The motivations behind our actions: Are human beings innately good or bad?

By Naveesha Karunanayaka

The question of whether humans are innately good or bad may arise when contemplating news stories from recent decades. The disregard for others and horrifying events caused by intentional human action make it difficult to believe we are born good. In exploring this, babies are a good research starting point when looking at human characteristics, as they have very little cultural influence and are unaware of social norms. Therefore, they can be seen as the most innocent and raw state of a human mind. 

Approaching this from a neuroscientific point of view, we are born with millions of neurons, and over time the synaptic pruning process causes frequently used neuron connections to strengthen, and infrequently used connections to weaken and die out (Moulson, Nelson, 2008). The prevalent messages, environment and structure of the lives we lead will determine our character and the level of ‘goodness’ we possess. At a young age, when we are exposed to little external impressions, it is believed we possess the highest level of ‘goodness’ we can naturally be. However, at this stage of life we are not in a position to act on this and express any views to support this, which is why it is difficult to gather accurate and clear evidence on the nature of morality we are born with. 

For many newborns, most life experiences will be of their parents nurturing them, and therefore, connections relating to kindness are reaffirmed. However, it is difficult to understand if we perceive actions as morally good or bad at this stage, or whether we only understand something as good or bad in terms of self-interest and preservation. 

Interestingly, some toddlers, when they are told not to do something because it is ‘bad’, continue to do it or increase the frequency of the action in order to get a reaction from someone. Actions such as this would indicate we are inherently self-interested, ‘bad’ and perhaps even narcissistic (Perogamvros, 2012). Some believe that wars, dictatorships, slavery, corruption and persecutions, all indicate that humans are not naturally good. Moreover, a belief that humans are naturally good would eradicate the need for parents’ efforts to make their child a good person. Yet, we constantly see parents having to remind children to show gratitude, to be kind and to share (Prager, 2014) – would these traits be expected to come naturally from a species claiming to be naturally ‘good’?

Neuroscience tells us that people gradually get more ‘bad’ with age due to the changing composition of the brain’s abilities. As we age, ‘we build up the capabilities of the higher-order cognitive areas of the brain’ (Brown, 2016) due to interactions and growth in our wider understanding of the world. Consequently, our instincts are mediated by these processes in the brain before being communicated. This is evidence that our moral behaviour is clearly influenced by society due to the impacts it has on our brain development. 

Nonetheless, some experiments indicate humans are inherently ‘good’. For example, an experiment carried out by Yale University involved babies less than a year old being shown a puppet show – the babies would  gravitate towards the puppet that was helping other puppets over the ‘bad’ puppet. Further, the babies spent more time watching when the other puppets moved towards the ‘bad’ puppet –  an indicator for their confusion at this choice (Stafford, 2013). The results showed that their ‘clean-slate’ brains automatically had expectations as to how people should behave, preferring the motivation behind the ‘good’ puppet over the ‘bad’ puppet. However, this doesn’t show conclusively that we are born good, as some would say that infants’ thought process is due to self-interest, as they would expect someone else to reciprocate the same helpful or ‘good’ actions for them. 

Nevertheless, a study from Kyoto university and an experiment carried out at Harvard called “The Big Mother Study” corroborated these results from Yale. In the Harvard study, the babies were left alone, without the presence of an adult/parent, and still acted in a kind and helpful way towards others, indicating that being good isn’t just a ‘learned behaviour to avoid punishment and scrutiny’ (Aglietti, n.d.), but an intrinsic reflex, that is enforced and reiterated overtime as children are put into wider society – eventually,  this develops into an adult morality, based on altruism.

However, studies using colours on infants can’t show whether their choice is based on colour preference or behavioural preference. Other critics say that babies are born only with senses and reflexes, and mainly learn social behaviours due to interaction with their mothers. This implies we are born neutral (neither good nor bad) and quickly form judgements and learn good from bad through early interactions. This is the view Sigmund Freud had, he ‘considered new-borns a moral blank slate’ but Aristotle argued that ‘we’re born as ‘amoral creatures’’ (Aglietti, n.d.). This suggests Aristotle believed that as babies we understand the difference between good and bad but act indifferently. In contrast, many prominent psychologists ‘previously argued that children are selfish until they are socialised’ (Tucker, 2013), their altruistic behaviours only start developing due to the consequences of their actions in society. 

Felix Warneken also created an experiment to see if toddlers could read the intentions of others and help them reach their goals without an incentive. His experiment involved adults performing a variety of tasks with little success, while toddlers looked on. The toddlers would help across all these situations and even at their own expense. He said “they are clever helpers. It is not something that’s been trained, and they readily come to help without prompting or without being rewarded” (Warneken, cited by Tucker, 2013). To test this innate goodness displayed by the toddlers, he made an experiment for adult chimps, as they are our nearest primate and intellectually equivalent to human 2-year-olds. He observed that both human-reared and semi-wild chimps selflessly helped in the situations they were tested in and showed their capability for empathy when many chimps chose to give a reward to the ‘loser’ in a game. Furthermore, studies showed that ‘both chimpanzees and human children helped altruistically, regardless of any expectation of reward, even when some effort was required, and even when the recipient was an unfamiliar individual–all features previously thought to be unique to humans’ (Warneken, 2007: p.2). These experiments on the automatic actions of toddlers and chimps indicate that altruism is an evolutionary trait we are born with. 

Overall, it is difficult to come to an accurate conclusion as to whether humans are naturally ‘good’ or ‘bad’, especially due to reliance on experiments with babies making it hard to produce accurate results. Whilst the evidence is conflicting, it can be inferred that we are born neutral and if anything, our motivation for self-preservation initially rules over everything else. For example, if a group of babies fall into a pool their instinct is to reach for the surface, not to try and help the others. Although toddlers may help each other, this may be because of greater exposure to society and physical ability. Perhaps, during primitive stages in our species’ development, our intentions behind actions would have been due to self-interest and preservation – and over time, traits like helping and sharing showed useful outcomes, thus becoming an evolutionary trait passed down as morals. This is not to say concepts like survival of the fittest and protection of our ‘own’, are not also intertwined into our morals, as they are also traits that have proven useful during our evolution. We all carry the possibility of being good and bad and traits that are nurtured and developed over time are the traits that thrive and grow into adult morality – this is often influenced by wider society and those you surround yourself with throughout life. 

References:

Abigail Tucker. (2013) Are babies born good? Available from:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-babies-born-good-165443013/ [Accessed 23rd December 2020]

Dennis Prager. (2014) Are people born good? Available from: 

https://assets.ctfassets.net/qnesrjodfi80/28oYugJVTqiYS24WkoEWUA/db895e20d474ee35c5cb958c7c844c80/prager-are_people_born_good-transcript.pdf [Accessed 27th December 2020]

L. Perogamvros. (2012) Does primary narcissism exist in new-born babies? Evidence from sleep science. Front Psychology. 3(330). Available from: 10.3389%2Ffpsyg.2012.00330

M.C. Moulson, C.A. Nelson. (2008) Encyclopaedia of Infant and Early childhood development. Massachusetts, Academic Press. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/synaptic-pruning [Accessed 2nd January 2021]

N. Brown. (2016) Are we fundamentally good or evil? Neuroscience has an answer. Available from: https://www.skyword.com/contentstandard/are-we-fundamentally-good-or-evil-neuroscience-has-an-answer/ [Accessed 2nd January 2021].

Tom Aglietti. (n.d) Are we born good or evil? Available from:

https://www.bbcearth.com/blog/%3Farticle%3Dare-babies-born-good-or-evil/ [Accessed 22nd December 2020]

Tom Stafford. (2013) Are we naturally good or bad? Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20130114-are-we-naturally-good-or-bad [Accessed 22nd December 2020] 

Warneken F, Hare B, Melis P, Hanus D, Tomasello M. (2007) Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children. PLoS Biology. 5(7):e184, 1-5. Available from: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050184

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