Better Angels

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 9

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 9: Better Angels

“[It] cannot be disputed that there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent. Let these generous sentiments be supposed ever so weak; let them be insufficient to move even a hand or finger of our body; they must still direct the determinations of our mind, and where every thing else is equal, produce a cool preference of what is useful and serviceable to mankind, above what is pernicious and dangerous.” ~David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

All throughout this book, empathy is touted as the greatest contributor to peace in a society. Adam Smith doubted it. He proposed a charming “Little Finger Paradox” that goes such: If a natural disaster were to befall a foreign people you would probably feel sorry for them but lose no sleep over it, being so far removed from your own daily life. Yet if some personal “disaster” were to befall you, such as losing your little finger in an accident, such a thing would dominate your thinking, your speech, your actions, and sustain a sense of anguish in you for quite some time. Suppose then that you were offered a bargain of sacrificing your little finger in order to save millions from some far-off disaster. Most people would accept such a sacrifice, not necessarily out of a sense of grandiosity, but of reason: one individual’s little finger is worth far less than millions of strangers’ lives. Why the disconnect? His “paradox” asks why our emotions (indifference vs agitation) are so varied from a reasoned comparison. Of course, it’s no paradox at all, it merely highlights the fact that emotion (including sympathy) is a biological function of a self-interested animal, and that reason is something that transcends evolution.

While there are several better angels in the human constitution, Pinker declares reason the king of them all. Reason is what allows us to analyze moral puzzles like the above from a disinterested bird’s eye view before making decisions that affect us personally. In the world of abstract reason, “my little finger” and “a disaster claiming millions of lives” can be represented as “a small loss for X” vs “a great loss for millions of Y” and this abstraction, from “me vs you” and “us vs them” to a generic “X vs Y” is the engine at the heart of empathy. The ability to step outside yourself and see the world through the eyes of those around you (and others far away!) leads to an attitude of “there but for fortune go I.” It is reason, therefore, that underlies the philosophies of secular humanism and classical liberalism. (“Classical” used here to distinguish enlightenment thinking from the modern political use of the word “liberal.”)

What about morality? Most of us have an instinctive understanding of crime and mayhem as being committed by a small group of people driven by motives of pure evil and hatred. In effect, we project our shadow (to borrow a term from Jung) on those we dislike, misunderstand, or are suspicious of, and consider “them” living in a separate world completely cordoned off from our own, living by principles completely antithetical to our own. This is “morality.” The idea that some core set of principles guides the better angels of our natures and those that stray from those principles or were never taught them are unhuman and descend into a life of darkness. Immoral individuals can only be “saved” from darkness by instilling in them the right principles, and if they cannot be saved, they ought to be oppressed, resisted, vilified, and excoriated. The central problem with morality is this all or nothing approach to the way we treat people. Shared cultural values place a stranger within your circle of empathy, and there are no holds barred regarding the treatment of those outside of it.

The fact is that 99% of crime and mayhem is perpetuated in the name of morality, not sadism. Consider: terrorists consider themselves soldiers; most gang violence is perpetuated in the defense of honor and retribution; many murders are crimes of passion, and most murderers maintain their innocence for the duration of their incarceration (“he made me do it”). So for starters, the facts are not with morality. The illusion of morality contains at its heart the very key to transcending it: What are those core principles, if not lighthouses designed to steer us away from our own impulses? Does the very existence of “thou shalt not kill” imply the existence of the killing instinct within us? Don’t we all have the capacity to kill under the right circumstances, say, if defending our family from a home invader or if dropped into enemy territory in wartime? Enter reason: All human beings, regardless of their cultural values, share a common set of motives and emotions, encoded in human DNA. We are angered by an insult, saddened by death and injury, envious of those who have more, and long for the respect and adoration of others, to name a few. These are the “X’s and Y’s” that make human beings interchangeable when analyzing hard moral questions: How would I react if my spouse was shot? My house burned? My city flooded? My country bombed? If I were born in a dictatorship?

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Review: The Gift Of The Magi And Other Stories

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The Gift Of The Magi And Other Stories
The Gift Of The Magi And Other Stories by O. Henry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Found this teeny book at a thrift store and I’m happy to add it to my personal collection. There could be a handful of O. Henry stories tucked into “best of” collections throughout my library, but I am proud to make this the first exclusive collection and I shall treasure the thin volume forever. I remember reading the headliner, The Gift of the Magi in school. It’s so sweet and wistful and romantically tragic, like a non-fatal Romeo and Juliet. My favorite story was The Last Leaf. I anticipated a Twilight Zone, Bradbury-style ending, so the very human, touching surprise nearly brought me to tears.

I faintly remembered the “O” standing for “Orrin” and knew the name to be a pen name, but I hadn’t recalled the author’s turbulent, tragic life. I can see how literary wonks view him as a kind of folk anti-hero, a genius uncalibrated for the cruelties of this world, and I am glad his name has been immortalized in the most prestigious short story award of our time. Were I to count, I probably own (and have read) more O. Henry award winning stories than O. Henry stories, a travesty I am delighted to have made a dent in correcting in the consumption of this book.

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Review: All the Light We Cannot See

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All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very pleasant and enjoyable, what I believe people refer to as “a perfect beach read.” I am perplexed why it won the Pulitzer though. When I first heard that Doerr had won this prestigious American prize, I was excited like everybody else. The Shell Collector had, only weeks before, become one of my all time favorite books. I also read About Grace and thought, ok, not bad for a first novel, so he’s more of a short story guy. I was really looking forward to being blown away by All the Light You Cannot See. Well I have to get my eyes checked because I did not see the light. The book was, for me, on par with About Grace: wistful, entertaining, charming, flat.

However! I must praise the author for a very obvious love of nature and science. As in his other books, he makes plain by his references to light, shells, radio, and tides his deep and abiding love for all things nature. The main character hails from Paris’s Natural History Museum, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is incorporated into the plot, and the author acknowledges Richard Feynman in the afterward. All geek flags are flying, and a fellow geek can readily recognize them. I also appreciate the telling of a personal World War II story about kids coming of age on both sides of the conflict without an overt Hollywood-style good & evil theme.

I continue looking forward to reading Memory Wall and Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, but I have to say, if you like this author, The Shell Collector remains by far his best book, Pulitzer or no.

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Review: The Fire Next Time

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The Fire Next Time
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is nothing I can say to add to the power of these essays. The book is short, direct, and impactful. I’d heard of Dr. King, Malcolm X, and a handful of other civil rights activists, but never heard of Baldwin until reading Another Country. He’s so extraordinary, so intellectual, with the ability to create fiction that shatters your deeply held assumptions. He was never an “activist,” effecting change from the pulpit. He metabolized his ideas as novels, incredible novels, and I think history has remembered his genius as an artist rather than a figurehead. This quick but profound read strips back that layer of fiction for a peek into the mind of the man himself, and what a man.

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Review: The Plot Against America

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The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing. The premise gripped me before I ever picked it up. An alternate history where a romantic American Hero (Charles A. Lindbergh) who few Americans today remember as an anti-Semite, defeats Roosevelt to become president in 1940, only to ally the country with Nazi Germany and begin a subtle, sinister anti-Jew agenda. Sounds eye-popping, but sadly the book fails to deliver this V for Vendetta style dystopian vision. I understood the parallel “Homestead 42” and “Office of American Absorption” to their German counterparts. But I did not understand Roth’s plot decisions. Lindbergh himself speaks maybe ten sentences in the entire book. Alvin’s central role contributes nothing. And the family dynamics, while interesting, don’t scratch the surface of what could have been done if the author’s intention was to put the reader as a fly on the wall to this Nazi-fication of America.

I enjoyed the gradual build of the premise in the first chapter and the finale chapter, “Perpetual Fear” was everything I expected the whole book to be. But (SPOILER ALERT) killing Lindbergh in a plane crash just before the denouement, returning Roosevelt to office like the whole buildup was just a bad dream? C’mon. Perhaps the book was meant as a warning and a reminder to modern Americans how the anti-Semitic micro aggressions of years past put us culturally closer to that reviled group than we would like to imagine. But such a 400-page fingerwagging was not the book I signed on for. So much potential, particularly from a Pulitzer recipient flirting with a Nobel.

I have not given up on Philip Roth, but I hope Nemesis, American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, and so many more he’s lauded for prove him out.

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