The better angels of our nature.

meet the ancestors

The main question that stood out to me brought up in Alison Matthews David’s lecture was: Were the public listening to people telling these stories of mercury and arsenic poisoning in the 19th century and are people listening now? We know but do we listen? How do you connect a message?

I found the information she had collected through stories and objects and scientific tests she had carried out really pulled me in. I too found myself wanting to delve into the past and play detective. I feel what makes it so appealing is this narrative that seems so unbelievable but is true. The distance of time makes this kind of information fascinating rather than provocative but the questioning of people acting on information bridges that gap.

The information: Someone else suffered for your vanity.

The implication of no action: ‘Fashion is more important than health.’(Alison Matthews David) Desire before reason?

“The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning…

It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain…So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.” (Dickens,

I was interested in exploring the psychology behind ‘why good people do bad things, why smart people do stupid things’…in a broad sense, but also myself included.

I stumbled upon a Ted Talk between Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein discussing human moral progress. Their talk took me back to times where humans seem positively barbaric; when slave owning, heretic burning and wife beating to name but a few were socially accepted norms. They believe that ‘reason is the better angel for moral progress’ (Steven Pinker and that ‘reason’ is why we now live in a less violent, more moral society.

‘We all have the capacity to recognize, assess, and be moved by reasons… every action that we take with even a minimum of deliberation about what to do reflects a judgment that a certain reason is worth acting on.’ (T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other, p. 23)

‘For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them. (Pinker quotes a famous sentence from the 18th-century philosopher William Godwin: “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”)’

I think it comes back to what is effecting the self, what we are experiencing that influences our reasoning most drastically and makes action ‘worth while’, as selfish as this seems… It is suggested that there is no truly altruistic behaviour; that every action on some level is carried out because it reflects positively on us. So perhaps the key is to make it beneficial for each of us as individuals to stop ignoring information regarding health and the fashion system? As much as I would like to think people would want to make someone else’s life better I think it is much more likely an individual would want to ease the weight of malpractice from their shoulders.

‘I should like to suggest to our painters-(we’ve some clever ones they say)

A New Dance of Death, adapted to the fashions of the day;

On the one side The House of Pleasure; scene, the ballroom; and next door,

The House of Business; and for scene, the Work-room of Madame La Mort.’ (The Guest at the Guards’ Ball)

Where are the cracks in The House of Pleasure, where are those opportunities to give individuals reason to act?

One response to “The better angels of our nature.

  1. Questioning the modern people’s ability to listen. Messages do get through because the world is a global village as McLuhan stated long ago. The talk about vanity is very important and it is true that people pay more attention to fashion than to finding cures for incurable diseases. Desire does come before reason because people tend to listen to their hearts more than their minds. It has always been the case. That is why they react impulsively. People are not perfect and there have been many evil geniuses throughout history. Questioning the existence of altruism is smart because the nature of most people is that they are selfish. The key is to stand out as an individual.

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