A Call for Guts

By Frances Moore Lappť, Ode Magazine

Like a lot of us, I keep asking myself, How did we get into this mess? Since humans have innate needs and capacities for cooperation, empathy and fairness, which science now confirms, why does so much suffering and destruction continue? For many, the answer seems obvious: Humans just aren’t good enough; we need to become better people; we need to overcome selfishness and evolve into more caring and cooperative creatures. I disagree. Since these positive qualities are hard-wired in virtually all of us, maybe what we really need more of is something else: backbone.

Have you ever considered we’re too cooperative? Maybe we’re hard-wired to follow others, even if we should say “no way.”

The infamous Stanley Milgram experiments of the early 1960s’ in which people were instructed to administer electric shocks to others have recently been redone, amped down, literally, to conform to new ethics standards. Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University in California replicated the format: subjects are instructed to send “shocks” they believe are real to induce learning in a confederate. More than half conform, delivering up to a maximum 150 volts even after subjects cry out to stop the experiment. We’re all likely to wonder, Would I be among that go-along majority?

Interviewing participants afterward, Burger uncovered a clue, reported in The New York Times: “Those who stopped generally believed themselves to be responsible for the shocks, whereas those who kept going tended to hold the experimenter accountable.” The implications are huge. In disempowering societies like my own wherein most think government listens not to us but to the interests of concentrated wealth, and few workers are in unions enabling them to experience a sense of agency one would expect to find widespread cruelty. Too many people feel someone else is in charge; we’re powerless… thus, unaccountable. So we go along, abiding racial slurs in the office and poverty so deep that, in the U.S., for example, one in 10 people is relying on food stamps this year despite the fact that enough food is available to make us all obese.

Another study, reported in 2006 in Science, points to a related aspect of innate tendencies that helps explain why cruelty is rampant, even though humans are empathetic. The bottom-line finding, says senior author Bettina Rockenbach, is that when people share standards and some “have the moral courage to sanction others, informally,”a society “manages very successfully.”

The key here is what I think of as “moral courage”to enforce consequences for those who hurt others. Groups “with few rules attract many exploitative people who quickly undermine cooperation,”says Rockenbach in the Times. “By contrast, communities that allow punishment, and in which power is distributed equally, are more likely to draw people who, even at their own cost, are willing to stand up to miscreants.”

This research suggests successful societies depend on several conditions by which people feel accountable and this only happens when we feel we have social power. Closely related is the existence of sanctions for inflicting harm, and the broad dispersion of power. This is critical because without it, a wide sense of agency isn’t possible and if power is held by the honchos, who keeps them in check?

What I take from all this is pretty simple: Our future depends more on cultivating courage than goodness. Do you know anyone who wants others to go hungry? Of course not. But how many of us have a hard time speaking out in face-to-face settings? Many do. We fear humiliation and offending others.

In these do-or-die times, the future depends on how quickly we grasp that we must keep power dispersed. As it’s dispersed, more of us come to feel accountable. We must master the art of positive courage. We can, for example, reward our kids from the earliest ages for speaking out against injustice.

To call forth courage in the wider culture, we can actively protect and publicly reward and honor truth-tellers willing to risk humiliation or even their livelihoods to uphold our shared values of fairness and honesty. We can work on ourselves, checking our tendency to go along with what we should not.

Preaching generosity and cooperation alone won’t get us there. Evidence-driven thinking about the real challenge of our species cultivating gutsiness is a first step toward the world almost everyone wants.


Jane L7 years ago


Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog8 years ago

This was a great article and I completely agree that developing the courage to speak the truth or to support someone else who is doing the right thing is highly necessary in a good, caring community.

Jesse C.
Jesse C8 years ago


Jewels S.
Jewels S8 years ago

I agree with the article for some of the people that is a problem because I used to be more that way. I was so afriad of what others would say or think about what I was doing I didn't do anything. Until I watched a special on Wayne Dyer and he spoke about trusting you own nature. I learned to do that after and I bet some wish that I didn't speak my mind as much. I think there are a lot of people out there just coasting through life on auto pilot and they do need to take the controls. So the article is right to a point but maybe generalizes a bit. There is a whole lot of others out there that are not only not contributing they are hurting others.

Maggie B.
Past Member 8 years ago

Interesting. I myself am a "yes" person and enjoy being that way

Aimee O.
Aimee Osmulski8 years ago

have 2 disagree, somewhat. I consider myself very strong in standing up for what I believe & I think it is 2 much selfishness/greed that is our downfall

rita b.
Rita B8 years ago

The opposite of courage is not cooperation, it is fear. Therefore we can assume that those who go along with a hurtful experiment are fearful for some reason. Those who are afraid to speak out are fearful often for a good reason like the fear of losing their job or being attacked by others.

Cooperation can be great when used rightly like building a habitat house. It all depends on the motive behind it and the same could be said of competition.

Beth Morris
Beth M8 years ago

...as far as i can recall...the idea behind the use of fluoride was not to kill us off...but to keep us quiet...(to aid in removal of said backbone)...therefore I guess being dead would be counter productive..for who would bake the bread!...*smiles*.....I am aware that fluoride is a constituent of HF*....HF* being the mummy and fluoride one of her babies?...I have a basic/limited understanding of fluoro benzo diazapemes or whatever they're called...*Not disappoined*....happy...that i live in world where i can choose my poison..for after all...choice is nothing with knowledge..then it becomes just pot luck and hope....*looks in the bottom of the box where hope is happily shouting for attention*...also pleased to be able to converse*..*thanks*..

Vicky L.
Vicky L8 years ago

HF literally dissolves your bones by removing all calcium. This includes the backbone, but the loss of courage is the least of the problems with HF poisoning. It's a worst poison known, but sorry to disappoint you: no toothpaste contains it (unless some terrorist producers tries to eliminate their customers).

Beth Morris
Beth M8 years ago

...*smiles*...To Frank*...thinks the Boudica* never had colgate*...(nice to meet u).....