Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Voting for Our Better Selves; and Rules to Flourish By

Mike Pesca, in one of his artful spiels on The Gist podcast, punctures the conventional wisdom that we Americans want folksy presidential candidates, that we yearn for a leader just like us, someone we can relate to, imagine having a beer with.  While we do like candidates to be down-to-earth (perhaps echoes of our anti-monarchical national origins), Pesca convincingly argues that what we really want is not a leader like us but one who is like our better selves -- not someone who plays to our fears and prejudices but someone who can embody our virtuous aspirations.

Indeed.  As I argue in The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing, we aspire to be certain sorts of people -- a key part of our identity is not just who we are, but who we want to be. Our aspirations reflect certain sorts of values, what matters most to us in the big scheme of things. These aspirations, and our better selves, can be undermined by short-term gains and hedonic pleasures. And so we need leaders to remind us of our better selves and guide us down the often more arduous path of long-term personal and collective fulfillment.

For these same reasons, we also need rules to hep us be our better selves.  A recent RadioLab episode (Nazi Summer Camp) looked at how the U.S. treated the 500,000 or so German and Japanese POWs in U.S. camps. It turns out we treated them exceedingly well, fully following the letter and spirit of the Geneva Convention, even when we saw that the Japanese and Germans were not so scrupulous in their adherence. Significantly, we treated the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent much worse at the internment camps. As U.S. citizens, paradoxically, there were no international rules to govern their treatment, and the country showed it worse side.  Similar examples of how rules can help us be the sort of people we say we want to be can be found in Lynn Stout's excellent book Cultivating Conscience and in my book The Good Life.