Humans: reconciling bad and good?

I’ve read two books that seem to come to opposite conclusions. They are about humans’ capacity for good and evil. Could both be right?

The first book, by philosopher and psychologist Steven James Bartlett, is titled The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. It is a huge and wide-ranging study pointing to deep-seated features of human thought and behaviour that are highly damaging to humans and the environment. Bartlett argues that people don’t want to face up to this side of the human species.

The second book is by historian and writer Rutger Bregman, and titled Humankind: A Hopeful History. It is an exposé showing flaws in studies and episodes claiming to show that humans are easily susceptible to doing harm to each other, and an argument that humans have a natural inclination to do good. Bregman argues that people don’t like to acknowledge this inbuilt drive for goodness.

Perhaps these two perspectives can be reconciled by saying that humans have the potential for both bad and good. Yet it seems contradictory that Bartlett says people don’t want to acknowledge human evil whereas Bregman says people don’t want to recognise human goodness. And even if humans have a capacity for both bad and good, do these writers offer insight into what enables the worst and the best?

Here, I’ll first give a brief outline of the ideas in each of these two books. Then I’ll address some key contrasts between them and suggest what we might learn from them.

The pathology of man

Steven Bartlett set out to examine the psychology of human evil. He uses the word “evil” in a clinical rather than a religious sense, to refer to humans harming each other and the environment that supports their life. Evil in this sense includes torture, genocide, war and ecological destruction. Bartlett’s quest is to identify the source of these sorts of harmful activities. His diagnosis: features of human thought and behaviour are pathological. In other words, the human species is diseased. This sounds gloomy indeed.

The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, is lengthy and erudite. Bartlett examined a great range of studies of human evil, for example by prominent figures such as psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, ethologist Konrad Lorenz and peace researcher Lewis Fry Richardson. He made a detailed examination of studies of genocide.

A widely held idea about evil deeds is that they are committed by psychopaths or others who are psychologically deviant. According to this view, evil is done by others, by people who are different from the norm, not like the rest of us who are normal.

Bartlett challenges this view. In a chapter on terrorism, he examines studies of the psychology of terrorists. Far from being mentally ill or deviant according to the usual ways of diagnosing mental illness, most terrorists are psychologically normal.

In his examination of genocide, especially the Holocaust, Bartlett comes to the same conclusion. Leading Nazis as well as men who were killers were, for the most part, psychologically normal.

In another chapter, Bartlett examines war, noting that it fits perfectly his definition of evil. As well as finding that most men who go to war are psychologically normal, he also notes that most people do little or nothing to try to stop war. Indeed, there are many who cheer for the troops and condemn anyone who questions their sacrifice, indeed anyone who is not patriotic. Bartlett says war is a manifestation of a disease afflicting the human species, writing that, “In short, war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

A product of human ingenuity

Bartlett also examines human thought and behaviour in relation to ecology. He looks into standard definitions of parasites and concludes that humans are a parasitic species, living off other species and the natural environment, which can be thought of as the host. Furthermore, humans have proliferated to such an extent that they are destroying the host that enables them to live. This, Bartlett says, is an ecological pathology. He writes, “In the human species, the genetic selfishness of the parasite has taken the form of our species’ self-centeredness, our opportunistic exploitation of environmental resources, and our species’ disregard of the degree to which human activity and reproduction displace and exterminate other forms of life.”

Bartlett does not claim that everyone is involved in damaging activities. He recognises that some actively campaign against war and against ecological destruction. However, the efforts of some, or even many, do not alter his diagnosis of the species as a whole.

Steven James Bartlett

It’s not possible in a short exposition to give a sense of the massive scholarship, detailed argumentation and extensive evidence that Bartlett provides in support of his view. Suffice it to say that Bartlett makes a strong case that there is something seriously wrong with the human species, something seemingly deep-seated in patterns of thought and behaviour. (I’ve written elsewhere about some implications of Bartlett’s analysis.)


For a complete change, turn to Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind. Bregman sets out to challenge what he sees as a widespread assumption that people are inherently bad. To do this, he describes his investigations into some of the most famous stories and studies that paint humans as ready to hurt each other.

William Golding’s famous novel The Lord of the Flies was published in 1954. It tells the story of a group of British schoolboys who are stranded alone on an island. They start off harmoniously but then gradually turn against each other. Symbolically, they regress to a pre-civilised state involving cults and murder.

The Lord of the Flies was a best-seller and made into a movie. As a moral fable, it was widely seen as an accurate representation of what would happen without adult social control. But, Bregman asked, was it actually accurate? He set out to find a real-life example and after much exploration discovered that a group of schoolboys from Tonga had been stranded for over a year before being rescued. Unlike Golding’s fictional portrayal, the boys cooperated to make life as safe and sound as possible. However, unlike the response to Golding’s novel, the actual story of stranded boys received almost no attention. Bregman concludes that people are primed to think the worst of each other.

Then there are experiments that seem to show the susceptibility of people to doing bad things. In the Stanford prison experiment, run by psychologist Philip Zimbardo, male university students were randomly assigned to be either prisoners or prison guards. The experiment had to be terminated early because the students’ behaviour was becoming too extreme. Ever since, this experiment has been used to show that people can quickly adopt roles.

Bregman started digging and discovered evidence casting doubt on the usual interpretation. Zimbardo and the other experimenters manipulated the situation to foster conflict. Bregman talked to participants in the experiment who said nothing much was happening until they decided to play the roles expected of them. Contrary to Zimbardo’s interpretation, the experiment did not show that the students quickly adopted the stereotypical behaviours of prisoners and prison guards.

Bregman also tackles Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments that showed that a high percentage of Americans were willing to administer serious shocks to a volunteer “learner”, following the instructions of a scientist. Bregman suggests that the experiments didn’t show nearly as much obedience as claimed.

Then there is the famous case of Kitty Genovese who in 1964 was assaulted and murdered outside a New York apartment block as numerous residents watched — and did nothing. This event was trumpeted ever after as showing that bystanders often will do nothing to stop a crime. However, Bregman discovered bystanders who helped. He also found out about journalists who had written cynical narratives about uncaring bystanders and who refused to listen to evidence contradicting their narrative. These journalists wanted people to believe in the worst interpretation of human behaviour.

Kitty Genovese

Bregman’s telling of his investigations into the Stanford prison study, Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Kitty Genovese story are models of engaging writing. In each case, he presents the orthodox view and then tells about his efforts to uncover a deeper, hidden story. Parts of Humankind read like a page-turner novel. There is a mystery, and the truth is stranger than what everyone believed for decades.

As well as critically analysing claims that humans are inherently bad, Bregman describes many examples of humans behaving with remarkable cooperation, sympathy and sacrifice for the common good. He tells about non-agricultural societies that are cooperative and non-aggressive. He presents the evidence that most soldiers do not want to kill. He tells about a prison in Halden, Norway, that is a model of enlightened rehabilitation. The prisoners are supported to become better people, and they have a lower rate of subsequent offences than those who endure prison time based on punishment. Bregman tells about Jos de Blok who runs a large business in the Netherlands that gives great freedom to employees to proceed as they see fit, with striking results. He tells about the altruism of Danish people who helped Jews to escape the country in 1943 to avoid an impending Nazi roundup.

A scene from the prison in Halden

Bregman says there is too much attention on the negative sides of human behaviour, which makes things worse in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He blames news media for continually focusing on the worst aspects of humans. He argues that humans have a great capacity for good, and that is cause for hope. Humankind is an inspiring book. (Previously I commented favourably on Bregman’s earlier book Utopia for Realists.)

Rutger Bregman


Before looking at some direct comparisons, it’s worth noting some shortcomings in Bartlett’s and Bregman’s treatments. An obvious criticism of The Pathology of Man is that Bartlett gives little attention to human virtues: it seems to be a relentless focus on flaws. Bartlett acknowledges this one-sidedness, saying it is necessary to counter people’s refusal to face a bitter truth. Another potential shortcoming of The Pathology of Man is its concentration on psychology and neglect of the role of social institutions in shaping human behaviour. I will come back to this.

Humankind can be criticised for an opposite one-sidedness, namely its focus on human goodness. Bregman argues that he is redressing an imbalance and is recommending a positive sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of Bregman’s treatments of case studies can be criticised. Majken Jul Sørensen analysed writings about the Danish nonviolent resistance to the Nazi occupation. She found much excessive glorification, noting that the rescue of Danish Jews was neither as courageous nor as altruistic as normally portrayed. Bregman devoted enormous energies finding flaws in classic research studies and stories that show humans in a bad light but apparently did not devote quite the same critical effort when investigating stories of positive behaviour.

What do people not want to acknowledge?

The most striking contrast between Bartlett and Bregman concerns their views about what people prefer to avoid. Bartlett observes that humans shy away from recognising their capacity for evil.

“There is a strong avoidance-wish among many people that prevents them from recognizing the ugly side of the human species. It is a very nearly automatic resistance, sometimes a repugnance, to consider, even as an abstract possibility, the hypothesis that mankind may in reality not be a source and model of goodness, but rather, and to a significant extent, possesses many of the characteristics that we tend to associate with pathology. This automatic resistance or repugnance usually appears to be both emotional and intellectual in nature. It is deeply rooted—so much so that many people whom one believes to be open-minded and committed to truth in inquiry, as soon as the topic of human evil is brought to their attention, feel called upon to proclaim man’s native goodness and the praiseworthy qualities of the species, in a kind of reflex arc that blinds our species to its own failings.” (p. 7)

Bregman, in contrast, says humans are reluctant to recognise their capacity for good. He writes, “There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic” (p. 4) and “In nearly every country most people think most other people can’t be trusted” (p. 12). He says, “The question that has long fascinated me is why we take such a negative view of humanity” (p. 12).

This seems like an irreconcilable difference in perspective.

Perhaps Bartlett and Bregman are both right. A key theme in Bartlett’s analysis is that most people who do horrible things are psychologically normal, so when he says that people don’t want to recognise human pathology, he’s referring to people not wanting to recognise the presence of this disease, or flaw, in themselves and those close to them. Instead, evil is always what someone else is doing: enemies, terrorists, genocidal killers.

When Bregman says that people don’t want to recognise human goodness, this may refer especially to the goodness of others. Bregman repeatedly complains about news coverage, which is primarily about bad things that people do — especially bad people somewhere else. It is implying that badness is elsewhere, thereby exempting the media consumer.

The difference between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s assumptions about recognition of evil and good may be the difference between out-groups and in-groups. Perhaps people think differently about these two groups.

Obedience studies

Bregman offers a powerful critique of studies apparently showing that ordinary people — specifically, people in the US — are easily led to do harmful things. For a comparison with Bartlett’s view, it’s convenient to look at Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority, because Bartlett also addresses them.

Milgram found that most men designated as “teachers” would keep increasing the voltage of the shock to the “learner” (an actor), even when the voltage was apparently causing serious harm. Bregman, with access to video recordings of the experiments, reveals a number of flaws in Milgram’s studies. One of them was that Milgram had no plausible explanation for the results.

Bartlett also cites Milgram’s studies. Without the benefit of Bregman’s analysis, Bartlett is not critical of them. However, Bartlett has a different complaint: given the real-world evidence about obedience from the Holocaust, other genocides and warfare, he argues that Milgram’s studies were unnecessary. This evidence shows that most soldiers will obey orders to kill others.

One of the sources quoted by Bregman is Don Mixon’s 1989 book Obedience and Civilisation. For his PhD research in the early 1970s, Mixon reproduced a version Milgram’s experiments. Mixon says that a key issue is whether the “teachers” in Milgram’s studies — namely, the experimental subjects — believed the “experimenter” or believed their eyes and ears. The nominal experimenter was acting a role for Milgram, and displayed no alarm when the “learner” was crying in pain. Most of the “teachers” believed the “experimenter” when he told them that the “learner” would not be harmed by the shocks.

I knew Don Mixon. He worked in the Psychology Department at the University of Wollongong, and we were co-supervisors for a PhD student.

Mixon argues that Milgram misinterpreted his experiments: they didn’t show obedience to legitimate authority. However, Mixon has something else to say: although Milgram misinterpreted his own experiments, his conclusions about obedience were correct. Mixon says that people are even more obedient to legitimate authority than Milgram concluded. In saying this, Mixon refers to German soldiers in Nazi Germany. This is the same example used by Bartlett to argue that Milgram’s experiments were unnecessary.

This seems a bit complicated, with Bartlett, Bregman, Milgram and Mixon. The takeaway message is that there were serious flaws in Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority. Nevertheless, both Mixon and Bartlett think obedience outside the laboratory is sufficient to show humans’ willingness to harm others. Even Bregman, after showing holes in Milgram’s research, still accepted that they showed worrying levels of willingness to harm others, writing that “No matter how you look at it, Milgram’s results remain seriously disturbing” (p. 169).

The role of hope

Towards the end of The Pathology of Man, Bartlett discusses hope. He notes that most treatments of social problems include some positive angles, some reason to hope for the future. Bartlett says hope, faith and optimism have a downside: they can obscure human shortcomings.  By constantly looking for bright spots, it becomes too easy to turn away from the threatening truth that the human species is itself diseased, with its pathology deeply embedded in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett says that when confronted with bad things, it’s better to deplore than to hope.

Nevertheless, one topic treated by Bartlett has a positive side: moral development. He examines features of individuals who develop a strong set of principles that reject the usual justifications for causing harm, and implement those principles in their lives. An example would be a pacifist who takes a stand against military systems. Bartlett’s view is that few individuals are morally intelligent in this way. Even so, figuring out how to foster this sort of thought and behaviour is a worthy task.

For Bregman, hope is crucial. The subtitle of his book is A Hopeful History. His purpose is to counter the usual negativity about humans and point to their capacity to do good. He introduces the nocebo effect: when people are told they are going to get worse, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Constant news coverage of violence and exploitation makes audiences think the world is a terrible place. Bregman says, to the contrary, there are signs of hope even in the most dire circumstances. In his final chapter, he tells about the troops in World War I who, on Christmas Day in 1914, left their trenches and joined with enemy soldiers in a cooperative celebration. If the troops had been left to themselves, the war might have been over then. Commanders had to threaten their own troops with serious retribution to get them back to fighting against the enemy.


A key lesson from The Pathology of Man is that ordinary people, who are psychologically normal, have a capacity for evil, for harming others. Furthermore, the human species, made up for the most part of ordinary people, is causing massive damage to the natural world, undermining the systems that enable all life to exist. Only a small proportion of people make concerted efforts to oppose these damaging activities. Governments spend billions of dollars training soldiers for war and developing ever more deadly weapons, yet most citizens either support these preparations or are complacent about them. Bartlett argues that the lack of interest in opposing evil reflects deep-seated flaws in human thought and behaviour. Bartlett would like readers to look into this heart of darkness and truly acknowledge it, because otherwise we are fooling ourselves with superficial optimism.

A key lesson from Humankind is that most people want to do good: they want to cooperate and to help others. We should not assume the worst, namely assume that people will quickly and automatically succumb to their worst impulses, becoming cruel prison guards, harming helpless “learners” or doing nothing about a crime in progress. Bregman thinks there is too much attention to the bad side of human behaviour and that by paying attention to the good side, the positives can be made even stronger, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy: if we believe others will do what’s right, they are more likely to do it.

These seem like contrary lessons, but in principle we can take them both on board. Indeed, it might be argued that by starting with what is good, it’s more possible to act against evil.

The flaw in humans

Bartlett examines human thought and behaviour, delving into what he sees as fundamental flaws. In doing this, he relies on studies of the psychology of evildoers, finding that most are psychologically normal, which is a serious problem: we are all potential or actual perpetrators.

By focusing on psychology, Bartlett gives relatively little attention to the role of social institutions such as the family, patriarchy, bureaucracy, the military, capitalism and the state. Social institutions are in a continual process of change, being the result of human efforts, yet can be remarkably stable in their basic features. Human psychology both shapes social institutions and is shaped by them. If Bartlett has identified a flaw in human thought and behaviour, how is this flaw related to the ways that humans organise their lives?

Concerning this question, Bregman offers insights. Building on studies of human prehistory and present-day non-agricultural societies, he argues that for most of human evolution people lived in small groups that were cooperative and egalitarian. Their lifestyles were ecologically sustainable. They did not manifest the evils of war, genocide and environmental destruction. Nor were racism and economic oppression serious problems.

Agriculture: beginning of the downfall?

Bregman, like a number of other authors, traces the beginning of the downfall to the rise of agriculture. With agriculture, human groups settled in one place, and it was possible to accumulate a surplus of food and material objects. Along with the surplus came hierarchy and a division of labour — and exploitation, oppression and organised violence against other humans.

With this picture of human social evolution, it is possible to see a reconciliation between Bartlett’s and Bregman’s analyses. This starts with the simple observation that humans have capacities for both good and evil, for living together in harmony and for the most appalling actions. How these capacities are allowed, encouraged and channelled depends heavily on the way humans organise their lives, in other words their social arrangements. When they live in autonomous groups of one or two hundred people, hunting and gathering, their positive sides are evoked. When they live in settled communities, creating large surpluses, developing advanced technologies and dominating nature, their negative sides become enabled.

Another crucial factor is hierarchy, in which some people have more power and status than others. Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Bregman cites the fascinating studies by Dacher Keltner on the damaging effects of power on those who have it, including that those with power over others “are more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average” (p. 229). Modern societies are set up with command hierarchies, with some individuals having vastly more power than others, thus fostering corruption and abuse. As as well as Keltner’s research, it is worth exploring the earlier empirical studies of the corruptions of power carried out by psychologist David Kipnis.

Where does this leave us now? Some people, called primitivists, advocate a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, but in the foreseeable future this is not feasible for most of the world’s population. A more plausible path forward is to build on the positives of humans and to find ways to counter the negatives. How to do this is not obvious in a world in which scientists design ever more deadly weapons, psychologists design ways to manipulate people, economic systems lead to greater inequality and the environment comes under ever increasing stress due to population growth, affluence and technological change.

The clue may lie in social arrangements. If, as Bregman argues, many of the problems of contemporary societies stem from the rise of agriculture and all that came after, then there still remains the possibility of finding better ways for humans to live together, in other words to create better social institutions.

These need to be something different from capitalism, militarism, states, mass surveillance and other systems that enable domination of humans and the environment. Many activists and social-change agents are challenging these systems and building alternatives. In these efforts, it is worthwhile being inspired by examples of cooperation and altruism, while remaining aware of the dangerous capacities in every one of us.

Bartlett and Bregman each see themselves as voices in the wilderness, challenging serious gaps in people’s understanding of human capacities and predilections. Given their own analyses, it’s quite possible that their diagnoses will be little noticed or actioned. The Pathology of Man, published in 2005, has not received much attention. Nor has there been much further investigation into pathologies in human thought that underlie behavioural pathologies.

Is anybody listening?

A precursor to Humankind was a 1990 book by Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature. It seemingly did not dent the prevailing views about humans, otherwise presumably Bregman would not have felt the need to write his own book. Humankind is so well written that it may make more of a difference. However, it is one thing to read a book and be alarmed or inspired or both. It is something else to change the way we live in the world.

Brian Martin,

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Majken Sørensen and Pheobe Wenyi Sun for useful comments.