I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature and properties of good. I’m deeply interested in what readers of this blog have to say on the subject. I’m looking for enlightenment!
“Good” is part of our name (GoodStorm) and good is what we hope will come out of it. The genesis of the company was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which was, in so many ways, a bad storm. My co-founders and I were watching the multi-level human horrors of Katrina on TV, and committed ourselves on the spot to counteracting the evil of that bad storm with an active and activist GoodStorm of our own.
We’re business people… Internet entrepreneurs. We don’t believe that simply giving money away is “good,” nor does it change much. If we gave away all our collective money, it wouldn’t make a dent in the world’s misery. But if we can lend a hand by refreshing capitalism to empower people to make a difference in their worlds – become the change they want to see, as Gandhi said – that’s a good start.
I’ve been thinking not only about how to do good – the mission of the company – but about the very nature and transformative power of good itself. In a world where the elemental struggle is supposedly between good and evil, light and darkness – where good is ostensibly the good guy – good has been getting some rotten press lately. Where to start? How about “good guys finish last,” and all its cynical derivatives. How did good get so uncool?
It’s like, “Dude, sure the meek will inherit the earth. But two hours later, the powerful will come around and grab it right back.”
GoodStorm is just one element of a worldwide movement away from that kind of self-defeating cynicism and toward a brighter historical moment. The movement – progressives, activists, NGOs, philanthropists, environmentalists, educators, and so on – is fighting to take back our global culture from dark forces that tend to celebrate the worst in people.
Celebrating the worst is poison soul-candy, a form of ethical prurience – people getting the wrong kind of thrill wallowing in the worst humanity has to offer (I’m thinking here…24-hour-a-day Anna Nicole coverage, Britney obsession, gigantic ratings for the snarky nastiness of “American Idol,” reality shows that pick up where carnival freak shows left off, etc.).
Why is this happening? Because people have lost touch with the ecstatic, erotic, superior thrill of good. I’m not talking the talcum-powder, pinch-mouthed good of the official painted saints and deities. I’m not talking Mother Theresa, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Lao Tzu, Hillel, Yahweh, or Zoroaster (I’m not ruling them out, either). Good is not a leafy vegetable you’re forced to eat for your own…uh, good no matter how bad it tastes. Good is the most savory thing on the universe’s menu, but too many of us have lost our taste for it. Thus this conversation.
Ever since I was in college in the Philippines – where I studied (broadcast) communications and political science between "detention time" as a political dissident under the Marcos regime, complete with Gitmo-style torture (more on that in a future post) – I’ve been fascinated by Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a military treatise that, 2,500 years after its writing in about 515 B.C., has become something of a user’s manual and strategic guide to life in our times.
Next to the Bible, The Art of War is one of the best-selling works of all time. Amazon is awash in derivative books applying Sun Tzu’s military stratagems to business and social situations, and many colleges offer full-semester courses in the timeless wisdom and contemporary applications of Sun Tzu.
It’s true that many of us feel like modern life is a battle, that the earth is a 360-degree war zone, and that we’re constantly fending off enemies. But is war truly humanity’s default state? Is war the actual nature of things, or simply a reflection of what we’ve done to ourselves, and an indication of what good things we must do now to bring good back as the golden, muscular force I believe it is?
Writing in The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks summed up the cynics’ view of the world, arguing that “the belief in natural human goodness is fading.” [http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F00B13F63F5A0C7B8DDDAB0894DF404482] Brooks wrote:
Sometimes a big idea fades so imperceptibly from public consciousness you don’t even notice until it has almost disappeared. Such is the fate of the belief in natural human goodness.
This belief, most often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau]…had gigantic ramifications over the years. It led…to the belief that bourgeois social conventions are repressive and soul-destroying. It contributed to romantic revolts against tradition and etiquette…whether 19th-century Parisian bohemians or 20th-century beatniks and hippies…It led people to hit the road, do drugs, form communes and explore free love in order to unleash their authentic selves.
In education, it led to progressive reforms, in which children were liberated to follow their natural instincts. Politically, it led to radical social engineering efforts (welfare, the War on Poverty, etc.)…to reshape institutions in order to create a New Man. Therapeutically, it led to an emphasis of feelings over reason, self-esteem over self-discipline.
Over the past 30 years or so, however, this belief in natural goodness has been discarded…because of the failure of just about every social program that was inspired by it, from the communes to progressive education on up.
But the big blow came at the hands of science. From the content of our genes, the nature of our neurons and the lessons of evolutionary biology, it has become clear that nature is filled with competition and conflicts of interest….
Human beings operate according to preset epigenetic rules, which dispose people to act in certain ways. We strive for dominance and undermine radical egalitarian dreams. We’re tribal…This is a darker if more realistic view of human nature.
Brooks concluded that Rousseau – with his idea that good was the basic nature of things – was wrong, and that Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English social philosopher [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hobbes], was right. Hobbes held that the essential nature of human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Oh, snap!
Gloomy stuff. Depressing, conservative stuff. Very much of the dark realpolitik of that ultimate cynic Henry Kissinger, who once observed, “We have no friends, only interests.” But then…the very next day in The Times, the cavalry of good rode into battle with banners flying in the golden sun:
David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, wrote:
David Brooks is half right in asserting that evolutionary biology shows human beings to be selfish, nasty and competitive by nature.
In the process, he conveniently doesn’t mention the other half: the adaptive outcome…is often achieved by organisms behaving altruistically toward one another, enhancing the success of other(s), such as relatives, reciprocating friends, and even, on occasion, unrelated individuals within the social group.
William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis, and the author of a forthcoming book about contemporary biological theories of human altruism, wrote:
David Brooks is reading the wrong evolutionary psychologists. We compete for status, true, but paradoxically the way we display status is by showing that we can afford to be generous to one another.
As all consumers of fiction know, heroes help people, and those who help others are those we all acknowledge as heroes. It would be a shame if pessimism distorted our views of the altruism and helpfulness that are embedded so deeply in human nature.
Michael Eigen, the editor of The Psychoanalytic Review, wrote:
David Brooks describes human nature in terms of stock binaries like Hobbes versus Rousseau….Such categories represent diverse tendencies of our nature. It is not a matter of one or the other, or of making a choice as to which is more basic.
To put who we are in terms of one tendency versus another is to maintain an all-too-prevalent dissociative attitude that has played havoc with our sense of self for a good part of our history.
I believe that evolution requires us to get beneath such categories and begin to partner the profound interweaving of multiple tendencies that give human nature the plasticity and persistence it demonstrates.
So maybe it isn’t Hobbes or Rousseau to the exclusion of the other. Maybe it’s a swirling mélange of selfishness and altruism, realpolitik nasty and empowering good.
And what I’ve been wondering for years is this: If The Art of War is such a big best-seller because it teaches people how to win through fighting and conflict, might there be a use in the world for, say, The Art of Good, which would show people how to win through being good – to one’s family, friends, spouses, partners, lovers, business associates, society at large, even one’s pets?
Do we need a sort of latter-day good book – no, not that one – that demonstrates how goodness – properly framed – is a nourishing virus that spreads life’s riches along the lines of, “the more there is, the more everyone gets”?
Is it time for a rebirth and a refresh of goodness, the way we at GoodStorm are trying to refresh capitalism to make it work for everyone, not just the oligarchy? Is there a way to show…to prove…that goodness not only benefits others, which in itself is worthy, but in the end benefits oneself?
I’d like to hear from you on these questions. What do you think the nature of good is? How can we be good to each other?
Does it matter?
I need your wisdom.