Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Book Review: The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness -edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith (Norton & Co. 2010)
This is a series of 35 articles selected from Greater Good magazine offering many angles in the study of compassion among humans and primates. More and more evidence is suggesting that compassionate behavior has improved evolutionary and reproductive fitness among primates and early humans. As the editors note: “Empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation …… are now being revealed as core features of primate evolution.” The book is divided into three parts: ‘The Scientific Roots of Human Goodness’, ‘How to Cultivate Goodness in Relationships with Friends, Family, Coworkers, and Neighbors’, and ‘How to Cultivate Goodness in Society and Politics’.
The first article is The Compassionate Instinct by Dacher Keltner. Recent experiments with regions of the brain associated with positive emotions being responsive during compassionate activity suggest that we are wired to respond to the suffering of others. This makes for a rather optimistic counterpoint to the usual depictions of evolutionary competition and human nature. Other neurological indicators of nurturing behavior include the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has also been linked to forming bonds and commitments. The physiological changes (slowed breathing and heartbeat) associated with feelings and actions of compassion invite one to ‘approach and soothe’ in contrast to the physiology of ‘fight or flight’ responses to fear which include increased respiration and heart rate. Nonverbal expressions which suggest adaptive functions of compassion include nurturing touch and concerned gazes. Nurturing touch may be related to primate grooming which is utilized to resolve conflict, to reward generosity, and to form alliances. Such tactile sensations can induce good feelings, the release of oxytocin, and comfortable memories. Experiments where only touch was used to convey various emotions (the participants could not see or hear one another) suggest that compassion is communicable in some sense. Experiments done by Daniel Batson suggest that compassion can be communicated by facial gesture and touch and that compassion promotes altruistic behavior. An important question is whether compassion can be cultivated. Neuroscience suggests that negative emotions are easier to pass on as biological traits than positive ones. The positive emotions do seem to be ‘plastic’ and amenable to environmental effects. Studies with children have shown that parenting styles including promoting the security of the children and showing compassion by example will lead to more compassionate action on the part of the children. When my son saw this book he noted that – da - compassion is not an instinct. I guess I tend to agree that it is not an instinct such as we know but that it is a learned behavior with instinctual components. Certainly, the ideas of selfishness, greed, and competitiveness being the core of human behavior are not wholly correct. There are definite biological, social, and likely spiritual advantages to compassionate actions and cultivating compassionate attitudes.
Next article is The Evolution of Empathy by Frans de Waal. He says that our morality depends on empathy. Mammals are empathic to their offspring. Humans depend on cooperation which itself is dependent on keeping members healthy. De Waal notes evidence in non-human species. Experiments done with rhesus monkeys in 1964 indicated that they would starve themselves to avoid shocking a fellow monkey. Less extreme experiments with bonobos and chimps also show their capacity for empathic behavior, not only toward those of their own species but to those of other species as well, including humans, although these species can also be quite cruel to enemies. He notes that empathy probably developed from mammalian parental nurturing behaviors which include responding to distress calls. Those families whose mothers’ responded to distress calls would have had a better survival rate than those who were indifferent. Empathy also has a role in effective cooperation. De Waal thinks that empathy – as adopting another’s perspective – involves a greater distinction between self and other while at the same time fostering a feeling for the other. He sees what he calls the ‘moral emotions’ as the route to overcome the negative effects of ingrained ideologies and xenophobias. This basic caring can lead to subversive compassionate acts. Thus he sees these caring emotions as the building blocks of empathy that predate the instructions of culture and religion to be kind.
Next article is Peace Among Primates by Robert M. Sapolsky. The purport of this article is that whether a primate species is predominantly violent or peaceful depends quite a bit on its environment, particularly factors such as food availability. He notes that “nature vs. nurture” should be superseded by how the two interact. He goes through some interesting sets of experiments with various related primates. In one a female savanna baboon was trapped and released into a troop of hamadryas baboons who have differing mating behaviors. The reverse experiment was also done. In both cases it took merely an hour for the female to switch the behavior to the new troop. In another experiment a mixed-sex social group of juvenile macaques of the stump-tail and rhesus varieties were put together. The stump tails are normally far less aggressive than the rhesus macaques and it was thought that the rhesus behavior would prevail. However, the reverse occurred and the more egalitarian behavior to promote group cohesion of the stump tails won out and when the rhesus macaques were returned to a group of their own their less aggressive behavior continued. There behaviors did not spread to the others – at least not yet. In another situation the author studied savanna baboons and when an outbreak of tuberculosis killed many garbage-raiding males (most of the aggressive ones) the ratio of females to males increased dramatically and aggressive male behaviors decreased equally dramatically. This ‘demographic disaster’ created a ‘selective bottleneck’ which apparently had drastic effects on the group. What is more remarkable is that after those less aggressive males died off and new males from other groups joined with the female offspring – the less aggressive behavior persisted so that the more benign culture became multi-generational. The author notes that among humans, small hunter-gatherer groups relied on cooperative behaviors for success but often they were aggressive to outsiders and this was furthered in the military histories of human societies. Brain studies have shown that xenophobia can be hard-wired but also that that wiring can be relearned by re-defining one’s idea of ‘other.’
Next is Hope on the Battlefield by Dave Grossman. Apparently the work of a US Army historian (S.L.A. Marshall) in WWII revealed that a mere 15-20 % of rifleman actually fired at the enemy. Many would also fire high and purposely miss. This was corroborated in many studies across the board. They would perform other risky behaviors rather than kill which suggests an innate aversion to killing humans. Subsequent military psychological tactics have gone to great extremes to try to increase the rate of firing with great success. These tactics account for US estimates of a 55% firing rate in the Korean War and 90-95% firing rate in
. Of course, this probably
increased the frequency and intensity of PTSD. Militaries now routinely create
contempt for an enemy simply by conditioning one to think of them as a target
to be eliminated. Grossman says that we have an obligation to returning
soldiers under these conditions. They should be encouraged to undergo all the
state-of-the-art mental health services but they should also be expected to be
treated successfully and reintegrate back into society. He applauds our natural
aversion to killing and suggests that it means we are not ‘natural born
killers’ at all but something far more compassionate. Vietnam
Next is Political Primates by Christopher Boehm. This piece points out efforts to determine how the common ancestor of humans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees dealt with political power. The ape societies here are all hierarchical while the early human societies (until about 10,000 yrs ago) were all egalitarian. Domination through aggression may be the tendency in all the species, including humans, but humans will often check political ambition of an individual through the power of the group. Some apes will do this as well in certain circumstances. Although domination by alpha males may have been the rule, apparently many did not like it and so the power of the group could be used to weaken that domination. The author refers to the situation as a ‘tension between attraction to power and desire for social parity.”
Next is The Forgiveness Instinct by Michael E. McCullough. Here are recounted some stories of extraordinary forgiveness as well as some stories of extraordinary vengeance-taking. The author thinks that the desire for revenge is a universal trait crafted by natural selection. However, he also thinks that our capacity for forgiveness also served evolutionary functions and was shaped as well by natural selection. The threat of revenge may function as a deterrent to aberrant behaviors and was/is expected in many social groups as a part of the proper functioning of the society. Revenge is also a form of punishment for transgressors. It also may punish those who do not contribute enough to the group. Forgiveness and reconciliation no doubt serve adaptive functions as well. Aggression can damage relationships and reconciliatory gestures can repair them. Repairing relationships leads to better and more successful cooperation. The author’s practical conclusion is that rather than trying to change human nature one might try to merely favor forgiveness over vengeance, making the world a more forgiving place and a less vengeful one. We can increase opportunity for forgiveness through cultural learning so that we can better access what would be our innate capacity for forgiveness.
Next is The New Science of Forgiveness by Everett L. Worthington Jr. Here is offered some definitions of forgiveness which the author suggests, often depend on context. Reducing resentment and motivations toward revenge may define forgiveness toward a person with whom one does not seek a continuing relationship. In situations where one wants to keep a relationship with the offender one is more motivated by feelings of good will toward them. So there is reduction of the negative emotions in the first case and increase of positive emotions in the second. Unforgiveness can also be a net negative emotional state where hostility, resentment, and anger can remain. Neurological research suggests that when people can forgive they can improve their emotional and physical health as the resentment and hostility of grudges can be harmful to health which may include weakening the immune system through decreasing production of certain hormones. The ability to forgive is essential in relationships, particularly in close ones like marriage. Forgiveness can be seen as a strategy for getting through difficult times in a relationship. Forgiveness interventions strongly suggest that forgiveness can be learned, cultivated through effort.
Next is Brain Trust by Michael Kosfeld. Trust involves overcoming aversion to the risk of betrayal. The release of oxytocin from the brain’s hypothalamus suggests that trust has biological mechanisms. As well as smoothing muscle contractions during childbirth, oxytocin is also associated with bonding, trust, and intimacy among humans. Using oxytocin in therapy with people affected by social phobias may be helpful. It could also possibly be used by unscrupulous advertisers though that is not likely as the needed dose could generally not be given clandestinely. Trust is a necessary part of cooperative behavior. Trust may have biological components but it is also a cognitive choice.
Next is Pay it Forward by Robert A. Emmons. This article is about Gratitude and how it can be motivating and a link between giving and receiving as one wants to give the good that one has received. Sociologist Georg Simmel called gratitude “the moral memory of mankind.” Gratitude can be an acknowledgement of our dependency on others – which may perhaps explain why Americans (men in particular) have difficulty with it as the competing quality of ‘self reliance’ is prized. The author found that cultivation of gratitude can lead to physical, psychological, and social benefits. Experiments corroborate this. The author concludes that gratitude strengthens social ties and enhances a person’s sense of interconnectedness. Gratitude may also increase self-worth in that we can feel loved and cared for when someone helps us. This may also explain why feelings of gratitude are generally happy feelings: knowing that people care for and help one another we can see the power of benevolence.
Next is Wired to Be Inspired by Jonathan Haidt. Here the question of why are we inspired by the kind and heroic acts of others is asked. The author calls this feeling “elevation” which he defines as “a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion.” He suggests that psychologists have overly focused on negative emotions like guilt and anger and neglected to study positive ones. He says that the fact that we are responsive to the good deeds of others is an important facet of human nature. He juxtaposes ‘elevation’ to its opposite – disgust. It is thought that the repulsiveness of disgust evolved from the sanitary dangers of rotting stinky foods and excrement and later became attached to what we perceive as heinous acts. Perhaps we see immorality as a source of disease as well. Disgust seems to strengthen ego boundaries while elevation seems to weaken them as one wants to affiliate with the inspirer. The bottom line is that altruism generally inspires people and gives good feeling while selfishness, indifference, and meanness generally disgusts people and triggers hostilities and cynicism.
Next is the first section of Part 2 with Feeling Like Partners by Philip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Neera Mehta. This is from the perspective of family and couples therapy. The authors note that people need to be more imaginative in communication rather than just re-arranging words. Empathy as the ability to take the perspective of the other is paramount. Empathy is both mental and emotional and works best in a relationship where both parties are empathic. The authors give five main conditions conducive to fostering empathy. Both partners should be:1) mentally healthy, 2) have grown up in empathic families, 3) collaborate in parenting, 4) low stress external to family or strong coping support, 5) have a fair division of labor and problem-solving methods. Consciously cultivating empathy can lead to greater intimacy as well.
Next is Love, Honor, and Thank by Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey. Apparently, the division of household labor and whether one feels appreciated (due gratitude) are key reasons for many family arguments. They mention the idea of one’s “response threshold” which refers to the amount of disorder before someone will act to clean up and reorder things. This is different for different people at different times so that is often a source of disagreement. The one with a lower threshold ends up doing most of the housework and may then be seen as a specialist at certain tasks. This idea actually came from studying ants and bees but applies to human social relationships as well. Expressing gratitude for the other’s work is often helpful to the relationship.
Next is Stumbling Toward Gratitude by Catherine Price. This is about cultivating happiness through the positive psychology of gratitude. Positive psychologists recommend keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ noting the things for which one is grateful. She mentions the work of Julie Norem – whose book – The Positive Power of Negative Thinking – is meant to be helpful for certain people that do not respond very well to constant optimism, people she calls ‘defensive pessimists’. I like Pema Chodron’s mention of cultivating slight cheerfulness as a background state.
Next is The Choice to Forgive by Fred Luskin. This article is about people who have been hurt having trouble forgiving others. The author notes that forgiveness can be learned and often has to be for these people. Such people may get stuck trying to enforce an unenforceable rule – to change someone else who can’t really change. The key is to be able to forgive and move on past the grief and despair. The author goes through these and similar ‘forgiveness training’ methods through case histories.
Next is Compassion Across Cubicles by Jill Suttie. This one is about compassion in the workplace and restoring caring employer-employee relations. Situations of “positive deviance” where inspiration and productivity are up can be studied. Apparently, downsizing that began in the 80’s tensed employer-employee relations and people are unsure what to expect and how to act with regards to an employer. Based on the notion that “compassion heals” some companies are finding that fostering compassion in the workplace leads to employees that are more psychologically fit which also leads to greater productivity. The key to a compassionate workplace may be the quality of connections between people. In
people often overwork, working less can be helpful. America
Next is Are You a Jerk At Work? By Robert I. Sutton. This is about assholes, particularly abusive bosses. Although some people are predisposed to being jerks, others can become jerks when put in positions of power. Under these conditions the perpetrator may not even notice he or she is being an asshole. Emulating the behavior of an asshole boss is referred to as “asshole poisoning” and can be compelling under certain conditions. The author recommends beginning with polite confrontation when dealing with such a high-energy aggressive bullying alpha-type. Some workplaces can be overly competitive and that is usually problematic. Social psychologists conducted “framing” experiments where language was a key issue. When dire and competitive language was predominant people became more competitive and when cooperative language was predominant people were more cooperative. That sounds a lot like Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) to me.
Next is A Feeling for Fiction by Keith Oatley. This is about empathizing with characters in a movie or a book and how we can be positively affected. He goes through ideas from Aristotle’s Poetics about the idea of mimesis, or copying the behaviors of desirable characters. Art can induce empathy. Adam Smith in his early book – The Theory of Moral Sentiments – noted that in identifying with characters we become an “impartial spectator” in other lives. According to Sanskrit/Indian rasa theory the emotions in the audience (of plays) are affected by suggestion. The interesting difference is that we experience the emotions without the egotism that would be present if actually happening to us. So the rasa in this sense is a sympathetic emotion experienced without direct patterning by the ego. It is debatable how much we can benefit from literary and movie empathy but it does seem that it can be useful and at least provide a starting point for becoming empathic in real life situations.
Next is A Different View by Alfie Kohn. This one is about developing the skill of “perspective taking”, of putting oneself in others’ shoes. Teaching this to children often begins with some version of the Golden Rule. Better ways may involve setting examples in situations where something happens and one can discuss things from the other person’s viewpoint or disposition – such as “maybe he was having a bad day”. One can do this with TV and movie conflicts as well – discussing them. One can teach to look for clues like facial expressions, tones of voice, and posture to indicate how a person might be feeling. Learning to pick up on such clues may help them to see more deeply into others.
Next is Can I Trust You? A Conversation Between Paul Ekman and his Daughter Eve by Jason Marsh. Ekman is a master of facial expression, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on detecting lies, and one of the most influential psychologists. This is an interesting exchange as it is about trust between parent and child and how to foster it. The ability to trust can be a result of previous familial relationships. Ekman says that the parent’s job is not to be cop or interrogator but to be the teacher, or model, however, rules and consequences are still important. Ekman notes that people who trust are generally more trustworthy themselves so the two are related.
Next is Hot to Help by Daniel Goleman. This is about the importance of empathy in crisis situations. The author talked with Paul Ekman (see above article review) about this and he suggested that there may be three types of empathy with some being better to motivate compassionate action. The first is “cognitive empathy” which is simply knowing how the other person feels and what he or she is thinking. This is a kind of ‘perspective taking’ and can lead to deeper forms of empathy but may also stop there as the “too cold to care” detached form of empathy. “Emotional empathy” indicates a deeper level where one feels what the others are feeling as a sort of emotional contagion. This may also be problematic for first responders as a detached form of empathy can keep one in a better rescue-mode than one overwhelmed with emotion. This is a balance though as one has to watch becoming too detached. The third type is “compassionate empathy” which goes a step further than understanding and feeling and includes a spontaneous motivation to help. “Ekman calls compassionate empathy a skill, the acquired knowledge “that we’re all connected.” This is what seemed to be missing in the response to Hurricane Katrina and other crises.
Next is We are All Bystanders by Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh. This is about knowing and honing our ability to intervene when we see someone suffering, being abused, or in need of help. Often people are afraid but also too lazy to overcome the inconvenience. Historically there have been many tyrannical situations where whole societies were under the spell of not reacting to injustices due to the fear instilled by the society. The Holocaust, the genocide in
other places – come to mind. Other situations may be as simple as helping
someone with a car breakdown or responding to environmental and pollution
crises. Breaking through those barriers of fear and laziness is apparently
variable among people. The authors note that whether one responds or not may
have to do with subtle psychological differences – enough to overcome what they
call “altruistic inertia”. One study suggests that there can be a situation
where there are others around to help so one declines to help. This has been
termed “diffusion of responsibility”. Another suggestion was that of a
“confusion of responsibility” where one might be reluctant to intervene because
they might be confused for the perpetrator of the problem. Another notion
called “pluralistic ignorance” refers to a situation where something requiring
action occurs but those around you stay calm and don’t react – making it seem
as if the problem is not so bad. All these terms come out of experiments where
situations were manipulated in certain ways and these reactions or lack of
reactions occurred. No one wants to over-react to a potential danger. Another
factor is whether a person is in a hurry or not – sad as it seems. Even sadder
is that experiments show that people are more likely to help those more like
themselves. There are passive bystanders and active bystanders, those who help.
Historically, there have been many who fearlessly risked there lives to help
others, often others outside of their racial and ethnic groups. Psychologist
Ervin Staub has studied this phenomenon extensively. He did an experiment with
very young children (kindergarten and first grade) that suggested that they
were more likely to respond when placed in pairs rather than alone – unlike the
adult. He thinks this is because they were able to talk more openly about their
fears. So perhaps a deeper level of intimacy can allow us to be better
respondents to distress situations. In some situations the victim can be
helpful by indicating that he or she does need help and by picking someone to
help. Some psychologists have looked for personality traits that predispose one
to be helpful in crisis situations. Some of these studies suggest that one who
hones one’s abilities and keeps commitments to moral values, social
responsibility, and who habitually thinks of the welfare of others, is more
likely to react. Research suggests that one can train in being a more astute
responder and that those who do have been trained in various ways – often from
a young age. This type of training can be very practical in such ways as
intervening against bullying and as a police officer intervening when he or she
sees another officer using excessive force. Rwanda
Next is The Cost of Apathy: An Interview with Robert Reich by Jason Marsh. This is about economic inequality – a concern among many these days in social justice circles. Governments and especially corporations are often blamed for these inequities but Reich also notes that it requires a certain degree of empathy from us to other members of our society. He suggests that society is segregating on the basis of financial capacity. Reich attributes technology and globalization as key drivers of wealth inequality. Another factor that keeps the poor down and the society segregated is lack of education. Technology and globalization may work against those who lack education. One remedy Reich suggests is opportunities for training and education. He also suggests that people do more as groups for reform and progressive change to help others – in order to keep economic inequality from getting worse.
Next is The Activism Cure by Meredith Maran. This is about giving to others as a source of happiness for oneself. Becoming active in a social, environmental, or altruistic cause can allow one to overcome fears and emotional problems – although I think this may often not be the case as activism can cause people to become more biased as I sometimes see. The good feelings one gets from giving to others have measurable psychological and neuro-physiological bases. Perhaps, as studies suggests, the neuro-transmitter hormone – dopamine – is a key. This may also attribute why those who go through the 12 steps of A.A. are more likely to succeed in abstinence – as they are also active in inspiring others along the same path. Giving allows us to focus on helping others rather than on feeling powerless and focusing on our own problems. Victims of trauma can often be healed by being active in ways that seek to prevent traumas happening to others. Studies suggest that becoming more socially active can even improve one’s physical health. Volunteering has been associated with a reduction in depression. As I learned once from a friend – the best way to make friends is to share work together or to practice charity together. There is a good feeling that comes from working together to help others. As the Mahayana Buddhists say – compassionate action is medicine – the wishfulfilling jewel, in fact.
Next is America’s Trust Fall by Jeremy Adam Smith and Pamela Paxton. This one is about Trust in society and how it waxes and wanes and what this does to us. The authors mention that research suggests that we are hardwired to trust and that major events can boost or weaken our trust. Certainly, instances of political and business fraud weaken it while traumatic situations resulting in resolve such as 9-11 boost it. In small societies such as neighborhoods, trust is associated with less crime and violence. On the national level, trust is associated with smoother transition of newly elected governments. Current high mistrust in American might be attributable to more isolation of people in general. People with more group affiliations tend to be more trusting. I think this has to do with the concept of ‘tribal intimacy’ as well. Even though we are currently a sane and rational society we often feel as strangers to one another, especially if we don’t get together often. Diversity is a wonderful thing but can contribute to isolation. World War II united Americans and succeeding people were probably more trusting. These days individuality has become a very important right and endeavor which is good but there may be a downside in that it isolates us and may even contribute to selfishness. Media can isolate us as well as often we are alone with TV, music, internet, phone, etc. One big factor that increases distrust especially of politicians and corporate management is that of economic disparity. Corporate and political scandals contribute to mistrust as do thieves, criminals, and perverts. The authors suggest that increasing trust in the integrity of our institutions will lead to more trust among us. Better minority rights, gender equality, GLBT rights, multiculturalism, and religious tolerance all lead to more trust overall – though perhaps not among the less educated and more biased and bigoted members of society. Among the institutions of government and corporations it is accountability and transparency that increase trust. The betrayals of fraud, deception, and hidden agendas erode trust.
Next is The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner. This one is about power, our notions of how to use it, and how it functions in social relationships. This one is about outmoded myths of power and debunks Machiavellian notions that suggest it is better to be feared than loved. Adopting models of power based on aggression, selfishness, and impulsiveness will make leaders that act that way. An alternative is a model based on and leaders devoted to “intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.” Given are three myths of power. Myth #1 is that power is wealth, political clout, and military might. Rather vaguely he suggests that this true in rather temporary ways but that the true nature of power is not like this and that there are power struggles in every social relationship. Myth #2 is that the Machiavellian strategic manipulative form of power is effective. “When it comes to power, social intelligence – reconciling conflicts, negotiating, smoothing over group tensions – prevails over social Darwinism.” Chimp studies indicate that negotiation skills are paramount. Developing a sense of trust and camaraderie in the group tends to make successful leadership among humans. Cooperation and modesty become skills. The third myth is that power is strategically acquired rather than given. The author compares Machiavellianism with the social intelligence style of Taoism and Confucianism. People tend to distrust the Machiavellian-style power brokers. In experiments people who perceive that they have been given power tend to act in more inappropriate and less inhibited ways and act more based on stereotypes. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment where a fake situation of prison guards and inmates led to very real abuses is a case in point. Keltner calls it a “Power Paradox” when one acquires power but is unable to apply it with social intelligence. Deception, coercion, and force are the methods of Machiavellian power and are generally unacceptable to a socially intelligent populace. Power without trust and responsibility is not going to cut it.
Next is Edible Ethics: An Interview with Michael Pollan by Jason Marsh. This one is about the ethics of food choices. It’s good to know where your food comes from and if you eat animal products, how those animals are treated, and even with organics this is not always clear. The bottom line is that one needs to be vigilant about researching the origins of one’s food if one wants to know the whole truth and make the most effective ethical choices. Buying local food decreases energy use. Organic foods reduce pesticide use but may have high energy use due to transportation. Again the bottom line about food choices is to be informed as much as possible and do what you are able.
Next is The Hot Spot by Lisa Bennett. This one is about the crisis of global warming and how people have reacted to it so far and why. Global warming is something a consensus of scientists have touted as potentially extremely dangerous, something that warrants action on all levels, yet overall the response has been less than massive. Many of us do what we can little by little but are rather powerless overall. The consensus is based on statistics and a computer model that predicts dangers due to ‘net positive feedback.’ However, as the author notes, there is no direct emotional component to the risk, so that is perhaps why it does not seem so dire. Personally, though, I think that some of us also intuitively believe in the resilience of nature to diffuse the process significantly enough to ward off disaster. I am not a ‘denier’ but one who thinks things are not hopeless and there are – albeit a minority – scientists who agree. But it is certainly possible that I and they are wrong. Strangely, the author points to research that reports of genocide have resulted in less reaction and calls to action against perpetrators than reports of single victims. Perhaps it has to do with how we hear the stories and whether we have personal knowledge and some emotional contact to them. The global warming lack of response may have more to do with procrastinating future consequences and focusing on current conveniences than anything else. The third reason given for lack of concern for global warming seemed rather ambiguous to me. A study divided people into egalitarian and hierarchist worldviews and noted that egalitarians tended to be more concerned about the environment. This research suggested that hierarchists tended to reject global warming more because it challenged their worldview. I would probably disagree with that although it may be true in a certain percentage of people. The author here then goes on to advocate global warming propaganda that triggers fear and emotions. I do not think alarmism is the answer although at some point it may be. I don’t think triggering fear and people accusing one another of wastage and climate crimes is constructive, I do think we all need to be very well informed and try to steer clear of strong biases.
Next is In Search of the Moral Voice by Jason Marsh. This one is about altruistic behavior in war and trauma situations. The author notes a study where four factors are given for motivating such heroic compassionate acts: “feelings of self-efficacy, a desire for reciprocity, a sense of group affiliation, and a wish to reclaim one’s moral identity.” Regarding self-efficacy the author notes that: “a sense of personal usefulness can trigger altruistic impulses that otherwise remain dormant.” In other words, humanitarian acts are more likely to occur if they can be easily done with the resources at hand without retribution. Reciprocity is simply applying the Golden Rule, treating one’s enemy as one would want them to treat you if the tables were turned. The third motivation is simply finding some basis of common ground with the other. We are all brothers and sisters if we look deeply enough. Finally, some people just get sick of the immorality of cruelty and maltreatment and take it on themselves to regain their moral principles. People get caught up in the vicious cycles of vengeance, hatred, and violence and sometimes something just snaps them out of it and they stop. Compassion is generally incompatible with war as the goal is to destroy, capture, or send off the enemy. One suspends compassionate behavior for the cause but way too often this gets out of hand and cruelty and horror can even be perpetrated by otherwise ordinary people.
Next is Peace Though Apology by Aaron Lazare. This one is about how to apologize properly and why the apology for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal failed miserably. Even though Bush, Rice, and Rumsfeld made statements the author suggests these failed and may have made things worse. He notes that most apologies work best with four components: “acknowledgment of the offense; explanation; expressions of remorse, shame, and humility; and reparation.” Lack of acknowledgement is often a deficiency in apologies. This may include apologizing to the wrong party (as when Bush apologized to the king of
having others lead the apology, not taking direct responsibility (as Bush
passively said – mistakes were made – and it was only Rumsfeld that
acknowledged any responsibility). Regarding “explanation”, Bush made it out to
be the work of a “few bad apples” rather than a failure of the military culture
to safeguard against such abuses. Expressions of shame and remorse were
overshadowed by the statements about this behavior not being “the true heart of
Jordan America” – thus, according
to the author, indication that
was a victim. While this may be true – it shifted the focus. Finally, no
reparations were suggested such as resignations, new policies, etc. The goal of
an apology is to generate forgiveness and reconciliation. Lazare notes that
this should satisfy seven psychological needs of the offended ones: 1)
restoration of dignity, 2) affirmation of shared values, 3) validation that the
victim was not responsible, 4) assurance that there will not be a repeat
offense, 5) reparative justice among the offenders, 6) reparation to the
offended, 7) dialogue that allows for the possibility of reconciliation. The
Abu Ghraib apology failed on several of these accounts. America
Next is Truth + Reconciliation by Desmond Tutu. This is about the social wounds caused by apartheid in
and how the wounds have been treated and healed. Bishop Tutu tells the story of
Malusi Mpumlwana who saw his torturers as having lost their humanity and felt
compassion for them. Tutu says that Malusi’s insight was that: “our own dignity
can only be measured in the way we treat others.” The Truth and Reconciliation
commission of the post-apartheid government set a fine precedent for the world
about how to heal the injustices of the past. This was not easy and victims and
perpetrators alike had to give confessions and/or relive horrors. Tutu says
that: “True reconciliation is based on forgiveness, and forgiveness is based on
true confession, and confession is based on penitence, on contrition, on sorrow
for what you have done.” In the hearings a requirement for amnesty was full
disclosure. “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain,
the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky
undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest
confrontation with reality can bring real healing.” Tutu makes the interesting
point that the reconciliation methodology used in South Africa was based on
traditional African penology that is restorative rather than retributive, based
on forgiveness rather than punishment. South Africa
Next is Why is There Peace by Steven Pinker. This one is about the history of peace and violence and what has affected it. Previous notions of the benign “noble savage” have proved incorrect as studies have revealed that a man among hunter-gatherer societies has between 15 and 60% chance of dying at the hands of another man. The number is only 1% in the 20th century which includes both world wars. Though it may seem otherwise when we watch or read the news, we have moved steadily and drastically towards a more peaceful world where people are rarely tortured (comparatively) and there are fewer wars. Still people seem to think we live in an age of increased violence. This is probably due to better reporting of any atrocities that become known. One factor from the Middle Ages on is probably that centralized governments have wrought penalties for vengeance killings and criminal violence so that civility and the rule of law has become enforced – first rather violently though gradually with more justice – in general. Another suggestion is that as technology and economic efficiency extends our life spans we place a higher value on life so we abstain from violence more. Also mentioned is ethical philosopher Peter Singer’s notion that we have a bit of empathy embedded in our genetics that originally extended to our immediate circle but has gradually radiated out to greater and greater extents to encompass all beings, including animals. The author suggests that rather than asking – “Why is there war?” We should be asking “Why is there peace?” Obviously we have been doing something right.
Next is The Morality of Global Giving: An Interview with Jan Egeland by Jason Marsh. Jan Egeland was the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs when the Dec. 2004
Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami took 225,000 lives in
11 countries. Egeland created a stir at the time by suggesting that developed
countries were stingy in giving aid. His basis was that they gave far less a
percentage than others. Of course, that referred to public aid. Private aid by
individuals put a country like the somewhere in the middle. One
often hears here in the US
that we should help ourselves and not give money to strangers on the other side
of the world. This begs the suggestion that we are more apt to be altruistic to
those in our own social and ethnic
groups – although when I hear people say that I sometimes hear myself thinking
– “I probably feel more solidarity to those strangers on the other side of the
world than with you.” Egeland’s comments instigated the ‘competitive
compassion’ that followed. Egeland notes that a true humanitarian approach
places resources where needed regardless of social, socio-economic, or ethnic
groups involved. Egeland emphasizes the symbolic importance of government aid
rather than individual and corporate aid, which is often based on well
publicized disasters rather than the ones not heard about. He says proximity to
a disaster aids instances of altruism and when this is reported as it happens
in the media it brings this proximity to all who hear about it which increases
aid giving. Egeland advocates larger UN emergency aid funds. He is optimistic
after the overall response to the tsunami which he suggested, showed humanity
at its best. US
Next is Global Compassion: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman by Paul Ekman. Ekman begins by noting that Global Compassion is a chief concern of our time and that it requires that we get beyond mere nation-bound or tribal-bound compassion. Thinking globally emphasizes interconnectedness and de-emphasizes narrow-mindedness says the Dalia Lama. He also says that the “we” and “them” mentality of the fairly recent imperialist past no longer applies as our level of interdependency has superseded that view. Ekman thinks that two obstacles are the resentments of the past (say in ethnic hatreds) and thinking short-term rather than long-term. The Dalai Lama suggests that accepting the universality of dissatisfaction allows one to better accept the incomplete resolution of various arguments to a point of civility. Ekman brings up the question that we (esp. those in wealthy countries) are inequitably using up the world’s resources in an unsustainable lifestyle. He also says we may be motivated by compassion for our offspring so that they will have available resources. The Dalai Lama notes that it is unrealistic to assume everyone will live sustainably and compassionately but that it is courageous and noble simply to make the attempt to do so.
Next is The Heroine with a Thousand Faces by Lisa Bennet. This one is about the lack of a female hero archetype and the importance of developing one. Apparently, studies show that in many situations women heroes outnumber male heroes – from those who helped holocaust victims to kidney donors. She notes that perhaps we need a broader notion of heroism to encompass everyday life situations rather than just military and emergency situations. She notes that: “recognizing broader notions of heroism would likely attune us to our own personal power, a vital step toward facing up to and tackling our many collective challenges.”
Finally there is The Banality of Heroism by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed that regular people when put into certain situations can assume roles and act them out very strongly even in a simulated setup. This supported the idea of ‘the banality of evil’ – that under certain conditions ordinary people could do unthinkable things. Other experiments have corroborated this. Often there are those who passively allow injustices to take place without objecting, which lends them more acceptability. The authors then ask the question if the reverse is possible – can anyone become heroic under the right conditions? Research and observations of heroic acts by ordinary people suggest that this is the case. Fostering the ‘heroic imagination’ or a heroic ideal may be helpful. The authors suggest that: “heroism is different from altruism. Where altruism emphasizes selfless acts that assist others, heroism entails the potential for deeper personal sacrifice.” Heroism is based on commitment. The authors give four dimensions of heroism: 1) some type of quest such as the preservation of life or the preservation of an ideal; 2) actual or anticipated sacrifice or risk. Rescuers and military personnel often take physical risks but others may risk their careers or their reputations; 3) a heroic act can be either active or passive. Passive resistance can be heroic; 4) heroism can involve a single act or a series of actions over a period of time. Heroes are often those able to overcome the ‘bystander effect.’ According to the authors, fostering the heroic imagination requires keeping the courage and commitment aspects of heroism. The epic poems of past societies venerated heroes which fostered heroic ideals, especially those involving courage. A hero’s journey to the Underworld demonstrates his or her commitment to transcend mortality. These and similar stories can still be pondered. Movies and games can also promote heroic ideals.