Yesterday was the official Mardi Gras Holiday in Louisiana. Living downtown Baton Rouge, I saw my fair share of pink costumes, Mardi Gras floats, brightly colored beads and inebriated people over the weekend. [Unfortunately], I was stuck inside writing an essay for my Philosophy of Journalism class on - here is the kicker - whether humans are fundamentally good or bad.
I am pretty sure my professor assigned this essay this week on purpose. But regardless, my reading and thoughts on the subject turned out to be quite interesting. I will let you read the final product for yourself.
Are humans fundamentally good? That depends... is today Mardi Gras?
Human Nature: Fundamentally good?
I believe that the question of whether humans are fundamentally good has a complex set of answers. While I believe that humans do carry an innate “moral sense,” perhaps derived over the course of our early evolution, culture and society may further “institutionalize” this moral sense into social and moral norms and cultural traditions.
Sigmund Freud took the view that humans are “essential cruel and selfish”. Freud viewed human behavior as resulting from unconscious desires, not leaving much faith in the superiority of logic and reason, in the Platonic sense, as mechanisms of overcoming more base desires. Freud “posited universal psychosexual stages and universal psychic structure ultimately rooted in Darwinian theories as he understood them” (Buss, 2001, p. 960). Many philosophers have agreed with Freud, viewing humans as essential selfish and aggressive from a biological standpoint. This view is also reflected in the concept of psychological egoism, in which humans always act out of self-interest, perceiving or expecting personal benefits.
Other philosophers and psychologists have taken a different stance on human nature, maintaining that man is essentially good or “moral” when not corrupted by society. According to a doctrine known as The Noble Savage, humans “in a state of nature are peaceful, harmonious, and, above all, fundamentally good” (Buss, 2001, p. 959). According to this doctrine, evil and depravity “come not from nature, but from the distortion and corruption of a good nature by a bad culture, imposed from the outside” (Buss, 2001, p. 959). For example, Western culture in this doctrine is seen as corrupting through emphasis on individualism, competition and materialism (Buss, 2001).
However, the doctrine has encountered opposition and problems of empirical evidence. Cultures in “tropical paradises” free of corrupt Western ‘values’ such as jealousy, used by proponents of The Noble Savage doctrine to support their claims, “turned out to exist only in the romantic minds of optimistic anthropologists and, in fact, have never been found” (Buss 2001, p. 961; Buss, 2000). According to David Buss, University of Texas, Austin, many evolutionary psychologists acknowledge both a universal human nature while recognizing “that the human mind contains many complex psychological mechanisms that are selectively activated, depending on cultural contexts” (Buss, 2021, p. 955).
In a 2007 study in Nature, several psychology researchers showed that “6- and 10-month-old infants take into account an individual’s actions towards others in evaluating that individual as appealing or aversive: infants prefer an individual who helps another to one who hinders another, prefer a helping individual to a neutral individual, and prefer a neutral individual to a hindering individual” (Hamlin, Wynn & Bloom, 2007). In other words, the study essentially revealed evidence that even very young humans “have a sense of right and wrong, and, furthermore, an instinct to prefer good over evil” (Stafford, 2013).
According to other researchers and philosophers, such as Richard Dawkins, these results might simply indicate that the infants are acting out of self-interest and selfishness driven by their genes. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins asserts that “‘We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.. . .This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior” (Dawkins, 1976; in H. Gintis et al., 2003, p. 154). In Dawkins’ view, morality exists among humans in social life, but only because it is “socially imposed on a fundamentally selfish agent” (H. Gintis et al., 2003, p. 154). However, according to Gintis et al., recent research “has revealed forms of human behavior involving interaction among unrelated individuals that cannot be explained in terms of self-interest” (2003, p. 154). Some forms of strong reciprocity and altruism may be not explained fully by self-interest and selfish genes.
According to Buss, humans “have evolved motives, strivings, and other goal-directed proclivities that historically led to relative reproductive success” (2001, p. 966). According to Francis De Waal, humans are an inherently social and moral species. In De Waal’s view, morality is even the essence of humanity –man does not need to overcome his own nature in order to adopt morality and ethical behavior. I believe that regardless of where these tendencies or instincts come from – selfish genes, human evolution or a divine source – it cannot easily be denied that humans are instinctively social creatures with cooperative and altruistic behavioral tendencies. Humans appear to have an instinctual sense for ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ However, I don’t believe that this means that society, and organized religion, doesn’t and shouldn’t play a role in setting ethical standards and norms that appeal to humans’ fundamental moral sense. Society can play a role in encouraging religion, morality and knowledge.
Are there universal ethical values?
Personally, I believe that there are universal ethical and moral tendencies derived from nature and human evolution, as well as those values and norms socially constructed by individual societies. For example, humans may have an innate sense of right and wrong, good and evil, that inform values such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, fairness and responsibility that may pervade multiple cultures and societies.
According to a BBC column on ethics, “[o]ne of the big questions in moral philosophy is whether or not there are unchanging moral rules that apply in all cultures and at all times.” Proponents of moral absolutism, such as Immanuel Kant, take a “universal view of humanity – there is one set of rules for everyone – which enables the drafting of universal rules - such as the Declaration of Human Rights.”  Moral relativists believe that ethical rules vary based on context and depend on the culture that upholds them.
With respect to journalism and communication, Christians and Traber (1997) proposed certain universal ethical norms:
above all, truth-telling, commitment to justice, freedom in solidarity [freedom blossoming in an attitude of responsibility for each other], and respect for human dignity—are validated as core values in communications in different cultures. These values are called universal not just because they hold true cross-culturally. … The universality of these values… is rooted ontologically in the nature of human beings. It is by virtue of what it means to be human that these values are universal. (p. 341)
Herb Strentz (2002) proposes several universal ethical standards as starting points for ethical values of journalism, including the use of restraint, the avoidance of self-deception, respect and accountability for one’s actions. According to Strentz, agreement on certain universal ethical standards “would be a giant step away from the ‘it-all-depends’ mentality” (2002, p. 275).
Role of Society
I believe that human societies should balance collective interests with individual interests. Society and government should maintain individual liberties first and foremost, including political freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association. However, where these individual freedoms interfere with others’ freedom to survive, individual freedom should be limited by law. I believe that the individual has a responsibility to collective interests, as the journalist has a responsibility to inform readers with true and complete information, and indeed should respond to such a responsibility according to the evolution of humans as a social species and our co-dependence on the earth as a common habitat.
I believe that there are certain absolute human rights, to be preserved at all costs, such as those issued by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These absolute rights should never be interfered with by government or society structures in any circumstance. These include the right to life, the right not to be tortured, the right not to be treated as a slave and the right to no punishment without law. According to Renee Loth, “[h]uman rights are not just a cultural preference, like wearing jeans or drinking Coca-Cola. As the world becomes more interconnected across religious, political, and cultural lines, we need to agree that some values are absolute.”
Personally, I believe that freedom of expression and freedom of speech should enjoy near-absolute protection from government regulation. Freedom of speech / expression should certainly be limited in extenuating circumstances, such as revelation of classified information that poses a clear and present danger to national security. Freedom of speech may also be limited if it clearly threatens other basic human values and rights. However, I believe that these limitations should be made with care, as Jonathan Turley warns in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post. I believe that freedom of expression lies at the foundation of other human rights and values, including religious, political and educational freedoms, and human progress.
I agree with Ian Cohen’s statements in a recent opinion article that freedom of expression “should be sacred to all.” According to Cohen, “[a]s a democratic society we have a huge responsibility to maintain free speech. The quality of global dialogue, human rights and those brave souls who step out of their comfort zone, motivated by their sense of justice, have a right to be protected while representing us.”13 However, I also partially agree with Robert Hutchins view that the press has certain responsibilities to its audiences, and should be held to ethical standards of honesty and truth-telling. False information should be revealed as such, for both the collective and individual interest. However, freedom of expression and freedom of political speech should be preserved at all costs when not encroaching upon other fundamental human rights.
Buss, D. (2001) Human Nature and Culture: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. Journal of Personality, 69(6), 955–978
Christians, C., & Traber, M. (Eds). (1997). Communication ethics and universal values. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dawkins, R. (1989). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, S. (1920) Civilization and Its Discontents. London: Hogarth
Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 153–172
Strentz, H. (2002). Universal Ethical Standards? Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 17(4), p263-276