Is there a moral arc to history?

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

As someone who isn’t able to find an objective basis for morality, I’ve often wondered what that means for the above statement from Martin Luther King.  It certainly feels like we’re making moral progress, that the status of previously oppressed or marginalized people in society are better right now in developed societies than at any other time in history.

But without an objective basis for this, can it be a true sentiment?  Or is it an illusion, similar to the illusion of progress in evolution, the idea that humans are the goal, the pinnacle of success of a billions year long process, when in reality it’s all just naturally selected random mutations and that humans were far from inevitable.  Maybe the appearance of moral progress is just the shifting tides of social mores, and what looks like progress to us is the gradual approach in history toward the relative mores we hold today, the ones we’ve all been indoctrinated in.

I think we have to be cognizant of that possibility, but we can maybe get a little more objective footing by, instead of looking at morals per se, looking at happiness.  Of course, happiness can itself be a treacherous measure, since how happy people say they are is often heavily influenced by their culture, about whether people should be happy.  I know intellectuals who never claim to be happy although they often act like they’re happy, and conservative evangelical Christians who always insist that they’re happy, even when they’re clearly not.

Still, there have been international surveys of happiness, and to a certain extent, there are factors that seem to affect it cross culturally.  People who are starving, suffering persecution, discrimination, economic hardship, or are in other precarious situations where their safety and well being are challenged, are not as happy as people who don’t have those challenges.

Of course, happiness, like morality, is built on a foundation of evolved instincts.  Those foundations seem to leave a lot of leeway for what might make any one individual person happy.  A woman in a heavily traditionalist society, whose options are tightly constricted, might still consider herself to be happy.  But the percentage of women in that society who chafe under the restrictions will likely be higher than the percentage of women in a more liberal society where women are treated more equally.

It could be argued that societies are evolving toward a state that more closely matches our instinctual needs.  But what are those instinctual needs?

Evolutionary psychology often looks to our ancestral environment, usually labeled as the African savanna, although in reality it’s probably more accurate to consider it to encompass many if not all of the sub-Saharan African environments.  But more importantly, we’re talking about a time where we lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands.

Homo sapiens first appear in Africa about 200,000 years ago.  From that time until about 10,000 years ago, we lived in these small roving bands.  And if we include pre-Homo sapiens in the mix, then we lived that lifestyle for millions of years.  Of course, evolution hasn’t stopped and we have to remember that, but there are limits to how much a human nature shaped by millions of years of evolution could have changed in only 10,000 years.  Populations of humanity were separated from each other for most of those 10,000 years, yet humans from any part of the world are more alike than not, indicating that recent evolution, while it definitely has happened, has been more subtle than profound.

What was the ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle like?  It’s difficult to know since we’re talking about prehistory, with the only records left being the very rare cave painting.  Archaeologists can glean some clues from the artifacts left behind, but the amount of that evidence is pretty tiny.

A San (Bushman). Image credit: Ian Beatty from Amherst, MA, USA via Wikipedia

A San (Bushman). Image credit: Ian Beatty from Amherst, MA, USA via Wikipedia

This leaves us to derive what we can by studying modern hunter gatherers.  We always have to keep in mind that these modern societies may or may not resemble the ancient ones.  However, those ancient cultures are unlikely to have been monolithic anyway, so examining the logistics of living such a life, the physical constraints it puts on the parameters of such a culture, probably does give us some insights.

Hunter gatherer bands tend to be small, less than 150 people.  They rarely have permanent leaders.  Everyone knows each other, and is more or less equal, although there can be inequalities between men and women, and old and young.  There generally aren’t any codified moral standards, even oral ones.  They’re not needed since everyone knows each other and reputations, ostracizing, or the occasional threat of revenge act as deterrent mechanisms.  From what I’ve read, the lifestyle often only requires about 10-15 hours of work a week, at least when food is readily available and game not too difficult to catch.

Before getting too taken with the attraction of such a lifestyle, it’s worth noting the drawbacks.  While the band is nomadic, it usually is restricted to a fairly narrow territory, so you’re not going to see the world.  Straying from the territory into another band’s area can cause conflict.  It’s also worth noting that anyone who can’t keep up with the band, such as aged parents, generally have to be left behind or euthanized.  And women usually have to marry into other surrounding bands to avoid coupling with their relatives.  (It’s rarely the men who go to the other bands.)

Life can be precarious.  Food generally can’t be stored.  It has to be consumed when it is picked or killed.  If the population of the band gets too high, it can cause problems.  Indeed, increasing populations, coupled with a drying climate, is probably what led to the earliest farming.

The egalitarian nature of ancestral humans is somewhat unusual among primates.  Chimps, gorillas, and other primates generally form hierarchies, with an alpha male on top and he and his lieutenants having privileged access to females and food.  (Bonobos are egalitarian, and have lots of sex, but they’re also oddballs.)  That this doesn’t happen in humans might have something to do with language.  If an alpha male tries to dominate, the other males will likely form coalitions and take him out.

So, our evolutionary background seems to include latent instincts for forming and obeying hierarchies, but also instincts for resisting bullies.  For the vast majority of anatomically modern human history, the urge for freedom, or at least egalitarianism, triumphed.  But then we started settling down and farming, and societies started to become more complex.

Narmer, first king of Egypt Image credit: Wikipedia

Narmer, first king of Egypt
Image credit: Wikipedia

A flat leaderless society couldn’t work anymore.  We went back to hierarchies, with a vengeance.  Across hundreds of generations these hierarchies became deeper, more pronounced, and more rigid.  The right of chiefs and kings to absolute power often became linked to the will of the gods.  All of this culminated in perhaps the ultimate act of inequality, human sacrifice.

This appears to have been the situation at the beginning of recorded history.  Writing seemed to have had an effect on the most extreme practices of inequality.  Human sacrifice generally doesn’t seem to survive its introduction for very long.  But pre-Axial Age archaic societies (think ancient Sumer or Egypt) were still rigidly and relentlessly hierarchical.

Starting in the Axial Age and the greater proliferation of literacy, thinkers began to push back against this arrangement.  Confucius, while largely accepting the necessity of hierarchies, sternly warned that those higher up had responsibilities to those lower down.

Other figures questioned the need for absolute hierarchies.  This was a period where some philosophers and religious figures started to push back against the idea that hierarchies were a natural and immutable aspect of existence, or at least that those currently on top deserved to be there.  The earliest democracies and republics formed during this period.  Systems of morality started to apply to all of humanity, not just those in the local culture, questioning a type of inequality that had existed even back in the hunter gatherer days.

There have been many setbacks over the centuries, but societies seem to be progressively becoming more egalitarian, less hierarchical, gradually bringing us closer to the state of nature we lived in 10,000 years ago.

No one has figured out how to keep civilization while eliminating the hierarchies completely, although many political movements in the last few centuries tried (such as the French and Communist revolutions).  But western civilization seems to do be doing what it can to mitigate their evils.  Most developed societies are democracies with everyone having a say, at least nominally, in who sits in the upper echelons of the hierarchy.  And there is generally an expectation that people have to earn their spot in the hierarchy.

Of course it’s not all sweetness and light.  Aspects of inheritable position seem difficult to stamp out.  In many western societies, it takes the form of wealth and the power that comes with it, power which, as many of us are aware, allow those who wield it to influence the composition and actions of the hierarchies.

So, is there a moral arc?  I think we can tentatively say “yes”, in the sense that societies are gradually changing their moral and social systems to be more compatible with the instinctual needs of the vast majority of their citizens.

But while the broad sweep of history seems to be moving in that direction, the setbacks will still happen, and the suffering of those caught up in them will remain.  After all, the desire to be the alpha male (or alpha female, history has shown that women aren’t necessarily immune) continues to be a latent urge in many of us.

What do you think?  Is there a moral arc?  Or am I just engaging in wishful thinking?  What effect might technology have on moral and governance systems in the future?  Will we ever be able to eliminate hierarchies?  Should we?

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33 Responses to Is there a moral arc to history?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    If a social species, like us great apes, were to prosper to the point of crowding our environment, the importance/impact of a single individual will diminish and collective action become more powerful than individual action. Collective action is messy, but a small gang can overwhelm the most powerful warrior. Gangs/hunting groups see the value of collective action and also see the value of leadership. So, the actions of a leader can be amplified based upon the ability to lead rather than individual prowess or strength.

    Since a great many people crowded together do not want to be raped, beaten, killed, or robbed, cultural “norms” arise which basically are the collective saying “you get out of line and we will beat the shit out of you.” Systems are built around these norms (laws, police, etc.) all of which are susceptible to the weaknesses of collective action (corruption, tyranny of the majority, etc.).

    As Steven Pinker explains in his latest book per capita violence has been declining for centuries even though the technology to commit violence has been increasing rapidly.

    Morality is driven by crowding. In a small H-G troop, morality is what the big guy says it is, just like in a religion.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Steve Morris says:

    I agree with your analysis and sentiments. While there might appear to be a moral arc of history (although, in my experience many people dispute this), if we believe that morality isn’t objective, then we can’t really say anything certain about an objective moral arc, other than the observation that modern societies certainly seem to be more moral, at least as far as modern thinkers regard morality. Perhaps then, what we are really seeing is a process of ever greater demand and expectation for a moral civilization, however that is interpreted.

    I suspect that morality has limits, i.e. a “maximum” morality beyond which it is impossible to go. That’s because it will never be possible to agree on universal moral rules. There will always be dispute about what the rules should be, even if everybody is committed in principle to a moral world.

    In fact, I think it is quite possible that ancient civilizations were just as committed to moral behaviour as we are today, but had very different ideas about what that behaviour should be. The Sumerians, for example, although they endorsed slavery, had strict rules about how slaves should be treated. In fact the very first legal document was the 4,000 year-old Code of Hammurabi, which encoded these rules.

    Liked by 4 people

    • The idea of a maximum morality is interesting. I’ve often thought of a concept I call meta-morality, that is, our attitude toward other moral systems. A rigid ideologue might think all moral systems but their own are invalid, while a cultural relativist might insist that all moral systems are equally valid. The first is obviously wrong, but the second is difficult to accept. The question is what the right medium might be between them.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Interestingly, many of my students have the perception that we’re in a state of perpetual moral decline. I try to point out all the violence, oppression, wars, diseases, conquests, and more that existed in the ancient and medieval worlds, but I still see more than one paper per semester that asserts that people were inherently more virtuous and altruistic in the past than we can realistically expect people to be in today’s “fast paced world” (or some similar phrase). I think there’s a sense that technology, and especially the instant global communication of social media, has the power to change our moral expectations and abilities, but I need to explore it more.

      Liked by 2 people

      • This is a very common sentiment, one that people are often very resistant to reconsidering. And it exists at all levels of society, from the common person on the street to many academics. Some of it might come from the idealized way past times are often portrayed.

        But I’ve lately started to think it’s something in human nature. Today’s problems are the ones we know with the most clarity. And often the solutions to modern problems either aren’t known, or it’s not known whether we will solve them, or at least survive them. But when we read about the past, we know what the eventual solutions were, or at least whether the problem did eventually lead to the end of that society. And the disasters loom larger in our imaginations than the vast majority of the times when people muddled through.

        All of which may be a fancy way of saying that people are narcissistic, centered on their own problems, and see them as larger and more intractable than the problems of others in other ages.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Interesting tidbit about the Sumerians. I didn’t know that was the very first legal document.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post, and a helpful history. In response to one of your early thoughts – “Maybe the appearance of moral progress is just the shifting tides of social mores, and what looks like progress to us is the gradual approach in history toward the relative mores we hold today, the ones we’ve all been indoctrinated in.” – I wonder if it couldn’t be both. I’m thinking of Mill’s approach to ethics and human nature; basically, if we follow his inductive vision of Utilitarianism, we can get closer and closer to our natural instinct to find good that which has good result, and slowly but surely rid ourselves of artificially imposed rules that actually cause more harm than good by focusing solely on cultural perception than on true consequences.

    At the same time, however, what we determine to be good and bad consequences is defined for us by those same cultural perceptions, meaning that we’re constantly progressing, but can never actually be completely finished, and even when we do find our way to rules and guidelines that correspond to actual consequences, the changing circumstances of life necessitate that we constantly reevaluate how well those rules apply. For example, often when we find a speed limit for a road that people actually follow because it’s a safe, comfortable, and convenient fit for that road, car manufacturers improve some feature or road workers widen the lanes or pave or change something that makes it easier to navigate, and then that previous naturally derived speed limit is now artificially too slow and needs to be revisited.

    What this means is that there’s an objective sensor – our natural instinct – that is yet subjectively interpreted according to relative circumstance.

    Liked by 4 people

    • To be clear, I should add: “What this means for Mill” – I don’t mean to assert a particular truth here, but explore one theory.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Michelle!

      I think you hit on one of the problems I have with utilitarianism, or any form of consequentialism. By what objective measure do we determine the value we use to measure moral actions (happiness, “higher” happiness, preferences, etc)?

      The other issue for me is: by what objective measure we use to determine how far we should model out the consequences? Do we just worry about consequences for our local group, society overall, human civilization, life on planet Earth, or some other scope? Typically people keep going until they’ve met their intuitive feel for the right answer, but that seems to make the logic redundant and apparently just rhetoric for the intuitive position.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ideally we’re meant to consider that consequences for everyone affected by our actions, but in practice one need only look to Peter Singer for the logistical difficulties globalism presents (everything we do, even something as small as buying fruit has global consequences). And on the other hand, one need only consider for a moment how horrible and inhumane it sounds to limit our moral consideration to our local group or society.

        “Maximizing happiness” sounds like such a tempting moral rubric, but in practice (and even in theory) it’s so complex.

        Liked by 3 people

  4. keithnoback says:

    Yes, I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s repeated reference to Moses and the Israelites. A line between his struggles and theirs makes for a very flat arc.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hariod Brawn says:

    If there is a traceable moral trajectory for humankind, I wonder how it will come to reconcile with humankind’s own and recent creation of global corporate (business) power, driven, as it is, by an amoral (at best) exploitation of natural and human resources, and with ourselves beholden, as both individuals and governments are, to its expansion. Morals seem increasingly to be a matter of lip-service, of appearances as against the acting out of innate dispositions – who speaks out against the company, the paymaster and provider? We have ways of appeasing our consciences: we remain silent whilst our wage-provider [e.g. Monsanto] exploits agriculture in Africa and India, whilst sending $20 to fund some noble charity there. I may be taking the matter off-track, but it’s what springs to mind. Great article, Mike, for which many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Hariod.

      It seems to me that corporations, like many other cultural systems, aren’t inherently bad or good. They’re simply an organizing mechanism we use to get things done. Many people focus on the profits, but profits are most often simply the income of an organization that is adding value to the supply chain.

      It’s only when that organization uses its power to give it an unfair advantage over its customers, suppliers, or competitors that I start to think of it as bad.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hariod Brawn says:

        Quite so, Mike, and which is why I referred to the ‘amoral’, and not ‘immoral’, exploitations of Capitalist culture. Like you, I don’t think morals can exist objectively, less still in alliance with inanimate entities. Even when a company like Apple or Goldman Sachs does as you say and “uses its power to give it an unfair advantage over its customers, suppliers, or competitors” (of course they do!), can we meaningfully assert that the company itself has performed (im)morally? Not really, the executive seem culpable, though they in turn are carrying out the mandate of the shareholders who called them to office, such as the pension funds, who in turn act for the citizen who is largely unwitting of such (ultimately abusive) deeds. Where exactly does moral responsibility lay when all concerned claim rightly(?) to have clean hands, yet are jointly and severally complicit? The moral trajectory, if it exists at all, is hard to trace within all this, and yet this is how we live.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steve Morris says:

          Quite simply, companies and corporations are held to account by the law. A vast array of legislation exists to regulate and control the operation of corporate entities, and regulatory bodies exist to supervise them and control their operations. Directors and executives must comply with specific laws that hold them personally to account. Shareholders too must comply with specific regulations governing their conduct and responsibilities.

          Speaking as a Company Director myself, I can tell you that these laws are in many cases onerous, time consuming and costly, and carry criminal penalties of substantial fines or prison sentences should I fail in my duties. When I act through my corporate body my actions are much less free than when I act as a private individual, and the larger a corporation becomes, the greater the legal burden becomes.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Hariod Brawn says:

            When they get caught.

            I was a director of several companies myself, Steve, over some thirty odd years. And I’ve worked in multi-nationals and seen first hand (and I do mean first hand) how they rigged markets, amongst other things. Sorry, you can’t persuade me that so-called ‘free market’ Capitalism is a clean act. Not a chance. I appreciate and respect where you’re coming from, though think it naïve to suggest what you do.

            Like

  6. I’m with Michelle on the “moral sensor” idea. Much of what makes up our daily lives is a sort of relativistic moral code, but when a certain barrier gets crossed, that moral code has to be reevaluated. But by what standard?

    I do think happiness is the measure, although, as you point out, it may not be easy or possible to define. Happiness may not be something we can engineer, but we can bring about better circumstances with a certain degree of objectivity. Health is one consideration that stands a chance of being an objective measure. Once again, health is not happiness, but it seems like a minimum requirement for most people, excepting extraordinary individuals. So what is health, then? That too is slippery, but there are certain things we can agree on: If you’re dead or dying, you’re not healthy. If you’re starving, constantly stressed, unable to access drinking water, etc., you’re not healthy. Within “health” there’s a microcosmic sort of relativistic/moral sensor playback loop too, but at least at this level there are a few things that seem to meet the criterion of “objective.”

    And this would be where the political realm comes into play. The laws that we create as societies can engineer environments that contribute to health to some degree. That seems to be what progress would mean in politics.

    As for the scope of “health”…I’m not sure. I tend to think that could apply to all humans and some animals, maybe even plant life too. I wouldn’t go so far as to include Mars, but possibly. How about this theory: the range depends on our knowledge and our capacity to screw things up. The smaller the society and the less involved that society is with others, the less capacity to screw things up on a larger scale, the less need to include others in the scope. To bring this out further, I don’t have much capacity to change what goes on in other parts of the world. I could devote my life to some cause on some distant land, but I shouldn’t do it at the expense of those who are directly in my life—the ones whose happiness and health I can actually affect to a greater degree. Or is this another form of rationalizing instinct? Even so, I can’t see another way.

    This idea of health brings up conflicts with certain religious groups that want to do things under the banner of religion that are known to be unhealthy. Which leads to the idea that people should be able to choose their religion or whether to be religious, and if they wish to engage in self-destructive behavior, fine, but don’t force others to lead unhealthy lives and don’t harm others. And again, health is not anything certain, but there are a few activities/lifestyles that we can all agree are not healthy.

    On hierarchies vs. democracies, I tend to think that even in democratic societies, there are hierarchies everywhere. That does seem to be the natural order of things—to have hierarchies, but not anything specific. However, the hierarchy may not be something permanent or written. It can be based on power, money or knowledge, and the latter seems to be a natural one, one we can all (mostly) agree with. I wouldn’t call up, say, you, to “fix my internet” and then proceed to tell you how to “fix my internet.” In that moment, you’re the shepherd or captain of the ship, if I’m being a normal rational person. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me there are many who are not.) 🙂

    In defense of democracy—or egalitarianism, to a degree—the playing field is open. The idea behind democracy should be that it allows everyone equal opportunity to be their best, which in turn leads to certain hierarchies which evolve and are relative to the circumstance. Granted, most people don’t think of democracy in this way, at least not anymore.

    Okay, that’s enough. Now on bonobos…I thought they were matriarchal? I’ll have to look into that. I remember watching something on TV about their sexuality…fascinating stuff. They didn’t seem to drag it out very long, though. Their pleasure seemed to last all of two seconds!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hariod Brawn says:

      Bonobo bonking = conflict resolution (often).

      Liked by 2 people

    • I definitely think hierarchies still exist in democracies (well, technically republics). It isn’t the hierarchies themselves that democracy seeks to solve, only who gets the right to sit at the top.

      The problem, of course, is that in modern societies there are numerous interacting hierarchies, many of which aren’t democratic. Some are meritocracies, at least in theory, but many others, such as the highest echelons of wealth, are baldly nepotistic, preserving power dynasties across generations.

      From what I understand, bonobo females do have more status, although I’m not sure how hierarchical that relationship is. As Hariod noted, the bonobos have sex to resolve conflicts. They also have sex to ease stress, as a form of greeting, for social bonding, or even to celebrate a conflict that’s already been resolved. And they have sex with everyone (except parents or direct offspring) regardless of gender or age. They’ve been known to spontaneously start an orgy anytime the group gets excited. They have lots of sex.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “It isn’t the hierarchies themselves that democracy seeks to solve, only who gets the right to sit at the top.” Definitely.

        And agreed on the rest.

        Imagine if we resolved our issues the way bonobos do:
        “I’m going to start a war against your country.”
        “Hm. How about we copulate instead?”
        “Great idea. When?”
        “Like, yesterday.”
        “Wow, that was great.”
        “Many lives saved.”
        “I think we should celebrate.”

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    A very interesting and thought-provoking posts, per usual. I enjoyed reading this and the discussions. In attempting to think what form an objective answer to the question might be, I arrived at the thought that– within human society at least– to the extent that tolerance of difference is maximized, that freedom of expression is achieved, that persons of all types are able to recognize a basic human commonality in one another that is a basis for dignity and relationship, and that all individuals receive the same basic respect as beings and equal access to the benefits of society, then we could perhaps say there has been an arc. I have no idea if there has been, though. I see gains and losses all around, and as others have pointed out the communication age has brought about an interesting distinction between the underlying intention of individuals, and what behaviors and words they may offer publicly. I think if we expand the circle of view a bit, then the recent human dominance has largely achieved the opposite of a moral arc from the perspective other species and the environment as a whole might hold. Having said that, I also it’s early yet. There’s a lot of time on the clock.

    I’ve something of a hard time following the idea that there is any tendency towards the fulfillment of an instinct. In part I’m unsure of how you define instinct, and in equal part I’m unsure how the present world reflects a greater achievement of the H-G conventions. It seems we are definitely maximizing our creativity with regards to technological exploration, and that if anything, the attending ability to understand how such gains might best be deployed remains a significant difficulty for us. There may have been an instinctual identification with a particular H-G band, as opposed to others, that served a strong survival benefit and that is no longer so necessary as it once was, but finds itself appearing in our adherence to all sorts of “tribal” aggregations– sports teams, religious affiliations, national affiliations, race affiliations, cultural affiliations, city and civic affiliations, etc. The instinct that is perhaps maximized is the need to identify on the basis of outward-facing differences, rather than inward-facing commonalities, which may have been necessary in times of severe competition for limited resources, but may be working against us today. I don’t really have a clue about how to measure this either. Just rambling on!

    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Michael.

      By “instinct” I generally mean unlearned desires or ways of thinking, behaving, or feeling. We generally recognized instincts, as instincts, in non-human animals, but it’s a bit harder to recognize in ourselves. But it is there. Some of it is pretty primal, such as the desire to survive, to eat when hungry, to avoid damage to our bodies, to procreate, to protect our offspring or other kin, to preserve and propagate our genes.

      On hunter gatherer conventions, I think what I’m saying is that humanity evolved in a certain type of environment, so our instincts are going to be more tuned to that environment than to modern day society. That doesn’t mean we’re arcing toward going back to being hunter gathers. (Although who knows what the future might hold. Civilization may be a brief hiatus from that lifestyle that can only exist in the current ~20,000 year pause in the ice age.) But it does mean that that ancient environment probably had a profound effect on how we think things should be, and human society might be arcing closer to that state.

      The urge to group ourselves into tribes is, unfortunately, a very human one. Most hunter-gatherer societies don’t even regard outsiders as human. But for most of them, outsiders are distant and rarely seen. Familiarity tends to make people seem less alien, and the modern world seems to be making more and more of us more familiar with each other.

      Again, not that progress is constant or guaranteed. Just that the historical trends seem to be moving in the right direction. (At least unless you are a traditionalist and crave the old ways.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Do you think people instinctively choose happiness over alpha status?

    I kind of don’t.

    Let me give you an example. Mao did more to destroy lives than probably anyone else in history and yet even today he’s revered in China. Neville Chamberlain didn’t hurt many people at all and yet is reviled?

    Why if not the fact Mao brought power and Chamberlain brought weakness?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think people have conflicting instincts, but that most indulge in the ones they think will lead to happiness. For many, that very much means pursuing alpha status. Many people who achieve that status might describe themselves as happy, although research has shown that it’s a very stressful place to be. All of which shows how slippery our conceptions of happiness can be.

      Who gets celebrated and who gets condemned in history often has more to do with the needs and proclivities of later societies than the ones the people in question actually lived in. That said, my feel is that Mao’s reputation doesn’t fare nearly as well outside of China, and given the constraints on free speech, it’s not clear to me how well he really does in China.

      Chamberlain gets dissed for attempting to appease Hitler. Some historians think he was stalling for time for Britain’s war preparations to be further along. Although from what I’ve read, the actual record is mixed.

      Liked by 1 person

    • ” I’d rather matter than be meaninglessly happy.”

      I think anyone who blogs or writes, if they’re being honest, would have to admit to having a similar motivation. (Most of us have to be at least somewhat aware that writing is not the business to go in to maximize your chance of getting rich.) Most of us do it to have some kind of impact.

      What’s behind that urge? I honestly don’t know. I can’t point to any animal-like instinct that leads directly to it, except perhaps some kind of social standing impulse. I’m not saying we ourselves are motivated to do it to increase our social standing, only that the reason we have the impulse is that the impulse has adaptive qualities. Maybe.

      I feel happiness whenever I do achieve any kind of impact. It’s not the same kind of happiness from having a good meal or spending time with friends or loved ones, but it’s definitely a type of happiness.

      Like

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