Mike Kueber's Blog

May 17, 2015

Sunday Book Review #159 – The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:45 am
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Peter Singer is a world-famous philosopher professor who espouses a philosophy – utilitarianism – that seems most reasonable to me.  According to utilitarianism, the correct moral action is the one that maximizes utilities such as pleasure, economic well-being, or the absence of pain. This sounds a lot like my Jesuit-trained best friend, who espouses “the preponderance of satisfying consequences.

The Most Good You Can Do is Singer’s explanation of “efficient altruists” – i.e., individuals who apply evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.

One of my favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand, has written extensively in opposition to altruism, and I have adopted one of her pithy anti-altruism sayings on the subject:

  • I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Phil Donohue once asked Rand why she had a problem with do-gooders who wanted to be charitable and help others.  Rand responded that helping others or doing good was fine if (a) you did it by your own choice, (b) it wasn’t your primary aim in life, and (c) you didn’t regard it as a moral virtue.  When Donohue pressed her on why doing good for others shouldn’t be considered a moral virtue, Rand said that characterizing it as a moral virtue would mean that you are preaching self-sacrifice, that you place the welfare of others above your own, and that you are living for others as justification for your life.  That, according to Rand, is immoral.  For historical evidence, she asserted that self-sacrifice or altruism was the basis for Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

The philosophies of Rand and Singer seem irreconcilable, with Rand seeing altruism as immoral while Singer sees it as the ethical path.  But Singer in his book devotes an entire chapter, titled “Altruism and Happiness,” to describe how efficient altruists deny being selfless or making sacrifices of anything important to them.  Rather, they see their good deeds as essential to their happiness and self-esteem.  And, yes, Singer recognizes that this essentially modifies the definition of altruism.

Singer’s book is really a primer on becoming an efficient altruist.  The following are a few examples of the practical considerations discussed by Singer:

  • What sort of job will maximize your positive effect?
  • Do kids detract from your ability to be an altruist?
  • How important is empathy?
  • Should your help be local, national, or international?
  • Is it important to live modestly?
  • Should you donate part of your body (blood, bone marrow, kidney)?
  • Is animal suffering comparable to human suffering?
  • Is pet suffering comparable to livestock suffering?
  • What are the concerns regarding human extinction?

The first three dot points are especially interesting:

  1. What type of job is best?  Singer starts the book by describing a brilliant philosophy student of his at Harvard who decided he could be more effective, not by taking a do-gooder job, but rather by becoming an investment banker and donating a high percentage of his income (more than six figures) to highly effective causes.  I had a Hispanic friend in law school who once told me essentially the same thing – i.e., when we talked about the possibility of working for a low-paying legal aid clinic, he pointed out that he wouldn’t be advancing the cause of his people by declining to be economically successful.  If he didn’t take the job, Legal Aid could hire someone almost as effective as him, so his positive effect would be marginal.
  2. Will having children diminish your ability to do good?  Although this question might initially seem to concern only radical altruists, upon further reflection it is quite analogous to the Catholic Church rationale for celibacy for those who become priests and sisters/nuns.  Raising kids clearly draws from your energy and financial resources, but Singer points out that the kids don’t need to cost that much and provide much joy to you and are likely to be forces of good in the future.
  3. How important is empathy to altruism?  Singer describes two types of empathy – emotional empathy includes “empathetic concern” and “personal distress” while cognitive empathy includes “perspective taking” and “fantasy.” Effective altruists may not possess emotional empathy, but they invariably possess cognitive empathy.

Later in the book, Singer elaborated on the job-selection conundrum by describing an MIT grad who did essentially the same thing as the Harvard grad (joined a hedge fund instead of investment banking).  The choice of the MIT grad was subsequently formally challenged by my favorite columnist at the NY Times, David Brooks.  According to Brooks, a grad who takes a job based on maximizing his income runs three risks:

  1. Our daily activities change us, and by working as an investment banker or at a hedge fund, a person’s ideals could slip and be less committed to giving.
  2. Choosing a profession that does not arouse your passion might leave you loving humanity in general but not the particular humans around you.
  3. Most importantly, turning yourself into a machine to make money and redistribute money might be corrosive to your humanity.

Suffice to say, Singer refuted, or at least deflected all of these charges.  One of his most significant caveats was that “earning to give is not for everyone.”

Fascinating book.  I’m going to have to think some more about Rand’s fear of preaching self-sacrifice or selflessness.  While I think people helping people should be voluntary, I also think it would be unethical for me to live a life that consumes an inordinate amount of the world’s limited resources.  Despite how capitalism allocates rewards, “You didn’t built that!”

Incidentally, while reviewing my earlier blogposts about Ayn Rand and altruism, I noted the following discussion in a review of George Gilder’s book, Wealth and Poverty:

Because Gilder is a great fan of Ayn Rand, he felt it necessary in his Prologue to explain why Rand was incorrect in concluding that capitalism and altruism were inconsistent:

  • “I hugely admired Rand, who flung her moral defense of capitalism in the face of Soviet terror and socialist intellectual tyranny.  But toward Christian altruism she indulged an implacable hostility, stemming in part from her own simplistic atheism and in part from her disdain for the leveler babble of sanctimonious clerics.”

Gilder is a confirmed supply-sider and his protagonists are Arthur Laffer, along with Friedman, Hayek, Buckley, Kristol, Kemp, and Wanniski, while his antagonists are demand-siders Galbraith, Thurow, Zinn, Chait, Krugman, and of course Keynes.

In addition to Gilder’s moral defense of capitalism, I was most impressed by his two-pronged argument that effective capitalism requires (a) the accumulation of capital, and (b) a capitalistic spirit in its people.

I dare say that Singer’s effective altruists retain their entrepreneurial spirit, but they are not so good on accumulation of capital.  Indeed, one of my fundamental concerns about massively spreading the wealth is the significant damage that would be done to the economic engine of the modern world economy.

May 15, 2015

My kidney

Filed under: Biography,Medical,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:50 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, NY Times columnist David Brooks proposed that his readers write their personal eulogy and submit it to him for a project he is working. He thinks that the process of writing a eulogy may cause participants to recognize what is meaningful to their lives and to shift away from things that are unimportant.  It might also prompt participants to get after things they have been putting off.

As I started writing my eulogy, I was immediately prompted by something I had been putting off for months – namely, donating a kidney.

I’ve heard of thousands of people dying each year or living a debilitating life because they couldn’t receive a kidney transplant.  Then last year, I read an article in the Express-News about a donor who started a chain of transplants by agreeing to give her kidney to a stranger, who in-turn had a relative who would donate a kidney to another stranger.  The first donor, called the altruistic donor, triggered a chain of 17 relative-friend donations.

That sounded amazing.  Why shouldn’t I become an altruistic donor by donating my kidney, especially since medical advances made the donation relatively safe and pain free?

I’ve casually mentioned this possibility to friends and family, and my M.D. son later informed me that he did some research that indicated my life expectancy would not be shortened because of the donation.

That was comforting, but due to my dawdling retirement lifestyle, I didn’t make a lot of progress toward getting this done, other than a few phone calls, until I started working on my eulogy.  My eulogy made me realize that a kidney transplant would be one of those meaningful things that I wanted to include in my eulogy.

So I went back to work on this project and made contact with a local hospital in town that specializes in transplants.  The process is underway.

In an amazing coincidence, two days after getting in contact with the hospital, I started reading a new book called The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer.  In the book, which describes becoming an effective altruist, donating a kidney is listed as the gold standard of altruists.

My patron saint, Ayn Rand, is probably turning over in her grave.


March 25, 2015

Nature vs. nurture

Filed under: Culture,Fitness,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:07 am
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Today, while taking my daily bike ride on the Leon Creek Trail, I came upon a middle-aged, slow-moving couple riding single file in front of me, with the woman up front and the man a few yards back. As I was preparing to pass on their left, the man slowly veered to the left until his tires went off the edge of the trail and when he overcorrected his bike came back onto the trail and then went down. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze by on the left side of the trail, and as I went by him, three thoughts went through my mind:

  • First – “Whew, I missed him! That was close.”
  • Second – “What was that guy thinking? Idiot!”
  • Third – “I’d better stop and see if the guy is hurt.”

After stopping and turning around, the guy quickly called out that he was OK and I resume my ride. But as I proceeded down the trail, I wondered why my immediate reaction had been so self-centered. Yes, human instinct has a dominant concern for self-preservation, but the accident scene wasn’t very dangerous because I wasn’t traveling that fast, and even after I evaded the downed bike, my next reaction was to be peeved at the fallen rider instead of being concerned about him.

Ever since studying psychology in college, I’ve been familiar with the nature vs. nurture argument (coined by Francis Galton). I’m guessing my first reaction was mostly caused by nature, but my second reflects a disposition that my best friend describes as Ayn Randian.

October 18, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #82 – Dr. Zhivago

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 2:54 am
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According to Wikipedia, “Doctor Zhivago is a British 1965 epic drama–romance film directed by David Lean, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. The film is loosely based on the famous novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak. It has remained popular for decades and as of 2013 is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation….  Despite being a spectacular box office hit, Doctor Zhivago received mixed reviews at the time of its release. It was criticized for its length and overly romantic…. and almost at the level of soap opera, with the (in their view) syrupy Lara’s Theme at the top of their complaints.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Yd2PzoF1y8.

Although the movie is long and romantic, I disagree that these are flaws.  It reminds me of the greatest epic film of all time, Gone with the Wind, another long movie that had its share of romance.  And I have such nostalgia for Lara’s Theme because Aneta’s high school choir sang the beautiful, not syrupy, song for many years.

The historical setting for Dr. Zhivago is Russia between its Revolution of 1905 and WWII, and its depiction of the communist takeover seems quite similar to Ayn Rand’s description of the socialist takeover of America in Atlas Shrugged.  In an amazing coincidence, both dystopian novels by native Russians were published in 1957, but I have not been able to find any online discussion that contrasts these books.  As a conservative, I believe both books make a compelling argument against governments that minimize individual self-reliance.

Rotten Tomato critics score Dr. Zhivago at 85% and the audience gives it 84%.  I think it is a bit better and give it four stars out of four.  As I previously blogged, modern audiences seem to prefer “difficult men” as the protagonists, but for a change of pace I thoroughly enjoyed having two truly good protagonists dealing with life in difficult times.

February 22, 2013

Profit plus social responsibility

Filed under: Business,Economics — Mike Kueber @ 11:28 pm
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While re-watching the movie Atlas Shrugged, I was struck by a comment by one of the movie’s villains, James Taggart, who argued that social responsibility dictated that Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (TTR) retain a line into Mexico because the line was vital to the economy of that impoverished nation.  Ironically, Taggart’s largesse, which was sending TTR hurtling toward bankruptcy, prevented the line from being adequately maintained.  In Ayn Rand’s world, Taggart is the obvious villain because the prosperous world is built on capitalism, with winners and losers, not on socialism, with attempts to reward everyone until it runs out of other people’s money to spend. 

But Rand’s economic philosophy remains controversial.  A book that I just finished, Drive by Daniel Pink, which advocated a new framework for motivation based, not on rewards & punishments, but rather on autonomy, mastery, & purpose, contained several favorable references to businesses that pursue something more than profits:

  • Four states have created a business-type called “low-profit limited liability corporation” (L3C) for businesses that aim to have some profit, but whose primary aim is to offer significant social benefits.  
  • A Nobel Peace prize winner is creating “social businesses” that have replaced the profit-maximization principle with the social-benefit principle.
  • The Fourth Sector Network is promoting a hybrid of an organization that is both economically self-sustaining and animated by a public purpose.
  • TOMS Shoes is a self-declared “for-profit company with giving at its core…. [The company’s] business model transforms our customers into benefactors.”

Although the ability of a social business to compete against a profit-maximizing company might seem dubious, I suspect that it can if it transforms its customers into benefactors.

August 11, 2012

Paul Ryan – VP

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:23 am
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According to news reports, Mitt Romney will announce tomorrow that he has selected Paul Ryan as his VP nominee.  Intrade.com has him listed as a 90% probability. 

If I were Romney, I would make the same selection.  Although Ryan is a career politician, having been elected to Congress at the age of 28 after working in Congress for a few years and has minimal foreign-policy credentials, he has the budgetary expertise and the integrity that will be invaluable in balancing the budget.  In 2010 he bravely proposed legislation to reform both Medicare (privatize with premium support) and Medicaid (block grants), which resulted in him being cast him as the villain in negative Democratic ads pushing a grandmother over a cliff.    

In reading Ryan’s profile on Wikipedia, I was disappointed to learn that, although he expressed admiration early in his career toward the inspirational Ayn Rand, he later disavowed that admiration and shifted toward the politically correct Thomas Aquinas, which is more appropriate for a politician, especially a Catholic one.   

Come on, Paul, be true to yourself.

August 3, 2012

“You didn’t build that” causes Ayn Rand to roll over in her grave.

Filed under: Issues,Philosophy,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:32 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, President Obama created a furor in the conservative community by telling “wealthy, successful Americans” that:

  • You may be smart, but “there are a lot of smart people out there.”
  • You may be hard working, but “there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”
  • “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help….  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive….  If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

President Obama concluded his remarks by saying:

  • “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together….  We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president – because I still believe in that idea.  You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

All of these remarks, which could easily have been uttered by the villains in Ayn Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged, can be read in their fuller context in my 7/20 blog entry

Yesterday, while waiting in a doctor’s office during my son’s pre-college physical exam, I happened to read an essay by someone whose philosophy on life is different than President Obama’s.  The essay is titled “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” and it was written by Ayn Rand in 1960.  

In the essay, Rand argues that three values that have tormented mankind for centuries have collapsed:

  1. Mysticism, or the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one’s senses and one’s reason.  Mysticism is the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as instinct, intuition, revelation, or any form of just knowing.”  Rand believes that mysticism was killed during the Renaissance or the Age of Enlightenment, and it was replaced by reason – i.e., “the faculty which perceives, identifies, and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.”  Although mysticism was killed hundreds of years ago, it lingers in vampire-like form and periodically emerges because of altruistic morality.
  2. Collectivism.  Rand’s essay does not define this term, but I suspect it would sound a lot like President Obama’s refrain, “You’re not on your own.  We’re in this together.” 
  3. Altruism, or the moral code that “man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification for his existence, and that self-sacrifice is the highest moral duty, virtue, and value.”  Rand points out her abhorrence of altruism does not preclude kindness or good will; rather, she rejects the premise that selfless instead of self is the standard of good.

Rand’s essay focuses on the moral superiority of capitalism over socialism.  She extolls the American capitalism of the 19th century for “moving mankind forward more than all the other centuries combined,” and she compares this lurch forward to “the drab progression of most of history….  There are, fundamentally, only two causes of the progress of the 19th century – the same two causes that you will find at the root of any happy, benevolent, progressive era in human history.”  (It is interesting how Rand uses the term “progressive” is favorable way.)  The two causes – reason and freedom.         

Rand sees reason and freedom as corollaries – i.e., when people are rational, freedom wins; when people are free, reason wins.  Similarly, the antagonists of reason and freedom – faith and force – are corollaries.  Every period dominated by mysticism has been a period of statism, of dictatorship, of tyranny.  The 19th century created a new economic system – capitalism – as a corollary to the new political freedom.  According to Rand, capitalism and altruism are incompatible.      

Rand concludes her essay by asserting, “There are only two means by which men can deal with one another: guns or logic.  Force or persuasion.  Those who know that they cannot win by means of logic, have always resorted to guns.”

I don’t think Rand would see much mysticism in President Obama or the Democratic Party, but she would see so much collectivism and altruism that she would be on the front-line of the TEA Party.

July 18, 2012

The Last Train Home and Ayn Rand

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 2:40 am
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The Last Train Home is a 2009 Chinese documentary that examines the migrant-worker problem in China, where approximately 130 million people leave their rural homes and children and travel great distances to find work in the nation’s urban metropolises, and then to return to their home and children only once a year for Chinese New Year’s, aka the Spring Festival. 

Like the 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil on the Catholic cover-up of priestly pedophilia, The Last Train Home received a perfect score of 100% from the Rotten Tomato critics (49 of them) and an even better 85% from its audience.  I think those scores are too generous because the movie focuses excessively on the dreary, congested lives of these migrant workers and touches only lightly on two Ayn Randian issues that perplex me:

  1. Capitalism and the exploitation of workers.
  2. Parents living their lives altruistically for the sake of their children, whom they will never know.

Ayn Rand was a staunch defender of capitalism because, in the documentary In Her Own Words, it didn’t rely on government coercion over the individual, but rather consisted of individuals freely bartering their capital and labor.  Capitalism is much easier to defend when labor is greatly valued because it is in short supply, as was with the case in America until the Bush/Obama Great Recession.  It is difficult to defend when labor is little valued because there is too much supply, as is the case since the flattened world made Chinese and Indian labor available worldwide to the capitalists.  Until I learn otherwise, I will believe (a) the world is going through a transition and (b) capital and labor will eventually come into a satisfactory equilibrium.  Heavy-handed government interference with this transition will do more harm than good, but some tinkering, such as unionization in developing countries, will smooth the transition.      

On issue #2, Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and the migrant workers in The Last Train Home don’t appear to be living examined lives.  Ayn Rand said that she would not live her life for the sake of another person, yet the migrant workers in The Last Train Home seem to be living like animals who are sacrificing their entire existence for the prospect that their children will not have to live like they do.  But ironically and despite the parents’ best intentions, the kids in the movie, after being raised by grandparents while the parents are away working, seem to be drawn into the same type of migrant life. 

Maybe the moral of the story is that the best thing parents can do for children is to raise them.  And I don’t think Rand would consider that to be altruism.  To the contrary, Rand would consider the current conduct of the migrant workers to be an ugly form of altruism – i.e., living and wasting your life for the sake of others.  If an individual has the time and interest in having children, Rand would encourage that.  Indeed in one of her few references to children in Atlas Shrugged, Rand revealed the happiness in parenting:

  • The recaptured sense of her [Dagny’s] own childhood kept coming back to her whenever she met the two sons of the young woman who owned the bakery shop. . . . They did not have the look she had seen in the children of the outer world–a look of fear, half- secretive, half-sneering, the look of a child’s defense against an adult, the look of a being in the process of discovering that he is hearing lies and of learning to feel hatred. The two boys had the open, joyous, friendly confidence of kittens who do not expect to get hurt, they had an innocently natural, non-boastful sense of their own value and as innocent a trust in any stranger’s ability to recognize it, they had the eager curiosity that would venture anywhere with the certainty that life held nothing unworthy of or closed to discovery, and they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptuously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence.

If a person can’t afford to raise kids, or doesn’t have the interest (Rand didn’t have the interest), then Rand would argue that an individual can still have a highly satisfying life sans kids. 

That thinking may not be in our DNA, but I think that is where the world is heading.

September 4, 2011

Jim Hoffa vs. Ayn Rand

Filed under: Business,Economics,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:12 pm
Tags: ,

It should come as no surprise that Teamster president Jim Hoffa and philosopher/author Ayn Rand have fundamentally different views about the role of big business in the American economy.  Rand thinks the role of business is to make money while Hoffa thinks its role is to provide high-paying jobs.

But their diverging views could not have been starker than today, when Hoffa was interviewed by CNN’s Candy Crowley on her State of the Union show.   Hoffa declared that successful American companies with overflowing cash accounts, like Apple, were unpatriotic because much of their growth and jobs were being directed overseas.

Candy seemed a little taken aback by the comment, and questioned whether Hoffa really meant to say Apple was unpatriotic.  Hoffa doubled-down and repeated his accusation.

As Hoffa elaborated on the accusation, I couldn’t help thinking of Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged because Hoffa was describing Apple just like Atlas Shrugged villain Wesley Mouch railed against Reardon Metal and other successful businesses in the novel.  Mouch characterized these businesses as selfish and unpatriotic entities that had an obligation to make-work as long as they could afford to.

The obvious counter-argument to the Wesley Mouches and Jim Hoffas of the world is Ronald Reagan’s description of the big-government modus operandi:

  • “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving,
    subsididze it.”

Or as his global partner Margaret Thatcher said:

  • The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

June 11, 2011

Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun from Great Britain who gained fame in 1993 from her book titled A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  That book focused on the commonalities of those religions, and this book continues in that vein by describing the prominence that all religions give to compassion.

Armstrong won a TED award in 2007 and used the award to create and propagate a Charter for Compassion that began with, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Her current book – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life – is a self-help guide to becoming more compassionate.  Armstrong quickly clarifies that her use of the term compassion is not the same as pity or an uncritical, sentimental benevolence.  Rather, she means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” [Did you notice that Armstrong decided to split the gender references in the previous sentence – one for the girls and another for the guys?  She has a reputation for being politically correct, and another example of this is her usage of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) year-numbering system because it is more inclusive than the Christian BC and AD system.]

Armstrong further defined, “That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict pain on anybody else.  Compassion can be defined,
therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism

I was attracted to this book because I have always known that, for whatever reason, I feel very little compassion.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I do not feel your pain.  And Armstrong’s reference to altruism is especially apt because I have done a lot of reading in past months on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s altruism.

Although I accept Ayn Rand’s admonition that a person should never live for the sake of another person, nor ask another person to live for theirs, I also agree with Mitt Romney that people’s lives are better if they believe in a purpose greater than themselves – such as our family, community, or country.

Armstrong explains the Rand/Romney dichotomy by declaring that Randian egotism “was bequeathed to us by reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.  Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.”

Although these neurological impulses, which are located in the hypothalamus at the base of the “old brain,” are powerful, they can be overcome, according to Armstrong, by our “new brain” neocortex, which provides us with “the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

What are Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

  1. Learn about compassion – “Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium [like the Bible], the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole.”
  2. Look at your own world – “As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges.”
  3. Compassion for yourself – “It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them.  But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.”
  4. Empathy – “But when the old brain is co-opted by the new, the result can be disastrous.  Reason was an ambiguous tool, because, as we have seen throughout history, it can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”
  5. Mindfulness – “Yet we should also take careful note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us.”
  6. Action – “Try to catch yourself before you make the brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm.”
  7. How little we know – “[Notwithstanding science and technology,] unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.”
  8. How should we speak to one another – “when making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker share the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”
  9. Concern for everybody – “[All religious traditions] have at least one strand that insists that we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.”
  10. Knowledge – “When we are about to criticize another nation or religious tradition, we should get into the habit of catching ourselves and asking whether our country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.”
  11. Recognition – “Reaching out generously to embrace the pain of another yields an ekstasis, because in such a moment we are leaving our egotistic selves behind.”
  12. Love your enemies – “Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness; try to develop a sense of responsibility for your enemy’s pain.  This is the supreme test of compassion.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from a variety of philosophers and religious leaders – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Socrates, and Aristotle.  One of the most frequently quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “We must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world.”  Sound familiar?  It reminds me of President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “We are the change that we seek,” and I wonder why Obama is given credit for coining the phrase.  Just wondering.

Another interesting tidbit in the book – Armstrong noted that between 800 to 200 BC (called the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers) a religious revolution occurred in four distinct regions of the world:

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent;
  2. Confucianism and Daoism in China;
  3. Monotheism in the Middle East; and
  4. Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says that Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are latter-day flowerings and concludes that “we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age.”  Furthermore, all of these traditions “agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state.

Whereas a cynic might suggest that the Axial Age supports the theory that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God, Armstrong argues that “the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

That makes sense to me.


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