Why I Believe People Are Inherently Good

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Human nature, a subject of deep fascination and intense study throughout the history of human thought, encompasses a spectrum of views about what fundamentally drives human behavior. While some argue that humans are inherently selfish or aggressive, others present a more optimistic perspective, suggesting an innate predisposition towards goodness, altruism, and compassion.

As an addiction counselor, my steadfast belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature underpins the very fabric of my counseling practice. It is this belief that echoes in Anne Frank’s stirring words: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” It is this belief that resonates with the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, who posited that individuals inherently strive towards self-actualization. It aligns with Victor Frankl’s logotherapy, which asserts that human beings are fundamentally oriented towards the pursuit of meaning, even in the face of adversity.

In this article, I will explore the profound implications of these perspectives on human nature, delving into how these beliefs can shape our approaches towards facilitating behavior change, and the far-reaching societal impacts of these perspectives. Together, let us traverse this exploration of human goodness, unearthing its foundational role in personal growth, societal progress, and the continued evolution of our shared humanity.

Exploration of Anne Frank’s Perspective

Born on June 12, 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany, Anne Frank was a Jewish teenager who gained posthumous fame through the publication of her diary. The Frank family moved to Amsterdam in 1934 to escape the escalating persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. However, following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1940, they went into hiding in a secret annex in her father’s office building in 1942. Anne, her sister Margot, and their parents lived in this clandestine space with four other Jews until 1944, when they were discovered and transported to concentration camps. Anne and her sister died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the only survivor of the family, later published Anne’s diary entries, providing the world with a poignant glimpse into her life in hiding.

Anne’s statement, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart,” comes from one of her diary entries written on July 15, 1944. This was less than a month before the Secret Annex’s inhabitants were discovered and arrested. Her quote reveals a resilient optimism and belief in human goodness, even as she faced severe oppression and lived in constant fear. It symbolizes an unwavering hope that underlines a human capacity for goodness, irrespective of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.

Despite the inhumanity surrounding her, Anne Frank maintained an extraordinary belief in the goodness of people. She viewed her oppressors not as representations of all humankind but as deviations from it. Her optimism, embedded in the most dire of circumstances, attests to the resilience of hope and the capacity for individuals to perceive and believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, even when confronted with its darkest aspects.

Anne’s perspective also points towards a universal human potential: the ability to maintain a view of human goodness and to use this belief as a source of strength and resilience. As such, her quote is not simply a statement of belief, but a testament to the power of optimism, hope, and belief in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Victor Frankl’s Perspective on Human Nature

Victor Frankl, born in 1905 in Vienna, Austria, was a psychiatrist and neurologist who survived the Holocaust, enduring the brutal conditions of Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Post World War II, Frankl became a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna and wrote numerous books. His most influential work is “Man’s Search for Meaning,” an autobiographical account of his experiences in concentration camps that underpins his psychological theory – logotherapy.

While enduring the abhorrent conditions of the concentration camps, Frankl observed that those who were able to hold onto a sense of purpose and meaning in life were more likely to survive. These experiences profoundly shaped his understanding of human nature. Despite witnessing some of the most despicable acts of human cruelty, he maintained a belief in the possibility of human goodness. Frankl proposed that even in the direst situations, individuals could choose their attitudes and find meaning, thereby affirming their humanity.

Frankl’s logotherapy is predicated on the belief that the primary motivational force for humans is not power or pleasure, but a “will to meaning” – the desire to find purpose in life. This perspective suggests that humans are fundamentally oriented towards the good, as they are driven by the pursuit of meaningful and purposeful goals, which often involve service, love, and acts of compassion and creativity.

Central to Frankl’s perspective is the concept of “tragic optimism,” the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inevitable suffering. Frankl asserted that humans are always free to choose their attitude, regardless of their circumstances, and with this freedom comes responsibility. This belief in human freedom and responsibility underscores his faith in inherent human goodness. Despite the potential for evil, humans have the capacity for change, growth, and choosing to act in ways that affirm life and its inherent value.

To articulate Victor Frankl’s perspective on human nature, consider the metaphor of a sailor navigating through a tempestuous sea. Just as a sailor at sea has the freedom to steer his vessel, no matter the storm, so too does each individual have the power to navigate their life’s journey, irrespective of external circumstances.

The rough, unpredictable sea represents the external adversities and challenges we face in life. These adversities can be fierce, and at times overwhelming, akin to the mighty waves that crash against a solitary ship amidst a storm. Yet, Frankl believed that despite these adversities, individuals retain the freedom to choose their response. Much like a skilled sailor who maintains the course, adjusts the sails, or seeks safe harbor, individuals have the power to shape their response to life’s trials, guided by their inner compass or their ‘will to meaning.’

The inherent goodness in human nature, according to Frankl, is found in our freedom and responsibility to seek meaning, even in the face of adversity. This can be likened to the sailor’s innate desire to find their way, to survive, and to reach their destination. Despite the most formidable storm, this pursuit never ceases.

Frankl’s logotherapy proposes that our primary motivation is the pursuit of meaning, akin to the sailor’s unwavering focus on the guiding stars, which provide direction amidst the chaotic sea. This drive towards meaning, towards a purpose greater than oneself, signifies the essential goodness and nobility in human nature.

Thus, Victor Frankl’s perspective on human nature presents a portrait of resilience, freedom, responsibility, and an inherent orientation towards meaning and goodness, much like a sailor who, despite all odds, navigates the stormy seas with the faith that calm waters and safe harbors lie ahead.

Carl Rogers’ Humanistic Psychology and the Idea of Innate Goodness

Carl Rogers, born in 1902, was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, and a founding figure of humanistic psychology. This branch of psychology posits that humans are not merely the product of their environment or dark unconscious urges, but have an inherent desire for self-actualization, growth, and the expression of their unique potential. Rogers is particularly known for his person-centered approach, emphasizing empathy, unconditional positive regard, and the therapist’s authenticity as critical components of effective psychotherapy.

At the heart of Rogers’ theory lies the “actualizing tendency,” the innate drive in all organisms to grow, change, and strive towards fulfillment and potential. For Rogers, humans are inherently inclined towards positive, constructive ends. This aligns closely with the idea of innate goodness. Even though individuals may deviate from this path due to adverse circumstances or conditions of worth imposed by society, at their core, they maintain this intrinsic impulse towards growth, positivity, and ultimately, goodness.

Consider human nature as akin to a garden. In Carl Rogers’ perspective, every person is like a seed with the innate potential to grow and flourish into a vibrant, unique, and robust plant. This inherent capacity for growth and self-actualization is the natural state, much like a seed instinctively knows how to germinate, to push its sprouts towards the sun, and to unfurl its leaves for photosynthesis.

Rogers emphasized the ‘actualizing tendency,’ which can be likened to the inherent genetic blueprint within the seed, guiding its growth and development. This blueprint nudges the seed towards becoming the best version of the plant it is meant to be. Similarly, in every person, there lies an innate tendency towards growth, development, and the realization of their potential.

However, just like a seed needs the right conditions to thrive, humans too require an environment conducive to growth. This includes ‘good soil’ or a nurturing and accepting social environment, ‘sunlight’ or unconditional positive regard from those around us, and ‘water’ or empathy to nourish our self-understanding and personal growth. With these conditions met, humans, like plants, can flourish, growing into the best versions of themselves.

Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that sometimes, despite having the inherent potential for growth, a seed might fail to sprout or a plant might wither if conditions are unfavorable. Similarly, external adverse circumstances or internal psychological barriers might hinder an individual’s path towards self-actualization. However, this doesn’t negate the inherent goodness and potential within; instead, it underscores the importance of creating environments that nurture this inherent goodness and facilitate growth.

In essence, Carl Rogers’ view of human nature is one of optimism and potential, firmly rooted in the belief that, like a garden filled with a multitude of diverse and beautiful plants, each person possesses the inherent potential to grow, flourish, and contribute uniquely to the rich tapestry of human experience.

The Belief in Human Goodness and Behavior Change

When it comes to understanding and influencing human behavior, our underlying beliefs about human nature can significantly shape our approach. Our views about whether people are fundamentally good, neutral, or inherently flawed can influence everything from our interpersonal interactions to our larger societal interventions designed to foster behavior change.

Believing in the inherent goodness of human beings can drastically change the perspective towards and methods of behavior change. It shifts the focus from the lens of deficiency or flaw that needs correction to the view of untapped potential waiting to be nurtured and fostered. This optimistic view of human nature encourages an approach to behavior change that builds on strengths rather than merely trying to eliminate weaknesses.

A Strength-based Approach to Behavior Change

The belief in human goodness invites a strength-based approach to behavior change, which emphasizes strengths, potentials, and existing capacities for goodness in individuals. Instead of identifying deficits and seeking to remedy them, a strength-based approach encourages the exploration of what is already working well and how this can be amplified to support positive change.

This approach might involve helping individuals recognize their innate capacities for empathy, cooperation, and altruism, or nurturing qualities such as resilience, creativity, and ethical reasoning. The focus is on unleashing the inherent potential and goodness in individuals, empowering them to harness these qualities in the service of personal growth and positive change.

Understanding Negative Behaviors

Believing in human goodness also offers a compassionate framework for understanding negative behaviors. If one holds that people are essentially good, negative behaviors are seen not as evidence of inherent evil or pathology but as expressions of unmet needs or adaptive strategies developed under adverse conditions.

For example, an individual who engages in aggressive behavior might be trying to meet an unmet need for security, respect, or autonomy. Such behaviors, while problematic, can be seen as the individual’s best attempt to navigate their circumstances, given their current resources and skills. This understanding can foster a more empathetic and compassionate approach to behavior change, focusing on understanding and addressing the underlying needs and fostering the development of more adaptive strategies, rather than blaming or punishing the individual.

The Power of Unconditional Positive Regard

Another implication of the belief in human goodness for behavior change is the power of unconditional positive regard, a concept introduced by Carl Rogers. This concept refers to accepting and valuing a person irrespective of their behaviors. If we believe in the inherent goodness of individuals, we can separate their core worth as human beings from their behaviors.

Practicing unconditional positive regard can have a powerful impact on behavior change. When individuals feel deeply accepted and valued, they are more likely to feel safe to explore their behaviors, feelings, and thoughts, fostering self-understanding and growth. Moreover, this unconditional acceptance can reinforce individuals’ belief in their own worth and potential, enhancing their motivation and capacity for positive change.

Humanistic Psychology and Behavior Change

Humanistic psychology, as represented by Carl Rogers’ theory, provides a rich framework for considering behavior change. At the heart of this perspective is the belief in an individual’s inherent capacity for growth and self-actualization, a propensity towards realizing one’s potential and inherent goodness. Rogers posited that every person has a “real self” and an “ideal self,” and that wellness and positive behavior are fostered when one’s self-image and ideal self are congruent. This view encourages an approach to behavior change that values empathy, positive regard, and congruence.

For therapists, coaches, or any professionals assisting others in behavior change, this perspective implies creating an environment that promotes personal growth and self-discovery, allowing the person to move closer to their ideal self. This might involve providing unconditional positive regard, empathetic understanding, and genuineness, thereby fostering a sense of safety and acceptance that enables exploration and change. This helps individuals recognize and remove conditions of worth, societal or self-imposed expectations that hinder their self-actualization by fostering a lack of self-acceptance.

Logotherapy and Behavior Change

Victor Frankl’s logotherapy also offers insightful implications for facilitating behavior change. Central to Frankl’s approach is the “will to meaning,” the innate human desire to find purpose and meaning in life. According to Frankl, behavior change can often be facilitated by helping individuals discover or rediscover the unique meanings in their lives. This process might involve helping individuals understand their values, passions, and strengths, or supporting them in making sense of and finding meaning in difficult experiences.

Frankl’s emphasis on the capacity to choose one’s attitude, even in the face of unavoidable suffering, is another crucial component of this perspective on behavior change. This suggests that interventions can focus on fostering individuals’ sense of personal agency and responsibility, helping them recognize their freedom to choose their reactions and attitudes, even in challenging circumstances.

Building Environments That Foster Goodness

The belief in fundamental human goodness can shape not only individual approaches to behavior change, but also societal and institutional approaches. If we accept that humans are fundamentally good and motivated by an inherent tendency toward growth, we can develop systems and policies that reflect this understanding, encouraging healthier, more productive, and more compassionate societies.

Educational Systems

In educational contexts, the belief in human goodness can shape how we view students and the purpose of education itself. Rather than seeing education as a process of ‘filling vessels’ with knowledge or ‘correcting’ deficiencies, it can be viewed as a process of nurturing inherent capacities for learning, curiosity, creativity, empathy, and ethical reasoning.

This approach might involve creating learning environments that foster curiosity and love for learning, rather than focusing primarily on grades or standardized test scores. It could also emphasize socio-emotional learning, cultivating students’ capacities for empathy, emotional literacy, cooperation, and conflict resolution. Recognizing the inherent potential in every student can also lead to greater emphasis on equity in education, ensuring that every student, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to realize their potential.

Criminal Justice Systems

The belief in human goodness can also significantly influence approaches to criminal justice. If we see individuals who commit offenses as fundamentally good, this can shift the focus from punishment and retribution towards restoration, rehabilitation, and reintegration.

This perspective invites a restorative justice approach, which focuses on healing the harm caused by crimes, holding offenders accountable in a way that fosters their growth and integration, and restoring relationships and community harmony. It might also involve investing more in rehabilitation programs that address the underlying issues contributing to criminal behaviors, such as addiction, mental health issues, or lack of education or employment opportunities.

Social Policies

Believing in human goodness can also shape social policies, affecting how society addresses issues such as poverty, homelessness, inequality, or mental health. Rather than blaming individuals for their circumstances, this perspective emphasizes creating conditions that allow individuals to realize their inherent potential and goodness.

This might involve implementing policies that meet basic needs for food, shelter, healthcare, and education, reducing the stressors that can hinder individuals’ capacity to realize their goodness. It could also involve creating opportunities for meaningful work and community engagement, recognizing the human desire for purpose, contribution, and connection.

Healthcare Systems

In healthcare systems, a belief in human goodness can foster a holistic and person-centered approach. Rather than focusing solely on disease or dysfunction, this perspective encourages seeing patients as whole persons with inherent capacities for health and well-being.

This might involve integrating mental and physical healthcare, recognizing the interconnection between mind and body health. It could also involve incorporating practices that foster patients’ active participation in their health care, enhancing their sense of agency and empowerment. This approach can lead to healthcare that not only treats illnesses but also promotes overall health, well-being, and flourishing.

In conclusion, a belief in human goodness can significantly influence societal and institutional approaches to behavior change, fostering systems and policies that are more compassionate, empowering, and effective. By creating conditions that nurture human goodness, we can help individuals and communities to thrive.

Conclusion

The view of human nature as fundamentally good, as expressed through the lives and works of figures like Anne Frank, Carl Rogers, and Victor Frankl, has far-reaching implications for our understanding of behavior and how we facilitate change. By adopting an appreciative approach, acknowledging the innate potential within each individual, and affirming our collective capacity for goodness, we can significantly alter the landscape of personal development, therapeutic interventions, and societal transformations.

The lens of inherent human goodness offers a compassionate understanding of negative behaviors, viewing them not as signs of inherent evil, but as the products of unmet needs or adaptation to challenging circumstances. Such a perspective opens the door to empathy, understanding, and effective means of behavior change that underscore the value of nurturing inherent capacities for empathy, cooperation, altruism, and moral reasoning.

Moreover, the belief in human goodness has substantial societal and institutional implications, shaping our approaches to education, criminal justice, social policies, and healthcare. By building systems that foster human goodness and meet basic human needs, we create an environment conducive to the flourishing of individuals and communities.

In essence, the belief in fundamental human goodness is more than an optimistic assertion; it’s a powerful foundation for fostering positive behavior change, both at an individual and societal level. While acknowledging the complexities of human behavior and the darker aspects of human nature, this perspective offers a hopeful vision of what we can become, a beacon guiding us towards a more empathetic, compassionate, and just society. It encourages us not only to believe in human goodness but to act in ways that make this goodness visible in our world.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard

    Brilliant article Dr. Rose.This really addresses the need for a more compassionate and just society on many levels.I would hope that more policy makers would read your comprehensive article to begin effective programs rooted in the science of (potential) human behavior and self-actualization as described by the three iconic authors. Many thanks for your continued contributions in bringing about positive change and healing in a hurting world.

    Reply
  2. Frank A. Pelaschuk

    Fascinating article. But I wonder. I, too, believe meaning and goals, purposeful or not, are what impels many. Yes, intrinsic to such is hope but, again, not necessarily belief, that goodness is inherent. As for freedom and responsibility, I will take those on as “given” in some but not to be relied upon from others. I have no faith in the inherent goodness of others though I have witnessed for myself over a long live many instances of selfless work, sacrifice and even great danger on behalf of others. Though I would wish it otherwise, I consider these as uncharacteristic, if not deviant. How many will stand by recording accidents, acts of brutality against another without lifting a finger, looking for that one startling image that will offer them notoriety, perhaps even fame, without any sense of shame for have not acted to help that accident or brutalized victim? How many act not only against the interests of others, but against their own interests

    Yes, Carl Rogers is on to something and I do believe opportunities to be encouraged, nourished and rewarded are essentials for individual change and a workable society. Personally, when I meet others for the first time, I try to be welcoming, non-judgemental and as open as possible; but I am also wary because I have lived too long not to have seen the side of others that have contributed to shaping me as I am. Bernard Malamud, an amazing and humane novelist wrote, “People say I write so much about misery, but you write about what you know best. As you are grooved so are you grieved.” In that quote, he does offer hope. Yes, one can be, and often is, by shaped by what wounds us but, too, the converse is true, we are shaped by the good that comes one’s way. I would have said, “As you are grieved, so are you grooved.” That is something I have always lived with. If I see goodness, generosity, compassion, I am always moved by it and pleasantly surprised. Otherwise, I experience no real disappointment, because I never expect more. I may hope, but that is all.

    Excellent article.

    Reply
  3. John Haase, LPCC

    Steve, I appreciate your convictions and thoughts. As a fellow counselor and Rogers man, I do my utmost to ‘build people up,’ as you do. I must note, however, the Anne Frank quote came was written July 15, 1944, less than a month before she and her family were discovered and arrested in Amsterdam.

    Anne was ‘processed’ at Auschwitz (Sept 1944) and later transferred to Bergen-Belsen. Friends who saw her reported after the war that Anne became sick and emaciated, reportedly stating she did not wish to live any longer. Anne Frank died a day after her sister, Margot, in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp early 1945. Sadly, the camp was liberated about two months later.

    I must wonder if Anne still believed in the ‘goodness’ of human nature after suffering under the Nazi’s.

    Best wishes and kind regards

    Reply

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