Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
and cooperatively out of a sense of self-preservation. Without the intervention of a higher
authority there would be permanent war.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Hobbes was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau was of the opinion that people have a preference for
good: ‘Man is by nature good and happy; it is society which destroys original happiness.’
According to Rousseau it is the corrupting inluence of the environment, of society, which
incites man to do wrong and therefore makes him unhappy.
The question as to who is right is not an easy one. Recent research by Kiley Hamlin and
colleagues gives us a hint at the answer. They were interested in the question of the extent
to which people are naturally able to distinguish right and wrong. Only if people can make this
distinction can they determine whether they want to behave accordingly. In order to establish
this, research was carried out among young children, because they are not yet fully formed.
In the study babies aged six months had a large wooden board placed before them. To the
left on the board was a picture of a mountain. A wooden igure with two big round eyes then
moved towards the mountain. The igure was controlled by the researchers on the other side
of the board, out of sight of the baby. The igure tried to climb the mountain, but fell down
when it reached half way. This happened again on a second attempt. When the igure climbed
the mountain for the third time, another igure was added: the helper or hinderer. The helper
also came from the right and pushed the igure to the top. The hinderer came from the left,
from the top of the mountain, and pushed the igure down, so that it failed to reach the top for
a third time.
Both igures were then placed in front of the babies on a tray. The researchers were curious
as to which igure the babies would pick up. Would it be the hinderer or the helper? And what
happened? In all cases the babies picked up the helper and left the hinderer. Even when the
researchers varied the colors and shapes of the helper and hinderer, the results were the same.
According to the researchers this is evidence that people are capable of distinguishing right
and wrong from a very early age, even before they can speak. We are able to determine
what is good and what is harmful for others. Evidently we possess empathy from a young
1. Good or bad by nature? Empathy and sympathy