Oh, my goodness, what an immense vista this question opens. Although I doubt anyone can answer the question with certainty, here is the best I can do after a lifetime of thought on the matter:
I'm 84 years old. Questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and so forth, have dominated my mind throughout my life. I can remember walking to and from grade school with my best friend, discussing these topics. I have no way of knowing whether I'm more susceptible to such thoughts than others. All I know is that they've always been important to me.
If one wants to consider such matters, our society gives us a wealth of material to ponder. The difficulty is that the field is so vast, and the inter-dependencies so complex, that selecting and analyzing circumstances that depict our nature, even examples we can call 'good' or 'bad' is challenging.
As I've tried to think about the world in which I've lived, the goal of my examination has been to consider our nature and ways to harness it. Over time, I've been forced to hone and whittle my ideas, seeking a basic concept that might be helpful. If I've found one, it is that we must understand our nature before we can develop institutions that capitalize on our strengths and control our weaknesses.
In thinking about the topic of good and evil, which is a part of our nature, I found something that was, to me, startling. I found there's a sensible reason why the strong take advantage of the weak (a circumstance I characterize as 'bad'). To me, the idea is very powerful. It may be the first step in understanding why civilization developed as it did. You may consider this idea 'common knowledge', and it may be so, but, to me, it was a revelation. I will describe it from the perspective of 'goodness'.
We all have an idea of goodness, but there is no objective measure of good. Each of us measures goodness in our own way. You may think something is good while someone else may think the same thing is bad. I started out believing people are naturally good, but drifted to a more neutral notion as I grew older. Here's why:
Self-preservation is the first law of nature. Before humans reached the cave-man state they did what they had to do to survive. They existed like other animals. They killed for food and they killed those who threatened them. For them, killing was not a moral issue, it was a matter of survival.
It is likely that these beings existed in herds, that they hunted and sheltered together, instinctively. If so, they might have lived like what we refer to as cave-men. However, those beings did not become 'human' until they began to change their animalistic behavior. The ability to make such a change defines what we call humans.
Assuming cave-men lived in groups, it is reasonable to imagine that the most effective survivors of the group were the strongest members. We can also imagine that the strongest could and did take from the weakest. It is equally likely that the weaker took whatever they could from the stronger, even if it was only 'leavings', to satisfy their needs.
But, need is relative. It depends on many factors. In the case of cave-men, it depended on the availability of food, an individual's size and/or appetite, the need to provide for mates and offspring, need to store reserves, and, perhaps, other factors. It is not hard to imagine that, however primeval, different members of the group had different needs.
When these beings started to change their animalistic behavior, when they began to 'think', there is a high likelihood that their thoughts related to their needs. At some point, those thoughts expanded to include opinions or judgments about the needs of other individuals in the group. The concepts of 'good' and 'bad' must have developed in this way.
At some point in the existence of cave-men, the weaker members of the community recognized that, since they did not have the strength to take from the stronger members by themselves, they needed the help of others if they were to survive. It would not have been difficult for the weaker members to recognize other members of the group who also suffered by their weakness. In some way, these weaker members banded together to limit the domination of the stronger. That banding together was the start of what we call civilization.
What is not stated, but must be recognized, is that the stronger members were members of the same group. They did not stand idly by and allow the weaker members to take from them. They participated in finding a solution, using their strength to assert 'ownership' to protect as much of what was 'theirs' as they could.
Ownership was claimed by the strong and the attribution of greed was laid by the weak. This is the most important, but least acknowledged, aspect of the relationships which led to the origin and structure of civilization t. Civilization sprung from the need of the weak to curtail the power of the strong.
If this is a reasonable estimate of the origin of civilization, several things stand out:
- The driving force for civilization (the organization of society) is the need to restrain the strongest members of the group. If the weaker members of the group do not feel threatened by the stronger, there is no need to organize.
- Morality, or the concept of 'good and bad', can not exist in the absence of intelligent thought. The squirrel, when he stores nuts for the winter, does not ask himself if he'd be wrong to store one more. If he finds another and feels the need for it, he takes it. For animals, there is no issue of good or bad, and the concept of 'greed' does not exist. A moral sense is a mark of intelligence.
- The threat the weaker members of the original society felt had to result from deprivation of the resources needed for existence (probably food). If the stronger were perceived as taking more than they needed while the weaker suffered, that condition must have been characterized as 'bad'.
- The mechanism society uses to restrict bad behavior is force. By definition, a weaker member can not control a stronger one. But, several weaker members, in unison, have enough power to control even the strongest. In this sense, civilization is a banding together of the members of a group to gain the strength needed to control members exhibiting 'bad' behavior.
- When discussing these relationships, we use sophisticated terms to differentiate forms of undesirable behavior. Thus, we call the taking of more than one needs 'greed'. This tempts us to say civilization developed to limit greed. However, the initial banding together of the weak must surely have been to limit the power of the stronger members of the group, not to penalize them but to ensure the survival of the weaker members.
- The evolution of the power of the stronger members has been characterized by increasing sophistication in the way leaders (i.e., the strongest) exercised their power, as described in a passage in "The Story of Civilization", by Will Durant: "Slowly the increasing complexity of tools and trades subjected the unskilled or weak to the skilled or strong; every invention was a new weapon in the hands of the strong, and further strengthened them in their mastery and use of the weak."
- The civilizing influence of the weak in countering the excesses of the strong is always reactive. The weak must identify the strong (and the effects of their strength) before they can band together to limit the power of the stronger members of society.
Over time, as the level of sophistication increased, the strong issued edicts and established rites that provided a color of right for their actions. In modern times, in a notable application of the art of sophistry, they developed political institutions that appear to empower the weak while in fact increasing the mastery of the strong. One conclusion we can draw from this is that we must question the institutions put in place by our leaders. They are the people most inclined to enslave us.
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One of the most powerful tools the strong use to influence the weak is our 'will-to-believe'. The significance of the will-to-believe is not readily apparent, yet it ranks close to the will-to-survive in its influence on our lives. The will-to-believe is not a doctrine, it is a human trait. It is a part of what we are. Since we can't know everything, we believe what we are told about matters beyond our ken. Current instances abound, but more remote examples illustrate the force of this trait with greater clarity, thus:
- If we are that told our emperor descends from the sun god, we believe it.
- If we are told to dance in a certain way to please the rain god, we dance.
- If we are told our king rules by divine right, we accept that doctrine. Not all of us, perhaps, but enough of us that the force of our combined belief is palpable.
You may not, in 2013, believe in an emperors' divinity, or the power of the rain dance, or the divine right of kings. But you do know that such ideas had a profound influence when they were in vogue. To understand why they were so influential, you must imagine yourself living when these ideas were accepted dogma.
If you had lived in the American Southwest 600 years ago, would you have danced for the rain god? Were you a Japanese citizen in 900 A.D., would you have worshiped your emperor? Were you a Parisian in the 14th century, would you have endorsed the divine right of kings? In each case, almost certainly so.
More than dance or worship or endorse, you would have believed. You would have 'known' the customs and beliefs of your time were right and proper. If your dance failed to bring forth rain, you would have been sure, not that your belief was wrong, but that you and your people had failed to please the rain god.
The strength of a belief is not dependent upon the soundness of the precept but on the intensity of the will-to-believe. While one may quibble with the label 'a will-to-believe', I've been unable to find a better term to explain the driving force behind Sinn Fein, Nazis, witch hunters, Kamikaze pilots, followers of the Reverend Jones, Palestinians, and those imbued with religious fervor.
The will-to-believe is not only powerful, it is strange. It tends to be accompanied by an absolute certainty that which is believed is also true. We start exercising our will-to-believe to fill the gap formed by our lack of knowledge, and then leap directly from ignorance to absolute certainty.
It is even stranger that this progression from lack of knowledge continues on through absolute certainty to destructiveness. For it would be hard to imagine greater destructive force than that wielded by Sinn Feiners, Nazis, witch hunters, Kamikaze pilots, Reverend Jones, Palestinians, and those permeated with religious fervor. The result of their terrible certainty is havoc and death; the destruction of themselves and the destruction of others. In fact, the most destructive words in any language are:
In modern society, this trait inhibits our ability to question our leaders. In the United States, we want to believe we live under government "of the people, by the people, for the people". We've been told we have the greatest government on earth for so long, in so many ways, by so many people, that we want to believe it. We do not want to examine the institutions that control our government.
In America, political parties control the choice of candidates the people may vote for in our so-called 'free elections'. When the people vote for candidates chosen by political parties, control of the government is vested, not in the voters, but in the parties that chose the candidates.
A party-based political system is the antithesis of democracy. It expresses our status as subjects of those who defined our options - those who control the political parties. As long as political parties select the candidates for public office, the people are helpless because 'those who control the options control the outcome'.
The ability to choose from options provided by political parties does not give us control of our government, but, because we have a will-to-believe we have the best government on earth, we blind ourselves to our own subjugation.
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On a personal rather than a society-wide level, insofar as the concept of natural human goodness is concerned, the concepts of good and bad can't exist for a single individual. They can only exist in terms of others. We exist in a constant and ever-changing mixture of good and bad. The choices we make flow from our understanding of that mixture, influenced by our individual characteristics. The less powerful among us may consider actions good that are abhorrent to the more powerful, but they are neither good nor bad unless they affect others and their goodness or badness depends on the effect they have on others.
A Japanese friend once told me, "Evil heart is something we learn after we are born", and I agree. Good heart is, too. For each of us, the idea of good and bad grows as we develop. Initially, we see those who gratify our wishes as good and those who deny us what we want as bad. We exist in a constant and ever-changing mixture of good and bad, starting with our parents who supply our needs (good) and control us (bad). But we soon realize good and bad are much more complex than that. The choices we make flow from our understanding of that mixture, influenced by our individual characteristics. The less powerful among us may consider actions good that are abhorrent to the more powerful, but they are neither good nor bad unless they affect others and their goodness or badness depend on the effect they have on others.
That, it seems to me, is the essence of good and bad. It also describes human nature. It is certainly not profound.
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The significant revelation of this line of thought is that it is natural for the most powerful members of society to put their own interest above the interests of others. The tendency of the strong to dominate the weak is as natural a part of the human as breathing. We are unwise to expect leaders to act differently. Failure to understand that simple precept leaves us ill-equipped to improve society.
Since leaders are an important part of society, we must devise a means of selecting leaders that benefits all of us. The institutions we use to select our leaders must be designed to recognize and protect us from the natural imperfections of the human spirit. Hence, we must recognize our own weaknesses and harness them. In other words, our political institutions must be designed to temper our 'bad' traits with our 'good' ones.
A well-designed political institution will recognize that some people are better advocates of the public interest than others. It will be designed, not to divide the public into blocs but to find the best advocates of the common interest and raise them to leadership positions as the people's representatives. To meet that challenge, given the range of public issues and the way each individual's interest in political matters varies over time, an effective electoral process must examine the entire electorate during each election cycle, seeking the people's best advocates. It must let every voter influence the outcome of each election to the best of their desire and ability, and it must ensure that those selected as representatives are disposed to serve the public interest.
The political process must encourage the absorption of diverse interests, reducing them to their essential element: their effect on the entire community. It should have no platforms, no ideology. The only question is, which members of the community are the most attuned to the needs of society and have the qualities required to advocate the common good.
Such an institution can best be developed by atomizing the electorate into thousands, or, in larger communities, millions of randomly chosen very small groups. Each group advances the best advocate of the group's interests who are then randomly assigned to very small groups made up of the selectees from other groups. The process continues until a desired number of public officials are chosen. Each tiny group provides a slight bias toward the common interest. As the levels advance, the cumulative effect of this small bias overwhelms special interests seeking their private gain. It leads, inexorably, to the selection of representatives who advocate the interests of the entire community.
You will understand that this is just a start at laying the groundwork for formulating an alternative to the system we currently endure. We can only hope to attain such a political structure when the thoughtful people among us add their insights to harness our nature for the benefit of all.