Are we better people underneath than we think we are? The answer may surprise you! I think it was Mark Twain who, after seeing or hearing about the report of his demise in some newspaper or other, famously said something to the effect: “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated!”
Funny, but apparently this has happened to others. Martin Copenhaver’s The Gospel in Miniature (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2018), contains a piece titled “Rewriting Your Obituary.” In it he tells the story of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish scientist who made his fortune by inventing dynamite. When Alfred’s brother died, a French newspaper – mistaking Alfred for his brother – ran an obit titled, “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” The first line read: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
The story goes that Nobel was so horrified that his life could be summed up in such evil terms, he was spurred on to leave a better legacy than the one spelled out by the erroneous obit. Thus Nobel set up a fund with most of his estate to provide the financing for the Nobel Prizes – one of which is the Nobel Peace Prize. Copenhaver concludes that Nobel had the opportunity to rewrite his own obituary … before it was too late for him to do so.
Well here’s a question: Was Nobel a better person underneath than maybe he thought he was most of his life? Are we? The headline of a story in the June 21 New York Times reports that: “Lost Wallet With Cash Will Tempt Its Finder, Often To Return It Full.” The story summarizes findings from a study published the preceding week in the journal Science. According to the Times, the three-year, cross-cultural study, which involved thousands of subjects in 40 different countries and cultures, “possibly the largest real-world test of whether people behave honestly when given incentives not to, found they are actually more likely to return lost wallets containing money. And the more money, the better the chances people will return it.” One of the investigators said that “it actually matters that people have morals and they like to think of themselves as good human beings.”
There isn’t space here to go into the details of the study, but basically, thousands of wallets were planted around 355 cities worldwide (in the U.S., Chicago, Memphis, New York, and Albuquerque). The wallets (see lead photo) were made of transparent material with their contents clearly visible – including the owner’s email address and business cards – with the owner identified as a freelance software engineer. Each wallet contained a key and a grocery list in each country’s native language, and was filled with varying amounts of money ranging from none to nearly $100. The study found that the more money a wallet contained, the more folks were likely to turn it in to authorities at police stations and post offices, hotels and banks. The researchers’ conclusion states:
The evidence suggests that people tend to care about the welfare of others, and they have an aversion to seeing themselves as a thief. … People given wallets with more money have more to gain from dishonesty, but that also increases “the psychological cost of the dishonest act. There’s no way you can convince yourself that you are an honest person.” (p. A15)
So it seems that somehow humans universally have some sense of right and wrong, some inward compass that guides them to right or ethical behavior. In a recent Times op-ed piece by David Brooks (“The Age of Aquarius, All Over Again!”, Tuesday, June 11, 2019), Brooks cites “major needs of our current cultural moment.” (See second photo below.) And one of these is the “need to be spiritual.” He notes what I have also discussed in some of my blogs: That “humans are transcendent creatures who have spiritual experiences and instinctively appeal to supernatural powers. Even in the most secular parts of society, there is great and unfulfilled spiritual yearning” – whether in the form of witch cults or magic or mindfulness. No offense intended here – all of these movements are manifestations of belief in some power beyond the self.
Where does this need for spiritual or even moral tendencies come from? Well, it seems that we are just born that way, and then are shaped by family and culture to exhibit – among other things – moral behavior. Not always and not everyone, but most people nonetheless.
In my book The Fiction of Our Lives and in some blog or other in this series, I’ve cited work by Jonathan Haidt and his colleague Craig Joseph. (“Intuitive Ethics; How Innately Prepared Intuitions Generate Culturally Variable Virtues,” Daedalus Fall  pp. 55-66) Based on a number of their studies, Haidt and Joseph have described four hard-wired, evolutionary-based moral intuitions. Among these intuitions that are part of our human makeup is what they call “Reciprocity.” They conclude that this intuition became hard-wired in our brains as a function of group cooperation and food sharing; current triggers that elicit this intuition tendency include marital fidelity … and perhaps in the case of the recent study, returning money to some guy who accidentally dropped it. The emotional response to acting or not on this intuition includes guilt or positive self-esteem … and the culturally shaped virtues associated with this moral intuition are fairness, honesty, and being trustworthy.
So maybe we are better than we think. Perhaps Nobel was horrified at being portrayed as a mass killer – going against the grain of a moral imperative, undermining his self-esteem — and perhaps he then detested the image that stared back at him in the mirror. But he acted before it was too late and altered his legacy, rewrote his obituary and saved his name in the process.
And what about us? The Gospel of Luke says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Was it John Donne who wrote “never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”? As Copenhaver concludes, “we are all writing our own obituaries by the way we live our lives. Our obituaries are being written every day.” And this prayer: “Craft in me, O God, a life worth living, one day at a time, one act at a time.” (The Gospel in Miniature, p. 178)
Food for thought, folks. Food for thought.