Possible Better Angels

Much has been made of the change in Washington. A friend, a highly-respected attorney, who knows more about securities law than is healthy for any sane person, just returned from a weekend there, saying the city just felt different. You just didn’t sense the usual sniping and backstabbing and intrigue. That sense that you had to know certain things that few others knew, and had to know the right people, and had to say the right things in the right way, or you’d be left in the dust, ridiculed, and powerless – all that was gone. People were smiling, helpful, and they thoughtfully listened to what you said. He was startled.


Back in the eighties, at the end of the Reagan presidency, it wasn’t like that. Visiting from California, standing around in the office of one of the assistant secretaries of defense, chatting with Frank Carlucci, with the whole Pentagon around you, humming in an odd way – well, that was painful. Every word counted, as did each moment of silence – and that was just small talk about the weather and sports. You knew right away that this was a world where only the exceedingly clever would survive. One misstep and it was all over. It was survival of the fittest, with a strange implicit definition of fitness that had little to do with strength or intelligence or expertise or the clarity with which you explained what you thought and why. The sole objective was power, as much as you could grab and hold on to, and deny to others. They say the Versailles was like that in the years before the Revolution and the guillotine, although there the emphasis was on wit and ridicule. No one is very witty in Washington – that sort of thing is irrelevant. You’re an insider, a power player, or you’re dead – but usually not literally. It’s even worse when you wish you were dead.


But now things are changing, even if the evidence is anecdotal – and this seems to be because of the new president, a man who thinks the world of Lincoln. Both came onto the national stage from Illinois in a sort of out-of-nowhere rise, and there’s the uncommon eloquence. In fact, the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, created by an act of Congress and based in Washington, has invited Obama to lay a wreath in Springfield on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12 – and of course Obama just accepted the invitation. He announced his own candidacy on the step of the Springfield Courthouse, just like Honest Abe – it all falls into place. And there’s this:


“It’s absolutely on some level eerie,” says Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, referring to the Obama-Lincoln parallels. “He’s clearly studied the speeches. He’s clearly studied the structure of Lincoln’s Cabinet.” Both men also share “the idea that you can be honorable and a master politician and of the moment, as well.”


That idea that you can be honorable and a master politician at the same time may be the key to why things are changing, if they are. In the long years since Lincoln’s presidency all you had to do was say you were honorable, and protest indignantly when anyone suggested you weren’t, and go about you business. Everyone knew you were kidding – politics is hardball and you’re supposed to say such things. Your supporters were in on the irony – they expected you to get things done, any way you could. So say anything you’d like – but get the job done. Those who opposed you also knew you weren’t a wimp – you could destroy them, and might well do just that. There was always talk about bipartisanship and cooperation for the good of the country – and everyone sharpened their knives. You grabbed power, did what you wanted, said it was for the good of the country, and grinned at the losers. Sometimes what you did actually was for the good of the country, and that was curious. That was nice and all – sometimes it happens, and damn, it makes you look good.


And here we have Obama, taking honor seriously, and talking about “our better angels.” We have those? Actually, the first guy from Illinois said we did. See Abraham Lincoln: First Inaugural Address:


We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


Okay, putting aside the issue of the Civil War, think about what Lincoln posits here, that human nature is, at its core, good. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes was arguing that life was mean, nasty, brutish and short, and people were naturally selfish, out to grab what they could, any way they could, and needed to be kept in check, or there’d be chaos. You need a strong government. In the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was jabbering on about the Nobel Savage – left to his own devices man would live in harmony with nature and with other men. Government just screwed things up. And by the end of that century John Locke was saying that, well, it seemed to him men were neither awful nor particularly good – his idea was that we come into this world as blank slates. If that were so, we should be careful what gets written on those slates.


Oddly, Lincoln seems to fall into line with Rousseau – we have our better angels, and those angels can be useful. And Obama is right there with him, saying to the Muslim world that we are not their enemies, and he knows they have extraordinary people, and we can talk. That radio interview was discussed previously here – but it also seems like a direct parallel to the Lincoln first inaugural speech. There’s an assumption in both. It might be possible that when everyone calms down and stops shouting, when they step back from their anger and outrage, that there is some inherent reservoir of good-will and reason and a sense of fairness in everyone – it may be hard, but you can tap into that.


This may be foolish. Israel feels threatened by Iran, and Iran loves to threaten Israel, and Israel has asked us for our blessing in their taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities, or at least for clearance to use the airspace of Iraq to get the job done, and has asked us for special bunker-buster bombs to get the job done, and we’ve said no. Yep, we know the costs here, for the meager benefits – not “better angels” are involved. But in Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf suggests Israel is working on alternatives:


The problem: without special munitions that can take out deeply buried targets in Iran, countries like Israel might be forced to use weapons that could make the sites uninhabitable, such as radiological (rather than nuclear) devices. Of course, global public opinion may struggle with the distinction between a radiological and a nuclear attack, and if you think the U.S.-Israel relationship is complicated now, wait until then.


Yeah, what if our friend and ally turns out to be the one who sets off the first “dirty bomb” – even if it is efficient for this purpose. This makes it hard to talk about “better angels.” And Prime Minister Olmert is bragging about disproportion:


After the rocket attacks, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel signaled the Israeli bombing raid with a warning of a “sharp” and “disproportionate” response.


Andrew Sullivan – “A Western country is in some trouble when it starts advertizing its abandonment of just war principles.”


Perhaps Obama is hopelessly naïve. There are no better angels, at least not these days.


And see this, where a Kansan Republican congressman reflects on how much more civil it is now that Obama is president:


“The times I interacted with President Bush, generally, I’d get summoned to the White House because I disagreed with something that the president was for,” said [Jerry] Moran, a Hays Republican. “He kind of lectured. It was about ‘are you with me or against me’ in the days of President Bush.”


But in meeting with House Republicans, Obama told them what was important to him and asked the representatives what was important to them, Moran said. He said the president appeared to want to find “some level of common ground we can agree upon.”


And then Hayes, and all the other House Republicans, voted no on the stimulus.


Perhaps this business about better angels is just pleasant nonsense.


Or perhaps there is some basis for thinking it is not nonsense, and that leads to Howard Gardner, the Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is the senior author of Good Work and the editor of the collection, Responsibility at Work. The first posits that “if the fundamentals of good work excellence and ethics are in harmony, we lead a personally fulfilling and socially rewarded life.” Okay, that makes sense, even if it is seldom seen. The second offers “a definition and taxonomy of good work after a decade interviewing more than 1,200 professionals representing a variety of work environments.”


Now in Slate, Gardner offers How Good Are We, Really? This gets to the real question. Where are those better angels?


Gardner opens with a thought experiment:


You walk into a bookstore and see three stacks of books. The books are titled Born to Be Good, Born to Be Bad, and Born to Be Good or Bad. Which one do you pick up first? Fast forward. You have now scanned the tables of contents of the three books. The first book has chapters called “Smile,” “Love,” and “Compassion”; the second features chapters titled “Anger,” “Jealousy,” and “Spite”; the third has chapters on “Love vs. Hate,” “Altruism vs. Selfishness,” and “Honesty vs. “Deceit.” Which book do you buy? Which are you apt to believe?”


Well, you can read the literature, but that’s contradictory. He mentions Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the Greater Good Science Center there, with Born to Be Good – “he argues that we are born as miniature angels, rather than marked by original sin.” But this is a scientific book, actually, and a counter to books like Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, and Lance Morrow’s Evil. Those are, Gardner says, pretty dismal:


Often these bleak views claim a basis in science, usually in the ever more influential theories of Charles Darwin. Survival entails a no-holds-barred competition among individuals within a species and among species within an ecosystem. Among Homo sapiens, those individuals who are most powerful, most attractive, most ingenious, most Machiavellian survive until childbearing age and sire the most offspring. Instances of altruism are reconstrued as efforts to pass on one’s genes by advancing the chances of the group(s) to which one belongs. Even selfless acts are seen as selfish.


And that is what everyone buys, as it matches our worldview:


Logically speaking, there is no necessary link between the struggle for survival in the ecosphere and the operation of supply and demand in the marketplace. Yet among the chattering classes, particularly in the United States, there has been a virtual consensus that – like it or not – the world is best explained through a compound of Darwin on biology and Adam Smith, and his Friedmanite successors, on the economy. Courtesy of the laws of the marketplace, and with individuals pursuing their own selfish ends, the optimum economy and society will emerge. Or perhaps, paraphrasing Churchill on democracy, markets are the worst economic and political system – except for all the others.


But Gardner is impressed that Keltner agues this is a misreading of Darwin and those who riffed on Darwin:


The thoughtful British savants of the 18th and 19th centuries actually put forth more balanced views of the human sphere. Darwin, Keltner observes, was interested in the origins and endurance of benevolent human traits, such as sympathy, altruism, and love. For his part, Adam Smith saw himself as a philosopher of moral sentiments, as well as an explicator of the marketplace; he presupposed a civilized world in which sympathetic actors could be counted on to do the right thing vis-à-vis others.


Who knew, and Keltner’s book is a bit of a landmark, part of the new “positive psychology,” which Gardner identifies as “a thriving new field that seeks to counter the earlier scholarly emphases on the less-admirable features of our species.” So positive psychologists “conduct studies that explore what makes human beings often behave as good Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts: why, to quote the scout oath I memorized fifty years ago, human beings are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” And they claim all that stuff is just as true of humans as the dark stuff. Obama is not alone.


Here’s the capsule review from Gardner:


Turning the conventional view of Darwin on its head, Keltner argues that human beings have survived as a species, and have gained dominion over the planet, because we have managed to control our most destructive and hostile impulses and instead have been rewarded for protecting one another, helping one another, being kind to one another. By this evolutionary logic, we aren’t just biologically equipped to pursue cooperative behavior, according to Keltner, we are, in essence, wired for it. The initial, more daring (and more quotable) part of the book ends with a chapter on “the survival of the kindest.”


Go to the link for the rest of the discussion – fascinating, and maybe convincing. But the reviewer comes down here:


If they have not yet been signaled, it is time to put my own cards on the table. The book that I would have chosen to read has the title Born to Be Good or Bad. Its chapters would have titles like “Cain and Abel,” “Hitler and Gandhi,” “Mandela and Milosevic.” And that is because I don’t think that we are born with a tendency toward good or evil. Nor do I believe that we can derive morality, or immorality, from science. At most, given an agreed-upon definition, we can establish the antecedent conditions that lead to a moral or immoral life, a good or bad pattern of behavior, or, most often, shards of both.


How and why and when good and evil behavior arises are human stories, grounded in history and culture. We could know everything there is to know about the genes and the brain of the newborn Hitler, but we could never have predicted what he would do, any more than we could have predicted the life course of Mahatma Gandhi or Joan of Arc or our contemporaries Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic. To some extent, the choice derives from our parents, our communities, and the particular historical era and cultural group in which we are born and grow up. But in the last analysis, the choice of what to be, and how to be, is ours and ours alone.


John Locke couldn’t have said it better. We can develop better angels, individually, or as a group project. They don’t come pre-installed.


But then this discussion has been going on since the seventeenth century. It won’t be settled soon.


But the odd things is that the mood is different is Washington. Obama is working on finding those better angels, or just creating them. That may be a fool’s errand, and our survival may depend on its success.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Dacher Keltner - Born to be Good, Hobbes on Man's Nature, Inherent Human Goodness, Obama al-Arabiya Interview, Obama and Mutual Tolerance, Obama as Lincoln, Obama Win Changes How We Think, Our Better Angels. Bookmark the permalink.

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