The New Morality

A pair of books shows us the current state of benevolence.

Book CoverHaving recently noted Rebecca Solnit's encouraging study of community responses to disasters (like Hurricane Katrina), I also availed myself of an opportunity to chat with Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains), whose new book, Strength in What Remains (Random House), vividly and honestly chronicles the truly extraordinary ordeal of Deogratias, a medical student who escapes the horrors of his homeland of Burundi and lands in New York City with $200, knowing no English and knowing no one.

Through the kindness of an assortment of strangers, he leaves his sleeping place in Central Park and matriculates at Columbia University and then Harvard's School of Public Health and becomes a United States citizen. And founds Village Health Works, an organization based on the principles he learned at Dr. Paul Farmer's Partners in Health.

Given a prevailing miasma of cynicism, stories like Deo's--and indeed the considerable aid directed to Farmer's efforts--are a glimmer of rebuttal to the notion that people are rotten and selfish and, as Thomas Hobbes intoned, that the normal state of nature was "the war of all against all," thus leading to lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Book CoverIn On Kindness (FSG), psychiatrist Adam Phillips (Side Effects) and historian Barbara Taylor (Eve and the New Jerusalem) argue that kindness has become imperiled: "This is a historical story--about how and why people have been talked out of their kindness--but also a psychological one, a story about how vulnerability becomes traumatic to people."

Quoting On the Genealogy of Morality by Nietzsche, who "regarded the inexorable progress of the morality of compassion which afflicted even the philosophers with its illness, as the most sinister symptom of the most sinister development of our European culture," the authors of this slender tome assert that the morality of compassion has not made progress, and has indeed shied away from its shrewdest insights--and that this is the truly sinister symptom of modern life. Amen.
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