Are people good, bad or indifferent

By Michael Derfler

In Are People Born Good, Dennis Prager asks the question, “Are people basically good?” He states that your answer to this question “will shape just about all of your moral, social, and political views.” On this point I agree. However, in regard to Mr. Prager’s opinion on the conservative, the leftist, and the Jewish answers to this question, I think he is mistaken.

My disagreement stems not from a personal opinion, but from traditional Jewish thought and from conservative (political) thought. First I will give the Jewish view on humanity as a moral actor, followed by the conservative view. Then I will address the facts Mr. Prager uses to support his position.

Dennis Prager often bases his opinions on Jewish ideas. According to his understanding, he suggests that at best humanity is morally neutral and people either develop to become good or bad. We have inclinations toward both good and evil. Freewill decisions determine whether one is good or evil. Here is a quote from another Prager article on this point: “Whether it is the Christian belief in original sin or the Jewish belief that we are all born with a yetzer tov (good inclination) and a yetzer ra (bad inclination) that are in constant conflict, the root value systems of the West never held that we are naturally good.”  Mr. Prager asserts that according to most leftists, people are basically good, and conservatives generally disagree.

Superficially, this view may seem correct. However, according to the Bible, God requires us to behavior morally. That means that despite the temptation to do wrong, we are expected to do right. If our nature in terms of morality is neutral, then this expectation seems too high.

Perhaps Mr. Prager would explain that this expectation is reasonable because prophets came and taught us to be moral. (This would fit with the fact that parents need to teach their children to behavior properly.) However, this is not the Jewish view. Humanity did not require a prophet to teach basic moral conduct.   We know this from the fact that the fate of the generation of the Flood was sealed because of the prevalence of violent theft, a crime that requires no prophet to announce its immorality. (Genesis 6:13. See Nachmanides’ comments on Genesis 6:13 based on the Talmud.) Further, the Talmud states that had the Torah not been given, we would learn positive traits from animals. If our essential nature were not good, then why would we learn positive traits from animals rather than negative ones? Moreover, religious Jews express the idea that we are essentially good every morning when they say, “My Lord, the soul that You have emplaced in me is pure….” (This is found in traditional prayer books.) (It could be suggested that I do not understand Jewish sources as well as the “wisest person on the radio.” That would be convenient, but I am not so presumptuous to write about Jewish thought based on my own understanding. Here is another source that clearly states our position: “It is the nature of the human soul to go in a morally upright way….” -Orot HaTshuvah)

My assertion here is not simplistically that “we are basically good.” Rather, our inner nature is good. At the same time, we are subject to the temptation of acting immorally. This does not diminish the fact that the soul is pure. In our lives, we are expected to realize our essential goodness, despite the innate drive to be selfish. The temptation to act immorally is what gives significance to our moral actions.

Conservatives agree with the Jewish position that humans in general are morally competent.  Generally conservatives accept the concept of “natural law.” (See The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk, ch. 1.) Proponents of natural law believe that there are basic moral laws that are universally accepted, like the prohibitions against murder and robbery. This means that people are universally able to recognize that these acts are immoral and to abstain from them. Cicero said that morality is part of human nature: “Whoever is disobedient (in regard to natural law) is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature….” (It is worth reading the paragraph in full: If people could not be expected to uphold basic moral standards, then it would not be appropriate to allow them to be free. Conservatives emphasize the value of freedom because they believe in the essential moral competence of humanity.

Edmund Burke, a conservative icon, had a positive view of humanity. “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.” –Edmund Burke (Speech on Reform of Representation in the House of Commons (May 7, 1782))

Leftists, on the other hand, do not emphasize freedom because they do not believe in the essential moral competence of humanity. Rather, they believe that some “elite” group(s) can prevent the majority of people from acting immorally. Those on the left may publicly proclaim the goodness of humanity, but this is a deception. “Politics is war by other means.” “All war is deception.” Leftists believe that humans are in general morally incompetent and therefore must be controlled. This explains why “guns kill,” rather than people. This explains why poverty is considered to be a cause of crime rather than a contributing factor. (See Proverbs 30:9.) This explains why the Obama administration initiated a program to pay Muslim groups to work against “extremism.” They cannot be expected to teach their communities to reject “extremism” without being paid to do so. ( 

Here are two telling quotes from the Left. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in The Social Contract, had this to say: “Nations, like men, are teachable only in their youth; with age they become incorrigible.  Once customs are established and prejudices rooted, reform is a dangerous and fruitless enterprise; a people cannot bear to see its evils touched, even if only to be eradicated; it is like a stupid, pusillanimous invalid who trembles at the sight of a physician.” Influential progressive thinker Herbert Croly, in his book The Promise of American Life, wrote that “the average American is incompetent intellectually and morally to be a democrat.” By contrast, he believed that the founders of the United States trusted in the goodness of the people. (Read Thomas Sowell’s article: 

Now I would like to address Mr. Prager’s supporting arguments. Although I would not argue with the facts Mr. Prager states to argue his case, I disagree with his assertion that these facts support his claim that people are not intrinsically good, i.e. morally competent. (You may prefer, in line with the Edmund Burke quote above, to substitute the word “humanity” for “people.”)

Mr. Prager points out that people are born self-centered and that people require training in moral behavior. The necessity of overcoming our natural inclinations toward immoral behavior is what makes our moral choices meaningful. As we mature, we become more morally competent to do so. (See Isaiah 7:15.) Thus parents know to teach their children to be moral.

Mr. Prager points out that history contains many horrible examples large-scale evil actions. While it is very important to know about the reality of evil, I would also appreciate a history lesson about all the good things people have done. Does all the good outweigh the evil? While it seems true that people who seek political power are more likely to be evil, this does not force us to conclude that humanity is not good. (News outlets and political commentators tend to focus on the negative.)

Mr. Prager asks, “Why does every civilization have so many laws to control human behavior?” Answer: Recognizing temptation, we collectively agree to create frameworks that discourage immoral behavior. This testifies to our essential goodness.

In conclusion, people are essentially good, that is, morally competent and that is why they should be free and why they should be held responsible for their actions.

Michael Derfner is the author of Harmony over Peace:

August 28, 2017 | 2 Comments »

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  1. Clearly, human beings have both benevolent and malevolent impulses, as well as those that are just plain selfish. Regrettably, the malevolent and selfish ones seem to predominate when it comes to relationships between different nations, ethnic groups and religions.