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I do good, therefore I feel good
In Patti Smith's memoir, Woolgathering, she writes that the "only thing you can count on is change." Not change as a going from A to B. Rather as an ongoing movement: the world is constantly changing.
Graham Music, who is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist, pleads in his book, The Good Life, for a change. Unlike Smith, his metaphysical foundation is not that everything is changing or becoming. Instead, his approach favors that some things are not changing, e.g. what is good and bad. He is a moral Platonist.
Plainly speaking, Music's approach is how we humans can move from being selfish to becoming more altruistic; from being anti-social towards being pro-social. He, quite stimulating, challenges the prerogative of evolution theory in biology and psychology. He, both implicitly and explicitly, illustrates how viewing the behavior of our ancestor as being more authentic or original, unfortunately, becomes a pretext of doing nothing. The author of The Good Life wants to act.
It is, therefore, a book with an agenda: How can we improve morally? This agenda, at times, makes the book too simple – especially when the focus changes from the individual to the society.
The critical part first. Music mentions how the global business marked can share products and services. The morale is that sharing is good. And yes, sharing might be attractive, but it is still a part of the same global market structure. To share, sponsor, volunteer, or participate in sustainable tourism requires that you have something to share or give. Many of the "good" ideas are, therefore, reserved for a financial privileged group. Are the people, who are spending their money in helping others, changing or just reproducing the structures that created the inequalities to begin with?
The question touches upon the underlying thesis: Doing morally good, makes you feel good and vice versa. Even so, the distinction is often much more blurry in real life (or less abstract). There may be situations where anger or even selfishness can be productive. There may be situations where you don't feel like cooperating. There may be situations where you, like Bartleby, feel like saying, "I would prefer not to."
It is obvious that Music is not Bartleby; he wants to do something. At his best, he mentions studies showing a disproportionate number of psychopaths among people in power positions, e.g. politician, CEO, heads of cults, etc. "We might be living in a world which values charismatic individual leadership over cooperative action, logic over emotional connection, in which it is easier for people with sociopathic tendencies to flourish." He emphasizes the need for a change.
He shows that the battle between emotion and reason is wrong. It is not either-or. On the contrary, emotions help us when we take moral decisions, e.g. being able to care about people who can't survive without our caring. Emotions can question a too rigid reason (or moral rules), just as the reason can make sure that we don't take moral decision because we are emotionally seduced. "The psychology of morality has changed dramatically in recent years, and our understanding of the balance between emotion and reason is central to this shift." He pleads for a move towards a more generous ethics, that is to say, a less utilitarian approach.
I am tempted to quote Patti Smith again, when she says: "In movement is blessing." I think Music would agree.
Regardless the fundamental differences in approach between Smith and Music, then he actually opens for movement. He shows with many examples how it is possible to make people more compassionate and empathic. And once that happens, then they might notice "that we could live better lives, lives we are proud of, in which we could be truer to who we want to be, whatever that might be," as he concludes.
The Good Life is a mixture of personal reflections, passionate debate book (calling for empathy, altruism, cooperation and fairness), as well as useful textbook that could inspire other therapist, teachers and, hopefully, decision-makers.
Despite my few critical comments, I think that Music succeeds in challenging Richard Dawkins powerful claim from The Selfish Gene. In this book Dawkins "suggests that human beings are primarily selfish and competitive and not naturally fair or cooperative," as Music writes.
Now, with the help of Music, we have a new list of empirical arguments telling us that even a selfish gene can transform.
© 2014 Finn Janning
Finn Janning, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer