ETHICAL WISDOM by Mark Matousek


What Makes Us Good
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A bestselling memoirist tackles fundamental questions regarding good and evil and the impulses that guide human behavior and emotions.

O: The Oprah Magazine contributor Matousek (When You're Falling, Dive: Lessons in the Art of Living, 2008, etc.) explores a variety of anecdotal evidence and testimony from thinkers in diverse disciplines—psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, religion—in an attempt  to explain why people make certain moral choices. The narrative is largely parabolic with numerous stories that offer moral quandaries and often shocking human behaviors. Early on, the author draws on the research of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran (The Tell-Tale Brain, 2010, etc.), who argues for the existence of mirror neurons, which enable us to show empathy toward others by partially feeling their emotions via a neurological correspondence or mirroring of another’s actual feelings. Later, Matousek relates the Buddhist notion of “Hungry Ghosts” (i.e., people with an insatiable ego) to help explain phenomena like greed, envy and materialism in American society. In one compelling chapter, the author looks at the work of psychologist Erich Fromm and the notion of “group narcissism,” whereby loyalty to a group can devolve into blind and dangerous “us-versus-them” prejudice. In another anecdote, he relates the story of a young child exhibiting psychopathic behavior like hanging a cat and taking delight in his mother’s reaction. The author’s straightforward and colloquial approach to complex ethical questions is refreshing, and the numerous parables are fascinating. However, Matousek makes frequent sweeping generalizations and other fallacies that become a major distraction. Ultimately, the idea of “what makes us good” deteriorates so much so that the more interesting question becomes “why are we evil?” The author begins the book with the premise that each human being is born with a “moral organ” that guides behavior. Though meant figuratively, it’s a distracting non sequitur that leads him on a slippery slope of unwarranted assumptions and a host of generalizations.

An entertaining though logically dubious examination of the origins and manifestations of moral behavior.


Pub Date: May 24th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-52789-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2011


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