book reviews, articles at the good, the true, the beautiful


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews


Three Seductive Ideas

by Jerome Kagan            

The overall impression of this work: Three op-eds stretched to 200 pages. Someone called the undeveloping world “tribalism mixed with the refuse of pop culture.” I will borrow part of that phrase and call this psychologizing mixed with the refuse of academic culture.


The first chapter argues that psychologists generalize too broadly and anthropomorphize too much, which may be true, but the chapter is a long-winded mess.


The second chapter argues against infant determinism. If you want to learn about this and related issues, you are better off reading The Nurture Assumption and The Myth of the First Three Years.


The third chapter covers morality and the pleasure principle.

Sensory pleasure—eating pizza—differs from the pleasures of matching principles with actions, thinking you should report your employer’s dangerous violation of a fire code, then reporting it, for example. The latter “feeling” lacks an

English word.


Kagan writes that even when moral language whithers, “the desire to believe that the self is ethically worthy,” is universal.

The “seeking of evidence to prove one’s virtue” is a self-sculptor for humans. “Not even the cleverest ape could be conditioned to become angry upon seeing one animal steal from another. So far, so good.


That most individuals consider themselves ethically worthy, despite eschewing moral language, remains no surprise. David Whitman writes elsewhere that surveys suggest most individuals believe themselves morally better than famous individuals scoring highest in admiration. More individuals, for example, think they will travel to heaven than think Mother Teresa went to heaven or is headed to heaven. Eighty-seven percent of Americans think they are headed to heaven. Seventy-nine percent think Mother Teresa belongs in heaven. Michael Jordan came in third place, one point behind Oprah with 65 percent. Judging from the list, Americans somehow think media hype and heaven worthiness are causally related


Half of Americans rate themselves 90 or above on a one-to-100 scale of morality according to a Wall Street Journal poll. Eighty-nine percent gave themselves a 75 or more. And you would think the responses given to pollsters would be more modest than actual beliefs. (Whatever I would give myself must put me somewhere near the bottom one percentile.)


Unfortunately, the chapter unravels. Kagan does not make clear distinctions between what is right, what individuals think is right, and what societies think is right. Flow and shame, social bonds and cultural beliefs are thrown together by Kagan, as is feeling good about beliefs and actions.


Kagan’s moral pleasure does not necessarily have a relationship to morality. If someone believes his moral goal is to build the world’s biggest ice sculpture, then builds it, his “moral” pleasure can be just as great as someone who invents a new vaccine. History reeks of ideologies that feel virtuous but deliver little actual virtue.


If we inherited biological tendencies toward what some consider better moral emotions, the emotions might not make us better beings. If we had a compassion super tendency, we might be even more gullible for misplaced compassion. Our compassion for wrong doers is already grossly excessive. The total number of evils in the world might increase even while compassionate feelings for fellow humans would increase. No matter what we feel, we are not relieved of the duty to morally reason, though much of the quality of our reasoning depends on what we feel.


Kagan, however, subscribes to the emotion and reason remain at odds theory. Antonio Damasio, Jerome Solomon, and numerous others have a better understanding of the relationship between emotion and reason. Damasio maintains that emotion assists reasoning, especially on personal and social matters involving risk and conflict. Damasio writes that well-targeted and well-deployed emotions are a support system without which reason cannot operate properly. That does not mean that emotions are a substitute for reason or that emotions should decide moral issues for us.


Kagan asserts “rather than make guilt and shame critical to conscience, Darwin, reflecting the prejudices of his era nominated language and reason as seminal features in morality.”


First, saying guilt and shame are critical to conscience is about as trite as saying oil and vinegar are critical to oil and vinegar dressing. Guilt and shame are reflexive arousal-judgments that fit in the general category of arousal-judgments called conscience. Morality and conscience are not the same thing. A critical aspect of morality is finding out what is right, wrong, good, bad, beneficial, and so on, not snap impulses. Conscience can give hints, but it is not the final arbiter.


Many individuals feel shame and closely related emotions when doing nothing morally wrong. They have merely violated some etiquette rule or some tenet promoted by prigs. Wearing wrong clothes for the occasion is not morally wrong. If you seek to do right, rather than be a wanton vessel that mindlessly responds to environments and to beliefs hammered into you by others, you must reason.


Kagan alleges “evaluating the correctness, coherence, and logical consistency of an argument is relatively easy[,]” the most inaccurate statement I have heard all week. If it is so easy, why do millions of individuals have millions of different prescriptions for the world, many of them learned from arguments, almost all of them claiming to be accurate? Do almost all these individuals know truth is easy, but instead deliberately espouse lies? I bet many individuals who read this book had no idea the arguments on page 160 stink.


Most arguments on difficult issues leave out extremely important claims, most often the strongest counter arguments never reach readers. Sometimes omissions are deliberate and sometimes authors do not know the strongest arguments, though sometimes this remains blameworthy because the author was too lazy or unresourceful in finding good arguments. Finding the truth on important issues is harder than almost anything.


Kagan claims “emotions evade… judgments” made by arguments. He must be kidding. Emotions present excellent subjects for arguments. The more I read psychologized accounts of morality, the more I want to throw up.


Among the better ideas in the chapter is a quote from Louis Menand: “Go ahead, ask your genes what to do. You might as well be asking Zeus.” (Or as Alan Wolfe wrote elsewhere, evolutionary science is a moral emperor with almost no clothes.) Also good is the observation that in societies that believe individuals are primarily personally responsible for their wealth, power, and status, lack of those things leads many to feel guilt and shame. Another good idea notes that those identifying with groups develop pride and shame based on actions done by other group members and on things they had no control over. However, I do not recommend this book. And if you ask your conscience whether this is a good book, you might as well be asking Thor.    

Book review articles by JT Fournier, last updated July 7, 2009


My Main Page with Links to My Other Book Reviews