THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life by Alfie Kohn

THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life

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A persuasive meditation on altruism as a fundamental human trait. Like Morton Hunt in The Compassionate Beast (p. 399), Kohn (No Contest: The Case Against Competition, 1986--not reviewed) sets out to demonstrate that, contrary to popular and expert opinion, humanity is not motivated by egoism alone. Unlike Hunt, however, who relies almost entirely on a wealth of anecdotal and experimental evidence to boost altruism, Kohn derides much scientific investigation of the phenomenon, declaring that, for example, sociobiology has little of use to say about altruism because ""biologists are not interested in motives."" And it is in the moral domain of motive (i.e., the mind) rather than in the amoral domain of biological or economic necessity that Kohn--through careful argument woven of common sense and the findings of artists, humanistic psychologists, and philosophers (especially Martin Buber)--finds the wellspring of altruism. Like Hunt, Kohn names empathy (""the capacity to share in the affective life of another"") as the likely mechanism of altruism, empowered by the human ability at ""perspective taking"" (""the capacity to imagine the way the world looks from a vantage point other than one's own""). A fascinating chapter explores the natural and inculcated (e.g., in California's Child Development Program) development of empathy and perspective taking in children, while in a provocative concluding chapter Kohn examines the implications--for example, for capitalism--of what he calls an ""organic morality,"" wherein ""what we want to do and what we ought to do are not so far apart after all."" An elegant and erudite defense of human kindness that, by providing a philosophical understanding of altruism, serves as a necessary complement to Hunt's breezier, popular-scientific study.

Pub Date: May 7th, 1990
Publisher: Basic Books