Survey: Is there a “Robin Hood impluse” in human nature?

April 12, 2007 at 1:18 am 7 comments

In our wager on the side bar, it states that we believe our purpose in life should be to:

live life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place.

Matthew Tenney gave this response (with an element of sarcasm I believe):

Why did you choose this? Wasn’t it because such thoughts make you feel good? You want to think of yourself as inherently loving, kind compassionate, merciful and tolerate and you want to help people because such thoughts are very pleasant. But I think your real purpose in life is actually to get good feelings. What is the physical source of these good feelings? It’s just chemicals. You think those noble, glorious things about yourself and you get a little shot of feel-good drugs. Evolution fixed you up with that little mechanism.

Christianity teaches that we are born in “sin” and need to be redeemed by the blood of Christ in order to be good. Apart from Christ, we were taught that we are evil, wicked, and wretched sinners. Lovely!

I believe that the evolutionary mechanism that gives us the “little shot of feel-good drugs” primarily occurs when we do good. In other words, I believe we are not inherently evil as we were taught in Christianity but we’re inherently good; and we have to make conscious decisions to go against this nature in order to be mean, nasty, and evil. Of course, over time, there are those who do become evil because of these choices and their evil ways makes them feel good. For those who find themselves in this state, I believe they can begin to reverse this process by doing good.

RobinhoodAccording to an Reuters article by Will Dunham, “Study reveals ‘Robin Hood impulse’ in human nature,”

“People taking part in a game designed to explore egalitarian impulses in human nature consistently robbed from players assigned the most money while giving money to those with the least, scientists said on Wednesday.

James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist, and his fellow researchers detected what they saw as a “Robin Hood impulse” in people who took part in the experiment, described in the journal Nature.”

So, what do you think? Do we have a “Robin Hood impulse” in human nature to do good? Do you agree with Mary’s blog, “Why should we be good?” where she attributes our goodness “to good old evolution and survival of the fittest?

Do we primarily feel good based on doing good or evil deeds? And finally, are we inherently good or evil?

- The de-Convert

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Genial Goethe  |  April 12, 2007 at 1:25 am

    I don’t believe it is possible to classify humans as inherently good or evil. We certainly have the capacity for both, and we are absolutely not a ‘tabula rasa,’ a blank slate, when we are born. I think it is more accurate to say that we are inherently animals.

    Nietzsche would classify that shot of good feeling as the ‘will to power’ playing itself out, helping people makes you feel good because it places you firmly ‘above’ them. (Genealogy of Morals, III, I can find the exact quotations if anyone wants it). While I do not fully accept Nietzsche explanation, I use it here simply to point out that there are many consistent non-theological explanation of the origin of good will. I do believe that as animals, it is an evolutionarily successful trait to care for the rest of the tribe. The success of the group leads to the success of the individual. Edward O. Wilson has a chapter on Altruism in his book ‘On Human Nature’.

    That said, the results of this study could just as well point towards a ‘leveling’ instinct. A desire to have no one too high or too low, a desire to fill in the valley and break down the peaks. I’m not certain what sort of study could separate a ‘Robin Hood’ from a leveler. It may be worthwhile to consider that Robin Hood is essentially a character filled with risk, his entire life is built around an altruistic mission – he lives a forest for example. No test could adequately measure how likely people are to actually sacrifice for others.

    I think the Milgram experiments and the Stanford prison experiments lead to very different conclusions about the human race. Wikipedia has reasonably good entries on both. I think they suggest a human nature that is oriented more towards obedience than it is towards good or evil. But after all, who’s to say.

    All discussions like this should be viewed in light of the Holocaust, (that may seem a tangential comment but bear with me). The Holocaust illustrates just how willingly people contribute to and ignore evil if authority asks them to do it. Even people who grew up prior to the Nazi era easily participated in or ignored the genocide. Any sort of internal moral compass that most people possess seems to be quite easily reoriented or subverted to allow evil. This is true to such an extent that to speak of any inherent moral inclination, or even morality as a whole, is a bit… misleading. It would be nice if we were all good deep down, but the evidence seems to suggest that at the very core humans are inclined to believe, and do whatever that belief demands of them.

  • 2. amandalaine  |  April 12, 2007 at 8:33 am

    Welll, just as a quick response (I haven’t read everything very carefully yet), I would say Christianity does NOT teach that we are inherently evil. It teaches we are inherenty depraved. Depravity is the idea that we’re so needy that only a being from the outside could help. In other words, we can not truly help ourselves. (Can you access you subconscious? We are complex beings with deep needs.) So, yes, as a Christian, I too have problems with the idea that man is inherently evil. However, I don’t believe that’s what Christianity actually teaches. Certainly we have negative/bad/evil impulses but there is an incredibly high quality to man. Man is close to divinity in the Christian teaching that man is made in the image of God. There is much lauding of man in the Bible. So, perhaps I’m off base here, but I really think the Christian teaching is NOT that man is wholly evil (we can not be if we are made in the image of God) but that man is so needy he can not get himself out of his predicament.

    That may have made it muddier… Anyway, I agree with the idea that it is untrue that man in inherently (and wholly) evil.

  • 3. agnosticatheist  |  April 12, 2007 at 10:36 am

    Amanda,

    There are so many brands of Christianity that most statements made about “Christians” can be incorrect depending on what flavor you are. For the purpose of this blog I tend to focus on the extreme fundamentalist view. I do know that’s not quite fair to moderate Christians.

    aA

  • 4. amandalaine  |  April 12, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    aA,

    I appreciate your response. It’s hard to talk about groups when there’s so many different types within the group. So, thanks.

  • 5. amandalaine  |  April 13, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    “I believe that the evolutionary mechanism that gives us the “little shot of feel-good drugs” primarily occurs when we do good.”

    What do you think it means when someone receives a “little shot of feel-good drugs” when they do something evil? That occurs. I’ve taken great pleasure at getting back at some people. Crazy, disturbed people can take joy from murder – it is their high. It seems to me our concept of good/evil can not be tied to a physical impulse. This is extremely dangerous. It seems that really we have no grounds for determining what good and evil is then. But, it also seems from our discussion, that we’ve already assumed good or evil can not be tied to some physical impulses because I’m sure you agree with me that murder is not acceptable.

    Just a thought!

  • 6. Matthew Tenney  |  April 15, 2007 at 5:23 am

    Genial Goethe said, “I do believe that as animals, it is an evolutionarily successful trait to care for the rest of the tribe. The success of the group leads to the success of the individual. ”

    I agree that evolution would encourage us to sacrifice our best interest for some others in our society. Empathy and sympathy are thought patterns set up by evolution through the “little shot of feel-good drugs” mechanism.

    Making small sacrifices may indeed be beneficial to society and to the individual in the long run, but what if that sacrifice is ones life, for example? How can that be counted as leading “to the success of the individual”? And what about compassion, justice and mercy for those who don’t engender much empathy and sympathy?

    AgnosticAtheist said, ” I believe that the evolutionary mechanism that gives us the “little shot of feel-good drugs” primarily occurs when we do good.” Primarily but not always?

    Amandalaine brought up an important point, “What do you think it means when someone receives a “little shot of feel-good drugs” when they do something evil?” And indeed that frequently occurs.

    If we depend upon evolution, it will almost certainly lead us to extinction as it has with almost every other species. If we have the power to reason, why depend upon such an unreliable and unthinking mechanism?

  • 7. wanderer  |  April 12, 2008 at 12:47 am

    We do what we have to to survive…

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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