The Public Humanist

Optimism and a Forgotten Revolutionary Value

Memorial Day is a time for reflection. Two items in the May 26, 2008, Boston Globe stirred some thoughts. One was the continuation of a series on the Defense Department’s efforts to find the remains of soldiers missing in action, in this case airmen lost during World War II in Papua New Guinea. The second item was an obituary for one of the Tuskegee Airmen. Why would people willingly risk their lives the way these men did? One answer is the appeal of this country’s revolutionary ideals.

Revolutionary? Historians debate whether the American war of independence was really revolutionary. That type of argument ignores some astounding ideals. Among other ideals, the founders wanted a society that provided justice for all.

Compare the Declaration of Independence, especially equality and the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, with goals in the preamble to the US Constitution, such as establishing justice and promoting the general welfare . In the late 1700’s, equality in the pursuit of happiness and the equal justice that is necessary for anyone to seek happiness were unique, especially when one adds the sheer size of the new republic. Democracy and the equal rights implicit in that ideal had simply not been attempted in such a large area&ever. Europeans expected the new republic to fail.

Equal liberty and justice are certainly ideals worth the risk of going to war. Arguably, white soldiers were fighting to protect some fundamental rights. But the Tuskegee Airmen present a quandary. Given the abysmal history of race relations in the United States, for what were those Tuskegee Airmen fighting? Perhaps they fought in hope that this country would address the issue of real equality for all in the pursuit of justice and happiness. Given the advances made by the Civil Rights Movement in the 50’s and 60’s, this was a realistic hope. So, perhaps black individuals going to war at that time made sense.

Today, it does not seem to make much sense at all. Liberty has trumped the quest for equal justice. That in turn has produced inequality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have moved away from the ideals of the founders. Justice was one of their important values. For instance, John Adams’ religious creed was only four words: “Be just and good.” One hundred and ninety-two years after he wrote those words in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, why is it so difficult to apply them?

Rebecca Paynich presents one answer: self-interest. She wonders how we can move students away from their cynical views that humans are self-interested. As a historian, I do not have any magic solutions, but I can point out the different views of America’s founders and of Adam Smith. They understood that human beings often act based on perceived self-interest. That, however, is only part of the story. They also understood that humans are social beings. Smith provides a good example of this perspective. In a direct criticism of Hobbes, the very first sentence of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments states: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” This more nuanced view of human nature is also clear in Smith’s more famous Wealth of Nations.

It is because of Wealth of Nations that Smith is known around the world for his emphasis on individual self-interest. However, individual pursuit of self-interest in the early republic worried the founders. John Adams, for instance, was concerned that public spirit, concern for the common good, was being overwhelmed by the individual quest for commercial gain.

However, it does not really help much to know that some dead white males believed that humans sometimes act from altruistic motives–except that they were astute observers of human interaction and deep readers of history going back to the Romans and Greeks. In short, I think they were dealing with a realistic view of humans. If we accept their complex view of human motivation, how can we move not only students but society as well toward their ideal of equal justice for all?

No easy solutions, but a question: what do the humanities and social sciences say about human nature? I think that analysts from diverse disciplines would disagree with the Hobbesian view of human nature. So, we need to get beyond the bumper sticker oversimplifications of recent decades in the United States. Self-interest is important but it is only part of the story.

And three small suggestions from one optimist to another: keep teaching the revolutionary ideals of the founding of this country. Perhaps look at team sports as a metaphor of the interaction of group and individual interest. Keep telling the millions of stories of altruistic individuals, such as those heroes who died in Papua New Guinea but have not been forgotten and the heroic Tuskegee airmen. Perhaps from their selfless examples we can also glean the motivation to work for a better tomorrow & for equal justice for all.

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