There seems to be a basic disagreement regarding the basic essence of how humans behave, often referred to as Human Nature. This disagreement seems to form the essential ingredient in many of our most bitter disagreements about government and policy, locally (e.g. The Red-Blue Divide) and globally.
Some tentative definitions:
- Good behavior is behavior which is intended to help the community, regardless of whether it helps the acting individual.
- Bad behavior is that which is destructive of the community, regardless of whether it helps the acting individual.
In both of the above, it is generally the intention which determines the goodness or badness of the behavior, though intention can often be difficult to determine. There is strong evidence that individuals may believe that a set of behavior is in the best interest of the community in spite of clear evidence to the contrary; this is generally known as denial, or "deceiving yourself". Also, when complicated issues arise, individuals may disagree strongly about whether particular actions will help or harm the community. Thus it is not always easy to be sure whether behavior is good or bad. Certain types of behavior are defined as "bad" purely in terms of what actions are taken, usually because such actions can only be interpreted, within reason, as harmful to the community. Such actions are called crime, and result in punishment and perhaps incarceration, depending on the severity of the transgression.
Humans Are Bad
One belief is that humans are innately evil or at least self-centered, and need strong laws to keep them behaving in a way that is best for the community. From this basic premise emerge ideas such as disciplinarianism, conformity, fundamentalism, and evangelism, as well as ideas such as accountability and responsbility, and some components of individualism. This point of view tends to be described as conservative.
Humans Are Good
Another belief is that humans basically want to please others and cause good things to happen, and the most they need is a little encouragement and guidance in order to learn the best ways of doing this. Ideas emerging from this premise include tolerance, forgiveness, and nonconformity, as well as some components of individualism. This point of view tends to be described as liberal.
It seems more likely that there is a range of innate human qualities, rather than a pair of polar opposites. Some individual humans do wish to please others, and will go to great lengths to avoid selfish behavior, while others will take any excuse to behave selfishly if they think they can get away with it. Some individuals who behave well under ordinary circumstances will panic and begin acting selfishly under stress, while others will endure extraordinary stress – up to and including death – without lapsing into selfish behavior. Still other appear to be incapable of acting selflessly under any circumstances.
It has been suggested that studies such as the Stanford prison experiment and The Third Wave (not to mention the events in Nazi Germany which were the inspiration for the latter) strongly argue in favor of the evilness of human nature. Editors note: This should probably be moved onto a separate Human nature is bad page, with counterarguments and so on. I have the counterarguments, but don't have time to write them down just now.