A new myth

Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good? — Johnson. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ — Boswell. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ — Johnson. ‘No, sir.’ — Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’*

In our society, it is widely fashionable to think that human beings are basically good, and, to go along with that, that we are rational beings. Some people, mostly traditional Christians, hold an unfashionable view which is opposed to this, that human beings are marked by original sin. Most of those who hold this unfashionable view would also assert that rationality is not the first thing that strikes you when you look at human actions and moral decisions. But this unfashionable view is held by a minority of people in our society, and is dismissed by religious liberals like me.

Why do so many of us believe, against a great deal of evidence to the contrary, that human beings are good and rational? I suspect many of us hold on to this irrational belief merely because we don’t want to have anything to do with the unfashionable Christian belief in original sin. We don’t want to be accused of being “too Christian,” or accused of being “religious”; so we reject original sin, and without wondering about other possible alternatives, we irrationally believe in the myth that humans are good and rational. And this irrational belief of ours is strengthened by the myths promoted by economists: that we are each a rational actor making rational economic choices, and the general trend of our economic choices is to improve the human condition. Our inability to address global climate change and overpopulation puts the lie to the economists’ myths; yet we continue to believe them.

Samuel Johnson said humans are not naturally good, “no more than a wolf.” Given what now we know about how well wolves treat each other within the wolf pack, Johnson’s comparison overestimates human goodness; at least, his comparison overestimates human goodness in our society in which individualism is valued more highly than communal endeavor. At least the wolf can and will do good to other members of the pack; individualistic humans reject allegiance to the pack, and won’t do good to other humans except when it serves their own private and personal interests.

But we need not feel we have to choose between the unfashionable traditional Christian myth of original sin on the one hand, and on the other hand the combination of two myths, the Romantic myth of natural human goodness and the Enlightenment myth of human rationality. I think it’s time for a new myth. But I don’t yet know what it is.


* The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell, 1786 (ed. R. W. Chapman [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 300).

8 thoughts on “A new myth”

  1. In debating whether people are “naturally” good or evil, the answer depends in part on what is meant by “natural”. One strand in Western though identifies an entity’s “nature” with an entity’s origins. But another strand in Western thought, going back to the Greek philosophers, identifies an entity’s nature with an entity’s ends. Furthermore, these “ends” are identified with the entity’s specific excellence or virtue.

    For example, a kinife’s “nature” is its end or specific excellence of being sharp. Its nature does not need to be defined by its origins as a lump of iron. (However, those origins must be taken account of in shaping the knife to the desired sharpness.)

    If one identifies human “nature” as the passions and desires that develop first in early childhood, then moral behavior is identified as restraining our human nature to meet the requirements of some moral code.

    But if one views human “nature” as best defined by what is most excellent in the human psyche, then we can view moral codes as fulfilling human nature at its highest. Candidates for the highest specific human excellences include compassion, reason, humility, justice, and an openess to dialogue.

    Nature is a powerful word. We should be careful how we use it.

  2. And I just noticed that the website “Unitarian Universalist Quotes” this morning has the following quotation:

    “Every mind was made for growth, for knowledge; and its nature is sinned against when it is doomed to ignorance.” – William Ellery Channing (Unitarian, clergy)

    Even with no other evidence, I am certain from this that Channing was steeped in the Greek philosophers, given that nature is defined by what something grows towards. In contrast, if nature is in our origins, we are naturally ignorant.

  3. I was raised in a nonreligious home. Once I moved to the East Coast and encountered cultural Jews I realized we were cultural Christians. But for a long time my description was “I would say my parents were secular humanists, but they don’t actually have a very high opinion of humanity.”

  4. Maybe that humans are inherently/naturally creative? Which of course could be good or evil in its application, but in pure creativity, as in pure science, it’s simply the urge to make new simply for the sake of making new that distinguishes us as a species.

  5. I think this comes from Daniel Pinker’s The Blank Slate. It’s a variation of the wolf comparision. People are biologically no different than we were 50,000 years ago — small band animals organized along herdish, packish lines. You know alpha males etc. We are instinctively prone to that moral code: altruism and self-sacrifice for the small group that is “us” and capable of violence, cruelty, greed with others not in our small group. And even inside the small group, the sexual competition and violence associated with alpha male type systems.
    Culturally, (in the last 15K years) we have progressed far beyond that — coming into contact with many people outside of our small group. We have to learn through culture a better way to behave; which is why we have religion and laws and schools and advice columnists. It’s a pretty imperfect process as you know.
    I think that theory explains the dual nature of human behavior — obviously we are not by nature good or evil, because if we were we would be acting that way by instinct. We are by nature human animals, and by culture better behaved, at least some of the time.
    The consequence is that people have to be very conscious of the culture and the morals and ethics it promotes and rewards. Why religion matters.

  6. I have found the native American story of the two wolves absolutely life-changing in my sense of the myth that we must cultivate for ourselves. It works from a humanist perspective but can also be interpreted through a variety of other perspectives as well. It is the idea that we have two “wolves” or personalities within us, a good one and a bad one, and the one that will thrive is the one that we feed.

  7. Amanda, thanks for mentioning this; it’s a good story.

    Being a little obsessive about such things, you’ve gotten me pondering the question: which Native people originated this story? The earliest appearance in print that I can trace this story to is The Power of Positive Praying by John R. Bisagno (Zondervan, 1965; rpt. Xulon Press, 2005), p. 55, who connect the story with the Mohave people: “An old missionary returned home to a convert among the Mohave Indians. When the missionary asked him how he was doing, old Joe said, ‘Well, it seems that I have a black dog and a white dog inside of me and they are always fighting.’ The missionary asked him, ‘Which one wins?’ and Joe said, ‘The one I feed the most.'” But Bisagno’s story appears to have been second or third hand, and I wonder whether the attribution to a Mohave Indian is correct. Internet searches bring up attributions to the Cherokees, but none of those attributions seem particularly well-researched. So I guess I’ll have to leave it at: “attributed to an unspecified Native American people.”

  8. If any Native American people originated it.

    However the earliest reference might be in a commentary on Collossians by Harry Ironside, circa 1914. http://www.studylight.org/com/isn/view.cgi?bk=col&ch=2
    Colossians 2:20-23

    An Indian, in explaining the conflict of the two natures, said, “It seems to me as though two dogs are fighting within me: one is a black dog, and he is very savage and very bad. The other is a white dog, and he is very gentle and very good. But the black dog fights with him all the time.” “And which dog wins?” someone asked. Laconically the Indian replied, “Which ever one I say ‘sic him’ to.” And it was well put, for if the will is on the side of the evil, the flesh will triumph; but if the will is subdued by grace and subject to the Holy Spirit, the new nature will control.

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