When future anthropologists study us, they will learn a lot about what’s important to us by looking at our newspapers.
A minority of our news stories cover what’s truly new: scientific discoveries, thriving business startups, or groundbreaking legislation. But most of our news stories are about some human being (or group of human beings) failing, in a very familiar way, to be kind, fair, or honest. Politician caught lying! Violence erupts between Group A and Group B! Company misleads customers for profit! Details at 6.
If we sat down to think about what’s really important to us, we might come up with qualities like fairness, kindness, responsibility, loyalty, and mutual respect. It seems like all of the major problems in the world are caused by a small contingent of bad apples, who simply shun these important qualities and ruin it for kind, responsible, honest and fair people like ourselves.
I think this is wishful thinking. The truth is that all of us — even those of us who feel like good people — are almost comically terrible at achieving these qualities, yet we expect them as a matter of course from each other and ourselves. Our incredulous response to scandal and selfishness suggests that we believe any of us could, at any moment, snap out of our self-interest and dysfunction, and make the world the place it should have been all along.
What makes us distinct from other species, more than anything, is that we’re able to move beyond being impulse-driven, self-interested animals, at least a little bit. We can reflect, we can refrain, we can empathize, we can plan. We can feel our impulses while at the same time understanding that they aren’t always leading us to good things.
In the relatively short time we’ve been able to explore this higher territory, we’ve come to really value these lofty qualities, and we’ve become preoccupied with public figures failing to achieve them. After all, we know it is virtues like fairness, honesty, discipline and kindness that are going to make it easier to be human, to deal with suffering and loss and all the stark realities that come with knowing you’re a vulnerable, animated bag of meat. We desperately want to get ourselves (but especially others) to embody these higher human qualities, which promise to save us from cruelty and misery. But as much as we covet them, we forget that these new capacities are in fact skills, and that as a species we’re generally not very good at them.
Essentially, this higher territory is what we call morality, and I think we tend to greatly overestimate how good we are at it. We’re a species who, as I point out frequently, can barely uphold our New Year’s commitments to ourselves, yet we seem to expect everyone else to be more or less upstanding and incorruptible. Why am I so frequently appalled by how thoughtlessly other people park their cars, when I don’t think twice about spending thirty dollars on beer instead of feeding the starving?
You can make up excuses for this kind of behavior — cognitive dissonance, meritocratic economics, drop-in-the-bucket syndrome — but I think all of that is avoiding the truth about human beings, which is that we are pitifully underdeveloped when it comes to morality. We just happen to be living in that awkward and painful stage where we recognize its supreme importance to our well-being, yet we’re so bad at it we can barely stand ourselves. Read More