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Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

Mark Matousek quizzes the pros on how humans resolve ethical matters

Book cover for Mark Matousek's book, Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

Halfway through Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, author Mark Matousek tells the story of a young Jewish woman in Poland, hiding from the Nazis in a basement with her baby and 15 other Jews. SS officers are tramping around overhead, and the infant is crying. Rather than let it betray the group’s hiding place, the woman smothers her child with a pillow.

Was she right to sacrifice 1 so 16 might live? Statistics say yes; maternal love says no. This is the most harrowing ethical dilemma in the book, but it points up the moral complexity of the scenarios Matousek raises — the most instructive of which seem straightforward until the author begins to unpack their complications.

For example, Astrid’s husband is dying of a rare disease curable by a unique drug. The woman who invented the drug is selling it for 10 times its cost of manufacture. Astrid borrows money from everyone she can think of, but still she cannot afford the medicine. The pharmacist refuses to lower her price. A desperate Astrid therefore breaks into the supply cabinet and steals the drug.

Was her decision ethical?

“Of course!” was my first reaction.

Ah, but it’s not so simple. Matousek, citing psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, uses six possible responses to represent “maturing levels of ethical awareness.” These range from obedience (she shouldn’t steal the medicine because she’ll be thrown in jail) to universal human ethics (she should steal it, because “saving a human life is a more fundamental value than the property rights of another person,” or she should not steal it, because “others may need the medicine just as badly and their lives are equally significant”). For each stage along the way — self-interest, conformity, law and order, and social contract — Matousek is able to give reasons why she should or should not steal the drug.

Matousek kicks off the book with an intensely personal ethical dilemma of his own: When he was 8 years old, Mark’s father abandoned the family, saddling his mother, Ida, with the job of raising four children. After the electricity was cut off, the family lost its car and its phone. When their meager funds ran out toward the end of each month, the five Matouseks ate crackers and eggs in a room lit only by candles.

Once Ida landed a job at a local department store, however, “mysterious gifts began to appear.” Mark’s three sisters each got something new, and he was given a navy blue coat just like the one he had begged his mother to buy him (despite her confession that the family could not afford it). When Mark pressed Ida about its provenance, she claimed to have bought it on layaway. She was lying, he knew — but what to do with that knowledge he did not know. Should he confront his mother? “My troubled conscience over that purloined coat helped to turn me into a lifelong seeker,” Matousek recalls, “someone who questioned obsessively.” His questioning is still active, and on vivid display throughout Ethical Wisdom.

Striving to keep his weighty topic light in tone, Matousek often presents his views with offhand humor: “Sigmund Freud, who almost single-handedly defined the psyche of a majority of people in the West, made declarations about humanity that are enough to put anybody on Prozac.” Matousek prefers instead the contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who popularized the theory that our moral judgments have always been guided by five basic principles: justice and fairness; in-group loyalty; authority and respect; a yearning for purity and sacredness; and harm and care (that is, the ability to care about the pain of others).

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