A well-composed argument for the biological foundations of human morality.

THE BONOBO AND THE ATHEIST

IN SEARCH OF HUMANISM AMONG THE PRIMATES

Is morality a learned aspect of human nature, or is it innate? Are thinking and acting morally behaviors exclusive to humans?

Drawing from decades of fieldwork and research, influential primatologist de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, etc.) explores the roots of empathy and altruism, concluding that neither religion (despite its historical influence) nor law (despite its ideological heft) is the root cause of the human inclination to act morally. Instead, the author argues, biology is responsible for our instinctual understanding of right and wrong. Weaving together poignant anecdotes of his work with bonobos, a great ape that was long overlooked as a close genetic relative of humans, and philosophical discussions on morality through the lens of religious history, the author makes a cogent argument that moral instinct must precede current civilizations and religions "by at least a hundred millennia.” Examples abound of behavior by animals—not just bonobos, but also elephants, chimpanzees and mice—displaying social emotions like gratitude, facial recognition, an awareness of the permanence of death and a willingness to help each other even at personal detriment. De Waal also presents research that indicates a social culture marked by matriarchal hierarchies and sexual freedom, as well as a largely peaceful and conflict-avoiding ethos. This may suggest something altogether different about human participation in the evolution of religion and law than a thesis citing those entities as responsible for providing mankind with a moral center. The author avoids belaboring any one aspect of morality's applications, however, and instead provides an intimate and joyful series of proofs that the "ingredients of a moral society…come from within."

A well-composed argument for the biological foundations of human morality.

Pub Date: March 25, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-393-07377-5

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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