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Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good – A Review

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Morality, like art, really does come down to where you draw the line.” Oscar Wilde

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good – A Review… a new book by Mark Matousek

Mark Matousek, best selling author of “When You’re Falling, Dive,” “The Boy He Left Behind,” and “Sex Death Enlightenment,” presents in his latest book; Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, an inspiring and thought-provoking examination of what makes us good (and evil) and provides insights to the question – How ought we to live?  This book suggests that emotions not logic enable morality, and delivers a thoroughly researched and beautifully written analyses on what Matousek terms our five primary moral foundations or moral receptors; innate principles or universal receptors that guide our moral judgments and factor into how we respond/react to events in our lives; both good and evil.

The five principles which divide the book into a literary symphony of five parts are: 1) Harm and Care – we are sensitive to pain (ours and others), we have keen emotions around threats and nurturing, and this factors into our acts of kindness, and our propensity for acts of emotional support and protection. 2) Justice and Fairness – we depend on laws and rights to stop offensive acts, and our belief in reciprocity and just punishment help us live harmoniously as individuals in groups while mitigating our inclination to vigilante behavior. 3) In-Group Loyalty – Our reliance on our group affiliations, patriotism, tribal pride and support of our community is crucial to ethics and shapes our reactions to “others” with not always positive outcomes.

4) Authority and Respect – we are attracted to codes of conduct and leadership figures that maintain our traditions and ways of life; a positive when we have good leadership as these figures can become examples of expected ethical behavior. And 5) Purity and Sacredness – this key moral precept turns us toward the divine and is a doorway to our yearning for goodness/purity and our proclivity for religious fervor. In exploring these principles, the author uses powerful stories, research, intellectual rigor and humor to help us answer many questions including; Which parts of morality are biological, which ethical? When should instinct be trusted and when does it lead us into trouble? and the key question: How Ought I to Live?  I enjoyed reading this book and was impressed by the insights and stories which helped elucidate and explore the notion of good and evil… More below. Have a restful Memorial Day!

“There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living. But only in man does it assume a spiritual character. And only through spirit does life continue by decision.” Terrence Des Pres

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good – A Review… Should Socrates have chosen exile over death by hemlock? Should his disciples have stopped him?

Each of the five moral principles, forms a heading, followed by a subset of supporting chapters in the book, and the topics are examined closely with supporting research, questions and fascinating real life stories that clarify the points the author makes about how and what influences our moral decision-making and ethics.  For instance, he shares a powerful and poignant story of how the widows of two South African men who were murdered by Eugene de Kock met with him, at his request, in jail. He was remorseful and crying, asking for their forgiveness, and in that moment, one woman reached out and touched his hand (the trigger hand), and experienced a flash of sacredness; a recognition that as she put it, “I learned that good and evil exits in all our lives and that evil, like good, is always a possibility. And that is what frightened me.”

The book offers lots of food for thought and aha moments to keep us interested and engaged in reading it. The author is careful in establishing the impact of these principles in the lives of ordinary, everyday people without presuming it is everyone’s experience. As he points out early in Ethical Wisdom,

“By keeping my nose out of religion, academia and politics, my hope has been to create a secular, dogma free, prejudice free, politically incorrect overview of what we know about our innate ethical sense, with as little cultural quibbling as possible.”

He has accomplished that in the book and more. In addition to his writing, Mark is a master teacher, mentor, and an all around remarkable guy. This book gets an A and is recommended reading. Plus, you won’t want to miss the brilliant – Tests, Games, & Challenges – he adds at the end. They are worth exploring and are quite enlightening for each of us. Come back and I will add links to a few (Updated). Try these Tests and surprise yourself … or not: How honest are you?   How logical are you?   How egoistic/altruistic are you?  and  Where do you locate your center of power? (click cancel when the name/dialog box appears)
What are your thoughts? How do you decide when/how to act in situations? What ethical wisdom has shaped your thinking? your beliefs? How do you view the notion of man being inherently good and equally evil?  Do share! Thank you. :-)

Positive Motivation Tip: Our propensity for good and evil is ever present. We can choose the path of goodness or not; but we owe it to ourselves to consider our ethical stance on issues. 

PHOTO CREDITS/ATTRIBUTIONS: Photo of Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good via Mark, and Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David via Wikipedia

Until Next Time…
Ask. Believe. Receive. ©
Elizabeth Obih-Frank
Mirth and Motivation
Positive Kismet

  1. 30/05/2011 12:19 am

    How altruistic are you? According to the quiz I took I am self-less and respect others. Interesting as it is so true and I am an honest person too. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • 30/05/2011 1:31 am

      What a great job! I didn’t think anyone had tried the tests yet… I’m glad it matches the woman you know Jackie – You! 🙂

  2. InsideJourneys permalink
    30/05/2011 12:23 am

    I do believe strongly that we each have the capacity for both good and bad. That goes without saying. No one is inherently only good. Or bad. We *choose* to be one or the other based, I think, on nurture. We pattern our behaviors on what we see in our homes and around us and that governor will guide us.
    There are instances, however, where nature overcomes nurture and someone who was brought up in a ‘good’ environment falls prey to his/her nature.
    Good post.

    • 30/05/2011 1:29 am

      Yes, I do agree with you on that point too… and everyday, we have an opportunity to perform morally good or morally reprehensible acts. Even a dishonest act; a lie, stealing, cheating, add to our moral handbag. Read the book if you can, it is a great read and shares lots of stories and insights. TY! 🙂

  3. 30/05/2011 3:18 am

    “By keeping my nose out of religion, academia and politics, my hope has been to create a secular, dogma free, prejudice free, politically incorrect overview of what we know about our innate ethical sense …” could be said by Immanuel Kant …

    • 30/05/2011 6:44 am

      Indeed it could… There are many references in the book to philosophers, thinkers of all persuasions in the fields of science, spirituality, philosophy, anthropology and more… 🙂

  4. 30/05/2011 7:13 am

    I hope you also Have a Blessed Memorial Day! I also believe that emotions not logic enable morality–emotions that preserves and perpetuates freedom, life, love, and the elimination of unnecessary suffering. Thanks for all your support.

    • 31/05/2011 5:26 am

      You are welcome and I’m glad you agree with the author on that note… There are loads of other gems in the book but I didn’t want to give away too many spoilers… 🙂

  5. 30/05/2011 7:25 am

    Thanks for sharing the 5 principles by Mark Matousek. Everyday , there’s a constant stuggle for good and evil. Personally, my faith and religion is telling me to follow the values that my parents , teachers and the church has taught during my formation years but the material world has changed so much. There’s temptations everywhere. You turn on the T.V., read the papers, browse the internet and evil is presented like a delicious cake that’s hard to resist. Never before that we have to fight more, work more, strive more to seek the good , the pure and the devine. But regardless of Religion, I would like to follow the path of caring, fairness, loyalty, respect, purity and sacredness. It’s just harder, rougher, longer path than the opposite team. How many times I failed and fell on my face? I stopped counting! That’s how many they are. . It helps a lot when another person or group motivates you, inspires you to walk righteously without judgement. This is one great post ! Thank you for taking time writing them . Have a fruitful Memorial Day .

    • 31/05/2011 5:30 am

      Thank you my friend… You are not alone as we all face temptations; small and large, every day. We do the best we can and trust that our decisions, even the stupid ones, were for a legitimate reason… Even if, in some instances , we are being delusional.
      What can I say, to be human is to be deeply flawed and not even know it… 🙂

  6. 30/05/2011 8:27 am

    Wonderful post. This definitely sounds like a book I would be interested in reading. Maybe during quarter break (coming up in three weeks!) Thanks for the book review and posing the age-old questions regarding good and evil.

    • 31/05/2011 5:31 am

      You will enjoy it Cecilia, as in between the heavy intellectual lifting, are stories and insights that help us grasp the topic. 🙂

  7. 30/05/2011 11:12 am

    Sounds like an interesting read. I’ll add it to my wishlist, hopefully I find some time to read it!

    • 31/05/2011 5:32 am

      Do so and let me know what you think of it once you’ve had a chance to read the book. 🙂

  8. 30/05/2011 11:36 am

    So funny . . . I went to get this link to ask if the research was incorporated into his book. Turns out, Mark wrote the article:

    • 31/05/2011 5:35 am

      Great minds think alike… 😉
      Mark is highly respected in his profession and worked for Andy Warhol back in the day. He’s written for many of the big publications… so that one didn’t surprise me either. 🙂

  9. 30/05/2011 12:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing the 5 principles by Mark Matousek. Each day we have a constant stuggle for choosing good and evil-the battle between two wolves. Personally, my faith keeps me in tact as a constant inner voice telling me to follow the values I have learned along this path of life.

    • 31/05/2011 5:37 am

      “Each day we have a constant struggle for choosing good and evil-the battle between two wolves.” I love that comment and it is so true… yet we have choices and we make them daily; both elevating and enervating choices and/or decisions. 🙂

  10. 30/05/2011 2:46 pm

    thanks for the great book review. will add it to my summer reading list. as penny, I have that inner voice that steers me.

    • 31/05/2011 5:38 am

      Enjoy it and let me know your feedback when you do read it. 🙂

  11. Bree permalink
    30/05/2011 3:31 pm

    An excellent review and a book I plan to buy and read. I like the idea of looking at both sides of our selves; our angelic side and our Achilles heel.
    I love that you mentioned the book has lots of stories in it and if the one you shared is an example, I look forward to reading others.
    Have a restful Memorial Day too!

    • 31/05/2011 5:40 am

      There are several wise stories in the book that shed light on this complex subject and our responses to it… I enjoyed the stories as they made the research concrete = real. 🙂

  12. 30/05/2011 9:21 pm

    I love the quiz links….I had been looking for some good, fun quizzes that aren’t just targeted to kids in school! LOL So thanks for that!
    Great review!

    • 31/05/2011 5:41 am

      Good! Glad I could help. Have you tried any of the tests? Do share as I’d like to know what others think. 🙂

  13. 31/05/2011 6:50 am

    The logic test link didn’t work, but I am honest (no surprises there) and scored a 2 on the center of power test.

    I would say I’d add it to my reading list, but I don’t think I’m going to have much reading time for a little while, so I’ll keep it on the back-burner list until I do have reading time. 🙂

    • 02/06/2011 5:01 am

      Thanks for letting me now about the logic link. I’ve fixed it…. I’m glad you tried the other two quizzes and they confirmed your qualities. 🙂
      Read when you are able; I like the idea of a backburner list too.

  14. 31/05/2011 10:04 am

    Thanks for the great book review, Elizabeth! Sounds like a great read! Right now I’m in the midst of three books to complete soon and I want to add this to the list as it sounds very thought provoking.

    You know, in my business, I clearly see that everyone has a little bit of good and bad mixed up in the lot but I see mostly the bad choices – for obvious reasons. Morals and ethics and where they come from is such a complex subject. I doubt any of us knows for sure exactly the measurements for the ingredients that go in to any big moral decision we have made in our lives. Sure we know on the surface what may lure us to one side or the other but there is so much else at work like how the brain functions both thru emotions and logic. Guiding ourselves is a difficult discipline yes.

    Right now all I am just trying to do is teach the very black and white concepts of good and bad to my 5 year old son and we are not there yet! Perhaps this book might make me reflect and better parent my child to show him the paths he might take…

    • 02/06/2011 5:09 am

      Hi Karen,
      Read at your leisure … I know you have your hands full but I’ll still recommend this book as a valuable addition to your reading list. It addresses the points you raise and some new ones. I’ll think you’ll find the contents fascinating too as he does tackle the moral/ethics complexity. 🙂

  15. 20/06/2011 5:37 am

    dear Jackie, I was a top ranking amazon book reviewer in Germany (ranking on position two, now on 14th!) – but I decided to quit that job, because I felt, it is more important to express own feelings than to echo those of other writers …
    your frizztext

    • 13/11/2011 7:32 pm

      I see… next time you can add it to her comment reply button and I believe it will link up there… TY! 🙂

  16. 20/06/2011 5:38 am

    dear Eliz, I was a top ranking amazon book reviewer in Germany (ranking on position two, now on 14th!) – but I decided to quit that job, because I felt, it is more important to express own feelings than to echo those of other writers …
    your frizztext
    I wrote that to Jackie too … 🙂

    • 13/11/2011 7:35 pm

      Hi Frizztext, why did you quit? I don’t mind writing an occasional book review as I do love reading… I’m impressed by your long and varied list of reviews… Pity you gave it up. 🙂

  17. 13/11/2011 6:43 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,

    This is wonderful … i am thoroughly enjoyng your blog .. I am not looking at it in any specific order but as things catch my fancy .. this was excellent, I love reading books about honesty, ethics, morality … and now I can add a new one to my to do list …

    I hope you have had a great week since the coaching … and I look forward to staying in touch!

    • 13/11/2011 7:14 pm

      Hi Anik,
      How are you doing? What a wonderful surprise to log on and find your comment! It was such a pleasure to connect with you at the Workshop and I have been spending time mulling over the lessons learned and the exchanges we had. Thank you for adding your joy and spunk to it all and I’m glad you are reading this blog as you choose. I signed up for Robert’s Newsletter and checked in on his existing Facebook page but I’m waiting for Lizzie to update us on the new one. I’m glad to hear from you and will stay connected via email as well. Thank you for stopping by to check in. I can still see us all dancing on the last day of the workshop… It was a lot of fun. I will definitely stay in touch too! 🙂
      Sending you peace and blessings,

  18. 16/11/2012 12:43 am of many beautiful posts I hope to comment on.
    I think the premise of ‘good’ or ‘evil is not a relevant one. It may be false, and most certainly is dangerous. If we label ourselves ”good”, then we must find ”evil” somewhere, in order to measure how ”good.” we are. Can good exist without evil? If we decide someone or something is evil, isn’t that an evil thing to do, and doesn’t it show our shortcomings and selfishness if we, as a group, allowed that to happen? Usually people ‘opt out’. A favourite is to announce Hitler was evil. How relevant is that to us? Not at all. I don’t want to be compared to Hitler. I don’t want to be in the same discussion – if the focus is what is evil.
    But as said, I find that notion a false one. Forget that despicable man mentioned just above. What about the millions of people who actively carried out mass murder and genocide in WWII? Did they do it only because they were told to? Did they do it because they were told the responsibility was not theirs but their leader’s? To me, it shows the issue is much deeper, that other issues are at play. I think the bo sounds like a good read, but I also think things like negativeness, or positive people play a much greater role in our existence, and at a day by day level are a much stronger influence.
    I think it is a fascinating topic. Thanks – sorry I went on.

    • 16/11/2012 5:42 am

      What would you rather use? Positive and Negative? The intended meaning is same. I don’t have a problem with those qualifiers and I don’t think they are dangerous words at all. What we choose to define as good/evil is personal and we have a right to do so. While our choices might not always be in line with what others define as such, it remains ours to choose. I understand your position and yes, hate groups and fear/war mongers use language to wound others… sadly! However, that is not the focus of the book. I do hope you read it… I think it would add insight to the points you raise. Thank you for your feedback! 🙂

  19. 16/11/2012 6:54 am

    I think your review was truly excellent and highly enjoyable, but find the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ concept incredibly simplistic and a basic tennent of religion. They are hugely dangerous. We massacred our soldiers and over 200,000 Iraqis (source the reputable Lancet medical magazine), for example, on the basic fallacy of us good them evil. As long as we justify that what we are doing counts as ‘good’, and accordingly find someone to label as evil, as following your criteria we can do, then we are in big trouble.
    You can be an incredibly negative person and be destructive and still qualify as ‘good’.
    On those premises I am extremely weary of the book while admirative of your review.
    All the best.

    • 16/11/2012 8:01 am

      Thank you! As per good/evil, I beg to differ. You haven’t read the book and your insistence that the concept of good and evil is dangerous is an extremist position. The author’s use of those words is quite flexible and open to interpretation. He doesn’t choose one over the other or negate both. How we choose to use language determines its context. To take two simple words and ascribe negative terms to them with such finality is your choice. I am choosing to reject your position. So lets agree to disagree. Thanks for your feedback!

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