Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

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by Mark Matousek

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Since the days of the first primitive tribes, we have tried to determine why one man is good and another evil. Mark Matousek arrives at the answer in Ethical Wisdom.

Contrary to what we've been taught in our reason-obsessed culture, emotions are the bedrock of ethical life; without them, human beings cannot be empathic, moral, or good.


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Since the days of the first primitive tribes, we have tried to determine why one man is good and another evil. Mark Matousek arrives at the answer in Ethical Wisdom.

Contrary to what we've been taught in our reason-obsessed culture, emotions are the bedrock of ethical life; without them, human beings cannot be empathic, moral, or good.

But how do we make the judgment call between self-interest and caring for others? What does being good really mean? Which parts of morality are biological, which ethical? When should instinct be trusted and when does it lead us into trouble? How can we know ourselves to be good amidst the hypocrisy, fears, and sabotaging appetites that pervade our two-sided natures?

Drawing on the latest scientific research and interviews with social scientists, spiritual leaders, ex-cons, altruists, and philosophers, Matousek examines morality from a scientific, sociological, and anthropological standpoint. Each chapter features a series of questions, readings, interviews, parables, and anecdotes that zoom in on a particular niche of moral inquiry, making this book both utilitarian and fun.

Ethical Wisdom is an insightful and important book for readers crisscrossing their own murky moral terrain.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Mark Matousek guides us through a revolution in ethical science with deft, thought-provoking style. Ethical Wisdom is a riveting, fun, and insightful tour of life’s meaning and purpose, essential reading for anyone drawn to the query, ‘How ought we to live?’”
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence
“Mark Matousek has done some magic: he has written an informed, intelligent, humorous, insightful, and juicy book on ethics.  He covers a broad field and is up-to-date and thorough.  You’ll enjoy this book and maybe become a better person because of it.”
­—Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul
“This broad-ranging book is remarkable for its emotional intensity, and for its message of redemption; it is a delineation of hope itself.”
Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
Ethical Wisdom is a beautiful work.  Bringing together the best of today's scientific research with a plainspoken forthrightness, Ethical Wsdom does what few books of this type can do: it inspires.”                             
Mark Epstein, M.D., author of Thoughts without a Thinker
Ethical Wisdom is a unique delight—a fascinating, enlightening, and adventurous romp through the territories of philosophy, psychology, science, and spirituality. Mark Matousek has pulled off a most difficult task: he has written an  intellectually rigorous and expansive book that is also beautiful and funny and inspiring.”
Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute and author of Broken Open
“This book springs from the latest research on biology [and] some of the oldest human wisdom. Both are interesting, and together they are potent.”
Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth
“I don't know how he has done it, but Mark Matousek has written a book about being good without being moralistic or judgmental.  Ethical Wisdom is a call to our higher selves.  Read it!”
Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues  
Ethical Wisdom provides tremendous insight into our collective and individual psyches.  Like GPS for the soul, it is a necessary guide for human evolution, and survival, in the 21st century.”
­­—Peter Buffett, founder of the NoVo Foundation and author of Life is What You Make It 

“As a species, we have not found a healthy way to harness our basic goodness and avoid the seeds of human suffering.  The book you have in your hands will show you why this is so.  Engaging, thought provoking, and enlightening … this book acts as an insider’s guide to what makes us tick, and gently prompts us to look in the mirror and at our place in the great pond of life. A must read for anyone interested in making the world a better place.”
John P. Forsyth, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY and author of Your Life on Purpose 
"Insightful and informative."
Library Journal

Library Journal
Matousek (contributing editor, O, The Oprah Magazine; Sex Death Enlightenment) presents a fast-paced account of what evolutionary biology, neurobiology, economics, and cognitive psychology teach us about morality. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations theory has especially influenced Matousek. In this theory, "our moral organ has five primary foundations": harm and care, justice and fairness, in-group loyalty, authority and respect, and purity and sacredness. Matousek discusses each of these, stressing the role of emotions in our moral responses. He maintains that mirror neurons, parts of the brain that fire both when we act and when a similar action is performed by others, provide a biological basis for sympathy. He does not push an ideological agenda but contends that unselfish people tend to be happier than egotists. He urges us to see the sacredness in everyday things. The book is enlivened by vivid anecdotes, e.g., of double murderer Tyrone Thompson, who showed no remorse. VERDICT Matousek appears uninterested in what philosophers have to say about morality and (in the galley under review) confuses John Dewey with the founder of the library classification system. Nevertheless, the book is an insightful and informative survey that will appeal to general readers looking for a guide to scientific research about morality.—David Gordon, Bowling Green State Univ., OH
Kirkus Reviews

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

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

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

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

MARK MATOUSEK is the author of two bestselling memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment and The Boy He Left Behind. A contributing editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, he was a senior editor at Interview and has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Details, and AARP magazine. Matousek lives in New York City.

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Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
U here
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is not only a "must-read," but also a "must-have" for anyone interested in universal human condition. Mark's has a magical way of navigating the labyrinths of neuroscience and bio-psychology to offer insight into what it truly means to be human. As a professional educator, I strongly recommend this book to students and reluctant learners, as well as to teachers who have a hard time finding meaningful examples from life that engage all students. It is brilliant! Vanja