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.

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.

Born To Be Good aligns itself with the bolder version of positive psychology. Turning the conventional view of Darwin on its head, Keltner argues that human beings have survived as a species, and have gained dominion over the planet, because we have managed to control our most destructive and hostile impulses and instead have been rewarded for protecting one another, helping one another, being kind to one another. By this evolutionary logic, we aren’t just biologically equipped to pursue cooperative behavior, according to Keltner, we are, in essence, wired for it. The initial, more daring (and more quotable) part of the book ends with a chapter on “the survival of the kindest.”

In marshaling his brief on human goodness, Keltner puts forth some intriguing ideas. Drawing heavily on the pioneering research into facial expressions and emotion undertaken by his mentor, Paul Ekman, Keltner demonstrates that there are clear and measurable manifestations of positive human emotions—readily observed not just in facial configurations, but also through hand movements, broader gestures, bodily posture, and the like. And then, using a term he learned from his mother, Keltner embraces the Confucian notion of “jen”—roughly speaking, a proclivity in human beings to bring out the best in other persons and thereby to form your own benevolent character. The key to a good life, Keltner argues, is to have a positive jen ratio in every sphere of one’s being. He even attempts to quantify jen: A happy scene at his daughters’ playground yields a positive jen ratio of 1.5; an interminable line at the post office, replete with glares, sighs of exasperation, etc., has a minuscule ratio of .125. (I was reminded of my teacher Erik Erikson’s view that a good life consisted of a positive ratio between trust and distrust in infancy and similarly positive ratios throughout the life cycle.) Just what such measurements tell us about our essential nature isn’t exactly clear, though presumably all except masochists would rather be in situations marked by high jen ratios.

Something odd happens in the second and longer part of the book—eight discrete essays, each devoted to a single emotion-laden topic: embarrassment, smile, laughter, teasing, touch, love, compassion, and awe. Keltner outlines the evolutionary origins of these not always fully appreciated human staples, how they operate physiologically, what prompts their appearance in human interactions, how they play out in everyday life, and how they have been studied by scholars.

For readers interested in how these facets of positive human nature emerge and operate, the essays constitute an excellent introduction. I was fascinated by the portrait of embarrassment. Embarrassment, it turns out, is actually an (often involuntary) effort to compensate for something that one has done (and should not have done) or has failed to do (and should have done). We signal our own regret by the characteristic appearance of signs of embarrassment, and others acknowledge (and perhaps accept) our regret when they observe the physical, behavioral (and, of course, any accompanying linguistic) signs of embarrassment. Embarrassment lays the groundwork for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is perhaps worth adding that individuals who—for congenital reasons or as a result of brain damage—are insensitive to signs of embarrassment cannot benefit from these exquisite signaling mechanisms.

Why, then, did I use the term odd above? Because these essays do not in themselves constitute an argument that we are born to be good. At most, they demonstrate that we have the potential to be good, to do good, a statement that no one, not even Thomas Hobbes or John Calvin, would have denied. Therefore, the larger part of Keltner’s work is actually evidence for the more modest version of positive psychology, even though his title and his opening chapters promise the more grandiose version. As if to underscore his own ambivalence, Keltner’s book has no conclusion—it simply ends with the final words on awe.

If they have not yet been signaled, it is time to put my own cards on the table. The book that I would have chosen to read has the title Born To Be Good or Bad. Its chapters would have titles like “Cain and Abel,” “Hitler and Gandhi,” “Mandela and Milosevic.” And that is because I don’t think that we are born with a tendency toward good or evil. Nor do I believe that we can derive morality, or immorality, from science. At most, given an agreed-upon definition, we can establish the antecedent conditions that lead to a moral or immoral life, a good or bad pattern of behavior, or, most often, shards of both. How and why and when good and evil behavior arises are human stories, grounded in history and culture. We could know everything there is to know about the genes and the brain of the newborn Hitler, but we could never have predicted what he would do, any more than we could have predicted the life course of Mahatma Gandhi or Joan of Arc or our contemporaries Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic. To some extent, the choice derives from our parents, our communities, and the particular historical era and cultural group in which we are born and grow up. But in the last analysis, the choice of what to be, and how to be, is ours and ours alone.