Showing posts with label kindness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kindness. Show all posts

Monday, December 18, 2023

Why am I thinking about selfishness during the season of goodwill?


The reason I am thinking about selfishness has to do with Ayn Rand. It has little to do with her attitude toward Christmas, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the sentiment expressed in the quote above (written by Ayn Rand in the December 1976 entry in The Objectivist Calendar). I had previously wondered whether Rand might have been one of those people who say “Bah Humbug!” at this time of the year.

I have been prompted to think about Rand’s view of selfishness by a discussion that has been taking place on The Savvy Street. Ed Younkins wrote an essay, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison, which has induced Roger Bissell to write a two-part response. Bissell’s responses have been published under the title: Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics. (Part 2 is here.)

Before I discuss those contributions, it is relevant to mention my previous attempts to understand Ayn Rand’s view of selfishness. Before you finish reading the essay you will understand why that is relevant. 

My previous musings

I was brought up to believe that selfishness is a sin. In Australia, it is common for parents tell children not to be selfish, for example, if they attempt to take more than a fair share of a delicacy at mealtimes. What the parents mean is that such opportunistic behavior shows no regard for others. People of goodwill would not do such things.

Perhaps that understanding of the meaning of selfishness was reinforced by Australia’s “fair go” culture. Dictionary definitions of selfishness suggest, however, that it is also common for selfishness to be viewed similarly in Britain and the United States.

I can’t remember when I first became aware that Ayn Rand viewed selfishness as a virtue, and had written a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. During the 1990s, I was certainly aware that most the small number of Australians who were knew of Rand’s existence were of the opinion that she and her followers were ethically challenged and encouraged narcissism. That view was later expounded in a book by Anne Manne, which I commented upon here.

In a post on this blog in 2009 I asked myself: Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue? I knew she did, but I pondered the question because the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seem to me to be selfish. I noted that Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue followed from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests”, and speculated that Rand had used that definition to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self-sacrifice is a virtue.

A few months later, I wrote on the topic, How far can Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism be defended? That post was an attempt to summarize some of the views of participants in a Cato symposium on ‘What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought’. One of the aspects I focused on was the question of whether Rand, like Aristotle, viewed virtue – including regard for others - as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest, or as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest. Although the participants in the discussion were all scholars familiar with Rand’s writings, they were unable to agree on that point.

The other aspect I focused on was the question of whether it was defensible for Rand to argue that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Most, but not all, of the participants viewed that argument as indefensible.

Younkins’s contribution

In his essay, Ed Younkins seeks to compare the ideas of Ayn Rand with those of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs). Younkins’s purpose is mainly descriptive and explanatory, but Roger Bissell has seen his contribution to be critical of Rand.

The summary table published at the end of Younkins’s essay is reproduced below.

Younkins's Summary Table

My focus here is entries relating Normative Morality, the Virtues, and Conflicts of Interest. The discussion in the preceding post on this blog is relevant to “the Good and Value”.

Younkin’s summary table doesn’t mention Rand’s view of selfishness explicitly, but it is lurking in the background in his discussion of morality, the virtues and conflicts of interest.

Bissell’s response

Roger Bissell doesn’t accept that Rand’s primary concern in respect of normative morality was that the agent should always be the beneficiary of his actions. He notes that in the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand states that ego vs altruism is not the fundamental issue in ethics. He claims that “under all the ‘selfishness’ window dressing”, Rand is “actually just another individualistic perfectionist”. Perhaps Bissell is correct, but if so I am left wondering again, as in 2009, what purpose Rand saw in the selfishness window dressing.

With regard to the virtues, Bissell objects to the implication that Rand did not regard them as constitutive of a person’s flourishing. That difference of opinion takes me back to the Cato symposium referred to earlier, where several scholars were unable to agree on that point. My conclusion is that Rand’s views on that matter cannot have been stated clearly and consistently.

Roger Bissell’s support of Rand’s view on conflicts on interest also brings to mind the views expressed in the Cato symposium. I find it difficult to understand why anyone who recognises the importance of property rights would seek to defend the proposition that there can be no conflicts of interest among rational and objective individuals. Nevertheless, Bissell makes a heroic effort:

“To put it yet another way: whatever conflict two rational people might have on the level of individual values is subordinate to and outweighed by the common value they both have in everyone’s doing their own personal best and letting specific outcomes be determined within the framework of voluntary choice and peaceful interaction. They want their specific individual values to be achieved, but not at any cost—while they want their common higher rational values to be upheld, whatever the cost.”   

Perhaps we could imagine two rational and objective individuals with conflicting interests – for example, a farmer and a cowman living on the American prairie in the 19th century – agreeing on rules about property rights at an authentic constitutional convention, of the kind suggested by James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. However, it should be noted that the possibility of agreement has less to do with the personal qualities of the participants than with the imagined institutional context in which participants are uncertain about the impact that rules under consideration might have on their interests, and those of their descendants.

The ability of rational and objective individuals to avoid conflict are greatly enhanced by social, political, and legal orders that enable individuals to pursue their own ends without interfering with each other. Friedrich Hayek made the point clearly:

“The understanding that ‘good fences make good neighbors’, that is, that men can use their knowledge in the pursuit of their own ends without colliding with each other only if clear boundaries can be drawn between their respective domains of free action, is the basis on which all known civilization has grown.” (LLL, Vol1, 107)

The metanormative ethics expounded by the Dougs seems to me to be consistent with that view. Recognition of individual rights provides a context in which individuals can flourish in different ways without interfering with the flourishing of others.

Concluding comments

Ed Younkins concluded his essay by noting that although Ayn Rand differs from Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl “on how a number of issues are expressed, they agree on the desirability of a free society and are among the best-known proponents of capitalism from a neo-Aristotelian perspective”.

Roger Bissell concludes his response by suggesting that Younkins’s “descriptions of Rand’s ideas are too often inaccurate and his explanations too often flow from misunderstanding of those ideas”. I don’t know enough about Rand’s philosophy to make an independent judgement of the veracity of Bissell’s claims, but it is clear from contributions to the Cato symposium that I have mentioned several times that Younkins’s views are shared by other scholars who are familiar with Rand’s philosophical efforts.

It seems to me that this difference of opinion over the description of Rand’s ideas should be viewed in the context of ongoing discussions between those who see Objectivism as a closed system and those who see it as an open system. Those who see objectivism as a closed system accept that people should not label themselves as Objectivists unless they agree with all of Rand’s philosophy. Those who view objectivism as open system believe that it can be enhanced by incorporating new ideas that are broadly compatible with Rand’s ideas. (Younkins discusses the different views here).

I have the impression that those who see objectivism as an open system have an interest in minimizing the difference between Individualistic Perfectionism and Rand’s philosophy. As I see it, the Individualistic Perfectionism developed by Rasmussen and Den Uyl has been influenced by Rand, but deserves to be viewed as a coherent body of ideas that differs somewhat from Objectivism.


Ed Younkins has provided the following comment.

"It seems to me that the Dougs (Rasmussen and Den Uyl) want to create some distance between Individual Perfectionism (IP) and Objectivism (O). Roger Bissell, on the other hand, appears to be be acting as if IP does not exist as separate from O. He may be viewing the Dougs as open Objectivists (like he appears to be), but who are mistaken in their interpretation of some of what Rand is saying. Younkins, like Winton Bates, is not wedded to either O or IP. Both Younkins and Bates  may be Rand influenced (as are the Dougs), but each of them develops his own unique and particular philosophical worldview or paradigm of freedom and flourishing (as do the Dougs). Of course, each of the 5 individuals mentioned (who are all friends) is promoting his own vision and version of a philosophy of human flourishing in a free society. This is how it should be."

Sunday, January 22, 2023

How did the gold fever of the 1850s affect Australian Aborigines?


I began thinking about this question while reading Michael O’Rourke’s recently published book, Passages to the Northwest, The Europe they left and the Australia they discovered 1788-1858, A miscellany and scrapbook of national, regional and family history, From Ireland, Scotland, England and Germany to Liverpool Plains in colonial New South Wales, Volume II.

The full title provides an accurate picture of the nature of the book and what it is about. The history of how Michael’s family came to live on the Liverpool Plains, in the north-west of NSW, is central to the book but its focus is mainly on the context in which family members lived. I suppose Michael tells readers as much as he has been able to glean about the lives of individual family members. However, as anyone who has dabbled in family history would know, it is difficult to find much more than names and dates pertaining to ancestors unless they happen to have been rich, famous, or infamous.

Michael explains:

“I was able to pour the genealogy, almost like cream, into the dry chronicles of local history while also keeping an eye on social changes and the national political and cultural scene, especially in Australia and Ireland”.

I agree with the author’s suggestions about who might benefit from reading the book. He suggests that apart from his family and relatives, those who might benefit include people who are interested in detail about the impact of European occupation on Aboriginal people, and people who live in the north-west of NSW. Some people who are heavily involved in family history research might also find the book useful to provide context for names and dates.

Michael has provided an index of topics at the front, and a detailed index at the back, which I found helpful. I have only read those parts of the book that particularly interest me at present. I expect that is probably how the author would expect most readers to approach it. At some later stage (perhaps when I am pondering the injustices that my ancestors may have suffered) I will probably go back to read more of what Michael has written about Ireland and Scotland.  

European occupation

I was particularly interested in Michael’s discussion of the relationships between Aboriginal people and European pastoralists (sometimes referred to as squatters, settlers, or invaders) in the Liverpool plains area. By 1835, the European occupation of Aboriginal land had extended beyond Narrabri, up to 550 km from Sydney. There was violence, but as Michael describes it, the incoming settlers “so effectively swamped the locals that there were only rare clashes, peaking in 1836-38”.

Introduced disease had a devastating impact on the Aboriginal population. An epidemic (probably smallpox) killed many during 1830-31. Venereal disease became rife, as convicts - who became shepherds living in remote outstations - infected Aboriginal women.  

The pastoralists were known as squatters because they originally occupied the land without approval of the colonial government. By 1836, however, they were able to exercise sufficient political influence to have the government grant them short-term pastoral leases.

By 1850 the remaining Aboriginal population had apparently established their home bases near to the pastoral stations. Pastoralists employed Aborigines as shepherds during the 1840s but also employed Chinese in that role.

Gold fever

With the discovery of gold in 1851, many Chinese and European workers left the pastoral properties abruptly to go to the diggings, sometimes apparently leaving flocks they had been tending to the mercy of dingoes. The flocks became scattered before the owners were aware of the situation. Michael quotes from the published account of what followed according to Mary Jane Cain, a mixed-race matriarch:

 “The squatters had to go practically cap in hand to the blacks they had dispensed with, and entreat them to again assume the role of shepherds. They got the flocks together, and generally made a good save. After that the squatters steered clear of Chinese labour for a long while”.

The discovery of gold apparently led indirectly to a substantial improvement in economic conditions for aboriginal people living on the Liverpool Plains.

Michael’s account of the indirect impact of gold fever led me to look further for other information on the impact of gold discoveries on the lives of Aborigines. Some accounts view it as “a second wave of dispossession”, but also note an increase in demand for the labour of Aboriginal people on pastoral properties at that time. Aborigines became employed as police on the goldfields. They sold food and clothing to the miners and were employed as guides. They also became expert gold seekers.


The illustration at the top of this article is a painting by Edward Roper, which depicts the gold rush at Ararat, south-west Victoria, at its peak in the late 1850s. At the centre of the scene, an Aboriginal family observes the activity around them.

Michael has included the illustration in his book. I thought it appropriate to have it accompany this article because some of my ancestors came to the Ararat diggings in the 1850s and later settled in that district.


The more I learn about the detail of the impact of European occupation of Australia on Aboriginal people, the more persuaded I become that “European settlement” is an inadequate description of what happened. Words like “conquest” and “invasion” are also inadequate because they conjure up images of warfare that have little resemblance to the sporadic resistance that some of the occupants of this country offered to the European squatters. The detail includes massacres, but disease seems to have been a much more important cause of depopulation. The best option for the indigenous people was co-existence with the new occupiers, but that required a radical change in their lifestyles.

Seen in that context, the advent of gold fever in the 1850s opened new opportunities for Aborigines to become more heavily involved in pastoral activities. I see this as an interesting example of the way disadvantaged people can respond to new opportunities. I hope there were lasting benefits for at least some of the families involved but I have no evidence of that.    

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Does the "Politics of Being" support progress?


“Politics of Being” is title of a recently published book by Thomas Legrand. The subtitle is “Wisdom and science for a new development paradigm”. The question I ask myself is whether Legrand’s views support progress as I defined the concept in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. Would widespread adoption of Legrand’s views enhance the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans?

Before I purchased the book, I was aware that the author had shown wisdom by including this quote from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture:

“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

That passage is actually quoted several times in the book and is sometimes accompanied by the preceding sentence in which Ostrom distances her approach from that of policy analysts who design institutions “to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes”. The passage I have quoted at the top of this article illustrates Ostrom’s optimistic view of the capacity of individuals to work together to devise solutions to collective action problems without help from governments.

The essence of Legrand’s line of argument is that the world is stuck in an obsolete development path and is in need of a new “wisdom-based approach to politics”.  I will discuss briefly what he perceives to be wrong with the current development path, before discussing some elements of the alternative path he advocates.

Perception of the problem

Legrand believes that the current development path is causing many problems. The world is on track for a climate change catastrophe. Economic development and increased life expectancy are not making people much happier in high-income countries. Many countries seem to be facing mental health crises. There has been a decline in interpersonal trust in many countries. Our current model of development is rooted in a set of values that are causing a civilization crisis. He writes:

“Our economic system not only destroys social ties and the environment but feeds on these destructions that create new market opportunities. It seeks to adapt humans to its own requirements rather than adapting itself to human needs. Based on fundamental misconceptions, this system can only perpetuate itself through ever more propaganda that feeds our disconnection from ourselves, our true needs, and ultimately, our apathy.”

I agree that all is not well with the world and share some of Legrand’s concerns. However, I am more optimistic than he is about climate change, and strongly disagree with his views on economics. Readers who are interested in my views should read Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Being and Interbeing

Legrand argues that the new development model required is essentially spiritual. He views spiritual development as:

“the process by which we come closer to our true nature. From that connection, we naturally tend to manifest the highest qualities: wisdom, love, joy, peace etc., or simply the best or most authentic version of ourselves currently available!”

Legrand’s discussion of spiritual values includes chapters on life, happiness, love, peace, mindfulness, and light.

According to Legrand the new paradigm involves a transition from “having to being, which many believe means interbeing”. So, what is interbeing?

 “Interbeing is a term coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which goes beyond interconnectedness to touch on the very nature of our being. It expresses the nature of reality based on the Buddhist teachings of interdependent co-arising (“that is because this is”), non-self, and impermanence”.

I see no problem accepting that everything is interdependent. Impermanence does seem pervasive (except in respect of fundamental values, virtues, and the highest qualities). But “non-self” poses problems. As I see it, self-awareness is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of thing (entity or system) that an individual human is.  Self-respect arises from self-awareness, and motivates respect for other people, and other living things. Respect is the foundation which makes love possible. By the way, do you know who it was who said “one should not hurt others if one loves oneself”? The answer is here.

At various points in the book Legrand recognizes that people have “higher selves” and “true selves”, so he seems to acknowledge that we should aim to purify our egos – to remove the biases, distortions, and attachments that tarnish our perceptions of our individual selves - rather than eliminate self-awareness. He provides a good summary of his view of “being” and of personal development in this passage:

“As a person, there is little chance that I get closer to my authentic being by defining a vision of who I am and trying to actualize it. On the contrary, I can discover who I am by freeing myself from predefined and limiting identities, purifying my intentions, character, and behaviors, and expressing the deepest yearning of my soul. This is a conscious, evolutionary process of emergence, informed but not bounded by the understanding I have of my essence, which is necessarily limited. The same is true for nations.”

The world would be a better place if more people adopted that as their personal development model. However, I was tempted to leave off the last sentence of the quoted passage. The idea that nations have “souls” seems to me to be collectivist nonsense.


The part of the book providing an agenda for action envisages a larger role for government than I had anticipated. For example, Legrand suggests that government efforts to promote early childhood education should start during pregnancy. He also suggests that governments should actively promote a healthy diet. Even followers of Elinor Ostrom can sometimes find it difficult to remember to avoid adopting an overly pessimistic view of what people can achieve without government guidance.

I agree with Legrand that it is na├»ve for people to believe that “all it takes to improve our societies is to secure a majority of voters for their ideas, especially when they engender polarization”. Political leaders have no hope of implementing lasting reforms unless they can foster broad community support for them. That usually means avoiding politicization of the issues. (As an aside, one of the inconvenient truths about politics is that Al Gore’s involvement in support of U.S. action to mitigate climate change provided a focus for Republican opposition to such policies.)

The book contains interesting proposals to enact the “politics of being” in political institutions. Legrand suggests that each nation should establish a “wisdom council” to preside over discussions about the nation’s evolution with the government and parliament. The councils would consist of equal representations of four groups: randomly selected citizens, representatives of the “outer” economic, social, and environmental life of the nation, representatives of the “inner” spiritual, cultural, and psychological life of the nation, and “representatives of non-human members of the earth community”.

Legrand also suggests that the Baha’i model of governance should be adopted for lower houses of parliament. In brief, adult community members elect representatives at the local level and are urged not to discuss with others who to vote for. The local representative vote for regional representatives, who in turn vote for national representatives.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which politicians would enact such radical changes to existing systems of representative government. However, if the outcomes of the existing systems become increasingly unpalatable, radical alternatives will no doubt be contemplated by an increasing number of citizens. In that context, Legrand’s proposals will have stiff competition from other proposals, including the decentralist approach discussed previously on this blog.

The main problem I see with Legrand’s governance proposals is their potential to infringe individual liberty. Most of the members of the proposed governing council would be likely to advance the interests that they represent by advocating further restriction of individual liberty. The Baha’i model is presumably more responsive to community members than religious and political governance systems in which the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, but people who are indirectly elected to peak positions still have less incentive to have regard for the wishes of members at the grassroots level than if they were directly elected, or selected randomly.

Facilitating progress?

Legrand describes his book as “a drop in the ocean”. I think it may have potential to be more than that. The part of the book dealing with spiritual development has potential to be influential if it finds its way into the hands of sufficient numbers of people who are currently rudderless and yearning for inspiration.

I think contemplation of Legrand’s views on spiritual development has potential to enhance progress, viewed as the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans. After reading the book, some people might be more inclined to wise and well-informed self-direction, healthy living, improved inter-personal relations, living in harmony with nature, and adoption of behaviors that enhance psychological well-being.

However, Legrand’s attack on “the current development path” invites further restrictions on economic freedom which would impact negatively on growth of productivity and hence on growth of opportunities for human flourishing. As outlined in the following paragraph in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I see declining rates of productivity growth as a major threat to growth of opportunities for human flourishing:

“This chapter has focused on the threats posed by climate change, declining productivity growth, and problems with democracy. I do not dismiss the longer-term threat posed by climate change, but in my view, there are stronger reasons for concern about the more immediate threat posed by declining productivity growth. Individuals, firms, and governments are taking action to mitigate climate change, and their efforts seems likely to accelerate before adaptation becomes excessively costly. There are fewer grounds for optimism that governments will deal with emerging economic problems (of their own making) in time to avert the widespread misery that is likely to follow from looming economic crises.”

As explained in my book, my optimism about action to mitigate climate change rests on signs that the polycentric approach, proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2009, is now being adopted successfully.

I am not greatly troubled by the thought that some readers of Thomas Legrand’s book may be persuaded to adopt economic and political views that are inimical to productivity growth. There is an ocean full of views on public policy that are similar to those which he advocates, so I don’t think his additional drop will have a significant direct impact on policies adopted. Hopefully, his book’s endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s approach will encourage some readers to explore her views in greater detail.

My bottom line: The net impact of “The Politics of Being” will be to support the growth of opportunities for human flourishing.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Who was Erasmus and why should we care?

 After I stumbled across that quote a few days ago, it struck me that Erasmus might have something relevant to say to people living today.

However, before I discuss the context in which Erasmus made that statement, it might be helpful to provide some relevant background information about him.

The man and his vocation

Erasmus was born around 1467 and died in 1536.  William Barker, the author of a recently published biography, Erasmus of Rotterdam: The Spirit of a Scholar, tells us that Erasmus had become famous by the time he reached his mid-fifties. Erasmus was a prolific author. The rise of the printing press helped him to establish an international reputation during his lifetime. At that time it was possible for a humanist scholar – one steeped in the literature and culture of ancient Greece and Rome – to have fame equivalent to that of an Einstein or Stephen Hawking in more recent times.

Although Erasmus was a priest, he remained independent of the church hierarchy. Patrons offered gifts and allowances, which he accepted, but he was not dominated by any person or institution. He had an aversion for scholastic theology, believing that the words of the Bible show the message of Jesus more clearly than could any scholastic commentator. He based his famous translation of the New Testament on ancient Greek manuscripts because he believed that some of the original reports written by followers of Jesus had become distorted in the official translation used at that time.

In addition to his Translation of the New Testament, Erasmus’ famous works include The Praise of Folly, and his compilation of Roman and Greek proverbs. The Praise of Folly takes the form of a speech by Folly, seeking to persuade us that she is basic to all our lives. Barker sums up the book as follows:

“The work begins with social criticism, a kind of genial mocking, but it ramps up to direct attacks on various interest groups in the political, intellectual and religious worlds, and, in the amazing final move, suddenly turns inwards, and pulls the reader towards the abyss found in the complete loss of self through a total religious faith.”

As I see it, theological disputes were a particular focus in this book. Erasmus wrote:

I [Folly] am often there, where when one was demanding what authority there was in Holy Writ that commands heretics to be convinced by fire rather than reclaimed by argument; a crabbed old fellow, and one whose supercilious gravity … answered in a great fume that Saint Paul had decreed … “Reject him that is a heretic, after once or twice admonition.” And when he had sundry times, one after another, thundered out the same thing, … at last he explained it thus … . “A heretic must be put to death.” Some laughed, and yet there wanted not others to whom this exposition seemed plainly theological … . “Pray conceive me,” said he, “it is written, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ But every heretic bewitches the people; therefore …”.

Erasmus’ book of proverbs was also a vehicle for social criticism. For example, in his revised version of this book, his commentary on the proverb, “War is a treat for those who have not tried it”, is a passionate essay praising peace and condemning war. Barker notes, however, that Erasmus’ condemnation of war was not unbounded. He approved of war against the Turks during the 1520s when they had reached the outskirts of Vienna.

Context of the quote

The context of the passage quoted at the top of this article is explained by Paul Grendler in his article, ‘In Praise of Erasmus’ (The Wilson Quarterly 7(2) Spring 1983). The plea, “Let us not devour each other like fish” was in response to an attack by his former friend Ulrich von Hutten, who had become an associate of Martin Luther. Erasmus welcomed Luther as a fellow reformer in 1517 when he began to criticize greedy churchmen and the worship of relics. However, as Luther’s criticism of Catholicism became more abusive, Erasmus counselled moderation. Luther would have none of it:

“You with your peace-loving theology, you don’t care about the truth. The light is not to be put under a bushel, even if the whole world goes to smash”.

The papacy was not inclined to stand idly by while Luther “led souls to hell”. So, Europe went to smash!

Erasmus continued to try to mediate between Catholic and Protestant, asserting that he found much to admire in Luther while disagreeing with him about predestination. The Catholic response was that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched”.

Unfortunately, Erasmus was unable to persuade the contending parties to refrain from warfare. If political institutions had provide greater support to Erasmus’ message at that time, perhaps it would have been possible for Europeans to have avoided a few centuries of pointless religious warfare.

Contemporary relevance of Erasmus    

William Barker laments that the old discourse of humanism seems to have been eclipsed:

“Something has happened to the humanities and the old discourse of humanism in our time. The ideal of Erasmian humanism – a cosmopolitan, well-educated Republic of Letters – has moved to the margins of our cultural life. A shift in political, ethnic, gender and ecological values has led to a change in the cultural hierarchy.”

Nevertheless, he still sees Erasmus as relevant to the culture of our times:  

“Despite our hesitations and the new trajectories in our literary culture, there are aspects of Erasmus that still survive for us, that take him outside his historical moment and the programmatic frame of humanist education. We can still turn to him for his irony, laughter, and the free exercise of social criticism.”

I agree with all that, but I also see Erasmus’ message about refraining from war over theology as being highly relevant today. When Erasmus was alive, contending parties engaging in theological disputes were obviously willing to use coercive means to impose their will on their opponents. Today, not much has changed. Extremists among contending parties engaged in ideological disputes are still willing to use coercive power to impose their will on their opponents.

Few people who live in the liberal democracies have any difficulty condemning the authoritarianism of dictatorships which seek to prevent individuals from exercising freedom of conscience in their religious observance. However, there are many people among us who unwittingly engage in similar authoritarianism themselves. I am thinking particularly of politicians who are so certain of the correctness of their ideological beliefs that they struggle with the idea that those with opposing views are entitled to exercise freedom of conscience.

The exercise of freedom of conscience over the status of human embryos is the example that comes most readily to mind. I wrote about his in the preceding post. At one extreme, we have politicians claiming that pharmacists who refuse on conscientious grounds to supply medications that could be used to induce abortion are guilty of some kind of civil rights violation. At the other extreme we have politicians arguing that under no circumstances should it be lawful for a woman to exercise freedom of conscience to terminate a pregnancy.

Will this conflict end in open warfare? The only reason I can see for ideological and theological authoritarianism to result in less violent outcomes today than occurred 500 years ago is the existence of democratic political processes. Unfortunately, in some liberal democracies those processes may no longer be sufficiently robust to provide contending parties with appropriate incentives to moderate their extremist agendas.

at this time, those who regard freedom of conscience as of utmost importance should remember the efforts of Erasmus to promote peace 500 years ago, and endeavor to be more successful than he was. “Blessed are the peacemakers …”.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

How should Lachlan Macquarie be remembered?


Lachlan Macquarie was governor of New South Wales from 1810 to 1821. At that time, the colony comprised much of the Australian mainland (known then as New Holland), Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and other island territories.

Many years ago, when I studied Australian history at school, I came to the view that Macquarie, the fifth governor of New South Wales, was one of the best of the colonial governors. I still feel that Macquarie made a positive contribution to cultural values that are widely held in Australia today. It is unusual for despots to be good people, but I think Macquarie was one.

The above photo is of a sculpture of Lachlan Macquarie, located by Macquarie Street in Sydney. The inscription on the plaque describes Macquarie as “a perfect gentleman”, while that on his tomb in Scotland describes him as “The Father of Australia”.

Macquarie is also remembered in the many places named after him. Some that readily come to mind are the suburb of Canberra, where my family lived for several years; Port Macquarie, on the north coast of New South Wales, where we have enjoyed some holidays; and Lake Macquarie, where we now live.

Proposal to re-name Lake Macquarie

I have been prompted to write this article because there is currently a move for Lake Macquarie to revert to its original name, Awaba. The Indigenous inhabits of the region, Awabakal people, knew the lake by that name for many thousands of years prior to European settlement. I see no reason to oppose the name change if it can be accomplished without a great deal of cost and confusion, and in a spirit of reconciliation.

However, some of the proponents of the name change seem to me to be making it difficult for it to be accomplished in a spirit of reconciliation because they are arguing that Lachlan Macquarie does not deserve to be honoured. It looks to me as though they want him to be cancelled!

Those who seek to denigrate Macquarie refer to the fact that he ordered a military operation that led to a massacre of aboriginal people. They don’t have regard to the circumstances in which that order was given, or consider what alternative courses of action Macquarie could have taken.

What would you have done in his shoes?

I can understand why some readers might object to the idea of contemplating what it might be like to occupy the shoes of a colonial despot. Some might argue that those shoes did not have to be filled. The British could have chosen not to establish the colony in the first place. They could have found some other way to solve their problem of over-crowded prisons, and thus avoided encroaching upon the lands of Indigenous people.

However, as I see it, if similar choices to those confronting Macquarie were not faced by an alternative British despot, they would have been faced by a despot from France or some other European country. When Britain established the colony, other European powers were seeking to establish colonies throughout the world. So, if the British had not established the colony, it is highly unlikely that the Indigenous people would have been left alone to pursue their traditional lifestyles.

Lachlan Macquarie was a reluctant appointee to the position of governor.  The biographical history by M H Ellis indicates that after having served with the British army in India for 25 years, Macquarie considered it to be unfair that he was being posted to the colony. (Ellis, 166)

In contemplating what you would have done in Macquarie’s shoes, it might be helpful to consider his motives, the circumstances that led to the military operation, and whether alternative approaches might have led to more tranquil relations between Indigenous people and settlers.

Macquarie’s motives

On arrival in the colony, Macquarie expressed the wish that “the natives of the country, when they came in the way in a peaceable manner, might not be molested in their persons and property by anyone, but that they should always be treated with kindness and attention, so as to conciliate them as much as possible to the British Government and manners.”  (Ellis, 179)

How could Macquarie expect the Indigenous people to remain peaceable when their land was being taken away from them? I see some evidence that Macquarie saw potential for mutual benefit from more productive use of the land, and by helping Indigenous people to develop new skills and habits. From his paternalistic perspective, the Indigenous people were wasting their lives “in wandering thro’ their native woods … in quest of the immediate means of subsistence”. He saw them as having qualities that “if properly cultivated and encouraged might render them not only less wretched and destitute” but “progressively useful to the country according to their capabilities”. He expressed the view that they could “advance toward a state of comfort and security”. (Ellis, 352-3).

Macquarie allocated some land for use by Indigenous people on the grounds that they were “a harmless race, who have been without struggle driven by the progress of British industry from their ancient places of habitation”. (Ellis, 358)

Unfortunately, Macquarie received only lukewarm support for this approach from the British government. If the policy had been pursued vigorously by the British government, the Indigenous people would not have suffered such great deprivation and humiliation in subsequent decades.

Circumstances that led to the massacre

A deterioration in relations between Indigenous people and European settlers seems to have occurred in 1814 mainly because the settlers retaliated when Indigenous people helped themselves to unfenced fields of corn planted by the settlers. Macquarie saw fault on both sides. As he saw it, there had been a violation of property rights by the Indigenous people, but it was not a serious violation. He admonished the settlers to behave with patience and forbearance and not to take the law into their own hands. He warned that future aggressiveness by either whites or blacks would be punished in an exemplary manner. (Ellis, 353-4)

Nevertheless, attacks on settlers continued and some abandoned their farms. The governor felt that a severe response was required to prevent the frequent occurrence of trouble. In April 1816 he ordered a military action to drive the mountain tribes a safe distance from the settlement.  (Ellis, 355-6) Those seeking an account of the massacre can find relevant documents on the Australian Museum website. In a subsequent proclamation, Macquarie gave settlers the right to drive away Indigenous people who appeared armed with weapons within a mile of any town, village, or farm.

The military action had the desired effect of restoring order. Members of local tribes attended a friendly meeting which the governor held in December 1816 to, among other things, consult with them “on the best means of improving their present condition”.

Alternative approaches

The limits of my knowledge of the relevant history make it difficult for me to assess the options that faced Macquarie. Perhaps there was potential for him to restore order by adopting a response that was targeted to a greater extent at individual perpetrators of violence rather than on tribes of people, but I have not seen any authoritative discussion of that possibility.

It seems unlikely that Macquarie would have considered the option of attempting to achieve peace by limiting the area of European settlement. That approach would have been likely to lead to rebellion by the settlers and Macquarie’s replacement as governor.

The governor could have continued to pursue a conciliatory approach but there is no reason to believe that would have been successful in discouraging attacks on settlers, or setter retaliation. The most likely outcome, it seems to me, would have been an increase in violence on both sides, with a more extensive military intervention required eventually to end the conflict.

Concluding comments

My view that Lachlan Macquarie made a positive contribution to cultural values that are widely held in Australia today is based mainly on the humane approach he adopted toward the people of the colony. He has been remembered particularly for his humane treatment of convicts and ex-convicts, who made up about 90 percent of the European population of the colony at the time of his appointment. Macquarie saw that some of the most meritorious people in the colony had come there as convicts and sought to treat them justly by giving them the opportunities to hold responsible positions.

Macquarie sought to extend this humane approach to the indigenous people, but was faced with difficult choices. Those who criticize the choices he made should consider what they would have done in his shoes.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Why should economists practice humanomics?


Adam Smith practiced humanomics. It came naturally to him. The famous pioneer of economic science did not need to pretend that humans have been programmed to maximize utility in order to develop his argument that economic specialization stems from a propensity in human nature to “truck, barter, and exchange”.

The word, humanomics, was coined by Bart Wilson, an experimental economist, and is explained in the book, Humanomics, Moral Sentiments, and the Wealth of Nations for the Twenty-First Century, which he co-authored with Nobel winner, Vernon Smith. In that book, humanomics refers to the very human problem of simultaneously living in the personal social world (which is the context which Adam Smith had in mind when writing Moral Sentiments) and the impersonal economic world (which is the focus of Wealth of Nations).

Some important aspects of human behavior cannot be adequately explained if we adopt the assumption, still common in much economic analysis, that individual human behavior is characterized by narrow self-interest. Vernon Smith and Bart Wilson found in their experimental work with people playing economic games that while self-interested utility maximization could explain individual behavior in simulated market contexts, it could not do so in social exchange contexts. In playing two-person trust games, people tend to be more other-regarding than most modern economists assume. I take that to mean that most people are sufficiently civilized and self-regarding to behave with integrity towards others – they see virtue in being trustworthy rather than opportunistic.

Deirdre McCloskey advances the argument for humanomics further in her recent book, Bettering Humanomics. She writes:

“A big part of our human behavior is thinking and talking about human action, not merely solipsistic and thoughtless reaction to, say, a budget constraint. Human action … is the exercise of free will, so typical of humans. It is in fact the free will about which theologians argue. Humanomics therefore goes beyond the artificially narrowed evidence of a silent, solitary, reactive, positivistic, predestined, observational behaviorism.” (p 5)

McCloskey argues that economists should engage in more philosophical reflection about what a speaking species does. The behavioral paradigm of stimulus and response does not adequately explain much of human behavior. Humans often think about the meaning of events before responding to them, and they often consciously explore the options that are available.

Innovation is an example of an economic activity that cannot be adequately understood within a behavioral paradigm that does not allow for thinking and talking. In this context, McCloskey mentions the important contribution of Israel Kirzner in pointing out that real discoveries cannot be pursued methodically – or they would be known before they are known. Innovation requires entrepreneurial alertness. McCloskey adds that a discovery “requires sweet talk to be brought to fruition”:

“An idea is merely and idea until it has been brought into the conversation of humankind”.

McCloskey presents a strong argument that humanomics is needed to explain the great enrichment – the massive improvements in standard of living that have occurred in many countries over the last 200 years. Those who have some familiarity with her trilogy of books on economic history – that should include everyone who is interested in the reasons why the people who live in some countries tend to be wealthier than those who live elsewhere - will not be surprised that she argues that ethics and rhetoric are the “killer app” explaining the great enrichment. She argues that a novel liberty and dignity for ordinary people, including the innovating bourgeoisie, explains the great enrichment.

For present purposes, the important point is that for economists to understand the economic growth process, with its massive implications for human flourishing, they need some knowledge of ethics and rhetoric – ideas in letters and literature that are studied in the humanities. McCloskey argues that if economists consider themselves to be serious scientists, they should use all relevant evidence that they can get their hands on. She makes the point thus:

“A future economics should … use the available scientific logic and evidence, all of it—experimental, simulative, introspective, questionnaire, graphical, categorical, statistical, literary, historical, psychological, sociological, political, aesthetic, ethical.” (p 66)

Many economists spend much of their time on “sweet talk” without being aware of it. I spent most of my working life trying to tell people that incentives matter and that they need to consider whether current institutions – the rules of the game of society – provide appropriate incentives. For example, I am fond of pointing out that if the rules of the game reward rent-seeking – individuals or groups seeking to have governments provide them with assistance at others’ expense - then potential beneficiaries will tend to spend more time rent-seeking and less time engaged in productive activities.

Economists engage in that kind of activity – labelled by some as preaching – because they think that ideas matter and that interests do not always prevail in determining government policies. In my view, people who are trying to obtain greater recognition of the role of institutions and incentives are walking in the footsteps of Adam Smith.

McCloskey might suggest that people like me should consider whether we give too much attention to the role of formal institutions – constitutions, laws, and regulations – and too little attention to ethics and ideology. In discussing the great enrichment she suggests:

“The important “institutions” were ideas, words, rhetoric, ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment”.

The only problem I have with McCloskey’s exposition of humanomics is her dismissal of happiness studies and behavioral economics. Her negative views on these areas of research sit oddly with her argument that economists should consider all available evidence. I agree that many people who are engaged in such research are paternalistic behavioralists, seeking to advise governments how to make people happier. However, I don’t think that provides sufficient reason to suggest that the findings of such research are no relevance to individuals who are looking for information to help themselves to flourish.

In my discussion of the findings of happiness research and behavioral economics in Chapter 7 of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I have tried to adopt a contractarian approach. That is the approach adopted by Robert Sugden, a self-confessed behavioral economist, and an admirer of the contractarianism of James Buchanan, in his book The Community of Advantage. Sugden notes that contractarian recommendations are “addressed to individuals as directors of their own lives, advising individuals how to pursue their own interests”.

I concur with the view of James Buchanan that the heartland of economics is considering human behavior in market relationships and other voluntaristic exchange processes. However, I can see no reason why anyone should consider Philip Wicksteed, or any other economist, who offers practical advice on avoiding common mistakes in decision-making, to be stepping beyond the realm of humanomics.    

When economists step outside their comfort zone of voluntaristic exchange processes, they certainly need to remember to take their bullshit detectors with them. That certainly applies in considering the findings of happiness studies and behavioral economics. It also applies in considering literary contributions, such as a book I read (and commented on here) about the significance for our understanding of happiness of Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel, Pamela.


Economists should practice humanomics because they can’t expect to be able to understand human behavior unless they do. Humans do not always behave as self-interested maximizers. It makes no sense to assume that human action always occurs at a subconscious level as an automatic response to stimuli. Individuals often think about the meaning of events, consider their options, and talk to others, before responding. Self-direction is integral to human flourishing.

In seeking explanations for human behavior, economists should not confine themselves to a focus on institutions and incentives. They should be open to considering all relevant information that they can get their hands on, including information on ethics, ideology, and happiness ratings.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Can kindness be made powerful without being lost?


People who read Vasily Grossman’s book,
Life and Fate, are not likely to forget the experience. That is not just because the book takes a long time to read, and is not easy to put aside once one has begun reading. Grossman provides memorable insights into the good and evil in human nature, by depicting horrifying events in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War through the eyes of the characters in his book.

In writing the book, Grossman drew extensively on his experience as a war correspondent with the Red Army in the battle for Stalingrad. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made it seem possible to the author that views critical of the Stalinism could be published in a novel.  Life and Fate was completed in 1960, but its publication was suppressed because it suggests that the the Soviet regime was as inhumane as the Nazi regime. The manuscript was smuggled to the West some years after Grossman’s death in 1964, but was not published until 1980.

In this post I want to focus on Grossman’s view of kindness. Readers looking for more comprehensive reviews might be interested in those by Linda Grant, Robert Chandler, and Gideon Rachman. Rachman’s view is particularly interesting. He suggests that the book has contemporary relevance because political ideas that emphasize group identity seem to be coming back into fashion.

The most explicit view of kindness in the book is in its account of the scribblings of Ikonnikov-Morzh, an inmate in a German concentration camp. Ikonnikov followed the teachings of Tolstoy as a young man and joined a peasant commune after the Bolshevik revolution. Subsequently, his enthusiasm for communist agricultural policies was destroyed by the horrific implementation of collectivisation. Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik who was also in the camp, concluded that Ikonnikov was unhinged, after he read his scribblings. Liss, the SS representative on the camp administration, told Mostovskoy: “You and I can feel only disgust at what’s written here. We two stand shoulder to shoulder against trash like this.”

Ikonnikov begins his tract by asking whether people have advanced over the millennia in their concept of “good”. He observes that over the centuries much blood was spilt as a diversity of concepts of good came into existence, corresponding to different sects, races and classes. The essence of his argument is that people struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good:

“They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. And so the good of a sect, class, nation or State assumes a specious universality in order to justify its struggle against an apparent evil”.

Ikonnikov describes how collectivisation of agriculture resulted in many people being annihilated “in the name of an idea of good” that he suggests was “as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity”. He goes on to suggest that even the horrific crime of the Nazis were committed in the name of good.

He concludes that good is actually to be found in the everyday kindness of ordinary people, which he describes as senseless, wordless and instinctive. He gives an example of a woman who was unable to explain her acts of kindness to an injured enemy soldier.

Ikonnikov argues that it is not possible to make kindness powerful without losing it. He claims that when Christianity clothed kindness in the teachings of the Church Fathers, “it began to fade; its kernel became a husk”.

The tract ends with the passage quoted at the beginning of this post.

The question remains of whether Ikonnikov is right in claiming that kindness cannot be made powerful without being lost.

To answer that question, we need to consider what it means to make kindness powerful. Kindness does seem to be more prevalent in communities where people interact voluntarily for mutual benefit. In such communities, perhaps kindness is powerful because people tend to see acts of kindness as an example that they would like to follow.  

However, Ikonnikov seems to have had a different kind of power in mind in considering what it means for kindness to be made powerful. People representing sects, races and classes may set out with kindness in their hearts to seek to use coercive powers in support of their goals. I agree that the exercise of that kind of power tends to end up as unkind to people who are not members of those groups.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Is a good person like flowing water?

The question arises from a Lao Tzu quote that I recently stumbled across:

A person of great virtue is like the flowing water”, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8.

The passage appeals to me because it seems to accord with my casual observation that good behaviour seems effortless for some people. That may link to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of the flow experience where people in high challenge situations are so deeply involved in what they are doing that nothing else seems to matter. The good people I have in mind would not give much thought to judgements that others might make about their behaviour.

I will return to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory later, but first I want to look for clues about the intuitions that Lao Tzu was hoping to convey. To view the quote in context, I have chosen a translation by Red Pine (Bill Porter) who also provides readers with commentary of sages and other translators. Chapter 8 reads:

“The best are like water

 bringing help to all

 without competing

 choosing what others avoid

 they thus approach the Tao

 dwelling with earth

 thinking with depth

helping with kindness

speaking with honesty

 governing with peace

 working with skill

and moving with time

and because they don’t compete they aren’t maligned.”


There is no explicit mention of “flow” in that translation or in the associated commentary, but it still seems consistent with the imagery of flowing water.

In his commentary, Chuck Gullion, the Libertarian Taoist, sums it up:

It all boils down to being content to simply be yourself. We expend way too much effort comparing and competing with others. Lao Tzu is wanting to show us a better Way. Be like water!”

Red Pine notes that some translators have difficulty in accepting that kindness is the correct word in the line “helping with kindness”, because of Lao Tzu’s professed “disdain for the social virtues”. In An Introduction to Daoist Philosophy (previously discussed here)  Steve Coutinho explains that Lao Tze opposes cultivation of the ethical virtues (including humanity and rightness) on the grounds that cultivation converts the virtues into objects of desire, thus becoming an obstacle to flourishing. Paradoxically, much of the Tao Te Ching presupposes “recognizably ethical values” (pp 64-5).

In Csikszentmihalyi's view, the flow experience requires cultivation. He suggests that the normal condition of the mind is one of informational disorder, with conflicting desires, intentions and thoughts jostling each other in consciousness. Innate talents cannot develop unless a person learns to control attention to get the heart will and mind on the same page. Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.

Csikszentmihalyi’s perception of good is activity leading to the increase of complexity and order, while evil is analogous to entropy:   

“Good is the creative overcoming of inertia, the energy that leads to the evolution of human consciousness. To act in terms of new principles of organization is always more difficult, and requires more effort and energy. The ability to do so is what has been known as virtue” (Loc 2031/2382).

The idea of evolution toward greater complexity has intellectual appeal, but “creative overcoming” seems far removed from the idea that goodness is like flowing water. Csikszentmihalyi may even be seeking to distance his view of flow from that imagery, because he suggests that the evil which causes pain and suffering usually involves “taking the course of least resistance”, for example acting “in terms of instinct alone”.

Would acceptance of the imagery of goodness as being like flowing water be likely to tempt people to view instinctive “red in tooth and claw” aspects of nature as providing reason to accept that “might is right” in human conduct?

To answer that question, it is helpful to consider the view of Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher who followed Lao Tzu. Zhuangzi observed that there must be genuine humanity before there can be genuine understanding of the relationship between what is human and what is natural. Coutinho notes:

“According to Zhuangzi, there is something salvageable about our humanity: it is not pure artifice. There is a central core of genuineness that is natural. When we nurture this genuine humanity, we reconnect with the natural world, become more distanced from the everyday hopes, fears, and anxieties that plague us, and are more tranquil and accepting of all our circumstances” (p 112).

As I see it, cultural evolution has left us with intuitions that it is good to be the kind of person who manages his or her own life wisely in ways that respect the natural rights of others. We greatly admire those who bring out the best in the people they interact with most closely. Our language reflects an understanding that humane conduct is ethical. Cruelty is often described as inhuman. We have come to perceive voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit as good, and predation as bad. It should be easy for us to understand that a spontaneous order evolving from the actions of free individuals is the most natural form of human society.  

In that context, the imagery of a good person being like flowing water may help people to understand that ethical conduct is integral to their human nature. That kind of imagery might help people to set goals that are consistent with their values and to stay on course toward acquiring better habits, perhaps ultimately reaching the point where goodness becomes effortless.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

How good is this image of self-actualization?

When you think about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what is the image that appears in your mind? I expect that most people who have some knowledge of the concept would think of a pyramid in which needs are layered one on top of the other, with physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization needs at the top. If you have no idea what I am talking about, there is no need to worry. Andy Ogden’s sailboat illustration, provided above, is better. That image has been used effectively by Scott Barry Kaufman in Transcend, his recently published book which seeking to update Maslow’s hierarchy.

Kaufman points out that the pyramid image was created by a management consultant rather than by Maslow. He argues that the pyramid “had the unfortunate consequence of reducing Maslow’s rich and nuanced intellectual contributions to a parody and has betrayed the actual spirit of Maslow’s notion of self-actualization as realizing one’s creative potential for humanitarian ends”.

I have read many books aimed at the self-help market, but Transcend has more endorsements by psychologists than any I have previously read. Those praising the book include Martin Seligman, Steven Hayes and Steven Pinker. My inner economist tells me that there must be something wrong with a book preceded by five pages of praise, but I haven’t found much wrong with this one.

Kaufman’s sailboat image captures Maslow’s idea that all needs can be grouped into two main classes, deficiency needs and growth needs. The planks of the boat represent deficiency needs and the sails represents growth (or self-actualization). 

In explaining his metaphor, Kaufman suggests:
Life isn’t a trek up a summit but a journey to travel through – a vast blue ocean, full of opportunities for new meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty”.

The deficiency needs that comprise the boat, safety, connection, and self-esteem work as a dynamic system. Under good conditions they work together toward greater security and stability. Under unfavourable conditions, they can lead toward insecurity and instability, causing people to focus attention on defending themselves.

The growth needs comprising the sails are exploration, love, and purpose. Kaufman suggests that “the drive for exploration is the core motive underlying self-actualization”. It involves the desire to seek out and make sense of novel, challenging and uncertain events. Love and purpose can build on the fundamental need for exploration. Loving is noted to be a powerful force, linked to growth, compassion, coping and authenticity. Purpose is defined as “the need for an overarching aspiration that energizes one’s efforts and provides a central source of meaning and significance in one’s life”.

Kaufman sensibly emphasizes the hazards of attempting to fulfill a need for purpose without working on other areas of growth:
“It is entirely possible to choose a striving that brings out the worst in yourself and others because it is motivated by a desperate, never-ending quest to fill a deficiency in one of the security needs, whether it’s safety, belonging, or self-esteem”.

The need for transcendence is depicted as being in the sky above the sails. Kaufman suggests that transcendence “goes beyond individual growth (and even health and happiness) and allows for the highest levels of unity and harmony within oneself and with the world”. Some further explanation might be helpful for those who, like me, read that and think immediately that they don’t need mystical experiences. The transcending experiences written about are not all mystical. Kaufman notes that transcendence incorporates a “unitary continuum,” of experiences ranging from becoming engrossed in a book, sports performance, or creative activity (what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the flow experience), to experiencing awe at a beautiful sunset etc, all the way up to the great mystical illumination.

A particularly useful contribution of the book is to make a clear distinction between healthy self-esteem and narcissism. Kaufman points out that narcissism is not just high self-esteem, in the sense of a quiet and sturdy confidence in oneself. Narcissists feel superior; they are arrogant and unwilling to accept criticism.

In writing the book, Kaufman has drawn on Maslow’s unpublished writings to illustrate the range and depth of his thinking. This passage, written by Maslow about 50 years ago, has contemporary relevance:
 It is … vital to emphasize that a democratic society is rooted in a set of feelings toward other people—feelings like compassion and respect. …  If we did not trust other people, if we did not like them, if we did not pity them, if we did not have brotherly or sisterly feelings for them, then a democratic society would of course be out of the question. Obviously, human history provides many examples to prove this point.

Readers may have guessed already that I am impressed by Kaufman’s book. In my view he does an excellent job in bringing together many findings of psychologists relating to personal development. I particularly like the imagery in his use of the sailboat metaphor because it recognizes that each individual has prime responsibility for his or her own journey through life.