An excerpt from the new book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good by author Mark Matousek.
My mother wasn’t always a thief. She wasn’t really the criminal type. Rebellious, yes—a crook, no—at least not before my father left us. But very good people do bad things sometimes when their luck has run out and nobody’s looking. My deadbeat father skipped town without warning. The shame was worse than the poverty. This was back in the late 1950s, when broken homes weren’t common yet, making us pariahs, have-nots, desgraciados in our affluent L.A. suburb. My mother had struggled to keep us afloat but could not prevent the humiliation. She wept when the electric company cut our power. She cursed when we lost our car and the phone. She begged the landlord not to evict us when the welfare checks ran out and the five of us were eating matzoh brei—basically, crackers and eggs—on paper plates by candlelight for dinner. Ida, my mother, was losing it. When a neighbor offered her a job at Super Fair, a weirdly moral-sounding local department store, she jumped at the extra cash and began to work from 4 to 6 a.m., stocking shelves and pricing inventory. My mother slipped out before dawn every morning, while the four of us were still in bed. I can still recall the sound of the screen door slamming, and the strangeness of her new routine. I also remember my sisters becoming less snarky and bitter around that time. After the advent of Super Fair in our lives, mysterious gifts began to appear. Joyce was now wearing brand-new tennis shoes (I noticed because I certainly wasn’t). Marcia’s battered old purse was replaced by a tangerine-colored item with tassels. Belle, my baby sister, now sported a festive pink snuggly, appliquéd with clowns and balloons. And finally—with what appeared to be fishes-and-loaves magicianship—my mother produced a navy blue coat like the one I had begged for on my birthday, but which was, she had said, beyond our means. Where did it come from? I wanted to know.
Ida said it had been on “layaway.” Now I was positive that she was lying. We had lots of things on layaway—stuff my mother had set aside in stores till she could mange to pay them off, which hadn’t happened in quite a while. This coat had never been laid away. This realization—the atrocious fact that my mother was lying—threw a bombshell into my 8-year-old psyche and brought me to the first ethical crossroads of my life. Should I tell her that I knew she was pulling my leg? Or shut my mouth and enjoy the booty? Should I admit to my well-meaning mother that this moral betrayal had robbed me of parental trust? Or should I keep my mouth shut and just be grateful that she had tried to make me happy?
I thanked her for the coat and said nothing. My mother stopped working at Super Fair soon afterward and found a job as a civil servant. After that our family had more money; Ida’s thieving career had been flukish and brief. It was a flukishness that paid off in the end, though. My troubled conscience over that purloined coat helped to turn me into a lifelong seeker, someone who questioned truth obsessively. If my mother was a shoplifter what, for instance, did that make me? Could behavior actually be designated evil if it sprang from love? Was I a criminal for accepting her gift? Was it wrong—even sinful, perhaps—to benefit from the fruits of a crime? Or did sin not even exist, technically speaking, when no one was around to report it? I felt arrogant, dirty, sorry, and grateful. I also felt deflowered. An ideal had been torn from my budding ethos, forcing me to acknowledge a conflict I was probably too young to face; namely, that the facts of a situation could lead to (at least) two different conclusions at the same time. My mother could be a wonderful person who did a cockamamie thing. I could be a thief for saying nothing. My sisters could be accomplices for loving their goodies. All of these things could be true at once. But how was this possible? It all got jumbled up inside me. Thinking about it made me feel sick. It also made me curious.
I became a compulsive seeker. Seekers are peculiar people. We always think there’s some mind-blowing truth waiting right outside our field of vision. We’re driven by the earnest belief that right, precise questions will open the doors of truth to us. Liberating secrets will be revealed. Seekers are sometimes delusional, but we’re also sincerely interested, and like most sincerely compulsive people, our drivenness can lead to wondrous discoveries. This childhood blue coat forced me to wonder—vigorously—about who I was and what constituted right and wrong; how opposite, simultaneous truths could be grokked. This made me reflect on the paradox that where opposites met, wisdom might, indeed, be born if a person learned to hold them in balance. This embracing of contradictory truths, without one canceling out the other, was said by the wise (whose books I began to devour) to be the essence of wisdom itself. My mother was both good and bad; I both loved her and disliked what she’d done; I then repeated variations of her crime on a few occasions, and regretted it afterward. My sisters were co-conspirators who kept their feelings to themselves in the end. All of the things were true.
“Nothing human is foreign to me,” said Terence, the Roman philosopher, and he wasn’t kidding. We’re kaleidoscopes of contradictions, Satyricons of lust, greed, and hatred, rationalizers of fairness and justice, idolaters, cheaters, and fakes—not to mention hypocrites—with hearts that long to be divine. We are moral platypuses with seemingly mismatched parts who manage to come up with healthy eggs. Pulled in opposite directions, we search each day for some sort of middle path, a balance point, to navigate our way through this obstacle course. We ask ourselves the Holy Question: How ought we to live?
Wisdom, in the sense that I mean it, has nothing to do with perfectionism. It doesn’t pertain to idealism either, or pretending to be better than we are. “You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, allowing that goodness to emerge,” a wise man told me. “But it can only emerge if something fundamental shifts in your state of consciousness.” That shift is what this book is about. We are born, each of us, with a moral organ—humankind’s crowning glory. “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe,” Kant wrote in his Critique of Practical Reason. “The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” This “organ” isn’t a literal thing (though its parts literally reside in the brain); it’s an innate faculty similar to our human genius for language, mathematics, and art. In the two hundred thousand years since humans branched off from apes to create a new species, this moral organ came into existence to enable our ultrasocial species to live together in relative peace. While it is true that “the world is on fire” with conflict stemming from hatred, anger, and greed, as the Buddha said, it is also true that more acts of kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and patience transpire on any given day than the mostly bad things that make the paper.
“The sum total of goodness vastly outweighs that of meanness,” science writer Daniel Goleman told me when we met for an interview. “The ratio between potential and enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year.” Although humans inherit a biological bias that permits us to feel anger, jealousy, selfishness, and envy, we inherit an even stronger tendency toward kindness, compassion, cooperation, enthusiasm, nurture, and love, especially toward those in need. In spite of the horrors (and the newsroom shibboleth that “if it bleeds, it leads”), the truth remains that most of us are fundamentally ethical most of the time in most of the ways that truly matter.
For carnivorous primates, this is nothing short of a miracle. Wisdom-wise, humans are works in progress. Still, this moral organ’s potential will impress even the most pessimistic. Your greatest surprise may be to learn that it is primarily emotions that enable morality. Contrary to what we’ve been taught in a left-brained, logic-obsessed culture, emotions, not reason, are the bedrock of ethical life; without them, the most rational human being cannot be empathic or morally sound. You’ll learn that our ethical lives are dictated by complex, moment-to-moment interactions between the most ancient part of the brain—the limbic system that houses emotion—and the most recently evolved part, the neocortex, where reason, language, and analysis are created. The neocortex is also where the moral imagination—our ability to step outside of ourselves and into the feelings of others—takes place. The understanding of what it means to suffer not only our own pain, which anything with a rudimentary nervous system can do, but also the pain of others, has long been considered the distilled essence of our humanity. Altruism, which comes from the Latin root alter, or “other,” could not exist without this distinction.
Our moral organ has five primary foundations. Similar to our language faculty, which enables us to learn parts of speech—juggling nouns, adjectives, and verbs into sentences that mean something greater than each word alone—and may even be beautiful—the moral faculty derives wisdom, as well as meaning, from its own quintet of values. These universal moral foundations appear to have remained the same throughout recorded history according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who first popularized this theory. From the Kung bushmen to a Boise soccer mom to a Japanese stock trader pounding the pavement, they are universal: