As deeply social creatures, humans are hardwired to identify those around them that are likely to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some actions can have a positive impact upon a society (‘good’) and others a detrimental effect (‘bad’), but can a person inherently be one type or the other?

This is a debate that has been wrestled with by philosophers for centuries, with Rousseau attesting that humans are fundamentally good (and tainted by society) and Hobbes that people are primarily bad (but refined by culture).

Ultimately, science tells us that humans are complicated. In order to survive and reproduce, we have developed to switching between moral and immoral behaviours, as dictated by our environment. However, Adam Smith suggest in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments that our social nature means that we feel both the pleasure and the pain of those within our communities. As we are biologically programmed to avoid being hurt, we endeavour not to so to others. Neurochemical testing shows that exhibiting virtuous behaviours also benefits us mentally, as we are rewarded by a release of the neurotransmitter, Oxytocin, which is often referred to as the social bonding or ‘love hormone’.

As large-brained mammals, we ultimately come down on the side of ‘good’ or moral, but only when we are in a stable environment, not under stress, and food supplies are plentiful… As soon as conditions change, we are quick to switch into ‘evil’ mode and abandon our fellow men.

Most humans are chimeras, vacillating between good and evil, making Rousseau and Hobbes partially right, but a small subsection of society (around 5%) are more prone to one side of the balance or the other.

Biology and Medicine students may wish to investigate the development of human behavioural and moral tendencies further.

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