makes us go out and do “nasty” stuff. I have no idea where that leaves me, probably I’m both Lockean and Hobbesian.


Awesome the way you make us reflect on these things =)

I believe we can be various degrees of selfish or unselfish. Bad is then to be selfish. The reward for being unselfish is happiness.

In that way there will always be a balance.

Hi Daphne.
My gut decides if I stay around a person long enough to look for reasons to trust them. Good point Vered noted about not expecting strangers to trust us either.

I struggle to find the good in myself many times. This doesn’t make me more suspicious of others, but more appreciative of their smiles, help, and joyfulness that warm my day. What does bother me is the number of people who turn away from a greeting or refuse eye contact to a stranger. I think they miss out on many blessings.

I stand by the view of Christianity, that man is borne of God, that we are imperfect at the present (and hence, neither perfectly good or vice versa), but we have hope, and one day, our love and empathy for one another would be perfected by God’s wonderful grace! πŸ˜‰

Hi Daphne .. great to see you here.

Interesting post – I guess Locke .. but sometimes I see people and think “no – not sure about this one, or usually group of people” .. then I remind myself we all have good in us, some people are down on their luck, possibly have little going for them and cannot see beyond themselves – they’ve never been offered another way, or been in a kind environment .. where others matter.

Society hasn’t perhaps helped us enough – I hope we can help the world in our tiny ways, the butterfly ripple effect ….

thanks for these thoughts & glad your readership etc .. is keeping up – hope all’s well with all the other changes: sounds as though it’s happy times. Hugs – Hilary

This post reminds me of the two conflicting schools of thought in ancient China.
Confucian and Daoist teaching is that man’s nature is fundamentally good and is inclined towards good. Confucian teaching of taking the middle road and his emphasis on ethics “kindness, righteousness, loyalty, justice, courtesy, wisdom and trust,” and Daoist philosophy of living simply, maintaining a tranquil mind and letting things take their natural course according to cosmic energy, have served as the guiding principles of common people. They are the moral standards for the people; one governing their interaction with the outside world and the other governing the way that they handle things internally. The two played an important role in maintaining the stability of society and the harmony of the family.
Legalist philosophy, however the ruler firmly controls the state with the help of three concepts: his position of power, certain techniques, and laws. Legalism assumes that everyone acts according to one principle: avoiding punishment while simultaneously trying to achieve gains. Thus the law must severely punish any unwanted action, while at the same time reward those who follow it. Legalism believed human nature is evil and people should be punished according to their actions.

@ Victor,

Wow, I learnt a lot from you today. I’ve known about Confucius, of course, but am not familiar with Daoist teaching. I love how you explained it: “living simply, maintaining a tranquil mind and letting things take their natural course”. As I grow older maybe I’m becoming more Daoist then. You have made me interested enough to find out more. Thank you!

@ Hilary,

I’m like you – sometimes I start out suspicious and have to remind myself that there is good somewhere in people and learn to trust that good to prevail. Thanks for commenting here. Several times I’ve thought about closing down my blog then I see the readership and comments and I think I still have something good here. Your support means a lot, thank you.

@ Vered,

I think it’s easy to trust family and friends. Trusting strangers is when our fundamental beliefs about human nature is put to the test. Over the years I’ve learnt to trust strangers more – they’re just people like me – good, kind πŸ˜‰ but I haven’t got to know them yet. I think that’s where I want to live – Lockean country!

@ Kim,

Interesting that you say we start out Lockean. Maybe we learn distrust… sad. But the good thing is if it is learnt, it can be unlearnt and we can re-learn what we choose to believe. Thanks for this insight.

I think it’s mixed – we all have good and bad inside of us and for the vast majority of people, good is stronger.

However, I tend not to trust strangers. They need to earn my trust. And I don’t expect strangers to trust me!

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