This is based on the implicit assumption that human nature is essentially bad, and that without rules to guide us, we'd all be thieving, murderous monsters. We're led to believe that we need rules to restrain our dark base impulses, or else society will spiral out of control and we'd basically annihilate ourselves. (It must be noted at this point, that even with our framework of rules we're already doing a pretty good job of doing that!)
THE CONCEPT OF ORIGINAL SIN
I believe the assumption that human nature is essentially bad stems from religious doctrines such as the Christian notion of "original sin". This is at the cornerstone of Christian doctrine and is the foundational tool in manipulating its adherents into compliance.
Think about it, if they taught us we are all essentially good then we'd all be happy and we'd have no reason to adhere to the rigorous demands the church tries to impose on us. I perhaps shouldn't place the entire burden of blame on Christianity, because there's certainly enough to go around the other Abrahamic religions, but Christianity is the one I'm most familiar with, which is why I'm making particular reference to it.
I have a problem with any doctrine that tells us we're innately bad, that we're somehow rotten at our core. It's basically a lie and one that's been used for millennia to manipulate and coerce the masses. It's the most heinous lie in the whole of human history and it's responsible for untold suffering.
Now, it's hard to deny that humanity as a whole is exceptionally messed up, and that's to put it politely. You only need to watch five minutes of the news to see how deeply dysfunctional, corrupt, disturbed and insane individuals, organisations, governments and nations can be, and what an unspeakable mess we've made on planet earth.
Does this mean we're intrinsically bad?
I contend that this would be a lazy and short-sighted conclusion to make.
THE PRE-EGO STATE
If you disagree with me, try spending some time with babies and very young children (or animals for that matter, but I'll stick with children for the sake of this topic). Any time I do, I come to the conclusion that we all enter this world in a state of sheer perfection. Very young children exist in a state of total oneness with life -- they're open, inquisitive, non-judgemental and everything is fresh to them. They're the epitome of LIFE.
Certainly, they can be cranky, loudly (!) expressive and they have a tendency to poop themselves, but in that state prior to the formation of ego and the framework of psyche, they're totally at one with themselves, in much the same way that animals are. They're authentic, totally in the moment and, best of all, totally free of the layers of mind-driven suffering most adults get themselves lost in. Most people are never more authentically themselves, never more in touch with life and never more 'perfect', than when they're young infants.
If we were inherently imperfect as religions claim, then as young children we'd be entities of evil; murderous, psychotic and dangerous, until the moment we learn to understand, adopt and be 'saved by' society's rules. Instead, I contend, it's actually the reverse. As babies and young children we're in touch with our essential nature and our innate goodness, wonder, curiosity and joy. (There might be one or two rare exceptions, but these are largely due to breakdowns in proper nurturing, when the child's needs have not been adequately met).
THE ARISING OF EGO
The moment we begin to master language and develop an ego and mind-based identity (basing our notion of 'self' on the name we're given and identifying with the limitations of our physical form and the content of our consciousness), that's when the problems begin. We learn to compartmentalise our experience of life into chunks, into 'good' and 'bad', 'me', 'mine', and 'others'.
When the ego develops, children go from a state of wonder and openness, to wanting to protect and reinforce the newly-formed sense of ego. It goes from being about simply "toys", to "MY toys, not YOUR toys!" This is a normal part of human development, and I'm not saying it's bad, it's just the way it is at our current level of psychological evolution and development as a species.
Now, virtually everyone will be forevermore mired in this sense of ego. Driven by a never-ending succession of desire and fear, they'll be motivated by the need to protect their 'identity' and sense of 'me-ness' above all else. A few very rare individuals may eventually transcend the ego framework and rediscover the original state of wholeness experienced prior to this mis-identification with form. This is essentially what 'enlightenment' is and it's uncommon. The best most people can hope for is reaching a state of inner balance and not completely allowing the conceptual framework to imprison consciousness and drive every action and reaction.
The mind-driven sense of identity that naturally arises in children and co-opts consciousness is a given. As I said, it's not wrong and it's not bad, it just is. It is, however, the source of pretty much all our suffering. Virtually all of our behaviour and motivation is driven by the fundamental need to uphold and maintain this conceptual sense of self: the image we hold in our minds of who we think we are.
Any threat to this mental self is seen as a threat to our very existence because we mistakenly assume it's the totality of what we are. That's why people are willing to fight and die for their beliefs. This ego/pseudo-self is like a magnet, drawing various content to itself, gradually building it up until it becomes bigger and more seemingly substantial. Layers and layers build up around it; layers composed of thoughts and beliefs, conditioning, habits, opinions, likes and dislikes, desires and fears.
It becomes this gargantuan entity that we think of as 'us'. It completely dominates our lives, although most people are quite unconscious of all this -- they just assume they are what they think they are, and that what they think, they are! It's the 'person' we think we are: the totality of 'me'.
The funny thing is, it's not real.
It's a kind of 'ghost in the machine'. It -- this entity we think of as 'us' -- has no inherent, independent existence of its own.
We might think of consciousness -- the original unconditioned consciousness we had as babies and pre-ego children -- as being like a rope. It doesn't matter where this rope came from, or where it begins or ends, as that's the subject of another discussion entirely. When the ego develops a knot forms in the rope. This knot becomes the entity we think of as 'ourself'. The knot is somehow magnetised and begins drawing all sorts of mental substrate toward and onto itself, forming the all-consuming, all-dominating sense of 'me'.
But a knot has no independent existence of its own. It has an apparent existence. It seems to be something separate from the rest of the rope, but it isn't, it's just the rope folded in on itself, creating the appearance of something separate. Eventually, at the end of our lives, the rope is untied and all the mental substrate that was magnetised to it falls away. We're back to what we were: pure unconditioned consciousness, although this time it slips back into unmanifested potentiality where it rests, until the next movement of consciousness occurs.
This is a lot to grasp for many people. It completely overturns everything we've probably always assumed to be true about ourselves and the very nature of our identity and existence. But I think it is, nevertheless logical and it can be verified by a degree of self-investigation.
Consider this. People's entire sense of identity and the content of ego (the stuff magnetised to the knot in the rope) is entirely dependent on memory. If I could press a button and completely erase your memory, your entire conceptual identity would instantaneously cease. Yet you'd still be alive and aware. You'd be back to that open, undefined, expansive state we all knew as infants, when we were most in line with our essential nature prior to the influence of conditioning and conceptualisation.
Of course, a new identity would soon begin to coalesce, but the fact this 'identity' (and all the content of ego and mind) is entirely interchangable, means that logically it cannot be YOU. It's all just objects in consciousness; phenomena. You are the consciousness; you are the noumenon beyond the phenomena. It's worth reflecting on this with an open mind.
THE END OF SUFFERING
So what happens when we wake up from this fabricated sense of self, and see beyond the knot in consciousness that we erroneously took to be ourselves? The answer is liberation from suffering caused when other people, the world and life appear to oppose, threaten or damage one's fabricated sense of identity. This is basically the essence of the Buddha's teaching 2,500 years ago. He called it 'the end of suffering'. It's also the freedom to be, do and become whatever we want, whatever we feel drawn to do, because we've transcended previous limitations and definitions we've placed on ourselves.
It's also the only means of reaching a true and lasting inner peace in life. The world is as the world is, and other people are as they are, but we stop resisting it. Instead we accept and work with, and around it. Life flows more smoothly when we stop creating our own obstructions in the flow. We no longer see ourselves as separate from life: I mean, how could we be? There's no 'us' and 'life'. We are life. It's one totality.
A NEW WAY OF UNDERSTANDING OUR TRUE NATURE
Let's go back to the original question of whether or not we're intrinsically bad. How can we possibly be? It seems to me that it's actually quite the contrary, that we're intrinsically perfect. We come into this world perfect and, as we develop -- as our ego is formed and conditioning moulds our psyche -- we accumulate layer upon layer of muck, creating distortions in the way consciousness is expressed through us. These distortions are not 'us' and they're not in any way a reflection of our true nature.
We're like candles in a glass jar. Consciousness is the light, and the jar represents our mind and psyche. If the jar is covered in dirt, then the light struggles to shine through. If the jar is clear and undistorted, the candle shines brightly through the glass. The same is true for us. Don't mistake a dirty jar as being evidence that there's no light within, or that the dirt on the jar is the totality in essence.
It's this misperception that's at the root of so many religions and philosophies. It reflects an inadequate understanding of the nature of reality, consciousness and self. It's a delusion that's caused and continues to cause untold misery and it's time it was challenged. The way we're living as a species is no longer tenable. It's based on misunderstanding and misperception and it's time that it was changed.
This might be challenging stuff for many people, but I believe that questioning the nature of one's assumed identity is really the only way to move beyond the great miasma of human suffering. Knowledge is power and Self-Knowledge is ultimate power; the power to transcend suffering. Self knowledge and a lasting end to personal suffering is rarer than gold dust in this world of ours. Are you brave enough to be part of the vanguard?