Reflecting on Bernard Baruch, on the need for character and thinking

& (verbiage overflow)Tue 17 December 2013RSSSearchSubscribe

During the late Spring of 2012 I was asked to comment on a remark of Bernard Baruch (1870–1965):

"During my eighty-seven years I have witnessed a whole succession of technological revolutions. But none of them has done away with the need for character in the individual or the ability to think." Here is what I said:

I agree with Baruch. Certainly no tool is more reliable than the hand that uses it. We witness spectacular miscalculations in the management of sophisticated technology — nuclear plants breached by earthquakes, wars launched for shifting reasons and with immense collateral death tolls, the sudden collapse of economic structures. We ourselves cause these events to become disasters, by putting faith in tools and mechanisms without cultivating sufficient skill and judgment to manage them. Naturally so; tools tend to fail at “edge cases”, and edge cases are often hard to plan for. The situation is just as Baruch says, but I suggest that “character and the ability to think” are themselves actually a kind of technology, to be developed and propagated.

I share Baruch’s pessimism about viewing every new technology in messianic terms; in fact, I think the problems of human existence remain surprisingly alike over time. Granted, our tools for use against those problems have improved enormously, but we remain plagued by basic issues: slavery, hunger, hatred, theft, betrayal of trust, and so on. Consider the suffering caused by preventable diseases. According to the WHO, for instance, easily curable pneumonia and diarrhea still kill well over two million children every year.* No one, however greedy or unfeeling, can think the death of two million children a year from diarrhea is insignificant, and yet somehow humankind does not seem able to prevent it decisively.

Where Baruch’s incisive apothegm does not cut deeply enough is in showing the reach of “character and thinking.” To set against the diarrhea problem we already have effective tools and people with the necessary character and ability to think, but we fail to concentrate our collective will so that the problem actually gets and stays solved. Apparently humankind needs a mechanism for forcing decisive action that we all agree is desirable. The real source of our failure to solve problems like death from diarrhea is narrow self-interest, something deeply seated in human nature. Some of the effects of self-interest are valuable, so learning to control it intelligently is the most crucial domain of character and thinking.

Like Baruch, I want to make change in the world using my gifts. As a professor, I am in a position of power from which to promote a moderate altruism in my students, at least among themselves, through my own example. I try to be generous toward them with my time; I grade in such a way as to encourage responsible collaboration; I try to speak my mind peaceably in case of differences of opinion; I try not to hide the mistakes I make in our subject; and so on. I tell students that, whatever their politics, they belong to the world’s elite by virtue of the education they have received. Above all, I require them to help each other.

I do not know whether doing those things myself really motivates my students to practice the same behavior. But I act on the premise that “character and thinking,” though costly to cultivate and at times a nuisance to use in those edge cases where technology fails us, are humankind’s most powerful tools. As tools, then, they are something not different from “technology” and can be propagated. Displaying their effectiveness through my own example is, I hope, part of a technology revolution whose potential Bernard Baruch would not dismiss.

*. [World Health Organization, “Causes of child mortality for the year 2010.”, accessed 29 May, 2012.][]

[World Health Organization, “Causes of child mortality for the year 2010.”, accessed 29 May, 2012.]: // "World Health Organization, “Causes of child mortality for the year 2010.”"

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