Is man good, or is it fundamentally bad? One thing is certain: for many years the prevailing politico-social thinkers have presented us with a fundamentally incorrect view of humanity. What do the latest scientific insights say about this question?
Man as the measure of things
What is good and bad is culture relativists will note, a matter of culture. Indeed, we in the Netherlands think very differently about ethical issues such as blasphemy, same-sex marriage and the teaching of the theory of evolution than our great-grandparents or contemporary Afghans, for example. Yet there are fundamental similarities, which have to do with an ancient Greek wisdom. Man is the measure of things: because we are human, we have certain universal conceptions of what is good and what is evil. For example, we are in a mortal, because animal and ape-like body. We don't have a group mind, like an anthill, but see our identity clearly delimited by our body. That is why we usually like everything that increases the chances of survival of this body. In every culture, for example, theft or murder of someone in their own group, or starving someone to death, is seen as a crime. Killing someone from a hostile group is a heroic act.
Man as a natural criminal
There is a constant difference between what we want and what is allowed according to the prevailing social norms. The process by which a growing person learns to bring what he or she wants in line with what is possible according to the social rules is called upbringing, in adults acculturation. This is usually quite a tedious process. If a child does not follow those rules, for example without someone seeing them picking up sweets from the supermarket, it is naughty. An adult is not said to be naughty, but the wrong behavior, for example walking around a church or mosque with bare breasts, is seen as an offense or crime. In short, criminal behavior is natural and innate simply because we are human.
Instinctive protection against murder tendencies
Fortunately, this is not the whole story. In our brain, for example, we have mirror neurons that enable us to empathize with others. Pity and empathizing with others are important reasons why crimes are so rare. We generally want to be liked by other people. Robbing or assaulting someone is not a good way to do this. We also know a strong inhibition against killing other people.
How do you grow killing machines?
Army trainers do their utmost to turn recruits into effective killing machines, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that they found an effective way to overcome the human anti-violence instinct: to let soldiers kill reflexively. Long-range weapons have a similar effect. Muslim terrorists practice cutting the throats of animals, making them harder and having less difficulty doing this to a human. Another effective technique is dehumanizing enemies. It does not consist of people of flesh and blood with feeling, but of dangerous wild beasts, which must be destroyed in order to survive. That is why it is very important that dehumanizing, killing and mistreating animals (such as in ritual slaughter) is tackled harshly.