The Better Angels of Our Nature
Why is it so hard to rise above the meanness and bigotry all around us?
Posted Mar 14, 2017
The Better Angels of Our Nature. What a wonderful phrase! It appears in the final paragraph of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861. When I first wrote about it and used the words as a chapter title in my book Caveman Logic (2009), I felt pretty proud of myself for having resurrected a dramatic phrase from a century and a half of neglect. My self-congratulation didn’t last long. In 2011, Steven Pinker made it the title of his best-selling book about the decline of violence in the modern world. Because of that “co-discovery,” I hasten to add that the present article is not about Pinker’s book, nor about violence, per se. I say that to warn readers who may have been drawn in expecting a critique of Pinker’s work or an extension of his theme.
Prior to Pinker’s book, when “The Better Angels of our Nature” was used, it often appeared as part of a sermon or commencement address. I can see why. The phrase has a poetic and deeply inspirational sound. It usually appears in a sentence along with the words “appeal to.” Special people or special circumstances are considered appeals to the “better angels of our nature.”
I have always understood the phrase to mean that under certain conditions we should go beyond what comes easily or naturally. Whether in thought or action, we should dig more deeply into ourselves and think or act in a way that is somehow more highly evolved or enlightened. By definition this will not come easily. For some it will not come at all.
The phrase “better angels” suggests that not all the angels that inspire us are created equal. That’s an odd thought. I grew up assuming that “angels is angels.” But apparently Lincoln believed otherwise. Some of those alternative angels may be “worse,” even if their agenda stems from a well-traveled path that comes more naturally.
Evolutionary Psychology (see, for example, Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine or Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained) teaches us that not all ideas or cultural things are created equal. Some are effortless fits with how our minds work; others take a lot of social change or individually focused attention (usually referred to as “mindfulness” these days) to resist. Not getting in line to practice what we see all around us will certainly take more work and may not receive much in the way of social support. Remember, those memes and cultural patterns are there for a reason. You can’t just wish them away. But despite the difficulty and the lack of consensus, the non-Caveman part of us will somehow know that this path is better: something we can be proud of. Some might describe it as higher or purer. Some of us will view such changes in attitude or behavior as “progress.” And just as likely, some of us will resist the change. Many of us in conflict about whether change is good will look to see what others are doing. Social norms can be a powerful force.
Nowhere is it suggested that we must summon the "better angels of our nature" all the time. That certainly takes some of the pressure off. But it does sharpen the focus on those special situations: we have to summon those better angels and rally that extra energy when it really matters. At the least we know it is an available option, and that is no small thing. We know that sometimes it really is OK to decline those default settings or shortcuts with which Natural Selection has imbued our minds. In the language of cognitive psychology, sometimes it pays to use the algorithm and forget the heuristic. To choose kindness over meanness. Not to be a bully even though we’re feeling angry or want a particular outcome that bullying might easily achieve. To think about what we’re seeing or doing and to second-guess those “lesser angels” that are trying to force their way into our consciousness, like some kind of mindless brute. Even though the same brute may be doing his work on the minds of our friends and family, we can resist the social pressure and consider the better angels of our nature. Doing what comes naturally, finding divisions between “my tribe” and yours, reaching for a weapon: those are default Pleistocene settings. They are not our better angels. They are what Natural Selection, that ruthless efficiency expert, has trip-wired our minds to do. What made sense a quarter of a million years ago may be horribly out of date today, no matter how “natural” it feels.
Natural selection got our species through the Pleistocene era, and dragged our ancestors kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Now it may be time for you to take a hand in the process yourself. There’s no telling how many millennia it will take, if ever, to purge the appeal of this trip-wired circuitry. It would be easier to face the world without this Pleistocene baggage rattling around in our heads (this is precisely the point of Caveman Logic), but that kind of change is unlikely for the foreseeable future. The alternative is for us to acknowledge the mess in our heads and strive to express those “better angels” anyway. Like the clinicians say, “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s OK to acknowledge the Pleistocene default settings in our minds, but not relinquish control to them – and to those around us who pander to those basest tendencies.
It is ironic that the idea of “better angels of our nature” was expressed by a U.S. president and at a time when the country was in turmoil. You think we’re divided now? Lincoln was president during the Civil War: North vs. South, brother against brother, Black against white, neighbor against neighbor. We were killing each other then, about 150 years ago, on battlefields that have historical markers on them today. But we are once again divided. The issues that divide us may have shifted with time, but we are once again feeling like two nations: Back then it was blue vs. grey; today it is red states vs. blue states. Only this time we have elected a president who exploits, rather than tries to heal those divisions. Sadly, much of that pandering feels good, even natural. How do we resist it? How do we cope when the president’s nature, as well as his behavior, are often a model for “the worst angels of our nature?” And make no mistake: we all have “worst angels” within us. What we surely don’t need is a role model—an enabler, if you will—to beckon those basest qualities in ourselves.
Role models, especially those in authority like parents and presidents, are powerful figures. How much better off would we be if the meanness of spirit and vindictiveness that lie in all of us was not given license to come out? Decades of social psychology research (see Aiello et al. 2001; Zajonc, 1965) has demonstrated the power of social facilitation. Let those of us who have been chosen (or elected) to lead, use that gift for the good of our fellow human beings, and worry less about our tribe.
*A version of this post, with somewhat different content, appeared as a chapter in my book, Caveman Logic (2009.)
Aiello, John R.; Douthitt, Elizabeth A. (2001). Social Facilitation from Triplett to Economic Performance Monitoring. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice. 5, 163-180.
Blackmore, Susan (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press
Boyer, Pascal (20001). Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books
Zajonc, Robert B. (1965). Social Facilitation. Science. 149, 269-274.