The Better Angels Invitation

The initial inspiration for Our Better Angels, the Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014, showed up all over the place – in social media, on television, and in our neighborhoods. Thousands of people dumped buckets of ice on their own heads and raised many millions of dollars to combat ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

The dumping of the ice was supposed to be an alternative to the giving of the money, and as it turned out a lot of people dumped the ice but didn’t bother giving the money. Thanks to lots of recent psychological research, however, we know that normal, healthy people actually derive pleasure and satisfaction in giving, especially when they do so in the company of friends for a cause that is larger than all of them put together. Thus many folks made a flamboyant gesture of dumping buckets of ice on their heads, often putting the event up on You Tube, and then gave the money as well. Lots of money also went ungiven because people forgot about it or didn’t know where to send it. Some of the ice-dumping episodes resulted in injuries and other unfortunate upshots. The whole effort, in other words, could have been managed more effectively. 

The key element that made this viral, give-and-have-fun adventure so successful was, perhaps, the issuing of the challenge. The rules of the game were to dump the ice or give the money, but in either case to issue the challenge to somebody else to follow suit. That’s how it went viral. Had the challenge not been the main rule, the Ice Bucket phenomenon might have involved no more than a few dozen friends who shared a calling to help ALS victims they personally knew. 

In a larger context, the Ice Bucket Challenge is part of an inspiring global movement to support good works, good causes, and good people of all sorts. This global movement has been documented quite a bit recently, including in A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, a book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that has also been adapted as a PBS documentary. Speaking of the global movement itself, the authors note: “Today almost any university bulletin board will have a poster appealing on behalf of some faraway group, but in historical terms that is a recent phenomenon. There’s probably more regard for chickens and cows today than existed a few centuries ago for slaves or foreigners. Princeton University professor Peter Singer, author of The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, is the philosopher of this growing humanitarianism, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is its chronicler, the singer Bono is its muse, and it has a vast and growing army of ordinary donors and volunteers.”

On the emergence of new corporate entities devoted to good causes, they note: “A new vocabulary is emerging to describe these hybrids trying to knit social goals into their operations: benefit corporation, blended value, mission-driven, for-benefit, value-driven, venture philanthropy, fourth sector, and hybrid organization. And these businesses are formed in many sectors.” Perhaps even a good old-fashioned tycoon like Henry Ford would appreciate this phenomenon, since he once said that “The highest use of capital is not to make more money but to make money do more service for the betterment of life.”

Mr. Ford’s personal opinion has been corroborated in our time by one of our nation’s richest men and the world’s biggest philanthropist, Bill Gates: “There are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others. The most successful people are driven by a hybrid engine.” Anthropologist Franz deWaal offers a similar view from the social-science community: “The selfish/unselfish divide may be a red herring. Why try to extract the self from the other, or the other from the self, if the merging of the two is the secret behind our cooperative nature?” In sum, personal and social evolution have moved us from self-centered egoism to family-centered nepotism to reciprocal altruism (the basis for all economies and democratic cultures) to concern for all human beings. Most of us are, under differing circumstances, selfish, otherish, and groupish.

Our Better Angels applauds and celebrates all the Good Causes around the world, and we will do what we can to support them. Stay tuned for more ideas and information.