Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.

Plutarch’s Lives: Numa Pompilius – The Lawgiver of Rome

Many people know that Romulus and Remus, those wolf-suckled brothers, founded Rome, but what happened between them and the Roman Empire of aqueducts, Caesars, and gladiators? By Plutarch’s account, it was Numa Pompilius who used religion and clever social engineering to lay the foundations of what became the eternal city of Rome.

At the time the Romulus died (or was taken up into the heavens by a whirlwind, according to some accounts), Rome was divided between the group that settled the area with Romulus and the Sabine tribe, which said it was a colony of Sparta. Neither group wanted to be subservient to the other, so after a long discussion, the two decided that each would pick a member of the other tribe to be king. The Romans chose a Sabine, and the Sabines gave their choice to the Romans, because they wanted to have a Sabine king. The man chosen was Numa Pompilius.

Now, in the choice of Numa, we see again the idea of leadership versus command. He was chosen, Plutarch tells us, because he “disposed to virtue, which he had yet more subdued by discipline, a severe life, and the study of philosophy; means which had not only succeeded in expelling the baser passions, but also the violent and rapacious temper which barbarians are apt to think highly of; true bravery, in his judgment, was regarded as consisting in the subjugation of our passions by reason.”

Because of these traits, both groups trusted him to make the right decisions for the future of the state and so picked him to lead, rather than submitting to his command out of fear of some sanction.

On being persuaded to take office, which took some doing on the part of the Romans, Numa began to create a unified state out of Rome by remaking it in accordance with his thoughts about how an individual should lead life. In his speech to the ambassadors who came to offer him the kingship, he says these traits will like not make him a good king.

“The very points of my character that are most commended mark me as unfit to reign, — love of retirement and of studies inconsistent with business, a passion that has become inveterate in me for peace, for unwarlike occupations, and for the society of men whose meetings are but those of worship and kindly intercourse, whose lives in general are spent upon their farms and their pastures. I should by be, methinks, a laughingstock, while I should go about to inculcate the worship of the gods and give lessons in the love of justice and abhorrence of violence and war to a city whose needs are rather for a captain than for a king.”

Still, he took the job of king, and then proceeded to lay the foundations for a much greater city by giving the kinds of lessons he described. Of course, looking at it from modern eyes, it is easy to see Numa as a clever politician as well.

His first step as a king was to make a sacrifice to the gods and wait for an auspicious sign so he could ascend the throne with divine approval. Once he had that, he formally took on the job and first disbanded Romulus’s official guard, saying that he would trust the people that put their trust in him.

To Numa we owe the creation of the vestal virgins. He also created many other religious offices, including the pontifex maximus. He reorganized the Roman calendar, making December the last month, and he decreed that when the city had public processions and sacred prayers, the citizens should stop working and give their full attention to religion “free from all noises and cries that accompany manual labour, and clear for the sacred solemnity.”

“At times, also, he filled their imagination with religious terrors, professing that strange apparitions has been seen, and dreadful voices heard; thus subduing and humbling their minds by a sense of supernatural fears.”

Along with the religious efforts, Numa practiced some social engineering as well to get all the people of Rome to see themselves as Romans. As noted above, when Numa was chosen to be kind, the city residents divided themselves along tribal lines. Numa reorganized people by their trades into companies and guilds and assigned to each of them courts, councils, and religious observances. “In this manner, all factious distinctions began, for the first time, to pass out of use, no person any longer being either though of or spoken of under the notion of a Sabine or a Roman, a Romulian or a Tatian; and the new division became a source of general harmony and intermixture.”

The results of Numa’s work were that the gates of the temple of Janus, which were only open during a time of war, remained closed for 43 years, and the people of Rome and all of Italy enjoyed peace and prosperity, according to Plutarch. “Festival days and sports, and the secure and peaceful interchange of friendly visits and hospitalities prevailed all through the whole of Italy.”

Plutarch writes, “perhaps, too, there is no need of compulsion or menaces to affect the multitude, for the mere sight itself of a shining and conspicuous example of virtue in the life of their prince will bring them spontaneously to virtue, and to a conformity with that blameless and blessed life of good-will and mutual concord, supported by temperance and justice….”

By Plutarch’s account, Numa lived a life of piety and temperance. He also may have been a friend or student of Pythagoras, the philosopher and scientist who gave us the theorem about the right triangle. (As an aside, we normally think of the ancients as ignorant folk who thought the sun revolved around the earth. Plutarch tells us that the fire in the temple of Delphi was lit with a device made from mirrors that concentrated the rays of the sun, and that the Pythagoreans through that the earth moved and kept a circular motion around “the seat of fire.” In other words, the Earth revolved around the sun.)

Now, there are a variety of other reasons that this peace and goodwill may have reigned over Italy, if in fact it did, and Plutarch is not reporting a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. Crops may have been abundant, the leaders of the various tribes may have felt secure and found more profit in trade than raiding, and Plutarch does point out that as the Roman Empire grew, the gates of war were nearly constantly open. Numa does not seem to have been very interested in the growth of the Empire.

Still, I think it is important to consider the power of context. In the modern book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about how the context in which people live can determine their behavior. As examples, he talks about Bernard Goetz, the man who shot three teens on a New York subway and the changes in the crime rate in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. He also talks about how phenomena like suicide rates can be powerfully affect by context.

Other recent research shows that social networks can affect powerfully obesity rates and whether or not smokers quit smoking.

What this seems to point to, is that Numa may have been using these social tools to affect not only Rome, but also the city’s neighbors. The example that he set, by truly possessing the qualities he sought to inculcate in the populace, and the religious rites and ceremonies he created may have formed a very powerful context in a world devoid of mass communications.

Next Time: Comparing the Spartans – Plutarch Has Lycurgus and Numa Go Head to Head