Benjamin Franklin Was a Nerd

[4th article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post was first published as “Why Can’t We Talk About Virtue? Entrenched Cynicism,” on The Atlantic online, March 31, 2011.]

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. 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, see 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.

What’s more, preferences evolve, often accompanied by new virtues. Among economists I know who’ve held jobs in banking and finance, several have quit to pursue less lucrative careers, citing desires for more autonomy, intellectual reward, family time, or social impact, all of which reveal additional virtues beyond industriousness.

Of course, it’s not just economists. People can and do change.

Second, there’s a secular cynicism, the repulsion that some people have for anything that smells of religion. Virtue reeks of it. If you have a disinclination for organized religion, it doesn’t help that churchgoers embrace a rhetoric of virtues or that lists of virtues often include traits like chastity.

Still, virtues can have value independent of a religious framework. A consequentialist definition specifically avoids any: virtues can be defined as character traits that lead to good consequences. God need not be involved, and virtues can be updated for the times. Instead of temperance, charity, and prudence, there’s self-control, compassion, and wisdom. Real virtues have a place regardless of faith.

Third, there’s intellectual cynicism. Intellectual cynicism is hard to pinpoint, but I think it’s related to the high-school desire to be cool rather than good. The essence of cool is rebellion and subversion, and it’s difficult to be either through goodness. No one wants to be a Goody Two-Shoes.

Intellectual cynicism might be the most destructive of the three forms of cynicism, because it doesn’t so much deny virtue or its possibility as much as to mock it. And mockery is a powerful social force. It’s probably why in spite of myself, I laughed at the email about instilling goodness, and why writing this post involved a cycle of cringing and revising.

Franklin formofthepages.JPGCynicism feeds itself. If we don’t think greater virtue can be fostered, then we won’t try, and if we don’t try, the cynical side of us will be proven right. Is it worth trying to pick ourselves up out of the cynicism?

America’s founding fathers were brilliant realists by all accounts, but they weren’t cynical, and they didn’t mock virtue. For example, in arguing for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison said, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” (Recall Confucius?) Benjamin Franklin lists thirteen virtues in his autobiography and goes on to describe a weekly report card of virtues he made to keep tabs on his progress [at left]. Nothing could be nerdier!

Of course, we live in a different world with a different style. When I talk about the importance of human intent and capacity to people interested in technology and development, I’m often asked, “I believe your thesis, but what can we do about it, if technology isn’t the solution?” In the next post, I’ll suggest a few possibilities.

The Enduring Power of Virtue

[2nd article in a series of 6: {1} {2} {3} {4} {5} {6}. A version of this post first appeared on The Atlantic online, March 30, 2015.]

Virtue, not technocratic solutions, is what I claimed our world needs more of, but I’m not saying anything new. Virtue goes back at least two-and-a-half millennia.

Western accounts of virtue start with Aristotle, but to honor Jim’s relationship with China, let’s go back instead to Confucius. Depending on what you paid attention to in school, you might remember Confucius by the Silver Rule (“Do not do to others…”), his exotic concepts (e.g., filial piety), or a series of grammar-challenged jokes (“Confucius say…”).

Confucius did have a lot to say, but if there is one principle that runs through his philosophy, it’s that personal virtue is the way to the good life and the good society. He posed the cultivation of virtue as a superior alternative to the manipulation or coercion of behavior through policy.

Three virtues from Confucius’s thought are the basic building blocks for all other virtues: One is rén (仁), benevolence or good intention. Another is self-control, which Confucius believed was enforced and nurtured by adhering to proper forms of behavior, or (礼). And, the third is discernment about how to turn benevolent intention into action of a kind that avoids the proverbial road to hell. (In Geek Heresy, I call these traits “heart, mind, and will.”)

Concern for virtue simmers within the public sphere, and it bubbles over on occasion. In fact, bloggers associated with the original versions of these posts alluded to virtue several times, though rarely by name: John Tierney asked how college students can be stressed more while studying less, and he was deluged by students lamenting their own and their faculty’s lack of self-control. Chuck Spinney, on a post about the Pentagon’s failure to keep transparent accounts, cites a lack of benevolent intent: “it [the Pentagon leadership] does not want to fix it.”

I sympathized especially with technologist Shelley Hayduk. Despite her advocacy of software to manage information overload, her passionate exhortations were decidedly non-technological: “it might mean downgrading and shutting off noisy alerts, even losing a gadget or two”; “achieving serenity is about taking control […] rather than [information] controlling you”. She closes with a quote from Aldous Huxley which could have been from The Analects of Confucius: “There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.”

Despite these occasional mentions, public discourse about virtue is muted. To abuse a recent parlour game, below is a graph of the rate of occurrence of the words “virtue” and “technology” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots frequency of words occurring in books over time. We see a rapid rise of technology in the last forty years against a two-century slide in virtue. (Is it a coincidence that the crossover happens around 1970, the same year I called out in a previous post? Somewhat similar results are had with “virtue” against “institutions,” “policies,” and “systems.”)

But is virtue still relevant today? For many people, talk of virtue brings to mind chastity belts and shining armor. I prefer definitions, however, that distance themselves from the moralizing (a point I’ll return to in the next post). One such definition is provided by Julia Driver, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. While many virtue theorists insist that virtues are intrinsically and morally good, Driver defines virtue strictly in terms of outcomes. To her, a virtue is a “character trait that systematically produces good consequences.” A trait is a virtue only if it tends to cause good consequences.

I’d go even further. Virtues are paramount because they’re the ultimate cause of good consequences, at least among those causes within human control.

For example, following the 9.0 earthquake in Japan, Nicholas Kristof blogged about the Japanese virtue of gaman, a kind of self-control. He predicted stoicism, self-discipline, and minimal looting behavior on the streets. Japanese culture, after all, was influenced by Confucius.

Sure enough, Japanese people have weathered the continuing crisis with a unique brand of collective self-control. (Positive stereotypes might be as dubious as negative stereotypes, but I invoke the clause where gross generalizations about your own heritage are permitted!)
I happened to be in Tokyo during the quake, and my father told me that at his hospital in the coastal city of Kamogawa where he works, they had evacuated people to the upper floors, even going so far as to sew up some patients mid-surgery. (Luckily, the tsunami there was minor — hospital and patients were untouched.) The evening of the quake, commuter trains were shut down, and the sidewalks of Tokyo were crowded with people calmly walking home from work. The radio featured one man who had walked three hours already and needed to walk another three more to get home. The New York Times reported that people are voluntarily conserving enough electricity that some planned power outages have become unnecessary.

Of course, Japanese people have their flaws, too. What the earthquake aftermath shows, however, is the remarkable power of virtue, even in the absence of any explicit legislation or enforcement. Virtue works without TIPS (technologies, institutions, policies, and systems), even though the converse isn’t true.

Modern psychology research is confirming the power of virtue, as well, and the work on self-control is representative. Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow experiment” shows that the ability of 4-year-olds to delay gratification is a good predictor of better adjustment and SAT scores in adolescence. A study by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggests that self-discipline is more important than IQ in academic performance for middle-school girls. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues find that self-control correlates with greater academic achievement, less addictive behavior, higher self-esteem, and better interpersonal relationships among college students. These studies don’t establish the causal link definitively, but the evidence is accumulating.

Baumeister wrote in an e-mail that self-control allows human beings to alter their own behavior according to rules and standards. He summarized elsewhere, “Self-control, then, is one of the crucial mechanisms that had to improve in humans, to enable culture to succeed.”

And that takes us back to Confucius, who in referring to ancient role models wrote: “Because their persons were cultivated, their families were in order. Because their families were in order, their states were well-governed. Because their states were well-governed, the whole kingdom prospered. From the sovereign down to the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.”*

The root of everything besides! Yet for such a grand idea, virtue is often met with mockery, indifference, or hostility, and in the next post, I’ll speculate as to why.

(*) Adapted from this translation: Legge, James. Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean (New York: Dover Books, 1971; o.p. 1893)