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I'm have a question that I don't think is on topic over on Christianity.SE even though it is the exchanges in chat there constantly raise the issue. This is a kind of thought experiment.

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." -- Aristotle

Without judging whether the premise is true, I would like to know what logic and Philosophy alone would deduce as a rational world view if the nature of man was inherently evil or corrupt. The premise is that neither man's will nor his consciousness can be trusted to be either good or pure.

Obvious this comes up mostly in the context of the subset of Christianity that believes in total depravity, but I'd like to hear answers that do not cite Biblical references or reason from Scripture. Stripped of the framework where this view is usually fitted, what are the logical consequences of such a system? Where do they lead? What results would we expect to find?

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    +1, very interesting.. A few clarifying questions: how should we read "evil" outside of a theological framework? And how should we judge "human nature" without reference to a transcendent good/evil distinction? – Joseph Weissman Oct 4 '11 at 20:09
  • @JosephWeissman: Honestly I'm not sure. My personal belief is that there are no workable standards of good/evil apart from the character of God himself. Perhaps another premise does need to be some non-human standard of good/evil, but how that could be phrased for this as a theoretical question I don't know. Suggestions? – Caleb Oct 4 '11 at 20:15
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    Can you clarify what 'corrupt' means in this context? I'm guessing it means a lot more than just inconsistent. I also don't see how you're connecting Aristotle's quote with inherent evil or (differently) corruptness. – Mitch Oct 4 '11 at 21:05
  • @Mitch: The Aristotle quote was to set the tone and approach to the question, not about the actual content. As for corrupt, it is meaningless without a definition of good and evil. I'm not sure yet whether I need to add a divine standard as a premise to this experiement or if there is a non-divine objective standard of good/evil I could use here. – Caleb Oct 4 '11 at 22:05
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I think it might be instructive to reverse the premise; what would it be like if we assumed that humans were not corrupt, that is to say, actually were good and pure?

If that were the case, there'd be no need for prescriptive ethics; morality would be self-enforcing. There'd be no conception of justice, as there would be no possibility of injustice.

So, it seems to me that the notion that humans are not inherently good and pure (in an absolute sense) is a transcendental condition for any ethics.

  • This seems like more of a logical argument for why the premise is in fact true. I'm still considering how I can ask this, but I'm trying to follow the consequences of such a scenario down to what we would expect the world to look like and what man's "condition" would be. – Caleb Oct 4 '11 at 20:35
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    @Caleb: What we would expect the world to look like is what it in fact looks like--populated by (deeply) imperfect beings, full of conflict and strife, a state of war of every man against every man, where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (to put it in Hobbesian terms). Or am I still misunderstanding your question? – Michael Dorfman Oct 4 '11 at 21:13
  • @MichaelDorfman That strikes me as a somewhat partial characterization of the appearance of the world -- though I am not disagreeing per se here, and do appreciate you qualifying it as a Hobbesian formulation. In passing, there may perhaps be some inconsistency in the way you express the problem in your comment. A 'state of war' strikes me as being on the order of a social contract compared with a state-of-nature total anarchy sort of situation. – Joseph Weissman Oct 7 '11 at 1:30
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    @JosephWeissman: Good point; I was paraphrasing Hobbes, perhaps a bit too loosely. My overall point, however, is that there's no need to consider "What would the world look like if humans were morally imperfect?" as a counter-factual. – Michael Dorfman Oct 7 '11 at 8:35
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    @JosephWeissman: Rather than Hobbes, I realize now that Bob Dylan put it better: "Well, God is in His heaven / And we all want what’s his / But power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is." – Michael Dorfman Oct 7 '11 at 20:05
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Logic and philosophy alone don't get you very far since they do not have a standard definition of "evil", let alone "corrupt".

One of the classical philosophical views on this is from Thomas Hobbes whose famous line "the life of man [will be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" highlights the plight of social interactions between not-overwhelmingly-good humans in the absence of a strong social contract. Hobbes drew his conclusion from the conflict between human passions and "laws of nature" that included mercy and various other (at least reciprocally) altruistic qualities. One could view the sorry state of mankind in the grip of various passions instead of Hobbes' laws of nature to be a statement of the evil and corruption inherent in the nature of man. Hobbes' conclusion was that strong social contracts are necessary to overcome the passions for the good of individuals and society.

A more modern viewpoint renders this debate almost entirely superseded by other concerns. Work on primate behavior has identified a certain level of innate moral behavior coupled with a certain level of selfishness, and sociologists and others have identified commonalities among moral behavior and beliefs in many different cultures. I at least have been unable to map what appears to be the reality of the situation onto inherent evil or corruption. There are many competing concerns--to benefit the individual, the individual's group, or to cooperate with rather than oppose an outsider or outside group. In this sort of view, I don't think the question even makes sense. Evil isn't defined well enough to reason about; there wasn't ever anything pure to corrupt; and even the idea of a unitary "nature of man" seems suspect, given the various competing concerns (that are almost certainly advanced by different brain regions) that we compromise and negotiate between all the time.

  • Are you sure that evolutionary biology has superseded Hobbes view more than it has confirmed it? After all, if the 'good' of society is the capacity of its members to thrive, in the sense of many people surviving and leaving offspring with high probability for many successive generations, it would not be surprising to find that instinctual development of social contracts along certain lines would be an adaptive feature for a social species. And if we find that the contract is less than iron-clad or universally honoured, that's just because our 'ought' is a wishful idealization of the 'is'. – Niel de Beaudrap Oct 4 '11 at 22:16
  • @Niel de Beaudrap - Well, I agree that E.B. has superseded a Hobbsean view while confirming aspects of it. Hobbes' natural laws are not laws (though they come up in certain game-theoretic settings). Passions alone don't account for nearly all of the conflict (even the Prisoner's Dilemma shows that). Social contracts help, but so does intrinsic/instinctive morality. Broadly, I think Hobbes had some great insights, but in detail the part that maps to evil/corruption doesn't seem to have survived. – Rex Kerr Oct 5 '11 at 17:29
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Some food for thought: There is a saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." So, what this means is that the definition of good versus evil has a blurry line between it. What if someone is 'corrupt' just so that he can pay off the medical bills of his parents? He would do anything it takes to protect his family. How would you brand this person in this economic times?

The fact of the matter is, we all have our own needs and our own way to achieve it. If the thought of saving your family is greater than your own conscience by hurting other people, some people do it. I mean, it's really hard to differentiate or label these people sometimes. But to the outsiders, this person is definitely evil since he is harming others. But not to his family.

My personal opinion is that, man are inherently pure and good. But for some people, it is necessary for them to perform "evil" deeds in order to do good things. If they don't strive to do 'good' things, then they may not need to do these 'evil' deeds after all.' Without light, there is no shadow/darkness. The greater the light, the greater the shadow. Of course, I do not discount that there are people who are just inherently evil. But then again, maybe to me and you. However, we may not think that once you understand their situation. No one wants to be an outcast in my opinion if they have a choice.

Back to the question, if we are having problem defining what is truly good or evil for one man, it would be impossible to define the outcome of being corrupt for every man. Because, corrupt doesn't really mean corrupt for every man. Well, maybe I just believe that people does not choose to be bad/evil. They do it because of the circumstances and to fulfill their needs. Not everyone is born equal. Some is not capable of this reasoning ability and would rather use brute force. To them, with their limited mind power, this is how it should be. Instant gratification. Some does not want to or is capable in thinking for long term needs... There is no way to brand all human.

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By definition, evolved humanity is made from genes that are good enough for the environment of earth. So if your standard of corrupt is "not good enough for the environment of earth", the consequences would be that we wouldn't be here at all. If your standard is some other fitness function, then the consequences would be that we would not meet that fitness test. If your criteria are some absolute, out of context definition of good, then the consequences would be that we would not be good.

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