Sunday, December 5, 2010

The better angels of our nature

As regular readers of the Bike Garden know, from time to time I need to take a little walkabout from the blog. (A walkabout, in the Australian sense of the word, is aboriginal, and means a temporary return to the bush.) Strangely, this occasional need to disappear from the virtual world corresponds keenly to the onset of non-virtual world weltschmertz, from which I suffer from time to time. Thankfully, however, like any noxious virus, it all eventually runs its course, and, as a bonus, I always seem to get a little thinking done during my fevered malaise.

Such has been the case in this most recent bit of weltschmertz/walkabout-ing. And one of the things I've been mulling over is a phrase Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural address to the nation. On the whole, the speech does not seem to me to be his finest (#canyousaywordy #Ishouldtalk), but there was a fetching tagline at the end of this particularly eye-crossing, last paragraph*:

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

I'll put the speech in context: Secession was already a reality by the time of the address, and civil war--the unthinkable!--was almost a certainty. The whole of Lincoln's speech was saying, in effect, "Lookit. Everyone's acting a little crazy right now. There's no need for it, so settle down."

And as you might have guessed, a call for reason and sanity had no effect.

I love that last 'graph, though, particularly the closing reference to "the better angels of our nature." I think Lincoln, in his brilliance, was anticipating the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance." OK, not  really, but I'm thinking about both ideas right now, so naturally, in my own flash of brilliance, I thought it would be a good idea to combine the two in a post on a gardening/cycling blog. (#whosaidnonsequitur?)

Walu is a political philosopher, with a particular interest in global and social justice. From time to time he tries--usually in vain, and usually when my mind is on other, more pressing matters**--to teach me something about philosophy. Most recently, he's been trying to help me wrap my head around a concept attributed to the great philosopher John Rawls, called "the veil of ignorance."

It goes something like this: Suppose a group of us were assigned the task of determining the justice/morality of a particular societal issue--let's say in this case, whether to provide shelter for the homeless. The fairest way of determining what is just is if none of us knows what our own societal position/role is when determining the course of action. We have no prior knowledge of our own race, gender, wealth/poverty, level of education, state of mental health, and so on. In other words, when the veil is lifted after we've made our decisions, we are as likely to be one of the homeless as one of the privileged.

Put another way, behind the veil of ignorance, we want the best and fairest for all concerned, because when the veil is lifted, we might just be the ones on the short end of the stick.

So what does all this have to do with the better angels of our nature? Well, nothing, really. And everything.

You see, in the case of the veil of ignorance (as I understand it--and there is no guarantee that I do), people are still acting in their own self-interest. Not that there's anything functionally wrong with this. After all, look what it can accomplish:

  • Want inexpensive education? Well, I'd better pay my taxes, since I might need to go to a public school.
  • Want to ensure that we will have water for the future? I should garden more sustainably.
  • Want to have energy resources for the future? Then I need to get on that bike for my trips to the grocery store.

But though I think Lincoln was calling for action that was in the nation's self-interest (namely, quit agitating for secession and war, because none of us are going to especially happy with the results), I think the better angels of which he spoke were something else. I mean, look at that last line again:

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Or, paraphrased: When the better angels of our nature remember us at our best, we will become unified again in purpose and affection.

So, Rawls + Lincoln, leaves me with this: It may be in our self-interest to behave a certain way, but we can also act nobly because we know that in that moment, we are at our finest.

Why am I thinking about all this? Well, as many of you know, I was recently elected president of our neighborhood association. Thankfully, nobody is expecting me to give an inaugural address. (By this, I probably mean to say, everyone is thanking me not to give an inaugural address.) I've noticed a funny reaction, though, since taking office. People will express their gratitude to me for doing so, and then do one of two things (or sometimes both): they will either wink knowingly or roll their eyes, as if to say in either case, "we both know how horrible this job is going to be for you."

I am mildly alarmed by this reaction, though I understand from whence it comes. It is true that over the past few years there has been growing discord in the hood, and while I do not yet hear the drumbeat of secession and war, I do think we have lost, a bit, our unity of purpose and affection. We who love this small community are made apprehensive by this, and are worried that that which made this such a wonderful place to live in the past might be lost forever.

Here's the thing, though: I believe we can get it back. It is in our self-interest to do so; we all know this at a fundamental level. Each of us acting as if behind the veil of ignorance--that the best and fairest for all concerned (renters, permanent residents, students, children, homeowners, cyclists, drivers, all of us) is the best and fairest for me--is one way to achieve this. But more importantly, we need to remember, all of us, what we are like when we are at our finest. Let our policies in the 'hood be guided by the veil of ignorance. Let our hearts be guided by the better angels of our nature.

Disclaimer: I suffer no illusions that I actually know anything about philosophy. Nor should you suffer from this illusion, either, though after reading this, you may already have.

*Say what you like about her politics, Peggy Noonan could have cleaned that up. She could have cleaned this post up a bit, too.
**Such as what my life might have been like had I gone with my original career plan of being a cowgirl.

Update: Edited to make it a little less rambly. If you can believe it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Susan-
    I understand fully the need to step back and try to find your center.
    With the world appearing to be on a self-destruct course you find yourself questioning your own reasoning.
    In the end you must remember to do all you can. To never hide your light under a basket. Live your life as you wish not as others wish.
    In the end that is all you can do.

  3. Susan, Great post. Timely for me too with the Garden Walk group and some discontent because of our rapid growth. And the national politics? We've come to a whole new level of insanity. Makes me sad.

  4. David--All true. You keep that light shining, too!

    Jim--The Garden Walk will survive. People are just anxious because growth means change. Change makes us nervous because when something had been good, we want it to stay frozen that way for all time, lest we lose it.

    But everything changes, doesn't it? So we just need to see that it changes well. Cheers and good luck.

  5. Makes sense to me. It's like the idea behind the public library system. It is in the interest of democracy to have an educated public. Books are expensive, therefore, make them free for all to use to acquire the wisdom to vote wisely so that we will have good government over us.
    The problem is that such an intent doesn't necessarily lead to that outcome (as our recent elections have shown). In any event, we do the best we can for others because we believe at some level in the whole cosmic karma thing. If that makes any sense.

  6. What if you like Peggy Noonan? Oops outed myself. Where is that closet door? BTW, I do agree with your post, and it was extremely well written, but you knew that.

    Always thinking you are.~~Dee

  7. MMD--exactly.

    Dee--Well, I like Peggy, too--just not to sure about her politics. I guess that outs me, too, so we're even! But here's what's great: you and I knew that about each other already, and _we can still get along_! And that's exactly the way it should be. Hugs to ya, sister.

  8. I don't always agree with Peggy's politics either. :) I did go hear her speak once, and she's a dynamo. That was fun. I think you and I are closer in our hopes and dreams for this nation than you think.

    I don't really fit in anywhere which is a-ok by me.

    Hugs back atcha.~~Dee

  9. Dee-- I have no doubt about any of that, especially the part about you not fitting easily into any categories. You are one of a kind (and also the best)!