The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

Reflections of My Community Service in Little Haiti

This past Saturday, I took part in a wonderful project to beautify a Catholic elementary school in a low-income neighborhood of my hometown, Miami. Despite living here my whole life, I’ve never actually been to the Little Haiti community, one of dozens of colorful neighborhoods that make up the sprawling urban conurbation collectively called “Miami” (like most cities nowadays, the actual City of Miami is much smaller than the metropolitan area everyone refers to as such).

It was a wholesome and fulfilling experience, to say the least. I worked hand-in-hand with friends, coworkers, and the student body to plant gardens, landscape that walkways and entrances, paint murals, and decorate the trash bins. There was a palpable sense of love, unity, and hope in the air, all of it emerging from our collective energy and good will towards the task. It may seem a bit too sentimental, but that’s truly how I felt.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of such beautification projects, given the more important needs of such impoverished areas. But a positive atmosphere is vital to human well-being, especially for youth who are otherwise mostly surrounded by blight and urban decay. 

In the end, we managed to complete most of what we set out to do, and I was impressed by how well-organized and successful the project was (it was undertaken by coworkers who presented the idea to the school principal and staff). It was a pleasant reminder that a simple grassroots effort can still succeed despite widespread apathy and insularity, which are considered to be much worse in Miami than in many other cities.

This is just one school, in one neighborhood, in one city, in one state, among millions of others across the country and the world. We didn’t alleviate poverty, restore dilapidated infrastructure, bring high-paying jobs, or clean out corruption. We didn’t initiative a profound socioeconomic paradigm shift. We just merely helped to make important and vibrant center of the community a little nicer for its youth. That’s not something to take too lightly, no matter how trivial it seems within the bigger picture.

I know how difficult it is to maintain enthusiasm for such small efforts when the world is so horribly devastated by all manner of misery. Indeed, the scale of the world’s problems renders most people, even in their more energetic youth, to by cynical towards attempts to change things. But as I’ve stressed before, every little bit of good counts. It is precisely because of the profundity of all this suffering that even the tiniest contribution to societal well-being is so valuable. People need something, anything, that can give them hope and comfort, even if it’s a more pleasant looking school.

And who knows if any of these kids will be inspired by our deeds and seek to replicate them elsewhere. Even if we can get a single child to “pay it forward” to the rest of society, we would have accomplished a lot more than just the intended goal of ornamentation.

Also, I found it ironic to be voluntarily assisting a religious institution given that I’m an (agnostic) atheist. Indeed, I spent a good amount of time working with a nun who, contrary to popular belief, was humorous and down-to-Earth. We got along rather well, and I wondered throughout the entire day if or how that cordiality would change if she were to have known I was a Godless secularist. It got myself thinking about how much more different all our relationships would be if we knew everything about each other’s beliefs. We can come together when it comes to the same basic and universal desires for improving the human condition. But if we don’t keep our contentious beliefs to ourselves, or look past known differences between one another, we’ll have a hard time accomplishing much of anything.
Alas, that’s a musing for another post.

On Leadership and Humility

The value of a good leader should never be underestimated. Individuals with the ability to galvanize and inspire others have always played a defining role in the fate of nations, sociopolitical causes, and every other human enterprise (conversely, immoral leaders have instigated horrific and destructive actions).

A leader needn’t be a head of state or hold some other prestigious position to make a difference. Leadership emerges on every level and in any circumstance. Every individual is a leader in some aspect or area of their lives. Not only may outsiders overlook this, but so could the leader themselves.
What constitutes good leadership qualities is debatable and often subjective. Most people agree that charisma, courage, integrity, hard work, and creativity are universal traits among all good leaders. Because of the obviously social nature of what they do, the ability to manage, organize, and mobilize many other people is also vital, though the means of doing so vary. In fact, I think that the characteristics of a good leader vary from person to person and depend on what specific group or cause is being lead (and what obstacle or antagonist is faced). 
But what about humbleness? I think one of the overlooked challenges of being a leader is overcoming the human ego – being in charge of something, especially if it involves many people following you, can do a lot to one’s sense of pride and self-confidence. It’s easy for leaders to get carried away with their role, not only becoming arrogant, shortsighted, and bossy, but also dishonest.
The self-entitlement that inevitable emerges from haughty leaders generally causes lapses in judgment and morality – the reason so many leaders seem prone to hypocrisy and corruptibility, aside from the fact that it’s easier to notice given their publicity, is that they begin to think their leadership role warrants special perks and privileges. An inability to curb ones egotism can lead many once-promising leaders down a dark and destructive path, and jeopardizes whatever it was they were leading (leaders set the example after all).
So humility is, arguably, one of the most crucial elements to good leadership. I’m focusing specifically on this trait largely in response to arecent blurb on the subject in the Atlantic Weekly.  It’s pretty brief, so I’ll post the entirety of the article here:
Bosses who are more open and empathetic are better positioned to build their businesses, new research from the University of Buffalo says.
PROBLEM: Compared to egotistic bosses who may be more analytical, humble leaders are largely considered more relatable and likable. But are they also more effective?
METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by University at Buffalo School of Management’s Bradley Owens asked 16 CEOs, 20 mid-level leaders, and 19 front-line leaders from assorted organizations (military, manufacturing, health care, financial services, retailing, and religious) to describe in detail how humble leaders behave in the workplace.
RESULTS: All of the respondents agreed that humble bosses lead by example, admit their mistakes, and recognize their followers’ strengths; and that these three behaviors are powerful predictors of company growth. Experienced white male leaders reportedly reap the most benefits from such selfless acts, most likely because their employees notice these unexpected deeds more.
CONCLUSION: Leaders who are open with their feelings and keen to learn and grow are better liked and perceived as more effective.
CAVEAT: To validate the findings of this admittedly small study, the authors conducted follow-up research that’s slated to appear in the journal Organization Science. Using data from more than 700 employees and 218 managers, they found that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees, and lower voluntary employee turnover.
SOURCE: The full study, “Modeling How to Grow: An Introductive Examination of Humble Leader Behaviors, Contingencies, and Outcomes,” is published in the Academy of Management Journal.
The results portion was most interesting to me. Admitting one’s mistakes and weaknesses is difficult enough for anyone, period. But being in a position of prominence or extra scrutiny makes it even harder. People feel the pressure to be right all the time, or to never falter in any capacity.
Ironically, this obsession with perfection often leads to a leader’s undoing: they’ll be blind to fatal errors, overburdened with trying to perform flawlessly, and get caught dishonestly covering up their errors. All of these erode both their performance and the ability of others to follow them.
So being humble helps keep you in check. A modest person is not only more willing to admit mistakes to others – which can be inspiring – but more importantly, they can confront their flaws themselves and address them accordingly. If you’re too self-confident, you’ll probably never be able to better yourself. Self-improvement and personal progress begin with admitting there’s something to improve or progress from in the first place.
The effect of such openness and honesty on others is also crucial. Some people will inevitably be cruel towards an apparently flawed leader, or doubt their leadership strengths (then again, retaining the support and loyalty of such individuals probably shouldn’t matter at that point). By my experience, most people will be touched that someone in a privileged position would be so willing to admit their own failures and act on them.
Not only is this a sign of confidence, integrity, and honesty – all good enough qualities as it is – but it brings a leader back down to Earth. It humanizes individuals who are otherwise too aloof and/or lionized to be seen as one of “common folk.” You’re more likely to follow someone you connect with in this way then someone you don’t, whether it’s in the public or private sector.
Thus enters empathy. If you empathize with others, you understand their wants and needs. You’ll know how to address their demands and keep them happy and productive. Because you understand their point of view, you’ll also be able to work with them more effectively, mobilizing them accordingly. A leader has to know people to know how to lead people. While it seems like common sense, tell that to the out-of-touch politicians and corporate executives who are failing this country.
Finally, I can’t stress the importance of recognizing another person’s strength. Self-centeredness is not only detrimental (as illustrated above), but it’s illogical: a leader is nothing without the people he or she leads. You need to be able to recognize the assets, qualities, and strengths of those who support you. This has the practical benefit of helping you best apply the skills of any given member of your team; like empathy, it also leads to great morale and appreciation. Positive reinforcement leads to positive outcomes. People work better when they feel good, feel recognized, and feel wanted.
All these aforementioned qualities overlap and stem from one another, and they all begin with humility. It’s easy to dismiss or even deride the humble person. Our society rewards cutthroat competition and superiority. We cheer the leaders, namely in politics, who eschew civility and restraint for belligerence and arrogance. Modesty is a sign of weakness, poor confidence, and spinelessness. It can be if it’s excessive to point of self-doubt, but this isn’t always the case.
As a leader, I’m a pretty big softy, so that’s a big part of my bias for this trait. But I think there’s too much self-entitlement and self-centeredness in our society. Too many people think that being demanding, aggressive, or harsh are the real ways to succeed, and the best attitudes to follow. They may have a point, given the direction our society is going, and the constant pressure for people to be “tough.” The system seems to make humility a daunting and risky endeavor.
But we mustn’t mistake humility with meekness, even if the two are often used interchangeably. A person can still be strong, confident, and forceful without all the flair and counter-productive bellicosity. Restraint and decency reflect wisdom and honor, not weakness. Arguably, it takes more strength to remain down-to-Earth while in a position of authority and power. A leader has more to struggle with the obstacles of their cause – there is an internal and psychological dimension as well.
One of the hardest parts about being a leader is probably remaining true to yourself. It’s easy to get swept up in all the prestige and influence, or get bogged down by the pressure and heightened scrutiny. One must find the delicate balance between confidence and humility, forcefulness and restraint. Moving too far in one direction or the other leads to weakness or arrogance, neither of which is favorable, obvious.
Perhaps the greatest mark of leadership is being able to lead yourself to such a demanding position in the first place – and keep yourself honest and intact the whole way through. 

George Washington on Debt

The collective wisdom of America’s Founding Fathers is constantly being referenced by people of all political persuasions, particularly during periods of heated political rhetoric such as the current one. I would say it’s pretty much a national tradition – for a society that doesn’t appreciate history all that much, we sure like to hearken back to the good days (I’d say that’s no coincidence, given that our lack of historical perspective leaves us with a much more idealized impression of the past).

I for one generally refrain from quote mining the founders. I admire them immensely, and count them as my inspiration for matters of law, political science, and public service (though just about any politician would presumably make the same claim). But they were still human, prone to quarrels, personal rivalries, and the moral failings that befalls every individual that ever lives. They also lived in very different times, leaving me to question the relevance of some of their beliefs. The world has changed quite a lot in 200 years, and there are plenty of political, social, and economic dynamics that founders could scarcely have imagined, let alone accounted for.

But there seems to be an exception to this as far as the issue of debt is concerned, with the very first president having made some pretty insightful remarks on this now dominant issue. As such, I’m making an exception to my usual reluctance after reading CNN’s opinion piece discussing George Washington’s position on debt, partisanship, and other very topical points:

In his farewell address to his fellow countrymen in 1796, George Washington set out his lessons for future generations. It was penned as the “warnings of a parting friend,” and in it, Washington laid out the long-term dangers that his understanding of history and human nature dictated could undermine the independence of our democratic republic.

Washington warned about the dangers of what we would today call hyper-partisans: “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community.” These platoons of polarization have driven us to the paralysis we are now in, too often unable to reason together even in the face of crisis.

Crucially, Washington understood that out-of-control debt could undermine American independence. He warned that we must “cherish public credit … avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.

A lot of this is no doubt very familiar. Even the most apolitical person is well aware of this dangerous combination of polarization, high debt, political deadlock, and perverse special interest influence. Even during Washington’s time, these sorts of concerns existed: politics wasn’t all that virtuous as we believe, and debates concerning the role and size of government were as heated then – if not more so – than they are now (minus the political deadlock and general air of cynicism). Many of culture wars and political quarrels we have today have been carried over since the very moment this nation was born (and perhaps even a bit earlier).

George Washington understood that dealing with debts was government’s responsibility, but leaders would be unlikely to make unpopular choices in a democracy unless the public was both enlightened and understanding: “The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives,” he said — meaning the members of Congress. “But it is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.

In other words, man up and deal with math. Paying down debts means raising revenue as well as cutting costs. It is a basic profit and loss ledger. Whining endlessly about taxes ignores their central role in securing our civilization. So sayeth not some commie hippie but George Washington himself.

I lament the way both the left and the right especially, tend to engage in politically-slanted revisionism when they invoke historical intellectuals and heroes. Many of these intelligent figures, like Washington, were pragmatists who thought their ideas through and often had very complex views overall.

Try as we might to apply anachronistic contemporary labels on them, these visionaries were too independent-minded to fit neatly under any particular ideological faction. While many of the founders undeniably had libertine sensibilities, they weren’t doctrinaire, and were practical enough to make exceptions and be flexible with their positions. Given such open-minded attitudes, one wonders what Washington and his contemporaries would make of today’s major debates.

One thing is certain – these issues, while exceptional in their scale, are hardly unprecedented concerns. Democracies have faced threats of erosion from special interests since the time of Athens; civilizations have had to contend with going bankrupt since the age of antiquity; and generations of politicians have had to face up to the same problems of corruption, venality, pettiness, and all the other human failings of politics. Our public their officials should take all this to heart.

If [politicians] are driven by such a sense of generational responsibility, they can declare independence from their respective special interests, forge a constructive compromise and present a balanced bipartisan plan that serves the national interest. They have it in their power to put patriotism over partisanship — we are waiting to see if they have the will.

A Good Man In Kandahar

A few weeks ago, the mayor of Kandahar, one of the most troubled but vibrant communities in Afghanistan, and it’s second largest city, was brutally assassinated. Frankly, this wouldn’t be much news to anyone, as Afghanistan, like Iraq, has reaped a horrible harvest of human life. But the mayor, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, was a rare breed: an honest, hard-working, and well-meaning public figure in a land sorely lacking such qualities in it’s leaders. He set a valuable example of integrity and civic engagement in a system where corruption is the norm, and notions of government remains as rudimentary in concept as it is in practice. His death is not only a great tragedy, but a very real loss in a nation that is looking increasingly ungovernable.

The Economist, as always, produced an excellent article on Mr. Hamidi, in it’s weekly obituary column; the Journal of Foreign Affairs similarly posted some reflections about the mayor. Indeed, his death received quite a bit of media attention, no doubt for the same reason I’ve taken the time to post about it all this time later: he was a good man in a rotten system, facing overwhelming odds and ultimately paying the price for it. A member of Afghanistan’s diaspora community, he willingly chose to come back to his nation of birth in the hopes of affecting well-needed sociopolitical change. He took the highest office of a place morbidly known as “Assassination City” for it’s horrifically frequent targeted killings (including previous mayors).

It was all much more difficult than his life in America, where he had spent the years of Taliban rule quietly keeping the books of a small travel company. He could have stayed there. But he would have been asleep. In Kandahar—close to the mountains and the cool, high villages of his childhood—he was awake, and he owed it to his country to remain. People inevitably saw him as the Americans’ man, but this was his home, even though he had to live in a safe room in the governor’s house, and had almost no staff. In his new heavily fortified municipal compound, only 38 of 119 employees dared to come to work. This meant that city revenue in the last financial year was only 200m afghanis ($13.3m), where he had hoped for 600m.

His family thought he should return to Virginia, where he was still paying off the mortgage on his comfortable house. He was not interested. His life was Kandahar City, with no time off. He had cleared away 460 illegal shops in order to build a school. He had plans for 300 acres of sports fields, and a special women’s garden to match the one he had created, planted by a man from his home village, at the junction of the Kabul and Quetta roads. He wanted to expand the road from the city to the airport, and install more solar lighting.

Also, of course, he planned to talk to people. After the murder of Ahmed Wali early in July, he had no high-up protector; but that made him all the more passionate to explain why his ideas were good for the city. When protesters arrived at the municipal compound on July 27th, furious about the bulldozing of illegal houses in which two children had died, he went straight out to apologise to them. It was then that someone, maybe Taliban, maybe not, set off the explosives wound in his turban.

These kind of stories always attract macabre fascination, including by yours truly. It fascinates me how someone could go out of their way to do some good in the world, even in the most blighted and dangerous of places. This man left behind his comfortable life in the US to run a city rife with crime and sleaze, where he knew he could certainly die. I remember first reading the stories that circulated once he had taken the post: the world was intrigued, impressed, and perhaps even inspired by the well-off and mild-mannered accountant deciding to leave everything behind to help his troubled homeland. It was a romantic and heroic tale, a nice change of pace in the normally somber headlines about the region. Needless to say, it’s extremely disheartening to see how it ended, even after weeks of it sinking in.

I wanted so badly for this endeavor to have worked out. I wanted so badly for the good guy to win. Obviously, Mr. Hamidi wasn’t an entirely clean figure: after all, corruption and graft are the order of business for any person of power, and he needed to play some part in that if he wanted to get anything done. But by all accounts, he tried to clean things up, and largely succeeded up until his death. It genuinely saddens me that he had to lose his life for these virtuous efforts, and that Afghanistan is once again deprived of a decent and well-needed example of leadership to follow.

Despite many years reading about this sort of things, it never gets any easier for me. As someone with an aim for public service, these kinds of people are my heroes. They try to fix a system that is broken, build trust between state and citizen, and clean up the sleaze and immorality that wrack their societies. They go up against such daunting odds in cities, regions, and countries where good people die or flee, and cynicism and hopelessness are as common as the vices that breed them. How many times do I have to see this sort of thing happen? How many courageous activists, journalists, politicians, protesters, and everyday people have to suffer for nothing more than trying to achieve progress for their fellow humans?

Perhaps I’m being more grim than I should be, given that success stories still abound. As always, maybe I’m just noticing the bad news over the good. If there’s any consolation, it’s that no matter how many good people get killed, exiled, or jailed, and no matter how strong and oppressive the system becomes, there are always people – even just a single person – willing to go in harms way to stop it. All we can do is hope for the best, and take to heart that maybe their actions will inspire more change after their death then during their life.