Disclaimer: Martha Nussbaum is my favorite author in the whole world. So, when I found that she had written a new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, I cleared my calendar for the weekend and settled in for what I knew would be a good read. Nussbaum did not disappoint.
One of the reasons I like Nussbaum’s work is that she makes the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans relevant to today’s problems as she encourages and equips us for personal growth and thoughtful action. She begins The Monarchy of Fear by reminding all of us to take a deep breath: over the past 60 years we have made much progress in race relations, gender parity, and inclusiveness for all. While we have work left to do, she reminds us that perspective is useful and despair won’t help.
Nussbaum then takes us on a philosophical journey into the ethical blind spot of fear—the primal wound that, according to both philosophers and psychologists, drives us to behaviors that divide us from others and erode community. The problem is not new. As she traces the history of fear as well as the philosophers’ responses and antidotes, Nussbaum reminds us that learning to overcome fear is a perennial human concern.
We then get introduced to the offspring of fear: anger, disgust, and envy. Nussbaum claims that these emotions create a “toxic brew” that lead to policies of exclusion, racism, and misogyny. She also reminds us that while fear may be an existential emotion that is part of the human condition, anger, disgust, and envy are learned as we journey through life. Therein lies the antidote to the poison described in The Monarchy of Fear: beliefs and behaviors that are learned can be unlearned.
The final chapter gives us a path forward—the beliefs and skills that will build our capacity to live with each other in peace even when we disagree: hope, love, and vision. Nussbaum doesn’t give a sentimental or saccharine version of these virtues. She asserts that hope that holds the possibility for a better life for all through peaceful work and cooperation is the flip side of fear, but developing hope requires thoughtful discipline so we don’t slip into wishful thinking or despair. Love reminds us that good outcomes can result from the efforts of flawed human beings—people just like us. Nussbaum asserts that “real human beings and real human life are what we need to believe in, and that means that hope, bolstered by faith, needs to embrace something that flawed human beings are capable of and might really do.”
From there she calls us to a vision—not of lofty world peace or economic equality but for the small acts of kindness and civility that each of us can do in our own families and communities. Drawing on the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., she reminds us that in his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, the vision was for people on opposite sides of the ideological fence having a meal together and Black and White children playing together. The promise is that small but very concrete actions taken by many people of good will on both side of the political divide can begin to dilute the poison of fear, anger, disgust, and envy.
In particular, Nussbaum calls us to three practices: the arts, Socratic dialogue, and religion. As a philosopher, she asserts that “philosophy by itself shows how we can respect our enemies; it does not show us how to love them. For that we need the arts, and many of us need religion.”
She believes that these practices are places where people can come together, learn to understand and respect each other, and then work together to make the community better for those in it. She admits that these practices are not easy if they are taken with a spirit of hope, faith, and love, but as each of us builds the capability of being an individual in community progress can be made!
Nussbaum ends her work with a list of the ten capabilities she asserts all people should have the opportunity to develop, including life, health, freedom of movement, literacy to engage the imagination, and control over one’s environment through political affiliation and the ability to own private property. Nussbaum’s life work has been around identifying the capabilities needed for individuals (and by extension communities) to thrive. With that focus she is in the lineage of the consequentialist philosophers who advocate for equipping each person to identify and follow their heart’s desires.
The focus on individual capability is, to my mind, very comforting. I cannot singlehandedly change what is happening on the national or global stage. But, I can make a difference in my own community. So, as I sing the ethics blues, I’m learning new riffs. As Phoebe Snow reminds me in “Harpo’s Blues,” my stage may be small, but as I imagine myself as a willow, a lover, a mountain, or a soft refrain, I can get the strength to be an adult as I “try to bear my life in pain.”
A Very Good Read!
The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.
By: Martha Nussbaum, Ph.D.
New York: Simon & Schuster (2018)
In The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age, Gordon Marino tackles some of life’s most challenging experiences. Marino has a delightful writing style and storytelling ability that makes engaging in topics such as anxiety, despair, and death not as dark as one might suppose. About three pages into his book, I found myself resonating with his insights and being thankful that he gave voice to feelings and ideas that were lurking underneath my conscious surface.
Marino skillfully weaves both the position of people of faith and the experience of people who do not have that faith into his work. In addition, he brings an honesty to the topics that provides not only a breath of fresh air but, more importantly, the space for us to look at our own beliefs and biases. As Marino states, “with existentialism, argument often takes the form of a story or description, in which you either see yourself or you don’t.”
The background authors are those found on the existentialist family tree, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard. Marino states that he finds in Kierkegaard “the invocation to reach through the suffering, the anxiety, and inexplicable sadness instead of always looking for the express lane out of that numbing and ever-deepening feeling that nothing matters.” And, so his work is ultimately hopeful, taking us from a beginning point of anxiety, depression, and despair and ending with faith, morality, and love. The core belief is “that through self-reflection we [can] make progress as human beings.”
In Depression and Despair, Marino reminds us of Kierkegaard’s three selves. The concrete self is the person that we are, engaged in our various activities. So, our concrete self may be a faculty member pressed to get grades in at the end of the semester or a manager working with a team to complete a deliverable. Our ideal self is that person that we want to become, the end goal of our obsessions with self-improvement. The least interesting and most neglected self is, in Kierkegaard’s view, the most important: the moral self, which Marino defines as “the sort of person [we] aspire to be, the kind of individual who reminds [us] of what we are capable of.”
Through every chapter, Marino begins with stories of the daily toils and tribulations of our concrete self and points us past our ideal self to our moral self. He relentlessly reminds us that Kierkegaard’s gift to humanity is the understanding that “while we might not have much choice in how we feel at a given time, we have control over and responsibility for the way we relate to those feelings.”
Marino thus turns the experience of anxiety, depression, and death into an opportunity to engage in the work of ethics: to become that third self, our moral self. He helps us define strategies to not be defined by our feelings or the accidents of life but rather to use those emotions and events as grist for the mill of becoming an authentic human being, one who is vulnerable and dependent on others who walk this earth with us.
For Marino, the way out of the dark dead ends of life is through embracing faith, morality, and love. In the chapter on faith, Marino explores all the reasons why we should not have faith—the craziness of a blind belief in the supernatural and that everything will turn out OK. Yet, he asserts that trust is needed to engage in the hard work of understanding one’s self, the light and the shadow.
The chapter on morality explores the difficulty of living a moral and good life and underscores the challenge of exercising moral courage in the small windows of opportunity that appear in our daily lives. Core to this chapter is the admonition that we are responsible for our actions, even while acknowledging the dark fingers of anxiety that touch our soul as we exercise freedom and become responsible. And, we are reminded that our character is shaped by “how we cope with our fears.”
Finally, the chapter on love challenges us to move out of behaviors that are expressions of self-love into a genuine caring about others. A colleague and I were musing recently about whether or not people have just become more mean in the past couple of years. We wondered whether that meanness was present all along or, given the current political climate, we now have more permission to be catty and cruel. The Existentialists invite us to confront all the different ways that we express self-love as we gather to ourselves power and control. For them, the acid test of love is whether we will show respect and love to those we really want to avoid and ridicule—or whether we will allow ourselves to be catty, mean, and cruel in order to have power over the other.
Through making the conversations of the Existentialists accessible and relevant to those of us who don’t read philosophy on a regular basis, Marino gives us an engaging and user-friendly world view to help us make peace with where we are in this time and place (the Existentialists never really expected us to make sense out of what they consider an absurd, or senseless, world). He also gives us the tools with which to develop our moral self and the courage to engage in the task. After finishing Marino’s book, I may have to give Kierkegaard another spin.
A Very Good Read!
The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age
By Gordon Marino, PhD
New York: HarperOne (2018)
In Braving the Wilderness, , Brené Brown uses her own story as well as prodigious research to explore how to thrive in an increasingly fractured and fractious world. Her journey begins as she ponders the paradox presented by Maya Angelou, “You ae only free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.”
To begin to understand the seemingly universal human need to belong, Brown reveals the pain she felt at critical points in her life when she was deliberately excluded. As a youngster in Texas with a common black name, she felt the pangs of discrimination as she was not invited to the parties of her white friends until their parents discovered she was white. Even when she tried to join AA, her sponsors couldn’t agree on which group was the most appropriate.
As a social scientist, Brown set out to answer the question, “What is the magic of belonging?” From her research, she discovered that people long for true belonging that “only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, [because] our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” From that work, Brown developed a BRAVING checklist, an acronym for essential ethical qualities, to help herself and others develop the capacity for trust. That list includes concepts found on many lists of core ethical values: Boundaries; Reliability; Accountability; Vault (confidentiality); Integrity; Nonjudgment; and Generosity.
Brown then moves from personal loneliness to the tribal fears that deepen cultural fault lines—race, gender, and class. She finds that the lack of tolerance for deep conversations have caused people to become polarized and disconnected. Many embrace the belief that if they hunker down with their tribe and toe the party line, they will be safe and accepted. Yet, looking around, they also notice that the strategy isn’t working to build personal or community well-being. Brown then explores two primary causes for the divisions.
Brown asserts that one of the most powerful causes of our divisions is dehumanization that creates moral exclusion—a decision that certain people are not entitled to respect, safety, and the good things of life. Those who are seen as “other” become invisible; both individuals and the community as a whole don’t notice when they have insufficient resources to thrive. Even worse, those who are “other” become criminal or even evil in our eyes. The antidote for dehumanization is not just treating all people with respect, but restoring humanity to those from whom it has been taken.
Brown then moves to a second powerful cause of division: a total disregard for the truth. She distinguishes among truth-telling, lying—and bullshitting. She has found that those who do not care whether a statement is true or false but care only whether the statement serves their own purposes–bullshit artists—are more dangerous than those who lie. She asserts that most humans are complicit. Because people can’t stand having no opinion, they all tend to make stuff up to sound important. And, then because people love being right, those who don’t agree with us are suspect. She then gives us another explanation of BRAVING strategies to learn how to listen, be committed to the truth, and be civil with one another.
As always, reading a book is much easier than putting the advice into practice. Brown provides strategies for rebuilding relationships and trust, through developing what she calls a strong back. By exercising muscles of empathy and compassion, people will learn how to simultaneously be part of a community and be their own person. The stories of people who have taken up the challenge of learning how to be civil and treat each person as a human being worthy of respect is encouraging. The stories of failure allow the reader to confront those places where they fall short.
In the end, the book is hopeful: if enough of us choose to engage in the practices of building a trusting community and becoming trustworthy ourselves, the blanket of fear that covers our world can be punctured as we let in the light of compassion and love. That world sounds like one worth inhabiting.
A Very Good Read!
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
By Brené Brown
New York: Random House (2017)
In Grit, Angela Duckworth examines the psychology behind success: the force that drives some to persevere where others give up. Peppered with anecdotes of achievers and athletes, spelling bee champions and musical prodigies, military officers and CEOs, Grit looks at the thought patterns and the habits needed to press forward in the face of life’s challenges. On its face, the book has nothing to do with ethics. And yet, whether intentionally or not, Duckworth has created a manual for ethical diligence.
Duckworth begins by examining a curious contradiction. We tend to believe that effort and hard work are more important than innate ability. But, despite our stated preference, when presented with a story of a gifted prodigy, a natural, we’re enthralled. The natural’s form seems more ideal—even if the hard worker is just as good. Hard work is something we recognize, because practice is just a series of ordinary, mundane drills. The work is admirable, but boring. We prefer a mystery.
The same bias applies to ethics. An ethical role model is often described as someone who just knows right from wrong, as if by instinct or a divine gift. The reality is that making an ethical decision when complex values are at play requires, like anything else, practice.
In an interview with swimmer Rowdy Gaines, Duckworth describes how Gaines reflected that, after twenty thousand miles of practice laps in preparation for the Olympics, he “swam around the world for a race that lasted forty-nine seconds.” To be ethically mature, we must do the same. The times of ethical crisis in our lives may be short—seconds in the relative scheme—but we have to put in the practice.
Gaines is the type of person Duckworth studies: someone with a quality she calls grit, the passion and perseverance that drives a person through grueling training and motivates them to push forward in the face of setbacks. The aim of her book is to isolate the common aspects of gritty individuals so that anyone can develop their grit. She arrives at four cornerstone assets that the “paragons of grit” possess: interest, practice, purpose, and hope.
For those pursuing a lifelong passion, interest might seem straightforward enough: do what you love and interest is guaranteed. But if we begin to apply Duckworth’s qualities of grit to the question of how to think critically in ethical dilemmas, interest takes on a new dimension. Some ethical dilemmas, those with consequences we can foresee, might be immediately interesting. However, when the problem is more complex, our interest can only be held if we have the skills necessary to see the nuances of the issue. Otherwise, we might not notice an ethical conflict at all—or we’ll give up immediately because the problem is too hard. The solution is Duckworth’s next component of grit: practice.
Effective practice, Duckworth insists, requires continuous stretching toward new goals and immediate feedback. Practicing ethics in our personal and professional lives can be risky—we might not get a do-over after an ethical lapse. Hence our focus at EthicsGame on simulations and exercises to build ethical skills.
Purpose, the third element of grit, is described by Duckworth as “the intention to contribute to the well-being of others,” and here is where it becomes clear how readily applicable the development of grit is to the development of ethical skills. Understanding that decisions impact others, and putting intention behind that impact, is crucial.
All the practice and purpose in the world won’t make us ethical without the addition of hope. Interest gives us what we want to accomplish: in our case, to do the ethical thing. Practice teaches us how we can identify the ethical issue and analyze it thoroughly. Purpose gives us the why by putting our ethical action in the context of helping others. Hope—and moral courage—is what keeps us going by informing us that our efforts won’t be in vain and that we have control over our situation. If we don’t recognize the possibility of change, the motivation to persevere, to be gritty, won’t follow.
Reading Duckworth’s Grit won’t make you gritty, because the stories in its 300-odd pages aren’t a substitute for practice. What the book can do is set you on the path of developing grit by holding your interest, getting you to think about your purpose, and ultimately, by giving you hope.
A Very Good Read!
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
By Angela Duckworth
Scribner: New York (2016)
Contemplating organizational change is perhaps one of the most daunting tasks for any organizational leader. While the company’s P&L or other performance indicators may scream out for change, a walk through the graveyard of failed change efforts causes all but the most courageous to hide and hope for the best. In their very accessible and practical book, R. Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio provide strategies and stories so that leaders can take heart and master the process of change.
The core message is that mastering change is a holistic and simultaneous inside-out and outside-in process, which ensures harmonization of vision and elegance of execution. Lyman and Daloisio also remind leaders that organizational change cannot happen unless they change as well. And so, Change! provides a roadmap for personal growth as well as organizational transformation.
Once a leader is committed to changing both the thoughts and beliefs (the inside out approach) as well as the structure and systems (the outside in approach), the change in perspective of the problem and opportunities will accelerate the next four steps: clarifying the focus of change, ensuring alignment throughout the organization, engaging all stakeholders, and exhibiting leadership. The chapters on the four leadership roles provide not only relevant case studies but thoughtful—and doable—strategies for executing change. And, the strategies are not a dry list of how-to’s but rather foundational questions that allow the leader to thoughtfully reflect on their organization and desired changes. The authors understand that finding the right solution requires asking the right questions.
But envisioning change and putting a change process in motion is not sufficient. The final strategy involves sustaining change, making sure that the operations of the company have integrated the changes so thoroughly that they become the new benchmark for success. Following the book’s pattern, final chapter on institutionalizing change reviews each of the steps of the inside out-outside change strategies to reinforce that learning to be an effective change agent is both personal and organizational.
At the first read, the content seemed overwhelming. But persisting and then actually putting some of the ideas on paper and having courage to try out the new approaches proved that change does not have to be daunting. Because the authors are true experts in this work, their proposed steps for action are tried and tested. Further, their examples demonstrate that the approach can work for both micro-enterprises as well as huge conglomerates. The only requirement is the desire to change and the discipline to persist through all five stages of change. While the discipline to actually envision and realize change is not for the faint of heart, from all indications, the results are very much worth the effort.
A Good Read!
Change The Way You Change: 5 Roles of Leaders who Accelerate Business Performance
By R. Kendall Lyman and Tony C. Daloisio
Greenleaf Book Group Press: Austin, TX (2017)
The quest for self-knowledge is perhaps the most important task of a human, yet it is also the most daunting. While accurate self-assessment is critical for mastering skills and choosing careers, David Dunning reminds us that telling the truth to ourselves, as well as getting accurate feedback from others, is nigh impossible.
Self-Insight is an intriguing, accessible distillation of an amazing array of studies, each chronicling different forms of self-deception. Fortunately, Dunning also gives us hope as he provides strategies for overcoming the roadblocks and detours on our path to self-knowledge.
Dunning organizes his research into eight distinct types of self-deception, from blissful ignorance, where we don’t know that we have skill deficits, to the more consequential illusions concerning our moral fiber and proclivity toward being ethical. In all situations, he shows how neither self-observation nor feedback from others can guarantee that we will have accurate information upon which to base our decisions.
One source of knowledge about ourselves comes from self-assessment. While we may be forgiven for not knowing what we don’t know, Dunning shows how even when we use well-honed reasoning skills, we still make errors of judgment. Sometimes we have incomplete information. Even more troubling is that we have all have faulty processes for analyzing data: the shortcuts our brains take sometimes lead us to the wrong destination.
And then we have the problem of confirmatory bias—the ability we all have for coming up with sound reasons for our favorite positions. Critical thinking classes teach us to evaluate the evidence on both sides of an argument and argue both sides of a controversy. Unfortunately, we often forget to explore both sides of our closely held positions, and thus we have more confidence in our opinion than is justified.
Additionally, getting critical feedback from experience or others may not be any more useful than paying attention to our self. Dunning presents a checklist of research showing how we get everything from incomplete feedback to ambiguous feedback, neither of which is useful. He ends with how all of us receive biased feedback, where people have not been completely truthful with us when sharing negative information. And, as anyone who has ever had to give a less than glowing evaluation knows, we all tend to sugar-coat the truth so people don’t feel bad about themselves.
Dunning then provides a handful of antidotes to self-deception. First is humility, recognizing that we are prone to errors in judgment. This gentleness can help us learn to listen compassionately to each other as we monitor ourselves for self-deception. Another opportunity for correction comes from looking at generalized data about humans: none of us are probably special enough to be consistently in the 90th percentile of anything. And finally, we can ask those we trust for honest feedback and be patient enough to listen and reflect on what we hear.
But, we need not despair. Dunning ends his book with an observation that sometimes self-deception is useful. With mildly optimistic assessments of our skills, we may try harder at our chosen task and in fact improve. With a mildly optimistic assessment of our interpersonal traits, we may work more diligently at getting along with others and being good citizens. And, optimistic people are less inclined to depression. Moderation is key.
Dunning asserts that for overestimation to be an effective antidote to depression or under-achievement, the self-inflation should happen at the margins of our abilities and not much more. While a nod is given to beneficial self-deception, Dunning ends where he began: reminding us that excessive arrogance and self-confidence is the core of hubris, an often fatal character flaw.
A Good Read!
Self-Insight: Roadblocks and detours on the path to knowing thyself
By David Dunning
Psychology Press: New York, NY (2012)
Day by day and moment by moment, you’re being robbed of a precious resource. Not your money or your possessions—the theft is subtler and more pernicious, often on a scale smaller than you can perceive. What you’re losing, claims Matthew B. Crawford in World Beyond Your Head , is your attention.
Crawford asserts that just as modern fast food is engineered and calibrated with the exact proportions of sugar, fat, and salt to be “hyperpalatable,” so too are the stimuli of the world around you. The blank spaces of the world are becoming filled with advertisements, and the quiet moments of life, which may once have offered a space to contemplate and discuss, are drowned in visual and auditory noise.
The goal is to get you to buy, to consume, or to watch, but the worst consequences are the losses of sociability and interaction. With deft arguments and clear reasoning, Crawford explores how the loss of community leads to the stagnation of rational thought and, in turn, the slow decline of well-formed ethics.
Consider the ideal, rational mind as considered by ethicists like Kant. It sits apart from all worldly concerns, floating in a void of pure reason and thought. Emotion and connection to others can’t distract this pure mind from making the best possible decisions. Is that an ideal to aspire to, when making ethical decisions? Crawford’s answer is a resounding no.
At first, the two points might seem at odds. If the world is so full of engineered distractions, isn’t it better to remove ourselves from it so our thoughts can be clear and unimpeded? Indeed, that complete withdrawal might be the instinctive reaction, but recoiling from our community does more harm than good. In isolation and autonomy, Crawford argues, we’re terrible at decision-making.
The core problem is that our notion of autonomy, freedom of choice, is choice that’s removed from the empirical world. Crawford uses the example of riding a motorcycle, comparing reading a number off a speedometer with actually feeling the speed. The former is an abstraction, a symbol. The latter is real—and it also relies upon connection to the real world. “The fantasy of autonomy,” he states, “comes at the price of impotence.”
The importance of others in living individual, authentic lives is inescapable. Others have come before us, giving names and meanings to our world, teaching us rules and skills. Others live with us, evaluating our actions—and only in their evaluation of us do our actions have meaning. Self-knowledge isn’t achieved in isolation; it’s achieved in communication, where we see what version of ourselves the world reflects back at us.
If our head is turned away, we fail to see that all too important mirror image. To think clearly, you must be able to choose what you pay attention to. The World Beyond Your Head is a book worthy of that attention.
A Good Read!
The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction
By Matthew B. Crawford
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, NY (2015)
A recent New York Times article about a New Orleans’s program where police are taught to intervene when they see colleagues about to do something unethical caught my eye. A deeper dive revealed that the program was grounded in the work of Ervin Staub, who has spent his entire professional life studying the roots and prevention of violence.
As a young child, Staub survived the holocaust. His early life experiences led him to a self-described “lifelong engagement with goodness and evil.” This engagement led him to not only research when people intervened when faced with unethical behavior, but also to develop strategies for teaching people how to avoid passivity and become active/helping bystanders. The result of that life’s work is his intriguing book, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil.
The book is a blend of previously published articles and new content designed to make the strategies for teaching moral courage accessible to ordinary readers. For those of us who teach ethics, the work is a treasure trove of information about how we as humans develop our capacity to do good and how we can lose our moral courage when circumstances shift and we are faced with evil.
Staub skillfully weaves together stories of those who have stood up in the face of evil, his own research exploring the causes of non-intervention, and then strategies for both personal ethical growth and shaping the ethical sensibilities of the community. This blend provides much needed insight for those of us who work to find new ways to engage our learners in the conversation about personal and organizational ethics.
The most fascinating segment of his work relates to teaching ourselves and others to become good bystanders as we respond to the needs of those around us. He begins by reminding us to pay attention to our surroundings and realize that we all have a choice in how much we’ll respond to the circumstances around us. He then he invites us to act appropriately even when we may not be sure about what is going on. Staub’s research found that when people were not sure about the source or extent of someone’s distress they were reluctant to intervene because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by taking “unnecessary or wrong” action.
Staub faces head-on the problem of being overwhelmed because we don’t think we can make a difference and what others have called compassion fatigue—seeing so much need that we don’t know how to respond. He talks about the power of working with others to help alleviate suffering. He also tells stories of small acts of kindness that made profound differences in individual lives. Those stories remind us that seemingly small acts of goodness in our own organizations and communities can make a profound difference.
Finally, Staub masterfully looks at the relationship of individual action and organizational culture. Staub is clear that the health of the institutions in a community profoundly affect how effectively individuals can respond to emerging evil. Thus, he presents a vision for both individual intervention as well as working within institutions to create strong foundations for creating caring communities and preventing violence. Whether you are looking for ways to enhance your own capacity for effective intervention or are a teacher seeking a fresh approach for your classroom, The Roots of Goodness & Resistance to Evil is a good read!
A Good Read!
The Roots of Goodness & Resistance to Evil
By Ervin Staub
New York: Oxford University Press (2015)
Acts of terrorism and violence are often carried out by lone wolves who give minimal warning that they are about to act on their twisted beliefs. Would you be willing to participate in a program of universal biological or chemical moral enhancement in order to ensure global—or even local—safety? If not, why not?
Now that question would liven up any classroom discussion!
John Harris invites us to consider that very question as he takes us on a very readable jaunt through current conversations about moral enhancement. Those of us who are part of the educational enterprise teach moral reasoning as a way to help people learn to be good. Harris invites us into the world of science—chemical enhancement, genetic manipulation, and artificial intelligence—to consider what other forms of moral enhancement are acceptable.
How to be Good begins by exploring the tension between behavior that is informed by reason and behavior that is guided by feelings. Spoiler alert: Harris doesn’t believe our emotions are effective guides for ethical behavior. Because Harris is committed to preserving personal freedom above personal or community safety—a freedom that allows one to be both ethical and unethical with actions tested by reason—he doesn’t consider enhancements that change one’s emotions in order to nudge one toward pro-social behavior provide true ethical accountability.
While Harris doesn’t dismiss either emotional or cognitive moral enhancements out of hand, his constant drumbeat is that the essential freedom of the human person to act according to their own lights must be preserved at all costs. For this venture, he envisions the role of moral education as teaching how to “subject emotional reactions to the scrutiny of reason.”
Harris also discusses the limits of individual moral action. He asserts that rather than develop a program to genetically or chemically alter the future behavior of humans, we should look at what causes people to live amicably with each other. He finds that the best approach to civilized behavior is making sure that the community provides the basic needs of food, shelter, safety, and education for its citizens. Presented against the backdrop of the ethics of social contract, Harris convincingly makes the case that trying to solve big problems by making individuals good instead of focusing on community ethics is a fool’s errand.
The endgame is to help people think ethically rather than externally manipulating them to be good people through chemical or other biologic interventions. Harris believes that our joint project is to teach ourselves and others how to make moral judgements that meet minimum standards of evidence, are free from personal bias or emotional response, and can be explained in a way that others find persuasive. With this cognitive moral enhancement, people will be able to make good ethical decisions, “all things considered.”
John Harris passionately invites all of us to enhance our capacity for moral reasoning. Harris reminds us that “Ethics is for Bad Guys”—and that would be all of us who have ever experienced moral failure. For Harris, the goal of moral enhancement is “to use moral reasoning to act as a guide to our emotions and as a way of checking that we are having appropriate feelings in appropriate circumstances and for appropriate objects.” For those of us who teach ethics—and are engaged in the project of moral enhancement—the learning outcomes have never been more clear. And, in a rapidly-changing and very complex world, the need has never been greater.
A Good Read!
How to be Good: The Possibility of Moral Enhancement
By John Harris
New York: Oxford University Press (2016)
Ethics is often taught as striving to be the best person possible—a principled person pursuing unselfish goals. The emphasis on character addresses half of the ethical equation: how to be trustworthy. The other half of the equation, the half left unanswered, is whether or not to trust other people. Should we cooperate or should we compete?
Friend & Foe leverages the current research in social psychology to find that three factors contribute to the tension between cooperation and competition. The first is that we live in a world of scarce resources. Not only do we have a relative scarcity of goods, but intangibles such as status and power also are not evenly distributed. The second factor is that we are inherently social animals, which means that the evolutionary advantages humans have are the size of our minds and our ability to remember and reason.
Finally, our world is unstable and dynamic. We cannot plan for all of the events that might disrupt our social and economic lives. A surprise from Mother Nature, such as a blizzard that unexpectedly shuts down an airport or a tragic act of violence, such as a school bombing, can change our lives in ways we cannot prepare for.
Having identified these three factors, Galinsky and Schweitzer describe a series of situations where we have to pay attention to the balance between competition and cooperation. The authors begin with descriptions of family rivalries, such as the Williams sisters who compete against each other in tennis. Learning to evaluate the contours of social comparison and determining whether we are part of the “in” or “out” group can help us fashion effective strategies for success.
Using both contemporary examples as well as decades of research, the book explores issues of power allocation, the importance of hierarchy, as well as gender differences and the power of names. With each chapter, the authors present a description of the strengths behind each form of cooperation, signals to recognize when competition might be more appropriate, and strategies to navigate between both forms of social interaction. Each chapter explores another facet of the question: can I trust you?
Trust is how we determine what strategy is appropriate. Before we can cooperate with someone we need to trust them. When communities were homogenous, we could rely on markers such as race; membership in a particular religions community; or even being born in a particular hometown where people went to school together, worked together, and knew each other’s parents and siblings. When we lived in stable communities, we knew the tokens of trust, the methods by which we knew whether or not to cooperate. We also had clear methods for ostracizing those who put their own selfish needs ahead of the survival of the group.
As our social groups are becoming more fluid, our instinctual responses are less accurate and thus less useful. Part of the gift of this book is to help us discern how to be more mindful about whether or not we should trust others—or determine whether we are being trustworthy. We can then learn how to evaluate fluid situations in ever-changing groups with people that we are just meeting. And we’ll be prepared to both cooperate and compete effectively.
A Good Read!
Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both
By Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer
Crown Business: New York, NY (2015)
What do we want? Our cornucopia overflows with endless possibilities of things to buy, accomplishments to reach, and adventures to seek. And getting them all requires unlimited resources and time. How daunting!
Humans seemingly have an insatiable desire for more and are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo. However, if our goal in life is to be happy, the path to contentment requires learning to moderate our desires. Wise ones teach that by embracing the virtue of temperance, we can learn not only to know what we desire but temper our desires through self-restraint. But how?
William B. Irvine’s intriguing book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want helps us identify the source of our desires and clarify what we really want. He begins by showing us how to map our desires as we separate out instrumental desires—those that help us achieve our goals—and terminal desires—those that we pursue for their own sake.
This clarification process is like a project map for desires. As we follow the thread of our instrumental desires, we can eventually name our overarching goals for life. We can also determine whether a short-term instrumental desire—watching a much-hyped football game—will actually get us to our terminal desire—finishing an important project.
Irvine suggests that our emotions provide the impetus for our terminal desires: we want to feel better rather than feeling worse. Our intellect then provides us with the structure and discipline needed to wisely choose instrumental desires. The conundrum is that as come into this world “with the ability to be motivated, to seek, and even to hope,” we also come into this world wanting more!
The starting point is our inherited Biological Incentive System (BIS) that prompts us to seek goals that give us pleasure rather than pain. The BIS nudges us to make choices that ensure that we’ll live and reproduce: choosing good food over spoiled food, not taking undue risks with our bodies or our minds. However, this hard wiring also predisposes us to be dissatisfied with the way things are. And therein lies the crux of what Irvine calls the human condition. Can we avoid being perpetually dissatisfied through moderating our desires and learning to be content?
Three different approaches claim to help us find contentment.The first is the religious approach: using our faith tradition to set the ideal terminal desire to being one with God or seeking Enlightenment. The path involves moderating our hedonistic instrumental desires such as rich food, luxurious living conditions, and a resume overflowing with accomplishments. Irvine notes that the religious approach focuses on life after death (reaching heaven or getting off the wheel so we don’t have to reincarnate) and has as its method prayer and meditation.
The second is the philosophical approach: using reason to moderate desire and achieve contentment in this life. According to the philosophers, objectively looking at our life conditions and opportunities is the best method to help us achieve contentment. The Greek philosophers, in particular the Stoics and the Skeptics, spent a great deal of time teaching different methods of evaluating the world around us in order to moderate desires. All of the methods involved some version of learning to be content with the cards we were dealt in life. The philosophic approach has some mixed success in that we wind up questioning everything—even ourselves—and so others might consider us a bit odd.
Now, both of the above approaches lead to the third—being an eccentric. If we are a true eccentric, we do not conform to popular notions about what constitutes a good life. We ignore the advice of friends, neighbors, or the nightly news about what activities will make us happy, what stuff we should buy, and what accomplishments we should pursue. Rather, like Diogenes and Thoreau, we would seize the opportunity to define for ourselves what is required for a good life and pursue that goal.
Taking the time to examine the source of our desires and mindfully choosing the ones we wish to fulfill will get us closer to that ever elusive goal of contentment. The task is formidable as our commercial marketplace and many of our colleagues make us dissatisfied enough to buy another gadget or be more ambitious. However, Irvine suggests that as we embrace the virtue of moderation and the discipline of mindfulness, we might have a fighting chance of reaching contentment. And, we might find that our bank accounts are fatter and we have more time to swing on the porch as we watch the sun go down.
The ancient Greeks reminded us that the first step to ethical wisdom is to “Know Thyself.” However, a quick look at contemporary culture shows us that if all we know is our Self, we can become trapped and miss truly living. Mark Edmundson in Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals reminds us that striving for the Soul State—that part of us that embodies courage, seeks compassion, and quests for Truth—is required to find wisdom.
Edmundson invites us to consider three ideals—the Hero, the Saint, and the Thinker—in order to escape the shallowness of contemporary life. Edmundson asserts that we too often substitute vicarious living through social media and games for a fully engaged life. To avoid this disengagement, Edmundson recommends embracing human ideals as we seek a life of purpose and meaning.
The Hero both wants to embody personal excellence and to put that excellence and energy in service of the larger community. Edmundson laments that when “people become heroically dedicated to middle- class ends,” their lives can become massively frustrating. An antidote is to put one’s energy behind a goal truly worth pursuing, one that can make a difference in our own community, and transcend our Self in service of our Soul.
The Saint is one who loses Self in service of others. Drawing from a variety of traditions—the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus—Edmundson points to a life of compassion for others that will help us transcend the “unending worship of the individual who seeks and finds triumph” in a perpetual quest for success and greed. The invitation is to consider how a life of love and service can have more meaning than a life or resentment and competition.
The final ideal is the Thinker, one who studies and reflects in order to “develop her own version of the truth.” Through disciplined reflection on not only what is True but also what is Good, the thinker offers to the community the best that her mental powers have to offer. Through this work, the thinker can contribute a vision of a better life to the world as well as “dreams of understanding the present and the past.”
Embracing each of the ideals explored in Self and Soul can move us past our own narrowly defined desires and projects. While all three ideals are different, Edmundson suggests that as we choose in appropriate times to walk the path of courage, compassion, or contemplation, we will “feel a joy… more than mere happiness…and intimations of a finer and higher life.” Taking that journey certainly sounds more satisfying than watching yet another football game or perusing endless Facebook postings and Twitter sound bites.
The Stoics tell us that emotions are to be controlled by rationality and detachment. Some modern therapists tell their clients to embrace their emotions and let the chips fall where they may. However, anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of an unexpected emotional outburst or unexpectedly found themselves yelling or crying—or both—know that managing emotions is more than a notion.
Erin Olivo’s readable guide to emotions teaches a process called “Wise Mind Living” that promises to help us master our emotions and transform our lives. Rather than advising that we either deny or indulge our emotions, Olivo recommends mindfulness, sitting with all the various emotions to see what they might reveal about our present situation.
While Olivo teaches that our emotions have value for alerting us to situations that might be dangerous, she also reminds us that we are the ones ultimately in charge of how we respond. Olivo gives the reader a practical method for identifying the emotions and then categorizing them into one of what she calls the Big Eight. After describing the warning about violated values and boundaries that the emotions might be giving, she provides three strategies for taking charge of your emotions by engaging in change.
Grounded in both the best of brain science and reliable strategies for personal growth and change, Olivo’s roadmap provides a sure path to managing our emotions rather than being managed by them. The exercises are engaging and user-friendly and, as promised, help us transform yet another corner of our lives.
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