How are we to live? Ethics in an age of self-interest

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How are we to live?
Ethics in an age of self-interest
Peter Singer was born in Australia in 1946, and educated at the
University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. He has
taught at the University of Oxford, New York University, the
University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California
at Irvine, and La Trobe University. He is now Professor of
Philosophy, Co-Director of the Institute of Ethics and Public
Affairs, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics
at Monash University, Melbourne.
Professor Singer has written and edited more than twenty
books on ethics and related areas of philosophy. He is best known
for his book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of
Animals, which spawned the international animal liberation
movement. He is the author of the major article on ethics in the
current edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and co-editor of the
journal Bioethics.
P R E F A C E ix
A Mandarin book
Published by
Random House Australia Australia
20 Alfred Street, Milsons Point, NSW 2061
First published in Australia in 1993 by the Text Publishing Company
Reprinted 1993, 1994
This Mandarin edition reprinted by Random House Australia, 1997
C H A P T E R 1 The ultimate choice 1
Ivan Boesky's choice 1
The Ring of Gyges 9
'What in the hell are we doing this for?' 11
The end of history or the beginning of secular ethics? 14
Ethics and self-interest 21
Copyright © Peter Singer 1993
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this
publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner
and the publisher of this book.
Typeset in Garamond by Bookset Pry Ltd, Melbourne
Printed and bound in Australia by Australian Print Group
National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication data
Singer, Peter.
How are we to live?
Includes index.
ISBN 1 86330 431 2
1. Ethics. 2. Self-interest - Moral and ethical aspects. I. Title.
C H A P T E R 2 'What's in it for me?' 26
A failing social experiment 26
The loss of community 34
C H A P T E R 3 Using up the world 45
Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Adam Smith? 45
Living on our inheritance 49
How an overflowing sink makes Adam Smith obsolete 55
When are we well off? 57
How we came to be living this way 65
A perverse instinct 65
Aristotle on the art of making money 67
Can a merchant be pleasing to God? 69
Luther's calling and Calvin's grace 77
The religious and the secular converge 80
The consumer society 88
A withered greening 90
The Reagan years: 'Enrich thyself 93
C H A P T E R 5 Is selfishness in our genes? 99
The biological case for selfishness 99
Caring for our children 103
Caring for our kin 108
Caring for our group 115
C H A P T E R 6 How the Japanese live 125
Japan: A successful social experiment? 125
The corporation as an ethical community 127
The self and the group 141
Tit for Tat 152
Caring for those who care for us 152
Doing better with Tit for Tat 167
Self-interest and ethics: An interim conclusion 180
C H A P T E R 8 Living ethically 182
Heroes 182
A green shoot 189
Why do people act ethically? 198
C H A P T E R 9 The nature of ethics 202
A broader perspective 202
The gender of ethics 207
Jesus and Kant: Two views on why we ought to live
ethically 212
Beyond Jesus and Kant: The search for an ultimate answer 220
C H A P T E R 10 Living to some purpose 230
The myth of Sisyphus and the meaning of life 230
Of housewives, Aboriginal Australians and caged hens 232
The struggle to win 238
The inward turn 244
A transcendent cause 253
11 The good life 260
Pushing the peanut forward 260
The escalator of reason 268
Toward an ethical life 277
I owe thanks to many people. Di Gribble of Text Publishing
suggested that the time was right for a book on this theme, and
Michael Heyward of the same firm advised me after the book
reached the draft stage. An Australian Research Council Grant
made it possible for Margaret Parnaby to provide part-time
research assistance, gathering materials, checking references and
providing critical comments at every stage of the work. Her
work has helped to put flesh on the bare bones of the outline I
had planned. Various drafts were read by Aaron Asher, Stephen
Buckle, Paola Cavalieri, Lori Gruen, Helga Kuhse, Shunici
Noguchi, Julian Savulescu, Renata Singer, Henry Spira and
Tomasaburo Yamauchi. Each gave me helpful comments and,
collectively, they have made the book — whatever faults it may
still have — much better than it would have been otherwise.
Is there still anything to live for? Is anything worth pursuing,
apart from money, love, and caring for one's own family? If so,
what could it be? Talk of 'something to live for' has a faintly
religious flavour, but many people who are not at all religious
have an uneasy feeling that they may be missing out on something basic that would give their lives a significance it now lacks.
Nor do these people have a deep commitment to any political
creed. Over the past century political struggle has often filled
the place that religion once held in other times and cultures. No
one who reflects on recent history can now believe that politics
alone will suffice to solve all our problems. But what else can we
live for? In this book I give one answer. It is as ancient as the
dawn of philosophy, but as much needed in our circumstances
today as it ever was before. The answer is that we can live an
ethical life. By doing so we make ourselves part of a great, crosscultural tradition. Moreover, we will find that to live an ethical
life is not self-sacrifice, but self-fulfillment.
If we can detach ourselves from our own immediate preoccupations and look at the world as a whole and our place in it,
there is something absurd about the idea that people should have
trouble finding something to live for. There is, after all, so much
that needs to be done. As this book was nearing completion,
United Nations troops entered Somalia in an attempt to ensure
that food supplies reached the starving population there.
Although this attempt went badly wrong, it was at least a hopeful sign that affluent nations were prepared to do something
about hunger and suffering in areas remote from them. We may
learn from this episode, and future attempts may be more successful. Perhaps we are at the beginning of a new era in which
we will no longer simply sit in front of our television sets watching small children die and then continue to live our affluent lives
without feeling any incongruity. It is not only the dramatic and
newsworthy major crises that require our attention, though; there
are countless situations, on a smaller scale, that are just as bad
and are preventable. Immense as this task is, it is only one of
many equally urgent causes to which people in need of a worthwhile objective could commit themselves.
The problem is that most people have only the vaguest idea
of what it might be to lead an ethical life. They understand
ethics as a system of rules forbidding us to do things. They do
not grasp it as a basis for thinking about how we are to live.
They live largely self-interested lives, not because they are born
selfish, but because the alternatives seem awkward, embarrassing, or just plain pointless. They cannot see any way of making
an impact on the world, and if they could, why should they
bother? Short of undergoing a religious conversion, they see
nothing to live for except the pursuit of their own material selfinterest. But the possibility of living an ethical life provides us
with a way out of this impasse. That possibility is the subject of
this book.
Merely to broach this possibility will be enough to give rise to
accusations of extreme naivity. Some will say that people are
naturally incapable of being anything but selfish. Chapters 4, 5,
6 and 7 address this claim, in varying ways. Others will claim
that whatever the truth about human nature, modern Western
society has long passed the point at which either rational or
ethical argument can achieve anything. Life today can seem so
crazy that we may despair of improving it. One publisher who
read the manuscript of this book gestured at the New York
street below his window and told me that, down there, people
had taken to driving through red lights, just for the hell of it.
How, he was saying, can you expect your kind of book to make
a difference to a world full of people like that? Indeed, if the
world really were full of people who take so little care of their
own lives, never mind the lives of others, there would be nothing
that anyone could do, and our species would probably not be
around for very much longer. But the ways of evolution tend to
eliminate those who are that crazy. There may be a few around
at any one time; no doubt big American cities shelter more than
their fair share of them. What is truly disproportionate, though,
is the prominence that such behaviour has in the media and in
the public mind. It is the old story of what makes news. A
million people doing something every day that shows concern
for others is not news; one rooftop sniper is. This book is not
blind to the existence of vicious, violent and irrational
people, but it is written in the conviction that the rest of us
should not live our lives as if everyone else is always inherently
likely to be vicious, violent and irrational.
In any case, even if I am wrong, and crazy people are much
more common than I believe, what alternative is left to us? The
conventional pursuit of self-interest is, for reasons that I shall
explore in a later chapter, individually and collectively selfdefeating. The ethical life is the most fundamental alternative to
the conventional pursuit of self-interest. Deciding to live ethically is both more far-reaching and more powerful than a political commitment of the traditional kind. Living an ethically
reflective life is not a matter of strictly observing a set of rules
that lay down what you should or should not do. To live ethically is to reflect in a particular way on how you live, and to try
to act in accordance with the conclusions of that reflection. If
the argument of this book is sound, then we cannot live an
unethical life and remain indifferent to the vast amount of
unnecessary suffering that exists in the world today. It may be
naive to hope that a relatively small number of people who are
living in a reflective, ethical manner could prove to be a critical
mass that changes the climate of opinion about the nature of
self-interest and its connection with ethics; but when we look
around the world and see what a mess it is in, it seems worth
giving that optimistic hope the best possible chance of success.
Every book reflects personal experience, no matter how many
layers of scholarship the reflection may be filtered through. My
interest in the topic of this book began when I was a graduate
student in philosophy at the University of Melbourne. I wrote
my Master's thesis on the topic 'Why Should I Be Moral?' The
thesis analyzed this question, and examined the answers that
have been offered by philosophers over the past two and half
thousand years. I reluctantly concluded that none of these answers
was really satisfactory. Then I spent twenty-five years studying
and teaching ethics and social philosophy at universities in England, America and Australia. In the early part of that period I
took part in opposition to the war in Vietnam. This formed the
background to my first book, Democracy and Disobedience, about
the ethical issue of disobedience to unjust laws. My second book,
Animal Liberation, argued that our treatment of animals is ethically indefensible. That book played a role in the birth and
growth of what is now a worldwide movement. I have worked
in that movement not only as a philosopher but also as an active
member of groups working for change. I have been involved,
again both as an academic philosopher and in more everyday
ways, in a variety of other causes with a strong ethical basis: aid
for developing nations, support for refugees, the legalization of
voluntary euthanasia, wilderness preservation and more general
environmental concerns. All of this has given me the chance to
get to know people who give up their time, their money and
sometimes much of their private lives for an ethically based cause;
and it has given me a deeper sense of what it is to try to live an
ethical life.
Since writing my Master's thesis I have written about the
question 'Why act ethically?' in the final chapter of Practical
Ethics, and I have touched on the theme of ethics and selfishness
in The Expanding Circle. In turning once again to the link between
ethics and self-interest, I -can now draw on a solid background
of practical experience, as well as on the research and writings of
other scholars. If asked why anyone should act morally or ethically, I can give a bolder and more positive response than I did
in my earlier thesis. I can point to people who have chosen to
live an ethical life, and have been able to make an impact on the
world. In doing so they have invested their lives with a significance that many despair of ever finding. They find, as a result,
that their own lives are richer, more fulfilling, more exciting
even, than they were before they made that choice.
Peter Singer
January 1993
The ultimate choice
Ivan Boesky's choice
In 1985 Ivan Boesky was known as 'the king of the arbitragers', a specialized form of investment in the shares of companies that were the target of takeover offers. He made profits
of $40 million in 1981 when Du Pont bought Conoco; $80
million in 1984 when Chevron bought Gulf Oil; and in the
same year, $100 million when Texaco acquired Getty Oil.
There were some substantial losses too, but not enough to
stop Boesky making Forbes magazine's list of America's
wealthiest 400 people. His personal fortune was estimated at
between $150 million and $200 million. 1
Boesky had achieved both a formidable reputation, and a
substantial degree of respectability. His reputation came, in
part, from the amount of money that he controlled. 'Ivan',
said one colleague, 'could get any Chief Executive Officer in
the country off the toilet to talk to him at seven o'clock in
the morning'. 2 But his reputation was also built on the belief
that he had brought a new 'scientific' approach to investment,
based on an elaborate communications system that he claimed
was like NASA's. He was featured not only in business magazines, but also in the New York Times Living section. He
wore the best suits, on which a Winston Churchill-style gold
watch chain was prominently displayed. He owned a twelvebedroom Georgian mansion set on 190 acres in Westchester
The u l t i m a t e c h o i c e
County, outside New York City. He was a notable member
of the Republican Party, and some thought he cherished
political ambitions. He held positions at the American Ballet
Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Unlike other arbitragers before him, Boesky sought to publicize the nature of his work, and aimed to be recognized as
an expert in a specialized area that aided the proper functioning of the market. In 1985 he published a book about arbitrage entitled Merger Mania. The book claims that arbitrage
contributes to 'a fair, liquid and efficient market' and states
that 'undue profits are not made: there are no esoteric tricks
that enable arbitragers to outwit the system . . . profit opportunities exist only because risk arbitrage serves an important
market function'. Merger Mania begins with a touching
My father, my mentor, William H. Boesky (1900-1964), of
beloved memory, whose courage brought him to these shores
from his native Ykaterinoslav, Russia, in the year 1912. My
life has been profoundly influenced by my father's spirit and
strong commitment to the well-being of humanity, and by his
emphasis on learning as the most important means to justice,
mercy, and righteousness. His life remains an example of
returning to the community the benefits he had received
through the exercise of God-given talents.
With this inspiration I write this book for all who wish to
learn of my specialty, that they may be inspired to believe that
confidence in one's self and determination can allow one to
become whatever one may dream. May those who read my
book gain some understanding for the opportunity which exists
uniquely in this great land. 3
In the same year that this autobiography was published, at
the height of his success, Boesky entered into an arrangement
for obtaining inside information from Dennis Levine. Levine,
who was himself earning around $3 million annually in salary
and bonuses, worked at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the phenomenally successful Wall Street firm that dominated the
'junk bond' market. Since junk bonds were the favoured way
of raising funds for takeovers, Drexel was involved in almost
every major takeover battle, and Levine was privy to information that, in the hands of someone with plenty of capital,
could be used to make hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually without risk.
The ethics of this situation are not in dispute. When Boesky
was buying shares on the basis of the information Levine gave
him, he knew that the shares would rise in price. The shareholders who sold to him did not know that, and hence sold
the shares at less than they could have obtained for them
later, if they had not sold. If Drexel's client was someone who
wished to take a company over, then that client would have
to pay more for the company if the news of the intended
takeover leaked out, since Boesky's purchases would push up
the price of the shares. The added cost might mean that the
bid to take over the target company would fail; or it might
mean that, though the bid succeeded, after the takeover more
of the company's assets would be sold off, to pay for the
increased borrowings needed to buy the company at the higher
price. Since Drexel, and hence Levine, had obtained the information of the intended takeover in confidence from their
clients, for them to disclose it to others who could profit from
it, to the disadvantage of their clients, was clearly contrary to
all accepted professional ethical standards. Boesky has never
suggested that he dissents from these standards, or believed
that his circumstances justified an exception to them. Boesky
also knew that trading in inside information was illegal.
Nevertheless, in 1985 he went so far as to formalize the
arrangement he had with Levine, agreeing to pay him 5 percent of the profits he made from purchasing shares about
which Levine had given him information.
Why did Boesky do it? Why would anyone who has $150
million, a respected position in society, and — as is evident
from the dedication to his book - values at least the appearance of an ethical life that benefits the community as a whole,
risk his reputation, his wealth, and his freedom by doing
something that is obviously neither legal nor ethical? Granted,
Boesky stood to make very large sums of money from his
arrangement with Levine. The Securities and Exchange Commission was later to describe several transactions in which
Boesky had used information obtained from Levine; his profits
on these deals were estimated at $50 million. Given the previous track record of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Boesky could well have thought that his illegal insider
trading was likely to go undetected and unprosecuted. So it
was reasonable enough for Boesky to believe that the use of
inside information would bring him a lot of money with little
chance of exposure. Does that mean that it was a wise thing
for him to do? In these circumstances, where does wisdom
lie? In choosing to enrich himself further, in a manner that he
could not justify ethically, Boesky was making a choice
between fundamentally different ways of living. I shall call
this type of choice an 'ultimate choice'. When ethics and selfinterest seem to be in conflict, we face an ultimate choice.
How are we to choose?
Most of the choices we make in our everyday lives are
restricted choices, in that they are made from within a given
framework or set of values. Given that I want to keep reasonably fit, I sensibly choose to go for a walk rather than slouch
on the sofa with a can of beer, watching the football on
television. Since you want to do something to help preserve
The ultimate c h o i c e
rainforests, you join a coalition to raise public awareness of
the continuing destruction of the forests. Another person wants
a well-paid and interesting career, so she studies law. In each
of these choices, the fundamental values are already assumed,
and the choice is a matter of the best means of achieving what
is valued. In ultimate choices, however, the fundamental values themselves come to the fore. We are no longer choosing
within a framework that assumes that we want only to maximize our own interests, nor within a framework that takes it
for granted that we are going to do whatever we consider to
be best, ethically speaking. Instead, we are choosing between
different possible ways of living: the way of living in which
self-interest is paramount, or that in which ethics is paramount, or perhaps some trade-off between the two. (I take
ethics and self-interest as the two rival viewpoints because
they are, in my view, the two strongest contenders. Other
possibilities include, for example, living by the rules of etiquette, or living in accordance with one's own aesthetic standards, treating one's life as a work of art; but these possibilities
are not the subject of this book.)
Ultimate choices take courage. In making restricted choices,
our fundamental values form a foundation on which we can
stand when we choose. To make an ultimate choice we must
put in question the foundations of our lives. In the fifties,
French philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre saw this kind of
choice as an expression of our ultimate freedom. We are free
to choose what we are to be, because we have no essential
nature, that is, no given purpose outside ourselves. Unlike,
say, an apple tree that has come into existence as a result of
someone else's plan, we simply exist, and the rest is up to us.
(Hence the name given to this group of thinkers: existentialists.) Sometimes this leads to a sense that we are standing
before a moral void. We feel vertigo, and want to get out of
that situation as quickly as possible. So we avoid the ultimate
choice by carrying on as we were doing before. That seems
the simplest and safest thing to do. But we do not really avoid
making the ultimate choice in that way. We make it by
default, and it may not be safe at all. Perhaps Ivan Boesky
continued to do what would make him richer because to do
anything else would have involved questioning the foundations of most of his life. He acted as if his essential nature was
to make money. But of course it was not: he could have
chosen living ethically ahead of money-making.
Even if we are ready to face an ultimate choice, however,
it is not easy to know how to make it. In more restricted
choice situations we know how to get expert advice. There
are financial consultants and educational counsellors and health
care advisers, all ready to tell you about what is the best for
your own interests. Many people will be eager to offer you
their opinions about what would be the right thing to do,
too. But who is the expert here? Suppose that you have the
opportunity to sell your car, which you know is about to need
major repairs, to a stranger who is too innocent to have the
car checked properly. He is pleased with the car's appearance,
and a deal is about to be struck, when he casually asks if the
car has any problems. If you say, just as casually, 'No, nothing
that I know of, the stranger will buy the car, paying you at
least $1,000 more than you would get from anyone who
knew the truth. He will never be able to prove that you were
lying. You are convinced that it would be wrong to lie to
him, but another $1,000 would make your life more comfortable for the next few months. In this situation you don't see
any need to ask anyone for advice about what is in your best
interest; nor do you need to ask what it would be right to do.
So can you still ask what to do?
Of course you can. Some would say that if you know that
it would be wrong to lie about your car, that is the end of the
matter; but this is wishful thinking. If we are honest with
The u l t i m a t e choice
ourselves, we will admit that, at least sometimes, where selfinterest and ethics clash, we choose self-interest, and this is
not just a case of being weak-willed or irrational. We are
genuinely unsure what it is rational to do, because when the
clash is so fundamental, reason seems to have no way of
resolving it.
We all face ultimate choices, and with equal intensity,
whether our opportunities are to gain, by unethical means,
$50 or $50 million. The state of the world in the late twentieth century means that even if we are never tempted at all
by unethical ways of making money, we have to decide to
what extent we shall live for ourselves, and to what extent for
others. There are people who are hungry, malnourished, lacking shelter, or basic health care: and there are voluntary organizations that raise money to help these people. True, the
problem is so big that one individual cannot make much
impact on it; and no doubt some of the money will be swallowed up in administration, or will get stolen, or for some
other reason will not reach the people who need it most.
Despite these inevitable problems, the discrepancy between
the wealth of the developed world and the poverty of the
poorest people in developing countries is so great that if only
a small fraction of what you give reaches the people who need
it, that fraction will make a far greater difference to the people it reaches than the full amount you give could make to
your own life. That you as an individual cannot make an
impact on the entire problem seems scarcely relevant, since
you can make an impact on the lives of particular families. So
will you get involved with one of these organizations? Will
you yourself give, not just spare change when a tin is rattled
under your nose, but substantial amounts that will reduce
your ability to live a luxurious lifestyle?
Some consumer products damage the ozone layer, contribute to the greenhouse effect, destroy rainforests, or pollute
The ultimate c h o i c e
our rivers and lakes. Others are tested by being put, in concentrated form, into the eyes of conscious rabbits, held immobilized in rows of restraining devices like medieval stocks.
There are alternatives to products that are environmentally
damaging, or tested in such cruel ways. To find the alternatives can, however, be time-consuming, and a nuisance. Will
you take the trouble to find them?
We face ethical choices constantly in our personal relationships. We have opportunities to use people and discard them,
or to remain loyal to them. We can stand up for what we
believe, or make ourselves popular by going along with what
the group does. Though the morality of personal relationships
is difficult to generalize about because every situation is different, here too we often know what the right thing to do is,
but are uncertain about what to do.
There are, no doubt, some people who go through life
without considering the ethics of what they are doing. Some
of these people are just indifferent to others; some are downright vicious. Yet genuine indifference to ethics of any sort is
rare. Mark 'Chopper' Read, one of Australia's nastiest criminals, recently published (from prison) an horrific autobiography, replete with nauseating details of beatings and forms of
torture he inflicted on his enemies before killing them.
Through all his relish for violence, however, the author shows
evident anxiety to assure his readers that his victims were all
in some way members of the criminal class who deserved what
they got. He wants his readers to be clear that he has nothing
b'it contempt for an Australian mass murderer - now one of
Read's fellow-prisoners - who opened up on passersby with
an automatic rifle.4 The psychological need for ethical justification, no matter how weak that justification may be, is
remarkably pervasive.
We should each ask ourselves: what place does ethics have
in my daily life? In thinking about this question, ask yourself:
what do I think of as a good life, in the fullest sense of that
term? This is an ultimate question. To ask it is to ask: what
kind of a life do I truly admire, and what kind of life do I
hope to be able to look back on, when I am older and reflect
on how I have lived? Will it be enough to say: 'It was fun'?
Will I even be able to say truthfully that it was fun? Whatever your position or status, you can ask what — within the
limits of what is possible for you - you want to achieve with
your life.
The Ring of Gyges
Two and a half thousand years ago, at the dawn of Western
philosophical thinking, Socrates had the reputation of being
the wisest man in Greece. One day Glaucon, a well-to-do young
Athenian, challenged him to answer a question about how we
are to live. The challenge is a key element of Plato's Republic,
one of the foundational works in the history of Western philosophy. It is also a classic formulation of an ultimate choice.
According to Plato, Glaucon begins by retelling the story
of a shepherd who served the reigning king of Lydia. The
shepherd was out with his flock one day when there was a
storm and a chasm opened up in the ground. He went down
into the chasm and there found a golden ring, which he put
on his finger. A few days later, when sitting with some other
shepherds, he happened to fiddle with the ring, and to his
amazement discovered that when he turned the ring a certain
way, he became invisible to his companions. Once he had
made this discovery, he arranged to be one of the messengers
sent by the shepherds to the king to report on the state of
the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he promptly used the ring
to seduce the queen, plotted with her against the king, killed
him, and so obtained the crown.
Glaucon takes this story as encapsulating a common view
of ethics and human nature. The implication of the story is
that anyone who had such a ring would abandon all ethical
standards - and what is more, would be quite rational to
do so:
. . . no one, it is thought, would be of such adamantine nature
as to abide in justice and have the strength to abstain from
theft, and to keep his hands from the goods of others, when it
would be in his power to steal anything he wished from the
very marketplace with impunity, to enter men's houses and
have intercourse with whom he would, to kill or to set free
whomsoever he pleased; in short, to walk among men as a god
. . . if any man who possessed this power we have described
should nevertheless refuse to do anything unjust or to rob his
fellows, all who knew of his conduct would think him the most
miserable and foolish of men, though they would praise him to
each other's faces, their fear of suffering injustice extorting that
deceit from them. 5
Glaucon then challenges Socrates to show that this common opinion of ethics is mistaken. Convince us, he and the
other participants in the discussion say to Socrates, that there
are sound reasons for doing what is right - not just reasons
like the fear of getting caught, but reasons that would apply
even if we knew we would not be found out. Show us that a
wise person who found the ring would, unlike the shepherd,
continue to do what is right.
That, at any rate, is how Plato described the scene. According to Plato, Socrates convinced Glaucon and the other
Athenians present that, whatever profit injustice may seem to
bring, only those who act rightly are really happy. Unfortunately, few modern readers are persuaded by the long and ?i
complicated account that Socrates gives of the links between
acting rightly, having a proper harmony between the elements
The u l t i m a t e c h o i c e
of one's nature, and being happy. It all seems too theoretical,
too contrived, and the dialogue becomes one-sided. There are
obvious objections that we would like to see put to Socrates,
but after the initial presentation of the challenge, Glaucon's
critical faculties seem to have deserted him, and he meekly
accepts every argument Socrates puts to him.
Ivan Boesky had, in the information he received from
Dennis Levine, a kind of magic ring; something that could
make him as close to a king as one can get in the republican,
wealth-oriented United States. As it turned out, the ring had
a flaw: Boesky was not invisible when he wanted to be. But
was that Boesky's only mistake, the only reason why he should
not have obtained and used Levine's information? The challenge that Boesky's opportunity poses to us is a modern-day
version of the challenge that Glaucon put to Socrates. Can we
give a better answer?
One 'answer' that is really no answer at all is to ignore the
challenge. Many people do. They live and die unreflectively,
without ever having asked themselves what their goals are,
and why they are doing what they do. If you are totally
satisfied with the life you are now living, and quite sure that
it is the life you want to lead, there is no need to read further.
What is to come may only unsettle you. Until you have put
to yourselves the questions that Socrates faced, however, you
have not chosen how you live.
'What in the hell are we doing this for?'
Today the question of how we are to live confronts us more
sharply than ever. We have emerged from the eighties - the
decade that has become known as The Decade of Greed' but not yet determined the nature of the nineties. Boesky
himself helped to define the eighties by giving a commencement address at the School of Business Administration at the
University of California, Berkeley, in which he told his audience: 'Greed is all right . . . greed is healthy. You can be
greedy and still feel good about yourself'. 6 Twenty years after
the Free Speech Movement had made the campus the centre
of radical thought in America, Berkeley business students
applauded this praise of greed. They were looking forward to
earning money, lots of it, and soon. What was happening
was, as Michael Lewis put it in his popular Liar's Poker, 'a rare
and amazing glitch in the fairly predictable history of getting
and spending'. Smart bond traders like Lewis were earning a
million dollars a year in salary and bonuses before they turned
twenty-five. 'Never before', Lewis could truthfully assert, 'have
so many unskilled 25-year-olds made so much in so little time
as we did this decade in New York and London'. 7 Yet even
that was peanuts compared to the sums made by the older
heavyweights: corporate raiders like Carl Icahn, T. Boone
Pickens, or Henry Kravis, developers such as Donald Trump,
the junk bond financier Michael Milken, or Wall Street chiefs
like Salomon Brothers' John Gutfreund.
In the hothouse, money-directed United States of the
eighties, these people were heroes, written up in magazines,
talked about endlessly. Yet at the end, many were wondering
what it was all for. Donald Trump confessed:
It's a rare person who can achieve a major goal in life and not
almost immediately start feeling sad, empty, and a little lost.
If you look at the record - which in this case means newspapers, magazines, and TV news — you'll see that an awful lot
of people who achieve success, from Elvis Presley to Ivan
Boesky, lose their direction or their ethics.
Actually, I don't have to look at anyone else's life to know
that's true. I'm as susceptible to that pitfall as anyone else . . . "
The ultimate c h o i c e
During the eighties Peter Lynch worked fourteen-hour days
and built the Fidelity Magellan mutual fund into a $ 13 billion
giant among funds. But at the age of forty-six, when most
executives are still aiming higher, Lynch startled his colleagues by quitting. Why? Because he had asked himself:
'What in the hell are we doing this for?' And in answering
that question, he was moved by the thought that 'I don't
know anyone who wished on his deathbed that he had spent
more time at the office'.9
Symptomatic of the changing view was Oliver Stone's movie
Wall Street, starring Michael Douglas as a convincingly
unpleasant Gordon Gekko, a financial wheeler-dealer whose
manner of operation resembles that of Boesky, with some
elements of a corporate raider like Carl Icahn thrown in for
good measure. Bud Fox, the ambitious young stockbroker
played by Charlie Sheen, is for a time taken in by the prospect
of making it big, but when Gekko attempts his usual takeover and asset-stripping procedure on the airline for which
Fox's father works as a mechanic, an angry Fox asks:
Tell me, Gordon, when does it all end, huh? How many yachts
can you water-ski behind? How much is enough? 10
That question suggested something that the philosophers
had always known, and the rich of the eighties were rediscovering: affluence has no limits. More people were beginning to wonder 'what in the hell are we doing this for?' Like
Lynch, they were making decisions about the rest of their
lives, instead of just continuing in the course that seemed to
have been set for them by economic and social expectations.
They were beginning to live their lives with a purpose.
The recession that followed the boom has helped make
people think again about the world they would like to see
emerge when the economy picks up again. Though some may
want to reinflate the balloons and resume the party, for many
people that idea just reminds them of the still-lingering hangover. In any case, in the nineties, the intimidating shadow of
Japan would dampen any celebrations in which those from
other nations might be tempted to indulge. George Bush's
1992 visit to Tokyo was an extraordinary event. Here was the
president of what still is, in military terms, indisputably the
mightiest power on earth, begging the Prime Minister of Japan
for trade concessions so that United States manufacturers could
survive in the face of Japanese standards of excellence that
had made Honda the number one selling car in the United
States. Bush's visit made Westerners wonder, once more, what
it was that made Japanese society so cohesive, harmonious,
orderly, and successful. A spate of books about Japan sought
to analyze the nature of the Japanese difference. Do the Japanese know more about how to live well together than we do?
Japan's success is another reason for the West's self-doubt.
The end of history or the beginning of
secular ethics?
The failure of the ideals of the West in the eighties is the
short-term, immediate reason why the question: 'How are we
to live?' confronts us with more force than usual at this particular moment. There is also, however, a more momentous,
longer term picture that invests the question with peculiar
sharpness, perhaps even with world-historical significance.
Communism, according to Marx, should have been 'the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature and
between man and man; the true resolution of the conflict
between . . . individual and species'." In other words, Marx
would have answered Glaucon's question by saying that it
could have no satisfactory answer unless we change the nature
of society. As long as we are living in a society in which
The ultimate c h o i c e
economic production is geared to satisfy the interests of a
particular class, there is bound to be a conflict between individual self-interest and the interests of society as a whole. In
that situation, the shepherd would be acting quite rationally
if he used the magic ring to take what he pleased and kill
whom he wished to kill. Once the means of production are
organized in the common interests of all, however, Marx would
say that human nature, which is not fixed but socially conditioned, would change with it. Greed and envy are not
engrained forever in the character of human beings. Citizens
of the new society, based on common ownership, would find
their own happiness in working for the good of all.
For many critics of Marx it was clear from the start that
this was a dream; but with the collapse of communist societies
in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Utopian
nature of Marxist thought has become apparent to all. For
the first time, we are living in a world that has only one
dominant social model for developed societies. The hope of
resolving the conflict between individual self-interest and the
good of all by building an alternative to the free market
economy is now a self-confessed failure. Only a brave few
cling to the socialist ideal, rejecting the distortions Lenin and
Stalin wrought, and claiming that it has never had a proper
trial. It seems that the individualist view of self-interest is the
only one that is still viable.
So strongly does the liberal democratic free enterprise model
impose itself on our vision of the possibilities that Francis
Fukuyama, a former deputy director of policy planning at the
US State Department, has been given a respectful, and from
some quarters even enthusiastic, hearing for a bold, surprisingly well-defended, but in the end scarcely plausible idea.
Fukuyama has revived Hegel's conception of history as a
process with a direction and an End. History has an End,
according to Hegel and Fukuyama, not so much in the sense
H ow are we to I i ve ?
of coming to a full stop, but rather in the sense of a final goal
or destination. In The End of History and the Last Man,
Fukuyama argues that this end is, precisely, the universal
acceptance of the liberal, democratic, free enterprise form of
society.12 Yet just when this model has taken so strong a hold
on the minds of those who consider themselves politically
realistic, we are gradually becoming aware that we are nearing
the end of an epoch. Like Daniel Bell, who predicted 'the End
of Ideology' shortly before the rise of the New Left and the
resurgence of radical ideologies in the sixties,13 Fukuyama may
have predicted the permanence of the liberal free enterprise
system just when it is about to face its gravest crisis.
There are two intriguing and very different counterweights
to Fukuyama's vision of 'the End of History'. One is summed
up in the title of a book by Bill McKibben: our era is witness
to, McKibben says, not the End of History, but rather The
End of Nature. Living in the Adirondack Mountains of New
York State, McKibben is sharply aware of the fact that for
the first time in the history of our species, there is no longer
a natural world, unaffected by human beings. M Not in the
Adirondacks, nor in the rainforests of the Amazon, not even
on the Antarctic ice-cap, can one get away from the effects of
human civilization. We have depleted the ozone layer that
shields our planet from solar radiation. We have added to the
amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Thus the growth
of plants, the chemical composition of the rain, and the very
forces that form the clouds, are, in part, our doing.
Throughout human history, we have been able freely to
use the oceans and the atmosphere as a vast sink for our
wastes. The liberal democratic free enterprise society that
Fukuyama proposes as the ultimate outcome of all history is
built on the idea that we can keep doing this forever. In
contrast, responsible scientific opinion now tells us that we
are passengers on a runaway train that is heading rapidly
The u l t i m a t e c h o i c e
towards an abyss. We cannot continue with business as usual.
We shall either change voluntarily, or the climate of our planet
will change, and take entire nations with it. Nor are the
changes minor ones. They involve the basic values and ethical
outlook that underlie the free enterprise societies of the late
twentieth century. Perhaps the liberal democratic free enterprise society will survive this challenge, and adapt to cope
with it; but if it does, it will be a significantly different form
of liberal democratic free enterprise society, and the people
living in it will need to have very different values and ways
of living. So the pressure to re-examine the ethical basis of
our lives is upon us in a way that it has never been before.
The other intriguing line of thought to place against the
idea that history has reached its end was put forward several
years ago by Derek Parfit, an Oxford philosopher unknown
outside academic circles but esteemed by his colleagues for
seeing further into some of the most difficult problems of
ethical theory than anyone else had done before. At the conclusion of his major work, Reasons and Persons, after 450
pages of detailed, intricate argument, Parfit permits himself a
glance at the broader question of whether there can be progress in ethics. Against the claim that everything there is to
say in ethics has already been said, he argues that until quite
recently the study of ethics has very largely been carried out
within a religious framework. The number of non-religious
people who have made ethics their life work is remarkably
small. (Parfit mentions among these few Buddha, Confucius,
the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and
the late Victorian utilitarian philosopher, Henry Sidgwick.)
For much of the twentieth century, when for the first time
many professional moral philosophers were atheists, it was
unfashionable for philosophers to grapple with questions about
what we ought to do. Instead, they studied the meanings of
the moral terms and argued over whether ethics is subjective
or objective. Thus it is only since about I960 that many
people have systematically studied non-religious ethics; as a
result, it is, Parfit says, 'the youngest and the least advanced"
of the sciences. So Parfit ends his book on a hopeful note:
The Earth will remain inhabitable for at least another billion
years. Civilization began only a few thousand years ago. If we
do not destroy mankind, these few thousand years may be only
a tiny fraction of the whole of civilized human history . . .
Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in god, openly admitted by
a majority, is a very recent event, not yet completed. Because
this event is so recent, Non-religious Ethics is at a very early
stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we
will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics
will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.15
If Parfit is right, and the development of non-religious
ethical thinking is still in its infancy, it is clearly premature to
say that history has reached its final destination. We are only
now breaking with a past in which religion and ethics have
been closely identified. It is too early to tell what changes
may lie ahead, once we have a better understanding of the
nature of ethics, but they are likely to be profound.
Because people who are not religious have tended to extend
their scepticism about religion to ethics as well, they have
yielded the field of ethics to the religious right. This has
allowed the right to pre-empt 'morality' for crusades against
abortion and homosexuality. Yet those who regard the interests of women as overriding the merely potential interests of
the fetus are taking their stand on a morally impregnable
position;16 and the moral case for acceptance of sexual relationships between consenting adults that do not harm others
is even more clear-cut. It is time to reclaim the moral high
ground from the pretenders who occupied it when it was left
vacant by progressives who instead placed their faith in Marxist dreams of a transformed society in which all dilemmas
would be resolved. The crucial moral questions of our day are
not about homosexuality or abortion. Instead moralists should
be asking: what are the obligations of all of us in the affluent
world when people are slowly starving in Somalia? What is to
be done about the racist hatred that prevents people living
together in Bosnia, in Azerbaijan, and in Los Angeles? Are we
entitled to continue to confine billions of non-human animals
in factory farms, treating them as mere things to serve the
pleasures of our palate? And how can we change our behaviour so as to preserve the ecological system on which the
entire planet depends?
The more enlightened Christian readers have themselves
now recognized that their Church's preoccupation with sex
has been a mistake: Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, has admitted that the church has been guilty of 'being
caught up with the idea that sexual sins were "more significant" than other sins' and has said that instead we should
think more in terms of global problems such as world poverty.
In saying this, the Archbishop was belatedly preaching what
philosophers doing applied ethics have been saying since the
seventies. 17 Once it is generally understood that ethics has no
necessary connection with the sexually-obsessed morality of
conservative Christianity, a humane and positive ethic could be
the basis for a renewal of our social, political and ecological life.
The dominant political and economic model today allows,
indeed encourages, citizens to make the pursuit of their own
interests (understood largely in terms of material wealth) the
chief goal of their lives. We rarely reflect, either collectively
or as individuals, on whether this dominant conception is a
wise one. Does it truly offer the best lives for us all? Should
each one of us, in deciding how to live, assume that wealth is
the thing to aim at? What is the place of ethics in such
decisions? We must not make the error of assuming that the
failure of past Utopian ideals means that values should not
play a central role in our lives. I share Parfit's view that in
the advancement of ethics lies the possibility of a new and
more hopeful turn in world history; but it must be an advancement not only in ethical theory, but also in ethical practice.
We need a new force for change. Changing the way in
which we see the role of ethics in our lives may seem like
something that changes individual lives, but leaves the larger
society and the world of politics untouched. That appearance
misleads. The early years of the nineties have made it clear
that the promotion of greed by proponents of the free market
has failed even to achieve the narrow economic goal of creating a thriving economy. In broader social and environmental
terms, too, this policy has been a disaster. It is time to try the
only alternative left to us. If enough individuals disavow a
narrowly materialist idea of self-interest, it may be possible to
rebuild trust and to work together for larger, more important
goals. Politicians would then learn that they can dare to
espouse policies that do more than promise greater material
prosperity to every voter. (In New Zealand, after a decade in
which the major parties have agreed on lowering income tax
rates and cutting government spending, the newly formed
Alliance Party has promised that, if elected, it will raise taxes
- on the grounds that a good state system of health care,
social security and education is worth paying for. Opinion
polls suggest that the Alliance is doing well enough to pose a
threat to the major parties.)
A better life is open to us - in every sense of the term,
except the sense made dominant by a consumer society that
promotes acquisition as the standard of what is good. Once
we get rid of that dominant conception of the good life, we
can again bring to the centre of the stage questions about the
The u l t i m a t e c h o i c e
preservation of the planet's ecology, and about global justice.
Only then can we hope to see a renewal of the will to deal
with the root causes of poverty, crime, and the short-term
destruction of our planet's resources. A politics based on ethics
could be radical, in the original sense of the term: that is, it
could change things from the roots.
Ethics and self-interest
More personal doubts about ethics remain. To live ethically,
we assume, will be hard work, uncomfortable, self-sacrificing
and generally unrewarding. We see ethics as at odds with
self-interest: we assume that those who make fortunes from
insider trading ignore ethics, but are successfully following
self-interest (as long as they don't get caught). We do the
same ourselves when we take a job that pays more than
another, even though it means that we are helping to manufacture or promote a product that does no good at all, or
actually makes people sick. On the other hand, those who
pass up opportunities to rise in their career because of ethical
'scruples' about the nature of the work, or who give away
their wealth to good causes, are thought to be sacrificing their
own interests in order to obey the dictates of ethics. Worse
still, we may regard them as suckers, missing out on all the
fun they could be having, while others take advantage of their
futile generosity.
This current orthodoxy about self-interest and ethics paints
a picture of ethics as something external to us, even as hostile
to our own interests. We picture ourselves as constantly torn
between the drive to advance our self-interest, and the fear
of being caught doing something that others will condemn,
and for which we will be punished. This picture has been
entrenched in many of the most influential ways of thinking
in our culture. It is to be found in traditional religious ideas
that promise reward or threaten punishment for good and
bad behaviour, but put this reward or punishment in another
realm and so make it external to life in this world. It is to be
found, too, in the idea that human beings are situated at the
mid-point between heaven and earth, sharing in the spiritual
realm of the angels, but trapped also by our brutish bodily
nature in this world of the beasts. The German philosopher
Immanuel Kant picked up the same idea when he portrayed
us as moral beings only in so far as we subordinate our natural
physical desires to the commands of universal reason that we
perceive through our capacity for reason. It is easy to see a
link between this idea and Freud's vision of our lives as rent
by the conflict between id and super-ego.
The same assumption of conflict between ethics and selfinterest lies at the root of much modern economics. It is
propagated in popular presentations of sociobiology applied
to human nature. Books like Robert J. Ringer's Looking Out
for # 1, which was on the New York Times bestseller list
for an entire year and is still selling steadily, tell millions of
readers that to put the happiness of anyone else ahead of your
own is 'to pervert the laws of Nature'. 18 Television, both in
its programs and its commercials, conveys materialist images
of success that lack ethical content. As Todd Gitlin wrote in
his study of American television, Inside Prime Time'.
. . . prime time gives us people preoccupied with personal
ambition. If not utterly consumed by ambition and the fear of
ending up as losers, these characters take both the ambition
and the fear for granted. If not surrounded by middle-class
arrays of consumer goods, they themselves are glamorous
incarnations of desire. The happiness they long for is private,
not public; they make few demands on society as a whole, and
The u l t i m a t e c h o i c e
even when troubled they seem content with the existing institutional order. Personal ambition and consumerism are the driving forces in their lives. The sumptuous and brightly lit settings
of most series amount to advertisements for a consumptioncentred version of the good life, and this doesn't even take into
consideration the incessant commercials, which convey the idea
that human aspirations for liberty, pleasure, accomplishment,
and status can be fulfilled in the realm of consumption.19
The message is coming over strongly, but something is
wrong. Today the assertion that life is meaningless no longer
comes from existentialist philosophers who treat it as a shocking discovery; it comes from bored adolescents, for whom it
is a truism. Perhaps it is the central place of self-interest, and
the way in which we conceive of our own interest, that is to
blame here. The pursuit of self-interest, as standardly conceived, is a life without any meaning beyond our own pleasure
or individual satisfaction. Such a life is often a self-defeating
enterprise. The ancients knew of the 'paradox of hedonism',
according to which the more explicitly we pursue our desire
for pleasure, the more elusive we will find its satisfaction.
There is no reason to believe that human nature has changed
so dramatically as to render this ancient wisdom inapplicable.
The questions are ancient but the modern inquirer is not
limited to the ancient answers. Though the study of ethics
may not progress in the dramatic fashion of physics or genetics,
much has been learned in the past century. Progress not only
in philosophy, but also in the sciences, has contributed to our
understanding of ethics. Evolutionary theory helps us to answer
ancient questions about the limits of altruism. 'Rational choice
theory' - that is, the theory of what it is to choose rationally
in complex situations involving uncertainties - has highlighted a problem not discussed by ancient thinkers, called
'the Prisoner's Dilemma'. The modern discussion of this problem suggests that when each of two or more people, acting
quite rationally, deliberately, and with the best possible information, independently pursue their own interests, they may
both end up worse off than they would have been if they had
acted in a less rationally self-interested manner. Exploring this
problem reveals ways in which human nature may have
evolved to be capable of more than narrow self-interest. Modern feminist thought, too, has forced us to reflect on whether
previous thinking about ethics has been limited because it has
been dominated by a male perspective on the world. The
same may be true of our conception of self-interest. The prisoner's dilemma, the paradox of hedonism, and feminist influences in ethical thinking are some of the threads to be drawn
together later in this book, in order to develop a new and
broader conception of self-interest.
Here, ethics returns to complete our picture. An ethical life
is one in which we identify ourselves with other, and larger,
goals, thereby giving meaning to our lives. The view that the
ethical life and the life of enlightened self-interest are one and
the same is an ancient one, now often scorned by those too
cynical to believe in any such harmony. Cynicism about ethical idealism is an understandable reaction to much modern
history - to, for example, the tragic way in which the idealistic goals of Marx and his followers were twisted by the
Russian communist leaders until they led, first, to the Stalinist
terror, and then to the utterly corrupt dictatorship of the
Brezhnev era. With such examples before us, it is no wonder
that cynicism is more fashionable than hope for a better world.
But we may be able to learn from history. The ancient view
was that an ethically good life is also a good life for the person
leading it. Never has it been so urgent that the reasons for
accepting this older view should be widely understood. To do
so we must question the view of self-interest that has dominated Western society for a long time. Then, if there is a
viable alternative to this view, the ultimate choice may have
a rational solution after all.
' W h a t ' s in it for m e ? '
'What's in it for me?'
The standard Western view of self-interest has led us to not
one, but two distinct contemporary crises. The first, which I
shall outline in this chapter, is a crisis of Western society as a
whole, epitomized by recent developments in the United
States. The second is a crisis that threatens the biosphere of
our planet, on which all life depends. That is the topic of the
next chapter. Taken together, these two crises give rise to a
compelling and potentially tragic irony about our present
conception of self-interest: if we continue to conceive of our
own interests in materialist terms, then the collective impact
each of us has in pursuing our individual self-interest will
ensure the failure of all our attempts to advance those interests.
A failing social experiment
America stands as a beacon, showing where a society based
on individual self-interest is heading. There was a time, in the
development of this society, that gave such scope to the individual, when the Statue of Liberty aptly summed up what the
society meant to the rest of the world; but in the early nineties, the symbol of America became the smoke rising from
the fires of the Los Angeles riots.
Crime in America is the most vivid indication of the
direction that a society of self-seeking individuals can take. A
survey of New York City residents carried out in 1990 asked:
'How frequently do you worry about crime?' Only 13 percent
could answer 'rarely or never'; fully 60 percent said that they
worried about crime all the time, or often. No wonder: in
that year they opened their papers to read of such crimes as
the stabbing to death of 22-year-old Brian Watkins, on a
subway platform in midtown Manhattan. Watkins was on his
way to dinner, part of a family group that included three
men, when attacked by a gang of eight youths. According to
Time, the gang was seeking money to finance 'an evening of
frolicking at Roseland, a nearby dance hall'. 1 But such selfish,
callous killings occur regularly in New York. Guns are now
the leading cause of death among teenagers in the United
States. In March 1992, the New York Times reported that in
the first half of the school year there had been fifty-six shootings in and around the city's schools: sixteen pupils, two parents and one policeman had been shot, six of the children
fatally. Twenty-one New York high schools were using metaldetectors to check students for weapons as they came to
New York is not a special case. Its homicide rate is below
that of eight other American cities. In virtually every major
American city the possibility of crime has poisoned everyday
life. In 1973, after growing up in Australia and spending four
years in Oxford, I arrived in New York to begin a visiting
position in the Department of Philosophy at New York University. As I walked in the front door of the university's main
building on Washington Square, I was greeted by a shocking
sight: university security guards with guns swinging on their
hips. By the end of the year, I was taking for granted the
presence of lethal weapons in a university setting. I learned to
walk around, not through, Washington Square Park as I
returned to my Bleecker Street apartment after teaching a
late class. If I was uptown after dark, I knew that it was
How a r e we to
better to return by the West 4th Street subway stop and walk
through the busy streets of Greenwich Village than to use the
Lexington Avenue line, which would let me off closer to home,
but in territory too far east in the Village to be safe. Such
maps of 'no-go' areas are now part of the education of every
American city dweller. Something as natural as an evening
stroll in the local park has become, depending on the neighbourhood, either risky or downright mad. On lower-floor
windows, one looks out through bars; the prison is on the
outside. Those who can afford it live in apartment buildings
with 24-hour security staff controlling who goes in and out.
Children are brought up to carry 'mugging money' with them,
because muggers are more likely to turn nasty if they get
nothing. Time reports: 'Nursery-school teachers in some of the
city's tougher neighbourhoods train children barely old enough
to talk to hit the floor at the sound of gunshots'.3
Los Angeles has its own characteristic form of anonymous
killing: freeway shootings. Beginning in 1987, individuals or
gangs parked on freeway bridges and shot at cars passing
below. Others would take pot shots at cars as they passed on
the road. The message went out from Los Angeles police:
don't look into the eyes of the driver of the car alongside
you. 4
Less threatening crime is almost ignored, but it too carries
a message. Every day 155,000 subway riders jump the turnstiles. In a year, this fare evasion costs the city at least $65
million that could have been used to improve public transport. 5 It also sets a very public example of scorn for the idea
that those who benefit from a public utility should play their
part in supporting it. But why not ride for free, if you can get
away with it? Isn't everyone else doing it? So wouldn't you
be stupid to behave differently? One American interviewed
' W h a t ' s in it for m e ? '
for Habits of the Heart, an influential study of American values
in the mid-eighties put it this way:
Everybody wants to be on top and get their own way. It's like
in a relationship . . . I mean, I don't want to be the only one
who suffers. I don't want to be the only sucker. I don't want
to be the fall guy for people who are not doing their part. 6
In the United States today the social fabric of society has
decayed to the point at which there are grounds for fearing
that it has passed the point of no return. The problem is that
people who begin with the attitude of not wanting to be the
only sucker are likely to treat each new encounter with suspicion, and the more who hold this attitude, the more difficult
it is to make co-operative efforts work for the common good
(as we shall see in more detail in Chapter 7). There are no
precedents for halting the decay of a society as populous, as
egoistic, and as heavily armed with lethal weapons as the
United States is today; so no-one working for change can be
confident of reversing the current drift towards social anarchy.
At the same time, the alternative is so appalling to contemplate that it would be crazy not to try, as long as there is a
chance of success.
The situation is not helped when the society's leaders themselves are busy making sure that they are not going to be
suckers working for the common good while others line their
own pockets. In 1991 dozens of members of the United States
Congress, including the Speaker, the House Democratic Party
leader and the House Republican Party whip were shown to
have been overdrawing their bank accounts at the House Bank.
The overdrawals were often for substantial sums, and incurred
no interest or penalty. The cost of this interest-free money
was being borne by the taxpayer. A poll showed that 83
percent of American adults believed that legislators who overdrew their bank accounts did so not by mistake but 'because
they knew they could get away with it'. 7
These revelations about the United States Congress caused
a stir, but they were modest stuff compared to the attitudes
and practices of state legislators revealed in an investigation
in Arizona. Transcripts of police undercover videotapes show
the legislators being extraordinarily candid about their attitudes to life and ethics. Senator Carolyn Walker explained: 'I
like the good life, and I'm trying to position myself so that I
can live the good life and have more money'. As she reached
across to accept a bribe of $25,000, she added, 'We all have
our prices'. State Representative Bobby Raymond was blunter
still: 'There is not an issue in this world that I give a (expletive) about. My favorite line is, "What's in it for me?" '8
Others who seem to care only about what they can get for
themselves include the chief executive officers of many of
America's largest corporations, who paid themselves enormous increases while their corporations were losing money
and firing employees. In 1990, for example, the stock price of
ITT corporation fell 18 percent; yet in that year Rand Araskog, ITT's chairman, president and chief executive officer
received a pay rise of 103 percent, taking his annual earnings
to $11 million. Joseph Nocera, a writer for GQ, went to ITT's
annual meeting in order to hear Araskog respond to questions
about his pay. According to Nocera, Araskog 'seemed to be
saying that so long as he was in the position to be able to
grab this kind of money, he was going to grab it, and he
didn't much care what anyone else thought about it'. 9 That
attitude must be common in the corporate ethos. Although
IBM shareholders gained less than 1 percent compounded
annual return over the six years to 1990, the salary of IBM's
head, John Akers, went up 400 percent in the same period,
growing to $8 million in 1990. Even these earnings are
' W h a t ' s in
it for m e ? '
dwarfed by those of Steven Ross and N. J. Nicholas, co-chief
executives of Time-Warner, Inc., who took home a combined
total of $99-6 million in 1990, a year in which Time-Warner
reported a loss. United States chief executives are paid at least
eighty-five times as much as the average American worker —
up from a 1975 average ratio of 35:1, which itself was higher
than comparable ratios for Japanese (16:1) or German (21:1)
chiefs. Some recent estimates suggest that the ratio in the
United States is still leaning further in favour of the chief
executive, and has risen as high as 160 times the pay of a
worker. in
Trade union leaders may be the natural opponents of corporate chiefs, but they are clearly capable of learning from
the enemy. Gus Bevona, head of the New York building
service union, earned $412,000 in 1989, while most of his
union members were earning less than $25,000." In February
1992, while municipal employees were being laid off by New
York City, the municipal workers union chose to hold its
budget meeting in the Bahamas, booking more than 100
rooms and luxury suites at a resort hotel, and picking up all
the expenses for union officials attending the meeting. 12
Even the universities were getting greedy. In 1991 a probe
by a congressional sub-committee headed by John Dingell
showed that Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Rutgers and many other
universities had charged to federal research funds - and thus
to taxpayers - millions of dollars worth of goods that had
nothing to do with research. Dingell asked: 'I challenge you
to tell me how fruitwood commodes, chauffeurs for the university president's wife, housing for dead university officials,
retreats in Lake Tahoe and flowers for the president's house
are supportive of science'. No-one answered Dingell's challenge. Further investigation showed that Harvard Medical
School charged the Federal Government, as 'research costs',
$1,800 for a reception for a retiring dean. The University of
Texas Medical Center in Dallas spent $2,095 of public funds
for ten engraved decanters; Washington University in St Louis
charged for a sculpture that had already been paid for by
private donations; and the University of Pittsburgh received
the cost of trips to Ireland and Florida by the wife of the
President of the University. 13
The Reagan—Bush era ended with a final demonstration
that cynicism about ethics and justice extended right to the
top. Less than a month from the end of his term of office,
President Bush granted pardons to six officials of the Reagan
administration for their role in the Iran-Contra affair. Those
pardoned included Caspar Weinberger, a former defence secretary. The pardons saved Bush himself from being called as
a witness in any of the trials; they also demonstrated that the
president put his own interests above justice being done, and
being seen to be done.' 4
Greed at the top is one side of a society that appears to be
losing any sense of a common good. The other side is easy to
see in any American city. Early one morning in Washington,
DC, I came across a group of people lying on pieces of cardboard on top of a grating, trying to warm themselves from
the air that was rising out of the subway. Looking through
the trees, I could discern the familiar shape of the White
House. The homeless and the President of the United States
of America were neighbours. It wasn't a political protest. It
was just somewhere to sleep. Homelessness has become part
of American life, and is increasing also in countries like Britain that have far better social support services. After photographing homeless people for the book A Day in the Life of
America, Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia said: 'I have
never experienced such a sense of sadness. Above were the
Manhattan skyscrapers and down below the desperation. I
have never seen such misery, even in Palermo'. 15
Beggars, too, were once something that Americans could
' W h a t ' s in it for me ?' 33
talk about on their return from trips to India. Now it is hard
to walk down a New York street without being accosted,
either in a friendly manner or with a touch of aggression, by
a street beggar. The dramatic increase in the number of
homeless people and beggars has many causes: rising rents,
unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, the decline of family
support networks, and the Reagan administration's hardhearted changes to welfare laws and cuts in funding for
housing. If we are interested in the nature of a social system,
however, it is the acceptance of the homeless that tells us
more than its causes. When the numbers of people living on
the streets began to rise dramatically during the Reagan years
the first reaction was one of shock, and the demand that
something be done. But the shock soon ebbed. As Time put
it, 'After years of running hurdles over bodies in train stations,
of being hustled by panhandlers on the street, many urban
dwellers moved past pity to contempt, and are no longer
scalded by the suffering they see'.16
The visible presence of the homeless is now just another
facet of American life. Though there have been many local
initiatives to do something about it, there has been no major
national effort to tackle the problem. By the end of the Reagan
years the federal government was spending $8 billion a year
on housing, as compared with $32 billion at the end of the
Carter administration, when homelessness was far less widespread. During these same years, however, income tax rates
were falling. By then, even the very richest members of society - those earning a taxable income of more than $200,000
a year — were paying federal income tax at a rate of only 24
percent. Had they been taxed at 1979 rates, an extra $82
billion would have been raised - far more than was saved by
cutting the housing budget. A society that prefers to cut tax
rates on the very rich rather than to help the poor and homeless has ceased to be a community in any real sense of the
The loss of community
A major factor in the narrowing of the individual outlook is
the reduced sense of community that results from the fact
that so many Americans come from somewhere else and will
probably move on to somewhere else again in a few years. In
the name of economic efficiency, corporations move their
managerial staff around as it suits them, and to refuse an
invitation to move is to risk being considered not to be serious
about one's career. The authors of Habits of the Heart noted
that the people they interviewed often seemed to forget about
what they had received from their parents, and were equally
uneasy about being connected to their adult children. They
point out that while for the Japanese leaving home' is a term
that is used only for the rare event of going into a monastic
life and abandoning all ties of ordinary existence, for Americans leaving home is expected and childhood is seen as a
preparation for it. This seems to be a long-standing tendency
in American society, for it was noted already by Tocqueville,
who wrote that the American cultural heritage makes 'men
forget their ancestors . . . clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries'.17
Frances Fitzgerald interviewed residents of Sun City, a
Florida retirement community, and found that they saw
dependence on children as a weakness. Living together with
one's children was, as one Sun City resident said, not for
them: 'Other people - Negroes and Cubans - all live together,
but we've reached the point where we don't have to do it'.
Another, comparing the benefits of living near his children
in a northern state to life in Florida, said, 'Do you want
' W h a t ' s in it for m e ? '
to sacrifice five months of good weather for three days —
Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter?', thus giving eloquent
testimony to the dwindling significance of family bonds in
American society, in or out of retirement villages. 18
In a remarkable work that compares many different societies around the world, Raoul Naroll, a pioneer of cross-cultural
anthropology who taught at the State University of New
York, Buffalo, has emphasized the importance of what he
calls 'moralnets' - that is, family and community connections
that tie people together and provide an ethical background to
what each individual does. Moralnets support individuals in
their ethical choices, making it easier for them to choose what
the moralnet regards as the right thing to do. According to
Naroll, strong moralnets are built by deep social ties, emotional warmth between members of the community, social
and economic support or 'insurance' for those who fall on hard
times, and various common emblems, ceremonies, traditions,
myths and ideologies that bind the society together. An association of isolated individuals bound together only by acquisitive self-interest is not likely to have a strong moralnet. Of
course, strong moralnets are compatible with all sorts of
appallingly unethical conduct, especially against those outside
the net. So a strong moralnet is not enough to guarantee a
good society. At the same time, when moralnets are weak,
Naroll argues, there is more crime, drug and alcohol abuse,
suicide, domestic violence and mental illness.19 It is a frightening thought that we may be witnessing, in the United
States today, the first large-scale society in which the moralnets have become too weak to support ethical ways of living.
In 1887 Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist, published a work called Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, in which he
distinguished between two conceptions of society. A Gemeinschaft - a term usually rendered in English as 'community' is a traditional group bound by a strong communal sense. It
is an organic community, in the sense that the members identify with the larger whole, and can scarcely conceive of themselves as having a meaningful life apart from it. A Gesellscbaft,
on the other hand, is an association of individuals. They see
themselves as independent beings who could live easily enough
outside the association. Society is therefore regarded as a
human creation, perhaps the result of some kind of social contract, and individuals may opt to join or leave as they see fit.
Tonnies's distinction between community and association
derives in part from the work of one of the greatest of the
German philosophers, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel
believed that in ancient Greece individuals did not see themselves as having interests separate from those of their community. They could conceive of their own good only as part
of the good of membership in a successful community. This
communal conception of self-interest existed, according to
Hegel, because the Greeks had not yet become aware of
the possibilities of individual freedom and individual selfconsciousness. Socrates was, in Hegel's view, the pivotal figure
in making Athenians think critically about what they had
taken for granted. Hence he was rightly regarded by the
conservatives as a dangerous subversive: once the Socratic
questions had been raised, they could not be answered within
the accepted framework of ancient Greek society.
Socrates represents the spirit of self-conscious thought that
is necessarily destructive of a society based on custom. From
this point, the course of Western history led away from customary society and toward more reflective awareness of oneself as an individual. Yet in Hegel's philosophy this movement,
which came to full fruition after the Protestant reformation
and the rise of the market economy, also brought with it the
problem with which this book is concerned: without the bonds
of custom and community, what reason does the individual
have for acting ethically?
' W h a t ' s in it for m e ? '
The first and in some ways still the most striking answer
to this question was given by Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes published his greatest work, Leviathan, in 1651, in the aftermath
of the English Civil War and the overthrow of the Stuart
monarchs who had claimed to rule by Divine Right. Reflecting the breakdown of traditional authority, Hobbes began
from the assumption that all mankind has one basic desire: 'a
perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death'. 20 For this reason, in the natural condition
of mankind all human beings would live in a state of war:
'where every man is Enemy to every man . . . And the life of
man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'. 21 This posed
an immediate problem: from such uncompromisingly selfdirected beings, living in such an appalling situation, how can
a society ever arise, or once it arises, survive? Hobbes's answer
was as blunt as his view of human nature: society arises only
by the application of superior force. Society exists because it
is in the interests of us all to have peace, and peace can prevail
only if we set up a sovereign with unlimited authority and
sufficient power to punish those who breach the peace.
Perhaps no society has ever been so pure an association of
individuals as that pictured by Hobbes. Most societies have
been, and still are, organic communities rather than associations of free individuals. If we apply Tonnies's distinction to
the modern world, the organic community survives to a significant degree in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin
America. According to one estimate, perhaps 70 percent of
the world's population live in societies in which loyalty to the
family or tribe overrides personal goals.22
In contrast, Western society has been tending, at least since
the Protestant Reformation, away from community and
towards a looser association of individuals. Hobbes's authoritarian theory of society as a social contract was followed by
that of John Locke. Locke was more optimistic in his view of
human nature than Hobbes, and hence favoured a more limited form of government in which individual citizens retained
rights against the government; but he still saw society very
much as a loose and indeed optional association of individuals.
Locke's conception of society strongly influenced the
American revolutionaries and the authors of the American
constitution. Tocqueville, in the 1830s, found America already
strikingly a nation of individuals, and while he admired the
self-reliance and independence of its citizens, he feared where
this might lead: 'Each man is forever thrown back on himself
alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the
solitude of his own heart'. 23 Individualism triumphed over the
traditional idea of community in the Protestant countries of
Northern Europe, including Britain and its offshoots in North
America, Australia and New Zealand. In late twentieth century America, however, individualism has been pushed to a
new extreme. Social scientists have developed scales for placing societies on a continuum between individualism and collectivism: by these tests, the United States comes out as the
most individualistic of all societies.24 It is a society in which
everyone 'does their own thing' or 'goes for it' where 'it' means
'whatever I want'. In many large American cities there simply
is no community, in Tonnies's sense of the term.
In the view of Robert Bellah, a Berkeley sociologist and
principal author of Habits of the Heart, though America has
long been individualist, modern American society is more onesidedly so than ever before:
In earlier days the individualism in America was one that also
honored community values. Today we have an ideology of individualism that simply encourages people to maximize personal
advantage. This leads to a consumer politics in which 'What's
in it for me?' is all that matters, while considerations of the
common good are increasingly irrelevant."
' W h a t ' s in it for m e ? 1
It is ironic that as the despised communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were collapsing and reformers were hastily ushering in the forces of the free market,
Western sociologists and philosophers were reviving theories
of the importance of community in politics and ethical life.
Karl Marx's criticisms of capitalism have held up far better
than his scanty positive proposals for a better form of society.
The Communist Manifesto is a powerful attack on the idea of
society as a free association of individuals. Marx and his coauthor Friedrich Engels were certainly no friends of traditional
or feudal forms of society; they nevertheless wrote with a
mixture of anger and awe of the way in which such societies
had been destroyed by the rise of a society based on money:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put
an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to
his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus
between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous
'cash payment'.
Capitalism had thus ruthlessly created a society of free individuals; but this was not a free society. On the contrary, it
was a society out of control:
Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of
exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such
gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether
world which he has called up by his spells.26
Among these 'powers of the nether world', Marx thought,
was the proletariat, the great class of propertyless labourers
who are, for the bourgeoisie, merely another commodity, to
be bought when their labour power is needed, and thrown on
the scrap heap at a time of recession. Marx was convinced
that, in creating the proletariat, the capitalist system had produced the seeds of its own destruction.
About this, Marx was simply wrong. The contradictions of
capitalism did not relentlessly intensify; capitalism improved
the lot of most of its workers, and, in the most advanced
capitalist nations, enlisted a substantial part of the working
classes on its side. In contrast, those who successfully carried
out revolutions in Marx's name found themselves unable to
create a society that satisfied the needs of the majority, and
remained in power only as long as they were prepared to use
force to suppress opposition. Thus capitalism survived, and
now, at the end of the twentieth century, appears to have
triumphed. Yet there is something valid in Marx's vision of
capitalism as a society that has created forces it cannot control. We see this once again in the recession that followed the
boom years of the eighties. Economic confidence declines for
reasons no-one quite grasps, commodity prices fall, and there
are millions of people who want jobs, but for whose energies
and skills the capitalist system has no use.
Marx was right to suggest that the free market society, by
breaking traditional ties, reducing every bond to the cash
nexus and unleashing the forces of individual self-interest, has
conjured up a genie that it cannot control. The genie has
brought us a society in which politics is dominated by economics. At every election the great issues of the day are economic. We are told that we cannot stop development that is
environmentally damaging because our nation must compete
economically with its overseas competitors. Proposals for
better health care, welfare or housing for the poor are wrecked
on the reefs of the desire for lower taxes to provide more
incentives for investment. To turn away from greater and
greater material prosperity has become unthinkable. Our
it for m e ? '
political leaders assume that to do so would be to commit
electoral suicide.
Now GATT - the General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade, the Holy Scripture of global economic rationalism extends this dominance of economics around the entire globe.
The lords of GATT tell the nations of the European Community that they must expose their peasant farmers to competition from the mega-farms of North America and Australia
- competition that would surely wipe them out, and change
irreversibly the landscape of Western Europe. When the
European Patent Office hesitates over the ethical question of
whether a living animal can be patented, the United States
argues at GATT negotiations that to refuse to accept the
patenting of animals is an illegal restraint of trade that prevents American inventors from reaping their due rewards.
(The United States was acting to protect potential profits
from the work of US scientists who had patented such animals
as the 'onco-mouse', an unfortunate creature genetically engineered to develop tumours that scientists can study. 27 ) In
another triumph of economics over ethics, however, the United
States found itself attacked by a similar argument. Invoking
its Marine Mammal Protection Act, the United States banned
Mexican tuna on the grounds that the Mexican fishing fleet,
using methods now abandoned by the US fleet, needlessly
kills 50,000 dolphins each year. Mexico appealed to GATT,
claiming that the ban was an unfair trade barrier - and won!28
The genie released by our encouragement of naked selfinterest has eroded our sense of belonging to a community.
Every individual pursues the ethos of 'looking out for number
one'. We regard others as potential sources of profit, and we
expect others to see us in the same way. The assumption is
that you had better look after yourself because the other party
will take advantage of you whenever possible - and the
assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because there
H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
is no point in being co-operative towards those who will not
sacrifice their own short-term gain for long-term mutual benefits. But an association of isolated individuals bound not by
a sense of place, nor by extensive family connections, nor by
loyalty to an employer, but only by the fleeting ties of selfinterest, cannot be a good society. Such a society will fail even
if it professes that its role is only to allow each individual citizen
'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. It will fail to allow
this, not only for the poor, but even for the rich. As Robert
Bellah and his colleagues write in Habits of the Heart: 'One
cannot live a rich private life in a state of siege, mistrusting
all strangers and turning one's home into an armed camp'. 29
In ethics and the formation of a community there are virtuous
spirals and vicious spirals. If Aristotle was right to say that
we become virtuous by practising virtue then we need societies in which people are encouraged to begin to act virtuously. In major cities whose populations are embued with
the individualist ethos of material self-interest, the green shoots
of mutual trust or a virtuous disposition struggle to survive,
let alone grow and flourish. Bizarre as it may seem, we shall
see in Chapter 6 that engmy soldiers facing each other from
the trenches of World War I had a better basis for practising
reciprocity than do the anonymous members of modern cities.
We are in the process of creating societies that are mere
aggregations of mutually hostile individuals, teetering on the
brink of Hobbes's war of all against all. Wherever the sovereign cannot bring enough force to bear, the war could break
out, and the individuals are more lethally armed than Hobbes
could ever have imagined. Unless we begin now on the difficult task of restoring a sense of commitment to something
other than oneself, that is the future we face.
I wrote the preceding paragraph early in April, 1992, and
wondered if readers would consider it an exaggeration. But at
the end of that month, television viewers around the world
' W h a t' s i n 11 f o r m e ?'
; Saw it confirmed all too vividly in the Los Angeles riots sparked
, by the acquittal of policemen videotaped in the act of beating
' Rodney King. While the acquittal undoubtedly caused justi! fied outrage, the riots soon took on a life of their own. A key
j element was that the riots made it possible to take consumer
I goods without paying for them. Everyone was doing it, and
; the police could not be everywhere at once. In addition to the
JJDolice, at the time of the riots, there were 3,500 private security firms in Los Angeles, employing 50,000 guards, but even
Hhat was not enough. 30 One journalist painted this picture:
The five-mile length of Western Avenue up to Hollywood
Boulevard was a looter's alley of a bizarre modern kind. Like
all the other Los Angeles commuters, the looters came by car,
parking on the pavements with doors and boots open, as shoes,
clothes, television sets, compact disc players, and bottles were
tossed inside.
The parking lots of the big shopping malls look like so many
bankruptcy sales. Looters stacked supermarket trolleys with
their takings and wheeled them to their cars. Beds and sofas
were piled precariously on to trucks and driven triumphantly
away. There was a traffic jam to get in to loot the giant FedCo
discount store on La Cienaga, and at one Sears store, a helicopter television crew filmed looters arriving in a yellow cab . . .
On Sunset Boulevard on Thursday evening I watched children
with mobile phones co-ordinate the movements of their gangs
with the arrival of police and fire trucks, warning looters when
police were on their way. 3 1
Richard Schickel correctly made the link between the looting and the nation's passion for acquisition: 'Modern America's great guiding principle, shop till you drop, was in process
of revision; steal till you kneel was more like it'. 32 But Andrew
Stephen of the London Observer made a more important
h is no coincidence . . . that it all happened in the city that
most epitomises the burgeoning growth, under Presidents
Reagan and Bush, of a powerless underclass - a Rich v Poor
polarisation in a city where the world's most obscene conspicuous consumption of wealth exists so closely alongside Third
Using up the world
World-type ghettoes."
Nothing could have shown more clearly how in a society
that elevates acquisitive selfishness into its chief virtue, the
Hobbesian war of all against all lurks just beneath the surface.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Adam Smith?
When Dennis Levine helped tie up the Revlon takeover deal,
he celebrated by buying a Ferrari Testarossa. He may have
found it enjoyable to drive, but essentially he was spending
$125,000 on a symbol of success. Donald Trump, with greater
means at his disposal, bought a $30 million yacht that he
himself describes as 'a trophy'. Those with lesser incomes must
do the best they can. The car industry relies on people changing over their cars at frequent intervals that, in most cases,
have little to do with whether the car is still a safe and reliable
means of getting from one place to another. When the 1991
recession hit and people began holding on to their cars a little
longer, the American automobile industry went billions of
dollars into the red.
The same attitude is evident in many areas of consumption.
At one social level, one cannot be seen in the same clothes
one wore to the last society gathering; lower down, it is a
matter of not wearing something that was fashionable two or
three years ago. Alongside stories of famines in Africa or the
destruction of rainforests, and without the slightest sign of
awareness of any incongruity, glossy colour magazines feature
advertisements for new cars, high-fashion clothes, furniture
and ocean cruises. Newspapers carry stories of Indian villagers
forced to sell their kidneys to clear their debts while the same
papers sprout supplements that promote gourmet eating and
drinking, or tell readers how to redecorate their homes. Such
supplements make economic sense for the newspapers, since
their readers are a ready market for advertisers. But we should
stop and ask: in what direction are we - collectively - going?
If any single person pointed the direction in which the free
enterprise economy was to march, that person was Adam
Smith, and the pointer was his extraordinarily influential work,
The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith argued that
in a market economy, we can each become wealthy only by
being more efficient than our competitors at satisfying the
wants of our customers or clients - a thought epitomized in
his famous sentence: 'It is not from the benevolence of the
butcher that we expect our dinner but from his regard to his
own self-interest'. To serve our own interests, we will strive
to produce goods that are cheaper or better than those already
available. If we succeed, the market will reward us with wealth;
if we fail, the market will put us out of business. Thus, wrote
Smith, the desires of countless individuals for their private
interests are drawn together, as if by a hidden hand, to work
for the public interest. The collective outcome of the individual desire for wealth is a prosperous nation, which benefits
not only the wealthy, but also 'the very meanest person in a
civilised country'. On this last point, Smith waxed lyrical:
the accommodation of an European prince does not always so
much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the
accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African
king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.'
This became a standard justification for the inequality that
results from the pursuit of wealth under a free enterprise
system. Even the poorest, we are told, have no grounds for
U s i n g up t h e w o r l d 47
complaint, because they are better off than they would have
been if we had remained in a pre-industrial society. They are
better off, in fact, than a king in Africa! 2
Twenty years before he published The Wealth of Nations,
Smith wrote a critique of a recent work that was then causing
Something of a sensation among intellectuals on the Continent: Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality. Rousseau's essay, which compared modern civilization unfavourably
with the life of the 'noble savage', was an attack on everything
that Smith was later to champion. In Rousseau's vision of the
original state of human beings, the earth was left to 'its natural fertility' and was covered with 'immense forests whose
trees were never mutilated by the axe'. These conditions pro| Vided 'on every side both sustenance and shelter for every
species of animal'. As for the noble savage himself:
I see him satisfying his hunger at the first oak, and slaking his
thirst at the first brook; finding his bed at the foot of the tree
which afforded him a repast; and with that, all his wants
For taking us out of this idyllic state, Rousseau blamed the
institution of private property, which allowed us to accumulate more than we needed, and so made us compare what we
had with what others had, and desire to surpass them in
wealth. This multiplication of our wants he saw as the source
not only of inequality, but also of hatred, civil strife, slavery,
crime, war, deceit, and all the other evils of modern life.
Adam Smith, however, took a very different view of the
desire to accumulate possessions. Both in his critique of Rousseau and in a larger work, Theory of the Moral Sentiments (which
he was then delivering as lectures at the University of Glasgow), he defended the multiplication of wants and the desire
to accumulate possessions. It was, he thought, our desire to
accumulate more and more that led our ancestors to develop
the arts and sciences in ways which:
have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned
the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and
made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence
The rich . . . are led by an invisible hand to make nearly
the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would
have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions
among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford
means to the multiplication of the species.
A modern reader cannot help being struck by the difference
in the attitudes of Rousseau and Smith to the forests and
nature generally. Since the world has followed Smith, rather
than Rousseau, the continuing destruction of our forests is not
surprising. But now it is time to stop and ask: why are we
still following Smith rather than Rousseau? It is significant
that Smith did not defend the desire to accumulate possessions on the grounds that accumulation is the way to happiness. On the contrary, this belief was, he thought, a
'deception'. Regarding the grand houses and possessions for
which we striVe, Smith says:
If we consider the real satisfaction which all these things are
capable of affording . . . it will always appear in the highest
degree contemptible and trifling. But we rarely view it in this
abstract and philosophical light.
Instead, when we think about 'the pleasures of wealth and
greatness', they strike us 'as something grand and beautiful
and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil
and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it'. Now
U s i n g up t h e w o r l d 49
comes the punchline of all this: although we are deceived
when we imagine that wealth will bring us real satisfaction,
the deception is a fortunate one, because 'it is this deception
which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of
mankind'.4 Thus the father of modern economics and J the
greatest original advocate of the free enterprise society admitted that this form of society sprung from the pursuit of vain
desires that, even if we could satisfy them, would not bring
us any real satisfaction!
It is true that all this economic development conformed to
the Biblical notion that it is good for our species to 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and
have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of
the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the
earth'. 5 Today, however, the desirability of any further 'multiplication of the species' is highly dubious, and there are few
who would advocate turning more forests into 'agreeable
plains'. We need to challenge the view of nature that lies
behind Adam Smith's economics.
Living on our inheritance
As a generation, we have inherited the accumulated resources
of our planet: fertile soils, forests, oil, coal and minerals like
iron and bauxite. We began the twentieth century with a
relatively clean and stable natural global environment. On
this basis we have built an economy that produces, for the
upper- and middle-class citizens of developed nations, an
unprecedented standard of luxury, supplemented by an
extraordinary range of gadgets. The global economy now produces as much in seventeen days as the economy of our grandparents, around the turn of the century, produced in a year. 6
We assume that this expansion can go on without limit, but
U s i n g up the w o r l d
the economy we have built depends on using up our inheritance. Since the middle of the century the world has doubled
its per capita use of energy, steel, copper and wood. Consumption of meat has doubled in the same period and car
ownership has quadrupled. And these are items that were
already being used in large quantities in 1950; the increase
for relatively new materials, like plastic and aluminium, is
higher still. Since 1940, Americans alone have used up as
large a share of the earth's mineral resources as did everyone
before them put together. 7
I read once of a corporate manager whose division was the
slackest in the entire corporation. Productivity was appalling,
and it seemed inevitable that the division was running at a
loss. Yet, year after year, the accounts showed that the division had produced a respectable profit. The secret was that a
previous division manager had bought a large area of land for
possible future expansion. Encroaching suburbs had made the
land very valuable, and the division manager was now selling
a sizable chunk each year for a very healthy profit. His
immediate superior was aware of how the trick of finishing
the year in the black was done, but had no interest in putting
a stop to it, because the profitable results improved the
appearance of the overall performance in the several divisions
for which he was responsible. We are playing the same trick
in our national accounts. We are eating up capital, rather
than living on what we produce. The faster we chop down
our forests, sell off our minerals and use up the fertility of our
soils, the more our Gross National Product grows. In our
stupidity, we take this to be a sign of our prosperity, rather
than a sign of the speed at which we are using up our capital.
From the food we produce to the exhaust we emit from our
cars, the pattern is the same. We take what we want from
the earth, and leave behind toxic chemical dumps, polluted
streams, oil slicks on the oceans, and nuclear wastes that will
be deadly for tens of thousands of years. The economy is a
sub-system of the biosphere, and it is rapidly running up
against the limits of the larger system.
Many of the costs of economic growth have been familiar
since the factories of the industrial revolution began belching
their fumes across England, and a once-green area of the
West Midlands became so despoiled and covered in industrial
grime that it is still known as the Black Country. Only now,
however, are we realizing that our most precious finite resource
is the atmosphere itself. We think of the nineteenth century
as a period of dirty industries polluting the atmosphere, but
since 1950, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has climbed by more than it did in the previous two
centuries. The result is likely to be the end of climate stability,
with the immediate effect being to make the planet warmer
than it has been at any time in human history.8 Acid rain,
another outcome of atmospheric pollution, is destroying
ancient forests in Europe and North America. The use of
gases that destroy the ozone layer is a third atmospheric problem that has already, according to the United States Environmental Protection Authority, ensured that there will be an
additional 200,000 deaths from skin cancer in the US alone
over the next fifty years. 9
Consider food, something really basic to life that we do not
normally associate with consumerism. The United States began
the century with some of the richest, deepest soils in the
world. Now the farming methods it uses are responsible for
the loss of about seven billion tonnes of topsoil each year Iowa, for example, has lost over half its topsoil in less than a
century. In dry areas these methods are using up underground
water supplies like the Ogallala Aquifer that underlies the
cattle country from Western Texas to Nebraska — an irreplaceable resource that has taken millions of years to accumulate. Finally and most significantly, these farming methods
are also energy intensive, relying on fossil fuels for machinery
and for the production of chemical fertilizers. Traditionally,
agriculture was a way of using the fertility of the soil and the
energy provided by sunlight to increase the amount of energy
available to us. Corn grown by small farmers in Mexico, for
example, produces 83 calories of energy for every calorie of
fossil fuel energy used. Beef produced in an American feedlot
reverses the equation: it uses 33 calories of fossil fuel energy
for every calorie of food energy it produces. We have developed a pattern of agriculture that relies on using up stored
energy instead of capturing solar energy.
Nor is any of this being done in response to any crisis of
hunger or malnutrition. It is the appetite for huge quantities
of meat - especially beef - that is primarily responsible.
Although red meat consumption has declined in recent years
in the United States and some other developed nations, it
remains at levels that are, historically speaking, far above those
of most other human cultures. The Western image of the
good life is one in which there is a slab of steak on every plate
and a chicken in every foil bag. To produce this, we have
invented an entirely new form of farming in which pigs,
chickens and veal calves never see sunlight or walk in the
fields, and cattle spend much of their lives packed into feedlots, eating grain instead of grazing on the grass for which
their stomachs are suited. The animals have ceased to be
regarded as our fellow sentient beings; instead they are treated
as machines for converting cheap grain into high-priced flesh.10
But I have discussed the ethics of our treatment of animals
elsewhere; here my concern is the inefficiency of intensive
animal raising.
We are using our best soils to grow grain and soybeans in
order to feed them to cattle, pigs and chickens, whose carcasses will return only a small fraction of the food value to
the humans who eat them. When we raise cattle in feedlots,
U s i n g up the w o r l d
for example, only 11 percent of the grain goes to produce the
beef itself, with the remainder being burned off as energy,
excreted, or absorbed into parts of the body that are not
eaten. Cattle in feedlots produce less than 50 kilograms of
protein from the consumption of over 790 kilograms of plant
protein.'' The huge appetite for beef in industrialized nations
is a form of conspicuous consumption that drives us to demand
more and more land and resources. In the affluent nations,
each citizen is responsible for the consumption of nearly 1
tonne of grain every year; in India, the comparable figure is
no more than a quarter of a tonne. The difference is accounted
for not by our eating more bread or pasta (we physically could
not eat that much grain in this way) but by the pile of grain
hidden behind every steak, every slice of ham, and every leg
of chicken we consume.
Because we equate the good life with meat on the table,
there are now three times as many domestic animals on this
planet as there are human beings. The weight of the world's
1.28 billion cattle is greater than that of the entire human
population. In the last thirty years more than 25 percent of
the forests of Central America have been cut down so that
cattle can graze where the forest once stood. In Brazil the
bulldozers are still pushing on, clearing the Amazon jungle so
that cattle can graze for a few years. More than 40 million
hectares have gone already, an area larger than the whole of
Japan. 12 Once the soil has lost its fertility the cattle ranchers
will move on, but the forest will not return. When the forests
are cleared billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide are released
into the atmosphere, enhancing the greenhouse effect.
The destruction of the rainforests is not the only way in
which the huge population of animals being raised for food
contributes to warming the greenhouse. Cattle fart large
quantities of methane, the most potent of all the greenhouse
gases. The world's cattle are thought to produce about 20
percent of the methane released into the atmosphere, and
methane traps twenty-five times as much heat from the sun
as carbon dioxide. Chemical fertilizers used to*grow crops to
feed the animals we eat produce nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas. The heavy use of fossil fuels also contributes to the
greenhouse effect. By eating so many animals and animal
products we are helping to heat up our planet. The local
effects of this are difficult to predict, but some areas that now
support large populations would be stricken by droughts, while
others get more rain. What is predictable is that sea levels —
which have already risen by between 10 and 20 centimetres
over the past century — will rise further as polar ice melts.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated a 44-centimetre rise by 2070. l3 This means that entire
island nations like Tuvalu, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, and
the Maldives, could disappear. It has been reported that the
government of the Maldives has already had to evacuate four
islands. A report on the Marshall Islands produced by the
United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concludes that within a generation, 'many parts of the
islands may be unsafe to live on'. 14 That is serious enough,
but the loss of human life could be greater still in densely
populated low-lying delta areas like the Nile Delta and the
, delta region of Bengal. The latter, which makes up 80 percent
of Bangladesh, is already prone to violent storms and floods.
In these two regions alone, the selfishness of the rich is, by
its effect on rising sea levels, putting the land and lives of
46 million people at risk.' 5 In addition, we can expect the
loss of entire ecological systems, and the species of animals
and plants that are restricted to them, because such systems
will be unable to adapt to the rapidity of artificially induced
climatic change.
U s i n g up t h e w o r l d 55
How an overflowing sink makes Adam
Smith obsolete
Our economy is simply not sustainable. This is true even if
we focus only on the developed countries. But we cannot limit
our focus in this way. Jeremy Leggatt, science director of
Greenpeace in Britain, has warned that China's plans to
increase its coal burning sixfold in the next forty years could
mean that China will be emitting three times as much of the
world's greenhouse gases as the United States does today.
These fears led to the signing of the Climate Change Convention at the Earth Summit meeting held in Rio de Janeiro in
1992. But all the Climate Change Convention does is encourage — not require — nations to hold their greenhouse gas
emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that in order to
stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, emissions
need to be cut by 60 percent. 16
Moreover there is a fundamental ethical flaw in dealing
with the problem by taking present levels of emissions as the
benchmark, either for holding emissions steady or for cutting
them. The average American is responsible for the burning of
between 4 and 5 tonnes of carbon per year; the average Indian
and Chinese contribute roughly one-tenth of this amount.
How can the citizens of rich nations tell China to stop, when
even if China's ambitious plans succeed, each Chinese citizen
would still be adding less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
than the citizens of most rich countries do today?
No wonder that Third World economists are starting to
see Western concern about the environmental effects of Third
World economic development as a new form of colonialism.
Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and the Environment
in New Delhi has put the case forcefully:
U s i n g up the w o r l d 57
India and China today account for more than one-third of the
world's population. The question to be asked is whether we are
consuming one-third of the world's resources or contributing
one-third of the muck and dirt in the atmosphere and the
oceans. If not, then surely these nations should be lauded for
keeping the world in balance because of their parsimonious
consumption despite the Western rape and pillage of the world's
Agarwal suggests that we see our planet's facility for dealing with waste as a very large but finite global sink. The use
of this sink should be shared out equally between the people
of the world. Every individual on the planet might be regarded
as having an entitlement to dump, say, half a tonne of carbon
down the sink. On that basis, Americans are now using more
than six times their fair share, while most Indians and Chinese
are using less than their entitlement. The greediest users of
the sink are the people of the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the bloc that made up the former Soviet
Union. 17
Adam Smith denied that the rich deprive the poor of their
share of the world's wealth. In another part of the passage
cited earlier in this chapter, he wrote:
The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and
agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite
of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only
their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose
from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be
the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they
divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.18
Smith then refers to the 'invisible hand' which brings about
a distribution of the necessaries of life that is 'nearly the same'
as it would have been if the world had been divided up equally
among all its inhabitants. I doubt that this was true even in
Smith's day; but if we move to the present time, and consider
'the rich' to include all the developed nations, then it is clear
that Smith's argument has ceased to apply.
Smith never dreamt that the capacity of the atmosphere to
absorb pollutants might be a finite resource. So while he knew
that the rich could be selfish and rapacious, he did not imagine that they could take six times their share of the global
atmospheric sink. Far from dividing the produce of all their
improvements with the poor, the rich are presently on course
to drown tens of millions of poor people who have the misfortune to live in low-lying coastal areas, and to starve untold
millions more, as climate changes make the lands on which
they depend increasingly arid. These consequences remain
probable even if the rich abide by the Climate Change Convention and hold emissions at 1990 levels. Should such disasters miraculously be avoided, it will still be true that unless
the rich drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, they
are effectively depriving the poor of the opportunity to develop
along the lines that the rich themselves have taken; for if the
poor were to behave as the rich do, the global emissions would
rise dramatically, and the global sink would certainly overflow.
When are we well off?
Economic growth has become a sacred icon of the modern
world. The desirability of continued expansion of the economy
was subjected to sustained criticism from the environmental
movement of the late sixties and early seventies, but the criticism was soon brushed off by the politicians, business leaders
and trade unionists for whom the ideology of growth was the
answer to all problems.19 The earlier proponents of limits to
growth did their computer models crudely. They were too
U s i n g up t h e w o r l d 59
ready to extrapolate present trends into the future. As a result
they predicted that we would soon start running out of
resources. By making our use of energy and other resources
more efficient, we have succeeded in postponing the day when
we must make tougher decisions. Controlling population
growth is another key to limiting the damage we do to the
global ecosystem, and hence to postponing the day when irreversible damage becomes apparent to all; but even that will
not be sufficient. Sandra Postel and Christopher Flavin,
researchers at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC,
have in mind economic growth when they write:
If growth continues along the lines of recent decades, it is only
a matter of time before global systems collapse under the pressure . . . Continuing growth in material consumption - the
number of cars and air conditioners, the amount of paper used,
and the like - will eventually overwhelm gains from efficiency,
causing total resource use (and all the corresponding environmental damage) to rise . . . This aspect of the transition from
growth to sustainability is thus far more difficult, as it goes to
the heart of people's consumption patterns. 30
Lester Brown, President of the Worldwatch Institute, has
Movement toward a lasting society cannot occur without a
transformation of individual priorities and values . . . Because
of the strain on resources it creates, materialism simply cannot
survive the transition to a sustainable world. 21
According to a Brazilian study, if fossil fuel is used efficiently and we make greater use of renewable resources, we
might be able to provide everyone in the world with modest
but comfortable homes, refrigeration for food, access to public
transport, and occasional limited use of a car; but we will
never be able to provide everyone with the more profligate
lifestyle of, say, 'Americans today. As Alan Durning puts it:
'In the end, the ability of the earth to support billions of
human beings depends on whether we continue to equate
consumption with fulfillment'. 22
The problem is that our conception of the good life depends
on constantly rising levels of consumption. When the celebrated Harvard economist J. K. Galbraith published The
Affluent Society in 1958, no-one disputed the accuracy of its
title as a description of the United States; nor did they disagree with the picture presented in the book of a land that
had reached heights of affluence undreamt of by earlier generations. Yet America has since become, in terms of material
goods, considerably more affluent than it had been twentyfive years earlier. By the early eighties, Americans owned five
times as many air-conditioners per head, four times as many
clothes dryers and seven times as many dishwashers.2' In I960,
only 1 percent of American homes had colour television; by
1987, this had risen to 93 percent. Microwaves and video
cassette recorders entered American homes in the seventies
and eighties, and within a decade were to be found in nearly
two-thirds of all homes.24 Despite this dramatic increase in
material goods, people felt neither more affluent nor happier.
The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has for many years been asking Americans how happy
they are. The proportion describing themselves as 'very happy'
has hovered around one-third since the 1950s.25 Why has it
not risen with material levels of affluence? Essentially, because
though the society was still becoming more affluent, the rate
at which it was doing so had slowed:
In judging how well off we are economically . . . we assimilate
new input to our 'adaptation level'. For many Americans, having
one or several color television sets, two or more cars, a home
in which there are more rooms than people . . . these and other
features of their lives are experienced as the 'neutral point'.
They do not excite us or arouse much feeling. Only a departure
from that level is really noticed. Some pleasure may be afforded
by our background level of material comfort, but unless we
look elsewhere than the accumulation of goods for the main
sources of pleasure and excitement in our lives, we are bound
to be on a treadmill - one which, we are increasingly recognizing, can damage our health and shorten our lives. 26
Contemporary academic psychologists have explored this
feature of human psychology, and found that it holds quite
The phenomenon of adaptation (or habituation) to maintained
states is a fundamental biological regularity, which is observed
at all levels of functioning . . . At all these levels, the maintenance of a state and the frequent repetition of a stimulus event
are associated with a decreasing response to that stimulus . . .
Adaptation has two general consequences for subjective experience. The first is that exposure to repeated stimulation tends
to produce a neutral subjective state, or null state . . . The
second consequence of adaptation is that contrast is the primary determinant of experience.37
Adaptation works at a quite simple physiological level, as
well as at a psychological level. If we look for a time at a
theatre stage bathed in red light, a neutral mixture of redgreen will appear green to us, although it would appear colourless to someone who walks into the theatre without any
prior adaptation. In a similar way, people who have won lotteries are, after a little while, no happier than other people
who have not won lotteries. There are limits to adaptation.
U s i n g up the w o r l d 61
Even a long time after their accident, paraplegics are not as
happy as others. 28 In general, though, no matter what level
of comfort, luxury or pleasurable stimulus we achieve, it will
soon cease to bring us pleasure that is any more intense than
we had before.
The message is that, once we have satisfied our basic needs,
there is no level of material comfort at which we are likely to
find significantly greater long-term fulfilment than any other
level. A 1992 Time cover story entitled 'Why the Gloom?'
confirms that our judgements of how well off we are are
relative to that to which we have become accustomed. From
1959 to 1973 American incomes grew, in real terms, by 2.7
percent per year; from 1973 to 1991, they grew by only 0.3
percent per year. This is still an increase: there has been no
falling back below the levels of the early seventies, altRough
there may have been a retreat from the debt-financed investment and consumer binge of the eighties. Yet when asked
, whether Americans today can enjoy the same standard of living as recent generations, two thirds of those who gave a clear
answer said no. Time quotes a leading economist, Allen Sinai,
as saying: 'The 1973 period marked the beginning of the
decline of the American standard of living'. Whatever the
: psychological perceptions may be, it is clear that the figures
do not bear this out, unless American economists have become
, so growth-orientated that they view a fall in the rate of growth
Jas itself constituting a decline.29
i If we judge our success at least in part by the rate at which
our living standard is improving, we also judge it by comparing it with our neighbours, friends and colleagues. Here too,
the increasing affluence of society as a whole brings no increase
i in the average sense of well-being, because as our collection
of material goods increases, so does that of our neighbours.
Whether people compare themselves with their own wealth
the year before, or with what their neighbours have, it is clear
U s i n g up t h e w o r l d
that for most people, most of the time, the pursuit of material
affluence cannot bring happiness. That may be why the glaring disparities of wealth between Nigerians and West Germans, or between Filipinos and Japanese, do not give rise to
any differences in how people from these nations rate their
level of happiness. R. A. Easterlin, of the University of Pennsylvania, has carried out a comparative international study of
the link between wealth and happiness. His conclusion is that
there is very little relationship between the two: 'Economic
growth does not raise a society to some ultimate state of
plenty. Rather, the growth process itself engenders evergrowing wants that lead it ever onward'. 30
If the world continues to pursue material affluence on the
Western model, it will therefore risk environmental disaster
while failing to make us happier, even if economic growth is
achieved. To say this is not to be against economic growth.
There is potential for environmentally sustainable growth.
Often ways of doing things that are environmentally friendly
are also more labour-intensive than alternatives that consume
more fossil fuels or cause more pollution. The Worldwatch
Institute has estimated that generating 1,000 gigawatt-hours
of electricity per year requires 100 workers in a nuclear power
plant, 116 in a coal-fired plant, 248 in a solar thermal plant,
and 542 on a wind farm. 3 1 Those figures partially explain, of
course, why the nuclear and coal plants produce electricity
that, in straight dollar terms, is cheaper than the more environmentally friendly alternatives; but the cost to our global
ecosystem is not included in the dollar figures. The same is
true of a comparison between an industry based on the use of
a natural resource, such as a forest or a bauxite deposit, and
one based on recycling paper or aluminium cans. The use of
the natural resource may be cheaper, but it uses up an irreplaceable resource; recycling will be more labour intensive and
therefore costlier, but it is sustainable.
To move towards a sustainable economy would cause
unemployment in some industries, but on balance it would
create jobs, not reduce them. Nevertheless, in strictly material
terms, it has to be assumed that we would be worse off.
Consuming irreplaceable resources is a quick and easy way of /
enriching ourselves; and pouring our wastes down the global
sink is cheaper than the ecologically sustainable alternatives.
If we cut back on these ways of enriching ourselves, the economic loss must be felt somewhere. Products now made by
consuming irreplaceable resources or polluting the environment will become more expensive, and so we will be able to
afford fewer of them. That may include cars, consumer goods,
the use of energy for air-conditioning, heating and transport,
and even food, like feedlot beef and intensively farmed pork
and poultry, produced by methods that are extravagant uses
of energy, soil and water.
If we retain our narrow view of our own self-interest, particularly the conception that has been moulded by the development of consumerism since World War II, we will see the
reduction in material affluence as nothing but a setback. Even
if we recognize that the reduction is inevitable and that the
present economy cannot be sustained, we will consider it a
regrettable necessity, desirable in the interests of the world as
a whole, but bad in its impact on our own lives. But if we
have a broader view of self-interest we will welcome the
change, not just for the good of the global environment, but
also for ourselves. Walking, riding bicycles and using public
transport may use fewer resources than sitting in slow-moving
traffic in one's own air-conditioned car, but does the lower
use of resources lead to less overall satisfaction for those who
walk, cycle or take the train? This is just one way in which
the size of a nation's Gross National Product is no guide to
the level of welfare of the population.
This is one reason why we need to change our conception
of self-interest; but there is another, which goes deeper. For
centuries Western society has sought satisfaction from the
holy grail of material abundance. The search has been exciting, and we have discovered many things that were well worth
finding, but in so far as our goal was ever a sensible one, we
reached it long ago. Unfortunately we have forgotten that
there could be any other goals at all. What is there to live
for, other than to be richer than others, and richer than we
were before? Many who are outstandingly successful in terms
of the materialistic conception of success find that the rewards
for which they have worked so hard lose their appeal once
they have been achieved. Adam Smith would not have been
at all surprised. The search for happiness through material
wealth is based on a deception. Considered just from the
standpoint of our own real interests the case for changing
our conception of the good life is very strong. Now we can
also see, moreover, that this conception has to be changed
for quite different reasons. It was constructed and became
entrenched during a period when no-one thought of limits to
material wealth or consumption. As the idea of unlimited
growth has become untenable, so too has our conception of
the good life. So what should our goals be? The pressing
ecological need to change our economy offers us the best
opportunity for centuries to reflect on this question, and to
find out what it really is to live well.
How we came to be living this way
A perverse instinct
In America in the eighties, the ethos of money-making reached
a new historical high point, both in the amounts of money
that were made in a very short time, and in the openness with
which the goal of money-making was pursued. Such a society
does not develop from nothing in a decade. Its foundations
had been carefully laid over centuries. If we are to understand
what went wrong in the eighties, and what the broader
lessons of that decade are for the pursuit of the good life, we
need to be aware of these foundations. The ideas that grew to
dominate life in the United States have now spread to influence, to a greater or lesser degree, all of the developed world.
They beckon onwards what we call the 'developing' world as
The most celebrated essay on the origins of the capitalist
mind - and still one of the most illuminating - is Max
Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first
published in 1904. Weber, a German sociologist, had read
widely about Western and Eastern religious, ethical and economic life, ancient as well as modern. He found something
unique about the spirit of capitalism. Not that it was unusually greedy - on the contrary, wrote Weber, 'the greed of
the Chinese Mandarin, the old Roman aristocrat, or the modern peasant, can stand up to any comparison'. 1 What is distinctive about capitalism is the idea of acquisition for its own
sake as an ethically sanctioned way of life. Before the modern
era, money and possessions were valued only for what one
could do with them. At a minimum level money and possessions meant that one could afford food, shelter and clothing;
at a level of greater abundance, money and possessions signified a grand estate, servants, lavish entertainment, travel, perhaps also the ability to attract lovers or gain political power.
In the capitalist era money is valued for its own sake, not just
for what it can buy. At the higher levels of income, the natural order of things goes into reverse: instead of money being
valued for the things it buys, things become valuable for the
amount of money they cost. Van Gogh's Irises would have
been much less interesting to the wealthy Australian Alan
Bond if he could have bought it for half a million dollars. The
fact that he had to pay nearly a hundred times that figure
made Irises the most expensive painting in the world, and
owning the most expensive painting in the world was what
Bond, who knows very little about art, wanted when he was
at the height of his success. (Now, being bankrupt, Bond
might settle for less.) For capitalist man, the sole purpose of
one's life's work is, in Weber's words, 'to sink into the grave
weighed down with a great material load of money and goods'.
We do not acquire goods in order to live, instead we live in
order to acquire goods. Ivan Boesky had a T-shirt on which
was printed: 'He who owns the most when he dies, wins'.
That neatly sums up the attitude that Weber has in mind. In
a pre-capitalist society, Weber says, to get this the wrong way
round, making acquisition for its own sake the goal, would
be unworthy and contemptible, 'the product of a perverse
What changes did the development of capitalism make in
How we c a m e to be l i v i n g t h i s w a y
our values and goals, in our conception of what it is to make
a success of our lives? To appreciate the differences capitalism
has made to our attitude to acquisition and money-making
we need to go back to the roots.of Western ideas.
Aristotle on the art of making money
The origins of Western ways of thinking are to be found in
two places: in ancient Greece, and in the Judeo-Christian
tradition. If we turn first to Greece, we find a vigorous philosophical debate about the real nature of the good life; but
none of the leading philosophers taking part in this debate
see success in terms of the acquisition of money or material
goods. When Plato, in The Republic, sketched an ideal community, he made it consist of three classes, in which only the
lowest class - the farmers and artisans - would work for
profit and accumulate property. The rulers and guardians were
not even to own their own homes, but were to live communally. Free of the corrupting effect of money, they would be
better able to rule wisely and justly. This Utopian proposal
bore no relationship to Athenian civic life. The philosophy of
Aristotle was more in tune with human beings as they were
in his times, and still are today. Under Plato's idea of common
ownership, Aristotle objected, people will not share equally in
the work that needs to be done. Those who work hard will
resent others who 'labour little and receive or consume much'/
He also recognised the pleasures of ownership, and considered
them legitimate, for 'the love of self is a feeling implanted by
nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly
censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the
love of self in excess, like the miser's love of money . . .'4
Consistently with this distinction between legitimate love
of self and selfishness, Aristotle distinguished 'the natural art
of acquisition' from an excessive desire for money. The natural
art of acquisition is a form of 'household management', that
is, providing the household with the means for life. To this
Aristotle fixes no definite limit, but implies that we can
develop a sense of what is proper for the needs of the household. Money-making can be a means to the end of providing
the household with what it needs, but because it is only a
means to an end, it is limited by the nature of the end itself.
With this proper form of money-making Aristotle contrasts
a different kind of behaviour:
. . . some persons are led to believe that making money is the
object of household management, and the whole idea of their
lives is that they ought either to increase their money without
limit, or at any rate not to lose it . . . some men turn every
quality or art into a means of making money; this they conceive to be the end, and to the promotion of the end all things
must contribute. 5
Such people, Aristotle says, have mistaken the means for
the end. They believe that money is wealth. To show that
this cannot be correct, Aristotle points to the fable of King
Midas, who greedily wished that everything he touched should
turn to gold, and starved when food turned to gold in his
mouth. How can something be wealth, Aristotle asks rhetorically, if you can have it in super-abundance, and yet perish
from hunger?
For Aristotle, to acquire goods to meet one's needs is natural, and thus 'the art of making money out of fruits and
animals is always natural'; but to acquire money for its own
sake is unnatural and erroneous. Trading as a business or
means of making money Aristotle thought to be unnatural,
and 'justly censured' because it is 'a mode by which men gain
from one another'. Another way of putting this would be to
say: when we grow crops or raise animals we make our gain
How we came to be l i v i n g t h i s way 69
from nature, adding to the store of goods available for human
beings; whereas when we buy a product and resell it for more
than we paid for it, we have not added to the value of the
product. We make our gain from others, who are prepared to
buy our goods at more than we paid for them.
., Aristotle added that the most hated sort of trade is earning
money from lending money, for this
makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural use
of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not
to increase at interest . . . Wherefore of all modes of making
money this is the most unnatural/'
This idea came to be known as Aristotle's doctrine of the
sterility of money. For animals and plants to increase is natural, and for us to make use of this is also natural. But money
is sterile, and to make money from its increase is unnatural.
Can a merchant be pleasing to God?
When we turn to the other major source of Western ideas,
the Jewish and Christian tradition, we find that the ancient
Hebrew scriptures also condemn charging interest on loans,
but they put forward, in this respect as in many others, a
tribal ethic, suited to a small group of people living amidst
other groups. Thus in Deuteronomy we read:
Thou shalt not lend money upon usury to thy brother; usury
of money, usury of victuals, usury of anything that is lent upon
usury: unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto
thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury. 7
When, much later, Christianity arose among the Jewish
people, it proposed a universal ethic. Everyone knows that
Jesus urged us to love our enemies; less well known today is
the fact that he also told us to stop charging them interest:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for
nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be
the children of the Highest."
This injunction against seeking interest from anyone is consistent with Jesus's attitude to money-making in general, most
famously illustrated by his casting out of the temple of Jerusalem not only the money-changers but 'all of them that sold
and bought in the temple'. In doing so he said to those he
was evicting that the temple should be a house of prayer 'but
ye have made it a den of thieves'.9 Did he mean that to profit
from trade is a form of theft?
Jesus's attitude to earthly riches is equally well known,
thanks to his response to the rich man who asked him what
he had to do in order to inherit eternal life. Although the
man had, from his youth, observed all the commandments,
Jesus told him that this was not enough: 'One thing thou
lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to
the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven'. And when
the disciples were astonished at this, he said to them: 'Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into
the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through
the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the
kingdom of God'. 10
In keeping with these teachings, the early Christian communities appear to have held what little property they had in
common. The teachings of the Church Fathers were consistent
with this. The giving of alms to the poor was not a matter of
mercy, but of justice, for the earth was seen as belonging to
all people, and no-one had a right to more than he or she
needed." The fact that the apostle Matthew, who had been a
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
money-changer, did not return to his former trade after the
resurrection of Jesus, whereas Peter the fisherman did, was
noticed by Gregory, who in a memorable passage said that
just as there are menial tasks that soil the body, like cleaning
sewers, so there are others that stain the soul, and moneychanging is one of them. l 2
Not surprisingly, then, the Christian tradition was unfriendly to money-making. In the fifth century, Pope Leo the
Great wrote to the bishop of Narbonne that it is difficult to
avoid sin in the course of buying and selling; this statement
was quoted over and over again, and became part of canon
law, the law of the Church. So did another oft-quoted dictum:
'Seldom or never can a man who is a merchant be pleasing to
God'. In the early twelfth century Honorius of Autun wrote
a theological dialogue in which a disciple asks the master
about the prospects of salvation for those living in various
ways. When asked about the chances for merchants, the master says that they have only a slight chance of being saved,
because virtually everything they have they get by fraud, lies
and selfish desire for gain. Those who till the soil, on the
other hand, have a much better chance of being saved, because
they live simply and feed the people of God by the sweat of
their brows. 13
As commerce developed in Christian Europe, the sin of
usury received repeated condemnation. In introducing his
scholarly study of the debate over usury in the Catholic
Church, John Noonan points out that from our present
. . . we find it impossible to imagine that usury could once
have been defined as 'profit on a loan', that the vice of usury
could have implicated every part of Western society, and that
concern with his culpability of it could have plagued every
European businessman and landowner. '4
Yet so it was, for at least five centuries. In 1139 the Lateran Council condemned usury - by which it meant charging
interest on money lent, no matter how moderate the rate
might be - as 'ignominious'. Forty years later another Lateran
Council decided that usurers were to be excommunicated,
denied Christian burial, and their gifts or offerings refused.
By this time the definition of usury had been broadened to
include charging a higher price to those who bought on credit
than to those who paid cash. The Council of Vienne in 1311
extended excommunication to anyone who authorized or protected usury, including princes who protected usurers (many
princes were prepared to pay interest if they needed money to
wage a war, and they would then protect the money-lenders).
The prohibition on usury also gave a fatal impetus to antisemitism: because Christians could not be money-lenders, this
became a Jewish role; and the hatred felt for usury fuelled
existing prejudices against the already despised 'killers of
Some of the grounds for the condemnation of usury make
an intriguing contrast with our present ways of thinking. One
medieval theologian, Thomas of Chobham, found usury
objectionable because 'the usurer wants to make a profit without any work at all and even while sleeping, which is against
the teaching of the Lord: "You will earn your bread by the
sweat of your brow."' Moreover, Thomas added, the usurer
sells nothing that actually belongs to himself: he sells only
time, which belongs to God. This made the usurer a robber,
and indeed usury was often classified as a form of robbery or
theft. But it was also frequently compared with prostitution,
another occupation that was both well known and shameful.
Thomas found the comparison unfair to the prostitute: she at
least worked for her money, even if the work was ignominious. As if all this was not enough, another text points out
that while the peasant lets his cattle rest on Sundays, the
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
usurer does not let his money, which is his cattle, respect the
day of rest.
Tales of the wretched deaths of usurers were among the
most popular themes for preachers during this period.15 So
was what happened to the usurers beyond the grave. Bernard
of Siena wrote this portrayal of the usurer on the Day of
All the saints and all the angels of paradise then cry out against
him, saying, 'To hell, to hell, to hell'. Also the heavens with
their stars cry out, saying, To the fire, to the fire, to the fire'.
The planets also clamour: To the depths, to the depths, to the
depths'. 16
iI- Usury was linked with avarice. For the first Christian millenium, on most of the innumerable occasions on which some
religious teacher thought it desirable to warn the faithful
against falling into vice, it was pride, the vice of the aristocracy, that headed the list of vices. As commerce increased,
however, the emphasis shifted. Avarice, the vice of the bourgeoisie, joined pride at the head of the lists. In 1043 Peter
Damian stated unequivocally that avarice is the root of all
evil, and advised the monk seeking to live a Christian life that
'Christ and money do not go well together'. John of Salisbury
wrote that there is no vice worse than avarice, and Bernard
said simply that an avaricious man 'is like hell'.
Sculptors and painters, reflecting this current of opinion,
personified avarice in their works and delighted in showing
its punishment. Avarice was often a small crouching figure,
mouth open, clutching moneybags; but it could also be a fat
monster stooped down by the weight of a bag of money
around the neck. In a sculpted relief on a church near Parma,
such a figure is shown being punished. In addition to the
money bag around the neck, a devil presses down the weight
of a treasure chest that avarice carries on his back; for good
measure, another devil yanks out his teeth with pincers. The
porch of the monastic church of Moissac portrays the story
told in Luke's gospel, of Lazarus and the rich man. At the
top, the rich man is enjoying a sumptuous banquet while
Lazarus, poor and sick, lies on the ground outside. The rich
man's dogs lick his sores. But later Lazarus is nestled in the
bosom of Abraham, while the rich man, now dead, is tormented by demons. 17
Not only usury and avarice, but money itself came into bad
odour — quite literally. A priest in Brittany was accused not
only of stealing coins from his own collection money, but of
smearing excrement on a cross. The bizarre second charge can
only have arisen from some symbolic association between
money and shit. That this association existed is confirmed by
the practice, evident around the end of the thirteenth century,
of illustrating manuscripts in the margins with pictures of
humans (and also apes) defecating coins. 18
The Judeo-Christian tradition received an infusion of new
ideas in the thirteenth century, when the medieval scholastics
rediscovered Aristotle. For many centuries, only his writings
on logic had been known in Europe; now his Ethics and his
Politics, preserved by Arabic scholars, were read, discussed,
and incorporated in treatises on a wide range of ethical and
social questions. Thomas Aquinas made it his life's work to
blend the views of Aristotle — whom he referred to simply as
'The Philosopher', as if there were no other philosopher worth
discussing — with Christian teachings. In the area of economics, that was not difficult to do. When the scholastics read
Aristotle they found that his view of the central issue of
charging interest on loans was entirely in keeping with the
prevailing view of the Church on usury. Aquinas also readily
accepted Aristotle's view of the limits to natural, rational and
justifiable acquisition. This led him to a view that is strikingly
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
at odds with the generally accepted view of Aquinas as a
staunch pillar of the prevailing order in a highly conservative
Church. For Aquinas holds that there are some things that
we may acquire to satisfy our needs, and other things that, if
we acquire and retain them, are surplus. In discussing the
duty of giving alms he explains this concept as follows:
On the part of the giver, it must be noted that he should give
of his surplus, according to Luke xi.4l: 'That which remaineth,
give alms' . . . since it is not possible for one individual to
relieve the needs of all, we are not bound to relieve all who are
in need, but only those who could not be succored if we did
not succor them. For in such cases the words of Ambrose apply,
'Feed him that dies of hunger: if thou hast not fed him, thou
hast slain him'. l<;
This is a radical doctrine; but there is more to come. Aquinas also poses the question: 'Whether it is lawful to steal
through stress of need?' In answering, he draws from the
natural law view of property an implication that is downright
. . . whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by
natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this
reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals'. 'It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked
man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in
the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom'.
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is
impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing,
each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things,
so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are
in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent
that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by
whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in
some imminent danger and there is no other possible remedy),
then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of
another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly; nor
is this, properly speaking, theft or robbery . . . In a case of a
like need a man may also take secretly another's property in
order to succor his neighbor in need.20
Property, in other words, has its limits. The institution of
private property has a purpose, and if some own so much that
they exceed the purpose of the institution, what they have in
excess is a surplus for those who do not have enough. 21 There
is no just title to retain surplus wealth when others are in dire
need. Those in danger of starvation, or those who are coming
to their aid, are entitled to take from those with surplus
wealth. Since the Christian use of the term 'neighbour' knows
no geographical boundaries, we may take from the wealthy
to help those suffering from famine anywhere in the world.
To do so is neither theft nor robbery, because I am taking
something that belongs, by natural law, to those in need
rather than to those who already have more than enough.
So from ancient Greece through the earliest Christian times
until the end of the middle ages - in other words, for more
than three-quarters of the history of Western civilization money-making in general was often under a stigma, and the
use of money to make more money was particularly severely
condemned. Yet the use of money to make more money is
essential to capitalism, the form of economy that has dominated the Western world for the past two centuries at least,
and is now without serious rival anywhere in the world. With
the growth and eventual triumph of capitalism has come a
very different attitude to money and acquisition.
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
Luther's calling and Calvin's grace
The increasing influence of the commercial class in medieval
Europe put the traditional Christian view of money-making
under increasing pressure; but it was the coming of the Protestant religion that blew the old view apart. Martin Luther
saw the priesthood as corrupt, self-serving, and a barrier
between the believer and God. This led him to reject the
division of the Christian community into two castes, the priests
(including by this term everyone in holy orders from the Pope
down to the lowliest monk or nun) and the ordinary lay
believers. Buttressing this division in Catholic Christianity was
the notion that those in holy orders had a 'calling', while the
rest of us, thanks to Adam's sin, had to labour. In place of
this view Luther said that each of us has a 'calling', merchants
and peasants no less than religious leaders, and to succeed in
our calling is a religious duty. Accordingly, it was necessary
to abandon completely the old idea that to be a merchant is
inherently discreditable and makes it difficult to be saved. No
doubt abandoning this view also served the Protestant rebels
very well. To resist the power of the established Church, they
needed the support of the rising middle class, whose wealth
and economic power were at that time in inverse proportion
to the esteem they were granted by the Church.
Of all the leaders of the Reformation, John Calvin went
furthest in revising the traditional religious attitudes to the
business classes. A distinctive (and repugnant) element of his
theology is the doctrine of predestination according to which
salvation cannot be earned by good deeds or even by a morally faultless life, but must be bestowed by divine grace - the
'amazing grace' of the song that is so popular with American
congregations. For anyone who took the prospect of hellfire
seriously, doubts about whether one did or did not have grace
were a source of deep and enduring anxiety. This is the background for the most salient fact about Calvin's view of wealth:
7 8 H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
he saw worldly success as a mark of grace. Calvinists, then,
reversed the previous Christian view: wealth, far from imperilling one's chances of salvation, was a sign of salvation, and
the more wealth one had, the more unmistakable the sign.
Nor did Calvinists need to fear that in using money to
make money, they were violating natural law. Sweeping aside
the writings of scores of saints, popes and scholastics, Calvin
ridiculed Aristotle's doctrine that money is intended to be
merely a means of exchange, and that it is therefore unnatural
to use it in order to earn more money. A child can see, Calvin
tells us, that money locked in a box is sterile. But those who
borrow money do not do so in order to leave it idle. For
example, if money buys a field, then money bears more money.
Merchants borrow to increase their stock of goods, and for
them money can, quite properly, be as fruitful as any other
kind of goods. On this, of course, Calvin was quite right. The
decline of the feudal economy, the rise of the towns, the
greater freedom of craft workers and merchants to buy and
sell where they chose, all contributed to a more complex
economy in which money, in the form of capital, was an
essential tool for earning one's livelihood. So it was entirely
reasonable to suggest that the doctrine prohibiting usury
should be modified to take account of the growing use of
money as capital.
Equally convincing was Calvin's scornful dismissal of the
casuistry of the scholastics, who had by his time developed
many exceptions to the rule against usury. The ingenuity of
these commercial devices remained without parallel until the
rise of tax-minimizing accounting methods in the modern era.
The exceptions to the laws against usury effectively allowed
bankers to profit from lending money while pretending that
they were doing something quite different. This, Calvin
pointed out, is a trick that will not deceive God. But is usury
truly sinful? Calvin went back to the Golden Rule: usury is
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y . 7 9
sinful only if it hurts one's neighbour. And when does usury
hurt one's neighbour? One should not, Calvin preached, expect
a parson to know all the details of business. Let each believer's
conscience be his guide.22 Perhaps Calvin was here a little
naive about the nature of business and the efficacy of conscience, untutored by any specific principles, when it is up
against the drive for profit; or possibly he was primarily interested in gaining the support of the business community for
his teachings. In practice, as far as charging interest was concerned, 'Let each believer's conscience be his guide' meant:
anything goes.
Luther's idea of an earthly calling and Calvin's view of
worldly wealth spread rapidly in Protestant nations, and
nowhere more rapidly than in England, under Queen Elizabeth
I and her successors. During the late sixteenth century and
the first half of the seventeenth century, many English clergymen published works in which they assured their readers 'that
one served God by laboring ceaselessly in an earthly calling'. 23
When, in this period of intellectual and religious ferment the
Pilgrim Fathers and other Puritan settlers left England for the
New World, they took Protestant, and especially Calvinist,
doctrines with them.
Andre Siegfried, a French observer of American life, has
noted the striking contrast between the Catholic and Calvinist
ways of thinking about worldly wealth, and the impact of the
latter on attitudes to wealth:
Calvin . . . united religion and daily life for the first time since
the days of the ancients, for, according to his creed, the better
the faithful performed their daily task, the more they worked
for the glory of God. Though the Catholic Church has always
allied itself to riches, it has never held up wealth as a symbol
of godliness, believing that the poor man can retain his nobility
of soul, and possibly be even nearer to God. The Puritan on
How we c a m e to be
the contrary regards his wealth as an honour, and when he
hoards up his profits, he says smugly that Providence has been
kind. In his eyes and in the eyes of his neighbours, his riches
become the visible sign of divine approbation, and in the end
he cannot tell when he is acting from a sense of duty, and
when from self-interest. In fact he has no wish to make any
distinction, for he is accustomed to regard as a duty everything
that is most useful to his own advancement. As a result of this
more or less deliberate lack of psychological penetration, he
does not even rise to the level of a hypocrite.24
The religious and the secular converge
Since the Puritans in America had a new community to build,
they embraced with great enthusiasm the idea that work is a
divine calling and wealth a mark of grace. Cotton Mather,
the most influential of the New England preachers, told his
congregation that a Christian should 'glorify God by doing of
good for others and getting of good for himself'. 25 William
Penn, the founder of Quaker Pennsylvania, taught that wealth
is a visible sign that one is living 'in the Light'. 26 Of course,
for both Mather and Penn, this worldly calling was only one
side of life; it had to be balanced with a proper spiritual life
in order to please God. It was, however, the blessing of the
life of acquisition that left the more lasting mark on American
society. For this perhaps Benjamin Franklin bears some
Although Franklin habitually signed himself 'Benjamin
Franklin, Printer', today his name stands for many things:
writer, philosopher, scientist, revolutionary, statesman, and
member of the American Constitutional Convention. To many
of his eighteenth-century contemporaries, however, Franklin
was best known as a self-made man, 'the supreme symbol of
the poor boy who made good' and as the publisher of an
ing t h i s w a y 81
almanac that purported to be the work of a farmer of modest
means known as Poor Richard.27 In his autobiography,
Franklin tells us that, in order to make the almanac more
entertaining and useful, he 'filled all the little spaces that
occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar with
proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and
frugality . . .' The almanac became an annual bestseller,
bringing both fame and fortune to the young Franklin. In
1757 Franklin marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first
almanac by weaving many of the maxims together and publishing them in the form of a speech by a man he named
Father Abraham, under the title The Way to Wealth. If the
almanac had sold well, the speech was a smash hit, being
reprinted at least 145 times in seven different languages before
the end of the eighteenth century. Moreover, this popularity
endured: in the nineteenth century Nathaniel Hawthorne
called the now-deceased Franklin 'the counsellor and household friend of almost every family in America'; and towards
the end of that century one scholar calculated that The Way
to Wealth had been printed and translated more often than
any other work by an American. 28
Included in The Way to Wealth were such aphorisms as:
Plough deep, while sluggards sleep
A fat kitchen makes a lean Will
Fools make Feasts, and wise Men eat them
Get what you can, and what you get hold
Tis the Stone that will turn all your Lead into Gold.
This attitude to thrift, to hard work, and to the importance
pf acquiring and keeping wealth is also represented in another
of Franklin's writings, his Advice to a Young Tradesman. Max
Weber quotes at length from this work, which he regards as
displaying the spirit of capitalism 'in almost classical purity'.
What follows is not the entire passage Weber quotes, but
enough to give the flavour:
Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a
day by his labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that
day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or
idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has
really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides . . .
In short, the Way to Wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as
the Way to Market. It depends chiefly on two Words, INDUSTRY and FRUGALITY; i.e. Waste neither Time nor Money,
but make the best Use of both. He that gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets (necessary Expenses excepted) will
certainly become RICH . . .
Weber thought that an attitude like Franklin's would have
been considered, both in ancient times and in the middle ages,
'the lowest form of avarice'.29 He accuses Franklin of putting
forward the view that we should live in order to acquire more.
This accurately characterizes the passage Weber quotes, but
it is unfair to Franklin, who was neither Father Abraham nor
Poor Richard. The real Franklin founded or helped to found
Philadelphia's first college and first hospital as well as the
American Philosophical Society and many other public projects.30 He retired from business at the age of forty-two, when
he reckoned that the 'sufficient tho' moderate Fortune' he had
acquired was enough to provide him with 'Leisure during the
rest of my Life, for Philosophical Studies and Amusements'.
Thus he showed in the most definite way possible that he was
not interested in acquisition for its own sake. (He also showed
himself far wiser than his counterparts in the 1980s, men like
How we c a m e to be l i v i n g t h i s w a y 83
Boesky, Trump and Milken, who acquired fortunes that were
more than 'sufficient' but could conceive of nothing more
interesting to do than make still more money.) Franklin was
actively involved in the play of ideas and politics of his time,
at both a theoretical and a practical level. But this was not
the message that he left to the great bulk of his contemporaries. Franklin's significance in the development of modern
American ways of thinking about money-making lies in the
impetus he gave to a secular version of the Puritan idea of a
calling. In his popular writings, industry and frugality were
recommended, not as a way of honouring God and doing His
will, but as the way to become rich.
On both religious and secular grounds, nineteenth century
America felt justified in fostering the view that attaining
wealth is the proper goal of life. Peter Baida, author of the
aptly titled Poor Richard's Legacy, has seen America's early
fixation on wealth as the result of the break from Europe's
rigid class structures: 'The idea that all men were created
equal, and that all could be free to rise as high as their own
efforts could lift them, stirred everyone it touched in the young
nation. For white males, at least, no country in the world
raised fewer barriers to success, and none came closer to realizing the ideal of equal opportunity'. 31
The secular goal of the pursuit of wealth popularized by
Franklin was given an economic justification by Adam Smith,
as we saw in the last chapter. American religious leaders continued to show that they were no less supportive of the money
ethic than anyone else. In 1836 the Reverend Thomas P.
Hunt published a book entitled The Book of Wealth; in Which
It Is Proved from the Bible that It Is the Duty of Every Man to
Become Rich. In Hunt's Merchants' Magazine, in 1854, one writer
argued that the Original Sin was a failure to attend to business: 'Adam was created and placed in the Garden of Eden
for business purposes; it would have been better for the race
if he had attended closely to the occupation for which he was
made'. And Thomas Parker, a Boston Unitarian clergyman,
suggested canonizing the businessman as 'a moral educator, a
church of Christ gone into business . . . Build him a shrine in
Bank and Church, in the Market and the Exchange . . . No
Saint stands higher than this Saint of Trade'. McGuffey's
Readers, probably read by at least half the school children of
America during most of the nineteenth century, 'assured them
that making money was a moral duty sanctioned by divine
By the beginning of the twentieth century, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was justifying the size of the business he was about
to inherit from his father in terms more suited to the modern
scientific age:
The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest
. . . The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor
and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow around it. This is not an evil
tendency in business. It is merely the working out of a law of
nature and a law of God.35
Behind such thoughts lies Social Darwinism, the philosophical outlook associated with the English philosopher and
social scientist Herbert Spencer. Darwin himself firmly disavowed any attempt to see a moral direction in the course of
evolution, but Spencer developed a conception of social ethics
that was modelled on evolution. The struggle for survival was,
in his view, the chief cause of social progress. Hence it should
be allowed to continue with an absolute minimum of state
interference. Great wealth was a reward for taking great risks,
or great pains, and without it society would stagnate.
Spencer's philosophy was extraordinarily popular in America. One admirer, F. A. P. Barnard, described Spencer as 'not
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
only the profoundest thinker of our time, but the most capacious and most powerful intellect of all time'.34 Such praise is
so absurdly disproportionate to Spencer's merits as a philosopher that it can only be explained by the superb fit between
Spencer's evolutionary ideas and the mood of America. At the
time, the United States Supreme Court was using the Fourteenth Amendment - the amendment forbidding any state to
'deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law' - to strike down attempts to regulate industry. Spencer appeared to provide a philosophical justification
for opposing state interference with free enterprise, market
forces, and the evolutionary struggle for survival. So often was
Spencer invoked in this context that Mr Justice Holmes, one
of the greatest of the Supreme Court judges, and himself an
admirer of Spencer, was finally moved to his famous protest,
in the midst of a legal judgment, that 'the fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr Herbert Spencer's Social Statics .^
Spencer also attracted the enthusiastic support of one of
America's greatest industrialists: Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie
was an unusual mixture: the son of a poor Scottish immigrant,
he founded Carnegie Steel and became one of the world's
richest men. He saw it as his duty to give away, during his
own lifetime and for the public good, much of what he earned,
and advocated steeply progressive scales of death duties for
the rich who did not do likewise. He nevertheless described
himself, in his Autobiography, as a disciple of Spencer, and
under Spencer's influence wrote an essay that became known
as his 'Gospel of Wealth', in which he lauded free competition: 'while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual,
it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the
fittest in every department'. Like Adam Smith - though with
more intermediate steps - he argued that the existence of the
rich was good for the poor:
How we c a m e to be l i v i n g t h i s w a y 87
The poor enjoy what the rich could not before afford . . . The
laborer has now more comforts than the farmer had a few
generations ago. The farmer has more luxuries than the landlord had, and is more richly clad and better housed. The landlord has books and pictures rarer, and appointments more
artistic, than the King could then obtain . . . We must accept
and welcome, therefore . . . the concentration of business,
industrial and commercial, in the hands of the few . . . they
must accumulate wealth . . . Individualism, Private Property,
the Law of Accumulation of Wealth, and the Law of Competition [are] the highest results of human experience . . . the
best and most valuable of all that humanity has yet
Observers of America over a long period noted the impor- '
tance placed on getting money as a distinctive feature of
American culture. It was already evident in 1835 when Alexis
de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, in which he
observed: 'I know of no country, indeed, where the love of
money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men . . .'
and elsewhere in the same work he noted that 'The love of
wealth is therefore to be traced as either a principal or accessory motive, at the bottom of all that the Americans do . . .'37
In a book on American culture published in 1855 the German
writer Ferdinand Kurnberger made fun of Benjamin Franklin's popular homilies. They represented, Kurnberger thought,
a philosophy that makes 'tallow out of cattle and money out
of men'.38 In 1864 Thomas Nicholls wrote: 'Nowhere is money
sought so eagerly; nowhere is it so much valued . . . The real
work of America is to make money for the sake of making it.
It is an end, and not a means'.39 After extensive travels in the
United States in the first quarter of the twentieth century,
the Frenchman Andre Siegfried found America 'a materialistic
society, organized to produce things rather than people, with
output set up as a god . . . In the light of the American
contrast we see that material pursuits have not entirely
absorbed the soul of Europe . . .'40 Later the English political
scientist Harold Laski asserted: 'in no previous civilization has
the business man enjoyed either the power or the prestige
that he possesses in the United States . . . The great businessman in the United States has an aristocratic status comparable
to that of the landowner or the soldier or the priest in precapitalist Europe'. 41
The English historian, R. H. Tawney, found a name for
that type of society of which America had become the paradigm example:
Such societies may be called Acquisitive Societies because their
whole tendency and interest and preoccupation is to promote
the acquisition of wealth. The appeal of this conception must
be powerful, for it has laid the whole modern world under its
spell . . . The secret of its triumph is obvious. It is an invitation
to men to use the powers with which they have been endowed
by nature or society, by skill or good fortune, without enquiring whether there is any principle by which their exercise should
be limited . . . it offers unlimited scope for the acquisition of
riches, and therefore gives free play to one of the most powerful
of human instincts.
America was, by the beginning of the twentieth century,
clearly cast in this mould. Nowhere else in the world was the
free market so clearly triumphant. Nowhere else had socialist
or other left-wing ideas had so little effect. In Europe, and
even in other countries of Anglo-Saxon descent like Australia,
political parties of the left were either forming their first governments, or were at least strong enough to be a serious
political threat to the conservative governing parties; but in
the United States, the tag 'socialist' continued to be a term of
abuse, and if taken seriously, a path to political suicide. When
Friedrich Engels surveyed the American labour movement in
1887, he could find only one political party that he regarded
as truly socialist. It was founded by German immigrants, and
called the Socialist Labor Party; but the extent to which it
was part of American life can best be gauged by the fact that
Engels thought it necessary to recommend that if this party
was to grow in numbers and influence, its members 'must,
above all things, learn English'. 42
The consumer society
This set of both religious and secular ideas about the importance of wealth formed the foundations for our modern conception of the Good Life. That conception took its present
form in the United States in the 1950s. The productive
capacity of United States industry had expanded to meet the
needs of the victorious struggle against Nazism and Japanese
imperialism; now the slack was taken up - in part - by the
production of consumer goods. But there is no point in producing consumer goods unless people will buy them; and so
people had to be persuaded that these goods were what they
really wanted. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders described
the situation:
By the mid-fifties American goods producers were achieving a
fabulous output, and the output with automation promised to
keep getting more fabulous. Since 1940, gross national product
had soared more than 400 per cent; and man-hour productivity
was doubling about every quarter century.
One way of viewing this rich, full life the people were
achieving was the glowing one that everyone could enjoy an
ever-higher standard of living. That view was thoroughly publicized. But there was another way of viewing it: that we must
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
consume more and more, whether we want to or not, for the
good of our economy.43
The sections of Packard's book that really caused a stir
were those in which he described how the then-booming
advertising industry had begun to employ psychologists to
study the hidden motivations that led consumers to purchase.
Once these motivations had been found, the image of a product would be designed accordingly. So advertising began to
play on our desires for status, our fears of falling behind our
neighbours, and our worries about our body odour.
Consider the American car industry during the fifties. Each
year's new model was bigger than the one before. All through
the fifties and well into the sixties, American cars remained
absurdly large, they were dangerous, they guzzled fuel as if it
could never run out, they polluted the air, they were unreliable, and they handled poorly; yet they sold wonderfully well.
Skilful advertising encouraged the idea that there was something shameful about driving a car more than two or three
years old. After all, this year's car was longer, or lower, or it
had sprouted fins. Customers who bought new cars were buying status rather than improved transportation.
Only when a crusading young lawyer called Ralph Nader
began his relentless pursuit of General Motors over the illfated Corvair, which had an alarming tendency to flip over
when going around bends, did safety become an issue. (Even
then, Nader might never have got anywhere, had General
Motors not made the fatal mistake of employing an attractive
young woman to seduce him so as to get some dirt that could
be used against him; a tactic that, when it was revealed, did
not make the company look good.) Only when the oilproducing nations cut off America's supply, in 1973, did fuel
efficiency begin to matter. Only when the Japanese began
selling large numbers of more reliable, better handling cars,
did American manufacturers begin to concern themselves with
those qualities. Even then, of course, status did not cease to
be a factor in buying a car; it just became a tiny bit more
A withered greening
During the sixties, first the civil rights movement, then
the opposition to the war in Vietnam, and finally the entire
counterculture movement, made many young Americans ask
questions about the kind of society in which they were living.
Soon they were also asking questions about the future life
that American society held out for them - and finding radically new answers. Charles Reich, a professor of law at Yale
University, wrote a book at the end of the sixties called The
Greening of America. It began with a prediction:
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
peaking. For a few months the book was a hit, selling more
than a million copies. Everyone was talking about it. Then
the vogue was interrupted by reality. By the time The Greening of America had reached the bookshops, the peace and love
of Woodstock had already turned into the murderous violence
of the rock festival at Altamont. When Richard Nixon won
the 1972 presidential election by a landslide over the peace
candidate George McGovern, the opening passage of The
Greening of America was beginning to look like a joke in very
poor taste. Unable to change the world, disillusioned radicals
came to believe that they needed to change themselves first.
It was, in a way, a logical progression. Peter Weiss's muchacclaimed play (and later film) Marat/Sade had put the logic
behind it into the mouth of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade
told the French Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat where
he had gone wrong:
There is a revolution coming . . . It will not require violence to
succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. It is
now spreading with amazing rapidity, and already our laws,
institutions and social structure are changing in consequence
. . . This is the revolution of the new generation. Their protest
and rebellion, their culture, clothes, music, drugs, ways of
thought and liberated life-style are not a passing fad or a form
of dissent and refusal, nor are they in any sense irrational. The
whole emerging pattern, from ideals to campus demonstrations
to beads and bell-bottoms to the Woodstock festival, makes
sense and is part of a consistent philosophy. It is both necessary
and inevitable, and in time it will include not only youth, but
all people in America. 44
So the revolutionaries turned inwards. In 1972 Michael
Rossman, who had been with 'the Movement' since the Free
Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley,
Reich didn't explain how bell-bottoms were part of a consistent philosophy. Nor was he a success as a prophet. He
wrote his book just as the counterculture of the sixties was
Forecast for the next five years: Consciousness will be the country's quickest-flourishing growth industry. A kaleidoscope of
mutant flowers will appear on every block. Too many people
These cells of the inner self
Are worse than the deepest stone dungeon
And as long as they are locked
All your Revolution remains . . .
Only a prison mutiny
To be put down
By corrupted fellow-prisoners.45
will take to the easy lotus, giving up the task of integrating ]
what we have begun.46
A few months later one of the most dramatic of conversions
showed that Rossman had not exaggerated. Rennie Davis was
a leading, indeed near-legendary, anti-war activist and Movement organizer. He was one of the Chicago Eight, a group
put on trial for their role in the anti-war protests at the 1968
Democratic Party convention. In 1973 Davis announced that
he had received Knowledge from the fifteen-year-old guru
Maharaj Ji, the 'Perfect Master' whose chubby, smiling image
suddenly was everywhere, and whose devotees seemed to be
in a permanent state of bliss. Two months after his conversion, Davis spoke in Berkeley's Pauley Ballroom, where over
the previous decade so many debates had taken place on the
vital issues of Free Speech on the Berkeley campus, the war
in Vietnam, and strategies for pursuing radical politics. Davis
told the meeting that the Perfect Master was going to bring
perfection on earth right now, in three years - to America
this year, then to China (where Chairman Mao, it was said,
may already have received Knowledge from Maharaj Ji), and
after that to the entire world. 47 Rossman explains it as a flight
from the painful reality of the disintegration of the Movement
after the shock of the killing of student protesters at Kent
State University:
. . . by the time of Kent State, whatever organizational focus
the Movement once had had fallen apart and the loose common myth that guided the investment of our energies in political change was dissolving . . . Yoga, encounter groups, life in
the country, Dianetics, free schools, McGovernism, Jesus - a
multitude of devotional ideologies appeared to sap the energies
of political expression, lulling weary activists and hypnotizing
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
the young with blissful panaceas, away from dealing with an
increasingly problematic social reality.48
Jerry Rubin, a former leader of the zany radical group
known as Yippies, carried the trend to an extreme:
In five years from 1971 to 1975 I directly experienced est,
gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health
foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation,
Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian
therapy, and More House - a smorgasbord course in New
The Movement had now become the 'human potential
movement'. The flood of people attempting to create a better
society was sucked up into the sands of millions of individual
attempts to create a better self.
In the end, even Rubin tired of it. Early in the eighties, to
the delight of all those who had lacked his commitment in
the first place, Rubin started work on Wall Street. It seemed
to be the end of a cycle that had begun more than two
decades previously: 'From Freedom Train to Gravy Train',
one story was headed; or 'From "J'accuse" to Jacuzzi" as
another writer put it. 50 In going to Wall Street, of all places,
Rubin showed himself, again, to be sensitive to the swings of
fashion. For Wall Street was about to become the symbol of
the eighties. Greed was about to reassert itself, and become
The Reagan years: 'Enrich thyself
Here is Kitty Kelley's description of Ronald Reagan's inauguration celebrations:
Hordes of Ronald Reagan's wealthy supporters . . . displayed
what was to become the hallmark of the Reagan era: bright,
shiny, new, noisy wealth that is most often seen in long limousines, rustling furs, ornate gowns and jewels the size of cow
pats. Their celebration continued during the four days and 103
parties of the inaugural. 31
After the parties came the china. Although the White
House contained 10,000 pieces of china when the Reagans
moved in, Nancy Reagan decided to order 220 new place
settings of seven different styles of plate each, plus finger
bowls, ramekins and more, with a 24-carat gold seal in the
middle of each plate. The acquisition of $209,508 worth of
china for the White House might not have attracted much
attention, had the First Lady not announced it on the day
that her husband released his administration's decision that,
as a cost-saving measure, ketchup would be counted as a
vegetable in the federally subsidized school lunch program. 52
Time, usually no great enemy of the rich, described the
Reagan Administration as one 'whose clarion call is: "Enrich
thyself"', and noted that Reagan made it clear that he
regarded money as the measure of achievement. Accordingly,
he preferred the company of the wealthy. Among these was
the multimillionaire businessman Justin Dart, a member of
Reagan's 'kitchen cabinet'. Strictly speaking, it is Dart, rather
than Ivan Boesky, who deserves the credit for kicking off the
'greed is good' theme that typified the eighties. Said Dart, in
a 1982 interview in the Los Angeles Times: 'Greed is involved
in everything we do. I find no fault with that'. 53
This was also the decade in which Christianity completed
its long journey from a religion that despised material wealth
to one that cherished it. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the
Church of Scientology, once wrote that the quickest way to
make a million in America is to start a new religion.5* But
How w e c a m e t o b e l i v i n g t h i s w a y
refurbishing an old one seemed to do just as well. Jerry Falwell, then pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in
Lynchburg, Virginia, and president of the pro-Reagan Moral
Majority, wrote a pamphlet on the Christian foundations of
capitalism, in which he reiterated the Calvinist theme that
money is a sign of God's grace. Perhaps for that reason, Falwell paid himself an annual salary of $100,000, in addition to
the money he earned from perhaps a dozen speaking engagements a year at $5,000 each. 55 Falwell was, however, a man
of modest tastes by the standards of some of his rivals. In
1987, Time investigated the finances of the most successful
American television evangelists of the decade.56 It found that
the Louisiana preacher Jimmy Swaggart ran a ministry that
was like a family business, with seventeen members of his
family on the payroll. Jimmy and his wife borrowed $2 million from the ministry to build three luxurious homes, and
drove two Lincoln Town Cars. Robert Schuller, who broadcast
his Hour of Power every week from the $20 million Crystal
Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, was paid $86,000 plus
a tax-exempt housing allowance of $43,500; eight members
of his family were on the payroll of Robert Schuller Ministries.
Oral Roberts, another popular 'televangelist' had the use of
two houses worth $2.9 million, and owned another worth
over half a million. But if money was a sign of God's grace,
Jim Bakker was, until adultery with a secretary led to his
downfall, the most bountifully blessed of them all. According
to the Internal Revenue Service, Bakker earned $638,112 in
1983; he owned six luxurious homes and had bathroom taps
plated with gold.
The astonishing part of all this is that the more these purportedly Christian evangelists flaunted their wealth, the more
Americans flocked to them. That, more than anything, indicates how far the American love affair with wealth and with
wealthy celebrities had gone. Nor was this positive attitude to
H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
wealthy religious leaders limited to Christians. Bhagwan Shree
Rajneesh, the Indian guru whose followers were known as the
Orange People after the colourful robes they wore, showed
that religious leaders who drew on the traditions of the East
could easily adapt to the America of the eighties. Rajneesh
collected Rolls-Royces the way children collect Matchbox cars.
In 1983, he had twenty-one; by December 1985, when
Rajneesh had been deported and his property was being sold
to pay off debts, there were ninety-three of them. 57
Every aspect of culture joined in the chorus in praise of the
pursuit of wealth. Madonna sang that she was just a 'material
girl' and Cyndi Lauper had a hit with 'Money Changes Everything'. If there was any satirical intent in either of these pop
songs, it surely escaped many of those who danced to them.
Even New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art became more
innovative in raising money, sending a letter to corporations
suggesting that art can be profitable:
Learn how you can provide creative and cost-effective answers
to your marketing objectives by identifying your corporate
names with Vincent Van Gogh . . . Canaletto . . . Fragonard,
Rembrandt or Goya . . , 58
In the same year, the museum let it be known that it was
for hire. For a fee of $30,000, one could throw a party in the
Great Hall, or even in the lofty space surrounding the Temple
of Dendur, which the Egyptian Government had shipped to
America as a way of saying thanks to the American people
for their assistance in saving Abu Simbel from the waters of
the Aswan Dam. Parties there became so common that one
gossip columnist took to referring to the museum as 'Club
Met'. The wedding of Laura Steinberg, daughter of financier
Saul Steinberg, and Jonathan Tisch, son of Laurence Tisch,
chief executive of CBS, was celebrated in the museum, which
How we c a m e to be l i v i n g t h i s way
had been festooned with 50,000 French roses, gold-dipped
magnolia leaves, a hand-painted dance floor, and a ten-feethigh wedding cake. The night's festivities cost $3 million.59
For those who had ethical qualms about such expenditure
while welfare programs were being cut, the wealthy supporters of Ronald Reagan had their answer in George Gilder's
much-acclaimed Wealth and Poverty. Gilder lauds the wealthy
while arguing that welfare harms the poor. 'In order to succeed', Gilder wrote, 'the poor need most of all the spur of
their poverty'/'" In his preface, Gilder thanks David and Peggy
Rockefeller for their generosity and faith in his work. In the
bo,dy of his book, he repays their generosity by hailing the
wealthy as the 'greatest benefactors' of society. In an updated
version of Adam Smith's 'the humblest peasant lives better
than a King in Africa' argument, Gilder and other supporters
of 'Reaganomics' asserted that the wealth made by the superrich in the eighties was bound to benefit the whole of society,
and trickle down even to the poor. Not until Reagan had
gone and the decade was over did detailed economic statistics
explode this assumption. Using figures released by the Congressional Budget Office, Paul Krugman, an economist at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calculated that 60
percent of the growth in the average after-tax income of all
American families between 1977 and 1989 went to the richest
1 percent of families. (These families had an average annual
income of at least $310,000 a year, for a household of four.)
Another 34 percent went to families whose incomes were in
the top 20 percent, leaving only 6 percent of the total growth
in income to be divided between the remaining 80 percent of
the population. Krugman's calculations were challenged. Critics noted that tax rates had been lowered during the Reagan
years; therefore, they said, the rich may have become more
honest in reporting their income. That is possible, of course,
but it hardly seems likely to account for more than a small
9 8 H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
portion of the increase, because the figures show that corporate salaries to chief executives - which cannot be concealed
from the tax authorities - soared during the decade. Even
among the critics, there is general agreement that the top 1
percent had done better during the 1980s than the rest of the
nation, and that by the end of the decade, the 2.5 million
Americans at the top of the income scale were taking in as
much each year as the 100 million Americans at the bottom.
This was not true of the beginning of the decade.61
The eighties were to be the decade in which greed overcame its unfortunate bad odour, and was openly rehabilitated
as a civic virtue that made everyone better off. It didn't turn
out like that. By the early nineties, the giants of Wall Street
— men like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken — had been sent
to gaol. Donald Trump was selling off his assets and negotiating with his creditors to stay afloat. Alan Bond was bankrupt, Irises long sold. And then it became clear that the wealth
of the rich remained concentrated among the rich, after all.
Suddenly greed did not look so good. But the alternative
ideals of Aristotle or the pre-reformation Church were now
buried deep under centuries of teachings that tied the good
life closely with wealth and acquisition. From where could an
alternative ideal of the good life emerge?
Is selfishness in our genes?
The biological case for selfishness
A true 'it fell off the back of a truck' story occurred some
years ago in the United States when a man of limited means
found a sack of money that had fallen from a Brinks truck.
He returned the money to Brinks, who had not yet even
discovered the loss. The media made him a hero - but he
received scores of letters and phonecalls telling him that he
was a fool, and should look out for himself in the future.'
This story illustrates how far our society has gone towards
the twin assumptions that 'looking out for number one' is the
only sensible thing to do, and getting more money is the way
to do it. If we accept these assumptions, we are not making
the ultimate choice about how we are to live. Our culture
makes it for us. It limits the range of possible ways of living
that seem to be worth taking seriously.
The story also suggests one reason why some people hesitate to do what they know to be right, if they can get more
money, or something else they want, by doing what they
know to be wrong. Absurd as it may sound, they don't want
to do what is right because they think that by doing so they
will look bad in the eyes of their friends. Their worry is not,
of course, about looking morally bad, but about looking
stupid. Behind this response lies the idea that ethics is some
kind of fraud. Since, according to this line of thinking, everyone - or almost everyone - does put herself or himself first,
and this includes those who keep preaching to us about ethics
and self-sacrifice, you'd have to be a fool not to do the same.
In an earlier book called The Expanding Circle, I discussed
the view that no-one ever acts ethically. There I suggested
that every blood donor who gives blood to strangers without
any reward beyond an indifferent cup of tea and a biscuit
redeems human nature from the denigration of its cynical
critics. For this simple claim I was severely taken to task by
Richard Alexander, professor of evolutionary biology at the
University of Michigan, and one of the leading biologists writing about morality. According to Alexander, I had been led
astray by my 'commonsense' assumption that people who give
blood do so in order to help others. This appeal to commonsense, Alexander sternly informed his readers, fails to take
into account 'well established biological facts and theories'
and ignores 'the probability that what one thinks is the reason
behind one's act may not convey its real significance'. 2
Is there really something in our biological nature that
compels us to be selfish? Is this the biological equivalent of
Original Sin? When eminent biologists say that established
biological facts show the impossibility of genuine altruism, are
they right? How serious is the threat from established biological theories to our commonsense belief in the possibility
of living unselfishly? This and the following two chapters of
this book examine the constraints our biological nature really
does — or does not — impose on our ultimate choice.
Here, in popular form, is the gist of the biological argument that leads many to think that selfishness is inevitable:
Modern human beings are the outcome of a long and unceasing evolutionary struggle. In that struggle some individuals
succeed in feeding themselves and surviving long enough to
our g e n e s ?
reproduce. Others do not. Those who succeed pass their genes
on to the next generation; the genes of those who lose are
extinguished from the population. Egoists who act first and
foremost in their own interests stand a better chance of winning than altruists, who put helping others to win ahead of
maximizing their own chances of winning. Since traits like
selfishness are at least in part determined by our genes, this
means that the number of egoists will grow and the number
of altruists will shrink. In the long run - and evolution has
already had a very long run indeed — there will be no true
altruists at all.
This is not a quotation; it is a distillation of a strand of
thought that can be found in many books and popular articles, as well as in general conversation and letters to the editors of newspapers. It has scientific supporters like Richard
Alexander. Edward O. Wilson, founding father of the field of
sociobiology (which studies the biological basis of social
behaviour in humans and other animals), has also denied the
possibility of pure altruism. Confronted with the example of
Mother Teresa's lifelong dedication to the sick and dying street
people of Calcutta, he pointed out that she is a Christian, and
therefore presumably believes that she will receive her reward
in heaven.3 Another sociobiologist, Pierre van den Berghe, has
said flatly: 'We are programmed to care only about ourselves
and our relatives'.4 Garrett Hardin, an American professor
with a background in the biological sciences, has gone even
further, suggesting that social institutions and public policies
should be based on 'an unwavering adherence to the Cardinal
Rule: Never ask a person to act against his own self-interest' ?
It is, of course, true that humans have evolved from other
animals. We are apes. We share 98.6 percent of our genes
with chimpanzees. Genetically, we are closer to chimpanzees
than chimpanzees are to orang-utans. Human beings and
chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor by a process of
natural selection, sometimes called 'the survival of the fittest'.
But if this phrase conjures up images of 'nature red in tooth
and claw', those images should be put aside. The 'fittest' sim-i
ply means, in evolutionary theory, those who are best equipped
to have offspring who will themselves survive and reproduce.!
Together with other apes, and primates more generally,
humans are social mammals. Social mammals live in groups,
and care for their young. That is how they manage, not always
but often, to leave descendants when they die.
Among the social mammals, it is relatively easy to find
examples of animal behaviour that are anything but selfish.
Perhaps the most famous - because it has sometimes been
directed at humans - is the way in which dolphins help injured
members of their group to survive. Dolphins need to come to
the surface of the water to breathe. If a dolphin is so badly
wounded that it cannot swim to the surface by itself, other
dolphins will group themselves around their wounded companion, pushing it upward to the air. If necessary, they will
do this for many hours. Social animals also share. Wolves and
wild dogs bring meat back to members of the pack who were
not in on the kill. Chimpanzees lead each other to trees that
have ripe fruit. When a whole group of chimpanzees is at a
good tree, they make a loud booming noise that attracts other
chimpanzees up to a kilometre away. Social animals warn each
other of danger. When hawks fly overhead, blackbirds and
thrushes give warning calls, helping other members of the
flock to escape, but perhaps at some risk of attracting the
hawk to themselves. An even more remarkable case is that of
Thomson's gazelle, a small species of antelope that is hunted
by packs of African wild dogs. When a gazelle notices a dog
pack, it bounds away in a curious stiff-legged gait known as
'slotting'. This appears to be a warning signal; every other
gazelle immediately flees. But stotting is a slower gait than
Is s e l f i s h n e s s in our g e n e s ?
normal running, so the stotting gazelle gives up some precious ground in order to warn others of the danger. 6
When animals do fight with other members of their species, they will often appear to obey rules, much like the ethical
rules of combat adopted by medieval knights. When one wolf
gets the better of another, the beaten wolf makes a submissive
gesture, exposing the soft underside of its neck to the fangs
of the victor. Instead of taking the opportunity to rip out the
jugular veins of his or her foe, the conquering wolf trots off,
content with the symbolic victory.7 From a purely selfish point
of view, such noble conduct seems foolish. Why let the beaten
enemy live to fight another day? Could the answer lie in
something larger than the interests of the victorious wolf?
In short, it is a mistake to view nature as a life and death
struggle in which those who worry only about their own food,
safety and sexual satisfaction are'bound to eliminate the others.
This is not what biology and evolutionary theory tell us. The
landscape we must traverse in order to survive and pass on
our genes is much more complex than that represented in the
crude sketch given above; or to put it another way, there is
more to life, and more to passing on our genes, than eating
and copulating. In this chapter, I shall give three reasons why
we are not biologically determined to think and act in the
narrowly selfish way that the popular view suggests; a fourth,
more complex reason, receives separate treatment in Chapter
7, and I put forward a more speculative fifth reason in the
final chapter.
Caring for our children
Dimity Reed is an architect and writer who
bourne, not far from where I live. She is also
Josh. At nineteen, Josh became seriously ill.
was kidney failure. He went on dialysis, but
lives in Melthe mother of
The diagnosis
over the next
three years, his health gradually deteriorated. He was on a
waiting list for a 'transplant; so, however, were many others
whose condition was just as bad or worse. After Josh graduated from university his uncertain health caused him to miss
out on a job he wanted. Dimity had read somewhere that
parents may be able to donate kidneys to a child. She suggested the possibility to Josh's doctor. He told her that while
she could live in good health with one remaining kidney, if
something were to happen to it, she could die. She replied:
'We're a family of optimists'. That was three years ago. Dimity and Josh now have one healthy kidney each.8
Renuka Natarajan lives in the village of Villivakam, near
Madras, in India. Renuka is a mother who, like Dimity Reed,
has given up her kidney to help her child. But Renuka's child
did not have kidney disease. She and her husband had no
work. They had debts, and they were worried that, without a
dowry, their daughter would be unable to marry. Renuka's
husband saw an advertisement in the local newspapers offering about $1,500 for a kidney. That was the equivalent of
about eight year's wages for an Indian villager. Renuka sold
the kidney, paid off some debts, and set aside some money
for her daughter's dowry. But her operation did not go well.
She was in pain afterwards, and had to spend some of the
money she had been paid on further medical treatment. 9
These two stories come from worlds that are far apart,
culturally, economically and geographically; but they reveal
the same readiness of a mother to make a significant sacrifice
for a child. There is nothing in such stories to surprise any
evolutionary biologist. We do not pass on our genes simply
by spreading our seeds and leaving the resulting offspring to
fend for themselves as best they can. Having children is only
the first step. If our genes are to survive, our children must
themselves live long enough to have their own children, who
must in turn have children, and so on. Immediately, therefore,
our g e n e s ?
we can see that we must care for one very significant group
of other beings: our children. Not every parent would undergo
a major operation and give up a kidney for a child, but the
fact that some do indicates the extent to which caring for our
children can lead us to act unselfishly, for the good of another
That people often put the interests of their children ahead
of their own interests is something we take for granted. We
notice it only in extreme cases, like those of Dimity and
Renuka, or in the opposite cases, when parents abandon or
neglect their children. The love of parents for their children is
so basic to human nature that when people occasionally behave
in aberrant ways that show neglect or lack of concern for their
children, we fail to comprehend how a mother or father can
lack something that is so natural to us. We will be satisfied
only if we can find an explanation as to why they are missing
something that the rest of us take for granted - and the
explanation is itself often in terms of a deprived childhood,
thus testifying once again to the importance we place on
family life for both the parents and the children. We are (and
were, even in more puritanical times) more ready to pardon
mothers who resort to prostitution to feed their children, than
mothers who neglect or abandon them.
Around the turn of the century, Edward Westermarck
gathered all the information he could find on the ethical systems of different societies into a bulky two-volume work called
The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. In this he points
out that a mother's duty to look after her children has seemed
so obvious that most anthropological accounts scarcely bother
to mention it. What of a father's duty to look after his children? Although Westermarck says that the duty of a married
man to support and protect his family is as widely recognized
as that of a mother to care for her children, he does not say
that the father's duty is taken for granted, as he does in the
case of a mother's duty to her children. Evolutionary theory
gives grounds for believing that mothers might generally be
more prepared to make sacrifices for their children than fathers.
First, mothers can be sure that the children for whom they
care are indeed their genetic children; fathers often cannot.
Second, barring multiple births, or the application of modern
reproductive technology of the kind now used with prize cows,
women are limited in the number of children they can have
to an absolute maximum of one every nine months between
the ages of approximately thirteen and forty-five (or possibly
just a few more, since she may have some twins or other
multiple births). There is no obvious physical limit to the
number of children a man can have. Thus men might leave
more descendants if they spread their seed widely and give no
support to their offspring. Some of the mothers could succeed
in rearing the children alone or with the support of other
males. (I am not, of course, suggesting that males consciously
pursue this strategy in order to have more children; only that
this pattern of behaviour, among males, could be passed on
to future generations of male descendants.)
On the other hand, a woman who abandoned her children
without caring for them would be much less likely to have
descendants with a similar pattern of behaviour. In addition
to women's inability to produce as many children as a male, f
more of her children would die, because, until very recently,
infants needed to be breastfed to survive. The biological facts
of pregnancy mean that a woman necessarily has a larger
investment of time and energy in each child than the father
of the child need have.
Nevertheless, that fathers do care for their children is
undeniable. David Gilmore, a comparative anthropologist,
studied a wide range of societies in order to discover if there
are any universal traits which are regarded as 'manly'. He
found that having children, and providing for and protecting
our g e n e s ?
one's family, are universally respected in a man. 10 In general,
then, we can speak of parental care, and not only maternal
The readiness of parents to put the interests of their children ahead of their own interests is a striking counter-example
to the general thesis that people are selfish. When parents
comfort a crying baby, they are not doing it because they are
thinking of the time, twenty or thirty years ahead, when the
child may be able to support them in their old age. They are
responding directly from their love for the baby and their
empathy with the picture of misery that a crying baby presents - especially when it is your crying baby. To provide
comforts for their children, parents go without things that
they need. If necessary, to see that their children are well fed,
well clothed and well educated, parents go without the holiday they would like to take or the new car they would like to
drive. 'I always wanted the best for you', they say in explanation to their children, and it is usually true. In many countries, prudent people take out life insurance so that their
families will have some money if they should die. Paying an
annual premium means that they have less money to spend
now than they would otherwise have. There is nothing odd
about that — except that they are not being 'prudent' for
themselves at all. This very common precaution makes sense
only on the assumption that we care for the welfare of at least
one other being.
To be effective parents we must be able to understand what
our children need, and we must want to give them what they
need. I may have just eaten a large meal; the thought of
eating more makes me ill; but if I find that my child is
hungry, I will try to get some more food. This is the first step
beyond egoism. The nineteenth century British philosopher
John Stuart Mill described the family as 'a school of sympathy, tenderness and loving forgetfulness of self." The full
story is not quite so simple, but the importance of sympathy,
tenderness and loving forgetfulness of self in the family is, in
one sense, exactly what biological theories tell us to expect.
Biologists, however, will only classify an action as altruistic or
unselfish if it reduces one's 'reproductive fitness' - that is,
one's prospects of leaving descendants. Hence they often fail
to acknowledge that what happens between parents and children is a step beyond egoism at all.
Caring for our kin
It is easy to understand that:
(a) evolution is a matter of passing on our genes to the next
generation; and
(b) one way of passing on our genes is to have children, and
do our best to ensure that our children survive.
It is not so obvious that there are other ways of acting that
will also increase the survival of our genes in the next generation - in particular, that:
(c) we can increase the number of our genes that exist in
the next generation by doing our best to ensure the survival
of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and other relatives who
share many of their genes with us.
One reason why some people do not see this is that the
genes that survive when our relatives pass on their genes are
genes like ours, that is they are other sets of genes similar to
ours, rather than our genes. But then, the genes that we pass
on through our own sperm or eggs are also just one set of
genes that are like the genes from which we ourselves developed. If we think of genes as sets of instructions, like software
programs, rather tha,n as the physical forms in which these
sets of instructions are written down, we should be able to see
that it makes no difference to the survival of my genes whether
our g e n e s ?
the genes pass through my body, or through the body of
another who carries similar genes.
Of course, passing on genes is not like copying software on
a computer, because computers make exact copies, while
heterosexual reproduction mixes in new genes and leaves out
old ones. That is why we are all different. The relevance of
this fact is nicely put by a story about J. B. S. Haldane, a
noted British biologist who died in 1964. In a casual conversation over a drink, someone asked Haldane whether, as an
evolutionary biologist, he could ever lay down his life for his
brother. After a quick calculation he replied that he would lay
down his life for two brothers or sisters, four nephews or
nieces, or eight first cousins.
The basis for this peculiarly measured form of heroism is
the degree of relationship between us and our kin, or, to be
more specific, the percentage of our genes that we share with
them. My sisters and brothers will, on average, have 50 percent of my genes, since, like me, they have half of my
mother's and half of my father's genes. (The figure is an
average one. Depending on how the genetic lottery falls out,
brothers and sisters could have all or none of their genes in
common - but given the very large number of genes involved,
either extreme is wildly improbable.) I share 25 percent of my
genes with my nieces and nephews, and 12.5 percent with
my first cousins. Haldane's witty response reflects these ratios;
the exchange of his life for eight of his first cousins would not
result in any loss of his genes from the population. So saving
the lives of my kin will, to a degree that corresponds to the
closeness of the genetic relationship, increase the chances of
genes like mine surviving.
Here we can find a genetic basis for an extension of altruism beyond our own children. In the evolutionary struggle for
'survival of the fittest', a gene or group of genes that increases
the likelihood that I will save the lives of my close kin, if I
have the opportunity to do so, will make my genotype (the
total set of genes that I carry in my body) more 'fit' to survive
than my genotype would be if it lacked that gene or group of
genes. So a genetic tendency for helping one's kin is likely to
spread through the population. Of course - as Haldane well
knew - we are not really interested in spreading our genes,
as such. That is why his calculations amuse us. But that in no
way refutes the suggestion that we are motivated to protect
and help our kin, to a degree that varies roughly in proportion
to the degree of kinship. We should never fall into the trap
of thinking that a biological explanation of why we do what
we do can only be valid if we are conscious of, and motivated
by, the biological significance of our actions. Just as our desire
for sex arises immediately from the love or sexual attraction
we feel for our sexual partners and not from any wish to have
children with them, so we may help our kin because we love
and care for them, not because we want our genes to spread.
But in both cases the feelings that motivate our actions have
spread because genes that lead us to act in this way are more
likely to leave copies of themselves in the next generation
than genes that do not lead us to act in this way.
Human ethical systems map the biology of kinship with
remarkable accuracy. In The Methods of Ethics Henry Sidgwick
set out the duty of benevolence, as it was generally understood in Victorian England. He begins the list by saying:
We should all agree that each of us is bound to show kindness
to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen
in a less degree; and to those who have rendered services to
him, and any others whom he may have admitted to his intimacy and called friends; and to neighbours and to fellowcountrymen more than others . . .
I s s e l f i s h n e s s i n our g e n e s ?
That the first duties of benevolence are to our kin is not
peculiar to Sidgwick's culture. In his Origin and Development of
the Moral Ideas, Westermarck gives an account of the duties
that are accepted by every society, or virtually every society.
It closely follows Sidgwick's list of the degrees of the duty of
benevolence. It places duties to parents alongside those to
children and wives; then comes the duty to help a brother or
sister. Duties to aid more distant relatives vary more widely
between societies, but they are still prominent. More modern
anthropological accounts agree on the absolute centrality of
kinship in ethical, social and political life. As Marshall Sahlins,
a leading anthropologist and no friend of the sociobiological
view of society has said: 'Kinship is the dominant structure of
many of the peoples anthropologists have studied, the prevailing code not only in the domestic sphere but generally of
economic, political and ritual action'.
Though its precise form varies, the family seems an inescapable part of our lives. It satisfies desires for closeness and
intimacy that are impossible to satisfy in any other way. A
network of family and kin can also be a powerful aid to
survival. Donald Grayson, an anthropologist at the University
of Washington, Seattle, studied the survival of members of
one of the most famous tragedies of the nineteenth century
pioneers of the American West, the ill-fated Donner party. In
1847 George and Jakob Donner led a party of eighty-seven
overlanders across Utah and Nevada, heading for California
via a little-known route through the mountains. Delayed by
trivial problems in setting out, the party was then trapped by
heavy October snowfalls in the midst of the Sierra Nevada
mountains. Most of the group passed the winter in the mountains, eating all their provisions, then their draught animals,
and their pets, and finally, those of their party who had died.
(Suspicion surrounds the cause of death of some of those who
were eaten.) When rescue came with the melting of the snows
in April, there were forty-seven survivors. Grayson found that
the survivors tended to be members of large kinship groups.
All the women in the party were members of such groups,
and 70 percent of the women survived. Among men the survival rate was only 43 percent, and those who lived had an
average of 4.6 relatives in the party, compared with 2.1 for
those who died. Of the fifteen males with no relatives at all,
only two survived. In these extreme conditions, large groups
shared food and water and provided care for weaker members
of the group; they also provided emotional support and,
Grayson speculates, helped to sustain the will to live. 12
While virtually all human societies place the ethical obligation to look after one's own children ahead of obligations
to strangers, some philosophers and social reformers have
challenged the ethical propriety of our attachment to the
family. They have seen the family as a means of passing on
inherited advantage, and as a bastion of conservative ideas of
all kinds. The family is, therefore, a barrier to the creation of
a more egalitarian society. Plato was one of the family's early
critics; in the Republic he proposes that among the Guardians
who will rule the community, family units should be replaced
by communal marriage. In this way the Guardians would be
'all of one opinion about what is near and dear to them', and
so would work collectively for the common good."
Plato was unable to translate his> proposal into reality. The
Jewish form of socialism that led to the establishment of the
kibbutzim, or collective settlements, that now exist in Israel,
had the opportunity to put its opposition to the family into
practice. Believing that deep attachment to spouse and children would interfere with loyalty to the kibbutz as a whole,
the early pioneers of the movement brought up all children
communally, in a separate house from their parents. Eating
and entertainment were communal activities. Parents were
not supposed to show more affection towards, or spend more
Is selfishness
time with, their own children than other children of the kibbutz. Childen were encouraged to call their parents by their
first names, rather than 'father' or 'mother'. For a time these
communal ways of living were seen as a model of voluntary
socialism, and to some extent they still are. Yet, as far as the
family is concerned, the kibbutz has succeeded only in demonstrating the strength and resilience of family ties. Gradually
the kibbutz has had to accommodate itself to the demands of
parents to spend more time with their children. In modern
Israeli kibbutzim, children may sleep and eat from time to
time in their parents' unit rather than in the children's house;
and they have resumed calling their parents 'father' and
'mother'. 14
This theme of the attempted suppression and resurgence of
the family has been replayed many times: in idealistic religious communities in nineteenth century America, after the
Russian revolution of 1917, among the hippy communes and
'intentional societies' that grew out of the alternative movement of the sixties and seventies. That the family always survives does not in itself prove that the family is an ethically
desirable institution, but it does call into question the wisdom
of any plans for social reform that do not take the strength of
the family into account. Moreover, while parents' preferences
for their own children undeniably do support continuing inequalities of wealth and educational advantage, the idea that
parents have a duty to look after the needs of their children
has a solid ethical basis. For if parents do not look after their
own children, who will? A modern state could allocate children to professional child-minders, but financial incentives are
no substitute for a mother's or father's care and affection. In
the absence of any alternative likely to work better, there is a
lot to be said for encouraging parents to take responsibility
for the welfare of their own children.
Thus in the case of parental care for children, ethics and
biology are, at least to a degree, in harmony. But only to a
degree. As with almost every desire, a parent's wish to see
a child do well can be pushed too far. Wanda Holloway, a
mother living in a small town in Texas, wanted her thirteenyear-old daughter Shanna to be elected to the seventh grade
position on the local football cheerleading team. But another
girl, Amber Heath, won the election. The following year,
Shanna and Amber were again rivals for the coveted position.
This time Wanda Holloway decided to give her daughter an
advantage. She contacted a man she knew had a criminal
record, and asked him how much she would have to pay him
to murder both Amber Heath and her mother. Fortunately,
the convicted criminal was still capable of being shocked. He
told the police, no-one was murdered, and Wanda Holloway
received a sentence of fifteen years in gaol. In an interview,
the police officer to whom the scheme was reported made an
interesting comment. Saying that in his seventeen years as an
undercover officer he had never seen a murder-for-hire scheme
with such a frivolous motive, he added: 'In ten years time,
what difference would it make if she was a cheerleader? It
wasn't like this was over a Rhodes scholarship'. Was the officer
suggesting that he could well have understood a mother commissioning a murder to ensure that her daughter got a Rhodes
What of obligations between other kin: of children to their
parents, for example, or between brothers and sisters, or
cousins? The obligation of grown-up children to support their
parents is perhaps a special case. It does not fit so neatly
within evolutionary theory, since the parents of adult children
are usually past the period at which they are likely to have
further offspring. Perhaps for that reason it is also less universally accepted, especially when families are no longer living
Is s e l f i s h n e s s
together. Where it is recognized, it seems in part an obligation of kinship, and in part one of gratitude. No doubt reasons for encouraging gratitude, which I will discuss in Chapter
6, spill over into our thinking about the obligations of children to support their parents. Obligations to help siblings and
more distant kin, on the other hand, seem to be proportionately weaker variants of the obligations of parents to support
their children. They rely on similar natural ties of affection,
and, from a broad social perspective, can be defended as a
system of insurance against hardship that is secured by natural ties rather than an impersonal bureaucracy.
Caring for our group
One popular view of evolution is that it favours the development of characteristics that are 'for the good of the species'.
Since this approach seems to offer a very simple way of
explaining why we are not all selfish, readers may wonder
why I have been labouring so mightily over something that
can be explained so much more easily. It is important to see
why this explanation will not work.
The flaw in this explanation for the evolution of morality
has nothing to do with morality in particular. It is a defect in
all attempts to explain something as having evolved because
it is 'for the good of the species'. Here is an illustration. As
part of a BBC series on endangered animals, Douglas Adams,
author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, travelled with
Mark Carwardine, a zoologist, to New Zealand to look for
one of the rarest species on the planet, a ground-dwelling
parrot called the kakapo. The birds used to have no predators;
now introduced animals like stoats and cats have run wild,
and the kakapo is believed to be extinct on the main islands.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation has established colonies on two small islands, and is hoping that the
kakapo will multiply there. But one conservation officer tells
Adams and Carwardine:
It's so difficult getting the blighters to breed. In the past they
bred very slowly because there was nothing else to keep their
population stable. If an animal population rises so fast that it
outgrows the capacity of its habitat to feed and sustain it, then
it plunges right back down again, then back up, back down,
and so on. If a population fluctuates too wildly, it doesn't take
much of a disaster to tip the species over the edge into extinction. So all the kakapo's peculiar mating habits are just a survival technique as much as anything else.16
The conservation officer has offered an 'altruistic' explanation for the low breeding rate of the kakapo. He does not,
presumably, think that individual kakapos breed slowly
because they are conscious of the need to do so for the good
of the species, but he does try to explain their slow breeding
by saying that, in the absence of predators, this worked for
the good of the species as a whole. This sounds plausible, but
the plausibility evaporates once we think about how this trait
of slow breeding might survive in a population. Suppose that,
in a population of kakapos who breed very slowly, a random
mutation leads one kakapo to breed a little more rapidly, and
to pass this characteristic of more rapid breeding on to her
offspring. Would her offspring become more, or less, common
in the overall population? Obviously, if there are no costs to
the individual birds from their more rapid breeding, they
would become more frequent, and tend to replace the slower
breeding birds. So now, as the conservation officer says, the
population expands more rapidly and outgrows the capacity
of its habitat, and there is a population crash. What happens
then? Do only more slowly-breeding birds survive? What
would lead to that result? In the absence of any selection
Is s e l f i s h n e s s in
our g e n e s ?
mechanism that can lead to this result, the cycle will just be
repeated. It is hard to see how slower breeding could evolve
within the species to stop that result, since the slower breeding birds will always be at a disadvantage compared to the
faster breeding ones. J. Maynard Smith, an evolutionary
theorist, introduced the term 'evolutionarily stable strategy'
to refer to an inherited behavioural policy which, if adopted
by most members of a population, cannot be bettered by any
other such inherited behavioural policy. In other words, the
pressures of evolution will penalize those members of the
population who depart from the evolutionarily stable strategy.
Clearly, in the situation of the kakapo as described by the
Conservation officer, slow breeding is not an evolutionarily
stable strategy; slow breeders will be displaced by rapid
breeders. Maybe this will mean that, in the long run, the
population will go through boom and bust cycles, and eventually, in one of them, will crash to the point of extinction.
But if that is what happens, then it just happens, and there is
neither an evolutionary mechanism, nor a hidden Protector of
Endangered Species, that can stop it happening.17
Sadly, then, it seems unlikely that many of us come into
the world with any inherited tendency to sacrifice our own
interests, or those of our kin, for the good of all human beings.
Though there are many exceptions, David Hume was not too
far off the mark when he observed that 'there is no such
passion in human minds as the love of mankind, merely as
such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself'. 18 In other words, most of us lack a general
feeling of benevolence for the strangers we pass in the street.
The reason for this may be that the unit — the species as a
whole - is too large. Species come in and out of existence too
slowly for selection between different species to play much of a
role in evolution. In contrast, selection within the species,
between smaller, isolated breeding groups, happens much more
often. These smaller groups do compete with each other and,
in comparison with species, are relatively short-lived. The
countervailing pressures of selection at the level of the individual or the gene would still apply, but less effectively. In some
circumstances, evolution might be able to select for characteristics that benefit the group.
Here, if we look around us, we can easily accept that there
is a 'passion in human minds' of love for, or devotion to, the
group. To see it in a (relatively) harmless form, we need only
go to a football match. Australians are as enthusiastic about
football as any nationality, and almost every Australian child
grows up supporting a football team. It is an affliction to
which I am not immune, and which I have been unable to
shake off, even as I grow older and presumably wiser. I know
that it makes no difference at all to the larger scheme of
things if Hawthorn, the team I have supported since childhood, wins or loses. I can even see that, since Hawthorn has
been remarkably successful over the past decade, it is posi- '{I
tively good when they are beaten by teams that have Ian-{|
guished for years at the bottom of the ladder. This, surely,'"
must gladden the hearts of the supporters of those lowly teams
more than it disappoints Hawthorn's supporters, surfeited as
they are with victories. Yet, when I am part of a crowd of
Hawthorn supporters during a final, I don't take this larger
In The Evolution of Love, Sydney Mellon refers to the
extraordinary feelings of solidarity and 'group love' that we
may experience when we come together in certain ways. He
mentions singing Christmas carols as an example. Again, I
know exactly what he means. Although I am firmly nonreligious, and lack even a Christian family background, when
I stand with the other parents at the Carol Night held by my
children's school (in Australia, even state schools have a Carol
Night) the effect of everyone singing together can lead to a
our g e n e s ?
strong emotional response that makes me feel the importance
of being part of that community. The same effect can occur
with school songs, or even the national anthem. Mellon thinks
that the way in which these emotions are enhanced and intensified when shared with a mass of others suggests that the
experience triggers a genetic component of our nature, developed in the course of our evolution as a social primate. 19
If parental love, taken to an extreme, has its dangers in
rare cases, these feelings of group devotion are much more
deadly, and their consequences are of global significance. In
the form of unrestrained patriotism and nationalism, they have
been responsible for the greatest crimes human beings have
committed. Dictators like Hitler have skilfully captured these
psychological forces, stirring up hatred of the outsider in order
to weld individuals to the group. If you doubt the power of
these methods, see the film made by Leni Riefenstahl of the
1934 Nazi Party Rally at Nuremberg. Even now, knowing
that we are looking back at the rise of the movement that
brought about all the bloodshed of World War II, that led to
the destruction of so much of Europe, and that made Auschwitz possible, it is difficult to resist being drawn in by the
potent symbols, the pageantry, the stirring music and the
sense of unity and purpose shown by the enthusiastic, parading Nazis. The emotions on which Hitler was playing are so
powerful th,at they still can make us set aside, for a time, our
knowledge of what it actually is that we are watching. No
wonder that, when experienced at first hand and without the
benefit of hindsight, they led people to be ready to sacrifice
their own lives and the lives of countless others for the sake
of the Volk.
Any estimate of the extent to which these feelings of
national and group loyalty are genetically based would be
pure speculation. Since the same people under different cultural conditions may vary markedly in the fervour of their
nationalism - compare any Western European nation in the
thirties with the same nation today - cultural pressures obviously play a very large role in the expression of these feelings,
and probably also in the extent to which they are actually felt.
Even if, as most evolutionary theorists believe, competition
between large groups of unrelated beings is not likely to play
a major role in genetic evolution, it can more easily be a factor
in cultural evolution. When we extend the notion of evolution
to include 'cultural evolution', we are thinking not only of the
evolution of particular physical organisms and the genes that
give rise to them, but also of the evolution of cultural variations - in other words, of ways of living. As different societies adopt different ways of living, so an evolutionary process
will lead to some surviving and spreading, and others dying
Cultural evolution is distinct from genetic evolution in two
important respects. First, cultural change can spread through
a group very rapidly. This means that cultural change can
have an effect on the behaviour of the whole group within a
single generation, and can improve the group's chances of
survival within that time-frame. Genetic change, on the other
hand, takes many generations to spread through a group, and
before it can have an effect on the behaviour of the group as
a whole, it would be likely to be wiped out in the individuals
in which it appears, because they will be at a competitive
disadvantage vis a vis other members of the group.
Second, whereas genetic change is random and hence blind,
cultural change can be conscious and directed. Because of this,
culture alone has the ability to reduce or even reverse the
individual competitive disadvantage of devotion to the group.
To go to war for one's country is to risk death - a severe
disadvantage in any terms - but a warrior culture will treat
those who take the risk and survive as heroes and will give
them special privileges. Those who refuse to risk death for the
Is s e l f i s h n e s s in
our g e n e s ?
sake of the group will be shunned as cowards. During World
War I, when the British army still relied on volunteers, girls
would stand on the streets of London giving out white feathers to men of military age who were not in uniform. The
reproductive advantages of volunteering were thus made clear.
Some other cultures have made it clearer still. When Native
Americans of the Great Plains like the Cheyenne and the
Arapaho were engaged in war, some warriors would take a
solemn vow that they would fight to the death. Once they
had done this, the laws governing relations with the other sex
(which in other circumstances were very strict) no longer
applied to them. In the days leading up to the battle these
'suicide warriors' could make love to as many willing women
as they wished.20 It is possible that in that brief period they
would conceive as many children as they would have had if
they had lived a normal lifespan. In any case, the custom must
have gone some way towards ensuring that the genes of these
heroic warriors were carried on to future generations.
Cultural evolution can work in different ways. We have
seen that Edward O. Wilson explained the apparently selfless
dedication of Mother Teresa of Calcutta by pointing out that,
as a believing Christian, she would expect to be rewarded in
heaven. How Wilson knows that, for Mother Teresa, providing consolation and comfort for others is not its own reward,
I have no idea. Whatever the truth about Mother Teresa may
be, though, we should recognize that belief in the soul, and
in reward and punishment in the afterlife, may be favoured
by cultural evolution precisely because it fosters altruism in
this world. (Why else, one could ask, are such implausible
beliefs so widespread?) Seen from an evolutionary perspective
the truth or falsity of a belief does not in itself determine
whether the belief will spread. More crucial is whether the
belief helps or harms the believer. Usually, when we talk of
the believer, we mean the individual - but as we have seen,
with cultural evolution the crucial unit can also be the group.
Generally, to have false beliefs is a disadvantage. Those who
believe that they can fly off cliffs or kill lions with their bare
hands leave few descendants and do not make much contribution to their society either. But when most members of a
group believe that to die in battle for the survival of the group
is to go straight to a realm of eternal bliss, the group will be
more formidable in war than other groups who can offer their
soldiers no comparable spur to self-sacrifice. Paradoxically, even
the soldiers who hold this false belief may be less likely to die
in war than the soldiers of other societies that lack the belief;
for armies made up of soldiers who fight without fear of dying
are more likely to be victorious, and victorious armies suffer
fewer casualties than those that they rout. 21
I have focused on heroic sacrifices, like the readiness to die
in war, only because they provide dramatic illustrations of
commitment to the group. Everyday ethical life includes
innumerable minor sacrifices for the community, from putting
your litter in the appropriate bin to taking part in a working
bee at your children's school. The reward is intangible: sometimes it is the camaraderie of working together for a good
cause; often it is no more than the avoidance of social disapproval. In whatever way these actions are encouraged, they
show concern for others. In the next chapter we shall see how
in Japan many of these intangible rewards serve to reinforce
loyalty to the group and thereby gain a significantly greater
commitment from each individual than could be expected in
the West. Perhaps in this respect Japan has evolved a culture
more suited to international economic competition.
Such intangible rewards should not be seen as negating the
altruistic motivation of the individual. Richard Alexander,
whom we encountered at the beginning of this chapter, labels
social approval 'indirect reciprocity' and then uses this label
our g e n e s ?
as a basis for rejecting the claim that blood donors are altruistic. Because donors may feel a sense of obligation to contribute to the community, or may be aware of social approval for
what they are doing, Alexander thinks that they are giving
blood for the sake of the indirect benefits that they receive.
Apparently he would be convinced that blood donors are really
altruistic only if they kept their donations secret. One wonders what he would say about Germans who secretly helped
Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, and certainly could expect
no social approval (for details of these heroic actions, see
Chapter 8). But one need not wonder long, because Alexander
goes on to accept a suggestion from one of his colleagues that
even secret acts 'require further examination because of the
possibility that by convincing themselves that they are selfless,
private donors may become better able to convey an appearance of selflessness to others'.22
In taking this line, Alexander is using an old ploy. Thomas
Hobbes, the seventeenth century author of Leviathan, was
notorious among his contemporaries for his cynical view of
human nature. Like Alexander, although without his knowledge of evolutionary theory, Hobbes held that we always act
out of self-interest. Once a friend observed him giving money
to a beggar and asked Hobbes if what he had just done did
not refute his own theory of human motivation. Hobbes
replied that he had given money to the beggar not because it
helped the beggar, but because it made him, Hobbes, glad to
see the pleasure that the beggar obtained from the gift. This
reply, like Alexander's view of selfless action, turns what
appeared to be a challenging new idea into an unfalsifiable
and hence uninteresting piece of dogma. Both Hobbes's and
Alexander's views of human motivation are, in the end, entirely
compatible with the existence of all the altruism (in the ordinary sense of the term) that anyone would ever want to argue
for. After all, who cares what the 'real significance' of this
kind of altruism might be, when we are interested in understanding how people can be motivated to act ethically. If
blood donors are motivated by a sense of obligation to the
community, or an awareness of social approval, this does not
mean that their actions are not ethical, or even altruistic. To
act ethically and altruistically, in the morally significant senses
of these terms, is, among other things, to be moved by a
sense of obligation to the community, or a desire to do what
will meet with the approval of those whose opinions one
respects. It would be absurd to deny that an action is ethical
merely because people who carry out the action may in fact
gain from it, if they are not motivated by the prospect of
personal gain - and even more absurd if they are not even
aware of this prospect. If Alexander really thinks that the
existence of a possible biological explanation for an action
must always lead us to deny the reality of our conscious motivation, one can only wonder if, before he makes love, he
explains to his partner that the 'real significance' of his sexual
desire is that the genes that lead people to have this kind of
desire are more likely to survive into later generations. The
existence of a biological explanation for what we do is quite
compatible with the existence of a very different motive in
our own minds. Conscious motivations and biological explanations apply on different levels.
Human beings often are selfish, but our biology does not
force us to be so. It leads us, on the contrary, to care for our
offspring, our wider kin, and, in certain circumstances, for
larger groups too. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, this
is only the beginning.
How the Japanese live
japan: A successful social experiment?
In Chapter 4, I traced the development of the dominant ideas
of the good life in Western, and then specifically American,
society. Although the modern consumer ethic is significantly
different from the earlier, more Protestant ethic of accumulating wealth, it retains the focus of that ethic on oneself, or at
most, oneself and one's immediate family. Self-interest remains
something for which one must strive competitively, against
others, and the goal remains narrowly egoistic. So it is important to ask: can we live differently? Could we really make a
radical shift in a less individualistic and less competitive direction? The ancient Greeks had a different idea of self-interest
to our own, and so did Europe in the Middle Ages. Nomadic
tribes such as the Aboriginal Australians or the Kung of the
Kalahari have very different views of what it is to live a good
life - since they must carry everything they possess, acquiring
material goods cannot play a major role in their lives. Yet, it
will be said by the modern defenders of Adam Smith, these
examples from history or from cultures that have been pushed
to the margins of our lands do not in any way contradict the
claim that a modern capitalist society cannot thrive unless
individuals aggressively and competitively pursue their own
It is this that makes Japan such a fascinating test case. For
if one thing is clear about Japan in the post-war period, it is
that its economy has been phenomenally successful. A cluster
of densely populated islands has become the feared rival of
the larger and more resource-rich economies of the United
States and the European Community. In this chapter I shall
ask whether Japan represents a possible alternative to the way
in which most people in the West think about their ultimate
choices. There are not many other alternative models left.
State socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe failed to provide
a viable alternative to American-style capitalism. As soon as
the iron fist of military power and KGB terror was released,
few wanted to retain that form of society. There has also been
a considerable blurring, in recent years, of differences between
the American model and the capitalist economies of Western
Europe, even of those nations like Sweden that have had long
periods of social democratic government. Japan now stands
alone as the leading candidate for the role of a successful
alternative model economy in the modern world.
But is Japan different? In visiting Japan, a Westerner finds
familiar Japanese cars, cameras and electrical goods; but
alongside there is often an uneasy feeling of not quite understanding what is going on. Japanese expectations of social
behaviour and personal relationships, aesthetic style, music,
theatre - all are either clearly different, or else there is an
ambiguity about the extent to which they resemble parallel
practices in the West. The feeling of being in a foreign place
is much stronger than it is when, for instance, an Australian
goes to France, or a German travels to the United States.
Even among those who are fluently bilingual, attempts to
translate anything beyond the immediately practical soon lead
to difficulties, because the two languages encapsulate different
sets of ideas. In the business world, too, the Japanese appear
to be different. Scores of books have sought to explain Japan's
economic success. It is a commonplace, for example, that the
Japanese are much more committed to their employer than
in the West, that they will work much longer hours, and
make greater sacrifices of their personal and family life for the
sake of the corporation for which they work. But are these
differences merely a veneer over a fundamentally similar
human nature? Or do they really point to distinct conceptions
of self-interest and different hopes about what life may bring?
In this chapter I shall present a view of Japanese culture
that highlights some of the distinctive aspects of the way in
which individual and group interests are seen in that society.
I do not claim that the picture that emerges covers all aspects
of Japanese society, nor do I deny that there are conflicting
tendencies that can provide evidence for an alternative view.
The subject of this book is neither Western nor Japanese
culture, but conceptions of self-interest and their relationship
to ideas of ethics. This chapter will therefore serve its purpose
if it captures one way in which people think about self-interest
in Japan, even if that is not the only way in which it is
The corporation as an ethical community
The Japanese 'salaryman' or white-collar worker is at work by
8.30 or 9-00 in the morning like his European or American
counterpart, but works much later, often not getting home
until 10.00 p.m. 2 In 1985 a Ministry of Labour survey found
that workers used only about half the vacation time to which
they were entitled, and most work part of the weekends.
Staying at home for four full weekends a month was considered scandalous.3 Thus one might see the Japanese as succeeding simply because they embrace a more extreme form of the
Protestant work ethic than do the descendants of the New
England Puritans. But the difference between the two societies goes deeper than that.
If we take a historical view of Japanese ideas, the most
striking distinction between Japanese and Western society is
that for us the feudal era lies in the remote past, whereas in
Japan it is relatively recent. In medieval Europe, the great age
of feudalism was from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. In this system lord and serf were bound together in a
close tie. The serf was not a free man; he was bound to the
land, and the land was his lord's. He had rights to farm
the lord's land, but was bound to give the lord a share of the
crop. The lord's castle was a place of refuge for the serf and
his family in time of strife, but the serf had to serve in the
lord's army. Under such a system each had his or her station
in life, and duties, obligations and entitlements that corresponded to it. The sense of belonging to a community was
strong, but freedom and autonomy in the modern sense were
unknown. The key virtue was loyalty; the loyalty of the serf
and of the knights to their lord, and the loyalty of the lord to
his king, who was first among the feudal lords of the land. It
is easy to see that such a society would give rise to character
traits and ideals very different from those we hold today under
the free enterprise system. But, throughout Western Europe,
serfdom was disappearing by the end of the fourteenth century, replaced by a system of free tenants and landless labourers. Hence, for us in the West, feudalism lies buried under
500 years of constant political, economic and religious change.
Individual freedom and rights were exciting new challenges
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; now they have
become part of the background rhetoric of the Western political system. This applies to economic freedom as well as to
political freedom: we can scarcely conceive of a world in which
we do not freely move around, working with one employer
for a time and then switching to another if a higher salary or
better job is offered.
In Japan the feudal system developed in the thirteenth
century, and continued unabated until Commodore Perry
How t h e J a p a n e s e l i v e
arrived, uninvited, in the Bay of Edo in 1853. Backed by ironclad gunships, Perry forced the shogun, or chief feudal lord,
to open up the country to trade with the outside world. This
humiliation led, in 1868, to the overthrow of the shogun, and
the restoration of the tenno. (This term is usually translated as
Emperor, although the position hovers between that of a
Western monarch and that of a high priest, in some respects
like the Pope, or perhaps better, the Dalai Lama.) Although
the Emperors had never been deposed, they had not been
effective heads of government for more than a thousand years.
Under the shoguns they had become virtual prisoners, confined to the court in Kyoto, and reduced to purely ritual
functions. The 'Meiji restoration', as the dramatic event of
1868 was known, after the name of the restored Emperor,
was carried out in the name of traditional Japanese values,
and to 'drive out the barbarians'. Ironically, it marks the
beginning of modern Japan. The new government realized
that if Japan was to avoid the fate of nearby China (recently
defeated by the Western powers in the infamous Opium War)
it would have to modernize. Once this momentous decision
had been reached, it was pursued with extraordinary determination. The government sent representatives to all the most
advanced nations to study and bring back not only Western
technology, but also Western forms of government, social
institutions, and dress. Japan learnt Western ways with such
speed and success that in forty years it was able to wage war
with modern weapons and defeat Russia, one of the great
Western powers.
The speed of this transformation means that there are
people still living in Japan today who can recall grandparents
who had lived their formative years in feudal times. A British
eyewitness to these events wrote in 1908:
To have lived through the transition stage of modern Japan
makes a man feel preternaturally old; for here he is in modern
times with the air full of talk about bicycles and bacilli and
'spheres of influence', and yet he can himself distinctly remember the Middle Ages.4
Changes made so quickly do not go deep; they can thrive
only if they are grafted onto existing rootstock. Though one
cannot deny the dramatic changes that have taken place in
Japan during the last century and a quarter, it would be
equally mistaken to deny the continuing relevance of feudal
ideas and traditions.
If loyalty is the virtue most prized in any feudal system,
the Japanese samurai, or warrior caste, carried the ideal of
devotion to one's lord to an extreme. Japan's most popular
story, 'The Tale of the Forty-seven Roshi' serves as an example of these ideals in practice. The roshi were samurai in the
service of Asano, the feudal lord of a province. Asano had
been insulted by another lord, Kira, and in a rage, stabbed
Kira, slightly wounding him. For this, Asano was ordered by
the shogun, or head of government, to commit ritual suicide,
which he obediently did. His roshi or ronin (the terms refer to
samurai who have lost their master) were indignant that Kira
had not been punished for his part in the quarrel, as customary law demanded. They determined to avenge their lord by
killing Kira. To disarm the suspicions that Kira would naturally hold, they dispersed for a year, drinking and carousing,
so that they were generally held in contempt as disloyal
retainers. Then they gathered secretly together, captured
Kira's castle and beheaded him, placing his head on the grave
of their lord Asano. For this, they had to pay the expected
price: on the orders of the shogun, they all committed ritual
suicide. This tale, told over and over again in countless forms,
dates from 1703. The ronin's noble example was praised as
the glory of the age. The story, still oft-repeated in Japanese
movies and on television, is familiar to every Japanese from
How the J a p a n e s e l i v e
childhood on. It is constantly cited in modern Japan as a
lesson in unconditional loyalty to the group, and dedication
without regard for the consequences to oneself.
Though the feudal lords and the samurai have gone, the
collective way of thinking engendered by that age remains.
This is not entirely accidental. Eiichi Shibusawa, who was
involved in founding many Japanese companies, including the
bank that is today Japan's largest, was a samurai before the
abolition of feudalism. He transformed the feudal philosophy
into a code to guide businessmen, seeing business as a longterm enterprise to be guided by standards of honour, justice
and loyalty not all that different from the samurai codes.5
Today every writer on Japanese business practices comments
on the loyalty shown by employees to their corporation. The
term uchi, literally 'inside', was used in feudal times for the
household to which one's first loyalty was due; it is now
employed also for the organization to which one belongs and, in Japan, 'belongs' is a better term than 'works'. The
same is true of another term, daikazoku, 'one great family',
used in feudal times to refer to large related groups — 'clans'
might be" the closest Western notion. In the early days of
Japanese capitalism, great business houses like Mitsui were,
quite literally, feudal daikazoku - the head of the 'great family'
was the leader of the business, and the several thousand workers were all drawn from members of the clan.6 Later, as
Thomas Rohlen notes in his anthropological study of the
Japanese bank he calls by the fictitious name 'Uedagin', corporations were referred to as daikazoku in order to suggest
that the firm, like the ideal Japanese family, 'is an entity in
which the interests of members are secondary to the interests
of the family as a whole'.
This notion of the company as a household or family would
appear to Westerners to be either mere rhetoric, or unduly
paternalistic and authoritarian. To the Japanese, however, it
is appreciated as a way of bringing the traditional Japanese '
values of sympathy and human involvement into the company. It sets an ideal for personal relationships in the corporation: they should be warm, understanding and co-operative.
Leaders, like parents, take an interest not only in how well a
worker performs in the office, but also in his or her personal
welfare. The younger generation of workers respect seniority,
and know that, in time, they will assume responsibility for
their juniors. In the case of Uedagin, the sense that the bank
is a great family is strongly present at the annual ceremony
for accepting new employees, that is, new members of the
family. Speeches at this ceremony emphasize that it marks a
turning point in the lives of the young trainees, with the
responsibility their parents have had for ensuring their welfare
now being transferred to the company. The parents of those
who are being accepted into the bank (all of them either high
school or university graduates) attend the ceremony, and one
of their number gives a speech thanking the bank for accepting their children into the company and asking the bank to
guide their still immature offspring. A representative of the
trainees thanks the parents for their past care and upbringing,
and thanks the bank for accepting them, and for the care and
further training they will receive. On behalf of the trainees,
the representative asks for guidance and discipline from the
leaders of the company. The trainees then pledge their commitment to the bank, where most of them will work until
their retirement. 7
The family feeling thus conveyed to new members of the
corporation is carefully fostered in many other ceremonies and
gatherings. Japanese corporations often start the day with a
'morning-greeting ceremony" at which the section chief bows
and greets the employees, who return the compliment. Sometimes there will be a little homily or pep-talk. There may also
be a weekly assembly for the whole company, or in larger
corporations, for a division. Perhaps once a month each section or smaller work group will hold a Sunday picnic, and
twice a year the group will go away for an overnight stay at
a nearby resort. At these activities the whole group will stay
together, eating, drinking, singing, bathing and sleeping as a
group (although men and women carry out the last two activities separately). Even the buses on which the group travels
are equipped with a roving microphone, so that karaoke-style
singing can take place during the journey.
Japanese companies have their own inspirational songs with
rousing themes, to be sung both at formal ceremonies and on
group excursions. Here, for example, is a verse from the
Uedagin song:
A falcon pierces the clouds,
A bright new dawn is now breaking,
The precious flower of our unity
Blossoms here,
Uedagin, Uedagin,
Our pride in her name ever grows.8
In the West such songs would be an occasion either for
mirth, or for the boredom that accompanies an empty ritual.
No doubt there are some Japanese who have one of these two
responses, but in most cases the songs are sung with enthusiasm and what appears to be genuine devotion. Mark Zimmerman, another American who worked in Japan, describes a
meeting of employees of a construction company where the
company song was sung four times, punctuated by bursts of
cheering and much mutual backslapping, by young men whose
eyes were glowing with pride. It was, Zimmerman reports, 'a
very real demonstration of the employees' devotion to their
company'. 9
I Thus if Japanese are willing to work longer hours with
fewer holidays than most Westerners, a plausible explanation
is not that they are a race with a genetic tendency to be
workaholics, nor that they are even more anxious to get ahead
than Westerners, but rather that they are bound by far
stronger ties of loyalty to their corporation. Jack Seward, coauthor of a book about Japanese business ethics called Japan:
The Hungry Guest, provides a nice illustration of this. After
Seward had returned to America after several years in Japan,
a Japanese visitor to his home happened to see a television
commercial for beer. The commercial showed men at work;
then, when the five o'clock bell went off, the workers threw
down their tools and ran to their pickups in order to get a
beer. The Japanese visitor was shocked: 'Don't American
workers feel any obligation to their company? They act as if
they can't wait to get away from work . . . I would be ashamed
to leave work so abruptly. If I did it often, my fellow workers
would become very cold towards me. Besides, I feel that I
have entrusted my life to the president of my company'. It
was not the idleness of the American workers, nor their inordinate desire for beer that so disturbed the Japanese viewer,
but their lack of commitment to their company and their
fellow workers. Such a commercial would be impossible in
A cynic might think that all this shows is that Japanese
corporations are more skilful in exploiting their workers than
corporations in the West. That thought misses the mark. As
in the feudal system, nobility has its obligations. Once part of
the corporation, the Japanese employee has a virtual guarantee of lifelong employment. Some corporations, like the Mazda
facility in Hiroshima, are reported to have never laid off a
worker." Demotion is also rare. People who are erroneously
promoted to levels of responsibility that are beyond their abilities tend to be moved to a position with an honourable title
where they can do no harm: for example, 'researcher'.12 This
readiness to stand by employees whenever possible is in keeping with the ideal of the corporation as a family.
The family-like nature of the corporation is also reflected
in the document that employees sign when they join a corporation. In contrast to a Western contract of employment,
the Japanese document does not state the rights or duties of
the employee, no salary is specified, nor does the document
list any procedures for redress of grievances, for giving notice
or for terminating employment. The document simply records, for example, that the bank recognizes the person named
as a member of the bank, and the person in turn pledges to
follow the rules of the organization. That is all that is needed.
Contracts are for strangers who cannot trust each other. What
is really important is implicit in all the ceremonies and traditions of the corporation: a mutual trust that both the corporate entity and the individual member will work for the good
of all.
This desired mutuality of relationships is expressed by the
Japanese term wa, usually but perhaps not quite adequately
translated as harmony or concord. Rohlen writes that wa is
'undoubtedly the single most popular component in the
mottos and names of companies across Japan' and takes the
title of his book from Uedagin's motto, 'For Harmony and
Strength'. He describes wa as 'the cooperation, trust, sharing,
warmth, morale, and hard work of efficient, pleasant, and
purposeful fellowship'. It is seen as an intrinsically desirable
quality of human relationships, as well as a means to social
improvement. 13 In large corporations, though the company
creed may emphasize harmony across the entire corporation,
the real sense of belonging, and of working in harmony with
one's fellows, comes from the small work group, where workers in daily contact with each other are encouraged to respect
each other as partners in a common enterprise. It is this that
does most to explain why American-style clock-watching is
unthinkable in Japan. At Uedagin, for example, the day's
office work began at 8.30 and 'officially' ended at 5.00, but
in fact would finish around 6.15. Often, however, this would
not be the time to go home. Instead, there might be an office
meeting to discuss a new sales campaign or some other proposal or problem. The meeting might finish at 7.30, when
food and beer are brought in. As inhibitions disappear the
conversation will become more animated and there may be
singing, or individuals will tell humorous and risque stories.
Such a party might close at 9.00 with a final toast to the
success of the bank and the branch. Some of the men will
then head off to a nearby bar for some more drinking and
exchange of intimate details about their thoughts and lives.
Rohlen comments:
To the American observer accustomed to the homeward rush
of employees at quitting time, these office meetings and parties
that last long into the night seem at first profoundly exotic
and inexplicable. In Uedagin offices, there is no set time when
work ends, no time clock, and a reluctance to leave before the
rest. Staying late is a common quality of office work. In some
instances, the whole office will stay until the last person is
Not surprisingly, comparative studies have consistently
shown that working is a more important part of life for Japanese workers - whether white-collar or blue-collar - than it
is for their American counterparts. 15 All this means that, as
one observer of labour-management relations in Japan puts
it: 'Individuals belong, and they have goals that give clearcut direction to their lives'. 16 That is no small matter.
For Western adults, the closest parallels to the attitudes
and practices engendered towards corporations in Japan are
to be found in team sports. The club songs, the comradeship,
How the J a p a n e s e
the striving for a common goal, the warm enveloping feeling
of belonging — if we have ever shared in these feelings, we
may be able to understand the way many Japanese feel about
the company for which they work. The analogy extends also
to the fact that the other face of harmony within the team is
an intensely competitive attitude towards opposing teams or in the Japanese business world, against competing companies. The emphasis on the importance of harmony within the
corporation or other in-group in Japan should not mislead us
into thinking that there is any lack of conflict and competition in Japanese society. The point is that this competition
exists openly between corporations or similar institutions rather
than within them.
In Japanese sport the concept of team spirit is taken much
further than in Western sport. A few years ago, under the
title 'You've Gotta Have "Wa"', Sports Illustrated described
the problems of American baseballers playing with Japanese
teams. Despite the generally higher standard of American
baseball, American players were not always welcome with
Japanese clubs because of their disruptive effect on the team's
wa. This concept was explained for American sports fans as
'the Japanese ideal of unity, team play and no individual
heroes - a concept that ex-US major leaguers playing in Japan
have had a lot of trouble grasping'. In America, star players
hold out for higher pay, and may feel they don't have to train
as hard as the other players. In Japan, everyone does the same
training, and demanding more money is seen as putting one's
own interests before those of the team. In America, when
coaches take players out of the game, a show of anger is
considered normal; in Japan, it is an almost unpardonable
breach of discipline. When an American pitcher playing for
the Yomiuri Giants kicked over trash cans and ripped up his
uniform after being taken out of the game, the Giants published a set of rules of etiquette for foreign players, that
included injunctions to 'Take good care of your uniform' and
ended with 'Do not disturb the harmony of the team'. 17
The harmony of the team is unlikely to survive if there is a
sense that the benefits of the common effort are going disproportionately to one or two people. The reason why highly
paid individual 'stars' do not fit well into Japanese baseball
teams is also the reason why there are no Donald Trumps in
Japanese business. To plaster one's name over one's assets in
the largest possible letters would be, in Japan, the worst possible taste. It would also be asking for trouble. One of the
most popular proverbs in Japan is: The nail that sticks up
shall be hammered down'. In an insightful account of life in
Japan, John Morley remarks that for the Japanese 'by far the
most common cause of embarrassment . . . was not the fact
that the person concerned had committed a faux pas or made
a fool of himself but simply the fact that for a moment he
had been conspicuous'.18
The sense that one should not stand out as an individual is
developed at an early age. Any visitor to Japan will notice the
large groups of school children, all dressed in identical uniforms and usually with their hair cut in the same way. (For
Western visitors with teenage children, such behaviour is particularly astonishing.) A study of the behaviour of Japanese
and American children in elementary school classrooms has
shown that Japanese children are more strongly encouraged
to think of themselves as a group. Japanese teachers were
much more likely to address their remarks to all pupils, and
to teach the class as a group, whereas American teachers were
more likely to attend to individual children. American children initiated or attempted to initiate interaction with the
teacher nine times more often than Japanese children. |i;
The habits of thought thus begun in childhood persist in
later life. Japanese managers see the group as more important
than the individual, and reward their workers in a manner
How the
designed to encourage them to interact with their groups,
whereas American managers are more likely to reward workers on an individual basis.20 Unlike Westerners, Japanese adults
do not dress to impress. As Morley points out, it is impossible
to tell from a glance at the average man on the train whether
he is the company director or the storeroom clerk. 2 ' This is
not to deny that rank is very important in Japan; it undoubtedly is, and the exchange of business cards, showing one's
position in a company, is essential if Japanese are to know
even such elementary things as the forms of politeness they
use when speaking to each other. But while rank is important,
displaying it is not.
Accordingly, in Japan, humility is not just a virtue, but a
social necessity in every area of life, including business. As
Seward and Van Zandt write in their study of Japanese business ethics:
. . . humility is visible in the low public posture of the Japanese
and is audible in their choice of honorifics in almost every
sentence uttered. The businessman who is not ready to humble
himself, to bow and kneel and repeat the verbal formulae of
humility over and over again will not do well in commercial
activities in Japan. 22
Such a culture is at the opposite pole to the culture of Wall
Street in the 1980s. Demanding higher salaries and bonuses
as executives did during the boom years in America would be
regarded, in Japan, as completely incompatible with a sense
of working together in a shared and valued enterprise. Apart
from the display of egoism involved, such a focus on boosting
one's own pay shows contempt for the welfare of the company
and the colleagues with whom one works. That there is a
certain amount of insincerity in the Japanese show of selfeffacement and deference is undeniable. Many who bow deeply
and talk humbly may in fact feel themselves far superior to
those they are addressing. But appearances do matter, especially to the Japanese, and the impossibility of showing off
one's ability, rank or wealth goes a long way towards making
everyone feel a valued part of the team.
In any case, apppearances are not entirely deceptive. The
typical Japanese corporation does not focus primarily on making money, either for itself or for its individual members. In
the tradition of Shosan Suzuki, it is based, instead, on the idea
that one should not aim at wealth, but rather work hard and
do the job well; prosperity will then follow. As Rohlen says:
The degree to which salaries, profits and material welfare are
relegated to a minor place in the bank ideology is extraordinary to a Westerner'. In their place are ideals, not only of
'harmony and strength', of making the bank bigger and better, but also of contributing to a stronger and more prosperous Japan, and to improving the general welfare of society.
Even distant goals of world peace and the betterment of
underdeveloped countries are frequently mentioned among the
goals of Uedagin. This may not translate into anything very
tangible, but it does enhance the feeling of members of the
bank that they are doing something worthwhile. 23 In referring to such broad goals, Japanese corporations are making
the work, and hence the lives, of their employees more meaningful — something that is, as we shall see in the final chapter
of this book, missing from the lives of many people in Western countries.
As for those at the very top, the earnings of heads of Japanese corporations are certainly ample, but as we saw in Chapter 3, the gap between the pay rates of ordinary workers and
of chief executive officers in Japan is smaller than in almost
any other country in the world, and much smaller than that
in the United States.24 When President Bush visited Tokyo in
How t h e J a p a n e s e
l i v e - 141
January 1992 the chief executives of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors came along in order to reinforce the President's
plea for a better deal for American exports to Japan. The
Japanese were able to point out that these three executives
had received, in 1990, salaries and perks of more than $7.3
million; in contrast, the heads of Toyota, Honda and Nissan
earned barely a quarter of that, a total of $1.8 million. Indeed,
anyone who did not know the state of the world car market
and had only the remuneration of the chiefs to go by, might
gain the impression that it is the Americans, not the Japanese,
who are making the more successful cars. In the year preceding the visit, however, sales of American cars were in a steep
decline and more than 40,000 American autoworkers had lost
their jobs. A Japanese-born academic teaching international
business at New York's Baruch College pointed out that firing employees while one helped oneself to hefty bonuses would
win no respect in Japan.
The self and the group
So are the Japanese different? Any generalization across an
entire nation is risky, and individual exceptions are sure to
abound. Fortunately, for the purposes of this book I do not
need to answer so broad a question. The question relevant to
this investigation is: can one find, in Japan, elements of a
different conception of self-interest and of the relationship
between the interests of self and others? Here the evidence
points strongly to one answer: yes. As compared with their
peers from Western cultures, Japanese white-collar workers
have, probably implicitly rather than explicitly, made a different ultimate choice. Though they enjoy having new gadgets
of many kinds, they are less likely than Westerners to see the
meaning of their lives in terms of the acquisition of material
possessions. They also have a much stronger sense of being
part of a group. They are therefore less prone to think only
or primarily of their own interests, and far more willing to
put the interests of the group ahead of their own interests. Or
at least - since it is very difficult to know what inward motivation people have - if they do think only or primarily of
their own interests, they show sufficient self-discipline not to
allow this to show in their demeanour or their behaviour. (All
this may be true of blue-collar workers and other Japanese
too, but the conclusion is well founded only for the group
from which the evidence has been drawn, and this is largely
the white-collar workers in Japanese corporations.)
That this difference lies deeply embedded in Japanese culture and thought is suggested by the fact that it is reflected
in the structure of the traditional Japanese home, and in the
Japanese language. The ordinary Japanese home had no private rooms. If I lived in such a home, I could not regard the
room in which I sleep as 'my bedroom'. It would just be a
room in which I roll out a futon and go to sleep at night. In
the morning I would put the bedding away and a small table
might be moved to the centre of the room, creating a living
space for all the family to use. Movable screens add to the
flexibility of the space. No room has immobile furniture that
designates it as having a particular function, or as being private space for a particular person. Bathing is often a communal activity. No wonder that households living in this way
saw themselves as a single entity in a stronger sense than
those in which a child can say to a parent or sibling: 'Get out
of my room!'
This lack of a clearly defined sense of self is reflected in
language in several ways. Morley notes an analogy between
the term for one's home, household or group, uchi, and the
Japanese concept of self:
The Japanese carried his house around in his mouth and produced it in everyday conversation, using the word uchi to mean
T, the representative of my house in the world outside. His
self-awareness was naturally expressed as corporate individuality, hazy about quite what that included, very clear about what
it did not.25
Robert Smith explains another aspect of the terms used for
T in Japanese:
The large number of referents and the manner in which they
are employed indicates that even the question 'Who is self;
who is other?' is not unambiguously settled from the onset of
interaction. There are, for example, terms that can be used for
self-reference as well as for second-person and third-person reference. That is, some common terms such as boku or temae may
mean T or 'you' — they are interchangeable lexical items in
the spoken language. In English usage, by contrast, the speaker
stands at the center of the set of referents he or she will employ.
Does this circumstance imply, then, that in Japan all interpersonal interaction takes place in a blur of ambiguity and confusion? Actually, it is sometimes so, but a safer conclusion is that
the identification of self and other is always indeterminate in
the sense that there is no fixed center from which, in effect,
the individual asserts a non-contingent existence.26
In a footnote, Smith mentions one striking exception: 'Alone
among the Japanese, the Emperor uses the first person referent chin . Unlike most exceptions, this one really does prove
the rule; for the Emperor stands for the whole, and his selfassertion is the group's assertion of its own importance, infinitely beyond that of any individual.
Professor Tomosaburo Yamauchi of the Osaka University
of Education has referred to this feature of Japanese usage in
a book the title of which may be translated as Putting Oneself
in Another's Shoes - The Moral Philosophy of Hare.21 Yamauchi
points out that the usage oiboku (and alsojibun, another term
that originally meant T) to mean 'you' occurs when one says
something from the point of view of the hearer. Yamauchi
then compares this feature of the Japanese language with the
suggestion, in the writings of the English moral philosopher
R. M. Hare, that an essential feature of moral thinking is our
willingness to put ourselves in the position of others before
making a moral judgment. If Yamauchi is right, it seems that
this central aspect of moral thinking (on which I shall have
more to say in Chapters 8 and 9) is to some extent built into
Japanese linguistic usage. Such usage is, however, sometimes
limited to the people within the group to which one belongs,
in which case people's attitudes can be exclusive or hostile to
others outside the group.
If we view society as the stage for an inevitable struggle
between the interests of the individual and those of the group,
we will be inclined to think that to elevate the importance of
the group is to sacrifice the interests of the individual. This is
not, however, the Japanese way of looking at things. In much
Eastern thought, whether Confucian or Buddhist - and both
traditions have been influential in Japan - the conflict between
individual and group is essentially a false dilemma. The satisfaction of the individual is only to be found in commitment
to the group. It is consistent with Zen, Japan's own contribution to Buddhist thought, that the individual should find
personal fulfilment in devotion to duty and the development
of self-discipline to the point at which one overcomes the
desires that conflict with the good of the larger entity for
which one is working. (The term 'fulfilment' is not quite
strong enough to convey this idea. Some might say that what
I have described is, in Zen, not only the way to 'fulfilment',
but also to 'salvation'; but since Zen knows neither original
sin nor hell, the Christian concept of salvation is singularly
inappropriate. 'Fulfilment' will have to do, though it must
be understood in a sense that goes very deep in the nature of
our being.)
If this seems too philosophical to be of any relevance to the
way employees think about their work for a corporation, consider the essay by the President of Uedagin that is given to
every new member upon entering the bank. Entitled 'My
Thoughts', it sets out a Buddhist attitude to life. Here is a
passage that is a key, not only to the thoughts of the President, but to the understanding of a Japanese approach to the
whole problem of self-interest and the nature of the good life:
Buddha taught that the actions of the body are products of the
spirit; therefore, first we must improve the spirit. A philosopher of the Ming dynasty said, 'If one's spirit is at peace one
will not suffer discomfort. If one's spirit is strong one will never
be concerned about material welfare'. These teachings emphasize spirit above all else . . .
Buddha also said, 'All men live for something, that is the
sum of it; however, some are mistaken and some are right in
what they live for'. The mistaken ones think of themselves and
are employed in trying to get rid of suffering, unhappiness, illfortune, and the like from their lives, but, in fact, they are
seeking and inviting these very things into their lives.28
It is impossible to know how seriously new members of
Uedagin take this advice on how to live; but what president
of a Western company would even offer it?
Whether the distinctive aspects of Japanese ways of thinking about themselves and their group will persist in the face
of greater awareness of other ways of doing things is impossible to say. There is some evidence that the past decade has
seen an increasing emphasis on individualism and selfassertion.29 Nevertheless, whatever the future holds for Japan,
we know that a different society, as described in this chapter,
has existed and has been highly successful in enhancing the
welfare of its members.
To say that Japanese white-collar workers are, in comparison with Westerners, more likely to put the interests of the
group ahead of their own interests, is not to say that their
culture is better than that of the West. Maybe it is; maybe it
is not. How would one compile such a balance sheet? On the
positive side, it is obvious that the Japanese have been phenomenally successful in economic terms. A country of 124
million inhabitants, lacking oil or other mineral wealth, and
with limited arable land, has become a dominant economic
power, running an annual trading surplus of over $US100
billion. Japan also has a very low crime rate; Tokyo is often
said to be the safest large city in the world. As we have seen,
wealth tends to be relatively evenly distributed, and there are
few really poor people in Japan; moreover even those doing
menial tasks have a respected place in the group with which
they work.
The negative side of the balance sheet might begin with
the extraordinary pressures of Japanese life. This starts early:
small children are under pressure to excel in primary school
entrance tests so that they can get into a good primary school
that will set them on the right educational path. Even kindergarten children often have special tutoring in reading and
writing once kindergarten is over; and Japanese schoolchildren in primary and secondary school commonly spend several hours a day, after normal schooling, at a special
'cramming' school to ensure that they do well in their exams.
Once employed, we have already seen how little leisure
time and vacation time Japanese can acceptably take. Official
statistics for 1990 show that Japanese labourers worked an
average of 400 hours a year more than their European
counterparts - that is about eight extra hours a week. The
real figure is likely to be higher still, since in Japan workers
How t h e J a p a n e s e l i v e
do not use time cards and are less likely to put in for overtime
pay. In 1991 Akio Koiso, for thirty-one years an employee of
Fuji bank, published A Chronicle of a Fuji Bank Employee, in
which he told of branch managers pressuring subordinates to
forego their vacations and work unpaid overtime. As Koiso
put it: 'You get a stable salary and the smugness of bearing
the name of an elite bank. But the price you pay is long,
intense work hours, damaged health and the destruction of
family life'.30
The Japanese have a special term - karoshi - to describe
death from overwork. Attorneys, labour unions and others
involved with karoshi estimate that at least 10,000 Japanese
die every year from causes related to overwork. Death is an
extreme response to overwork; but the destructive impact on
family life mentioned by Koiso is inescapable. For many young
Japanese children of office workers, it is a rare treat if father
is home in time to see them before they go to bed. Only on
Sunday can these children expect to see their father; otherwise, the mother runs what is effectively a single parent
household.31 Poll results published by Time in 1992 show that
88 percent of Japanese respondents admired the amount of
leisure time available to American workers, and an almost
identical figure admired America for its respect for family
life. 32 The life of the Japanese office worker is premised on
rigid sex roles, for if women were to work the same hours as
men, who would spend time with the children and take care
of domestic chores? The Time poll found that 68 percent of
Japanese admired the treatment of women in America.
Also on the negative side is the adverse effect that a high
level of group identification has on whoever or whatever is
not part of the group: on both the individual, and on the
larger, more universal perspective. The group puts pressure
on the individual to conform, for those rare individuals who
bring the wrath of the group on their heads will feel cut off
from the most important aspect of their lives. The Japanese
admire American freedom of expression and variety of lifestyles as much as they admire its leisure and respect for family
life, according to the poll published in Time.
In short, if the corporation has taken over the mantle of
the feudal lord, then the employees are its serfs: prosperous,
well-treated, highly valued and respected serfs, to be sure, but
tied to the corporation almost as securely as serfs were tied to
their lord. No matter how willingly and enthusiastically
members of the group may sing the company song and join
in the company outings, we cannot help but wonder about
the constraints on their ability to do otherwise. Most significant of all, for the impact of Japan upon the world, is the fact
that devotion to the group and its members appears very
largely to pre-empt the possibility of anything like equal concern for those outside the group, and for the larger whole.
Morley observes that there is in Japanese ethics nothing corresponding to the key Christian injunction 'Thou shalt love
thy neighbour as thyself. In Japanese versions of the Bible
the word 'neighbour' is translated by an uncommon Japanese
word meaning 'the person next door', thus giving the rule
'very much the air of appropriation from some remote language'. The proper way to convey the meaning of the Christian commandment would have been to translate 'neighbour'
by the Japanese word meaning 'outsider' - and then, says
Morley, it 'would without exaggeration be an astonishing, a
revolutionary concept in Japanese ethics'. 33
This lack of concern for the outsider is dramatically illustrated by the samurai tradition known as 'trying out one's
new sword', or tsujigiri. The Japanese term means, literally,
'crossroads cut'. For a sword to be acceptable to a samurai, it
had to be capable of slicing right through an opponent, from
the shoulder to the opposite flank, at a single blow. To go
into battle with a sword that was not capable of doing this
How t h e J a p a n e s e
could bring dishonour. So, on obtaining a new sword, some
samurai would test it by making a 'crossroads cut': that is,
waiting at a crossroads until an unwary peasant, or any nonsamurai wayfarer, happened to come along. Then, with a single stroke, he would try to slice the hapless person in two.
The act was illegal, and liable to be severely punished, but it
was not considered dishonourable.34 Though such breathtaking disregard for the outsider lies far in the past, Japanese
ethics is still deeply influenced by the idea that one's obligations to one's own group override those to strangers and to
the public at large. Morley reports a Japanese sociologist as
Historically, the groundwork for any form of social structure
other than the uchi [household, group] was never laid. Anything in the nature of a public morality, even the concept of
'public' itself, has failed to materialise in this country, and we
are badly in need of it.
As evidence of this need, the sociologist goes on to cite the
difficulty of arousing concern in Japan about such matters as
mercury pollution and thalidomide:
Putting it rather harshly, these cases were not matters of public
concern, because it is difficult to mobilise support for an opinion when those who support it remain unidentifiable, and this
is unavoidably the case so long as you have no established word
to address or refer to the general public."
This passage helped to explain something about Japan that
I had found both dismaying and mystifying. On three trips
to Japan I have been involved with environmental and animal
rights issues. On my first visit I was a witness for the defence
of Dexter Gate, an American environmental activist who had
released dolphins that Japanese fishermen had trapped in a
net at Iki island. The fishermen had been planning to slaughter the dolphins, as they had done in previous years. Gate was
charged with damaging the nets of the fishermen, and his
Japanese/Hawaiian lawyer thought that it would be useful if
the Japanese court could hear that Gate's actions were motivated by a coherent ethical view, held by respectable professors of philosophy such as myself. The court gave me a hearing
that was not merely polite, but interested and respectful. Gate
was convicted nevertheless. (Since he had already been waiting some months in gaol before his trial, he received no further penalty and was deported.)56 On a subsequent trip I
investigated Japanese attitudes to animals in general and to
whales and dolphins in particular, interviewing people from
the whaling and fishing industry, as well as Zen priests and
one or two Japanese - the only ones I could find - who had
supported the Western opposition to Japanese whaling and
the killing of dolphins. On a third visit I met members of the
Japanese Anti-Vivisection Society, who were trying to defend
the interests of animals being used, virtually without any
regulative protection, in Japanese laboratories. I also met a
group of Japanese opposing a proposal by the City of Nagoya
to dump rubbish on one of the few remaining large tidal
mudflats in Japan, vital to thousands of migratory birds.
Although there are very few foreigners living in Japan, on all
these issues, foreigners or Japanese who had spent a considerable amount of time abroad were playing a prominent role.
The few courageous Japanese who were trying to do something about the issue were clearly much more isolated than
comparable groups in Western nations, and their breach with
conformity was causing them far greater hardship. Some Japanese told me that their activities had led to a serious rupture
with their families, who had been both angry and embarrassed
by the fact that their daughter or son (much more often,
How the Japanese
daughter — were the sons preoccupied with their careers?) had
publicly criticized something that other people were doing.
For those who appeal to a broader concern than the interests
of the group, Japanese society leaves no secure footing.
Japanese society demonstrates that the individualist conceptions of self-interest that prevail in the West are the outcome of Western history and culture, not a dictate of human
nature. Yet the counterpart of this strong Japanese commitment to the group could well be the comparatively weak
Japanese sense of responsibility for the public interest, or the
interest of the global environment. Often individuals are unable to get along together until a common enemy appears;
then the previously squabbling collection of individuals suddenly forms a remarkably cohesive unit, ready to battle
together against the hostile and threatening world beyond.
Though Japanese corporations are not exactly at war with
rival corporations, there is still a strong element of this 'us
against them' feeling in the group loyalty that prevails within
the Japanese corporation. To that extent, while the Japanese
alternative to our conception of self-interest offers important
advantages over Western individualism, it falls short of the
broader ethical view that is needed to bring about international justice and save the biosphere of our planet. For the
same reason, it does not resolve the tension between individual interest and a genuinely ethical way of living. In the end,
the pursuit of the collective interest of the group to which
one happens to belong, regardless of the harm done to outsiders, is no more ethically justifiable than the single-minded
pursuit of one's own more narrowly selfish interests. There is
no shortage of historical examples to remind us how easily
strong group identification spills over into atrocious behaviour
to those outside the group: the most recent, still continuing
as I write this, is the 'ethnic cleansing' of minorities in BosniaHerzegovina.
Tit for Tat
Caring for those who care for us
In World War I, the Allied French and British forces faced
the German army across a long front in Northern France.
Both sides dug themselves into trenches from which they kept
up a bombardment of the other side. When pitched battles
were fought, casualties were enormous. The Allied High
Command was willing to take heavy losses; they reasoned
that since there were more French and British, combined,
than Germans, as long as they killed at least one German
soldier for every Allied soldier killed, they would win the war.
National feeling and the propaganda of wartime fuelled hatred
of the other side. The commanding officers strove to keep
enmity at fever pitch, in order to keep up the morale of troops
who had seen so many of their comrades die. Yet amidst the
hatred, death and mud, an extraordinary system of cooperation known as 'live and let live' sprang up between Allied
and German troops. Its essence was: I won't try to kill you as
long as you don't try to kill me. For considerable periods, in
several different sectors of the trenches, the British or French
infantry aimed their shells where they did no harm, and the
Germans could be relied upon to do the same. Troops could
relax, and even stroll about quite openly in range of enemy
machine guns, secure in the knowledge that the person behind
the sights of the gun would not try to kill them. If something
did go wrong - perhaps a unit was replaced by one that had
not learned the system, or a zealous commanding officer
decided to show the troops how it should be done - there
was immediate retaliation.1
The extraordinary but well-documented existence of the
'live and let live' system during World War I is eloquent
testimony to the possibilities of co-operation in what might
seem to be the most adverse circumstances imaginable. We
have already seen that our biology does not dictate that our
ultimate choice be a narrowly selfish one. On the contrary,
the way in which we have evolved has led to the existence of
beings who care directly for their children, for other kin and
to some extent for larger groups. The example of Japan shows
how far a culture can reinforce concern for the group. The
aim of this chapter is to show how our evolution has allowed
a propensity for another kind of concern for others, and how
human cultures everywhere have developed this aspect of our
In a large, anonymous society that often appears to live by
the rule of looking after number one, it is easy to forget how
much of an everyday experience helping and being helped by
others can be in other societies. The contrast became especially vivid for the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha, a tiny
and remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean. In 1961 the
population of this island consisted of 264 people, mostly
descendants of European sailors, who spoke English and
belonged to the Church of England. Their quiet, agriculturally based life came to an abrupt halt in September 1961
when their island - which consists of the tip of a volcano that
rises from the ocean floor — erupted, spitting out hot ashes.
The British Navy evacuated the entire population and took
them to England, where they settled in housing with modern
conveniences and were helped to find work. Within two years,
almost all of them returned to Tristan, despite the burnt-out
H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
homes and hard conditions they faced there. But a few found
conditions on the island so difficult that they went back to
England. There they were visited by Peter Munch, an anthropologist who had studied their way of life both on Tristan
and in England. He found that those who went back to England a second time were even more discontented with life
there than they had been on their first forced visit. Then the
entire island community had been transplanted; now the few
who had chosen to return to England were living among
strangers. As one Tristaner said:
No, the people on Tristan, they's jus' like one family and they
live happy and one help t'other, and if I's out in my farm and
doin' my potatoes, and someone's finish' his'n, he'll come along
an' give me a hand, an' the next day he got something to do,
I go 'n give him a hand, so we all help 'nother. On Tristan
they's jus' like brothers 'n sisters.2
To see how these helping relationships work, here is an
imaginary example:
Max is a small peasant farmer with a crop ready to harvest.
The rainclouds are building on the horizon. Unless Max gets
some help, it will rain before he can bring in the harvest. The
grain that he has not harvested will spoil. So Max asks Lyn,
his neighbour, whose crop is not yet ripe, if she will help him
to harvest his crop. In return, he offers to help her when her
crop is ready. Max will be better off if Lyn agrees to help him.
But will Lyn be better off if she helps? She will, if this means
that Max will help her, because she often also has trouble
getting her harvest in before it rains. But can she rely on
Max's promise to help her? How does she know that, after
she has helped him to harvest his crop, he will not stand by
and laugh when she asks him for help? If she cannot be even
moderately confident that Max will help her, it is not in her
Tit for Tat
interest to help him. She could use her time better by pulling
out some weeds that hamper the growth of her crop. Max's
problem is that, if he is to get his crop harvested before it
spoils, he must somehow get Lyn to believe that if she helps
him, he will help her.
In some societies, Max and Lyn could enter into a formal
agreement, and, if Max broke the agreement, Lyn would be
entitled to some form of compensation or damages. But if
Max and Lyn live in a society which lacks such means of
making a binding agreement, Max's best chance is to win
Lyn's trust. If he has a reputation for being trustworthy, this
should not be a problem. How does he get such a reputation?
In a small-scale community like Tristan da Cunha, in which
everyone knows everyone else, the best way to do this is by
actually being trustworthy; that is, by honouring one's commitments to others, and generally being a member of the
community in good standing with others.
Max might try to gain a good reputation another way; he
might try to deceive others into thinking he is trustworthy
when in reality he is not. But - again, in small communities
with little change in membership - this is unlikely to work.
In those conditions - and they are the conditions that have
prevailed for most of the period in which human beings and
other social primates have existed - honesty really is the best
In the early eighties Robert Axelrod, an American social
theorist, made a remarkable discovery about the nature of cooperation. The full significance of Axelrod's result is still not
properly appreciated outside a narrow circle of specialists. It
has the potential to change not only our personal lives, but
the world of international politics as well.
To understand what Axelrod found, we first need to know
something about the problem in which he was interested - a
well-known puzzle about co-operation called the Prisoner's
Dilemma. The name comes from the way in which the puzzle
is usually presented: an imaginary choice facing a prisoner.
There are many versions. Here is mine:
You and another prisoner are languishing in separate
cells of the Ruritanian Police Headquarters. The police
are trying to get you both to confess to plotting against
the state. An interrogator comes to your cell, pours you
a glass of Ruritanian wine, gives you a cigarette, and in
tones of beguiling friendliness, offers you a deal.
'Confess to the crime!' he says, 'And if your friend in
the other cell
You protest that you have never met the prisoner in
the other cell, but the interrogator brushes your
objection aside and continues: 'So much the better,
then, if he is no friend of yours; for as I was about to
say, if you confess, and he does not, we shall use your
confession to lock him away for ten years. Your reward
will be that you shall go free. On the other hand, if you
are so stupid as to refuse to confess, and the "friend" in
the other cell does confess, you will be the one who
goes to prison for ten years, and he will be released.'
You think about this for a while, and realize that you
don't yet have enough information to decide, so you
'What if we both confess?'
'Then, because we didn't really need your confession,
you won't go free. But, seeing as how you were trying
to help us, you'll each get only eight years.'
'And if neither of us confesses?'
A scowl passes over the face of your interrogator, and
you fear that he is about to strike you. But he controls
himself, and grumbles that, then, since they will lack
Tit for Tat
the evidence for a conviction, they won't be able to
keep you very long. But then he adds:
'We don't give up easily. We can still keep you here
another six months, interrogating you, before those
bleeding hearts at Amnesty International can put
enough pressure on our government to get you out of
here. So think about it: whether your buddy confesses
or not, you'll be better off if you confess than if you
don't. And my colleague is telling the other guy the
same thing, right now.'
You think over what the interrogator has said and
realize that he is right. Whatever the stranger in the
other cell does, you will be better off if you confess. For
if he does confess, your choice is between confessing too,
and getting eight years in gaol, or not confessing, and
spending ten years behind bars. On the other hand, if
the other prisoner does not confess, your choice is
between confessing, and going free, or not confessing,
and spending another six months in the cells. So it •
looks like you should confess. But then another thought
occurs to you. The other prisoner is in exactly the same
situation as you are. If it is rational for you to confess, it
will also be rational for him to confess. So you will both
end up with eight years in gaol. Whereas, if neither of
you confessed, you would both be free in six months.
How can it be that the choice that seems rational for
each of you, individually - that is, to confess - will
make you both worse off than you would have been if
you had decided not to confess? What should you do?
There is no solution to the Prisoner's Dilemma. From a
purely self-interested point of view (one that takes no account
of the interests of the other prisoner) it is rational for each
prisoner to confess — and if each does what it is rational to do
from a self-interested point of view, they will each be worse
off than they would have been if they had chosen differently.
The dilemma proves that when each of us individually chooses
what is in our own interest, we can each turn out to be worse
off than we would each have been if we had both made a
choice that is in our collective interest.
You are unlikely ever to find yourself in the situation of
the Ruritanian prisoners, but there are many everyday illustrations of the general rule that the Prisoner's Dilemma proves.
Anyone who has spent some time in rush hour traffic knows
that, while it may be in your individual interest to take your
car to town (since the buses also get held up by the traffic,
and they don't run very often anyway) it would be in the
interests of everyone if you could all collectively decide to go
by bus, since then the bus company could afford to run a
much more frequent service, and without the traffic, you would
get to work in half the time.
The situation of Max and Lyn, in the example just given,
is similar to that of the prisoners in some respects, but different in others. They will both be better off if they co-operate,
because otherwise each will lose the grain he or she is unable
to reap before it rains. But is it rational for each, individually,
to co-operate? If Lyn helps Max with his harvest, and then
calls on Max to help her when she needs to get her crop in,
Max might be tempted to think that it is not in his interests
to help. For he will have already benefited from Lyn's help,
and he could more usefully spend his time getting rid of some
weeds before he plants his next crop. But now let us put
ourselves in Lyn's position. Suppose that Lyn is thinking about
whether she should help Max with his harvest. If she realizes
that, since Max's harvest will be gathered first, it will not be
in his interest to help her with her harvest, and for that reason
he may not do so, she will not help him in the first place.
Tit for Tat
Thus, as in the case of the prisoners, both Max and Lyn will
be better off if they co-operate, but it is doubtful whether it
will be rational for either of them to do so.
If we think of the prisoner's decision not to confess as a
form of co-operation with the other prisoner - that is, adopting a strategy that means working together, rather than
against each other - then it is easy to see the parallel between
the Prisoner's Dilemma and what we might call the Peasant's
Dilemma. They are both versions of a common problem, the
Co-operator's Dilemma. But there is also a crucial difference
between the two versions. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a oncein-a-lifetime situation. You and the other prisoner must each
decide, just once, whether to co-operate with the other prisoner or not to do so. You and the other prisoner will, presumably, never be in that position again. In that respect, the
answer you give to the interrogator in your cell will have no
further effects on your life, other than those that the interrogator has spelled out for you. Max and Lyn, on the other
hand, are neighbours and are likely to remain neighbours all
of their lives. As predictably as the seasons themselves, they
will need help to bring in their harvest, not only this year,
but for many years to come. This provides a vital additional
factor for each of them to take into account when they work
out what is in their own interests. Now Max knows that if
Lyn helps him, and he does not return the favour, she will
surely refuse to help him next year, and probably for many
years to come. While Max may get a short-term benefit from
the weeding he can do instead of helping Lyn, in the long run
he will be much worse off. So it will be in his interest to help
Lyn; and Lyn, knowing that this will be the case, will also
know that it is in her interest to help Max. Thus the logic of
the Co-operator's Dilemma is dramatically different when it
is going to be repeated indefinitely, instead of being a one-off
a r e ,we
Now we have enough background to see what Axelrod did.
He thought of the Prisoner's Dilemma as a game, in which
the aim is to spend the least possible time in gaol. To make
this work, he set up a round-robin tournament, with many
different players. Each player must play the game 200 times
with one player. Each game involves deciding whether to cooperate with the other player, by keeping silent, or to defect,
and confess. How many years you spend in gaol as a result of
that decision depends on what the other player does, in
accordance with the offer made to you by the Ruritanian
police, as in the story above. The difference is that having
done this once, you do it again, and so on. Each time that
you do it, the situation is different, because you know what
your opponent did before. Once you have played your 200
games with one player, you move on to the next, and so on,
until everyone has played the required number of games with
everyone else. At the end, we add up the total number of
years each player has spent in gaol.
We can think of a variety of possible strategies that you
might adopt in order to win the tournament. For example,
you might always keep silent. We could call that strategy
Always Co-operate. Or you might adopt the extremely selfish
strategy Never Co-operate. You might try a more complicated strategy, say, co-operating for the first ten games, but
not co-operating after that. You might also devise a strategy
that is sensitive to what your opponent does: for example, cooperate only if the other player has co-operated in the previous game. Axelrod wanted to know if one strategy would
generally do better than any other strategy. If it did, maybe
it would also be useful in real-life situations, in which we, or
our governments, must decide whether to co-operate or not
with others who may or may not co-operate themselves. So
he announced a Prisoner's Dilemma tournament, along the
lines just sketched. Invitations were sent to people carrying
Tit for Tat
out research in areas related to strategies for making decisions.
The invitation set out the rules of the competition, and asked
entrants to submit, in a form that could be run on a computer, the strategy that they thought would win.
Fourteen entries came in, some of them quite elaborate.
The computer pitted them all against each other. The winner
turned out to be the shortest and simplest strategy submitted.
It went like this:
a. On the first move, co-operate.
b. On every subsequent move, do whatever the other player
did on his or her previous move.
This strategy was called Tit for Tat, because it paid the
other players back for what they did. If they were nice and
co-operated, it co-operated. If they were selfish and did not,
they got a selfish, unco-operative response back on the next
That such a childish strategy should win must have caused
some discomfort to the many experts who had spent a long
time devising much more sophisticated and complicated strategies. Axelrod decided to hold a second, larger tournament,
to see if any entrant, knowing that Tit for Tat would be
entered again, and knowing how well it had done previously,
could come up with a better strategy. This time sixty-two
entries were received. The tournament was run. Tit for Tat
won again.3
Why did Tit for Tat do so well? One reason is that it is
what Axelrod calls a 'nice' strategy: by this, he means a strategy which is never the first to try to act in an unco-operative
way. Despite being nice, Tit for Tat actually does better than
'mean' strategies that are the first to be selfish. This is not
only true of Tit for Tat; in general, in Axelrod's tournament,
nice strategies did far better than strategies that were not
This leads to a significant discovery about the role that
unselfish behaviour can play in enhancing one's prospects of
surviving and leaving descendants. Axelrod shows precisely
why beings who act in an unselfish manner can do as well as,
or even better than, those who behave completely selfishly.
There are three key findings:
1. In doing better for itself, Tit for Tat also helps all other
nice strategies to do better. In other words, the total number
of years spent in gaol by Tit for Tat and other nice strategies
against whom Tit for Tat plays will be the minimum possible,
because these strategies will all begin by co-operating, and
will continue to do so. In general, nice strategies support each
2. In sharp contrast to nice strategies, mean strategies spoil
each other's chances of success when they play against each
other. Mean strategies playing against each other all end up
doing very badly.
3. When nice and mean strategies are matched against
each other, nice strategies will do well as long as they are
provoked to retaliate by the first selfish action of another.
To understand the significance of these findings for the
evolution of unselfish behaviour, we have to stop thinking of
them as computer programs or strategies for playing games,
and instead think of them as ways in which animals might
behave. They would have to be social animals, living in a
stable group, with the ability to recognize other members
of the group and remember their previous co-operative or
unco-operative actions. Human beings, throughout their
evolutionary history, have been social animals of this kind.
Chimpanzees and gorillas, many species of monkey, elephants,
wolves, and several other social mammals would also satisfy
these requirements. The question then becomes: if some analogue of the Prisoner's Dilemma occurs quite frequently in
real life, would animals be more likely to survive and reproduce if they always go for their own immediate advantage?
Tit for Tat
Or would they do better if they behave 'nicely', giving up
some immediate advantage in order to co-operate with another
The answer can be derived from the three key findings
above. First, in a group of animals all behaving nicely, each
of them would do well. Second, in a group of mean animals,
each of them would do badly. Third, and most importantly,
when some animals in a group are nice and others are mean,
the nice ones would continue to do well, as long as they stop
co-operating immediately when they discover that another
animal is mean.
The reason for this third conclusion needs to be spelled out
more fully. When mean animals interact with nice animals,
the mean ones do better on the first encounter, because the
nice ones give up their immediate advantage in order to be
co-operative, whereas the mean ones do not. But since this is
only one encounter, in stable groups it would not make much,
difference over the long run. It can be outweighed by the fact
that, as long as a reasonable proportion of the group are nice,
nice animals will do better than mean animals in their second
and subsequent encounters with other nice animals, because
they will reap the benefits of co-operation, whereas the mean
animals will not.
So far, so good. Too good, in fact. Somewhere, in this
evolutionary equivalent of the Garden of Eden, the serpent
must be lurking. As in the Bible story, innocence opens the
way for it. If nice animals live in a group with mean ones and
behave nicely without discriminating between those animals
who return the favour and those who do not, the mean animals gain an advantage. They benefit from co-operation without giving up anything in return. A vicious spiral commences.
Initially the mean animals may be few, but they will now
reproduce at a higher rate than the nice ones. Gradually nice
animals will meet fewer nice animals, and the chances for
reaping the benefits of co-operation will be reduced. In the
end, animals who behave nicely will disappear from the group.
We can put this more plainly still. To be nice to someone
who is not nice to you is to allow yourself to be a sucker.
Where there are suckers, cheats prosper.4 Conversely, if there
are no suckers, cheats do badly. If all nice animals withdraw
co-operation as soon as they detect a lack of co-operation on
the other side - in other words, as soon as they notice that
they are dealing with a cheat — mean animals will have few
opportunities to exploit suckers. So the thought that we
encountered in Chapter 2 - 'I don't want to be the only
sucker' - is a healthy one. To be a sucker is bad, not only for
oneself, but for everyone. Fortunately this does not mean that
we have to be a cheat ourselves in order to do well. The saving
element in the situation is that if a proportion of the animals
in a group behave in a Tit for Tat kind of way, they can keep
out the cheats. Such a society may no longer be paradise,
because love and kindness can no longer be unconstrained;
but it is still a lot better for all than life in a group dominated
by mean animals.
This result amounts to nothing less than an experimental
refutation of Jesus's celebrated teaching about turning the
other cheek. Most of us think that turning the other cheek is
a noble ideal, even if too idealistic for this world. Consequently, we admire those who are prepared to act on it. If
they are prepared to be struck on both cheeks, we think, they
are the only ones who are likely to be worse off. Now we
know that this is not so. To turn the other cheek is to teach
would-be cheats that cheating pays. There is not much attraction in an ethic of turning the other cheek if the resulting
hardship falls not only on those who allow themselves to be
struck, but on everyone else as a whole.
What happens if a group starts off with mostly mean members? Can a virtuous spiral get going? Yes, it can, as long as
Tit for Tat
there is at least a small cluster of nice animals, and they
interact mostly with each other. Then they can benefit from
co-operating, while not allowing themselves to be exploited.
The mean animals will be left to interact mostly with other
mean animals, and will do badly. How does the cluster of
individuals begin to co-operate? As we have seen, there can
be advantages in altruism towards kin, and genes that lead to
kin altruism will be favoured by the process of evolution. So
initially, members of the cluster might all be related, and cooperation might evolve for that reason. Thus co-operation can
emerge even in a world where at first almost everyone acts
for immediate, short-term advantage — as happened among
the entrenched troops during the World War I. And such cooperation will spread, as long as there is a stable group of
people who are better off, as a result of their co-operation,
than others who do not co-operate.
This is a striking result. With Tit for Tat, we can spiral in
a virtuous direction only. In the right conditions, Tit for Tat
behaviour can eliminate mean behaviour, while mean behaviour finds it difficult to dislodge Tit for Tat behaviour. As
Axelrod puts it: 'the gear wheels of social evolution have a
ratchet'. 5
It may still seem that we have come very little distance
from narrow self-interest. Maybe 'nice' behaviour is advantageous, but if so, aren't those who are being nice merely more
enlightened egoists? This objection makes a mistake that is
similar to the misunderstanding I mentioned in Chapter 5 in
connection with altruism towards kin. Our feelings of love
towards our brothers and sisters are no less genuine because
we can explain how such feelings evolved: it is still true that
we help our siblings because we care about them, not because
of the degree of genetic overlap between us. Similarly, the
fact that co-operation is the best policy does not mean that
those who are co-operative are necessarily being co-operative
because they desire to gain an advantage."Sometimes this will
be true. Presumably it was true in the 'live and let live' system. But at other times it will not be. Some of us just are the
kind of beings who develop warm feelings towards those who
show kindness towards us.
Consider friendship. Typically, friends help each other. Presumably this usually means that each is better off than he or
she would have been without the aid of a friend. So is friendship and all the emotions that belong to it - love, loyalty,
solidarity, gratitude and so on - just a charade, a mere cloak
thrown over naked self-interest? Of course not. There are
some who regard their friends in a calculatingly egoistic way,
but most of us do not. Most of us like our friends, and enjoy
spending time with them. This turns out to be an effective
way of bringing about co-operation. Many other animals also
co-operate, and also form bonds with other, unrelated members of the group. Between these friends, co-operative behaviour takes place. Some animals share food. Others defend their
friends against attack. Chimpanzees and many other primates
spend a lot of time grooming each other, removing parasites
and dirt from parts that one cannot reach oneself. Our pleasure in being close to our friends may have evolved because it
brings us benefits, but friendly feelings are no less genuine for
One more point on this topic of friendship and co-operation:
in a small, stable society in which everyone knows everyone
else, cheats will not prosper. But the less well we know the
people with whom we live, work and deal, the greater the
opportunities for some of them to benefit by deceit. Richard
Christie, a psychologist from Columbia University in New
York, developed a way of measuring a character trait he called
'Machiavellianism', which involved the ability to manipulate
and deceive others. His work pre-dates the interest in evolutionary explanations of social behaviour, but it shows, as this
Tit for Tat
evolutionary model predicts, that there are some who get on
by manipulating and cheating others to their own advantage,
and others who will not adopt such tactics. In a test of several
hundred Spanish students, it was found that those who showed
a high degree of Machiavellianism tended to come from the
more industrialized and developed parts of the country. An
American study found that Machiavellianism was more pronounced among those who had spent their adolescence in a
large city. 6 In ecological terms, we could say that interactions
with strangers create a niche for those who can take advantage of the co-operative instincts of others, receiving the benefit of help, but failing to give help themselves when it will
no longer benefit them to do so. This niche only exists, however, because many offers to co-operate are genuine. Like a
parasitic growth that needs a healthy tree from which to feed,
cheats weaken the co-operative bond on which their way of
earning a living depends. Thus the cynical view that everyone
is in some sense a cheat has the logic of the relationship
backwards. If everyone were a cheat, no-one would trust anyone, and there would be no opportunity to cheat.
Doing better with Tit for Tat
In almost every facet of our lives, we are faced with decisions
that are structured like repeated versions of the Prisoner's
Dilemma. In personal relationships, in business relationships,
in politics and in relations between governments, we must
decide whether to co-operate with another individual, potential business partner or client, political ally or foreign government. Each side may be tempted to try to reap the benefit of
co-operation without paying the price; but if both do it, they
will both be worse off than they would have been if they had
all co-operated. Axelrod's findings can be applied in ways that
make it possible for all parties to achieve better results than
they would have achieved otherwise. In the previous section
we saw the role played by the elements of Tit for Tat in
ensuring its success in the tournaments. Now I shall re-state
these elements as rules for use by anyone in a wide variety of
everyday situations:
1. Begin by being ready to co-operate. Greet the world with
a friendly face, think the best of strangers and show kindness
towards them, unless you have reason to believe the contrary.
Tit for Tat suggests that this will pay off for you as well as
for others.
Obviously there are limits to how much one can risk at a
first encounter. I often lend books to people whom I do not
know well; usually I get them back. Since back issues of
academic journals are often impossible to replace, I don't lend
them, except to people I know well. In entering into a new
business relationship it is equally obvious that risks should be
kept low; but whatever the deal that is struck, one should
give full value on the assumption that the other party will do
the same.
Because Tit for Tat works only when there is likely to be a
continuing relationship between you and the other party, both
parties can benefit by finding a way to ensure that the relationship between them will be a lasting one. Marriage served
precisely this function of providing a basis for a lifetime of
wholehearted co-operation, as long as divorce was impossible,
socially unacceptable, or very difficult to obtain. The easy,
Hollywood-style acceptance of a life involving several divorces
and remarriages has undermined this important function of
the marriage ceremony. To go through a ceremony of marriage without even intending to make a long-term commitment is utterly pointless, a mere relic of an age in which to
have sex without the blessing of the Church was thought to
Tit for Tat
be sinful, and to have children out of wedlock was to disadvantage them. In societies not dominated by conservative
forms of religion, these beliefs are disappearing, and we are
better off without them. Should the institution of marriage
disappear with them? There are signs that it will, as more and
more couples live together without getting married.
There are, of course, many ways of making clear the seriousness of a commitment to the other partner, apart from the
religious or legal nature of the marriage bond itself. Pooling
finances and putting time and energy into the joint home is
one; it means that if the relationship breaks up, the mutual
investment will be lost. In my own marriage, I felt that it was
the decision to conceive a child together, rather than the decision to get married, that created the firmest commitment. I
do not mean that my wife-to-be and I conceived, or even
sought to conceive, a child before we got married. We were
not so unconventional; four years passed between our marriage and the decision to have our first child. Despite the good
relationship we had built up during this period and the commitment we had made to each other, before we had a child,
staying together seemed optional. Since we did not regard
divorce as contrary to any divine or moral law, if our feelings
towards each other changed, we could each go our own way.
Our decision to have a child closed that option; it could still
be opened again, but only with much greater difficulty. (I
stress that this is a point about the possibilities of making a
binding commitment, rather than about the nature or quality
of our relationship.) Our child linked our futures in a much
more binding way than any other form of commitment could
do, because once a loving bond has developed between parents and child, there is no way of undoing the link between
the parents cleanly and completely. No matter how much
either or both partners may want to end the relationship and
begin afresh, the existence of their mutual child makes it
impossible for them to do so.
2. Do good to those who do good to you, and barm to those
who harm you. In following Tit for Tat we must steer a
course between two great dangers: the danger of getting into
an unending series of mutual - and mutually destructive paybacks, and the danger of being exploited. We start by
being friendly and co-operative. But once it is clear that the
other party is not being equally co-operative, it is time to
change our own policy. How swiftly should we change? In
the tournaments Axelrod ran there was a program called Tit
for Two Tats that forgave the first instance of unco-operative
behaviour, and only retaliated if the failure to co-operate was
repeated. It did very well in the first tournament, but not in
the second, where there were more programs able to exploit
its forgiving nature.
The most momentous historical example of a failure to
abide by this second crucial Tit for Tat principle is the policy
of appeasement pursued by Britain and France as Hitler progressively tore up the Treaty of Versailles. He began by
rebuilding the German army. If the Allies had been following
a Tit for Tat policy they would have retaliated in some way,
but they did nothing. In 1936 Hitler marched his soldiers
into the Rhineland, which the Treaty had made a demilitarized zone. Here, even an exponent of Tit for Two Tats would
have acted, but again the Allies did nothing. A similar lack
of response greeted Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938.
Before the year was out, he demanded the Sudetenland, the
German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia. For a time it
appeared that the Allies had had enough; but at Munich, they
again yielded all that the German dictator had demanded.
Giving in to unilateral force in this way simply enhanced
Hitler's belief that he could achieve what he wanted; it also
Tit for Tat
contributed to his growing reputation with his own people as
a leader of genius. Had the Allies stood firm against the
remilitarization of the Rhineland, for instance, they would
have had an easy victory against a relatively unprepared enemy.
When the Allies finally committed themselves to the defence
of Poland, war came on much worse terms for them. By being
too forgiving, by following what proved to be a policy of Tit
for About Five Tats, the British and French governments
ensured only that when war came, it would be a far greater
catastrophe than it would have been if it had come earlier.
Several factors played a role here, especially the guilt felt by
many in Britain and France over the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, and a firm desire, very understandable after the
slaughter of World War I, to avoid war at all costs. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear how tragic a
misjudgment it was to allow someone prepared to use unilateral force to achieve what he wanted at no cost at all.
In other situations it may be difficult to apply Tit for Tat
at all. The involvement of America and its Allies in the war
in Vietnam was often justified by pointed references to the
need to avoid the mistake of appeasing communism, as
Nazism had been appeased. Behind this thought lay the idea
that international communism was a single entity that had
advanced across Asia, conquering China, North Korea, North
Vietnam, and was now threatening to spread through South
Vietnam to Thailand and Malaysia. But this was wrong; the
war in Vietnam was more a local conflict than a testing ground
for the forces of international communism, and the communist victory in Vietnam did not lead, as the hawks had said it
would, to the 'dominoes' of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia
also falling to communism.
The example of Vietnam shows that Tit for Tat is no substitute for a detailed and accurate understanding of the particular facts of a situation. Even then, it will not bring about
the Utopia of a world without the use of force, but it will, if
intelligently applied and well understood, make war rare, for
it will mean that war does not pay. Thus despite the scepticism that greeted President Bush's hailing of the United
Nations stand against Iraqi aggression as inaugurating a 'new
world order', it is not absurd to see a collective determination
to resist clear cases of aggression as the basis for a new world
order, based essentially on the simple but powerful principle
of Tit for Tat. There is, however, still one great threat to this
prospect. Tit for Tat is a rule that does well in a situation of
continuing relationships. If the evil that can be visited on the
other party is so great that the other party cannot retaliate at
all, Tit for Tat cannot apply. Similarly, if to retaliate would
only ensure the destruction of both parties, it will not make
sense to retaliate, even if one can do so. The existence of
nuclear weapons makes both of these possibilities real. Along
with everything else they put in jeopardy, nuclear weapons
thus threaten the best basis we have for regulating relationships between nations.
3. Keep it simple. Tit for Tat is a very simple rule. There are
advantages in keeping one's behaviour simple; it makes it easy
for the other party to see what is going on. Game theorists
use the term Zero-sum Game to describe a game in which if
anyone gains, others must lose the equivalent amount. Playing poker for money is, in financial terms, a Zero-sum Game.
At the end of an evening's poker, the sum of the winnings of
those who are ahead, less the losses of those who are behind,
must equal zero. If life were a Zero-sum Game, playing by a
simple rule would be a disadvantage, because one could do
better for oneself only by making the other player do worse.
(In poker you try to win by misleading the other players
about your intentions.) In many real-life situations, however,
both parties will gain from co-operation, and they will do
Tit for Tat
better if they understand each other from the start. Then they
can know how to achieve co-operation. Each will also do better if the other parties know that he or she is not open to
being exploited. To be open and straightforward about your
policy can thus be in your own interest, for it makes it easier
for others to see what you are doing, and to co-operate with
you for mutual benefit.
Should Tit for Tat be applied within closer personal relationships? To suggest that it should seems petty and coldly
calculating. Surely lovers don't have to play Prisoner's
Dilemma games with each other; nor do close friends. Or
consider bringing up children: shouldn't parents respond to
their children from love and devotion, rather than in the calculating way suggested by Tit for Tat?
It is true that between lovers, in a family, or with close
personal friends, where each genuinely cares for the well-being
of the other, the question of reciprocity scarcely arises. To put
it more technically, in Prisoner's Dilemma games, caring about
the welfare of the other player changes the way in which we
assess the outcomes. If each prisoner in the Ruritanian gaol
cares as much for the welfare of the other prisoner as he cares
for his own, he would make his decision so as to achieve not
the shortest time in gaol for himself, but the lowest total
number of years to be spent in gaol by both of them. Refusing
to confess produces a lower total whatever the other prisoner
does (if the other prisoner confesses it produces a total of ten
years in gaol, rather than sixteen when both confess; and if
the other prisoner does not confess it produces a total of one
year, rather than ten when one confesses and the other does
not). Therefore the altruistic prisoner would refuse to confess,
and if both prisoners were altruistic they would both be better
off than they would have been if neither of them had cared
about how long the other spent in gaol. So lovers, families
and close personal friends who care as much for the welfare
of the other lover, family member or friend as they do for
their own welfare, do not get into Prisoner's Dilemma-type
situations with each other.
Genuine concern for others is, then, the complete solution
to the Prisoner's Dilemma; it dissolves the dilemma altogether. Where possible, we do well to try to extend it beyond
family and close personal friends. We often invite children to
put themselves in the place of another. 'How would you like
it if she did that to you?' is a commonly heard explanation of
why, for example, your daughter should not take another
girl's toy. This teaches an important moral point, that others
feel hurt or aggrieved, just as we do. If fellow-feeling is sufficiently strong, then there is no need for Tit for Tat; but when
it is not, Tit for Tat has a role, even in close personal or
family relationships. Especially with children, it is vital that,
as a minimum, they come to understand that reciprocity works
for the benefit of both parties to a relationship. So when my
teenage daughter slouches off to watch television instead of
doing her share of the household chores, loving fatherly forgiveness may not be best for her, or for anyone else in the
family. Instead, it might be more in her interests, as well as
in mine, to let her know that the next time she wants to be
driven to her friend's place, she may find me otherwise occupied. It may make me feel bad to do it, but it helps her to
appreciate that other people do not exist only for her own
In the larger society, outside the family and personal relationships, Tit for Tat plays a central role in regulating the
way we interact with others. Modern urban life, however, is a
much more difficult environment in which to pursue Tit for
Tat than the computerized world of Axelrod's tournaments.
We can only apply the strategy if we know who is co-operating
with us and who is not. The computers have no problem in
figuring out who the other player is, or what the other player
Tit for Tat
is doing, because the program tells them. Nor is this much of
a problem for Max and Lyn in their stable relationship,
engaged in a task that can hardly be disguised. There is scope
for subtle forms of cheating even in a small-scale society.
People on a co-operative food gathering trip may quietly gulp
down the tastiest berries they find when no-one else is looking. Coping with these minor forms of cheating, however, is
a trifling problem compared with those we face in everyday
life in large cities. The city forces us to interact constantly
with people whom we have never seen before, and will probably never see again; it is hardly surprising that it lacks the
cosy security of village life in which no-one locks their doors.
Nor should we wonder at the fact that when we seat ourselves
in protective steel shells and hurtle around the roads in a
manner inherently liable to kill or injure others, some people
behave in a less co-operative manner than they do when they
are relating to people face-to-face.
We can think of a system of taxation as a gigantic, annually
repeated Prisoner's Dilemma. We all want (at least some of)
the government services financed out of taxation, but each of
us would prefer not to pay his or her share. The difficulty in
applying Tit for Tat is that those who do not co-operate are
not easily detected. Thus not paying your fair share of taxation can be a winning strategy for each individual to pursue.
To change the pay-off we must make the penalties for detection so large that (taking into account the odds against detection) tax evasion ceases to be a worthwhile gamble. We can
do this either by increasing the penalties, or by improving the
rate of detection, or by doing both at the same time. If we
can succeed we will eliminate the Prisoner's Dilemma entirely.
The change in pay-offs does not have to be strictly financial.
Adding public embarrassment to the fines can make not cooperating still less attractive. In other circumstances, the
embarrassment itself may be enough. Changing the pay-offs
will not eliminate tax evasion altogether: people commit all
sorts of crimes, the consequences of which are predictably
damaging to their own interests. To reduce tax evaders to
those unable to judge where their own interests lie would,
however, be a significant advance on the present situation in
many countries.
Much of our system of justice can be explained in the same
way. Justice is not, as often thought, a sacrosanct moral principle imposed on us by a divine being, nor is it somehow
engraved into the bedrock of the universe. Justice is neither
more nor less than a set of conceptual tools for making Tit
for Tat work in the real world. As such, it needs to be used
with discretion. 'Let justice be done, though the heavens fall'
is an ancient saying, but one that invests justice with a shade
too much significance. How absolute we ought to be about
justice will depend on the circumstances. If, as may happen
in rare circumstances, justice works to no-one's benefit, both
in the short and the long-term, to adhere to it is pointless.
In his compilation of knowledge about the moral codes of
different societies, Edward Westermarck concluded: To
requite a benefit, or to be grateful to him who bestows it, is
probably everywhere, at least under certain circumstances,
regarded as a duty'.7 This duty of gratitude leads us to respond
in kind to favours done for us; the corresponding ideas of
moral resentment, moral indignation, retribution, and revenge
suggest how we are to respond when someone harms us. All
of these ideas are aspects of reciprocity. Reciprocity is Cicero's
'first demand of duty', 8 the 'single thread' of the Confucian
way, y and according to the American sociologist Alvin
Gouldner, one of the few moral ideas that can claim to have
universal acceptance in practically every society known to us.1"
(Obligations to one's kin, especially of parents to their children, are, as we saw in Chapter 5, also endorsed in every
known society; kinship and reciprocity are the two strongest,
Tit for Tat
and perhaps the only, claimants to the title of universally
accepted moral principle.)
In this respect, the constancy of the human situation is
more impressive than the variations often pointed to by ethical relativists. Polybius, a Greek historian, wrote more than
2,000 years ago that:
. . . when a man who has been helped when in danger by
another does not show gratitude to his preserver, but even goes
to the length of attempting to do him injury, it is clear that
those who become aware of it will naturally be displeased and
offended by such conduct, sharing the resentment of their
injured neighbor and imagining themselves in the same situation. From all this there arises in everyone a notion of the
meaning and theory of duty, which is the beginning and end
of justice."
In the true spirit of Tit for Tat, the celebrated code of
Hammurabi of Babylon proclaimed justice to consist in 'an
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. (The rule held only
between members of the aristocracy; for injuries to freemen
or slaves, fines were sufficient.) 12 But is taking out the eye of
the perpetrator appropriate compensation for the loss of one's
own eye? Here we begin to debate what is or is not fair or
just. Perhaps I don't want to put your eye out, but would
rather have some more useful compensation for the injury you
caused me. What if you didn't put out my eye, but started a
fire that burnt my crop, and you, being a shiftless person,
don't have a crop of your own anyway? Even if we have an
agreed concept of fairness, our lack of impartiality compounds
the difficulties of applying it. The feeling that we have been
short-changed can lead to retaliation that in turn provokes
more serious retaliation, until, like the famous Hatfields and
McCoys, we have a full-blown feud echoing down the years
and even over several generations.13 To avoid this we need a
concept of impartiality, and a system that will deliver impartial decisions about what constitutes fair dealing. From this it
is a short step to the society as a whole taking over and
enforcing some aspects of justice, including the task of seeing
that serious offenders are appropriately punished.
4. Be forgiving. Tit for Tat means always being ready to
forget and forgive the past. No matter how black a past the
other party may have, all that is needed to make Tit for Tat
co-operate is a single co-operative act by the other. This makes
it easier to break out of patterns of mutually damaging
recriminations. It also avoids complications, and makes it easier
for the other party to see exactly what the policy is. In real
life, we are reluctant to forget the past, because it serves as a
guide to the future. If the other party offers to co-operate, we
have to judge if the offer is sincere. When past co-operative
overtures have turned out to be followed by attempts to exploit
us, we may well be more reluctant to commit ourselves than
when past offers have been genuine. With this reservation,
though, the success of Tit for Tat shows the value of remaining open to the possibility of beginning or resuming a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with those who
have, in the past, been unco-operative.
5. Don't be envious. The final factor contributing to the success of Tit for Tat is that it does not mind others doing as
well or better than it does. Tit for Tat did better overall
because it promoted co-operative situations more often than
any other strategy. Had it been envious, it would have tried
to overcome the gain that the other player may have got on
that single occasion when Tit for Tat made a co-operative
move but the other player was selfish. But Tit for Tat could
have done this only by being selfish, and that would have led
to mutual retaliation and fewer co-operative interactions.
In a Zero-sum Game, it makes sense to be envious. But
even poker is only a Zero-sum Game in theory, and not always
in real life. If we are more interested in having an entertaining
evening than in whether we win or lose a few dollars, we may
all gain from the game, irrespective of whether we end up
ahead or behind. Life is not a Zero-sum Game. We do better
if we are not envious. This is true both psychologically and in
terms of Tit for Tat strategy. Strategically, the best cooperative partners we can have are ones who will rejoice in
our success, as well as in their own. Deeply envious people
are therefore likely to miss out on opportunities for mutually
beneficial co-operation. They can try to keep their envious
nature secret, but this is not easy to do. Even if they do
succeed in this, however, they will pay a psychological cost.
Envy is not a pleasant emotion to have. It is intrinsically
opposed to contentment, essentially a preoccupation with
unfulfilled wants, and this is hardly likely to lead to happiness. If we describe a man as deeply envious, we conjure up a
picture of someone who is miserable, unable to enjoy what he
has, and obsessed rather with what he has not. Sometimes
this takes extreme forms, and drives people to ruin themselves. The Wall Street banker Dennis Levine seems to have
been driven by envy. According to a former colleague at Drexel
Burnham Lambert, Levine 'bitched endlessly that while he
was earning in the six figures, his clients were making nine.
"Next to them", Dennis used to say, "I feel like a pisher"'.
The way Levine found to move his already ample income into
the next bracket ended in gaol both for him and for those
with whom he exchanged inside information.
There is no doubt that envy can be a strong motivating
force. It can make people strive for positions of high status,
or for material wealth. No doubt this is why it survives from
one generation to the next, despite its obvious disadvantages
H ow are we to I ive ?
both for the envious person and for others. Unfortunately,
because it is such a strong motivating force, those who want
to sell us their products often appeal, subtly or not so subtly,
to the element of envy that is in many of us. They foster a
climate of envy and a conception of self-interest based on
ranking ourselves relative to others. That, in turn, undermines
out tendency to co-operate for mutual benefit.
Self-interest and ethics: An interim
Societies evolve ethical rules in order to make co-operation
more reliable and more durable. The results benefit everyone
in the society, both collectively and as individuals. Adopting
an initially friendly and co-operative stance, entering into longterm relationships, but not allowing oneself to be exploited,
being straightforward and open, avoiding envy — these are
not foreign edicts that command us to subdue our own inclinations and turn away from the pursuit of our best interests.
They are sound recommendations for anyone seeking a happy
and fulfilling life as a social being.
If we now draw into this picture points made in Chapter 5
about the ethical significance of family and kinship, we can
see that a great deal of ethics fits very well with an evolutionary account of our evolved social nature. In some of the most
central areas of ethical behaviour, our desires and our ethics
are in harmony. In our life with our family and kin, and with
our lovers, friends, partners and colleagues, very often selfinterest and ethics will point in the same direction. By these
means we can eliminate at- least a part of the conflict between
ethics and self-interest. To that extent, our ultimate choice of
how to live is made less difficult. We can choose to live ethically, and at the same time live in a manner that satisfies
many of our most important needs as a human being. On the
Tit for Tat
other hand, the areas of ethics we have been discussing in this
chapter and in Chapter 5 are by no means the whole of ethics.
The remaining chapters of this book turn to a distinct and
much more demanding aspect of ethics, and also to some
deeper questions about the true nature of self-interest.
Living ethically
Yad Vashem is situated on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. Established by the Israeli Government to commemorate the victims
of the Holocaust and those who came to their aid, it is a
shrine, a museum, and a research centre. Leading toward the
museum is a long, tree-lined avenue, the Alice des Justes, or
Avenue of the Righteous. Each tree commemorates a nonJewish person who risked her or his life in order to save a Jew
during the Nazi period. Only those who gave help without
expectation of reward or benefit are deemed worthy of inclusion among the Righteous. Before a tree is planted a special
committee, headed by a judge, scrutinizes all the available
evidence concerning the individual who has been suggested
for commemoration. Notwithstanding this strict test, the
Avenue of the Righteous is not long enough to contain all the
trees that need to be planted. The trees overflow onto a nearby
hillside. There are now more than 6,000 of them. There must
be many more rescuers of Jews from the Nazis who have
aever been identified. Estimates range from 50,000 to
)00,000, but we will never really know. Harold Schulweis,
vho started a foundation that honours and assists such
people, has pointed out that there are no Simon Wiesenthals
to search out those who hid, fed and saved the hunted. Yad
fashem, with a limited budget, can play only a passive role
in reviewing evidence about people nominated by survivors.
Many who were helped did not, in the end, survive; others
prefer not to relive painful memories, and have not come
forward, or in any case could not identify their rescuers.
Perhaps the most famous of those commemorated at Yad
Vashem is Raoul Wallenberg. In the early years of World
War II, as the Nazis extended their rule across Europe, Wallenberg was leading a comfortable life as a Swedish businessman. Since Sweden was neutral, Wallenberg travelled
extensively throughout Germany and to its ally, Hungary, in
order to sell his firm's line of specialty foods. But he was
disturbed at what he saw and heard of the persecution of the
Jews. One of his friends described him as depressed, and added,
'I had the feeling he wanted to do something more worthwhile with his life'. In 1944, the scarcely credible news of the
systematic extermination of the Jews began to build up to
such a degree that it could no longer be ignored. The American Government asked the Swedish Government if, as a neutral nation, it could expand its diplomatic staff in Hungary,
where there were still 750,000 Jews. It was thought that a
strong diplomatic staff might somehow put pressure on the
nominally independent Hungarian Government to resist the
deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The Swedish
Government agreed. Wallenberg was asked to go. In Budapest he found that Adolf Eichmann, who had been appointed
by Himmler to administer the 'Final Solution', was determined to show his superiors just how ruthlessly efficient he
could be in wiping out the Hungarian Jewish community.
Wallenberg succeeded in persuading the Hungarian Government to refuse Nazi pressure for further deportations of Jews,
and for a brief interlude it seemed that he could return to
Sweden, his mission accomplished. Then the Nazis overthrew
the Hungarian Government and installed in its place a puppet
regime led by the Hungarian 'Arrow Cross' Nazi party. The
deportations began again. Wallenberg issued 'Swedish Protective Passes' to thousands of Jews, declaring them to have
connections with Sweden, and to be under the protective custody of the Swedish Government. At times he stood between
the Nazis and their intended victims, saying that the Jews
were protected by the Swedish Government, and the Nazis
would have to shoot him first if they wanted to take them
away. As the Red Army advanced on Budapest, the situation
began to disintegrate. Other neutral diplomats left, but the
danger remained that the Nazis and their Arrow Cross puppets would carry out a final massacre of the Jewish ghetto.
Wallenberg remained in Budapest, risking falling bombs and
the hatred of trigger-happy German SS and Hungarian Arrow
Cross officers. He worked to get Jews to safer hiding places,
and then to let the Nazi leaders know that if a massacre took
place, he would personally see to it that they were hanged as
war criminals. At the end of the war, 120,000 Jews were still
alive in Budapest; directly or indirectly, most of them owed
their lives to Wallenberg. Tragically, when the fighting in
Hungary was over, Wallenberg himself disappeared and is
presumed to have been killed, not by the Germans or the
Arrow Cross, but by the Soviet secret police.'
Oskar Schindler was, like Wallenberg, a businessman, but
of very different character and background. Schindler was an
ethnic German from Moravia, in Czechoslovakia. Initially
enthusiastic for the Nazi cause and the incorporation of the
Czech provinces into Germany, he moved into Poland after
the invading Nazi armies, and took over a factory in Cracow,
formerly Jewish-owned, that made enamel ware. As the Nazis
began taking the Jews of Cracow to the death camps, Schindler protected his Jewish workers, using as a justification the
claim that his factory was producing goods essential for the
war effort. On the railway platforms, as Jews were being
herded into the cattle-trucks that would take them to the
extermination camps, he would bribe or intimidate SS officials
into releasing some that he said belonged to, or had skills that
were needed for, his factory. He used his own money on the
black market, buying food to supplement the inadequate
rations his workers received. He even travelled secretly to
Budapest in order to meet with members of an underground
network who could get news of the Nazi genocide to the
outside world. Near the end of the war, as the Russian army
advanced across Poland, he moved his factory and all his
workers to a new 'labour camp' he constructed at Brinnlitz in
Moravia. It was the only labour camp in Nazi Europe where
Jews were not beaten, shot, or worked or starved to death.
All of this was very risky; twice Schindler was arrested by the
Gestapo, but bluffed his way out of their cells. By the end of
the war, at least 1,200 of Schindler's Jewish workers had
survived; without Schindler they would almost certainly have
Schindler exemplifies the way in which people who otherwise show no signs of special distinction prove capable of
heroic altruism under the appropriate circumstances. Schindler drank heavily and liked to gamble. (Once, playing cards
with the brutal Nazi commandant of a forced labour camp,
he wagered all his evening's winnings for the commandant's
Jewish servant, saying that he needed a well-trained maid. He
won, and thus saved the woman's life.) After the war Schindler had an undistinguished career, failing in a succession of
business ventures, from fur breeding to running a cement
The stories of Wallenberg and Schindler are now well
known, but there are thousands of other cases of people who
took risks and made sacrifices to help strangers. Those documented at Yad Vashem include: a Berlin couple with three
children who moved out of one of the two rooms of their
apartment, so that a Jewish family could live in the other
room; a wealthy German who lost most of his money through
his efforts to help Jews; and a Dutch mother of eight who,
during the winter of 1944, when food was scarce, often went
hungry, and rationed her children's food too, so that their
Jewish guests could survive. Samuel Oliner was a twelve-yearold boy when the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto of
Bobowa, the Polish town in which he was living. His mother
told him to run away; he escaped from the ghetto, and was
befriended by a Polish peasant woman who had once done
some business with his father. She helped him assume a Polish
identity, and arranged for him to work as an agricultural
labourer. Forty-five years later Oliner, then a professor at
Humboldt State University in California, co-authored The
Altruistic Personality, a study of the circumstances and characteristics of those who rescued Jews.3
I know from my own parents, Jews who lived in Vienna
until 1938, that for each of these heroic stories there are many
more that show less dramatic, but still significant, instances
of altruism. In my parents' escape from Nazi Europe, the
altruism of a virtual stranger proved more effective than ties
of kinship. When Hitler marched into Vienna my newly wedded parents sought to emigrate; but where could they go? To
obtain an entry visa, countries like the United States and
Australia required that one be sponsored by a resident, who
would guarantee that the new immigrants would be of good
behaviour and would not be a burden on the state. My father
had an uncle who, several years earlier, had emigrated to the
United States. He wrote seeking sponsorship. The uncle replied
that he was very willing to sponsor my father, but since he
had never met my mother, he was not willing to extend the
sponsorship to her! In desperation my mother turned to an
Australian whom she had met only once, through a mutual
acquaintance, when he was a tourist in Vienna. He had not
met my father at all; but he responded immediately to my
mother's request, arranged the necessary papers, met my parents on the wharf when their ship arrived, and did everything
he could to make them feel welcome in their new country.
Sadly, my parents' efforts to persuade their own parents to
leave Vienna were not heeded with sufficient speed. My
mother's father, for example, was a teacher at Vienna's leading academic high school, until the school was ordered to
dismiss all Jewish teachers. Despite the loss of employment,
he believed that as a veteran of World War I, wounded in
battle and decorated for gallantry, he and his wife would be
safe from any attack on their person or lives. Until 1943 my
grandparents continued to live in Vienna, under increasingly
difficult conditions, until they were sent to concentration
camps, which only my maternal grandmother survived. Even
during the grim years of the war prior to 1943, however, we
know from letters that my parents received that some nonJews visited them, to bring news and comfort. When my
grandfather became nervous about possessing his ceremonial
sword (because Jews had for some time been forbidden to
keep weapons), a friend of my mother hid the sword under
her coat and threw it into a canal. This woman was also a
schoolteacher; her refusal to join the Nazi Party cost her any
chance of promotion. Non-Jewish former pupils of my grandfather continued to visit him in his flat, and one refused to
accept a university chair because he would then have been
compelled to support Nazi doctrines. These were not heroic,
life-saving acts, but they were also not without a certain risk.
The important point, for our purposes, is that all the social
pressure on these people was pushing them in the opposite
direction: to have nothing to do with Jews, and certainly not
to help them in any way. Yet they did what they thought
right, not what was easiest to do, or would bring them the
most benefit.
Primo Levi was an Italian chemist who was sent to Auschwitz because he was Jewish. He survived, and wrote If This is
a Man, an extraordinarily telling account of his life as a slave
on rations that were not sufficient to sustain life. He was
saved from death by Lorenzo, a non-Jewish Italian who was
working for the Germans as a civilian on an industrial project
for which the labour of the prisoners was being used. I cannot
do better than close this section with Levi's reflections on
what Lorenzo did for him:
In concrete terms it amounts to little: an Italian civilian worker
brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration
every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of
patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the
reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward,
because he was good and simple and did not think that one
did good for a reward.
. . . I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am
alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his
having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural
and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just
world outside our own, something and someone still pure and
whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good,
but for which it was worth surviving.
The personages in these pages are not men. Their humanity
is buried, or they themselves have buried it, under an offence
received or inflicted on someone else. The evil and insane SS
men, the Kapos, the politicals, the criminals, the prominents,
great and small, down to the indifferent slave Haftlinge [prisoners], all the grades of the mad hierarchy created by the
Germans paradoxically fraternized in a uniform internal
But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to
Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man. 4
A green shoot
We must, of course, be thankful for the fact that today we
can help strangers without dreading the knock of the Gestapo
on our door. We should not imagine, however, that the era
of heroism is over. Those who took part in the 'velvet revolution' that overthrew communism in Czechoslovakia, and in
the parallel movement for democracy in East Germany, took
great personal risks and were not motivated by thoughts of
personal gain. The same can be said of the thousands who
turned out to surround the Russian Parliament in defence of
Boris Yeltsin in his resistance to the hard-liners' coup that
deposed Mikhail Gorbachev. The supreme contemporary
image of this kind of courage, however, comes not from
Europe, but from China. It is a picture that appeared on
television and in newspapers around the world: a lone Chinese
student standing in front of a column of tanks rolling towards
Tiananmen Square.
In liberal democracies, living an ethical life does not involve
this kind of risk, but there is no shortage of opportunities for
ethical commitment to worthwhile causes. My involvement in
the animal liberation movement has brought me into contact
with thousands of people who have made a fundamental decision on ethical grounds: they have changed their diet, given
up meat, or, in some cases, abstained from all animal products. This is a decision that affects your life every day. Moreover, in a society in which most people continue to eat meat,
becoming a vegetarian inevitably has an impact on how others
think about you. Yet thousands of people have done this, not
because they believe that they will be healthier or live longer
on such a diet — although this may be the case — but because
they became convinced that there is no ethical justification for
the way in which animals are treated when they are raised for
food. For example, Mrs A. Cardoso wrote from Los Angeles:
I received your book, Animal Liberation, two weeks ago . . .
I thought you would like to know that overnight it changed
my thinking and I instantly changed my eating habits to that
of the vegetarian . . . Thank you for making me aware of our
There have been many letters like this. Some of the writers
had no particular interest in the treatment of animals before
they more or less accidentally came into contact with the
issue. Typical of these is Alan Skelly, a high school teacher
from the Bahamas:
As a high school teacher I was asked to become involved in the
general studies taught to grade eleven. I was asked to prepare
three consecutive lessons on any social topic. My wife had been
given a small leaflet, 'Animal Rights', by a child in her class. I
wrote to the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, in Washington, DC and received on hire the video
'Animal Rights'. This video has had such an impact upon my
wife and I that we are now vegetarians and committed to animal
liberation. They also sent me a copy of your book, Animal Liberation . . . Please be aware that fourteen years after the publication of your book you are responsible for the radicalization and
commitment of my wife and I to animal liberation. Perhaps
next month when I show PETA's video to 100 eleventh grade
students I may also extend others' moral boundaries.
Some of the people who write tell me of particular difficulties they may have; how they can't get non-leather hiking
Living ethically
boots, or see no practical alternative to killing mice that get
into their house. One had a retail fur and leather shop when
he became convinced that we ought not to be killing animals
for their skins - he has had problems convincing his partner
to change the nature of the business! Others want to know
what to feed their dogs and cats, or whether I think prawns
can feel pain. Some practise their new diets alone, others work
together with groups trying to change the way animals are
treated. A few risk their own freedom, breaking into laboratories in order to document the pain and suffering occurring
there, and perhaps to release a few animals from it. Wherever
they draw the line, they all provide significant evidence that
ethical argument can change people's lives. Once they were
convinced that it is wrong to rear hens in small wire cages to
produce eggs more cheaply, or to put pigs in stalls too narrow
for them to turn around, these people decided that they had
to bring about a moral revolution in their own lives.
Animal liberation is one of many causes that rely on the
readiness of people to make an ethical commitment. For two
gay Americans, the cause was the outbreak of AIDS. Jim
Corti, a medical nurse, and Martin Delaney, a corporate consultant, were horrified to discover that American regulations
prevented their HIV-positive friends from receiving novel
drugs that appeared to offer some hope for people with AIDS.
They drove to Mexico, where the drugs were available, and
smuggled them back into the USA. Soon they found themselves running an illegal worldwide operation, smuggling drugs
and fighting government bureaucracies that sought to protect
people dying from an incurable disease against drugs that
were not proven safe and effective. Eventually, after taking
considerable risks and doing a lot of hard work, they succeeded in changing government policies so that AIDS patients
- and all those with terminal diseases - have quicker access
to experimental treatments. 5
Australia's most memorable wilderness struggle took place
in 1982 and 1983, when 2,600 people sat in front of bulldozers that were being used to begin construction of a dam on
the Franklin river, in south-west Tasmania. The Franklin was
Tasmania's last wild river, and the dam, to be built to generate electricity, would flood dramatic gorges and rapids, obliterate Aboriginal heritage sites, destroy Huon Pines that had
taken 2,000 years to grow, and drown the animals that lived
in the forests. The blockaders came from all over Australia,
some travelling thousands of kilometres at their own expense
from Queensland and Western Australia. They included
teachers, doctors, public servants, scientists, farmers, clerks,
engineers and taxi drivers. Almost half were arrested by police,
mostly charged with trespass. A team of twenty lawyers, all
volunteers, helped with court proceedings. Nearly 450 people
refused to accept bail conditions, and spent between two and
twenty-six days in gaol. Professor David Bellamy, the worldrenowned English botanist, travelled around the world to take
part in the blockade, and was duly arrested. Interviewed later
in the local police lock-up, he said:
It was the most uplifting thing I have ever been part of, to see
such a broad cross-section of society peacefully demonstrating
in quite inhospitable weather against the destruction of something they all believed in.6
Ethical commitment, no matter how strong, is not always
rewarded; but this time it was. The blockade made the Franklin dam a national issue, and contributed to the election of a
federal Labor government pledged to stop it. The Franklin
still runs free.
These exciting struggles exemplify one aspect of a commitment to living ethically; but to focus too much on them can
be misleading. Ethics appears in our lives in much more ordinary, everyday ways. As I was writing this chapter, my mail
brought me the newsletter of the Australian Conservation
Foundation, Australia's leading conservation lobby group. It
included an article by the Foundation's fund-raising coordinator, in which he reported on a trip to thank a donor
who had regularly sent donations of $1,000 or more. When
he reached the address he thought something must be wrong;
he was in front of a very modest suburban home. But there
was no mistake: David Allsop, an employee of the state
department of public works, donates 50 percent of his income
to environmental causes. David had previously worked as a
campaigner himself, and said he found it deeply satisfying
now to be able to provide the financial support for others to
There is something uplifting about ethical commitment,
whether or not we share the objectives. No doubt some who
read these pages will think that it is wrong to release animals
from laboratories, no matter what the animals might suffer;
others will think that everyone ought to abide by the decisions of the state's planning procedures on whether or not a
new dam should go ahead. They may think that those who
take the opposite view are not acting ethically at all. Yet they
should be able to recognize the unselfish commitment of those
who took part in these actions. In the abortion controversy,
for example, I can acknowledge the actions of opponents of
abortion as ethically motivated, even while I disagree with
them about the point from which human life ought to be
protected, and deplore their insensitivity to the feelings of
young pregnant women who are harassed when going to clinics that provide abortions.
In contrast to most of the examples given so far, I shall
now consider some in which unselfish, ethical action is a much
quieter, more ordinary event, but no less significant for that.
Living ethically
Maimonides, the greatest Jewish moral thinker of the medieval period, drew up a 'Golden Ladder of Charity'. The lowest
level of charity, he said, is to give reluctantly; the second
lowest is to give cheerfully but not in proportion to the distress of the person in need; the third level is to give cheerfully
and proportionately, but only when asked; the fourth to give
cheerfully, proportionately, without being asked, but to put
the gift into the poor person's hand, thus causing him to feel
shame; the fifth is to give so that one does not know whom
one benefits, but they know who their benefactor is; the sixth
is to know whom we benefit, but to remain unknown to
them; and the seventh is to give so that one does not know
whom one benefits and they do not know who benefits them.
Above this highly meritorious seventh level Maimonides placed
only the anticipation of the need for charity, and its prevention by assisting others to earn their own livelihood so as not
to need charity at all.8 It is striking that, 800 years after
Maimonides graded charity in this way, many ordinary citizens take part in what he would classify as the highest possible level of charity, at least where prevention is not possible.
This happens at the voluntary blood banks that are - in
Britain, Australia, Canada and many European countries —
the only source of supply for the very large amount of human
blood needed for medical purposes. I have already briefly
mentioned, in Chapter 5, this widespread instance of ethical
conduct. The gift of blood is in one sense a very intimate one
(the blood that is flowing in my body will later be inside the
body of another); and in another sense a very remote one (I
will never know who receives my blood, nor will they know
from whom the blood came). It is relatively easy to give blood.
Every healthy person, rich or poor, can give it, without risk.
Yet to the recipient, the gift can be as precious as life itself.
It is true that only a minority of the population (in Britain,
about 6 percent of people eligible to donate) actually do
donate.9 It is also true that to give blood is not much of a
sacrifice. It takes an hour or so, involves a slight prick, and
may make you feel a little weak for the next few hours, but
that is all. How many people, a sceptic might ask, would be
prepared to make a real sacrifice so that a stranger could live?
If the willingness to undergo anaesthesia and stay overnight in hospital is enough of a real sacrifice, we now know
that hundreds of thousands of people are prepared to do this.
In recent years, bone marrow donor registries have been
established in about twenty-five countries. In the USA, about
650,000 people have registered and 1,300 have donated. Figures in some other countries are comparable. For instance, in
France, 63,000 have registered, and 350 have donated; England has had 180,000 registrations and 700 donations to date;
in Canada, 36,000 have registered, and 83 have donated;
while Denmark's registrations total 10,000, with five donations. Approximately 25,000 Australians have registered on
the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry, and at the time
of writing, ten have already donated bone marrow."1 With
calm deliberation, in a situation untouched by nationalism or
the hysteria of war, and with no prospect of any tangible
reward, a number of ordinary citizens are prepared to go to
considerable lengths to help a stranger.
We should not be surprised about this willingness to help.
As the American author Alfie Kohn puts it in a cheery book
called The Brighter Side of Human Nature:
It is the heroic acts that turn up in the newspaper ('Man Dives
into Pond to Save Drowning Child') and upstage the dozens of
less memorable prosocial behaviors that each of us witnesses
and performs in a given week. In my experience, cars do not
spin their wheels on the ice for very long before someone stops
to give a push. We disrupt our schedules to visit sick friends,
stop to give directions to lost travelers, ask crying people if
there is anything we can do to help . . . All of this, it should
be stressed, is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that
we are socialized in an ethic of competitive individualism. Like
a green shoot forcing its way up between the concrete slabs of
a city sidewalk, evidence of human caring and helping defies
this culture's ambivalence about - if not outright discouragement of — such activity. 11
Countless voluntary charities depend on public donations;
and most also rely on something that, for many of us, is even
harder to give: our own time. American surveys indicate that
nearly 90 percent of Americans give money to charitable
causes, including 20 million families who give at least 5 percent of their income to charity. Eighty million Americans nearly half the adult population - volunteer their time, contributing a total of 15 billion hours of volunteer work in
We act ethically as consumers, too. When the public learnt
that the use of aerosols containing CFCs damages the ozone
layer, the sale of those products fell significantly, before any
legal phase-out had come into effect. Consumers had gone to
the trouble of reading the labels, and choosing products without the harmful chemicals, even though each of them could
have chosen not to be bothered. Leading advertising agency
J. Walter Thompson surveyed American consumers in 1990
and found that 82 percent indicated that they were prepared
to pay more for environmentally-friendly products. Between
a third and half said that they had already made some environmental choices with their spending dollars. For example,
54 percent said that they had already stopped using aerosol
The Council on Economic Priorities is a United States organization that rates companies on their corporate citizenship
records. The aspects rated are giving to charity, supporting
Living ethically
the advancement of women and members of minority groups,
animal testing, military contracts, community outreach,
nuclear power, involvement with South Africa, environmental
impact, and family benefits. The results are published annually
in a paperback that has sold 800,000 copies. Presumably many
of those who buy the book are interested in supporting companies that have a good record on ethical issues.
Many of the millions of customers who have helped to
make The Body Shop a successful international cosmetics chain
go there because they want to make sure that when they buy
cosmetics, they are not supporting animal testing or causing
damage to the environment. From small beginnings, the
organization has grown at an average rate of 50 percent per
annum, and sales are now around $150 million a year. Similarly, mutual investment funds that restrict their investments
to corporations that satisfy ethical guidelines have become
much more significant in the last decade, as people become
concerned about the ethical impact of their investments and
not only about the financial return they may gain. '4
These examples of ethical conduct have focused on ethical
acts that help strangers, or the community as a whole, or
nonhuman animals, or the preservation of wilderness, because
these are the easiest to identify as altruistic, and therefore as
ethical. But most of our daily lives, and hence most of our
ethical choices, involve people with whom we have some relationship. The family is the setting for much of our ethical
decision-making; so is the workplace. When we are in longstanding relationships with people it is less easy to see clearly
whether we do what we do because it is right, or because we
want, for all sorts of reasons, to preserve the relationship. We
may also know that the other person will have opportunities
to pay us back - to assist us, or to make life difficult for us according to how we behave toward him or her. In such
relationships, ethics and self-interest are inextricably mingled,
along with love, affection, gratitude and many other central
human feelings. The ethical aspect may still be significant.
Why do people act ethically?
In Chapter 5 I referred to the cynical view that if only we
probe deeply enough, we will find that self-interest lurks
somewhere beneath the surface of every ethical action. In contrast to this view, we saw that evolutionary theory, properly
understood predicts that we will be concerned for the welfare
of our kin, members of our group, and those with whom we
may enter into reciprocal relationships. Now we have seen
that many people act ethically in circumstances that cannot
• be explained in any of these ways. Oskar Schindler was not
furthering his own interests, nor those of his kin or of his
group, when he bribed and cajoled SS officers to protect Jewish prisoners from deportation to the death camps. To a successful non-Jewish German businessman, the abject and
helpless Jewish prisoners of the SS would hardly have been
promising subjects with whom to begin a reciprocal relationship. (Real life has unpredictable twists; as it happened, many
years after the war, when Schindler was struggling to find a
career for himself, some of those whose lives he had saved
were able to help him; but in 1942, as far as anyone could
possibly tell, the prudent thing for Schindler to do would have
been to keep his mind on his business, or relax with the wine,
women and gambling that he obviously enjoyed.) Similar
things can be said about other rescuers in thousands of welldocumented cases. The point is sufficiently established, though,
by the more humdrum example of blood donation. Since this
is an institution that continues to thrive, it is easier to
Richard Titmuss, a distinguished British social researcher,
published the results of a study of nearly 4,000 British blood
donors in a splendid book called The Gift Relationship. He
asked his sample of donors why they first gave blood, and
why they continued to give. Overwhelmingly, people from all
levels of education and income answered that they were trying
to help others. Here is one example, from a young married
woman who worked as a machine operator:
You can't get blood from supermarkets and chain stores.
People themselves must come forward, sick people can't get
out of bed to ask you for a pint to save their life, so I came
forward in hope to help somebody who needs blood.
3 •.
;j i A maintenance fitter said simply:
No man is an island.
\ A bank manager wrote:
I felt it was a small contribution that I could make to the
welfare of humanity.
;, And a widow on a pension answered:
Because I am fortunate in having good health myself and like
to think my blood can help someone else back to health, and I
felt this was a wonderful service I wanted to be part of."
Aristotle suggested that we become virtuous by practising
virtue, in much the same way as we become players of the
lyre, a kind of ancient harp, by playing the lyre. In some
respects this seems a strange idea, but it is supported by
further research on the motivation of blood donors. Professor
Ernie Lightman, of the University of Toronto, surveyed 2,000
voluntary blood donors, and found that their first donation
was prompted by some outside event, such as an appeal from
a blood bank for more donors, the fact that friends or colleagues were donating, or the convenience of a place to donate.
As time passed, however, these external motivators became
less significant, and 'ideas such as a sense of duty and support
for the work of the Red Cross, along with a general desire to
help' became more important. Lightman concludes that 'with
repeated performance of a voluntary act over time, the sense
of personal, moral obligation assumed increasing importance'.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have also studied
the motivation of blood donors, and found that the greater
the number of donations the donors have made, the less likely
they were to say that they were prompted to give by the
expectations of others, and the more likely to say that they
were motivated by a sense of moral obligation and responsibility to the community. So maybe Aristotle was right: the
more we practise virtue, for whatever reason, the more likely
we are to become virtuous in an inner sense as well. 16
Altruistic action is easy to recognize as ethical, but much
ethical behaviour is quite compatible with regard for one's
own interests. Here is one last example, this time from my
own experience. As a teenager, I worked during the summer
holidays in my father's office. It was a small family business,
importing coffee and tea. Among the correspondence I had to
read were, occasionally, letters that my father sent out to the
exporters from whom he had purchased goods, reminding
them that they had not yet sent him invoices for goods dispatched a considerable time ago. Sometimes it was clear, from
the length of time that had elapsed, that something had
slipped through the system in the 'accounts payable' section
of the exporter's business. If the exporters were large firms,
they might never have noticed their mistake; for us, on the
other hand, since we worked on gross profit margins of 3
Living ethically
percent, one or two 'free' consignments would have made
more profit than a month's normal trading. So why not, I
asked my father, let the exporters look after their own problems? If they remembered to ask for their money, well and
good, if they did not, better still! His reply was that that was
not how decent people did business; and anyway, to send
these reminders built up trust, which was vital for any business relationship, and would in the long run rebound to our
profit. The answer, in other words, hovered between references to an ethical ideal of how one ought to behave (what it
is to be virtuous in business, one might say) and a justification
in terms of long-term self-interest. Despite this ambivalence,
my father was clearly acting ethically.
Ethics is everywhere in our daily lives. It lies behind many
of our choices, whether personal or political, or bridging the
division between the two. Sometimes it comes easily and
naturally to us; in other circumstances, it can be very
demanding. But ethics intrudes into our conscious lives only
occasionally, and often in a confused way. If we are to make
properly considered ultimate choices, we must first become
more aware of the ethical ramifications of the way we live.
Only then is it possible to make ethics a more conscious and
coherent part of everyday life.
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
The nature of ethics
A broader perspective
Those who act ethically stand for an alternative way of living,
at odds with the narrow, accumulative and competitive pursuit
of self-interest that, as we have seen, has come to dominate
the West, and is now unchallenged in the former communist
nations as well. I want to consider why one might choose this
ethical alternative. Before we can discuss this question, however, we need to get clear what it is to act ethically. The
nature of ethics is often misunderstood. Ethics cannot be
reduced to a simple set of rules, like 'do not tell lies', 'do not
kill', or 'do not have sexual relations except with someone to
whom you are married'. Rules are useful for educating children, and as a handy guidebook when it is difficult for us to
think carefully and calmly. In some ways they are like recipes.
If you are an inexperienced cook, recipes are essential; even
for the experienced cook they are normally to be followed,
but a good cook knows when and how to adapt. Just as no
cookbook will ever cover all the circumstances in which you
may need to produce a palatable meal, so life itself is too
varied for any finite set of rules to be an absolute source of
moral wisdom.
This analogy should not be pushed too far. It may take a
while for a budding chef to get to the point at which she or
he can independently assess a recipe, and decide how it should
be improved. We are all entitled, however, to think for ourselves about ethics. The moral rules still being taught in most
societies are often not the ones that we most need to teach
our children today. The tension between self-interest and
ethics that is at the core of this book exists independently of
religious, or more specifically Christian, ethics; but the traditional Christian emphasis on the denial of harmless bodily
pleasures, especially sexual pleasures, bears a heavy responsibility for increasing that tension until, in many people, it
reaches breaking point, with the outcome either an abandonment of ethics, or a sense of guilt and defilement.
There is much talk today of the decline in ethics. Very
often what those who talk about this really mean is that there
has been a decline in the observance of certain ethical rules. I
don't know if there really has been a decline in obedience to
these rules. (Does anyone? No doubt someone can produce a
survey showing that today more people say that they tell lies
than did ten years ago; but maybe people have just become
more honest in reporting that they lie.) In any case, //there
has been such a decline, it does not mean that there has been
a decline in ethics, but only that there has been a decline in
obedience to these rules. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
It all depends. Have people been breaking the rules because
they don't care about ethics at all, and are interested only in
satisfying their own short-term desires? Or have they been
breaking them because they realize that obeying the rule is,
in certain circumstances, likely to do more harm than good,
for everyone affected by it? That may be an ethical thing
to do.
It is also often said that ethics is 'all very well in theory but
no good in practice'. But we cannot rest content with an
ethics that is unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of everyday
life. If someone proposes an ethic so noble that to try to live
by it would be a disaster for everyone, then - no matter who
has proposed it - it is not a noble ethic at all, it is a stupid
one that ought to be firmly rejected. Ethics is practical, or it
is not really ethical. If it is no good in practice, it is no good
in theory either. Getting rid of the idea that an ethical life
must consist of absolute obedience to some short and simple
set of moral rules makes it easier to avoid the trap of an
unworkable ethic. An understanding of ethics that allows us
to take into account the special circumstances in which we
find ourselves is already a major step towards attaining an
ethics that we really can use to guide our lives.
So don't think of an ethical approach to life as one in which
every time we are about to enjoy ourselves, an image of a
stone tablet drops from some section of our mind, engraved
with a commandment saying Thou shalt not!' And don't
think of it as a mere ideal that is irrelevant to what we are
doing here and now. How then should we think of it? We
should think of an ethical life as a life that results from a
positive choice of goals and the means by which they may be
achieved. But this is still too vague. What if my chosen goal
is to live a life of ease and luxury? Is that an ethical end? If
not, why not? If so, are any means that I might use to achieve
my end also ethical, so long as they will help me to gain it?
Suppose that I choose my own happiness as my goal. I
pursue this goal in an efficient manner. Am I living an ethical
life? In other words, can I be both purely egoistic and at the
same time ethical? Here is one reason - not necessarily the
only reason — for saying that I may not be. In pursuing my
own happiness, I may interfere with others pursuing their
own happiness. Perhaps I have not even thought about this
possibility. Perhaps, having thought about it, I have dismissed
it as irrelevant, since after all it is my happiness that I care
about, not anyone else's. In both of these cases I have not
made an ethical choice. To act ethically is to act in a way that
one can recommend and justify to others - that, at least,
seems to be part of the very meaning of the term. How can I
recommend and justify to others actions that are based only
on the goal of increasing my own happiness? Why should
other people think that my happiness is more important than
theirs? They may agree that I have some reason to further my
own happiness, but that very reasoning would lead them to
further their own interests, not mine — and that is just what
I do not want to recommend to them, because if they are as
single-minded in defending their own interests as I am in
defending mine, they may interfere with my pursuit of my
own interests.
The point just made does not show that it is irrational to
be solely concerned with one's own interest, disregarding the
impact one has on others. It shows only that it cannot be
ethical to live such a life. Since this conclusion depends on the
meaning of 'ethics', no recommendation about what it is or is
not reasonable or rational to do can follow from it. Some
philosophers have tried to argue that there is something
illogical about saying: 'I know that, ethically speaking, I ought
to do this, but I can't decide whether to do it'. But the
arguments that purport to show that this is illogical all end
up trying to deduce conclusions about what it is reasonable
to do from the meanings of words like 'good' or 'ought'. That
particular philosophical conjuring trick was exposed long ago.1
You can define 'good' or 'ought' in any way you choose. It is
always possible for me to say, without committing any logical
mistake: 'If that is what "good" means, then I don't care
about doing what is good'. To choose to disregard ethical
considerations entirely might not be a wise choice, but that is
very different from saying that it is an incoherent or selfcontradictory choice.2
To live ethically is to think about things beyond one's own
interests. When I think ethically I become just one being,
with needs and desires of my own, certainly, but living among
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
others who also have needs and desires. When we are acting
ethically, we should be able to justify what we are doing, and
this justification must be of a kind that could, in principle,
convince any reasonable being. That this is a fundamental
requirement for ethics has been recognized since ancient times,
and in different cultures,3 but it has been given its most precise form by R. M. Hare, formerly professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford. As Hare puts it, if our
judgments are to be moral, they must be 'universalizable'. By
this he means, not that they must hold in all possible situations, but that we must be prepared to prescribe them independently of the role that we occupy - and that includes
prescribing them independently of whether we gain or lose by
their application. Essentially, this means that in considering
whether I ought to do something I must, if I am thinking
ethically, imagine myself in the situation of all those affected
by my action (with the preferences that they have). At the
most fundamental level of ethical thinking, I must consider
the interests of my enemies as well as my friends, and of
strangers as well as my family. Only if, after taking fully into
account the interests and preferences of all these people, I still
think that the action is better than any alternative open to
me, can I genuinely say that I ought to do it. At the same
time I must not ignore the long-term effects of fostering family
ties, of establishing and promoting reciprocal relationships,
and of allowing wrongdoers to benefit from their wrongdoing.
No-one can, in everyday life, carry out so complex a process
of thinking on the occasion of every moral choice; hence the
desirability of moral rules, not as repositories of absolute moral
truth, but as generally reliable guides for normal circumstances. Hare's explication of the nature of ethical thinking
allows us to take account of all the facts relevant to ethical
behaviour that were discussed in earlier chapters of this book,
while at the same time it shows why ethical thinking limits
the extent to which we may put our own needs and our own
happiness - or that of our family, or even of our race or our
nation - ahead of the happiness of these other beings.4 To
live ethically is to look at the world with a broader perspective, and to act accordingly.
The gender of ethics
To say that ethical judgments could, in principle, be accepted
by anyone raises a question that has been the subject of much
discussion in the past decade: is ethics gendered? It has long
been thought that there are differences in the way males and
females approach ethics. For most of history, women's nature
has been seen as more inclined to what we might call the
domestic virtues, and less suited to a broad perspective. Thus
in Emile, Rousseau summarizes a woman's duties as: 'the obedience and fidelity which she owes to her husband, the tenderness and care due to her children'. 5 Men, but not women,
should understand and participate in civic affairs and politics,
because 'a woman's reason is practical . . . The search for
abstract and speculative truth, for principles and axioms of
science, for all that tends to wide generalisation, is beyond a
woman's grasp'.6 Hegel took a similar view: women's ethical
judgment was limited to the customary ethical life of home
and family; the world of affairs, of civil society and of the
more abstract realm of universal morality was for men. Freud
brought this tradition into the present century, saying that
women 'show less sense of justice than men' and 'are more
often influenced in their judgments by feelings of affection or
hostility'. 7
Since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her pioneering A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, there has been a strand
of feminist thought that argues strongly, against Rousseau
and those who think in his mould, that there are no distinctively male or female virtues: ethics is universal. A quite distinct strand of feminist thought, however, came to the fore in
the early days of the struggle for women's suffrage. In advocating votes for women, some feminists argued that women
do have a distinctive approach to many ethical and political
issues, and that it is precisely for this reason that their influence should be more strongly felt in politics. It is male ambition and aggression, this argument ran, that is responsible for
the follies of war, with all the suffering that this brings.
Women, on the other hand, were said to be more nurturing
and more caring. In Women and Labour, published in 1911,
Olive Schreiner suggested that having experienced pregnancy,
childbirth and the rearing of children, women will view the
'waste' of life in war differently from men.8
Such views became unpopular in the seventies, during the
resurgence of the modern feminist movement, when any talk
of natural or innate psychological differences between the sexes
was ideologically suspect. More recently, however, some feminists have revived the idea that women see ethics differently
from men. Much of the impetus for this change has come
from Carol Gilligan's study, In a Different Voice: Psychological
Theory and Women's Development . Gilligan reacted against the
work of the Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who
spent his working life studying the moral development of
children. He did this by asking children what they would do
in a number of moral dilemmas, and grading their level of
moral development by the answers they give. In one dilemma,
a man called Heinz has a wife who will die unless she can get
a drug that he cannot afford. The druggist refuses to give the
drug to Heinz. Should Heinz steal the drug in order to save
his wife? Jake, an eleven-year-old boy, answers that Heinz
should steal the drug, and then face the consequences. Jake,
according to Kohlberg, thus shows his understanding of social
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
rules and his ability to rank principles about respect for property, and respect for human life. On the other hand Amy, a
girl of the same age as Jake, focuses more on the relationship
between Heinz and his wife, and also criticizes the druggist
for not helping someone who is dying. She suggests that Heinz
should persist in trying to talk to the druggist, to see if they
can come up with a solution to the problem. Kohlberg regards
the boy's answer as indicative of a higher stage of moral development, because it considers the problem at a more abstract
level, and refers to a system of rules and principles. Gilligan
points out that Amy sees the moral universe in less abstract,
more personal terms, emphasizing relationships and responsibilities between people. This may be different from the way
in which Jake sees morality, but it is not therefore inferior or
at a lower stage of development.9
In Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education,
Nel Noddings defends a view in some respects like that of
Gilligan. She argues that women are less inclined than men
to see ethics in terms of abstract rules and principles. Women,
Noddings thinks, are more likely to respond directly to specific situations on the basis of an attitude of caring. For women,
the relationships in which they are involved are central to
their perception of the situation. At one point Noddings
develops this view into a criticism of my own argument that
we should extend the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests to all beings who have interests, that is, to
all sentient creatures. This is, in Noddings's view, an example
of an abstract and distinctively male attitude to ethics; the
feminine approach she espouses would not lead us to have
duties to all animals, but rather to particular ones, such as
our companion animals, with whom we are in some kind of
relationship. On this basis Noddings rejects my view that
where we have adequate alternatives to eating animal flesh,
we should be vegetarians. Noddings refers approvingly to the
reluctance one might feel for eating a named farmyard animal
like Daisy the cow, but thinks our obligations not to eat
animals go no further. 10
Here I think Noddings goes astray, not only in her specific
ethical judgments, but also in her characterization of a feminist approach to ethics. I cannot prove Gilligan and Noddings wrong when they claim that women are less inclined to
think in terms of abstract ethical rules and principles than
men, though the basis on which they make this claim is flimsy,
and it is ironic that they should come close to agreeing with
Rousseau's clearly sexist view that women do not reason
abstractly." Other feminists take a different stance. Alison
Jaggar, for instance, has argued that 'feminist ethics' does not
need to be 'feminine ethics'; she also rejects biological determinism, emphasizing that not all women are feminists, while
some men are. 12 In any case, when it comes to how one lives,
women do not limit their ethical concerns to those with whom
they have some relationship. On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest that women are, if anything, more universal
in their ethical concern than men, and readier to take a longterm view. The popular Canadian environmentalist and
broadcaster David Suzuki notes, in his book Inventing the Future,
that in his experience 'women are disproportionately represented in the environmental movement'. The same is true of
the animal liberation movement. From the nineteenth century
until the present day, women have clearly outnumbered men
in groups trying to stop the exploitation of animals. Recently
at the local animal liberation group with which I work, we
decided to check the sex ratio of its membership. To our
surprise, we found that over 80 percent of our members are
female. Curious about this, I wrote to People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals, a Washington, DC-based organization
that has more members than any other group pursuing the
goal of equal consideration for animals. They told me that
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
they had discovered a similar preponderance of women when
they last examined their list of supporters.13
Suzuki explains the large number of women in the environmental movement by reference to the fact that women have
been excluded from much of the power structure in our society, and so have less at stake in the status quo than men. This
means, Suzuki thinks, that they can see through our social
myths with greater clarity than men. There may be something in this, but to be involved in the environmental movement one also needs a concern for the long-term care of the
planet and the species who live on it. Similarly, people are
drawn to the animal liberation movement very largely because
they care about the suffering of animals. Is it possible that,
on the whole, women do care more strongly than men about
the suffering of others? Are they, perhaps, the more ethical
gender? All such generalizations will certainly have exceptions, and should be treated with caution, but I suspect that
there is some truth in this one. Unlike mainstream party
politics, success in campaigns for animals offers little in the
way of career prospects, and does not bring benefits for the
campaigners, beyond their knowledge that they have helped
to reduce the suffering of other beings. Although other explanations are certainly possible, the predominance of women in
the environmental and animal movements therefore suggests
a greater readiness to work for larger goals, and not just to
help oneself or one's own kind. Interestingly, Carol Gilligan
quotes from a woman who expresses exactly this commitment
to a universal ethic:
I have a very strong sense of being responsible to the world,
that I can't just live for my enjoyment, but just the fact of
being in the world gives me an obligation to do what I can to
make the world a better place to live in, no matter how small
a scale that may be on. 14
In earlier chapters of this book I have stressed the importance of family, kin and reciprocal relationships. In the previous section of this chapter I have referred to the importance
of a broader perspective, too, and I shall develop that idea in
the next chapter; but that broader perspective must be able
to recognize the central place that personal relationships have
in human ethical life. The generalized concern for the entire
world expressed in the last quotation is exactly what the world
needs if it is to overcome its problems. The next question is:
if someone is choosing how to live, and doesn't already have
that sense of responsibility to the world, are there good
reasons why he or she should take on so universal an ethical
n a t u r e of e t h i c s
world so as to have a better fate in the next. The early Christians did not think that this world was of much significance
in itself. They expected that it would soon end, that the Day
of Judgment was close at hand. After all, as Jesus had said:
I tell you this; there are some standing here who will not taste
death before they have seen the Son of Man coming in his
kingdom. 15
And if that prediction had already been falsified by the end
of the first century after Jesus, Christians could still remember
his advice:
Hold yourself ready, therefore, because the Son of Man will
come at the time you least expect him. 16
Jesus and Kant: Two views on why we ought
to live ethically
My father believed that to remind his suppliers to send out
their invoices was both right, and likely to prove profitable in
the long run. I don't know whether he really thought that in
each instance it was likely to bring some benefit, or if he was
referring in a more general way to the benefits of adopting a
scrupulously honest approach to one's dealings with customers. Nor do I know whether he had chosen honesty because
he believed it to be the best policy, or if he would have chosen
it even if convinced that, in the long run, it would harm his
These questions reflect a deep division about how the ethical life may be justified or recommended when we are making
an ultimate choice about how to live. For most of the history
of Western civilization, Christianity has had a monopoly on
our thinking about why we should do what is right. The
answer it gives is that we should do what is right in this
Though belief in the imminence of the Second Coming
ebbed, the view persisted that this world is significant only as
a preparation for the next, the world in which we will slough
off our mortal bodies and live forever. The meaning of this
world therefore lies in the fact that it is part of God's plan.
Our role in it is to act for the greater glory of God. If we
need a further reason for acting morally, that can easily be
found in the promise of heavenly joy if we do so, and the
threat of hellish torments if we do not. These rewards and
punishments are often played down by sophisticated modern
Christians who are uncomfortable with so crudely selfinterested an answer to the question of why we should do
what is right. But the threat of reward and punishment was
a central feature of Christian moral teaching until quite
recently. It began with Jesus, whom the Gospels portray as
preaching a morality of self-interest. We are often told that
Jesus said, in his celebrated Sermon on the Mount:
. . . when you do some act of charity, do not announce it with
a flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in synagogue and
in the streets to win admiration from men.
This may sound like an anticipation of Maimonides' Golden
Ladder of Charity; but the remainder of the passage, in which
Jesus tells us why we should not behave in this way, is less
I tell you this: they have their reward already. No; when you
do some act of charity, do not let your left hand know what
your right hand is doing; your good deed must be secret, and
your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. 17
Throughout the sermon, Jesus hammers home the same
message: about loving your enemies, about praying in private,
about forgiving others the wrongs they have done, about fasting, about judging others, and more generally, about doing
'the will of my heavenly father'. In each case, the reward of
heaven is held out as an incentive - a reward, moreover, that,
unlike treasure on earth, cannot grow rusty, or be stolen by
thieves. 18
For the next eighteen centuries, there was no challenge to
the Christian warning of the danger of eternal punishment.
Christian theologians debated whether noble non-Christians
like Virgil would have to go to hell, and worried over the fate
of infants who died before being baptized, and who therefore
would still be in a state of Original Sin when the Day of
Judgment came. For the illiterate masses, Christian painters
vividly depicted the sufferings of the damned, tormented by
devils and roasted by the flames of hellfire, while in heaven
the righteous sprouted wings and played their harps. Eighteen
centuries was quite long enough to leave a lasting impression
on the Western mind.
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
As the eighteenth century enlightenment gradually loosened the hold of Christianity on our moral thinking, Immanuel
Kant, the greatest of German philosophers, presented a very
different picture of morality. Kant sought to reconstruct the
Christian conception of morality in a manner that made it
independent of teachings about heaven and hell, and largely
independent even of belief in God. Instead he relied on
reason, to the exclusion of everything else. According to Kant,
we act morally only when we have put aside all motives stemming from our desires or inclinations. If duty is not to be
'everywhere an empty delusion', then 'bare conformity to universal law as such' must serve as the motive for moral action.
By 'universal law' Kant meant the moral law - and in particular his famous 'categorical imperative' that tells us to act
only in accordance with principles that we would be ready
and willing to enact into universal laws. Thus he was saying
that we must do our duty for duty's sake. The blood donor
who is moved to give by a simple desire to help her fellowhumans is not acting morally unless she can put aside that
desire, and be motivated only by the thought that to help
another human being is her duty, in accordance with the
moral law.
Understandably, many modern thinkers who consider
themselves Kantians seek to deny that so cold and rigid a
view can be what Kant really meant. So here is an extraordinary passage that leaves little doubt:
To help others where one can is a duty, and besides this there
are many spirits of so sympathetic a temper that, without any
further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find an inner
pleasure in spreading happiness around them and can take
delight in the contentment of others as their own work. Yet I
maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however
right and however amiable it may be, has still no genuinely
moral worth . . . for its maxim lacks moral content, namely
the performance of such actions, not from inclination, but
from duty.
According to Kant, it is only when such a person somehow
loses 'all sympathy with the fate of others', so that the person
is no longer moved by any inclinations, but acts for the sake
of duty alone, that 'for the first time his action has its genuine
moral worth'. 19
Here is a doctrine that might wring a grimace of recognition from an early Christian saint mortifying his flesh in the
desert. In one sense Kant's view is diametrically opposed to
the idea we considered in Chapter 2, that morality is a game
for suckers; and yet the two views have in common the
assumption that to act morally we must deny our own best
interests for the sake of our moral duty. The difference is that
those who think morality is a game for suckers see this
assumption as a reason for holding morality in contempt,
whereas for Kant, it merely shows how pure and rare true
moral worth is. Kant's position offers a bleak prospect of the
human condition. We grasp the moral law because as reasoning beings, we are inevitably aware of it and in awe of it, but
we find it fundamentally hostile to our nature as physical,
desiring beings. We may yearn to bring about harmony
between the moral law and our desires, but we can never
In many non-Western societies, such a view of human
nature would be greeted with baffled incomprehension. In
Buddhist ethics, for instance, the source of goodness must be
sought within one's own nature, not as something imposed
from outside. Even among the ancient Greeks, the idea that
what we ought to do could be contrary to all our desires
would have caused bewilderment. That Kant's doctrine was
taken seriously, and often even accepted by his European
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
readers suggests that it reflects an element of the distinctive
moral consciousness with which generations have grown up
in Western Europe. It is, in fact, the element to which the
term 'morality' (rather than 'ethics') most naturally applies
today, for morality is linked more closely with the idea of a
moral law, and carries the implication that we ought to feel
guilty when we fail to meet its standards.
Let us look a bit more closely at this idea of morality. Why
on earth would anyone ever believe that to give blood has
more worth when the donor gives out of duty, without any
inclination to help others, than when the donor gives because
he or she feels 'an inner pleasure in spreading happiness', or
is drawn to the blood bank by sympathy with the plight of
those in need of the blood?
Here is one possible reason. We praise or blame people
with an eye, directly or indirectly, towards getting them and
others to act in the ways we want them to act. For people
who enjoy spreading happiness, or who are moved to act by
strong feelings of sympathy for the needs of others, praise for
giving blood is superfluous. All these people need to know is
that they can easily give blood, and that people will suffer if
there is a shortage of blood. Then they will give. Moral praise
ancl blame really come into their own only when we are faced
with people who take no pleasure in making others happy,
and are lacking in sympathy for those in need. Then morality
gives us a lever with which we may be able to move them to
do the right thing, despite the absence of any inherent desire
to do it. In other words, by suggesting that duty for duty's
sake has some special moral worth, we are making up for a
deficiency in motive for doing the right thing.
Moral worth, in Kant's sense of the term, is a kind of allpurpose glue that society can use to fill the cracks in the
ethical fabric of society. If there were no cracks - if we all
enjoyed doing what needs to be done, and helping others for
we to
its own sake - we would not need it; but such a Utopia
remains out of reach. That is why the notion of moral worth
is so useful. A woman may lack generous inclinations, but if
she sees it as her duty to aid those in distress, she will do so.
A man may harbour prejudices against those of a different
racial group, yet if he accepts that it is his duty to avoid racial
discrimination, he will do so. There are limits to what can be
accomplished by this kind of artificial substitute for more
natural inclinations. Qualities like warmth of personality,
spontaneity, creativity and so on cannot be promoted by a
morality that tells us to do our duty for its own sake. A
dutiful father may provide for his children as carefully as any
other father, but he cannot love them for duty's sake. Nevertheless, a morality of 'duty for duty's sake' is useful enough
to make it easy to understand why a society might promote it.
Useful as it might be, there is something about this conception of morality that should make us uneasy. No matter
how much we encourage people to do their duty for its own
sake, the real purpose behind this encouragement is to get
them to do their duty because of the good consequences that
will flow from their doing so. That is why, if we are to retain
the special moral worth of duty for duty's sake, we cannot
allow anyone to inquire too closely into the reason why one
should do one's duty. We have to say, as the British philosopher F. H. Bradley was later to put it, that 'to ask for the
Why? is simple immorality . . . we desert a moral point of
view, we degrade and prostitute virtue, when to those who
do not love her for herself we bring ourselves to recommend
her for the sake of her pleasures'.20 This is fine rhetoric, but
hardly a convincing response. If those who insist on duty for
its own sake spurn all support from inclination or self-interest,
they entrench forever the division between morality and selfinterest (no matter how broadly we conceive of self-interest).
They leave morality a closed system. If you accept 'the voice
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
of moral consciousness', then you will also accept that you
should not inquire further. For those who are not already
committed to living as duty dictates, however, the basic question of how we are to live becomes unanswerable, because
morality, one of the chief contenders, has turned in on itself
and refused to offer an answer at all. If you do not accept the
moral point of view, then on this account there is no way in
which you can be given a reason that will lead you to accept it.
Sceptics deride morality as something that society foists
upon us for its own sake. If by 'morality' we mean the view
that moral worth is to be found only in action done for the
sake of duty, they seem to be right. To put it bluntly: on this
view, morality is a fraud. Unchallenged, it may be socially
useful, but the gains are achieved at a high risk, for once
questioned, this conception of morality has no means of resisting the sceptical challenge. Thus the sceptics score an
undeservedly easy triumph.
The Kantian conception of morality is dangerous in another
way. Without guidance from human benevolence and sympathy, a strong sense of duty can lead to rigid moral fanaticism. A startling example of just how far this can go emerged
at the trial of Adolph Eichmann, held in Jerusalem in 1961.
According to the official record of his pre-trial police examination, at one point Eichmann, the former chief administrator
of the Holocaust, 'suddenly declared with great emphasis that
he had lived his whole life according to Kant's moral precepts,
and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty'. During the trial, one of the judges questioned Eichmann about
this, and Eichmann replied: 'I meant by my remark about
Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that
it can become the principle of general laws'. Eichmann also
cited, in support of his Kantian attitude to his duty, the fact
that out of the millions of cases that passed through his hands,
he allowed sympathy to sway him from the path of duty on
only two occasions. The implication clearly is that on other
occasions he felt sympathy for the Jews he was sending to the
gas chambers, but because he believed one should do one's
duty unaffected by sympathy, he steadfastly stuck to his duty,
instead of being tempted to bend the rules and help the Jews.:i
Eichmann seems not to have been the only Nazi who steeled
himself for appalling acts by focusing on duty and crushing
more normal instincts. In a speech to the SS Einsatzgruppen,
special squads appointed to carry out the killing of groups of
Jews, Heinrich Himmler told his troops that they were called
upon to fulfil a 'repulsive duty' and that he would not like it
if they did such a thing gladly. He had recently witnessed the
machine-gunning of about 100 Jews and had, he said, 'been
aroused to the depths of my soul' by what he had seen; but
he was obeying the highest law by doing his duty. 22
So let us throw out, once and for all, Kant's idea that moral
worth is to be found only when we do our duty for the sake
of doing our duty. (It is because this idea has pervaded our
notion of morality for so long, and so successfully, that I
prefer to use the term 'ethics' rather than 'morality'.) We
should also reconsider the assumption - shared by both Kant
and the sceptics who regard ethics as a game for suckers that ethics and our natural inclinations are always liable to
conflict. Then we can construct an account of ethics that
builds on, instead of turning away from, our own nature as
social beings.
Beyond Jesus and Kant: The search for an
ultimate answer
Jesus recommended obedience to God's command in order to
avoid damnation, whereas the Kantian conception of morality
carries with it the implication that we must recommend
morality entirely for its own sake, without any suggestion that
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
'honesty is the best policy' or even that we may find fulfillment in commitment to an ethical life. We have rejected the
views of both Jesus and Kant, but the ultimate question 'why
should we act ethically?' is still in need of an answer. The
decision to live an ethical life places some limits on what we
can do. We might want to do things that we know we cannot
justify from an universalizable point of view. Why not do
them anyway?
Kant's mistaken insistence on the idea that we should do
our duty for its own sake was an understandable reaction
against a traditional view of reward and punishment that he
found contemptible. Because the Christian view had so long
dominated all Western thought, the dawning of a secular age
in which many do not believe in God, or in a life after death,
has come as a shock. If God goes, what else goes with him?
Some thought that morality without God was an impossibility. Dostoyevsky wrote, in The Brothers Karamazov, that if
there is no God, 'everything is permitted'. That thought struck
a chord with those who believed that the meaning of this
world lies in its part in God's plan. Without God there can
be no providence watching over us, no divine plan for the
world, and hence no meaning to our lives. On a more individual basis, if the reason for doing what is right is to go to
heaven rather than hell, the end of belief in a life after death
seems to spell the end of any reason for doing what is right.
Kierkegaard wrote:
If man had no eternal consciousness, if, at the bottom of everything, there were merely a wild, seething force producing
everything, both large and trifling, in the storm of dark passions, if the bottomless void that nothing can fill underlay all
things, what would life be but despair? 23
It was not only for Christians that the decline of religious
belief gave rise to a problem about ethics. For many atheists
and agnostics raised in a Christian culture, ethics seemed to
be a mere appendage of religion, and one that could not
survive without it. For the existentialist philosophers of the
mid-twentieth century like Jean-Paul Sartre, the rejection of
God meant that we are alone in the world. We must choose,
but all our choices are arbitrary. There are no rules, no right
or wrong. All that remains, for Sartre, is to choose 'authentically' and avoid a life of 'bad faith'. But if all choice is arbitrary, how can one choose one alternative over another? Even
a preference for authenticity over bad faith needs some kind
of justification.
A quite different group of twentieth century philosophers
came to a similar conclusion by a different route. 'Theology
and Absolute Ethics', wrote Frank Ramsey, a brilliant Cambridge philosopher who died in 1930 at the age of twentysix, 'are two famous subjects which we have realized to have
no real objects'. 21 That attitude, spoken with the confidence
of youth and a modern scientific outlook, expresses the view
of ethics taken by the logical positivists, a group of thinkers
that began with the celebrated 'Vienna Circle' and spread to
the English-speaking world as a result of Wittgenstein's
Tractates and A. J. Ayer's forthright manifesto, Language, Truth
and Logic. Ayer denied that any assertion can be meaningful
unless there is, at least in principle, some way in which its
truth can be verified. Since judgments that an action is ethically right or wrong cannot be verified such judgments are,
on Ayer's view, no more than expressions of our subjective
feelings. Supporters of the objectivity of ethics have been on
the defensive ever since.
I share Ramsey's view of theology and, to a degree, I also
share his view of 'absolute' (by which he means 'objective')
ethics. We cannot set a super-computer to calculate the answer
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
to 'life, the universe and everything', as Douglas Adams imagines in his entertaining Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If the
universe has not been constructed in accordance with any
plan, it has no meaning to be discovered. There is no value
inherent in it, independently of the existence of sentient beings
who prefer some states of affairs to others. Ethics is no part
of the structure of the universe, in the way that atoms are.
But in the absence of belief in God, what other options are
there for finding a basis for ethics? Is it possible to study the
nature of ethics in a secular fashion and find some philosophical grounding for how we should live?
The quest is both an ancient and a universal one, so for
those willing to look back to the pre-Christian era, or outside
Christianity to a different culture, there are alternative accounts
of the meaning of life and the place of ethical behaviour in it.
Among the most ancient of all surviving literary works is
the epic of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, in ancient Sumer (now
southern Iraq) during the third millennium before the Christian era. Gilgamesh is first introduced as a brutal tyrant ruling by forte, bullying men and raping virginal girls before
they marry. Then Gilgamesh begins to worry about his own
mortality, and since he had defeated all other opponents,
determines to defeat death. Travelling far to find the answer,
he pauses for refreshment at an ale house, where the barmaid
tells him to accept mortality and make the most of the pleasures life can offer:
Gilgamesh, let your belly be full.
Be merry every day and night.
Make each day a day of joy.
Dance, play, by day and by night.
Wear clean clothes.
Let your head be washed and your body bathed with water.
Cherish the little child who grasps your hand.
Let your wife rejoice in your arms
For this is the destiny of mankind.
But Gilgamesh rejects this hedonistic counsel, and after
further adventures, returns to Uruk still mortal, but committed to the welfare of his people. He becomes a great king,
building the walls of Uruk that provided security for his
people, refurbishing the temples, and making his kingdom
more fertile, prosperous and peaceful. The underlying message is that we find the good life, the most satisfying life, in
carrying out our ethical responsibilities as best we can. 25
Eastern traditions offer other answers. Like Gilgamesh,
Siddhartha Gotama was a prince who had known the life of
luxury and ease. According to legend this young man, brought
up in a sheltered courtly atmosphere in Northern India, left
the palace grounds one day and encountered an old man, a
sick man, and the dead body of a man. Shocked at sights he
had never seen before, he asked the driver of his carriage for
an explanation, and was told that it is a fate that comes to all
people. Then the prince met a wandering holy man, with
shaven head and tattered robe. This man, he learnt, had chosen to live a homeless life. The prince went back to his palace.
That night he could take no pleasure in the girls brought to
his bed. Instead he lay pondering the meaning of what he
had seen. The next day he left the palace, exchanged his
princely robes for those of a beggar, and went seeking an
answer to the dilemma of living in a world with so much
suffering in it. The answer that he found, after many years
searching, struck his followers as so wise that they called him
the Enlightened One: the Buddha. In Buddha's teaching, the
four sublime virtues are loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The first three show the strongly
outwardly-directed nature of Buddhism, and its concern for
all sentient creatures; the third and fourth reflect the fact that
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
this concern for others is linked to an inner life that is both
joyful and calm. Buddhism is not a religion, in the standard
Western sense; it does not teach belief in any god or gods,
and the Buddha certainly never regarded himself as a god, or
a being to whom one should pray. Buddhists do, however,
use techniques of meditation to reach states in which their
deep sense of self is taken over and replaced by.a stronger
feeling of being part of a larger whole. This feeling of oneness
with others and the universe is, at the same time, a feeling of
joy and zest for life. Thus Buddhism attempts to solve the
antagonism of self and other by finding the deepest fulfillment of the self in a state of mind dominated by feelings of
kindness towards others. In this state the enlightened person
acts on the basis of these feelings for the good of all, without
thought of further reward.
Yet the Buddhist tradition must be counted as a failure in
social terms. Instead of challenging conventional practices,
Buddhism has accommodated itself to the status quo. Take,
for example, the oft-cited 'first precept' of Buddhism: harmlessness or not-killing towards all sentient beings. In Japan
one is reminded of this precept every time one visits an historic Buddhist temple, because it is printed on the back of
the admission ticket. Yet when I visited Japan some years ago
to study Japanese attitudes to animals, I found that very few
Japanese Buddhists were vegetarians. Only in a few of the
stricter sects did the monks refrain from meat, and even then
they did not expect their lay followers to do so. Buddhist
priests even bless the Japanese whaling fleet before it sails off
to bring death to Antarctic whales. Roshi Philip Kapleau,
author of the classic Three Pillars of Zen, recounts that during
his own training in Japan meat was widely eaten, as it was at
a monastery where he lived in Burma. The monks excused
this action by claiming that the animals 'were not killed for
them' and so they supposedly had no responsibility for their
deaths!26 As we saw in Chapter 6, Buddhist ideas do have
some influence on the goals that Japanese people set themselves in life. Nevertheless, on the whole, there and in other
Buddhist countries, only a tiny minority of those who call
themselves Buddhists really live the compassionate ethical life
presented in the story of Buddha's life and teachings.
In the pre-Christian Western tradition, as we saw in Chapter 1, Socrates attempted to answer Glaucon's challenge by
claiming that only the good person is really happy. To do so,
he argued that the good person is one who has the parts of
his or her soul in the proper relationship to each other. In the
Phaedrus, Plato puts forward the same view by picturing
reason as a charioteer, commanding the two horses of spirit
and appetite. Socrates and Plato held that nobody does wrong
willingly; people do wrong only if their reason is unable to
control their spirit (that is, emotions like anger or pride) or
their appetite (for example greed or lust). To this Aristotle
made the sensible comment that the doctrine is 'manifestly at
odds with the observed facts'. The assumption that Socrates
and Plato make is that to know what is good is already to
seek to bring it about. They drew no distinction between
knowing what is good and deciding to do it. Though not in
itself convincing, this idea began a long line of philosophical
thought designed to show that if only we reason correctly,
and are not swayed by desires to act contrary to our reason,
we will freely choose what is right. Kant belongs in this broad
tradition, even though Socrates and Plato saw the choice of a
good life not as a sacrifice of one's own interests in the name
of duty, but as the wise choice of a life that was more successful, and hence happier, than the life that was not lived so
David Hume, the great eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, has in modern times been the source of the most
fundamental opposition to the Kantian tradition in ethics.
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
Hume held that every reason for doing anything has to connect with some desire or emotion we have, if it is to have any
effect on our behaviour. (The view of ethics taken by logical
positivists like A. J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic is a
recognizable philosophical descendant of Hume's position.) If
Hume is right, the only way to answer the question: 'What
should I do?' is by asking, first: 'What do you really want to
do?' Hume hoped that the answer would mostly, if not always,
be that one wanted to do what was good or right, not (as
Kant would have insisted) because it is one's duty, but because
of the naturally sociable and sympathetic desires human beings
have. Hume belongs to a school of British philosophy that
recommends the ethical life on the basis of enlightened selfinterest. In contrast to Hobbes's pessimism, philosophers like
the Earl of Shaftesbury, Bishop Butler (a bishop of decidedly
secular tendencies, as far as his moral argument was concerned) and David Hume all took a much more positive view
of human nature. They saw human beings as naturally sociable and benevolent creatures, and therefore argued that we
find real happiness in the development and satisfaction of this
side of our nature. They stressed the rewards of a noble character, a good reputation and an easy conscience. They urged
us to follow our natural affections for others, and wrote of the
joy of true friendship, based on openness and honesty. They
also pointed to the probability that wrong-doing will be
detected. 27
On the whole, those who belong to this school of thought
hold that human beings are more strongly motivated by feelings of benevolence and sympathy for others than they are by
more hostile emotions. Fortunately, therefore, in doing what
we want to do, most of us, most of the time, will also do
what is good for others.
By the nineteenth century, however, a more pessimistic
outlook prevailed. Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of
utilitarianism, thought that nature has placed us all under
two masters, pleasure and pain, and we will do whatever
brings us the most pleasure and the least pain. To make sure
that there was no conflict between what maximized pleasure
and minimized pain for the individual, and for society as a
whole, Bentham thought the law was needed, backed up by
a system of reward and punishment. For a later utilitarian
philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, the impossibility of reconciling
one's own happiness and right conduct threatened the whole
foundations of ethics. At the end of the first edition of his
classic work The Methods of Ethics, after 47 3 pages of dense
philosophical thought, Sidgwick wrote:
The old immoral paradox, 'that my performance of Social Duty
is good not for me, but for others' cannot be completely refuted
by empirical arguments; nay, the more we study these arguments the more we are forced to admit, that if we have these
alone to rely on, there must be some cases in which the paradox is true. And yet we cannot but admit . . . that it is ultimately reasonable to seek one's own happiness . . . the Cosmos
of Duty is thus really reduced to a Chaos; and the prolonged
effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of rational
conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure.
Is Sidgwick right? Is 'the prolonged effort of the human
intellect' - from the writer of the epic of Gilgamesh onwards
- to answer the question with which this book is concerned
really 'foredoomed to inevitable failure"? That conclusion might
well seem to be the one that best fits the selfish, thoughtless,
violent and often simply irrational behaviour that takes up so
large a portion of the evening television news services. This is
the other extreme from the shining examples of heroically
The n a t u r e of e t h i c s
ethical behaviour with which this chapter began. The remaining chapters will provide some grounds for hoping that it is
too extreme a view, and that there may be some kind of
answer, if only a partial one, to Sidgwick's 'old immoral
C H A P T E R 10
not so much a matter of passively judging whether life is or is
not worth living, but of consciously choosing a way of living
that is worth living. Even Sisyphus, Camus maintains, can do
this. So the essay that began by facing us with the prospect
of suicide ends on a positive note:
Living to some purpose
There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn . . . The
struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's
heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.'
The myth of Sisyphus and the meaning
of life
According to an ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus betrayed the
secrets of the gods to mortal men. For this the gods condemned him to push a huge stone to the top of a hill; as he
neared the peak the effort became too much for him, and the
stone rolled all the way down to the bottom. Sisyphus then
had to begin his task again . . . but the same thing would
happen, and Sisyphus must labour with his stone for eternity.
The myth of Sisyphus serves as a bleak metaphor for the
meaninglessness of human existence. Each day we work to
feed ourselves and our family, and as soon as the task is done,
it must begin all over again. We reproduce, and our children
must take over the same task. Nothing is ever achieved, and
it will never end, until our species is extinct.
The French existentialist writer Albert Camus wrote an
essay on the myth of Sisyphus. It begins with a famous line:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that
is suicide'. Camus continues: 'Judging whether life is or is not
worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question
of philosophy'. 1 Perhaps it does, in the sense that if we judge
life not to be worth living - and act accordingly - we will
not be in a position to ask any further philosophical questions.
But we should add (and Camus would have agreed) that it is
In the concluding chapter of his book Good and Evil,
Richard Taylor, an American philosopher, also draws upon
the myth of Sisyphus in order to explore the nature of the
meaning of life. 3 Taylor asks an ingenious question: in what
way vould the fate of Sisyphus need to be altered, in order to
put meaning into his life? Taylor considers two possibilities.
The first is that instead of endlessly trying to get the same
stone to the top of the hill, with nothing to show for his
labours, Sisyphus might succeed in pushing different stones to
the top of the hill, and there construct a noble temple. The
second is that, although Sisyphus continues to push only the
same stone, and always in vain, the gods, in a perversely
merciful mood, implant in him a fierce desire to do just what
they have condemned him to do - push stones!
Taylor's two possibilities for putting meaning into the life
of Sisyphus derive from two different views of the basis of
ethics. On the first, we can live a meaningful life by working
toward goals that are objectively worthwhile. To build a temple that endures and adds beauty to the world is such a goal.
This view of ethics presupposes that there are objective values,
in accordance with which we can judge as good (among other
things) the creation of great works of art like the temples of
ancient Greece. The second possibility finds meaning, not in
232 H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
anything objective, but in something internal to ourselves our motivation. Here it is our desires that determine whether
what we do is worthwhile. Anything can be a meaningful
activity, on this view, if we want to do it. On this view,
pushing a rock up a hill, only to see it roll down as we near
the top, starting again, and doing the same thing forever, is
neither more nor less meaningful than building a temple,
because the presupposition here is that there is no such thing
as objective value or meaning, independently of what we
desire. Meaning is subjective: an activity will have meaning
for me if it happens to tally with my desires; otherwise it
will not.
Taylor favours the subjectivist approach. He thinks that
the only thing that can give meaning to our lives is our own
inner desire, our own will. In taking this view he is in keeping
with the dominant spirit of the twentieth century, as expressed
by existentialists, by logical positivists and by many contemporary philosophers who would not accept either of these
labels, but would agree that since the universe as a whole has
no meaning, we are free to give our own meaning, not to the
universe as a whole, but to our own lives. Yet this very freedom can lead to a problematic view of value that lies behind
some of the dissatisfaction felt with life even in the most
affluent circumstances. The everyday problems of this view of
value are worth exploring in more detail.
Of housewives, Aboriginal Australians and
caged hens
As a magazine writer in 1950s America, Betty Friedan interviewed many women who were living the classic American
dream: they were young and healthy, they lived in fine suburban homes, their husbands had well-paid jobs, their children went to school, their housework was made easier by
L i v i n g to s o m e
many labour-saving appliances and (we can add with the benefit of hindsight) no-one worried about drugs or AIDS. This
was the Good Life, in the most prosperous country in the
world, and these women should surely have been the envy of
anyone who has ever lacked comfort, leisure and financial
security. Yet when Friedan talked to them, she found that
they had a problem. They didn't have a name for it, and nor
did Friedan, so she called it 'the problem that has no name'.
The problem formed the core of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the book that more than any other single work triggered the modern feminist movement. In it women describe
the problem in their own words. Here is a 23-year-old mother:
I ask myself why I am so dissatisfied. I've got my health, fine
children, a lovely new home, enough money . . . It's as if ever
since you were a little girl, there's always been somebody or
something that will take care of your life: your parents, or
college, or falling in love, or having a child, or moving to a
new house. Then yru wake up one morning and there's nothing to look forward to.4
The magazines and television soaps of the time tried to tell
women that the role of wife and mother was the most fulfilling there can be. After all, compared to women in earlier
periods, or in other countries today the American housewife
of the fifties had it easy. 'Having it easy', however, was little
consolation; in reality it was precisely the problem. This kind
of life was supposed to be all that a woman needed for fulfillment, but when she had achieved everything she was supposed to want, her life plan came to a dead stop. The suburban
housewife lives an isolated existence in her comfortable home,
equipped with labour-saving devices that allow her to complete her daily chores in an hour or two. In another hour at
the supermarket she can gather the week's food supply for
the entire family. Her only role is to bring up a family, and
her children soon spend all day at school, and much of the
rest of their time watching television. Nothing else seems
worth achieving.
Consider a quite different way of living. Over the past forty
years, several groups of Australian Aboriginals who subsisted
by hunting and gathering in remote desert areas have come
into contact with Western civilization. Through this contact
they have access to reliable supplies of food, steel axes, clothes,
and many other goods. If quality of life depended on quantity
of material possessions, this contact would be bound to
improve the quality of life of the Aboriginal groups. Yet
observers are agreed that it has had exactly the opposite effect.
We do not have to idealize the nomadic Aboriginal life in
order to recognize that it provides many opportunities for
finding satisfaction in the tasks of obtaining the necessities of
life. Richard Gould, an American anthropologist who lived
with an Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer group, found
. . . the daily lives of the nomadic Aborigines are essentially
harmonious and rewarding. An individual grows up realising
what is expected of him. By acquiring and developing practical
knowledge and skill he learns to fulfil these expectations and is
rewarded immediately by his own satisfaction in achievement
and in the long run by the esteem of his kin. 1
When food comes from a shop, bought with a government
welfare cheque provided by a well-meaning social worker eager
to see that all Australians get what they are legally entitled
to receive, the skills and knowledge acquired over a lifetime
are immediately devalued. The result is deeply demoralizing.
Almost everything that the members of the nomadic group
used to spend their days doing has lost its point. It is no
L i v i n g to s o m e p u r p o s e
wonder that alcohol often becomes a major problem, and even
when it does not, these formerly nomadic Aboriginals appear
to be at a loss for anything to do.
The modern housewife in her tidy household and the
Aboriginal Australian sitting on the dusty ground outside the
store are suffering from the same malaise: the elimination of
purpose from their lives. The need for purpose lies deep in
our nature. We can observe it in other animals, especially
those who, like us, are social mammals. The tiger, restlessly
pacing back and forth behind the bars of a small concrete cell,
is fortunately becoming a less common sight at the zoo. But
the monkeys still kept in barren metal cages in laboratories,
or the pigs confined for months on factory farms in stalls too
small to allow them even to pace back and forth, are suffering
from the same problem. When you provide a sow with food
and a warm dry place to lie down, you have not provided her
with everything she needs. Such animals exhibit what ethologists call 'stereotypical behaviour' — they restlessly gnaw at
the bars of their pen, or stand rocking their heads back and
forth. They are trying to make up for the absence of purposive
activity in their lives. Even the caged factory farm hen devours
her daily nutritional needs in a few minutes pecking at the
feed with which she is supplied and then is left with nothing
at all to do. As a result she will restlessly peck at her companions, and all factory farm hens are now 'debeaked' to stop
them killing each other. Some relatively more enlightened
keepers of animals now mix the day's food with straw or other
inedible material and scatter it across the floor of the cage, so
that the animal must work to find it. Hens kept indoors can
be given food that is very finely ground; then instead of getting their daily food intake in a few minutes, it may take
them several hours. On the modern view of work and leisure,
as we apply it to humans, these devices make the animals
work harder, reduce their leisure time, and so should make
them worse off; but observation shows that the animals' welfare is improved. Of course, such strategems are at best a poor
imitation of the wide variety of activities that animals have
available to them in their natural conditions. They do not
make it acceptable to keep animals in barren cages; but their
relative success should make us re-examine our attitude to
work and leisure. It is clear that our quest for a purpose to
our lives has its roots a long way back in our evolutionary
history, and will not easily be eliminated.
There is one short cut to overcoming the need for purpose.
For the pharmaceutical industry, an existential void is a marketing opportunity. In the sixties, suburban doctors started
prescribing tranquillizers in increasing quantities to housewives who came to them feeling depressed. As the Rolling
Stones sang in 'Mother's Little Helper':
Kids are different today, I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of her mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way
Gets her through her busy day
Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door she took four more
What a drag it is getting old.
That is one way of 'solving' the dissatisfaction caused by a
loss of purpose: turn the dissatisfied housewife into a contented zombie. It solves the problem only in the sense that
alcohol solves the problems Australian Aboriginals have in
adjusting to Western civilization, and crack and other drugs
solve the problems of unemployed Americans living in urban
Not quite as addictive as heroin, less harmful than alcohol,
L i v i n g to s o m e p u r p o s e
but still problematic from an environmental perspective, is
that other great modern tranquillizer, going shopping. Many
people readily admit that shopping is not so much a means
to obtain goods that they need, but rather their major recreational activity. A large dose of it seems to help overcome
depression. Shopping is a modern substitute for more traditional hunter-gatherer activities. The shopping mall has
replaced the old hunting grounds. Like gathering roots, seeds
and berries in an arid environment, shopping can take a large
portion of the day. It allows for the development of specialized forms of knowledge and skill. (How do you select the
right items to gather? Where and when are the genuine bargains to be found?) Shopping can even pass as purposeful
activity; its leisure component can be disguised or denied, in
a way that it cannot if one spends the day playing golf.
Why was it mostly women who experienced such a loss of
purpose in the fifties? At that time most men, but relatively
few women, worked in jobs that held out the prospect of a
promotion, an increase in responsibility and power. This is
still often the case, if not quite to the same extent. So when
one morning a man wakes up and asks himself, 'Is this all
there is to my life?' he can quieten the doubts by thinking
about that coming glorious day when he gets to move up to
a more important position, with higher pay and more responsibility. That is why, as both employers and unions have found,
a career structure, a ladder leading upwards, is often more
crucial for job satisfaction than actual rates of pay. In contrast,
for a housewife there is no promotion. Romance will fade, and
the children will need their mother less and less. No wonder
that many American housewives, once they had everything
they were supposed to want, felt the meaningless of their
existence more acutely than their husbands did.
L i v i n g to s o m e p u r p o s e
The struggle to win
Some people - typically men - find their purpose by taking
a competitive attitude to life. In the first chapter of this book
I referred to the moment in the movie Wall Street when Bud
Fox challenges Gordon Gekko's lust for more and more money,
asking: 'How much is enough?' Here is Gekko's answer:
It's not a question of enough, pal. It's a zero-sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses.
The reply will touch a familiar chord with anyone who
knows how the big names of the eighties think, talk and
write. In the first chapter of his second book, Surviving at the
Top, Donald Trump reports on what has happened since his
first book by writing of his 'victories' and of the lessons that
have taught him 'not to take the winning for granted'. A few
pages on, he compares himself with 'a professional prize
fighter'. Later, in a more introspective mood, he remarks:
desire to own is 'emulation' — the desire to equal or surpass
others. Property becomes 'the most easily recognized evidence
of a reputable degree of success as distinguished from heroic
or signal achievement'. It therefore becomes 'the conventional
basis of esteem'.7 Conspicuous consumption, if it is to be
effective in enhancing the consumer's fame, must be 'an
expenditure of superfluities . . . it must be wasteful'. (Veblen
dryly adds that in a work of economic theory such as his, 'the
use of the word "waste" as a technical term . . . implies no
deprecation of the motives or of the ends sought by the consumer under this canon of conspicuous waste'.)8 The canons
of 'pecuniary taste' dictate that 'marks of superfluous costliness' are indications of worth, and goods will be unattractive
if 'they show too thrifty an adaptation to the mechanical end
sought'.9 The result is a striving that can never be satisfied:
. . . the end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the community in point of pecuniary
strength. So long as the comparison is distinctly unfavorable to
himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what
may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a restless straining to place a wider and
ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this
average standard. The invidious comparison can never become
so favorable to the individual making it that he would not
gladly rate himself still higher relatively to his competitors in
the struggle for pecuniary reputability.
I'm sometimes too competitive for my own good. If someone
is going around labeling people winners and losers, I want to
play the game and, of course, come out on the right side/'
Thorstein Veblen, the crusty turn-of-the-century American
sociologist of Norwegian stock who wrote The Theory of the
Leisure Class would have smiled at the way in which people
like Trump displayed their wealth, buying absurdly luxurious
yachts in which they seldom had time to sail, or palatial country residences they rarely visited. It was Veblen who coined
the term 'conspicuous consumption' to describe consumption
that has the purpose of displaying one's wealth, and thus
enhancing one's relative status. Veblen held that, once needs
for subsistence and a reasonable degree of physical comfort
have been satisfied, the motive that lies at the root of the
If, by nature or by socialization, men are more likely to
engage in this striving for status than women, that is at once
their burden, and their means of escaping the need to face
questions about the meaning of their lives. They can go on
accumulating wealth since, as Veblen adds:
In the nature of the case, the desire for wealth can scarcely be
satiated in any individual instance . . .'"
This matches a remark that Michael Lewis reports in Liar's
Poker. When he was a rising bond trader at Salomon Brothers,
one of his colleagues said to him:
You don't get rich in this business, you only attain new levels
of relative poverty. You think Gutfreund [Salomon's chief
executive] feels rich? I'll bet not."
Indeed, John Gutfreund's wife, Susan, famous for her exotic
dinner parties, reportedly once concluded an account of the
problems of maintaining proper staff for their New York and
Paris residences by complaining: 'It's so expensive to be rich!'12
In Bon/ire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe ridiculed the lifestyle
of people like the Gutfreunds. In one devastating scene the
bond trader Sherman McCoy and his wife, Judy, are invited
to a dinner on Fifth Avenue, six blocks from where they live.
Judy's dress made walking impossible; a taxi is out of the
question too:
What would they do after the party? How could they walk out
of the Bavardages' building and have all the world, tout It
moncle, see them standing out in the street, the McCoys, that
game couple, their hands up in the air, bravely, desperately,
pathetically trying to hail a taxi?
L i v i n g to some
So the McCoys hire a limousine and driver to drive them
six blocks, wait four hours, and then drive them six blocks
home, at a cost of $197.20. But this does not ensure happiness:
. . . the driver couldn't pull up to the sidewalk near the entrance,
because so many limousines were in the way. He had to doublepark. Sherman and Judy had to thread their way between
the limousines . . . Envy . . . envy . . . From the license plates
Sherman could tell that these limousines were not hired. They
were owned by those whose sleek hides were hauled here in
them. A chauffeur, a good one willing to work long hours and
late hours, cost $36,000 a year, minimum; garage space, maintenance, insurance, would cost another $14,000 at least; a total
of $50,000, none of it deductible. / make a million dollars a year
- and yet I can't afford that!^
Acquisition without limit is another form of escape from
meaninglessness. But it is an escape-hole that suggests a fundamental lack of wisdom. By 'wisdom', I mean the product
of reflection with some intelligence and self-awareness about
what is important in life; 'practical wisdom' adds to this the
ability to act accordingly. The goal of emulation described by
Veblen cannot possibly satisfy a reflective mind, and seems not
even to satisfy those who do not reflect on what they are doing.
As Veblen suggests, behind the desire for acquisition lies a
competitive urge. Already in the seventies, Michael Maccoby,
who had studied both psychoanalysis and social science, sensed
the rise of a new style of business executive. After interviewing 250 managers from twelve major American corporations,
he concluded that for many of these executives, business life
was about winning - for themselves, for their unit, or for
their corporation. He wrote a book about what he had found,
and called it after the new style of executive: The Gamesman.
But the book was no celebration of the rising competitive
executive dedicated to winning. Instead it contained a warning that if life is regarded simply as a game, then eventually
a time will come when it ceases to matter:
Once his youth, vigor, and even the thrill in winning are lost,
[the gamesman] becomes depressed and goalless, questioning
the purpose of his life. No longer energized by the team struggle and unable to dedicate himself to something he believes in
beyond himself, which might be the corporation or alternatively the larger society, he finds himself starkly alone. 14
Michael Milken seems to have been a classic example of a
supreme winner who gained little satisfaction from winning.
When Milken was at the height of his success, a legend around
the financial world with a personal fortune of a billion dollars,
one of his colleagues told Connie Bruck: 'Nothing is good
enough for Michael. He is the most unhappy person I know.
He never has enough . . . He drives everything - more, more,
more deals'. In 1986 one longtime buyer of Milken's junk
bonds told Bruck that 'there seemed to be less and less joy in
Milken - something that had been part of him in the early
years - and more compulsion'.' 5
In a critical study of the emphasis on competition in Western society, Alfie Kohn found that many sporting competitors
report feeling empty after achieving the greatest possible success in their chosen sport. Here is Dallas Cowboys coach Tom
. . . even after you've just won the Super Bowl — especially after
you've just won the Super Bowl — there's always next year. If
'Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing' then 'the only
thing' is nothing - emptiness, the nightmare of life without
ultimate meaning."'
<'{ \
Harvey Ruben, author of a book called Competing and an
enthusiast for competition, concedes that: 'The discovery,
ultimately, that "making it" is often a hollow gain is one of
the most traumatic events that the successful competitor can
experience'. Stuart Walker, a sailing boat racer and another
author of a book about winning and competing, says:
Winning doesn't satisfy us - we need to do it again, and again.
The taste of success seems merely to whet the appetite for
more. When we lose, the compulsion to seek future success is
overpowering; the need to get out on the course the following
weekend is irresistible. We cannot quit when we are ahead,
after we've won, and we certainly cannot quit when we're
behind, after we've lost. We are addicted. 17
Here is the best available answer to one of the questions I
asked in Chapter 1. Why did Ivan Boesky risk everything for
a few million dollars, when he already had more than he could
ever spend? In 1992, six years after Boesky pleaded guilty to
insider trading, his estranged wife Seema broke her silence
and spoke about Ivan Boesky's motives in an interview with
Barbara Walters for the American ABC network's 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Ivan Boesky was a man who
craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that
he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never
took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that
when, in 1982, Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the
wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he
disliked the publicity, and made some remark to that effect.
Boesky replied:
That's not what's upsetting me. We're no one. We're nowhere.
We're at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won't
shame you like that again ever. We will not remain at the
bottom of that list. ls
The craving to win, whether in business or in sport, is the
modern version of the labours of Sisyphus - a sentence to
never-ending labour without a goal. It is an addiction that
had Boesky hooked, and that ruined him. But even if he had
not been ruined by it, ultimately - win or lose - he would
have found his craving insatiable.
The inward turn
Many people think that if their lives are not fulfilling, something must be wrong with them. So they turn to psychotherapy. In the twenty years to 1976, the number of Americans
seeing mental health professionals trebled. The pattern began
with young, urban, well-educated professionals, but spread to
other sectors of society. '9 I could not help noticing this when
I took up a visiting appointment in the Department of
Philosophy at New York University in 1973- Until my arrival
in New York, I had never known anyone who was seeing a
psychotherapist as much as once a week; but as I became
acquainted with a circle of New York professors and their
spouses, I soon found that many of them were in daily psychoanalysis. Five days a week, eleven months of the year, they
had an appointment for one hour, not to be broken under
any circumstances short of a life or death emergency. They
could not go on holiday unless their analyst was taking a
holiday at the same time. (Often both partners were in analysis with different analysts; but fortunately shrinks all go on
holidays in August, so couples could still go away together.)
Nor did all of this come cheap. Some of my colleagues, wellpaid, successful academics, were handing over a quarter of
their annual salary to their analysts! This was for people who,
L i v i n g to s o m e
as far as I could tell, were neither more nor less disturbed
than those not in analysis, and apart from their commitment
to analysis, they seemed no different from the people I had
known in Oxford or Melbourne. I asked my friends why they
were doing this. They said that they felt repressed, or had
unresolved psychological tensions, or found life meaningless.
I wanted to pick them up and shake them. These people were
intelligent, talented, wealthy, and living in one of the world's
most exciting cities. They were at the centre of the greatest
communications hub in history. The New York Times was
informing them every day of the state of the real world. They
knew, for example, that in several developing countries, there
were families that did not know where the next day's food
was coming from, and children who were growing up physically and mentally stunted by malnutrition. They knew, too,
that the planet could produce enough food for every human
being to be adequately fed, but that it was so unequally distributed as to make laughable any talk of justice between
nations. (For example, in 1973 the per capita Gross National
Product of the United States was $6,200, and of Mali, $70.20)
If these able, affluent New Yorkers had only got off their
analysts' couches, stopped thinking about their own problems, and gone out to do something about the real problems
faced by less fortunate people in Bangladesh or Ethiopia - or
even in Manhattan, a few subway stops north - they would
have forgotten their own problems and maybe made the world
a better place as well.
In looking inwards for solutions to their problems, people
are seeking the mysterious substance that, in Taylor's second
possible way of adding meaning to the life of Sisyphus, the
gods put into Sisyphus in order to make him want to push
stones up the hill. In suggesting that the solution lies, instead,
in getting out into the world and doing something worthwhile, I am siding with the alternative solution, which does
not change what Sisyphus is like, but allows him to change
the external world by building a temple. As yet, I offer no
philosophical justification for taking this apparently objectivist stance. For the moment, it is enough that, in practice, it
seems to work.
People spend years in psychoanalysis, often quite fruitlessly,
because psychoanalysts are schooled in Freudian dogma that
teaches them to locate problems within the patient's own
unconscious states, and to try to resolve these problems by
introspection. Thus patients are directed to look inwards when
they should be looking outwards. Viktor Frankl, a nonFreudian psychotherapist, tells the story of an American diplomat who came to see him at his Vienna clinic, wanting to
continue analysis he had begun five years previously in New
York. Frankl asked the diplomat why he had started analysis
in the first place, and the diplomat said that he had been
discontented with his career, finding it very difficult to support the American foreign policy of the time. His Freudian
analyst had responded by repeatedly telling him that the
problem was that the US Government and his superiors were
nothing but father images; he was dissatisfied with his work
because he unconsiously hated his father. The analyst's solution, therefore, was that the patient should become more aware
of his unconscious feelings for his father, and should try to
reconcile himself with his father. Frankl disagreed. He concluded that the diplomat did not need psychotherapy at all.
He was simply unhappy because he could find no meaning in
his work. So Frankl suggested a change of employment. The
diplomat took his advice. He enjoyed his new career from the
start, and when Frankl saw him five years later, he was continuing to do so.21
The error of looking inwards for meaning is so common
that Robert Bellah and his colleagues, in planning the study
that resulted in their book Habits of the Heart, chose therapy,
alongside love and marriage, as a significant aspect of American life to examine. As they say in their preface:
In thinking about private life, we decided to study love and
marriage, one of the oldest ways in which people give form to
their private lives, and therapy, a newer, but increasingly
important, way in which middle-class Americans find meaning
in the private sphere. 22
The therapist, then, has a new role: not merely to help
those who are mentally ill, but also to bring meaning into the
lives of middle-class Americans.
Another indicator of the widespread acceptance of a
psychotherapeutic approach to life is the astonishingly enduring popularity of M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Travelled.
As I write these lines, in June 1992, this book has been on
the New York Times Bestseller List for 436 weeks, or more
than eight years. Peck, a psychiatrist, recommends psychotherapy, not only as a means of treating mental illness, but
as a 'short cut to personal growth'. While admitting that
'it is possible to achieve personal growth without employing
psychotherapy', he suggests that 'often the task is unnecessarily tedious, lengthy and difficult'. Comparing the use of
psychotherapy as a means to personal growth with the use of
a hammer and nails to build a house, he urges that 'It generally makes sense to utilize available tools as a short cut'. 23
I find this analogy doubtful; the short cut is very likely to
turn into a long blind alley. The occupational disease of therapists, to which few are immune, is an excessive focus on the
self, a condition often found in conjunction with a superficial
subjectivism about values that effectively disqualifies the therapist from wholeheartedly taking an ethical stand. As the
authors of Habits of the Heart report:
the therapeutic self . . . is defined by its own wants and satisfactions . . . Its social virtues are largely limited to empathic
communication, truth-telling and equitable negotiation . . . the
therapeutically inclined fear any statement of right or wrong
that is not prefaced by a subjective disclaimer such as 'I think'
or 'it feels to me' because they believe moral judgments are
based on purely subjective feelings and cannot meaningfully be
A Gestalt therapist sketched the transition from 'morality'
to its therapeutic successor:
The question 'Is this right or wrong?' becomes 'Is this going
to work for me now?' Individuals must answer it in light of
their own wants. 25
Note here the inability to see the value of any purpose
beyond the self, a characteristic that this therapist shares with
a more popular writer who also distrusts morality. In Looking
Out for # 7, Robert J. Ringer writes:
In deciding whether it's right to look out for Number One, I
suggest that the first thing you do is eliminate from consideration all unsolicited moral opinions of others . . . You should
concern yourself only with whether looking out for Number
One is moral from your own rational, aware viewpoint . . . I
perhaps can best answer the question Is it right? by asking you
one: Can you see any rational reason why you shouldn't try to
make your life more pleasurable and less painful, so long as
you do not forcibly interfere with the rights of others?' 6
I include Ringer among those who reduce everything to
the internal view of the self, because that is the general tenor
of his book, as the title suggests; but note how Ringer quietly
slips in the proviso about not forcibly interfering with the
rights of others. It would be interesting to know what 'rational
reason' he can see for not forcibly interfering with the rights
of others, as long as it 'makes your life more pleasurable and
less painful'. Once Ringer accepts that there is one moral
requirement that is not grounded in pleasure or pain for yourself, why should he not accept that there are others too?
Like Looking Out for # 1, Gail Sheehy's Passages: Predictable
Crises of Adult Life was a very popular self-help book of the
seventies. It appealed to a considerably more sophisticated
readership than Ringer's, but similarly focused on the individual self as the source of all validity. Here is Sheehy's advice
for coping with mid-life crisis:
The most important words in midlife are - Let Go. Let it
happen to you. Let it happen to your partner. Let the feelings.
Let the changes.
You can't take everything with you when you leave on the
midlife journey. You are moving away. Away from institutional claims and other people's agenda. Away from external
valuations and accreditations, in search of an inner validation.
You are moving out of roles and into the self . . . To reach the
clearing beyond, we must stay with the weightless journey
through uncertainty. 27
To think critically about the values and standards that you
accept is fine; but to imagine that you can let go', become
'weightless' and simply find your own standards in your 'self
is to repeat the psychoanalysts' mistake of looking inwards
rather than to the reality in which we live, a reality that
provides both opportunities and limits for our actions. If our
lives are to have any meaning beyond the fantasy of our own
imagination, we must lock into that reality and consider what
claims it makes upon us. We live for a time and then die.
Our lives can be pleasurable or painful, but if we want them
to have some meaning as well, we cannot create this meaning
out of our subjective experiences alone. There can be no
meaning to a life unless something is worth doing. To decide
that something is worth doing involves making an ethical
Here we have the flaw in Richard Taylor's subjectivist view
that what matters in the life of Sisyphus is not the nature of
the task he must perform, but whether he wants to do it. For
Taylor the task can be as absurd as we like - and few are
more absurd than rolling the same stone up the hill and never
quite getting it to the top before it rolls down again - yet if
that is what Sisyphus desires to do, then he is living the best
possible life. Similarly, the Gestalt therapist I quoted earlier
would no doubt have said, when confronted with the fate of
The question 'Is rolling the stone right or wrong for Sisyphus?'
becomes 'Is this going to work for him now?' He must answer
it in the light of his own wants.
And if, halfway through eternity, Sisyphus were to experience a mid-life crisis, Gail Sheehy could reassure him that no
'external valuations and accreditations' need trouble him,-as
long as he has his own 'inner validation'.
Among psychotherapists, Viktor Frankl is exceptional in
his insistence on the need to find meaning in something outside the self. Frankl became aware of the importance of the
need for meaning in the most desperate possible circumstances. As a Viennese Jew, he spent much of World War II
in Nazi concentration camps. There, he saw that 'The prisoner
who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed'. 2 "
These prisoners, who had nothing to live for, allowed themselves to decay, physically and mentally. Some committed
suicide; some would no longer work, and were shot or beaten
to death. The remainder succumbed to infections and diseases.
To have a chance of survival, One needed something to live
for. That something might be the prospect of reunion with a
child or lover who had fled to safety before the war. Frankl
knew a scientist who was kept going by the thought that he
must finish his interrupted scientific research. The goal might
even be the need to survive in order to bear witness to the
unbelievable reality of the Holocaust. For Frankl himself, it
was the thought of being able to recreate the manuscript of
his first book, confiscated on the day of his arrival in Auschwitz. Frankl quotes Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live for
can bear almost any how'.2y
Obsession with the self has been the characteristic psychological error of the generations of the seventies and eighties. I
do not deny that problems of the self are vitally important;
the error consists in seeking answers to those problems by
focusing on the self. The mistake is akin to the one you would
make if you were so dedicated to writing your autobiography
that from an early age you decided to do nothing except write
the autobiography. What would there be to write about? You
could sit down at your computer and type: 'I am now writing
my autobiography'. You could describe your thoughts about
writing your autobiography, and maybe manage to carry on
for a while in this mode, but unless you have some other
experiences to write about, beyond the experience of writing
itself, the book will be thin and the contents uninteresting.
Similarly, if you were to invest all your time and energy into
'finding yourself by looking inward, the self that you found
would lack substance. It would be an empty self. Of course,
no-one invests all his or her time and energy in looking inwards
in this way; but many spend too much time doing it, and
their lives are diminished as a result.
There are many reasons why people may be self-obsessed.
Of those who seek the solution in psychotherapy, many are
simply unhappy, and have come to believe that the fault must
lie in their own head. Others, however, are persuaded by the
ethos of the consumer society, reinforced in a thousand ways
every day, that the only worthwhile aim is the pursuit of one's
own pleasure or happiness. The mistake they make is an
ancient one, known to philosophers as the 'paradox of hedonism'. The hedonist is dedicated to seeking pleasure; yet those
who deliberately set out in search of pleasure rarely find it,
except perhaps fleetingly. The modern version of this approach
to life is superbly portrayed in Bret Easton Ellis's first novel
Less Than Zero. The young, rich, Los Angeles set he describes
turn from alcohol to sex, to drugs, to endless televised rock
video clips, to violence, and then back to alcohol, without
finding much pleasure - let alone fulfillment - in any of it.
The roots of Ellis's later, more shocking, American Psycho are
already to be found in the aimlessness of such an existence.
The British philosopher 'F. H. Bradley would have seen in
Ellis's work a convincing illustration of what he wrote about
the search for pleasure, more than a century earlier:
Pleasures [are] a perishing series. This one comes, and the
intense self-feeling proclaims satisfaction. It is gone, and we are
not satisfied . . . another and another do not give us what we
want; we are still eager and confident, till the flush of feeling
dies down, and when that is gone there is nothing left. We are
where we began, as far as the getting of happiness goes; and
we have not found ourselves, and we are not satisfied.
This is common experience, and it is the practical refutation
of Hedonism, or of seeking happiness in pleasure.30
The affluent consumer society puts the search for our own
pleasure at the centre of our lives; and it leads to precisely the
experience Bradley describes, even down to the very term he
L i v i n g to some p u r p o s e
uses: we say that we are not satisfied and that we need to
'find ourselves'. We have forgotten the old wisdom that the
way to find happiness or lasting satisfaction is to aim at something else, and try to do it well. As Henry Sidgwick wrote, in
his measured Victorian way: 'Happiness is likely to be better
attained if the extent to which we set ourselves consciously to
aim at it be carefully restricted'.31 At what, though, are we to
A transcendent cause
In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues recognize and warn against the modern tendency to turn inwards
in search of meaning. While they document this tendency,
they also present another option. They talk to people who are
politically active, like Wayne Bauer, who is involved in helping poor immigrant tenants in his neighbourhood. Bauer went
through some difficult times in sorting out his own life, he
says. Then:
Morality became a question to me. It's sort of like I wanted to
put everything back together again with more durable material,
one that would stand the strain . . . Watching politics is watching civilization struggle and evolve, and it's very exciting, but
it's also much more personal because it's your struggle to evolve
into this picture, into this historic picture somehow . . . I feel
good about what I do. I feel that the work I'm involved in is
directly affecting other people in beneficial ways. It's again this
value question. You can spend all your time in seeing how
many material goods you can get together and how much
money you can make or you can spend it helping one another
and working together . . . it's very beautiful to see and very
exciting to be a part of because what you're seeing is kind of
an evolution of consciousness.32
H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
Marra James is involved in the environmental movement
in a Southern California suburb. She says:
I sometimes describe myself as a rubber ball. I've been pushed
down sometimes to where I've almost been pressed flat, but
I've always been able to bounce back . . . I feel very much a
part of the whole - of history. I live in a spectrum that includes
the whole world. I'm a part of all of it. For what I do impacts
the whole.33
In trying to explain why they find fulfillment in what they
do, both Bauer and James mention involvement in a larger
cause, being part of'an evolution of consciousness', or part of
history. The authors of Habits of the Heart note that while the
American quest for purely private fulfillment 'often ends in
emptiness', many people find that 'private fulfillment and
public involvement are not antithetical' because they draw the
content of their fulfillment from 'an active identification with
communities and traditions'.34
Two very different authors agree with this view of what is
needed to give meaning to our lives. Earlier in this chapter
we saw how\well Betty Friedan described the lack of purpose
that women felt with the roles allocated to them. She saw the
solution to 'the problem that has no name' in women developing a 'Life Plan', some 'lifetime interests and goals'. A job
could be part of that, but then:
. . . it must be a job that she can take seriously as part of a life
plan, work in which she can grow as part of society.3^
Thirty years after The Feminine Mystique was published, a
new bestseller appeared that might well have been entitled
The Masculine Mystique. Instead, its author, Robert Bly, called
it Iron John. The difference between the two books is that
L i v i n g t o s o m e p u r p o s e 255
while Friedan criticizes the feminine mystique, Bly wallows in
it. He has run weekend retreats in which men go off into the
woods in groups to read ancient legends about warriors who
perform heroic deeds. Then these twentieth century American
males whirl swords above their heads, and watch the sunlight
glint on the shining blade. They hope, by these means, to
rediscover the 'warrior' in themselves, but probably all they
do is vindicate women's complaints that men never do grow
up. Iron John, which spent a year on the bestseller lists, retells
Grimm's fairy tale of 'Iron Hans', a Wild Man who emerges
from a pond and initiates a young prince into manhood. Buried among its rambling commentary on episodes in the fairy
story, however, Iron John contains a saving passage that reads
as follows:
When a warrior is in service, however, to a True King - that
is to a transcendent cause — he does well, and his body becomes
a hardworking servant, which he requires to endure cold, heat,
pain, wounds, scarring, hunger, lack of sleep, hardship of all
kinds. The body usually responds well. The person in touch
with warrior energy can work long hours, ignore fatique, do
what is necessary, finish the Ph.D. and all the footnotes, endure
obnoxious departmental heads, live sparsely like Ralph Nader,
write as T.S. Eliot did under a single dangling light bulb for
years, clean up shit and filth endlessly like St Francis or Mother
Teresa, endure contempt, disdain, and exile as Sakharov did. A
clawed hand takes the comfort-loving baby away, and an adult
warrior inhabits the body. i6
Here is something fundamental on which Robert Bly, Betty
Friedan, Wayne Bauer, Marra James, the authors of Habits of
the Heart, and Viktor Frankl all agree: the need for commitment to a cause larger than the self, if we are to find genuine
self-esteem, and to be all we can be. In sharp contrast to
are we
Richard Taylor's idea that any activity is as good as any other, |
as long as it is what we want to do, this suggests that some
causes are more suitable than others for putting meaning into
our lives.
But what is a True King', or a 'transcendent cause' as Ely
variously calls it? If it is not all a matter of whatever we
happen to want, how do we find causes that add meaning to
our lives? Richard Taylor denied that it would add meaning
to the life of Sisyphus if, instead of the stone always rolling
down the hill, he were able to push it and other stones to the
top, and then use them to construct a temple. The idea that
Sisyphus could find meaning in building a temple appears to
presuppose that at least some of our achievements could be
objectively valuable. In response, Taylor points out that no
matter how solidly the temple is built it will, in time, decay
into rubble. Here he touches a chord that is given its classic
resonance in Shelley's poem Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read /
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
L i v i n g to s o m e p u r p o s e 257
Bertrand Russell was fond of making a similar point,
emphasizing our cosmic insignificance by pointing out that
our entire world is only one planet circling around one star in
a galaxy that contains about 300,000 million stars, and is
itself only one among several million galaxies. The sun will
eventually grow cold, and life on earth will come to an end,
but the universe will continue, utterly indifferent to our fate. w
Such images might well give pause to Sisyphus if, gripped
by the arrogance of Ozymandias, he imagin'es that his temple
will last for eternity. But if Sisyphus were to read further into
Russell's work he would come across a passage saying that
while 'the realization of the minuteness of man and all his
concerns' may at first strike us as oppressive, and even paralyzing, 'this effect is not rarional and should not be lasting.
There is no reason to worship mere size'.39 Then Sisyphus
would see that to create a temple that lasts as long as the
Parthenon has lasted, and is as justly admired for its beauty
and the skill of its construction, is an accomplishment in which
he could take justifiable pride. Reflecting more deeply on his
place in the universe, he would resume his labours.
So the fact that the most beautiful and enduring of human
artefacts will eventually turn into dust is not a reason for
denying that its creation was a worthwhile and meaningful
task. Taylor does, however, have another reason for holding
that the meaningfulness of what Sisyphus does depends on
how he feels about it, rather than on the nature of the task
itself. Even if Sisyphus were to complete his temple, and could
rest and contemplare its beauty forever, what would that signify? Taylor says: only infinite boredom. Instead of'the nightmare of eternal and pointless activity', we have 'the hell of its
eternal absence'. Then Sisyphus would see that all his labours
had been pointless after all.
Here too, Taylor makes a mistake that vitiates his account
of how a human life could be made meaningful. He overlooks
H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
a special feature of the life of Sisyphus that does not apply to
any human being. The gods have condemned Sisyphus to
push his rock up the hill for all eternity. Therefore Sisyphus
must be immortal. So he will outlive all human beings, and
once his temple is finished, he still has an infinite amount of
time ahead of him. No wonder that he should get bored
contemplating his temple! We mere mortals are not like that.
We will die before we perfect our temple. There is always
more work to do.
If we are to find meaning in our lives by working for a
cause, that cause must be, as Ely suggests, a 'transcendent
cause', that is, a cause that extends beyond the boundaries of
our self. There are many such causes. Footballers are constantly reminded that the club is larger than the individual;
so are employees of corporations, especially those that work
for corporations that foster group loyalty with songs, slogans
and social activities, in the Japanese manner. To support one's
Mafia 'family' is to be part of a cause larger than the self. So
is being a member of a religious cult, or of the Nazi Party.
And so too is working against injustice and exploitation in
one of its many specific forms, as Marra James and Wayne
Bauer, among many others, have done. No doubt a commitment to each of these causes can be, for some people, a way
of finding meaning and fulfillment. Is it after all arbitrary,
then, whether one chooses an ethical cause or some other
cause? No; living an ethical life is certainly not the only way
of making a commitment that can give substance and worth
to your life; but for anyone choosing one kind of life rather
than another, it is the commitment with the firmest foundation. The more we reflect on our commitment to a football
club, a corporation, or any sectional interest, the less point we
are likely to see in it. In contrast, no amount of reflection will
show a commitment to an ethical life to be trivial or pointless.
L i v i n g to s o m e p u r p o s e
This is probably the most important claim in this book, but
also the most contentious. In the final chapter I shall suggest
that living an ethical life enables us to identify ourselves with
the grandest cause of all, and that to do so is the best way
open to us of making our lives meaningful.
The good
The good life
Pushing the peanut forward
Henry Spira left home as a teenager and went to work on
merchant ships. As a seaman and member of the National
Maritime Union he was part of a group of reformers challenging corrupt union bosses. In the McCarthy era, while working
on an automobile assembly line in New Jersey, he wrote for
leftist publications and earned himself a fat FBI file. In the
sixties he was marching for civil rights in Mississippi. I met
him in 1973 when he enrolled for a continuing education
course on animal liberation that I was giving at New York
University. He first heard of animal liberation when he came
across an article about it in a Marxist magazine. The article
dismissed the idea as the latest absurdity of the radical chic
set associated with the New York Review of Books. Spira was
able to discern, through the ridicule, the outline of an idea
that might be worth learning more about. When the course
finished and I had returned to Australia, Spira investigated
experiments carried out on animals at the American Museum
of Natural History, only a few blocks from where he lived.
He found out that researchers there were mutilating cats,
eliminating their sense of smell, for instance, in order to discover what effect this had on their sex lives. Spira called some
other former members of my class, and together they organized a campaign to stop the experiments. The campaign grew,
there were constant pickets outside its doors, and occasional
larger demonstrations. Eventually the Museum announced that
the experiments would cease. That may well have been the
first time that a campaign against experiments on animals
achieved its objective. Then Spira set his sights on bigger
targets. He confronted Revlon over their testing of cosmetics
on the eyes of fully conscious, immobilized rabbits. At first he
was ignored, but he kept up the pressure; ten years later
Revlon announced that they had ceased to test their products
on animals. Several other cosmetics companies followed suit.
As I write this, Spira is tackling Frank Perdue, America's bestknown producer of factory-farmed chickens, publishing advertisements that accuse him not only of cruelty to the chickens
he raises, but also of producing an unhealthy product, exploiting his workers, and seeking the aid of mobsters to prevent
his workers unionizing. Moreover, Spira documents his accusations so well that the New York Times has accepted Spira's
anti-Perdue advertisements.
Asked for the rationale behind a lifetime of activism on
behalf of diverse causes, Henry Spira replies that he begins
with the question: 'Where can I do the most to reduce the
universe of pain and suffering?' Being constantly reminded of
the pain and suffering that still needs to be eliminated may
seem depressing, but Spira has kept his sense of humour. (One
of the advertisements he has used in his campaign against
Perdue was headed: 'There is no such thing as safe chicken'.
Under the heading was a large photograph of a chicken carcass inside a condom.) In any case, Spira has too much to do
to be depressed. In one interview, when asked what his epitaph should be, he replied: 'He pushed the peanut forward'.
When, on my occasional visits to New York, I stay with him
and his cat in his Upper Westside rent-controlled apartment,
I always find him thinking about strategies for getting things
How are we
moving ahead, and relishing the next challenge. I leave in
good spirits.
In the midst of writing this book I received a letter from
another longstanding.friend from the animal liberation move- J
ment. Christine Townend founded the first organization in
Australia to advocate an animal liberation ethic. Together
with her husband Jeremy, a lawyer, she lived in a beautiful
house on a large block of land in a leafy Sydney suburb. Some 1
years ago, on a trip to India, she saw the desperate situation I
of animals in that country, where despite Hindu and Buddhist i
traditions that are kinder to animals than our own, the pov- 5
erty of the people causes animals to have miserable lives and
worse deaths. She began to spend a month or two each year
in India, helping a struggling voluntary group based near
Jaipur, in Rajahstan. The problems there were more clear-cut
than in Australia, where the animal movement had entered a
phase in which every reform became the subject of patient
negotiation through interminable meetings of government
committees. Now, Christine's letter was telling me, she and
Jeremy had decided that since their children had grown up
and left home, they could and should do more for the Indian
organization. They were selling their home, Jeremy was giving up his law practice, and they were going to India to work
as volunteers for at least the next five years. When I phoned
Christine to express my admiration for her courageous decision, her voice was confident and filled with happiness. She
was looking forward to doing something exciting and worthwhile. There was no sense of sacrifice, because she valued
what she was doing more than the more comfortable lifestyle
she was leaving.
Henry Spira and Christine Townend think in the manner
so well expressed by the woman Carol Gilligan quotes in In a
Different Voice. I have already quoted the passage once, in
Chapter 9, but it is worth quoting again:
I have a very strong sense of being responsible to the world,
that I can't just live for my enjoyment, but just the fact of
being in the world gives me an obligation to do what I can to
make the world a better place to live in, no matter how small
a scale that may be on.
This could have been said by many people I have known,
people working for greater overseas aid to poor nations, to
allow farm animals the elementary freedom of being able to
turn around and stretch their limbs, to free prisoners of conscience, or to bring about the abolition of nuclear weapons. It
may underlie the actions of those who show concern for strangers in the ways that I described in Chapter 8. Recall, too,
how, as we saw in the previous chapter, Wayne Bauer and
Marra James express their sense of being part of a larger
whole, and the way in which this brings a strongly positive
element into their lives.
These people take the broader perspective that is characteristic of an ethical life. They adopt - to use' Henry Sidgwick's
memorable phrase — 'the point of view of the universe'. This
is not a phrase to be taken literally, for unless we are pantheists, the universe itself cannot have a point of view at all. I
shall use Sidgwick's phrase to refer to a point of view that is
maximally all-embracing, while not attributing any kind of
consciousness or other attitudes to the universe, or any part
of it that is not a sentient being. From this perspective, we
can see that our own sufferings and pleasures are very like the
sufferings and pleasures of others; and that there is no reason
to give less consideration to the sufferings of others, just
because they are 'other'. This remains true in whatever way
'otherness' is defined, as long as the capacity for suffering or
pleasure remains.
People who take on the point of view of the universe may
be daunted by the immensity of the task that faces them; but
they are not bored, and do not need psychotherapy to make
their lives meaningful. There is a tragic irony in the fact that
we can find our own fulfillment precisely because there is so
much avoidable pain and suffering in the universe, but that is
the way the world is. The task will not be completed until we
can no longer find children stunted from malnutrition or dying
from easily treatable infections; homeless people trying to keep
warm with pieces of cardboard; political prisoners held without trial; nuclear weapons poised to destroy entire cities; refugees living for years in squalid camps; farm animals so' closely
confined that they cannot move around or stretch their limbs;
fur-bearing animals held by a leg in a steel-jawed trap; people
being killed, beaten or discriminated against because of their
race, sex, religion, sexual preference or some irrelevant disability; rivers poisoned by pollution; ancient forests being cut
to serve the trivial wants of the affluent; women forced to put
up with domestic violence because there is nowhere else for
them to go; and so on and on. How we would find meaning
in our lives if all avoidable pain and suffering had been eliminated is an interesting topic for philosophical discussion, but
the question is, sadly, unlikely to have any practical significance for the foreseeable future.
People like Henry Spira or Christine Townend, or any of']
the millions of others working to reduce the many causes of•[
misery that now afflict our planet, can justifiably find fulfillment in the work they do. They know that they are on the |
right side. This may sound smug. Today we are so tolerant of ,
every possible point of view, that merely to talk of the 'right'
side is already to risk appearing to be self-righteous. But to
tolerate someone else's opinion is not to think, that it is as
The good l i f e
valid as any other opinion. If we take a sufficiently long-term
perspective, it is not difficult to see that on many issues, there
has been a right side. There was a right side in the struggle
against slavery. There was a right side in the workers' battles
for the right to unionize, for limited working hours, and minimum working conditions. (No-one wants to return to the
days in which children worked twelve-hour days in stifling
factories or down coal mines.) There was a right side in the
long campaign for votes for women, and for women to be
admitted to universities, and to have the right to own property after they were married. There was a right side in the
fight against Hitler. When Martin Luther King led marches
so that African-Americans could sit on buses and in restaurants alongside white Americans, there was a right side. Today,
there is a right side on issues that involve helping the poorest
citizens in developing countries, promoting the peaceful resolution of conflicts, extending our ethical concern beyond the
boundaries of our own species, and protecting our global
On each of these issues there will be uncertainties about
exactly how to go about achieving the objective, and how far
to pursue it. We may support equal opportunity for racial
minorities, but argue over whether affirmative action programs are a good way of bringing equal opportunity about.
There is room for debate over whether equality for women
carries with it the implication that they should always be free
to decide whether to continue a pregnancy. That young calves
should be confined in individual crates for months and kept
deliberately anemic so that gourmets can eat 'white veal' is
clearly wrong; but there can be reasonable differences of opinion about the desirability of retaining zoos. We should work
towards a world without wars - but how best do we do that?
There can be no ethical justification for the failure of most of
the affluent nations — the United States, Germany, Britain,
Japan, Australia - to meet even the miserly United Nations
target for overseas aid of 0.7 percent of Gross National Product; but what is a reasonable level for overseas aid, and how
that aid is best distributed, are questions needing further consideration. The perplexing questions arise only when we are
close enough to the issue to discern its details. From far enough
above, the broadest outlines are all we see. It is with that
elevated level that I am here concerned. From there we can
see that the issues I listed in the previous paragraph were not
disagreements between two groups of people taking their
stands on the highest principles of ethics, but struggles
between those who are committed to ethical principles and
those who are not. The former group were working for equal
consideration for those without wealth or power, the latter
were defending their own wealth, privileges and power.
Granted, the efforts of those working to extend the
boundaries of ethical concern can go tragically astray. Marx
and Lenin were genuinely trying to bring about a better life
for the great mass of propertyless workers, but Marx's vision
of how socialism was to be achieved had a fatal flaw: he
believed that the abolition of private property would bring
about a transformation of human nature, so that conflicts over
power and privilege would not be a problem. (On this, the
anarchist Bakunin showed himself to be far wiser.)' Lenin's
conviction that Marx was right, combined with his authoritarian style of leadership, led him to seek coercive solutions to
the problem created by the fact that at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, most Russians did not want socialism. Thus
the ethical commitment of Marx, Lenin and countless early
Marxists led only to the nightmare of Stalinism. Fanaticism
and authoritarianism in the name of ethical principle may well
do as much harm as the selfish defence of sectional privileges.
That is a good reason for rejecting fanaticism and authoritarianism, and for insisting on the retention of those basic civil
T h e g o o d l i f e 267
liberties that restrain government and protect individuals from
those who think they know best. If history can teach anything
at all, it teaches us that our democratic freedoms are just as
much in peril from those who are ethically motivated as they
are from those who are driven by greed and personal ambition. In fact since we are more on guard against the latter,
the danger from the former may be the greater. We should
also be wary of those who offer us grand theories, claiming to
know the cause of all our woes, and the only way of overcoming them.
None of this, however, is a reason for turning away from
an ethical life in which we accept our own fallibility and do
what we can, in immediate and practical ways, to make the
world a better place. Voting for the right politician is not
enough. When we put ethics first and politics second, we can
judge people by what they are doing, now, rather than by
who they vote for or what they would like to happen. Are
you opposed to the present division of resources between the
wealthy nations and the poor ones? If you are, and you live
in one of the wealthy nations, what are you doing about it?
How much of your own surplus income are you giving to one
of the many organizations that is helping the poorest of the
poor in the developing nations? Do you believe, perhaps, that
there is no solution to world hunger without a solution to the
problem of our growing global population? Fine, but what
support do you give to organizations that promote population
control? Are you indifferent to forests being turned into
woodchips? If not, are you recycling your waste paper? Are
you against confining farm animals so that they cannot walk
around, or stretch all their limbs? But do you support the
agribusiness corporations that keep animals this way by buying the bacon and eggs that they produce? Living an ethical
life is more than having the right attitudes and expressing the
right opinions.
The escalator of reason
In earlier chapters we saw that it is possible to explain, consistently with our nature as an evolved being, why it is that
we are concerned for our kin, for those with whom we can
establish reciprocal relationships, and to some extent for
members of our own group. Now we have seen that some
people help strangers, both in heroic circumstances and in
more everyday ways. Does this not break the bounds of our
evolved nature? How can evolutionary theory explain a sense
of responsibility to make the entire world a better place? How
could those who have such a sense avoid leaving fewer
descendants, and thus, over time, being eliminated by the
normal workings of the evolutionary process?
Here is one possible answer. Human beings lack the
strength of the gorilla, the sharp teeth of the lion, the speed
of the cheetah. Brain power is our specialty. The brain is a
tool for reasoning, and a capacity to reason helps us to survive, to feed ourselves, and to safeguard our children. With it
we have developed machines that can lift more than many
gorillas, knives that are sharper than any lion's te'eth, and
ways of travelling that make a cheetah's pace tediously slow.
But the ability to reason is a peculiar ability. Unlike strong
arms, sharp teeth or flashing legs, it can take us to conclusions
that we had no desire to reach. For reason is like an escalator,
leading upwards and out of sight. Once we step upon it we
do not know where we will end up. 2
A story about how Thomas Hobbes became interested in
philosophy illustrates the compelling way in which reason can
draw us along. Hobbes was browsing in a library when he
happened to come across a copy of Euclid's The Elements 0/
Geometry. The book lay open at the Forty-seventh Theorem.
Hobbes read the conclusion and swore that it was impossible.
So he read the proof, but this was based on a previously
proved theorem. He then had to read that; and it referred
The good life
him to another theorem, and so on, until eventually the chain
of reasoning led back to Euclid's set of axioms, which Hobbes
had to admit were so self-evident that he could not deny
them. Thus reasoning alone led Hobbes to accept a conclusion
that, at first sight, he had rejected. (The episode so impressed
him that in his greatest work, Leviathan, he attempted to
apply the same deductive method of reasoning to the task of
defending the right of the sovereign to absolute obedience.3)
Reason's capacity to take us where we did not expect to go
could also lead to a curious diversion from what one might
expect to be the straight line of evolution. We have evolved
a capacity to reason because it helps us to survive and reproduce. But if reason is an escalator, then although the first part
of the journey may help us to survive and reproduce, we may
go further than we needed to go for this purpose alone. We
may even end up somewhere that creates a tension with other
aspects of our nature. In this respect, there may after all be
some validity in Kant's picture of a tension between our
capacity to reason, and what it may lead us to see as the right
thing to do, and our more basic desires. We can live with
contradictions only up to a point. When the rebelling American colonists declared that all men have the right to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they may not have
intended to bring about the abolition of slavery, but they laid
the foundation for a process that, over almost a century,
brought about that result. Slavery might have been abolished
without the Declaration of Independence, or despite the Declaration, abolition might have been staved off for another
decade or two; but the tension between such universal declarations of rights and the institution of slavery was not difficult
to see.
Here is another example, from Gunnar Myrdal's classic
study of the American race question, An American Dilemma.
Although this book was published in 1944, long before the
civil rights victories of the sixties, Myrdal described the process
of ethical reasoning that was making~Tacist practices difficult
to sustain:
The individual . . . does not act in moral isolation. He is not
left alone to manage his rationalizations as he pleases, without
interference from outside. His valuations will, instead, be questioned and disputed . . . The feeling of need for logical consistency within the hierarchy of moral valuations - and the
embarrassed and sometimes distressed feeling that the moral
order is shaky - is, in its modern intensity, a rather new
Myrdal goes on to say that the modern intensity of this
need for consistency is related to increased mobility and communication, and the spread of education. Traditional and
locally held ideas are challenged by the wider society, and
cannot withstand the appeal of the more universal values.
This factor would, Myrdal predicted, lead to wider acceptance
of universal values. He was thinking of the universal application of moral principles to all within the human species; but
if he were writing today, he might well consider, as a further
instance of the tendency he described, the view that the
interests of nonhuman animals should also receive equal
consideration. 5
Curiously, when Karl Marx wrote about the history of class
revolutions, he pointed to much the same tendency:
Each new class which displaces the one previously dominant is
forced, simply to be able to carry out its aim, to represent its
interest as the common interest of all members of society, that
is, ideally expressed. It has to give its ideas the form of universality and represent them as the only rational, universally valid
T h e g o o d l i f e 271
ones . . . Every new class, therefore, achieves dominance only
on a broader basis than that of the previous class ruling. 6
Marx thought that reason was here merely providing a
cloak for the class interests of those making the revolutions.
Given his materialist view of history, he could hardly say
anything else. Yet he also pointed out that because capitalism
needed to concentrate workers in industrial centres and give
them at least a minimum level of education, it contributed to
raising the workers' awareness of their own situation. The
same events can be seen in a different way: as the working
out of the inherently universalizing nature of reasoning in
societies that increasingly consist of educated and self-aware
people, gradually freeing themselves from the constraints of
parochial and religious beliefs. Since the general level of education and ease of communication are still increasing throughout the world, we have some grounds for hoping that this
process will continue, eventually bringing with it a fundamental change in our ethical attitudes. (As I write, for example,
we are seeing, in Somalia, a global reaction to human suffering that could not have taken place without the instant communication provided by television, the possibility of response
provided by air transportation, and an international forum
like the United Nations.)
Our ability to reason, then, can be a factor in leading us
away from both arbitrary subjectivism, and an uncritical
acceptance of the values of our community. The idea that
everything is subjective, or more specifically, relative to our
community, seems to go in and out of vogue with each generation. Like its predecessors, the current post-modernist mode
of relativism fails to explain how it is that we can conduct
coherent discussions about the values our community should
hold, or maintain that our own values are superior to those of
communities that accept slavery, the genital mutilation of
women, or death sentences for writers who are deemed disrespectful of the prevailing religion. In contrast, the view I have
defended accounts for the possibility of this kind of discussion
on the basis of two simple premises. The first is the existence
of our ability to reason. The second is that, in reasoning about
practical matters, we are able to distance ourselves from our
own point of view and take on, instead, a wider perspective,
ultimately even the point of view of the universe.
Reason makes it possible for us to see ourselves in this way
because, by thinking about my place in the world, I am able
to see that I am just one being among others, with interests
and desires like others. I have a personal perspective on the
world, from which my interests are at the front and centre of
the stage, the interests of my family and friends are close
behind, and the interests of strangers are pushed to the back
and sides. But reason enables me to see that others have
similarly subjective perspectives, and that from 'the point of
view of the universe' my perspective is no more privileged
than theirs. Thus my ability to reason shows me the possibility of detaching myself from my own perspective, and shows
me what the universe might look like if I had no personal
Taking the point of view of the universe as the basis of an
ethical point of view does not mean that one must act impartially at all times. Some forms of partiality are themselves
capable of impartial justification. For example, it is probably
best for children generally if parents are regarded as having a
much stricter duty to take care of their own children than
they have to take care of the children of strangers. In this way
society takes advantage of the natural ties of love between
parents and children, which in normal circumstances is always
to be preferred to the benevolence of a department of child
welfare, no matter how well-intentioned the bureaucrats and
social workers who make up the department may be. Love for
The good l i f e
one's children is a force that can be used for the good of all,
but it does sometimes lead people to choose what is, from an
impartial viewpoint, a lesser good. If the school your child
attends is on fire, and you must choose between breaking
open the door of the room in which she alone is trapped, and
the door of another room in which twenty children are trapped - you have no time to get both doors open - most
parents would probably rescue their own child. The parents
of the other children might blame them for doing so, but if
they were fair, they would probably recognize that in similar
circumstances they would have done the same. If we weigh
up the rescue of one's own child directly from an impartial
standpoint, we will judge it to be wrong; but if we consider,
firstly, the desirability of parental love for children, and then
secondly that this act was motivated by that love, we will be
more ready to accept it. 7
Consistently with the idea of taking the point of view of
the universe, the major ethical traditions all accept, in some
form or other, a version of the Golden Rule that encourages
equal consideration of interests. 'Love your neighbour as yourself, said Jesus. 'What is hateful to you do not do to your
neighbour', said Rabbi Hillel. Confucius summed up his
teaching in very similar terms: 'What you do not want done
to yourself, do not do to others'. The Mababharata, the great
Indian epic, says: 'Let no man do to another that which would
be repugnant to himself'.8 The parallels are striking. Although
Jesus and Hillel drew on a common Jewish tradition, Confucius and the Mahabharata appear to have reached the same
position independently of each other and of the JudeoChristian tradition. In each case, moreover, the words are
offered as a kind of summary of all the moral law. Although
the way in which Jesus and Hillel put the rule might be taken
to limit it to members of one's own group, the parable of the
good Samaritan firmly dispels this reading of whom Jesus
thought one's neighbour to be.9 Nor should Hillel, Confucius
or the Mahabharata be interpreted as promoting, at least in
these passages, anything less than a universal ethic.
The possibility of taking the point of view of the universe
overcomes the problem of finding meaning in our lives, despite
the ephemeral nature of human existence when measured
against all the aeons of eternity. Suppose that we become
involved in a project to help a small community in a developing country to become free of debt and self-sufficient in I
food. The project is an outstanding success, and the villagers 1
are healthier, happier, better educated, economically secure,
and have fewer children. Now someone might say: 'What
good have you done? In a thousand years these people will all
be dead, and their children and grandchildren as well, and
nothing that you have done will make any difference'. That
may be true, or it may be false. The changes we make today
could snowball and, over a long period of time, lead to much
more far-reaching changes. Or they could come to nothing.
We simply cannot tell. We should not, however, think of our
efforts as wasted unless they efidure forever, or even for a very
long time. If we regard time as a fourth dimension, then we
can think of the universe, throughout all the times at which
it contains sentient life, as a four-dimensional entity. We can
then make that four-dimensional world a better place by
causing there to be less pointless suffering in one particular
place, at one particular time, than there would otherwise have
been. As long as we do not thereby increase suffering at some
other place or time, or cause any other comparable loss of
value, we will have had a positive effect on the universe. In
the previous chapter I suggested that Sisyphus might find
meaning in his life, if, instead of rolling the same stone endlessly up the hill, he could roll many stones to the top and
build a beautiful temple with them. If the temple Sisyphus
might build is a metaphor for all possible goals, then by
The good l i f e
making the world a better place, we will have made a small
contribution to the beauty of the greatest of all temples.
I have been arguing against the view that value depends
entirely on my own subjective desires. Yet I am not defending
the objectivity of ethics in the traditional sense. Ethical truths
are not written into the fabric of the universe: to that extent
the subjectivist is correct. If there were no beings with desires
or preferences of any kind, nothing would be of value and
ethics would lack all content. On the other hand, once there
are beings with desires, there are values that are not only the
subjective values of each individual being. The possibility of
' being led, by reasoning, to the point of view of the universe
j provides as much 'objectivity' as there can be. When my abil, ity to reason shows me that the suffering of another being is
very similar to my own suffering and (in an appropriate case)
matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering
.i matters to me, then my reason is showing me something that
i is undeniably true. I can still choose to ignore it, but then I
can no longer deny that my perspective is a narrower, and
more limited one, than it could be. This may not be enough
to yield an objectively true ethical position. (One can always
ask: what is so good about having a broader and more allencompassing perspective?) But it is as close to an objective
basis for ethics as there is to find.
The perspective on ourselves that we get when we take the
point of view of the universe also yields as much objectivity
as we need if we are to find a cause that is worthwhile in a
way that is independent of our own desires. The most obvious
such cause is the one mentioned by Henry Spira, at the beginning of this chapter: the reduction of pain and suffering,
wherever it is to be found. This may not be the only rationally
grounded value, but it is the most immediate, pressing, and
universally agreed upon one. We know from our own experience that when pain and suffering are acute, all other values
The good l i f e
recede into the background. If we take the point of view of
the universe we can recognize the urgency of doing something
about the pain and suffering of others, before we even consider promoting (for their own sake rather than as a means to
reducing pain and suffering) other possible values like beauty,
knowledge, autonomy or happiness.
Does the possibility of taking the point of view of the
universe mean that the person who acts only from a narrow
perspective - for the sake of self, family, friends, or nation, in
ways that cannot be defended even indirectly from an impartial perspective - is necessarily acting irrationally? Not, I think,
in the full sense of the term. In this respect practical reasoning
- that is, reasoning about what to do - is different from
theoretical reasoning. If Hobbes had accepted Euclid's axioms,
and been unable to find any flaw with the chain of reasoning |
that led from them to Euclid's Forty-seventh Theorem, but
had nevertheless continued to hold that the theorem was
'impossible' we could rightly have said that he had failed to
grasp the nature of Euclid's reasoning process. He would simply have been in error - and if, for example, he had applied
this belief to some practical problem of measurement or construction, he would have got the wrong answer, and this
would have handicapped him in reaching whatever goal he
intended the measurement or construction to achieve. If, on
the other hand, I act in a way that shows less concern for the
suffering of strangers than for the suffering of my family or
friends, I do not show that I am incapable of grasping the
point of view of the universe, but only that this perspective
does not motivate me as strongly as my more personal perspective. If to be irrational is to make a mistake, there is no
mistake here; my pursuit of the more limited perspective will
not lead me to a wrong answer that will prevent me reaching
my own limited objectives. For instance, I argued in Chapter
5 that we have evolved as beings with particularly strong
desires to protect and further the interests of members of our
family. To disregard this side of our nature altogether is
scarcely possible. The most that the escalator of reason can
require is that we keep it in check, and remain aware of the
existence of the wider perspective. So it is only in an extended
sense of the term that those who take the narrower perspective might be said to be acting less rationally than those who
are able to act from the point of view of the universe.
It would be nice to be able to reach a stronger conclusion
than this about the basis of ethics. As things stand, Sidgwick's
'old immoral paradox', the clash between self-interest and
generalized benevolence, has been softened, but it has not
been dissolved.
Toward an ethical life
In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material selfinterest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more
radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs
of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines
of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance.
Judged against the sufferings of immobilized rabbits having
shampoos dripped into their eyes, a better shampoo becomes
an unworthy goal. The preservation of old-growth forests
should override our desire to use disposable paper towels. An
ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying
food and wine, but it changes our sense of priorities. The
effort and expense put into buying fashionable clothes, the
endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the astonishing additional expense that marks out the
prestige car market from the market in cars for people who
just want a reliable means of getting from A to B - all these
become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective
long enough to take themselves, at least for a time, out of the
spotlight. If a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will
utterly change the society in which we live.
We cannot expect that this higher ethical consciousness
will become universal. There will always be people who don't
care for anyone or anything, not even for themselves. There
will be others, more numerous and more calculating, who
earn a living by taking advantage of others, especially the
poor and the powerless. We cannot afford to wait for some
coming glorious day when everyone will live in loving peace
and harmony with each other. Human nature is not like that
at present, and there is no sign of it changing sufficiently in
the foreseeable future. Since reasoning alone proved incapable
of fully resolving the clash between self-interest and ethics, it
is unlikely that rational argument will persuade every rational
person to act ethically. Even if reason had been able to take
us further, we would still have had to face the reality of a
world in which many people are very far from acting on the
basis of reasoning of any kind, even crudely self-interested
reasoning. So for a long time to come, the world is going to
remain a tough place in which to live.
Nevertheless, we are part of this world and there is a desperate need to do something now about the conditions in
which people live and die, and to avoid both social and ecological disaster. There is no time to focus our thoughts on the
possibility of a distant Utopian future. Too many humans and
nonhuman animals are suffering now, the forests are going
too quickly, population growth is still out of control, and as
we saw in Chapter 3, if we do not bring greenhouse gas
emissions down rapidly, the lives and homes of 46 million
people are at risk in the Nile and Bengal delta regions alone.
Nor can we wait for governments to bring about the change
that is needed. It is not in the interests of politicians to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the society they have
been elected to lead. If 10 percent of the population were to
The good l i f e
take a consciously ethical outlook on life and act accordingly,
the resulting change would be more significant than any
change of government. The division between an ethical and a
selfish approach to life is far more fundamental than the difference between the policies of the political right and the
political left.
We have to take the first step. We must reinstate the idea
of living an ethical life as a realistic and viable alternative to
the present dominance of materialist self-interest. If, over the
next decade, a critical mass of people with new priorities were
to emerge, and if these people were seen to do well, in every
sense of the term — if their co-operation with each other brings
reciprocal benefits, if they find joy and fulfillment in their
lives - then the ethical attitude will spread, and the conflict
between ethics and self-interest will have been shown to be
overcome, not by abstract reasoning alone, but by adopting
the ethical life as a practical way of living, and showing that
it works, psychologically, socially and ecologically.
Anyone can become part of the critical mass that offers us
a chance of improving the world before it is too late. You can
rethink your goals, and question what you are doing with
your life. If your present way of living does not stand up
against an impartial standard of value, then you can change
it. That might mean quitting your job, selling your house and
going to work for a voluntary organization in India. More
often, the commitment to a more ethical way of living will be
the first step of a gradual but far-reaching evolution in your
lifestyle and in your thinking about your place in the world.
You will take up new causes, and find your goals shifting. If
you get involved in your work, money and status will become
less important. From your new perspective, the world will
look different. One thing is certain: you will find plenty of
worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored, or lack fulfillment in your life. Most important of all, you will know
that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you
will have become part of the great tradition of those who
have responded to the amount of pain and suffering in the
universe by trying to make the world a better place.
The ultimate choice
1 Information in this and the following paragraphs on Ivan F. Boesky
is taken in part from Robert Slater, The Titans of Takeover, PrenticeHall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1987, ch. 7.
2 Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1985; quoted in Slater, p. 134.
3 Ivan F. Boesky, Merger Mania, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New
York, 1985, p. v. The earlier quotations are from pp. xiii-xiv.
4 Mark Brandon Read, Chopper From the Inside, Floradale Productions,
Kilmore, Vic., 1991, pp. 6-7.
5 Plato, The Republic, Book II, 360, 2nd edn, trans. Desmond Lee,
Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1984.
6 Robert Slater, The Titans of Takeover, p. 132; Adam Smith, The
Roaring '80s, Penguin Books, New York, 1988, p. 209.
7 Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker, Penguin Books, New York, 1990,
pp. 9, 81.
8 Donald J. Trump, with Charles Leerhsen, Surviving at the Top,
Random House, New York, 1990, p. 13.
9 Time, April 8, 1991, p. 62.
10 Oliver Stone, dir./prod., Wall Street, CBS/Fox, Los Angeles, 1987.
11 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, quoted in D.
McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1977, p. 89.
12 See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Hamish
Hamilton, London, 1992.
13 See Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, 2nd edn, with a new
Afterword, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1988.
14 See Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, Random House, New York,
15 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984,
p. 454.
16 For a defence of this statement, see my Practical Ethics, 2nd edn,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, ch. 6.
17 The Independent, London, March 20, 1992; I said something very
similar in my book, Practical Ethics, 1st edn, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1979, pp. 1-2.
18 Robert J. Ringer, Looking Out for # 1, Fawcett Crest, New York,
1978, p. 22.
19 Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time, Pantheon, New York, 1983,
pp. 268-9.
'What's in it for me?'
Joelle Attinger, The Decline of New York', Time, Sept. 1TT1990.
New York Times, March 2, 1992, p. B3.
Time, Sept. 17, 1990.
Richard Brooks, 'Dreamland Now Third World Capital', The
Observer, London, May 3, 1992.
5 Tim, Sept. 17, 1990.
6 Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann
Swidler and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and
Commitment in American Life, University of California Press,
Berkeley, 1985, p. 16.
7 New York Times, Oct. 10, 1991.
8 New York Times, Feb. 11, 1991.
9 Joseph Nocera, 'Scoundrel Time', GQ, Aug. 1991, p. 100.
10 Graef S. Crystal, In Search of Excess: The Overcompensation of American
Executives, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1991, p. 205; The
Age,Nov. 11, 1991.
11 New York Times, May 8, 1991.
12 New York Daily News, Feb. 3, 1992.
13 Time, Aug. 26, 1991, p. 54; New York Times, April 10, 1991,
p. A22; May 10, p. A14; July 30, p. Al; The Animals' Agenda,
July/Aug. 1991.
14 Sunday Age, Dec. 27, 1992.
15 Nancy Gibbs, 'Homeless, USA', Time, Dec. 17, 1990.
16 Time, Dec. 17, 1990.
17 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, pp. 57, 82, 194; the
quotation is from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J.
Mayer, ed., trans. G. Lawrence, Doubleday Anchor, New York,
1969, p. 508.
18 Frances Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill, Picador, London, 1987,
pp. 241-2.
19 Raoul Naroll, The Moral Order, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills,
Calif., 1983.
20 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan,]. M. Dent, London, 1973, ch. 11,
p. 49.
21 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 13, pp. 64-5.
22 New York Times, Dec. 25, 1990, p. 41.
23 Democracy in America,]. Mayer, ed., p. 508; quoted by Robert N.
Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 37.
24 G. Hofstede, Culture's Consequences, Sage Publications, Beverly Hills,
Calif., 1980, cited in H. Triandis, C. McCursker and H. Hui,
'Multimethod Probes of Individualism and Collectivism', Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 1990, vol. 59, no. 5, p. 1010.
25 Quoted in Daniel Coleman, 'The Group and the Self: New Focus
on a Cultural Rift', New York Times, Dec. 25, 1990.
26 D. McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, pp. 223, 226.
27 P. R. Mooney, 'On folkseed and life patents', in Advances in
Biotechnology: Proceedings of an International Conference Organized by the
Swedish Council for Forestry and Agricultural Research and the Swedish
Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, 11-14 March 1990, Swedish
Council for Forestry and Agricultural Research, Stockholm, 1990.
28 E Magazine, vol. 3, no. 1, Jan./Feb. 1992, p. 9.
29 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 163.
30 Andrew Stephen, 'How a burn-up ended in flames on the streets of
LA', The Observer, London, May 3, 1992.
31 Martin Walker, 'Dark Past Ambushes the "City of the Future'",
Guardian Weekly, May 10, 1992.
32 Richard Schickel, 'How TV Failed to Get the Real Picture', Time,
May 11, 1992.
33 Andrew Stephen, 'How a burn-up ended . . .'.
Using up the world
1 R. H. Campbell & A. S. Skinner, eds, The Wealth of Nations,
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1976, p. 24.
2 For Locke, it was a king in America, not Africa: 'And a king of a
large and fruitful territory there feeds lodges, and is clad worse
than a day labourer in England'. (John Locke, Second Treatise on
Civil Government, introduction by W. S. Carpenter, J. M. Dent,
London, 1966, ch. 5, para. 41.) See also Bernard Melville, The Fable
of the Bees, pt.i.181: 'If we trace the most flourishing Nations in
their Origin, we shall find that in the remote Beginnings of every
Society, the richest and most considerable Men among them were a
great while destitute of a great many Comforts of Life that are now
enjoy'd by the meanest and most humble Wretches'. I owe this
reference to R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner's The Wealth of
Nations (ibid.). One hundred and twenty years later, the same
argument was still at work in the thought of Andrew Carnegie; see
page 85 of this book.
3 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality,]. M. Dent, London,
1958, p. 163.
4 Adam Smith, A Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1976, vol. IV, ch. 1, p. 10. I owe these references to
Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers, Chatto and Windus,
London, 1984, pp. 108 ff.
5 Genesis, I 24-28.
6 Sandra Postel and Christopher Flavin, 'Reshaping the Global
Economy', in Lester R. Brown, ed., State of the World, 1991: The
Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Towards a Sustainable Society,
Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991, p. 186.
7 Alan Durning, 'Asking How Much is Enough', in Lester Brown,
ed., State of the World, 1991: The Worldwatch Institute Report on
Progress Towards a Sustainable Society, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1991,
pp. 154, 157.
8 For full documentation, see Sandra Postel and Christopher Flavin,
'Reshaping the Global Economy', p. 170.
, 9 'Ozone Hole Gapes Wider', Time, Nov. 4, 1991, p. 65.
10 See especially my Animal Liberation, 2nd edn, A New York Review
Book, New York, 1990.
11 Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1992, p. 152.
On the environmental costs of animal production, see also Alan B.
Durning and Holly B. Brough, Taking Stock: Animal Farming and
the Environment, Worldwatch Paper 103, Worldwatch Institute,
Washington, DC, 1991.
12 Sandra Postel and Christopher Flavin, 'Reshaping the Global
Economy', p. 178.
13 Fred Pearce, 'When the Tide Comes in . . .', New Scientist, Jan. 2,
1993, p. 23.
14 '"Don't Let Us Drown", Islanders Tell Bush', New Scientist, June
13, 1992, p. 6.
15 See Jodi L. Jacobson, 'Holding Back the Sea', in Lester Brown et
al., State of the World, 1990: The Worldwatch Institute Report on
Progress Towards a Sustainable Economy, Worldwatch Institute,
Washington, DC, 1990.
16 '"Don't Let Us Drown". . .', p. 6.
17 Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, Global Warming in an Unequal
World: A case of environmental colonialism, Centre for Science' and the
Environment, New Delhi, 1991, quoted in Fred Pearce, 'Ecology
and the New Colonialism', New Scientist, Feb. 1, 1992, pp. 55-6.
18 Adam Smith, A Theory of the Moral Sentiments, vol. IV, ch. 1, p. 10.
19 See, for example, E. J. Mishan, Costs of Economic Growth, Staples,
London, 1967, and D. H. Meadows et al, The Limits to Growth,
Universe Books, New York, 1972. For an account of the
development of the case for growth as well as anti-growth ideas in
this period, see H. W. Arndt, The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth,
Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1978.
20 Sandra Postel and Christopher Flavin, 'Reshaping the Global
Economy', pp. 186-7.
21 Lester Brown, 'Picturing a Sustainable Society', in Lester Brown et
al., eds, State of the World, 1990: The Worldwatch Institute Report on
Progress Towards a Sustainable Society, Worldwatch Institute,
Washington, DC, 1990, p. 190.
22 The study is by Jose Goldemberg et al., Energy for a Sustainable
World, Worldwatch Institute, Washington, DC, 1987, cited by
Alan Durning, 'Asking How Much is Enough', p. 157.
23 Paul Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence, Free Press, New York, 1983,
p. 11.
24 Alan Durning, 'Asking How Much is Enough', p. 154.
25 Alan Durning, 'Asking How Much is Enough', p. 156, citing a
personal communication from Michael Worley of the National
Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, Illinois, Sept.
26 Paul Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence, pp. 22-3.
27 D. Kahneman and C. Varey, 'Notes on the Psychology of Utility',
in J. Elster and J. Roemer, eds, Interpersonal Comparisons of WellBeing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 136-7.
(I owe this and the following reference to Julian Savulescu, personal
28 P. Brickman, D. Coates and R. Janoff-Bulman, 'Lottery Winners
and Accident Victims - is Happiness Relative?', Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 1978, vol. 36, no. 8, pp. 917-27.
29 John Greenwald, 'Why the Gloom?', Time, Jan. 13, 1992.
30 R. A. Easterlin, 'Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot:
Some Empirical Evidence', in P. A. David and M. Abramovitz, eds,
Nations and Households in Economic Growth, Academic Press, New
York, 1974, p. 121.
31 Alan Durning, 'Asking How Much is Enough', p. 157.
CHAPTER 4 How we came to be living this way
1 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans.
T. Parsons, Unwin, London, 1930, p. 56.
2 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic, pp. 71-2.
3 Aristotle, Politics, Book II (trans. B. Jowett), intro. H. W. C. Davis,
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1905, p. 61.
4 Aristotle, Politics, pp. 62-35 Aristotle, Politics, pp. 43-4.
6 Aristotle, Politics, p. 46.
7 Deuteronomy, 23: 19-20.
8 Luke 6:35.
9 Matthew 21:12-13.
10 Mark 10:17-25.
11 W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals from Augustus to
Charlemagne, Longman, London, vol. II, p. 81, 1899.
12 Gregory's remark is cited by Nicole Oresme, Traictie de la Premiere
Invention des Monnoies, first published c. 1360, ch. 17, reprinted A.
E. Monroe, ed., Early Economic Thought: Selections from economic
literature prior to Adam Smith, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,
Mass., 1965 (first published 1924), p. 96; Oresme gives no source
and I have been unable to trace the original in Gregory.
13 Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval
Europe, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 1978, p. 38.
14 John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1957, p. 1.
15 Jacques Le Goff, 'The Usurer and Purgatory', in Center for
Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los
Angeles, The Dawn of Modern Banking, Yale University Press, New
Haven, Conn., 1979, pp. 28-30.
16 Jacques Le Goff in The Dawn of Modern Banking, pp. 32—43.
17 Lester K. Little, Religions Poverty . . . , pp. 36-7.
18 Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty . . . , p. 34.
19 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 32, art. 5,
trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Benziger
Brothers, New York, vol. II, p. 1328.
20 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II—II, Question 67, art. 7,
pp. 1479-80.
21 On the natural law doctrine of property, and what became of it,
see Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius
to Hume, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990.
22 John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, p. 365-7.
23 Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, McGraw-Hill Book
Company, New York, 1971, p. 15, referring also to Louis B.
Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England, Huntington
Library Publications, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1935,
pp. 165-200.
24 Andre Siegfried, America Comes of Age: A French Analysis, trans. H.
H. and Doris Hemming, Jonathan Cape, London, 1927, p. 36.
25 Cotton Mather, A Christian at His Calling, Boston, 1701, quoted
from Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, p. 12.
26 William Penn, The Advice of William Penn to His Children, also
quoted in Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, p. 14.
27 Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, pp. 20—1.
28 Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales, Sketches, and Other Papers, The Works of
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York,
1883, vol. XII, p. 202; Paul Ford, A List of Books Written by or
Relating to Benjamin Franklin, Brooklyn, NY, 1889, p. 55; I owe
both items to Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, p. 21.
29 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 56.
30 Quoted without source by Peter Baida, Poor Richard's Legacy,
William Morrow, New York, 1990, p. 25.
31 Peter Baida, Poor Richard's Legacy, p. 78; other quotations which
follow this one are drawn from Chapter 4 of this book.
32 Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, p. 25.
33 W. J. Ghent, Our Benevolent Feudalism, Macmillan & Co., Ltd., New
York, 1902, p. 29, quoted by Richard Huber, The American Idea of
Success, p. 66.
34 Quoted in Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American
Thought, Beacon Press, Boston, 1966, p. 3135 Lochner v. New York, 198 US 45 (1905); quoted by Richard
Hofstadter, Social Darwinism, p. 47.
36 Andrew Carnegie, Autobiography, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1948,
p. 321; 'Wealth', North American Review, 391, June 1889,
pp. 654-7.
37 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 54, 615.
38 Quoted in Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 51.
39 Thomas L. Nicholls, Forty Years of American Life, London, 1964,
vol. 1, pp. 402-4, quoted by Richard Huber, The American Idea of
Success, p. 116.
40 Andre Siegfried, America Comes of Age, pp. 348, 353.
41 Harold Laski, The American Democracy, New York, 1948, pp. 165,
172, quoted by Richard Huber, The American Idea of Success, p. 35.
42 Friedrich Engels, The Labor Movement in the United States', in
Lewis Feuer, ed., Marx & Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and
Philosophy, Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1959, p. 496.
43 Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, Penguin Books,
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1957, p. 22.
44 Charles Reich, The Greening of America, Allen Lane, The Penguin
Press, London, 1971, p. 1.
45 Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as
Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum ofCharenton Under the Direction
of the Marquis de Sade, Pocket Books, New York, 1966, p. 31, cited
in Todd Gitlin, The Sixties, Bantam Books, New York, 1987,
p. 424.
46 Michael Rossman, The Only Thing Missing was Sufis', Creem, Oct.
1972, reprinted in Michael Rossman, New Age Blues, E. P. Dutton,
New York, 1979, p. 5.
47 Michael Rossman, New Age Blues, pp. 15-18.
48 Michael Rossman, New Age Blues, p. 20.
49 Jerry Rubin, Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven, M. Evans, New York,
1976, p. 20, quoted by Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism:
American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, W. W. Norton
& Co., New York, 1978, p. 14.
50 The 'Jacuzzi' comment is from Todd Gitlin, The Sixties, p. 433;
Gitlin cites Charles Krauthammer, The Revolution Surrenders:
From Freedom Train to Gravy Train', Washington Post, April 12,
1985, p. A25, but his own view is that the media focus on a few
conspicuous cases distorted the reality, which was that many former
radicals continued to work, in more structured and conventional
ways, for peace and justice.
51 Kitty Kelley, Nancy Reagan: An Unauthorized Biography, Bantam
Books, New York, 1991, p. 267.
52 Kelley, Nancy Reagan, pp. 274-5.
53 Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 1982; quoted by Robert Bellah, et al.,
Habits of the Heart, University of California Press, Los Angeles,
1985, p. 264.
54 Tim, Aug. 3, 1987.
55 Frances Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill, Picador, London, 1987, pp. 143,
195; John Taylor, Circus of Ambition, Warner Books, New York,
1989, p. 3; Time, Aug. 3, 1987.
56 Time, Aug. 3, 1987.
57 Frances Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill, pp. 248, 375.
58 John Taylor, Circus of Ambition, p. 107.
N o t e s 291
59 John Taylor, Circus of Ambition, ch. 4.
60 George Gilders, Wealth and Poverty, Basic Books, New York, 1981,
p. 118.
61 New York Times, March 5, 1992; Wall Street Journal, April 8, 1992.
For further statistics on how the rich grew richer and the poor
grew poorer in the eighties in America, see Donald L. Bartlett and
James B. Steele, America: What Went Wrong?, Andrews and
McMeel, Kansas City, Missouri, 1992, ch. 1.
CHAPTER 5 Is selfishness in our genes?
1 The story is told, unfortunately without further references, by John
M. Darley and Bibb Latane, 'Norms and Normative Behavior:
Field Studies of Social Interdependence', in J. Macaulay and L.
Berkowitz, Altruism and Helping Behavior, Academic Press, New
York, 1970, p. 86.
2 Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems, Aldine de
Gruyter, New York, 1987, p. 159. Alexander was objecting to
what I said about blood donors in The Expanding Circle, Farrar,
Straus & Giroux, New York, 1981.
3 E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Mass., 1978, p. 165.
4 P. L. van den Berghe, 'Bridging the paradigms: biology and the
social sciences', in Sociobiology and Human Nature, M. S. Gregory,
A. Silvers and D. Sutch, eds, Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers, San
Francisco, 1978, pp. 32-52. I owe this reference to Joseph
Lopreato, Human Nature and Biocultural Evolution, Allen & Unwin,
London, 1984, p. 209.
5 G. Hardin, The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist's View of Survival,
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., 1977.
6 The illustration of the altruism of chimpanzees comes from E. O.
Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Belknap Press/Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1975, p. 128. Sources for the
other instances of altruism listed above - and details of additional
examples - can be found in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,
pp. 122-9, 475, 495 and in Felicity Huntingford, 'The Evolution
of Cooperation and Altruism', in Andrew M. Colman, ed.,
Cooperation and Competition in Humans and Animals, Van Nostrand
Reinhold, London, 1982, pp. 3-5.
The example of the wolf's restraint comes from Konrad Lorenz,
King Solomon's Ring, Methuen, London, 1964, pp. 186-9.
Dimity Reed, 'My Kidney for My Son', Canberra Times, Oct. 14,
Peter Hillmore, 'Kidney Capital', The Age, Aug. 17, 1991.
David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of
Masculinity, Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1990,
pp. 42, 105, 149.
J. S. Mill, On the Subjection of Women, 1869, ch. 2; reprinted in J. S.
Mill, On Liberty, Representative Government, On the Subjection of Women,
J. M. Dent, London, I960, p. 469.
Pat Shipman, 'Life and death on the wagon trail', New Scientist, July
27, 1991, pp. 40-2; Donald K. Grayson, 'Donner party deaths: A
demographic assessment', Journal of Anthropological Research, Fall
1990, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 223-42.
Plato, Republic, V, 464.
See Yonina Talmon, Family and Community in the Kibbutz, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 3-34.
John Lyons, The Revenge of the Mommy', The Good Weekend,
Melbourne, Sept. 28, 1991.
Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See,
Heinemann, London, 1990, p. 134. The views of the New Zealand
conservation officer resemble, and may derive from, a controversial
theory developed by V. Wynne Edwards in Animal Dispersion in
Relation to Social Behaviour, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1962, and
popularized by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract, Collins,
London, 1970. This theory now commands virtually no support
among researchers in the biological sciences.
See J. Maynard Smith, The Theory of Evolution, Penguin Books,
London, 1975; and Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 1976, pp. 74, 200.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, pt 2, sec. i.,
Ernest C. Mossner, ed., with an introduction by the editor, Penguin
Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1984.
19 Sydney L. W. Mellon, The Evolution of Love, W. H. Freeman,
Oxford, 1981, p. 261.
20 Robert Edgerton, Rules, Exceptions and Social Order, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 147.
21 Joseph Lopreato, Human Nature and Biocultural Evolution, Allen &
Unwin, London, 1984, pp. 225-35.
22 Richard D. Alexander, The Biology of Moral Systems, p. 160.
How the Japanese live
1 The view presented here is the dominant one in both Japanese and
Western writing about Japanese society. For a forceful critique of
this dominant view, and the presentation of an alternative, see Ross
Mouer and Yoshio Sugimoto, Images of Japanese Society: a study in the
social construction of reality, KPI, London, 1986.
2 See, for example, the account of the hours worked at a Japanese
bank in Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength: Japanese
White-Collar Organization in Anthropological Perspective, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1974, pp. 94-100, 111. Rohlen
estimates that the employees at the bank he studied worked an
average of fifty-six hours a week in the office, and spent another
four to six hours a week socializing with fellow employees.
3 Jack Seward and Howard Van Zandt, Japan: The Hungry Guest,
Yohan Publications, Tokyo, revised edn, 1985, p. 97.
4 B. H. Chamberlain, quoted in Thomas Crump, The Death of an
Emperor, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 57.
5 Jack Seward and Howard Van Zandt, Japan: The Hungry Guest,
p. 102.
6 See Herbert Passin, 'Japanese Society', in David Sills, ed.,
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Macmillan and The
Free Press, New York, 1968, vol. 8, p. 242.
7 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, pp. 38-45.
8 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, p. 36.
9 See Mark Zimmerman, How to do Business with the Japanese, Random
House, New York, 1985, pp. 12-13.
10 Jack Seward and Howard Van Zandt, Japan: The Hungry Guest,
pp. 95-6.
11 Jack Seward and Howard Van Zandt, Japan: The Hungry Guest,
p. 97.
12 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, pp. 79, 148-9.
13 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, p. 47.
14 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, pp. 97—100.
15 George W. England and Jyuji Misumi, 'Work Centrality in Japan
and the United States'., Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 1986, vol.
17, no. 4, pp. 399-416.
16 Robert Cole, Work, Mobility and Participation: A comparative study of
American and Japanese industry, University of California Press,
Berkeley, 1979, pp. 252—3, cited in Robert J. Smith, Japanese
Society: Tradition, Self and the Social Order, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge, 1983, p. 60.
17 Robert Whiting, 'You've Gotta Have "Wa"', Sports Illustrated,
Sept. 24, 1979, pp. 60-71, cited by Robert J. Smith, Japanese
Society, p. 50.
18 John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade: An Englishman in
Japan, Fontana, London, 1985, p. 185.
19 V. Lee Hamilton et al., 'Group and Gender in Japanese and
American Elementary Classrooms', Journal of Cross-Cultural
Psychology, 1991, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 317-46, especially pp. 327,
20 Jeremiah J. Sullivan, Teruhiko Suzuki and Yasumasa Kondo,
'Managerial Perceptions of Performance', Journal of Cross-cultural
Psychology, 1986, vol. 17, no. 4, pp. 379-98, especially p. 393.
21 John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade, p. 53.
22 Jack Seward and Howard Van Zandt, Japan: The Hungry Guest,
p. 54.
23 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, pp. 48-9, 175.
24 See Chapter 2, p. 26 of this book.
25 John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade, p. 38.
26 Robert J. Smith, Japanese Society, p. 81.
27 Tomosaburo Yamauchi, Aite no Tatiba oi tatu — Hare no Dotoku
Tetugaku, Keiso Shobo Publishing Company Ltd, Tokyo, 1991. For
more on the philosophy of R. M. Hare, see Chapter 9 of this book.
28 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, p. 52.
294 H o w a r e w e t o l i v e ?
29 See, for example, Ross Mourer and Yoshio Sugimoto, Images of
Japanese Society, pp. 196-7.
30 Time, Nov. 4, 1991, p. 7.
31 Thomas P. Rohlen, For Harmony and Strength, p. 252.
32 Time, f A. 10, 1992, p. 11.
33 John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade, p. 184.
34 See Mary Midgley, 'On Trying Out One's New Sword', in Mary
Midgley, Heart and Mind: The varieties of moral experience, Harvester
Press, Brighton, 1981.
35 John David Morley, Pictures from the Water Trade, p. 121.
36 For details see Dexter Gate, 'The Island of the Dragon', in Peter
Singer, ed., In Defence of Animals, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford,
CHAPTER? Tit for Tat
1 Tony Ashworth, Trench Warfare, 1914-1918: The Live and Let Live
System, Holmes and Meier, New York, 1980; cited by Robert
Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, New York, 1984,
ch. 4.
2 This account is taken from the work of Peter Munch, as
summarized by Raoul Naroll in The Moral Order, Sage Publications,
Beverly Hills, Calif., 1983, pp. 125-7. See Peter Munch, Crisis in
Utopia, Crowell, New York, 1971; the quotation is from Peter
Munch, 'Economic Development and Conflicting Values: A Social
Experiment in Tristan da Cunha', American Anthropologist, vol. 72,
1970, p. 1309.
3 Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, pp. 27-54.
4 The terminology of 'suckers' and 'cheats' comes from R. Dawkins,
The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1976.
5 Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, p. 996 Richard Christie and Florence Geis, Studies in Machiavellianism,
Academic Press, New York, 1970, pp. 318-320, citing studies by
A. de Miguel and S. Guterman.
7 E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, vol.
2, Macmillan Publishing Company, London, 1906.
N o t e s 295
8 Cicero, de Officiis,]. M. Dent, ed., Everyman, London, 1955, vol. 1,
par. 47.
9 See Chad Hansen, 'Classical Chinese Ethics', in Peter Singer, ed., A
Companion to Ethics, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1991, p. 72.
10 Alvin Gouldner, 'The Norm of Reciprocity', American Sociological
Review, vol. 25, no. 2, I960, p. 171.
11 Polybius, History, Book VI, sec. 6, quoted by E. Westermarck, The
Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, vol. 1, p. 42.
12 Gerald A. Larue, 'Ancient Ethics' in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion
to Ethics, p. 32.
13 Such feuds are common in many societies; see Jacob BlackMichaud, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and Middle East,
Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1975; or Altina L. Waller, Feud:
Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900,
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
Living ethically
1 For details on Wallenberg's life, see John Bierman, The Righteous
Gentile, Viking Press, New York, 1981.
2 See Thomas Kenneally, Schindler's Ark, Hodder and Stoughton,
London, 1982.
3 Samuel and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in
Nazi Europe, Free Press, New York, 1988. The cases mentioned
earlier in the paragraph are taken from Kristen R. Monroe, Michael
C. Barton and Ute Klingemann, 'Altruism and the Theory of
Rational Action: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe', Ethics, vol. 101,
no. 1, Oct. 1990, pp. 103-23. See also Perry London, 'The
Rescuers: motivational hypotheses about Christians who saved Jews
from the Nazis', in J. Macaulay and L. Berkowitz, eds, Altruism and
Helping Behavior, Academic Press, New York, 1970; Carol Rittner
and Gordon Myers, eds, The Courage to Care — Rescuers of Jews
During the Holocaust, New York University Press, New York, 1986;
Nehama Tec, When Light Pierced the Darkness - Christian Rescuers of
Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, Oxford University Press, New York,
1986; and Gay Block and Malka Drucker, Rescuers - Portraits of
Moral Courage in the Holocaust, Holmes and Meier, New York,
Primo Levi, // This is a Man, trans. Stuart Woolf, Abacus, London,
1987, pp. 125, 127-8.
The story of Corti and Delaney is the subject of Jonathan Kwitny's
Acceptable Risks, Poseidon Press, New York, 1992.
The Blockaders, The Franklin Blockade, The Wilderness Society,
Hobart, 1983, p. 72.
Conservation News, vol. 24, no. 2, April/May 1992.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book 7, ch. 10, reprinted in Isadore
Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, Behrman House, New York, 1972 ,
pp. 136-7.
R. M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship, Allen & Unwin, London,
1971, p. 44.
These figures were obtained from correspondence received from the
relevant bone marrow registries during June/July 1992.
Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature, Basic Books, New
York, 1990, p. 64.
B. O'Connell, 'Already 1,000 Points of Light', New York Times, Jan.
25, 1989, A23. (I owe this reference to Alfie Kohn, The Brighter
Side of Human Nature, p. 290.) See also Time, April 8, 1991.
Aerosol production of personal care products in 1989 declined 11
percent from 1988 levels, according to the Chemical Specialty
Manufacturers Association, The Rose Sheet, Federal Department of
Conservation Reports, Chevy Chase, Maryland, vol. 11, no. 50,
Dec. 10, 1990.
'Doing the Right Thing', Newsweek, Jan. 7, 1991, pp. 42-3.
The quotations are taken from R. M. Titmuss, The Gift Relationship,
pp. 227-8.
E. Lightman, 'Continuity in social policy behaviors: The case of
voluntary blood donorship', Journal of Social Policy, vol. 10, no. 1,
1981, pp. 53-79; J. A. Piliavin, D. E. Evans and P. Callero,
'Learning to "give to unnamed strangers": The process of
commitment to regular blood donation', in E. Staub et al., eds,
Development and Maintenance of Prosocial Behavior: International
Perspectives on Positive Morality, Plenum Press, New York, 1984,
N o t e s '297
pp. 471-91; J. Piliavin, 'Why do they give the gift of life? A
review of research on blood donors since 1977', Transfusion, vol. 30,
no. 5, 1990, pp. 444-59. For Aristotle's views on virtue, see his
Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, World Classics, Oxford
University Press, London, 1959. I take the point made in this
paragraph from 'Giving Blood: The Development of Generosity',
an unsigned article in Issues in Ethics, vol. 5, no. 1, 1992, published
by the Santa Clara University Center for Applied Ethics, Calif.
The nature of ethics
1 For an account of the history of its exposure see A. N. Prior, Logic
and the Basis of Ethics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1949.
2 Some philosophers have tried to show this, dismissing the very
question we are discussing as incoherent. See, for example, Stephen
Toulmin, The Place of Reason in Ethics, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1961, p. 162. For the reasons given, this is a mistake.
Nothing substantive can hang on the definition of a word. For
further discussion see my 'The triviality of the debate over
"Is-Ought" and the definition of "moral"', American Philosophical
Quarterly, vol. 10, 1973, pp. 51-6.
3 See Rabbi Hillel's saying in the Babylonian Talmud, Order Mo'ed,
Tractate Sabbath, sec. 3la; Confucius: Lun Yu XV: 23 and XII: 2,
quoted from E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the
Moral Ideas, vol. 1, p. 102; Marcus Aurelius, Commentaries, vol. IV,
no. 4, trans. A. S. L. Farquharson, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
1944, p. 53.
4 This is obviously a very brief summary; the interested reader should
consult R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1965, and R. M. Hare, Moral Thinking, Oxford University
Press, Oxford, 1981.
5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, trans. Barbara Foxley, J. M. Dent,
London, 1974, p. 345.
6 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, pp. 340, 349.
7 Sigmund Freud, 'Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical
Distinction between the Sexes', The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works ofSigmund Freud, James Strachey, ed., Hogarth
Press, London, 1964, vol. XIX, p. 257.
Cited by Jean Grimshaw, 'The Idea of a Female Ethic', in Peter
Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics, p. 496.
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's
Development, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1982.
For Kohlberg's original discussion of the dilemma, see Lawrence
Kohlberg, 'Continuities and Discontinuities in Childhood and Adult
Moral Development Revised', in Collected Papers on Moral
Development and Moral Education, Moral Education and Research
Foundation, Cambridge, 1973. See also Lawrence Kohlberg, The
Philosophy of Moral Development, Harper and Row, San Francisco,
Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Education,
University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984, pp. 153-9.
For a brief criticism of the basis on which Gilligan reached her
conclusions, see Susan Faludi, Backlash, Chatto & Windus, London,
1992, pp. 361-6.
Alison Jaggar, 'Feminist Ethics: Projects, Problems, Prospects', in
Claudia Card, ed., Feminist Ethics, University Press of Kansas,
Lawrence, 1991, pp. 79-103, especially pp. 92, 94. For another
general account of feminist ethics, see Jean Grimshaw, 'The Idea of
a Female Ethic', in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics.
Carla Bennett, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,
personal communication, May 15, 1992.
Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, p. 21.
Matthew 16:28; see also Matthew 10:23 and 24:34; Mark 9:1 and
13:30; Luke 9:27.
Matthew 24:44.
Matthew 6:2-4.
See Matthew 5, 6 and 7. Jesus also talks about reward and
punishment in Matthew 19:27-30 and 25:31-46; Mark 3:29,
8:34-8, 9:41-8, and 10:21; and Luke 9:24-5, 12:4-5 and
Immanuel Kant, The Moral Law: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic
of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton, Hutchinson, London, 1966, p. 10.
Kant scholars will no doubt protest that in other writings Kant
said other things that give his moral philosophy a softer face. No
doubt he did. I make no claim about Kant's consistency; I claim
only that Kant did hold the position described there, and
advocated it in what many regard as his finest work in moral
F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1959, p. 63.
H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Faber & Faber, London, 1963,
pp. 120-3. Later Eichmann contradicted himself, saying that he
ceased to live according to Kantian principles after being charged
with the administration of the Final Solution. This may refer to the
idea of living according to a general law, or perhaps to Kant's
further formulation of the categorical imperative requiring that we
treat other people always as ends, and never as means. I am not
suggesting that Kant's ethics, properly understood, lead to mass
murder; only that the idea that we should do our duty for duty's
sake, without asking for further justification, is misconceived and
R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Quadrangle,
Chicago, 1961, pp. 218-19.
Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: Dialectical Lyric (1843),
trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University
Press, Princeton, NJ, 1983, p. 15.
F. P. Ramsey, 'Epilogue', in R. B. Braithwaite, ed., The Foundations
of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
London, 1931, p. 289.
The Gilgamesh Epic has been reprinted in various places, including
James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East, Princeton University
Press, Princeton, NJ, 1958. The passage quoted is from Tablet X
(iii), p. 64.
Roshi Philip Kapleau, To Cherish All Life, The Zen Center,
Rochester, NY, 1981, pp. 27-30.
See Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics
of Men, Manners, Opinions and Times, Bobbs-Merrill, New York,
1964 (first published 1711); Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons preached
at the Rolls Chapel and A dissertation of the Nature of Virtue, T. A.
Roberts, ed., S. P. C. K., London, 1970; David Hume, A Treatise of
Human Nature, ed. with an introduction by Ernest C. Mossner,
Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1984.
Living to some purpose
1 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin
O'Brien, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1969, p. 3.
2 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, pp. 121, 1233 Richard Taylor, Good and Evil, Prometheus, Buffalo, NY, 1984
(first published Macmillan, New York, 1970).
4 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Penguin Books,
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1965, p. 19.
5 Richard Gould, Yiwara Foragers of the Australian Desert, Collins^
Publishers, London, 1969, p. 90.
6 Donald Trump, Surviving at the Top, p. 5.
7 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Unwin Books,
London, 1970 (first published 1899), pp. 35, 37.
8 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, pp. 77-8.
9 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 111.
10 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, p. 39.
11 Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker, p. 203.
12 John Taylor, Circus of Ambition, pp. 176-7.
13 Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New
York, 1987, pp. 329-30.
14 Michael Maccoby, The Gamesman: The New Corporate Leaders,
Bantam Books, New York, 1978, p. 111.
15 Connie Bruck, The Predators' Ball, pp. 302, 314.
16 Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The case against competition, Houghton
Mifflin, Boston, 1986, p. 111.
17 Alfie Kohn, No Contest, pp. 112-13.
18 ABC News, 20/20, Transcript #1221, ABC Television, New York,
May 15, 1992, p. 5.
19 Joseph Veroff, Richard Kulka and Elizabeth Douvan, Mental Health
in America: Patterns of Help-Seeking from 1957 to 1976, Basic Books,
1981, cited by Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 121.
20 Peter Brown and Henry Shue, 'Introduction', in Peter Brown and
Henry Shue, eds, Food Policy: The Responsibility of the United States in
the Life and Death Choices, Free Press, New York, 1977, p. 2.
2 1 V . Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: an introduction to logotherapy,
trans. Use Lasch, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1964, pp. 103—4.
22 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. ix.
23 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, Arrow Books, London,
1990, pp. 58-9.
24 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 127, 130.
25 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 129.
26 Robert J. Ringer, Looking Out for # /, pp. 20-1.
27 Gail Sheehy, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, Bantam Books,
New York, 1977, p. 251.
28 V. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, p. 74.
29 V. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, p. 76.
30 F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
1959 (first published 1876), p. 96.
31 H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn, Macmillan, London,
1907, p. 405.
32 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 18.
33 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 158.
34 Robert N. Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart, p. 163.
35 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, p. 300.
36 Robert Bly, Iron John, Element Books Ltd, Longmead, Shaftesbury,
1990, p. 151.
37 Reprinted in Thomas Hutchinson, ed., The Poetical Works of Shelley,
London, 1904, p. 550.
38 See Bertrand Russell, The Expanding Mental Universe', in Robert
Egner and Lester Dononn, eds, The Basic Writings of Bertrand
Russell, Allen & Unwin, 1961, pp. 392-3; see also 'What I Believe'
in the same book, p. 371.
39 Robert Egner and Lester Dononn, eds, The Basic Writings of
Bertrand Russell, p. 393.
The good life
1 On this, see Peter Singer, Marx, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
1980, pp. 75-6.
2 I used the metaphor of 'the escalator of reason' in my book, The
Expanding Circle, p. 88; some parts of this section draw on that
work. Colin McGinn put essentially the same argument in
'Evolution, Animals and the Basis of Morality', Inquiry, vol. 22,
1979, p. 91.
3 John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed., A. Clark, Oxford University Press,
Oxford, 1898, vol. 1, p. 332.
4 Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, Harper & Row, New York,
1944, app. 1.
5 See my Animal Liberation, 2nd edn, for an account of the basis of
this view, and of the movement to which it has given rise.
6 Karl Marx, The German Ideology, International Publishers, New
York, 1966, pp. 40-1.
7 For more detailed discussion of these points, see my book, Practical
Ethics, 2nd edn, pp. 232-4.
8 The sources are, respectively: Matthew, 22:39; Babylonian Talmud,
Order Mo'ed, Tractate Sabbath, sec. 3 la; Lun Yu XV:23 and
XII:2, quoted by E. Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the
Moral Ideas, vol 1, p. 102; and Mahabharata, XXIII:5571
9 Luke 10:29-37.
abortion as ethical issue 18, 193
acquisition 20, 241
Acquisitive Societies 87
see also consumerism;
Adams, Douglas 115
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
adaptation level 59-60
not related to happiness
59-60, 63
obligations of 19
Agarwal, Anil 55-6
Akers, John 30
Alexander, Richard 100, 101,
Allsop, David 193
altruism 23-4, 100-1, 122-4
among animals 102-3
assistance to persecuted 123,
blood donors 100, 123, 124,
194-5, 199-200, 217
bone marrow registries 195
indirect reciprocity 122—3
mothers' sacrifice for children
not inherited 117-18
voluntary work and donations
see also co-operation; group,
caring for
ambition, personal, as ideal 22
altruism among 102—3
animal liberation 189-93,
People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals
190, 210-11
women in majority 211
co-operation among 162—3,
experiments on
American Museum of
Natural History 260-1
for cosmetics 197, 260-1,
Revlon 261
exploitation by law 41
factory farming 19, 52-3,
191, 235-6, 261
failure of Marine Mammal
Protection Act 41
need for purpose 235-6
number of domestic 53
patenting 41
Peter Singer
Rethinking Life & Death
Our traditional ways of thinking about life and death are
collapsing. In a world of respirators and embryos stored for
years in liquid nitrogen, we can no longer take the sanctity
of human life as the cornerstone of our ethical outlook.
In this controversial book Peter Singer argues that we
cannot deal with the crucial issues of the definition of death,
abortion, euthanasia and the rights of nonhuman animals
unless we sweep away the old ethic and build something
new in its place.
Singer outlines a new set of commandments, based on
compassion and commonsense, for the decisions everyone
must make about life and death.
'Brilliantly debunks old concepts and introduces honesty to
modern medical ethics. Rethinking Life 6 Death is a blast of
fresh thinking that will attract great controversy and debate.'
Derek Humphry, author of Final Exit.
ISBN 1 875847 04 9

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