Are People Innately Good or Innately Bad?

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The Ramayana describes how Ravana acted devilishly for most of his life and refused to reform despite repeated good advice and strong warnings. His incorrigibility raises an important question about human nature. Are some people innately bad? That raises a bigger question: Are people in general innately good or innately bad?

Let’s consider both possibilities.

Are People Innately Good?

Most of us would like to believe that people are basically good. At the very least, we would like people to believe we are innately good. And if we want others to believe that about us, shouldn’t we return the favor and believe that they too are innately good?

Of course, what we believe about people doesn’t in itself change the ground reality about how people are. Even a little experience of life shows us that people can behave badly, even obnoxiously. If we have never been scarred by encountering such people, then we may be among the few who have lived protected from the world’s harsh realities. To gain a sense of those realities, we need look no further than the daily news: jumping out at our eyes will be reports of people committing violence, murder, even genocide.

Still, many of us may hope that though those people are behaviorally bad, they may still be innately good. Our hope echoes the contemporary ethos, which frequently champions the innate goodness of the individual. When presented evidence of people behaving terribly, many in the mainstream media and academia advocate some form of social determinism. This is the theory that people are largely products of their social situations, which can include educational, economic, and political factors. Social determinism holds that before these factors start acting on them, they are born as blank slates. If some of them grow up to behave badly, the theory attributes such behavior to their hostile externals. Those externals affected and afflicted them so much as to make their bad behavior understandable or even unavoidable.

Within this worldview of social determinism, the solution to bad behavior lies in social engineering. If we change people’s situations, providing them access to education, employment, and a supportive political environment, their innate goodness will manifest. And in support of this vision, it’s true that many people, when provided a better environment, do reform and flourish.

But then, many other people don’t change. When placed in better environments, they just misuse and abuse the facilities thus provided to continue their bad behavior.

Moreover, the idea of social determinism neglects the often-observed reality that two individuals with similarly bad backgrounds go along hugely different life-trajectories. One becomes resentful or revengeful, turning to violence. The other becomes responsible and resourceful, creating through all his or her surrounding darkness a path of light to a bright future.

Another problem with social determinism is that many bad people didn’t have an especially bad past. For example, many people who become terrorists come from good families, and are well educated, well endowed, and well-to-do. A good example of such a bad example is Ravana. He was born to a sage, had studied scriptural wisdom, and was never short of wealth. Yet he became reprehensibly evil. What made him that way? To attribute it to something external to him is to be blind to reality; something inside him was severely messed up.

Given that observation and experience strongly contest the idea that people are innately good, let’s look at the opposite idea.

Are People Innately Bad?

Considering this idea can be scary. After all, we are social creatures, and we need to live with people, almost constantly. If people were innately bad, then we would have to live under constant threat of being cheated and attacked and destroyed; that would make any kind of communal living unpleasant, if not unbearable. And since each one of us is included within the ambit of the term “people,” this idea would imply that we too are innately bad – a decidedly disconcerting prospect, to say the very least. Though even the best of us sometimes succumb to wrong actions, we like to believe that we are basically good. If we didn’t believe that, living with ourselves would be difficult. If we considered ourselves innately bad, we might start loathing and detesting ourselves, and that would make our life largely unlivable.

Though we may hesitate to accept that people are innately bad, we may unhesitatingly accept a milder version of that idea: some people may be innately bad – sociopaths, for example.

But such characterization dodges the difficult question: given that they are also humans, what exactly differentiates them from the rest of humanity? Might affixing to them some label such as sociopaths be a convenient way of putting ourselves on a high moral ground? When we thus treat them as the other, drastically different from us, are we just sparing ourselves the mortification of looking too closely at them, lest we see our own lowest side reflected in them?

Could there be something innately dark in everyone, with that darkness manifest to an extreme degree in people we label sociopaths?

Two Levels of Innateness

Can our hope that people are basically good be reconciled with the reality that people can sometimes be behaviorally bad? Yes, by understanding innateness at two levels, as Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita. These two levels correspond to two levels of reality in our inner world: the soul and the mind. At our core we are spiritual beings, souls. And we have a mind, the tool for the soul to liaise with the physical body and the outer world. The soul has the potential for virtue, but the mind often has a propensity for vice.

Our hope that people are innately good is true with regard to the innermost core of our being: our intrinsic divinity. As souls, we are parts of God. Because of that divine connection, we have the potential for virtue at the center of our being. And that holds true for everyone, no matter how depraved their present external behavior.

But if someone’s outer actions are drastically different from their inner potential, where does that difference come from? Is there something within us that makes us act viciously? Yes, there is. Within our mind is a propensity for vice. The strength of that propensity depends on how dark the impressions accumulated in our mind are. These impressions have been formed by our past actions, in both this and previous lives.

The foregoing implies that we are not born as blank slates, with our minds containing no impressions. Nor are we born as clean mirrors, with our minds reflecting the purity of our divine core. The slate of our mind is tainted with many impressions from our past lives. And because we all have done different actions in our past lives, we have our individual natures that fall somewhere along the spectrum from divine to demonic. We are born with a demonic nature if we have acted badly in our previous lives, thereby filling our mind with dark impressions that impel us in this life toward similar dark actions. We are born with a divine nature if we had done good deeds in our past lives, thereby filling our mind with good impressions that inspire us to do similar good deeds in this life.

Significantly, our actions aren’t determined by our past impressions alone. Those impressions impel us; they don’t compel us. We always have free will, for it is intrinsic to the soul. How we tend to use our free will is shaped by both our mental impressions and our social situations. Let’s understand how both these factors shape our actions.

Why Someone Becomes Incorrigible

Let’s compare our innate potential for virtue with an electric current. That current of our potential has to go through our mind to manifest as virtuous actions. But our mind, with its many impressions, may or may not allow that current to be transmitted. Those impressions may act as conductors, semiconductors, or insulators for our intrinsic spirituality. People whose impressions act like conductors seem innately good. Those whose impressions act like insulators seem innately bad. In most people, the impressions may act like semiconductors.

Again, to impel is not to compel. Even if people have internal impressions that impel them to behave in particular ways, those internals alone don’t determine their behaviors; their externals too shape whether they act on their impressions. A culture that cherishes and celebrates virtue would deter the demonic from acting out, at least openly or brazenly. A culture that glamorizes power and pleasure, without considering how they are secured, would remove such deterrents. Within the culture’s broad trends, the specific association that people seek or get will also shape how they act. By good association those given to vice may turn toward virtue, whereas by bad association those given to virtue may turn toward vice. Thus the culture’s overall value system and the individual’s specific association combine to shape their actions.

How does this analysis apply to Ravana? Because of a curse he had received long ago from sages known as the Kumaras, he had innate demonic tendencies. In this life he was born of an inter-species union between a brahminical sage (a human) and a demon princess (a Raksasa). He acquired a few of his father’s qualities, such as the capacity to study scripture. But he took on most of the qualities of his demonic maternal lineage. More than his parentage, his character was shaped by his choices. He chose to act on his demonic impulses till they defined his character completely. Though he performed severe austerities, his intent was not to purify his inner impressions, but to increase his outer power. Whatever powers he got by performing those austerities, he abused them to act on his demonic impulses even more destructively.

Conceivably, he could have controlled his impulses if he had listened to good advice. But along with his great power came great arrogance, which made him neglectful, even scornful, of wise counsel. And when that heady combination of power and arrogance was ignited by the explosiveness of lust, a time bomb was set in place. It started ticking when he abducted Sita. And it exploded when he was killed by Rama. 

How the Inner War Turns Out

Inner impressions and outer influences often interact in complex ways to shape particular people’s actions.

The propensity for vice can manifest in the unlikeliest of places. For example, though Vali was the son of Indra, the king of the celestials, he let himself be misled by anger and arrogance. Consequently, he ended up persecuting his own brother and seizing his brother’s wife for himself.

Conversely, the potential for goodness can manifest in the unlikeliest of places. For example, though both Ravana and Vibhishana were raised in the demonic family of their mother, Vibhishana grew up to be a saintly devotee. And his virtue was recognized and rewarded by Rama, who enthroned him as Ravana’s successor. As the king of Lanka, he led the citizens of that island to far better days than the temporary prosperity provided by Ravana.

The Bhagavatam describes how one of the heroic assistants of Rama, a monkey general named Dvivida, many years later turned against Krishna and coveted the gopis of Vrindavan, Krishna’s consorts. The same monkey who had fought in the Ramayana to unite the Lord with His consort, Sita, later became so distorted that he fought against that very Lord, now appearing as Krishna, because he wanted Krishna’s consorts for himself. Dvivida’s perversion was caused partly by bad association. He befriended the demon Narakasura and ended up indiscriminately adopting that demon’s ways.

These examples show that the impressions we are born with won’t necessarily stay with us lifelong; our behavior at one stage in life may give way to a different kind of behavior at another stage. Even within the same stage, our nature can be in a state of flux; we are capable of both being reformed by good association and good actions, and being deformed by bad association and bad actions.

All these subtleties highlight the problems with simplistic solutions to complex social problems. Some people attribute all behavioral problems to a failure in social engineering, which, they allege, is caused by the corruption of those in power, especially the politicians. While many politicians do place personal profit above social welfare, no class of people has a monopoly on vice. Indeed, if those very critics were given the power that politicians had, they too may well end up as corrupt as the politicians they condemn. To assume that anyone in power got there and stays there because of their venality is to be cynical to the extreme; it is to deny the commitment and capability that are often needed to succeed in any area of life.

The point here is not to defend politicians, but to defend ourselves from the twin temptations of playing blame games or advancing pat solutions. Instead, we need to take responsibility to do our part to bring out our potential for virtue and to help others do the same. Additionally, we can even encourage others to become similarly responsible, by facilitating the necessary social arrangements.

How Social Change Can Aid Inner Change

Though social engineering is not the sole solution, that doesn’t at all mean external conditions don’t matter. To place the responsibility for changing oneself entirely on the individual is to veer too much to the other extreme. External factors do shape human behavior.

Consider people who are largely given to their vicious propensities. Nothing may stop them from doing ghastly things, even when such acts create a horrible destiny for them in the future and hurt others immensely in the present. Such people just need to be stopped by force and punished by law. That’s why every civilized society needs a strong police force and justice department. In the Ramayana’s context, Ravana’s incorrigibility was the reason Rama had to mount a war to end Ravana’s reign of terror.

Suitable social structures are needed not just to punish wrongdoers, but also to deter people from changing for the worse. If there is no rule of law, ordinary people may indulge in petty wrongdoings, and petty wrongdoers may degenerate into deadly criminals. Social systems can also aid people in changing for the better. Some people may be ready to bring out their potential for virtue, but not if it will get them into big trouble socially. For example, very few of Lanka’s residents had the courage of conviction that Vibhishana had to go against their king, Ravana. But when Vibhishana was enthroned as the king of Lanka, they started acting virtuously under his righteous rule.

These examples convey the role of social change in fostering inner change: it is not the sole cause, but it can be a strong catalyst. The individual is the locus of responsibility, and supportive social structures can better help the individual act more responsibly.

Knowing Whom to Help and How

No matter how people are behaving presently, the potential for virtue exists in everyone. Given time, opportunity, encouragement, and some tough love, that potential will manifest. It may manifest through a dramatic change of heart in this very life, or it may manifest through a gradual awakening that may take several lifetimes.

Bhakti-yoga is a time-honored process for unleashing our potential for virtue and for purging ourselves of the propensity for vice. It is especially potent because it relies not just on our finite power to change ourselves but also on God’s infinite power to help us change. No wonder bhakti wisdom proclaims that human nature, however distorted it may be presently, is always reformable. Still, there’s a big condition: the willingness of that individual to reform. Without that readiness, no one can help, not even God. Even Rama couldn’t reform Ravana.

Though the potential for goodness exists in every heart, that potential doesn’t manifest automatically; it needs to struggle against the propensity for vice.

That struggle calls for committed cultivation and untiring vigilance: cultivation to nurture our good side, channeling whatever good impressions we have; and vigilance to check our propensity for vice whenever it starts surfacing. If someone doesn’t have such readiness, we can’t do much to help – the person’s higher side may stay lost to the world and even to that person’s own awareness in this life, at least for the foreseeable future.

When we want to help others, we can’t be merely sentimental; we need to remember that we can only help them if they want to be helped. If they aren’t ready to listen to good advice, we may need to keep a distance from them so that we don’t become dragged down by them. Of course, we can and should pray for their welfare, but we may also need to recognize that we can’t help them reform, at least in their present condition. Nonetheless, the one person whose reformation we can most control is we ourselves.

If we work to our best capacity, each of us can make a positive difference, certainly in our inner world and possibly in our outer world.