This is the second article in the "Too Much Independence?" series about social atomization in the US.
On the Fourth of July, I went to join a friend, Emma, for dinner at the home of two of her friends. The minute I walked up to the Park Slope stoop, Emma pulled the cushion out from underneath her and gave it to me and also proffered her plate and knife. In this small but symbolic way, she took care of me not after she was situated comfortably but at her own expense. “I hate to see people hungry,” she commented later that evening, once we were all seated at the dinner table inside. Emma is a rail-thin vegetarian runner who loves food and revels in the sensations of hunger and satisfaction. Yet I wonder if other people's hunger pains her more than her own.
Emma is, in a word, chivalrous. In the spirit of a medieval knight, she puts others before herself. She's also a rarity. The vibe coming from Emma is such a different one from that of other students and young professionals I have known. I think the focus on independence and individuality in the US today has caused people to regard chivalry and altruism, which were once seen as laudable character traits, as unrealistic and irrational.
Emma and others like her prove that altruism is possible. It may not, however, be consistent with the packed inflexible schedules and obsessions with measurable self-improvement that characterize so many people today.
"Organization Kids" and the Decline of Chivalry
article, David Brooks characterized what he called “organization kids,” the elite college students who work all the
time, sleep little, and make appointments to see their friends. "Often," Brooks wrote, "they
don't get serious [about romantic relationships] until they are a few years out
of college and meet again at a reunion—after their careers are on track and
they can begin to spare the time.” The particular kids he was talking about were undergraduates at Princeton. Yet zealous personal striving is not unique to college students; many working professionals are also this way.
organization kid, as Brooks describes him, avoids controversy, confrontation, and politics because they
get in the way of the smooth running of things. “They are disconcertingly comfortable
with authority," Brooks quoted Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow as saying. "They're eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops
the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform."
Brooks’ article was written before September 11, 2001, written before the Great
Recession, before Occupy Wall Street. For this generation of kids, as Brooks
said, “there have been no senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no
crushing economic depressions, no cycles of assassination and rioting to foment
disillusionment. They've mostly known parental protection, prosperity, and
I am of the same generation as the students Brooks interviewed, and even during Occupy Wall Street, I didn’t let
the protests happening in my city (New York) distract me from the obligations of school and regular exercise.
I didn’t see how my participation in the protests would change anything about society, whereas
I knew that my individual efforts could make a difference in my own life. Moreover, I was quite sure that neglecting my personal responsibilities would have measurable negative effects. Participate
in social affairs to no definite societal reward and the possibility of
personal harm? To someone who prioritizes the self, it just doesn’t make sense.
In “the Organization Kid”
piece, Brooks compared the Princeton class on which he reported to classes of the early 20th century, which, he said, were
encouraged to follow a “chivalric code.” Brooks quoted a 1913 speech by then Princeton
president John Hibben urging graduates to heed “the human cry of spirits in
bondage, of souls in despair, of lives debased and doomed.” Nowadays, we are
encouraged to avoid getting involved with such souls who may drag us down with
For fun, imagine a knight's to-do list:
- Help those in need
- Be generous to everyone
- Defend honor
- Take care of horse, etc.
You get the idea. This is not the schedule of an "organization kid." When your job is to help those in need it's impossible to be organized—you can’t organize the world—and likewise it's impossible to help everyone in need and maintain one's schedule. I’m not just talking about actual medieval knights, of course. I’m talking about people who believed in chivalry, such as the past Princeton leaders Brooks cites. Of course organization kids are less chivalrous than past generations.
Brooks claimed that today we don’t teach our children character or talk with them about
today's Princeton and today's parents impose all sorts of rules to reduce
safety risks and encourage achievement, they do not go to great lengths to
build character, the way adults and adult institutions did a century ago.”
Barriers To Ideals
I would say that we were taught that ideals are too simple to be true and that morality too often veers toward
moralism. We have a natural skepticism toward all things warm and fuzzy. It’s difficult
for me to even speak in idealistic terms without scare quotes. The right thing
becomes "the right thing," implying that there's more than one way to
live and that no one way is completely right. People of my generation have grown up with the idea that there's very little anyone can do without causing
someone else harm. It's always a choice between two evils, and you try to
choose the lesser one. Today people accept that every time they turn on a
light, they contribute to global climate change. People live with the idea that things you do with a positive goal in mind also have a negative side; for example, frugality, a positive ideal, means buying inexpensive goods, which comes at
a cost to the people earning not-enough money to make the cheap products. On the other hand, even
refraining from materialism, not buying crap at all, cheap or expensive, can hurt
the people who can no longer be employed to make the stuff you're refraining from.
We are all enmeshed in human society whose unfairness has been pretty
well uncovered. It's hard to try to live according to ideals without feeling
like a hypocrite. Maybe in the 60s, people thought an ideal world was possible.
That's just not the way we think today.
Susan Sontag was a bit more blatant about the decline of idealism in her 1996 afterward to Against Interpretation and Other Essays.
“Instead of a utopian moment,” Sontag wrote, “we live in a time which is
experienced as the end—more exactly, just past the end—of every ideal. (And
therefore of culture: there is no possibility of true culture without altruism.)”
I don’t know what Sontag meant by “true culture,” but she recognized (in 1996) the decline of altruism and the sense that ideals are "unrealistic." “Now the very idea of the serious (and of
the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic,’ to most people, and when allowed—as
an arbitrary decision of temperament—probably unhealthy, too.” Her seriousness, I think, means deciding what’s
right, what separates right from wrong, good from bad, okay from great, in life
and in art, and proceeding according to those ideals. That seriousness isn't gone from today's young people, but I think that some large part of what people are serious about is keeping up appearances.
For example, students today are serious about getting good grades out of the fear of failure and rejection. But are they serious about the material they are studying? An example of unserious scholarship: In high school, a teacher who wanted me to join the academic team once described how I might need to study lists of great books and their authors; it wasn't necessary to have read the books, just to know trivial information about them. I was not interested. Or to take an example of my own lack of seriousness: in college, where I studied biology, I was very interested in doing lab research my senior year. I loved experiments and liked molecular biology but I didn't have any specific research interests beyond that. I expressed interest in working in the lab of an immunology professor not because I cared particularly about immunology but because I had already done an internship in the lab of an immunologist and I thought the experience would give me an edge. I pursued success rather than science. An academically serious science student would not disregard the larger questions: What is this research ultimately about? Are the questions this research is trying to answer the ones that I want to pursue in my life? I have much more admiration for the student who decides they want to learn about Alzheimer's because their beloved grandmother died of it and they want to help people like her than for the student who wants to get good grades and succeed at things.
In a 2013 column in The New York Times, Brooks revisited his collegiate character assessment and suggested that the perceived decline of idealism might have to do with the rise of data.
Brooks quotes from a student of his at Yale, Victoria Buhler, who describes
what she calls “the Cynic Kid”: “We are deeply resistant to idealism.
Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require
hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they
commit to any course of action.” These empirical tendencies could explain why
our generation is less political than those before us.
Because we are only willing to do things with a tangible effect, because we are wedded
to cost-benefit analyses, we stick to self-improvement, actions whose effects
we can measure.
Try to analyze
how your choices will affect the whole world and the results will be fuzzy,
leaving you back where you started, acting on faith and hunches. If you require
measurable ends to justify the means, then it’s hard to argue for faith in
ethics—or in love or in anything.
is unclear to me whether the trend toward empiricism has made people less
idealistic and more self-centered or if people are more interested in data because
it appeals to their self-obsession.
Brooks calls chivalry, biologists refer to as altruism—according to
Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “behavior by an animal that is not
beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its
species.” For example, altruistic bacteria infected with a virus kill
themselves to stop the pathogen from spreading to other bacteria of their
species. Altruism does not pass an individual cost-benefit test, but it does help a group.
As everyone knows, helping people is gratifying. A New York
Times Magazine article about a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s
Wharton School, Adam Grant, whose research has found that people who believe that they are
helping others are more motivated than when they are working to help themselves.
They’ll raise more fundraising money at a call center when they know how much
the money benefits its recipients; they’ll wash their hands more thoroughly
when they think of it as a way to keep others healthy. Grant is obsessively
devoted to his students. He's no roving disorganized knight, though; his schedule is packed; his chivalry involves packing it fuller.
In my opinion, altruism is a big part of why families function, when they function. I think
that kids thrive in part by making their parents proud and that parents get up
and go to work with thoughts of their children. I think parents make dinner with a starch, a meat and a vegetable for their families when, on their own, they would eat PB & J or cheese and crackers or Lean Cuisine or their cultural variety of easy food. On the other hand, family devotion can also go too far, swallowing up individual identities. Think of the parents who willingly subsume themselves in their kids, and the kids who lack a sense of identity apart from their parents' expectations. Still, I think a lot of good comes from thinking of the other people in your family and having them there to think about. Pets and plants play an analogous role.
Some Faith Required
The good news is that being altruistic really isn't that complicated. My friend Emma is not Mother Teresa; she's not a saint; she's a real person. In her generous behavior, Emma sees herself as just being polite. And I think it’s true that a big part of chivalry is manners—traditionally, manners governing the behavior of men toward women. Built into those manners is the idea that people should take care of each other: “After you”; “ladies first.” At the dinner table, manners dictate that you offer food to people around you before starting to eat, which is a formal way of making sure that everyone gets fed. As manners become ingrained in people, so does altruism. Though hopefully it won't go entirely unexamined, altruism is blessedly simple. It is based on the faith that putting others first is the right thing to do, the correct thing, not in the empirical sense but in the moral one.