If I have a purpose in life, a story that I want to tell the world it's this: people are not "basically good", they are "basically evil". It's not because I hate people that I want to tell them this (because, I would have to hate myself), but because every wrong turn and dead end in the political, religious, theological, philosophical, and sociological spheres, from education, to gun control, to the justice system, to the justification for war, is directly attributable to the idea that people are "basically good".
It is a well written, scholarly article. There is so much to it that you really must read it for yourself to understand the depth of his argument. Neil elaborates in the comments boxes.
I believe humanity is qualitatively "totally" depraved, but obviously does act with civility and relative goodness quite often, so we are not "absolutely" depraved. Meaning, I don't believe we do all the evil we possibly can all of the time. I have a saying about this: "Not all rancid meat stinks, but all stinky meat is rancid." I believe that all of humanity is all rancid meat, whether we stink or not.
However, I disagree passionately with Neil. I have another answer. Man is not wholly good or wholly evil. Man is both.
Man is not evil by his nature, which God created, but by his own free choice. Human nature is the best of all God's creations, for it is made in his image...
Both the cause of evil (man's misuse of his free will) and the cure of evil (the death of Christ on the Cross) are deep mysteries, not simple problems. They are not wholly transparent to human reason. Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity
I have a feeling that a good deal of my disagreement with Neil's viewpoint comes from the fact that he is Protestant and I am a traditional Catholic. But when have I ever let that stop me? So I will just forge ahead as best I can from the Catholic point of view. I am leaning a good deal here on Peter Kreeft as I find it hard to improve on the way he explains concepts.
Neil's examination does not go far enough because it stays firmly in this world. It is not really possible to examine the question of man's nature and, ultimately, the question of evil, without using a supernatural point of view. There must be less psychology and more theology to understand ourselves. We must look farther than what we can see, touch, and understand because our vision is not big enough. We must look, as best we can, from God's angle. When man submits to the temptation to do evil there are two reasons. The first is original sin.
Original sin does not mean that we are "totally depraved" (Calvin's term) or wholly evil or more evil than good (how could that be measured?) or that our very being is evil or that we are no longer infinitely valuable and infinitely loved by God. It means that we are mortally wounded, a defaced masterpiece. The greater the masterpiece, the more terrible its defacement.
Original sin is a difficult concept for us because we cannot appreciate the great difference between our present state and mankind's first state of fallen innocence, which we have never experienced. Our instincts spontaneously take our present state of selfishness as the norm rather than the abnormality. But our faith and our reason tell us that the good God could not have created us selfish by nature; that we are all now "abnormal".
Original sin, the inborn state of all humanity, explains why all of us commit actual sins. If we were all born sin-free and innocent like Adam, surely some of us would have chosen to remain so. Yet none does. (And the better and more saintly we are, the more readily and clearly we admit it.) Why?
Because we were not born innocent of original sin, only innocent of actual sin. And our original sin leads us to commit actual sins. Our being conditions our actions. We sin because we are sinners, just as we sing because we are singers. Our nature conditions our acts, as an alcoholic's brain chemistry and chemical dependency condition his act of drinking.
This does not mean we are not responsible for actual sins, for the will's choice is also involved in the act - sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. We are not determined, but we are conditioned - led, pulled, influenced - by our sinful nature and instincts. But we also are free to choose to obey our instincts -- for instance, when we fast or sacrifice...
The origin of sin may be mysterious, but its existence, its reality and presence now, in our individual and social experience, is very clear. The dogma is confirmed by the data. "What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator" (GS 13), or from the wholly good world he created; so it must come from man's own free 'fall' ". Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity
The second reason we do evil is not popular today. We must not forget that we are not just struggling with our own fallen nature. There is a supernatural element to all this. Satan is our implacable and steadfast enemy. He will not sit idly by without trying to influence us to do evil. In fact, the mere idea that I am slightly embarrassed to write about Satan is proof of how well he has managed to disguise himself in today's world; a real triumph for evil.
Christ took Satan very seriously (though not obsessively). If we do not, how can we say or minds are on line with the Lord? If we claim to have matured beyond belief in Satan, we claim to have matured beyond Christ. If we scorn the fear of Satan as foolish, we are calling Christ a fool, for he told us to fear him (Mt 10:28). And if we think of Christ as in any way a fool, we are either denying the Incarnation, denying that Christ is God, or else saying that God is a fool. For if fear of Satan is foolish, and if Christ taught it, and if Christ is God, then God is foolish.
Christ commanded us to conclude the only prayer he ever gave us, the model prayer, with "Rescue us from the evil one" (Mt 6:13). The Greek word is a singular noun, not a plural or a participle, and it has a definite article. The proper translation is not just "evil" but "the evil one." Peter Kreeft, How to Win the Culture War
What is the answer to the problem of evil and sin? We must be Christians as fully as possible. That means we must strive to be saints. One of the main points in Neil's argument, in fact his launching point, is his belief that Hitler was not the monster that everyone makes him out to be. We are happy to elevate Hitler to a monstrous level because it makes us feel better by comparison. We are not so evil as Hitler after all. In answer to this I can only say that every person is more complex than history would have us believe. I can perfectly well believe that a hideously evil person loved dogs or enjoyed dinner with friends. That does not make them less monstrous. In fact, that almost makes them more so by contrast as they have absolutely no common feeling with their fellow men after exhibiting perfectly well that they have such feelings themselves.
Neil says that Mother Teresa is not really a saint. We idealize her and elevate her to the level of nearly perfect behavior in order to make our ordinary, fallible selves feel better by saying that no one can be as good as she is. The quote by Kierkegaard used as evidence of this really does not support this hypothesis. He merely is defining what we know to be true of human nature. This goes back to our fallen nature (original sin) that insists on the pride of wanting to think ourselves better than we are (I'll be like God? Gimme that apple!).
Mother Teresa left her comfortable teaching job at a private school in order to rescue dying people from the gutter and give them death with dignity, picking maggots out of their flesh if necessary. To define that as "not doing all the evil we possibly can all of the time" is an almost willful denial of evidence. There is nothing to make anyone do such a thing but the deliberate desire to positively act for the common good, to die to self, to serve God. Yes, Mother Teresa was human and not perfect. However that only serves to make the testimony to the fact that man's soul contains good all the greater. Evil is not all that we are; it can be overcome by our good.
We must remember that saints are striving to be the ultimate Christians. It means being like Christ as much as humanly possible. Christ is perfect. He is Kierkegaard's ultimate "ethical man". He was the most humble man who ever lived, constantly doing everything for the glory of God and deferring His will to His Father's. He was loved by multitudes. He was passionately hated by those who did not want to hear that they could be like him if they gave up their preconceived ideas of who God is and what he wants.
The example of saints that Neil uses is the real life example that knocks the legs out from under the argument. The very fact that people do exist who can mirror Christ well enough for us to recognize them as saints speaks volumes to the fact that we are not "basically evil", "rancid meat" if you will. For anyone to achieve those heights of mirroring the ultimate good that is God the Son means we also are good in our selves ... not "all good" but that if we really try and unite ourselves to Christ on His Cross, we can be good enough to serve God as fully as possible.