The Twin Evils: Basically Good and Tabula Rasa

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At the core of the discussion between liberals and conservatives is a key philosophical difference. That philosophical difference is seen in the answer to this question:

Are people basically good or basically evil?

There is a third option, tabula rasa, is the idea that people are a blank slate, neither good nor evil until they are taught to be so.

At the heart of conservatism is this assumption: people are basically evil. At the heart of liberalism is the other assumption: either people are basically good, or they are a blank slate (and we just need to program them the right way.)

I won’t go into much of the philosophical reasons for thinking one or the other things, but I will point out the implications in relation to government.

First, the conservative viewpoint. People are basically evil. Note: all people, not just other people or “those” people. When conservatives see BLM celebrating the murder of cops, or ISIS claiming credit for the killing of an elderly priest, we see ourselves. We know that without government, we would likely be doing the same things they are doing.

By government, I mean “governing” as in that thing you do to yourself and others to keep them behaving well and properly. Good government starts with self-government and self-mastery. This involves introspection and circumspection and careful consideration of the effects of our choices on our lives and others, and carefully selecting one course over another being aware of the fact that we are fallible, mortal beings prone to evil.

Once you can properly govern yourself, then you govern others, starting with your family and then reaching out into the community and the nation. Those who cannot govern themselves really have no right to govern others, while those who have mastered the government of self are likely good candidates for governing others.

While we recognize the need of government, self and otherwise, we also recognize the fact that governors are made of the same mortal, fallible and evil stuff as we are. Thus, you need to govern the government. This is the purpose behind the strict limits that the constitution places on our federal government, why it reads like a short list of things the government can do and a long, long list of thing the government cannot do. This is also why we like to keep a close eye on what government is doing and sound the alarms whenever it approaches those limits or dares to look over them.

In this way, we can create a system where basically evil creatures can act mostly good, most of the time.

There are parallels in the real world. Take, for instance, engineering. We know that we are fallible, illogical creatures and yet we are not only able to discern principles that govern how things behave, but create systems that are reliable when their components are not reliable. By carefully managing the complexities and intricacies of a design, we can uncover a combination that will self-govern to eliminate error. It takes a lot of work to get it right, and when you think you have it right, it takes even more work to make sure you know you have it right, but it can be done, as long as you follow some basic principles and don’t cut any corners.

People who believe that people are basically good logically shouldn’t see the need for any government. The only thing government can do is limit people from being the best they can be. Note that conservatives are not against government, they simply want limited, constrained government. People who advocate no government would be properly called anarchists, which means, literally, “no ruler.” In anarchy, people would be able to exercise their goodness to the fullest extent.

If there is a government, then these same people would advocate for unlimited powers for that government, for much of the same reason. If people are basically good, then we can trust the government, which is made of people, to be basically good.

Of course, I’ve only met a few people who actually believe that all people are basically good. Most try to juggle basic philosophy by saying “These people are basically good, while those people are basically evil.” This is nothing short of racism, classism, and every sort of -ism you can imagine. The lines we draw between good and evil people are arbitrary and capricious. Those who participate in this should worry that one day, they will be on the wrong side of that line.

Perhaps they try to resolve this philosophical dilemma with tabular rasa. Maybe it’s not fundamental human nature to be good or evil, but a product of our environment. To me, this is the worst sort of philosophy because of what it concludes.

The natural conclusion is, “We must teach everyone to be good!” If only it were that simple! Nevertheless, this is the driving force behind spending untold trillions on public education. Needless to say, it has been a colossal waste and failure. Build as many schools as you like, send as many teachers you like, and fund them with as much money as you like, you can never force anyone to get educated. At best, you can provide means, but in the end, it is up to them to obtain it for themselves.

The other natural conclusion is the horror of classism. That is, put the people with the proper education in control, and send the rest to forced education camps. You may catch a scientist expressing sentiments like these, uttered in phrases like “If only smart people ran the government” or “the science is simple, so simple only government can screw it up.” I beg people who hold these ideas to consider why they think they are superior to others, what makes them worthy to lead or decide while others with human brains that don’t operate much different than theirs should simply fall in line and obey without hesitation. The natural conclusion of this sort of thinking is the key element behind the ancient evil of aristocracy (rule by the noble). Sure, they may think they are setting up a perfect system that can never be corrupted, but it is odd, isn’t it, how that system often goes horribly corrupt even before the first generation has passed away?

Philosophy is an important thing. The way you see the world, especially the way you see others, will dramatically influence the types of choices you make and the value system you see. Until we learn that we are all basically evil, we really haven’t a hope to overcoming that evil.

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4 Responses to “The Twin Evils: Basically Good and Tabula Rasa”

  1. Jason Says:

    So the current science says that people are born bad. Not bad in the philosophical sense but bad in the sense that their reptilian core (oldest part of the brain) is dominant early and the frontal lobes need to learn how to control the reptilian core.

    So frontal lobe = good, reptilian core = bad if you want to use simple terms. For example, your reptilian core sees an attractive girl on her own and says “rape her” but your frontal lob says “no, that’s wrong.”

    Sociopaths and psychopaths have frontal lobe deficiencies that don’t allow them to have proper moral reasoning so they’re “born bad.” Retarded people likewise.

    Good and evil are a bit outdated thinking.

    Just as an aside, we are the only animal that self domesticates. We started as wolves and turned ourselves into puppies via large nation states. For the last several thousand years if you were a European and acted up you got executed. That is basic domestication.

    If you were from a place with weak states (Africa) you didn’t have this mechanism. In fact, the opposite was true. The meaner you were the more reproductively successful.

    Explains differences in violence between people, or how people can get more moral over time if you like the simpler way of thinking.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      “Current science”? Sounds like fairy tales to me. I’d like to see this research and I’d like to examine their data and make my own conclusions.

      The idea that the mind can be contained in mere matter is idiotic to me. If it is true that our minds exist within the material realm, a realm described by absolute laws that cannot be violated and which are completely predictable, then that makes our minds mere machines, and us mere robots without any free will. Without free will, there is no morality. A robot can’t be bad or good until he has the ability to exercise his free will. Thus, to say our mind is inside our brain inside this material universe is to say there is no good or evil.

      I could argue that sociopaths and psychopaths aren’t even evil. If it is true that they are constrained to do evil things because of their physical bodies, then they were never given a moral choice between good and evil and thus never committed evil. They aren’t evil — they’re just robots programmed to do evil things.

      I also like that you invented a fantastic story of how humanity evolved. What evidence is there? Where are the documented eye-witness accounts? Or did we finally build that time machine and take a look for ourselves?

  2. Jason Gardner Says:

    I can’t take credit for inventing the story of how humanity evolved. I wish I could, but many people, much wiser than I, did that. I just read some books and considered the evidence.

    “The idea that the mind can be contained in mere matter is idiotic to me. If it is true that our minds exist within the material realm, a realm described by absolute laws that cannot be violated and which are completely predictable, then that makes our minds mere machines, and us mere robots without any free will. Without free will, there is no morality. A robot can’t be bad or good until he has the ability to exercise his free will. Thus, to say our mind is inside our brain inside this material universe is to say there is no good or evil.”

    That is the conundrum of the modern understanding of human nature. All kinds of weird things happen in the brain. A woman in England had a stroke and lost the ability to conjugate verbs. You mother suffered pressure on her Broca’s are and lost the ability to speak.

    Also, you have a foster cousin that vividly illustrates this problem. She was by all accounts a very “good” human being. While she was visiting your grandfather she suffered severe brain damage due to an ATV accident. Coming out a coma she was a totally different person. She swore constantly, couldn’t regulate her emotions, etc.

    This is actually a fairly common story. Take a few minutes and google “brain injury personality changes.” Millions of stories.

    The bottom line is that I can have a brain injury (football, car accident, IED, etc) and coming out of the brain injury I can be a totally different person. My brain’s condition can affect my moral outcome.

    This is very important to note. I could fall down tomorrow on the sidewalk, hit my brain just right, and wake up tomorrow a totally different person. This happens all the time. Go to any hospital, swing by the neurology ICU and talk to the staff.

    The most famous and earliest case of dramatic personality changes is the case of Phineas Gage. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage)

    Before the accident he was described by his bosses as:

    “Hard-working, responsible, and ‘a great favorite’ with the men in his charge” and “the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ”;

    Then after the accident he was describes as:

    “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.”

    So the question for you is…. Is Phineas Gage a good person or a bad person?

    As to the research the volume of it is overwhelming. Talk to any neurologist, neuroscientist, doctor, person who reads books, etc. I’m actually a little dismayed that you haven’t educated yourself on at least the basics of how your body works.

  3. Jason Says:

    Btw, we can travel through time, albeit not in the literal sense. By examining societies that are more primitively constructed (e.g. yananamo) we see behaviors that we assume reflects how our society was before literacy.

    Another way is through writing. People make little marks on paper, stone or whatnot and the other people can come by later, and, as long as they understand what the marks mean, can understand what was in a persons mind thousands of years ago. For example, you can read Jullius Caesar’s first hand account of his invasion of Gaul and see what the social mores were during his time.

    If you don’t read Latin there are people who can translate it for you. It’s really cool. Similar with Herodotus. Seneca the younger, etc. it’s a great way to know about how things have changed over time. It also gives multiple perspectives of a similar event.

    It’s amazing what people wrote down. There are letters between an Assyrian King and his wife complaining that their daughter is spoiled and won’t be easy to marry off. The letter is around 7,000 years old. Pretty cool. Sounds like a father from our age.

    Bonus: you don’t even have to violate the laws of physics to do it!

    All joking aside, I’m kinda worried that you haven’t kept up on your reading. You’re old enough that you should know some basics about pre history and how societies formed. It reflects poorly on you that you don’t have a better rebuttal than an attack on me as a fantasist.

    Because… It only seems like fantasy if you haven’t done your homework. Much like physics. Physics sounds like a bunch of bs until you take the time and effort to study. It’s extremely easy to dismiss physics as a bunch of crazy rules and bullshit fantasy…. If you don’t know jack about it.

    The only cure for that is to humble yourself and do the hard work of learning, You don’t have to agree but you should know.

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