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Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

Mark Matousek quizzes the pros on how humans resolve ethical matters

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).

Given the book’s abundance of anecdotes, moral quandaries both real and imagined, and digressions into psychology and neuroscience, it’s easy to get lost in the ethical weeds here. That dynamic can make Ethical Wisdom feel disjointed at times, but Matousek’s fascinating cast of characters provides ample compensation. In one example among dozens, he talks about his friend Linda S., who in the mid-1980s fled the cult of Bhagwan Rajneesh — the “sex guru” who had recently established an Oregon commune and was later convicted of bioterrorism and other crimes. Linda’s infatuation with the Bhagwan makes a riveting story, and we don’t mind wading through it to reach the “real” point: that the moral principle of respect for authority can easily be subverted.

Having examined both the profane and the sacred in contemporary culture — Matousek spent three years at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, then quit that job to begin writing about psychology, philosophy and religion — he feels qualified to address society’s ongoing descent into narcissism. “[O]ne more Botox commercial,” he observes, “and all our laugh lines will freeze.” Here again, his humor ushers the reader to serious reflection. Because egocentrism is a fundamental human trait, writes Matousek, we should remind ourselves how severely it can distort our notions of fairness: “People consider a minor unfairness to themselves as worse than a major unfairness that happens to someone else.”

Matousek, who was brought up Jewish, started studying Buddhism in India in 1985 and has continued to do so stateside since then. Both Judaism and Buddhism, intriguingly, emphasize achieving transcendence — and, one might say, ethical wisdom — by moving beyond one’s own selfish concerns. How to accomplish that? One way is to concentrate less on the practical world promoted by the modern West, “with its material focus, mass consumption, individualist ethos, and reliance on science as the bottom line.” Instead, writes Matousek, “We must keep our eye on the grandeur of things — not in a grandiose way, but as a reality check. Otherwise, we find ourselves shrinking.”

Not, perhaps, the most original idea — but a point worth making, and one that readers may benefit from being reminded of. And who cares if Matousek takes the long way ’round to arrive at that conclusion? His penchant to quote the many quirky questers he has met along the road makes for enjoyable and occasionally even enlightening reading.

In Matousek’s final chapter, on purity and sacredness, he asks, “How can we forgive unforgivable things?” In response he offers this sentiment from a Holocaust survivor: “Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice. Forgiving is a selfish act to free yourself from being controlled by your past.” The idea that selfishness can serve a nobler purpose is just one more kink in the path to what makes us good.

Joan Mooney is a writer and reviewer based in Washington, D.C. She previously reviewed Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and the Dalai Lama’s My Spiritual Journey for AARP The Magazine.