Why Can't We Talk About Virtue? Entrenched Cynicism

speakingtree2.jpgBy Kentaro Toyama

I go back and forth on whether the topic of virtue is worth a public airing. After all, much of it is obvious, it's not new in and of itself, and it's too easy to slip into glib, preachy generalizations. It was a challenge to keep things interesting for the last few days of guest blogging. I'm not sure I succeeded entirely, but some very kind feedback from readers has been helpful to keep me going. (This has been a great exercise for gaining some personal humility; I don't know how people like Jim do this at high quality day after day!)

Like everything else, there are cultural differences in what is considered worthwhile in the public sphere. Japan, for example, has a high tolerance for pushing virtue. You can see it in the small details. For example, it's common to see traffic signs with sincere admonitions to show courtesy to other drivers or to keep the roads clean. The equivalent signage in the United States has to appeal instead to humor or threats: "Litter and it will hurt: $316 fine." In a style of karate I used to practice, every class would end with a recitation of dojo principles. The first one was "Seek perfection of character." That wouldn't happen in a boxing studio.

In India, virtues come up in discussions of spirituality. Newspapers with broad readership have daily columns dedicated to it [for example, at right], and the writers, regardless of their faith, draw from a variety of traditions to make their point: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or secular humanist. People also readily engage in the topic. Here, for example, is the opening line of a real email that I once received from a man with a degree in electrical engineering from one of the world-renowned Indian Institutes of Technology. It was sent out to a mailing list of people interested in environmental issues:

Buddha, one day, was in deep thought about worldly activities and the ways of instilling goodness in human beings.

If you're anything like me, you suppressed a chuckle when you read this, or maybe you didn't even bother to suppress. I certainly chortled. Goodness in human beings?! Was he for real?

It's not clear, though, why this elicits a laugh. Don't we want goodness in human beings? Yet, something about the sheer earnestness collides with what must be an entrenched cynicism.

I can think of at least three kinds of cynicism that apply. First, there's what might be called biological cynicism -- a belief that human nature is fixed or sufficiently difficult to change that the effort isn't worthwhile. We can manipulate people's behaviors, but we can't expect people to change intrinsically.

Biological cynicism is built into influential models of policy. For example, classical economics models people as selfish, rational agents and stresses the importance of incentives like money. Behavioral economics has cast doubt on the rational-agent model, and economists readily concede that money isn't the only incentive -- people are said to have different preferences -- yet when policy-makers get down to business, money is the ultimate metric and often the favored instrument.

For most people, though, money is neither the only concern nor the primary concern. The best evidence for this is economists themselves: Here are a set of smart people who are the world's experts on money. If economists were exemplars of their own models, there shouldn't be economists off of Wall Street.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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