Philosophers have a diametrically opposite answer to this question.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, European post-Renaissance philosopher, considered morality a mere construct of society.
The Rousseau view is that man is a caged animal (noble savage) whose goodness will shine if freed from the artificial mores and constructs of society. This is a view held by many left wing liberals, academic elites and criminologists.
There are two major attractions of Rousseau’s perspective. The first is that the enemy (society rather than self) is nebulous. If the enemy is well-defined it ceases to remain a figment of imagination. Inaction against a well-defined enemy becomes far more evident and is less defensible than inaction against a vague target.
The second attraction is that by displacing the blame to “society” man becomes equal. Because any inequality, if the metric is the pursuit of criminality, is a result of inequality in the interaction of the equal man and society, rather than inequality in man himself. Thus, the blame for all criminality can be outsourced to inequalities in society and since society can never be perfectly equal, it follows that it must always carry blame. It is easily intuitive why liberals, who are forever in pursuit of equality, would find this theory as tempting as candy.
Is there endorsement of Rousseau’s viewpoint?
Britain today is freed from societal restrictions today more so than ever before. The fabled and much maligned Victorian repression has been, perhaps irreversibly, repressed. Sexually liberated with breakdown of family and religious restrictions mediated by an ever expansive welfare state, Britain is the closest we get to Rousseau’s utopia without a wholesale return to the caves and bushes.
So what has happened to the crime rate in Britain? It has risen progressively and dramatically (particularly violent crime), as societal restrictions were being removed. The ignoble savage, left to his impulses, finds order in disorder.
Thomas Hobbes the 16th century philosopher, on the other hand, felt that authority was necessary to prevent men who were “constantly at war with each other” from descent in to anarchy. This is the view held by many conservatives. A variant of this view is the “tragic vision” of man. This holds that man, since the original sin, is corruptible. That he is prone to error. That society and morals are the vanguards. That civilization, if it is an aggregate of individual behavior, sits on a thin precipice and is not the natural order but rather a constant fight against social entropy. Barbarianism is our natural and rightful state.
Is there evidence of the “tragic vision”? Almost certainly and not just in India which has recorded numerous riots peri- and post-partition, in which men butchered each other even, as in the case of partition, they knew each other socially and amicably. New Orleans descended in to chaos within 24 hours of loss of law enforcement post hurricane Katrina.
In the worst recorded train disaster in the world, Saharsa 1981, many swam to safety from the currents of River Bagmati, only to be killed by local villagers as they sought possession of ornaments and loose change.
The constituents of the “mob” in mob violence are not an unfortunate assortment of evil, but ordinary citizens taking advantage of temporary darkness.
If authority is good, does endless authority deliver endless good? Stanley Milgram a Yale psychologist, in a controversial experiment showed that ordinary people could inflict severe pain when instructed to do so by authority. Thus the complicity of the Nazis to Hitler’s horrendous plans was not a phenomenon unique to the Germans.
More so, people derive an almost hedonistic pleasure in pursuing orders to the letter of the law even or, rather, because it causes pain to others. Anyone who has had the misfortune of having to deal with the immigration officers in USA or, employees of the State Bank of India, will testify to the milder version of this phenomenon.
Then what drives men to kill each other in pursuit of a perceived noble cause? Is it poverty, injustice or something else? Eric Hoffer, an American social scientist and author of True Believer (if I had one book to recommend this would be it) believed it was neither poverty nor injustice. The draw towards mass movements (revolutions, freedom movement and jihads) was a fundamental lack of self-esteem and loss of existential purpose.
The angry young man according to Hoffer was not Amitabh Bachchan in the film Zanzeer who witnessed his parents’ murder (for clarification I do not think Hoffer saw the film Zanzeer). If he is unemployed he is well fed. He is more likely to be a victim of boredom than injustice, although boredom can lead to the imagination of all sorts of injustice. He fears not death but a fate worse than death – his total and complete insignificance. He is in constant existential strife. The present for him is a no-man’s land, a nebulous bridge between the exaggerated glory of the past and the imagined promise of the future.
Then what made men, who co-habited peacefully with each other in cities of Lahore and Amritsar send corpses instead of passengers on trains between the two cities in 1947?
Sigmund Freud would put this down to the “narcissism of small differences”. That is when groups share much in common the difference shines out much more, the more they have in common and the smaller the denomination of their difference.
To an outsider, the Punjabi Hindu, Muslim and Sikh are indistinguishable in language, food, jokes and even in their epileptic dance moves (more popularly known as Bhangra). Yet these similarities are exactly why, according to Freudian theory, the difference, in their case a difference in religious text rather than the essence of religion which is the same, manifested itself so uncontrollably and violently.
The tendency for ex pat Indians to stick to their own is both a source of solace and animosity. And narcissism of small differences may explain why conversations at dinner table when “similar” Indians meet focuses on their differences, no matter how small and inconsequential that may be, such as their purchase of a new car, daughter’s SAT score or the amount of money spent during a recent holiday.
Good men are capable of unspeakable evil. Evil men surprise us with their occasional good.
Many Nazis were animal lovers and vegans. Indeed, many animal lovers and vegans can develop a dogmatic or, even fascist, adherence to their way of life converting it quite effortlessly from a preference to an ideology.
During the Mumbai attacks the terrorists paused their point blank shooting of their hapless targets to spare the lives of a Turkish couple because, as one said, “You are from our family”. Even at the acme of their murderous indifference to human life they retained the power of discrimination, the ability to reason that not all lives were equally expendable. Whether this exception to their slaughter is an example of their good or merely reinforces their evil, it is at least fair to say that evil is neither constant nor predictable, even in whom it resides more often than not.
Can the action of soldiers on the battlefield be all good merely because they are following orders? Perhaps. But it is neither at times of peace nor war but relative armistice can the good of the soldiers be judged.
During the 1st world war, British/French and German soldiers at arm’s length of each other decided to suspend animosity on Christmas day for a game of football. This was a spontaneous gesture by all sides. The “good” in them outshone the call for war temporarily. It was a tacit recognition of humanity even as they were soldiers first and foremost. The following day the battle for the greater body count resumed.
One even hears, perhaps apocryphally, of Indian and Pakistani soldiers sharing mithai and gup shup at the border in Wagah in between the defiant stares and the exchange of bi-syllabic Punjabi poetry.
Thus, the question whether man is inherently good or evil does not fetch a straightforward answer. This is not surprising. Most philosophical questions do not give a binary answer. If they did, philosophy would cease to exist.
Perhaps the more relevant question is: What social structure favors the display of good behavior over evil behavior? The answer to the question lies in the question itself. The key word is “structure”.
Society needs a structure. But like the precariousness of cards stacked upon each other, this structure is fragile and just like the balancing cards, could collapse in an instant. The structure is an optimum. Not a minimum or ideal but a balance. If the ingredients of the optimum are altered, either by excess or deficit, regardless of which ingredient is altered, the end result is the same. Collapse.
The social optimum is a careful balance of Hobbesian authority without the excess of obedience. The optimum requires faith in Rousseau’s faith in man. The corollary to such faith is that man, and man alone, must be held responsible for his actions. For that, the optimum needs a concerted effort to discourage vicarious blame and discourage creation of agencies that specialize in vicarious blame (victim groups). Moral confusion weakens the structure.
Above all, the optimum must recognize that even if, as a race, we have become more technologically advanced than our ancestors could have ever dreamt of, the axioms of morality handed down to us from generations have not lost their robustness. On the contrary, our ancestors were as advanced in their ethics as they were backward in technology.
Consider the famed Christmas day truce and its exceptional nature. The Mahabharata speaks of combatants laying down their arms after sunset and soldiers visiting the opposing party’s tents. There was no Geneva Convention then. Can we dream of witnessing such advanced ethics during warfare today?
Indeed, if morality tries to emulate technology in its evolution it leads to decadence. And decadence is the first step in the journey towards, and far too soon irreversible, societal collapse.