Dacher Keltner's Born to Be Good. 

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 2 2009 12:29 PM

How Good Are We, Really?

There's only so much science can tell us about human morality.

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 ToBe 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?"

Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the Greater Good Science Center there, is banking on an interest in a Rousseauian rather than Hobbesian view of human nature. In Born To Be Good, he argues that we are born as miniature angels, rather than marked by original sin. But presuming that readers have no patience for romantic mush, his subtitle—The Science of a Meaningful Life—promises hardheadedness, not faith or folklore.

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The time certainly seems ripe for such a corrective. In recent decades, we have been barraged with broadsides emphasizing the dark side of human nature—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. 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.

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.

As Keltner appreciates, such a reading of Darwin obscures more than it reveals, and the current economic meltdown has exposed the limits of the Friedmanite admixture. 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.

Keltner's book is a prototypical contribution from "positive psychology," a thriving new field that seeks to counter the earlier scholarly emphases on the less-admirable features of our species. In their more modest incarnation, 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 50 years ago, human beings are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. When they throw caution to the winds, positive psychologists argue that they are revealing the genuine, truer, deeper, side of human nature—not just how human beings should be, or can be, but how they are.

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