The Brighter Side of Human Nature
Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life
(New York: Basic Books, 1990)
We all admire the altruism of a Mother Teresa or the heroism of people who risk their lives to save a drowning child. But when it comes to our own everyday lives, we tend to regard “looking out for number one” as more central to human nature than reaching out to others. Surprisingly, though, that cynical view does not hold up in the light of recent research. In this lively book, Alfie Kohn draws from hundreds of compelling studies in psychology, sociology, economics, and biology to demonstrate convincingly that we are more caring than we give ourselves credit for, and that our generosity cannot be reduced to mere self-interest. The Brighter Side of Human Nature shows that helping is every bit as natural as hurting.
To make this case, Kohn artfully weaves together insights on topics ranging from the nature of empathy to the causes of war, from our tendency to blame our behavior on our genes to the importance of understanding evil from the inside. He explains why humans cannot be described as innately aggressive and suggests that our understanding of morality may be transformed by this new view of our species. Along the way, Kohn accounts for the curious attraction that a darker world view seems to hold for us. He also refutes much of the conventional wisdom, debunking, for example, the notion that women are inherently more altruistic than men, and showing how children’s generosity can best be promoted without using rewards. Rigorously researched and engagingly written, The Brighter Side of Human Nature offers an informed optimism that asks us to reconsider what it means to be a human being.
Table of Contents
PART ONE – Natural Assumptions
1 – On the Existence of a “Human Nature”
2 – On the Nature of “Human Nature”
PART TWO – Responding to Others
3 – Prosocial Practices: Prediction and Promotion
4 – The Self and the Other
5 – The Self with the Other
6 – The ABCs of Caring: A Case Study
PART THREE – From Me to You to Us
7 – Altruism Lost
8 – Altruism Regained
9 – Beyond Altruism
Appendix: The Seville Statement on Violence
What people are saying
“A vastly informative, closely reasoned yet very readable book.
“Parents should read [this book]. So should teachers. So should anyone quick to dismiss human kindness as no more than a facade for brute selfishness.”
– Washington Post Book World
,front page review
“A persuasive meditation on altruism as a fundamental human trait…An elegant and erudite defense of human kindness.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Lively, thought-provoking….[and] thoroughly engaging.”
– Washington Times
“This scrupulously researched treatise pleading for a more benevolent assessment of human nature [is]… highly recommended.”
– Library Journal
“A masterpiece — engaging, reasoned, provocative, and a joy to read. Kohn’s hard-headed good news is precisely what we need to make our way into the 21st century.
– Frances Moore Lappe,
author of Rediscovering America’s Values