Are People Really Good at Heart?

Are People Really Good at Heart?

 “In spite of everything,

 I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

These words — set down as a belief, not a question — are among the last lines in the diary of Anne Frank, before the Frank family’s hiding place was betrayed and the Nazis came for them all.   Did she still believe that in Bergen Belsen, the concentration camp where she died?

I once had a friend, a fellow Fulbright scholar named John Armstrong.  To test his idealistic values, John decided (along with two friends who followed his lead) to drive down the length of Africa, from Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope.  The trip was to be sponsored by the maker of the small French car they’d be driving.

As part of his research into the terrain they planned to cross, John asked me to introduce him to Richard Wright, the writer then living in Black American Exile in Paris.  When I told Wright of John’s plan, the writer said instantly, “They’ll never make it past Egypt.”

By fall, a front-page story in the New York Times confirmed Wright’s prediction.  Their bodies were discovered north of Khartoum.  Most pages of the diary John kept were not released by the Egyptian authorities.  Their guide was not found among the dead.

More recently, Lauren Geoghegan and Jay Austin, a young and idealistic American couple, decided to undertake a world bicycle tour.  They named it the “Kindness Tour.” It was to be a demonstration that the goodness of people will be unleashed if only you let your defenses down and give people the chance to show what’s in their hearts.  Lauren and Jay met with quite a lot of kindness and seemed well on their way to confirming Anne Frank’s thesis, when a group thought to be affiliated with ISIS caught up with them in Tajikistan and deliberately ran them down with their vehicle.  The incident brought these earlier cases to my mind.

Anne Frank should’ve been right. 

John Armstrong should’ve been right.

 Lauren and Jay, on their Kindness Tour, should’ve been right.

In one sense, they were right.  Kindness is the human norm.  We are most ourselves when we are kind.  It often takes courage to be kind, particularly when others are not.  A small gesture of kindness can pull someone out of the deepest despair.  It can put things in their right order and proportion for a fellow mortal.  We are all bound to die someday.  On that day, what will count will be the deeds of kindness we did, however small and seemingly inconsequential.

What went wrong, then?  Anne did not volunteer to be a victim of the Shoah, much less its paradigm case of victimhood.  But John and the Kindness Tourists did volunteer.  What can we imagine that they learned, in their final moments?  If John was left to die of thirst and exposure, he had many days in which to take in the limits of his idealism.  Unless there is something we weren’t told, the Kindness Couple had only seconds.

What was the lesson, the right inference to draw, for these idealists?

Good people are not preserved in their being,

 evildoers are not reformed, 

the world is not improved,

by believing something that

 is not true.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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6 Responses to Are People Really Good at Heart?

  1. Gail Pedrick says:

    Train up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it.

    Depends on who is doing the training. Good raises good, evil raises evil.


    • Abigail says:

      Hi Gail, and many thanks for weighing in! I have a slightly different view on this one. I’ve seen two siblings, raised in the same household, grow to be quite different, morally. One comes out a basic good guy, the other comes out a bad guy. Yet it seems they’ve had the same influences in their formative years. What made the difference, then?

  2. I don’t think the belief that people are “good at heart” implies that we won’t behave in “evil” ways, including murder. I know myself to be good at heart and yet still have “shadow,” those unconscious, ingrained responses, patterns and beliefs that can run me without my awareness, often resulting from trauma. These “experiments” show nothing about if at our core, underneath all of that shadow, is goodness.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Penny. Thanks so much for replying with a view that differs from the one I offer! That’s very valuable for me and for our readers. That’s what it’s all about. We get to think! Let’s see, the question of whether man (the generic male & female) is basically good or bad or a mixed bag has been variously answered in religious and philosophic traditions. Just to name three varieties on the religion ledger: Christians deem humankind to have fallen into a sinful condition, essentially estranged from God & goodness, due to the transgression of Adam, the archetypal man. We can’t get out of this condition except through God’s extraordinary grace, made available through the incarnation & crucifixion, which paid the debt incurred by Adam. Jews deem people to have been created with both a good & an evil tendency. The evil impulses cannot be extirpated, but can be rerouted to work in harmony with God’s will for us. The adherents of Advaita Vedanta deem evil to be ignorance of the oneness of all finite things with Brahman, the encompassing divine All. In philosophy, the materialists generally hold out for determinism. Nothing we do can be deemed “good” or “evil,” since these terms imply freedom, which any causal (read, scientific) explanation denies. Then there are the dualists, the Kantians, the Wittgensteinians, and I won’t go on. There’s even philosopher Abigail L Rosenthal, in A Good Look at Evil. Stop stop. Leaving the metaphysical questions in brackets, I am here trying to point to the practical question. What should one assume, what should one do, when confronting something or someone who gives one a sense of deep threat — the creeps — let us say? I’m assuming one is not paranoid and that one’s intuition or awareness is not notably defective. Usually the fear one feels confronting human malice is a red flag and raises the question: what now? Though this is a “non-advice column,” I am giving advice here, implicitly. First, don’t DENY what you sense. Second, don’t pretend your apparent adversary “knows not what he does.” The practical problem, for someone targeted by an evil-doer, is that the adversary can be cunning and quite knowledgeable. He may know more about what his chosen victim values than the victim herself knows. He may understand his target and how to go about taking down the life story his target aims to live. He may ask nothing better than for the target to believe that the adversary is good at heart & needs only to be understood in a loving spirit. Ladies: There’re some bad guys out there & they ask nothing better than for you to think them merely misunderstood! (I don’t mean to favor one sex over the other, incidentally.)

      • Agreed… mostly. 😉 I would be interested to hear how you define evil. I agree that on a practical survival level, idealism in the way you describe it can be quite dangerous. I’m just pointing to the fact that how someone acts could be contradictory to their true nature. But perhaps you are defining someone as evil through-and-through based on how they behave?

        • Abigail says:

          Let’s start at the other end of this question. What’s good? What do I mean by “good,” relative to me? (or you). Well, I have aims. Everybody does. Where does the “good” of them come in? My aims need to be checked against reality. Otherwise they remain closeted fantasies. But reality keeps changing as it presents its faces to me. So I need to keep checking and readjusting. There is a story line here, emerging as I stick to my aims, as reality/feasibility qualifies them. That’s the outward side of a purposive life. But I also need to hold on to who I am, most truly, naturally and authentically. That effort, through time and chance and change, to remain who I am, is the inner side of the same story. Which makes it dramatic and — at the same time — real: a corrigible, nonfiction narrative.

          Now, what does evil do? It catches on to my story — at times more accurately and before I do — and works at subverting it.

          Now your question: Is anybody 100% evil? No. How could they be? Evildoers need sufficient goodness, imaginative power and apparent empathy to figure out their target in the way I have described. The question to ask: How is a person’s goodness being directed? Toward enhancing what is good in self or others? Or toward taking it down?

          What’s the real question in a good life? How do I hold on to myself and my story?

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