A stimulating treatise on how lofty ideals can grow from primitive, unreliable urges.

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OBJECTION

DISGUST, MORALITY, AND THE LAW

A debut psychological study that asserts that our instinctual aversion to disgusting biological phenomena also shapes our ideas about legal and political issues—with dysfunctional consequences.

Lieberman (Psychology/Univ. of Miami) and Patrick (Law/Univ. of Central Florida) link together the universal human revulsion at things such as rotting food and diseased flesh with our sense of moral conviction, particularly regarding different types of sexual behavior. They trace this notion back to a genetically programmed disgust reflex that makes humans avoid things that harbor disease-causing microbes, such as bad-smelling, bad-tasting, maggoty food or animals with blotchy skin or open sores. They argue that people also adapt these emotions to judge prospective mating partners: One feels an aversion to sex with those who look unhealthy or too old or young to be fertile or with family members, because mating with close relatives confers a high risk of genetic abnormalities. The Darwinian survival mechanism of disgust, they contend, also lends itself to social bonding: When one paints marginalized individuals or groups as disgusting, it’s easier to convince others to help expel or exploit them. This plays out in politics, when officials apply metaphors that elicit disgust to racial minorities or gay people, and in criminal cases, when prosecutors label defendants with terms such as “scum” or “filth” or display gruesome crime scene photos. The authors make a cogent plea to eliminate such visceral feelings from law and policy in favor of more rational, tolerant principles: “If we are going to claim a moral high ground,” they write, “it will not be built atop disgust.” They illustrate this by examining the inconsistent rationales for banning various taboo sexual practices. Lieberman and Patrick draw on a wealth of research to make their case; for example, they note that putting test subjects in a room that has an unpleasant odor causes them to make harsher moral judgments. They also convey it all in lucid, readable prose. The result is an occasionally gross but always engrossing account of how the mind cobbles together seemingly self-evident attitudes out of repurposed, subconscious mental processes.

A stimulating treatise on how lofty ideals can grow from primitive, unreliable urges.

Pub Date: Aug. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-19-049129-1

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

THE LAWS OF HUMAN NATURE

A follow-on to the author’s garbled but popular 48 Laws of Power, promising that readers will learn how to win friends and influence people, to say nothing of outfoxing all those “toxic types” out in the world.

Greene (Mastery, 2012, etc.) begins with a big sell, averring that his book “is designed to immerse you in all aspects of human behavior and illuminate its root causes.” To gauge by this fat compendium, human behavior is mostly rotten, a presumption that fits with the author’s neo-Machiavellian program of self-validation and eventual strategic supremacy. The author works to formula: First, state a “law,” such as “confront your dark side” or “know your limits,” the latter of which seems pale compared to the Delphic oracle’s “nothing in excess.” Next, elaborate on that law with what might seem to be as plain as day: “Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last.” One imagines there might be other reasons for the evanescence of glory, but there you go. Finally, spin out a long tutelary yarn, seemingly the longer the better, to shore up the truism—in this case, the cometary rise and fall of one-time Disney CEO Michael Eisner, with the warning, “his fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale,” which ranks right up there with the fortuneteller’s “I sense that someone you know has died" in orders of probability. It’s enough to inspire a new law: Beware of those who spend too much time telling you what you already know, even when it’s dressed up in fresh-sounding terms. “Continually mix the visceral with the analytic” is the language of a consultant’s report, more important-sounding than “go with your gut but use your head, too.”

The Stoics did much better with the much shorter Enchiridion.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-42814-5

Page Count: 580

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should...

MASTERY

Greene (The 33 Strategies of War, 2007, etc.) believes that genius can be learned if we pay attention and reject social conformity.

The author suggests that our emergence as a species with stereoscopic, frontal vision and sophisticated hand-eye coordination gave us an advantage over earlier humans and primates because it allowed us to contemplate a situation and ponder alternatives for action. This, along with the advantages conferred by mirror neurons, which allow us to intuit what others may be thinking, contributed to our ability to learn, pass on inventions to future generations and improve our problem-solving ability. Throughout most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers, and our brains are engineered accordingly. The author has a jaundiced view of our modern technological society, which, he writes, encourages quick, rash judgments. We fail to spend the time needed to develop thorough mastery of a subject. Greene writes that every human is “born unique,” with specific potential that we can develop if we listen to our inner voice. He offers many interesting but tendentious examples to illustrate his theory, including Einstein, Darwin, Mozart and Temple Grandin. In the case of Darwin, Greene ignores the formative intellectual influences that shaped his thought, including the discovery of geological evolution with which he was familiar before his famous voyage. The author uses Grandin's struggle to overcome autistic social handicaps as a model for the necessity for everyone to create a deceptive social mask.

Readers unfamiliar with the anecdotal material Greene presents may find interesting avenues to pursue, but they should beware of the author's quirky, sometimes misleading brush-stroke characterizations.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02496-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

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