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Propensity to Evil


By Veronica Emilia Nuzzolo,  Ph.D., CADC

good versus evilThe sixteenth century Puritan belief of original sin, the ideology that children are born evil and need to be civilized through harsh punishment and authoritative parental control,,

“Tabula Rasa” “blank slates,” Philosopher John Locke’s opposition to authoritarianism, the concept that human characteristics are attained through learning,,

Jean Jacques Rousseau, innate goodness, the rejection of Puritan belief, the rejection of Locke’s theories, the concept of inherent goodness. 

Innate goodness, the existence of evil, neither can be denied,, biblical concepts provide explanation for the existence of good and evil, but what secular concept can explain the existence of good and evil personalities.

Freudian theory, the unconscious, sex and aggression, attempts to explain but is not a predictor of behavior. Freud believed that all people are innately bad, the unconscious mind governs behavior and ones behavior is determined by the id, the ego, and the superego. The id (the pleasure principle), is dominant when we are born and the suppression by society of the animalistic instinct causes frustration and creates the  destructive, cruel, and selfish personality.

Refuting psychoanalytical theory, behavioral theorists suggest that innately good or bad is a learned characteristic. People are described in terms of the basic way they behave, behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner theorize that the first learned experiences in life are those that will shape the individual regardless of the unconscious mind or biological components. Behavioral theorists concur with the blank slate theory of development, and believe that one can be taught, molded, learn whatever one is introduced to, indicating that being innately good or bad is an outcome, a learned behavior.

The humanistic perspective, the “Third Force” unwilling to embrace Freudian or Behavioral theory, reject the theories of determinism, the unconscious instinctive forces, behaviorism, good behavior must be learned,  and believe in the innate goodness of humanity. In response to previous theories, humanistic theorists such as Rogers and Maslow contend that people are capable of and can increase self-understanding, good or bad, through the individual perception and interpretation of experience.The major premise of the Third Force is that people are basically good, people have an innate need to better themselves and the world, the premise of individual self-worth, the ability to overcome the negative aspects of life, and self-actualization.

Good versus Evil

Do we have a propensity to evil, are we born evil, or are we born inherently good?   Are personal beliefs of good versus evil just myths, or are we simply products of Darwinian theory and billions of years of evolution.

Humanistic theories reject the Christian belief that people are born evil.  Maslow stated “as far as I know we just don’t have any intrinsic instincts for evil.” (i) Carl Rogers stated, “For myself, though I am very well aware of the incredible amount of destructive, cruel, malevolent behavior in today’s world, from the threats of war to the senseless violence in the streets, I do not find that this evil is inherent in human nature (1982) (ii).”

The humanistic perspective continues to focus on the belief that development and innate good consist of elements comprised from the environment, the relationship between nature and nurture. Rogers (1982) “I see members of the human species, like members of other species, as essentially constructive in their fundamental nature, but damaged by their experience.” (i) This external factor, the environment, the world outside of the individual and all it entails.  This experience, this belief that social influence is a major contributing factor in development, the component that allows choice. The “Belief of Perfectibility of the Race” as Godwin suggested, that there are no innate principles, and therefore no original propensity to evil, he considered that “our virtues and our vices may be traced to the incidents which make the history of our lives, and if these incidents could be divested of every improper tendency, vice would be extirpated from the world.” (iii).

The theory of  choice the ability to possess free will.

And in the end… developmentalists will reject all religious, secular, and philosophic views of development, including the theory of free will.

Beginning with Baldwin the study of development is now pursued through new scientific methods. Baldwin suggested that traits are determinants of personality limiting one’s ability to have free will. This theory of determinism suggests that a person’s behavior is biological and that one genetically inherits traits, and that these biological traits will determine specific characteristic responses, personality.

Biological and trait theorists support the scientific process and contend that biology, genetics, hereditary traits, determine an individual’s development. From this perspective growth and development and your personality is genetically hard wired and determined for you. Biological and trait theorists continue to defend that innate good is a biological, inherent trait. Innate Good, predetermined, a biological trait that one may or may not possess.

Is this an affirmation that a propensity to evil exists within human nature?

(i) Welch, D., Tate, G.A., & Richards F. (1978). Humanistic Psychology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978), 11.
(ii) Rogers, C., (1982) “Notes on Rollo May,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Summer 1982): 8.
(iii) Godwin, W., (1793). Enquiry concerning political justice and its influence on modern morals and manners. London.

How to cite this article:
Nuzzolo, V. E. (2016).  Propensity to Evil.  Retrieved from, https://risetoshinetoday.org/2016/03/01/tabula-rasa/



  1. Jessica Loiseau says:

    I have never heard of the term “Tabula Rasa” but I do believe that children were all born this way. No one is born with the notion that they are either good or evil. I agree with Skinner and Watson that “the first learned experiences in life are those that will shape the individual regardless of the unconscious mind or biological components”. I believe that good and evil characteristics are learn behaviors. I also agree with the humanistic theory that “people are capable of and can increase self-understanding, good or bad, through the individual perception and interpretation of experience”. Depending on what you surround your child with they can inherit those traits. I do believe that social influence is a major factor in development. A lot of children want to do what they see others doing. If they feel like an action is “cool” whether it’s good or bad, they mirror these actions. I do not agree with biological and trait theorists that “support scientific process and contend that biology, genetics, hereditary traits, determine an individual’s development. From this perspective growth and development and your personality is genetically hard wired and determined for you.” I have a sibling and we both carry different characteristics. If this theory were true, I believe that all children born in the same family will carry the same personality traits. No one is born good or evil. We all are born with “blank slates” and our environment and the things we learn shape us and that determines if you’re “good” or “evil”.


  2. cxrojo says:

    personally, I believe in the humanistic perspective,“The humanistic perspective continues to focus on the Believe that developments and innate good consist of elements comprised from the environment, the relationship between nature and nurture. ”As individuals no one born good or evil. everyone as a human being learn from others. Everything that we know and what we do is learned. Being a person good or evil depends of what other people that are around you have been taught you. Also, it depends in what kind of environment are you living because depending on that, you have to react with good or evil. Also, a child is born without any knowledge, even when they born, they do not have an idea what good and evil means. At that time our models are our parents and we always do and are what we see that they do or say. Also by the time pass everything that is learned is though experiences and choices that we have to make, which ones makes us to change our behavior.


  3. Hamza Benmensour says:

    I find the previous belief that babies were born evil as a very foolish statement. I believe that many adults felt insecure about their evilness and wanted to feel better by blaming children who are innocent to make themselves feel better. Like many I have never been introduced to the term Tabula Rasa however I certainly agree with it. Throughout the years I have seen posts on Facebook or Instagram about how babies are not born racist because they play with children regardless of skin color. However, as they grow up their parents might restrict their playtime with kids of other colors and they will learn to discriminate against anyone with that skin color. This is the same concept we’ve seen in the article we are born pure and innocent and throughout our lifetime we learn a lot of things that might make us “evil” or “good.” And no one is born evil regardless of anything and everything is learned.


  4. nsujit says:

    This article describes the human characteristics with different perspective of theorist and their different theories of human behavior. I was not familiar about the Puritan belief of original sin and children inherited evil . I think “Tabula Rasa ” the Latin word when translated to english means “clean state ” actually defines the learning behavior as human characteristics .The theorist like Freud and Puritan and their theories on human characteristics doesn’t make any sense to me personally. I believe on the behavioral theory .Some phenotype characteristics can be dominant and expressed as heredity but these cannot be used to prove a theory.
    I think there is nothing good or evil,it is moment of time that makes anything good or evil. Anything good for someone could be evil to another for example if a child learns martial arts it is good for his /her health and for self defense, but can be evil if he/she misuses it.When, we go back to the theory of evolution, we evolved from animals. So, we have some of it instinct as a recessive characteristics which under certain circumstances can be expressed. Thus human behavioral cannot be explained by theorist or any theories. Behavior are characterized by learning and sometimes inherited.


  5. Alejandra Castillo says:

    I personally, think that is impossible to believe that we are born with evil. What I do believe is that everything evil and good is learned in the course of life. It depends on what kind of environment the children grow up in. they will experience situations that will make them be Good or bad. I don’t believe that evil is biological. The genetic tendencies towards aggressive behaviors do not imply that there is a gene of evil because that would mean that the entire family would be evil. It is not something that can be inherited or carried in the blood as a single gene that causes everything. If it were really true that we are born evil, what is the effort in raising a child or the need to educate someone? … There are evil people and that can not be denied … it is difficult to say whether they were really born evil or was their environment and upbringing that gave them those characteristics.


  6. Hussein Hussein says:

    I never heard of the term “Tabula Rasa,” but now that I know what it is I agree that people are born with clean slates and that they learn about everything they know because a child is good from when he is born but rottened by the world and people don’t just come out of the womb and are already bad. Evilness is learned behavior passed down from generation to generation. Humans don’t know what good or evil are when they are born they learn it from their surroundings and we keep on learning what is the difference throughout life. Christian beliefs that people are born evil are extremely false because nobody could be born evil and I cannot believe that Christian long ago would believe that their child from god was evil. Additionally, I believe in what Biological and trait theorist think “support the scientific process and contend that biology, genetics, hereditary traits, determine an individual’s development.” This is true because the chromosome passed on from your parents can determine how the child comes out and if they function properly.


  7. KENNY LUONG says:

    This is interesting to me because I never knew that there were so many theories to inherent traits that babies have. Previously, I was only aware of the concept of Tabula Rosa and partly the Freudian theory of sex drive and determinism, but I never knew that Puritans believed that children were inherently evil. This is especially alarming to me because how can anyone look at a baby or a child and assume they’re evil! Literally, just look at a baby’s face, and I dare you to tell me that they look evil, it is simply not possible. For me, I believe that humans cannot be reliably predicted based on religious or even scientific knowledge. We really don’t have enough information about each individual to know what their intent is. However, I do agree with Maslow’s principles. Humans are still animals, we need food and we have an increased drive for food and other needs when our bodies are out of balance, thus showing different or altered behaviors. But on the complex side, such as emotions or personal goals, I believe it is truly impossible to predict if someone is evil or good. After all, everyone may have different definitions of “good” or “bad”.


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