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Are We Naturally Good or Bad?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

"I think there's a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you've stepped across the line into evil, and it's your life's challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line." Lucy Gray Baird, character in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (book written by Suzanne Collins)

While having dinner yesterday with two of our granddaughters (aged 11 and 13, and one of their friends, aged 17), a deep discussion broke out around a question philosophers have grappled with for hundreds of years. Are people naturally good or bad? And... how do we know who is good or bad? What characterizes a "good" or "bad" person?

Surprisingly, the youth were of one mind. People are basically good but can get off track they said. And what exactly are "good" people? After a little discussion, the simple answer. Good people are those who try to help others. Bad people are those who (intentionally) hurt others.

What nudged part of this discussion (that is, whether people are naturally good or bad), was a sentiment expressed by the protagonist in a recently released movie, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (from the book written by Suzanne Collins). I saw the movie during the Thanksgiving holidays with two of our other granddaughters. They found the movie philosophically intriguing as well.

The movie is a prequel to the Hunger Games series. The main bad guy in the Hunger Games is Coriolanus Snow. He’s murdered and poisoned and manipulated his way to supreme power. In this prequel, the viewer is given a glimpse into what has caused him to become evil. We’re even rooting for Snow in the beginning before he starts making choices whose consequences take him down an evil path.

The precise words of Lucy Gray Baird, the female protagonist, are reflected in this blog's beginning quote: "I think there's a natural goodness built into human beings. You know when you've stepped across the line into evil, and it's your life's challenge to try and stay on the right side of that line."

Now if you know the issue of what is happening in the Hunger Games, that starving teens from each district must fight each other to the death…until only one emerges the victor; it seems a bit counter-intuitive that Lucy Gray might have this gentle worldview in a dog-eat-dog sort of life and competition.

Lucy Gray, however, and my granddaughters are probably right about the basic nature of people. That we are naturally good. What? How would we know?

Is this what we see as we look out at the world? Two equally brilliant minds in the past saw something entirely different.

Thomas Hobbes, English philosopher in the middle 1600's describes humans as "nasty" and "brutish", needing society and rules to reign in their instincts in order to thrive (if you’ve read or seen Lord Of The Flies by William Golding, you have experienced how that philosophy plays out).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, early 1700's Genevan philosopher, however vehemently criticized Hobbes. He argued instead that people are good.

Who is right? And how would we know?

Researchers at Yale (2010) were the first to think about a creative way of getting an answer to this question. They would find out from babies.

What? Why babies? Babies have had little influence from the outside world. However working with babies presents an obvious problem. They cannot talk. It would be nice if we could ask them a few questions and get a few answers. Like... how do they distinguish good from evil? And which side, the good or bad, do they prefer? This might give us insight into who we are as human beings.

The scientists came up with a clever way of working with babies to answer these questions. A red circle (with eyes) is shown to babies. The red circle seems to be trying to go up a steep diagonal. But now the intrigue. A blue square (with eyes) seems to be trying to knock him backwards.

Then along comes yellow triangle (with eyes). Yellow triangle nudges red circle back up. There is no talking. However babies from seven to 12 months seem as captivated as babies get. Do the babies discern somehow that the blue square is being naughty? Do they think that yellow triangle is nice? Would they be making those decisions based on their baby beliefs that blue square hinders? Yellow triangle helps.

Then the test comes. After this little performance, which shape will the baby reach for? Over and over again, the babies choose the yellow triangle, the helper. This sort of study has been repeated with various switch-ups. Different shapes, different colors, no colors, no shapes, but the same general idea. One something or other helps, another something or other hinders. The helping thing (or person or animal) is preferred.

Researchers say the babies seem to know right from wrong. They make their decisions on who or what is helping or hurting/hindering. And they like the good guys. On that basis, researchers put forth the argument that we are naturally good.

And, it might follow, that if we aren't seeing people, including ourselves, being good, we might ask what went wrong? And how do we make ourselves "right."

The whole idea of the movie prequel is that there’s a back story to how good people go wrong. In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, distrust plays a big role. (According to Dr. Roy Baumeister, an expert on how good people do bad things, the more likely immediate cause of bad behavior is a problem with impulse, self-control... particularly to save face, get respect...which also is a big driver of the Snow character's behavior in the movie. Random crimes are unusual, sadists are also rare.)

I'm interested in how we get back to our naturally "good" self. Some religious folks, even certain psychologists, call this our True Self, our core. My husband, John, calls it his “love place.”

One of the nice things about some sort of mindfulness practice is that we can notice when we are NOT being our True Self, not connected to our essential core. About to cross over that line toward evil.

Before this baby research, and some experiences I have had with my own grandchildren, I thought it might take a lot of wisdom, or a committed religious practice, to make good choices. Now I question that. We may have access to a small still voice telling us what is the right thing to do very early in life.

For example, years ago I was driving with two of our granddaughters (when one was about 2 and the other about 4). The two-year-old pointed to a police car which had its lights on. She pointed to the police car and wondered what it was I told her it was the police. She didn’t know what the police were. I tried to describe them…as people who helped us when we were in trouble.

“Oh, like God,” she said. (How did she come to that image of God, the Supreme Good?)

Her sister replied, “No, not like God. God is inside your heart and tells you what is right and what is wrong.”

Now this fascinated me. I asked how she knew the voice speaking inside her was God.

She replied, “Because it tells me to pick up my books.”

I was perplexed. “How does that help you know it is God talking?”

She looked at me bewildered and repeated a little louder with more passion, “Because the voice says 'pick up your out.'''


Turns out young kids, even babies are sorting things out as to who is good, what is good, characteristics of the Supreme Good, and already have moral foundations in place.

Maybe we can relax our worried, judgmental minds. Ease into the idea that despite all appearances, people ARE basically good. Including us. We CAN make good choices. Trust our guidance system, the inner voice of the True Self. Sure, it might take some practice. To get back there. To our basic good baby-ness. Here's my plan.

Stop. Breathe. Listen. Discern. Choose... to hang out with the yellow triangles.

How might we journey together to the Good Life differently if we believed people are naturally good?


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