Really good people
I've been reading and enjoying the book Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, by the actor Don Cheadle and John Prendergast. I can imagine someone finding the book annoying because of the way these two celebrity activists try to draw the reader in with their own personal stories. Of course much more noteworthy things are going on in Darfur than in the lives of these guys. But I don't find it annoying at all. One of the things they're trying to do is to let the reader see how a person starts off apathetic and uninvolved and then can be transformed into a passionate activist. The message is "you can do it too."
I find the message inspiring, because I've gotten myself involved in a Darfur project, but I also have a more long-term interest in the psychology of really, really good people. It's not a totally theoretical interest, because I've always admired the likes of these people. In short, why do some people devote a huge amount of their time and energy to very big problems...while at best I only devote a little?
I'm only a few chapters into it, but something Prendergast says intrigued me. He reports being asked by a reporter, "Why do you do it?" He says "Anger. I can't accept that we just stand idly by while entire peoples are being extinguished because of the actions and advantage of a few people."
He does it because of an emotion, which is interesting. Also interesting is which emotion. Martha Nussbaum is a champion of the role emotions play in making us do good things. It's strange though how much she fixates on one particular emotion: compassion (in Upheavals of Thought). Prendergast must feel compassion for the victims in Darfur, but his predominant feeling is anger. "It flames me up..." to think of western apathy, he says.
I think the main battle Nussbaum is fighting in her book is with people who think ethics is purely rational and emotion plays no role. So she's less concerned with which emotions count. But, speaking for myself, it's often true that I finally stand up and do something when I'm "mad as hell and can't take it anymore"!
Maybe anger is more problematic than compassion. Even in elementary school, children are taught to feel compassion. It's much trickier teaching them anger, because anger is as often an ethical as an unethical emotion. Still, it has a role to play in the kinds of things people like Prendergast do.
Another interesting passage--Prendergast says he was an agnostic for the first 20 years of his career as a human rights activist. More recently, he's felt a resurgence of Christian faith. It's always good to find another example that proves what really should be obvious: there are many things that inspire good works. Religion, yes. Other things, also yes.