Beautiful Souls

I’d wanted to read Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press for some time. The premise sounded fascinating – examining people who make courageous decisions.

The book is excellent, and lived up to my hopes for it. Eyal Press (the name of the author, not the publisher) writes about four individuals, and what did – or didn’t – make them remarkable:

  • A Swiss captain, who helped refugees into Switzerland when it meant the difference between life or death for them.
  • A Serb caught in the midst of ethnic cleansing helps Slav villagers save their lives, at considerable risk to his own.
  • An elite commando refuses to take part in military action he thinks is unconscionable; and
  • A financial broker refuses to sell a product she thinks is untrustworthy. Ultimately, it proves to be a Ponzi scheme.

Press writes about each of them carefully. He tells as much backstory as he can, to give us a sense of what has brought an individual to a particular decision, but doesn’t downplay the courage or conviction required.

The stories themselves are fascinating, and powerful. Hearing about people risking their money, reputations, and lives to save others is inspiring, and thought provoking.

Eyal considers at length in different cases what has brought people to stand on their conscience. But he doesn’t conclude that a single factor, or even several factors, are universally causal. Some of the things he talks about are in the quotes below- our social context and relationships, the examples set for us by others, the sequence of events that leads people to a particular decision point, empathy (and its genetic determinants), and our principles and the values we place on them.

In his epilogue, Press asks whether a conscientious stand is worth the tremendous cost that whistleblowers and other conscientious objectors often pay. He concludes that it is; not because change is always immediate, but because of the impact they have on a broader society, and the subsequent steps they can inspire.


That, moreover, what ultimately determines moral conduct are not character traits, personal beliefs, or political attitudes but situational factors, as not a few social psychologists and philosophers have indeed come to believe. 

As counterintuitive as it may seem, might a similar process [habituation] unfold among people who resist? So contend the psychologists Andrew Modigliani and Frocis Rochat. Resistance to authority, they argue, often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but “small, modest actions” that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out. This is particularly true if the noncompliance starts early, before any compromises are made, as was the case with Gruninger, whose first act of dissent came at the 1938 immigration conference in Bern, where he uncharacteristically rose to express his views, telling his peers that it was “impossible” to send the refugees back because the situation on the border was “heartbreaking”. 

But before this [bias against and fear of an outgroup] happened, an intervention occurred. Before his refusal to conform came another act of refusal: his mother’s decision not to bequeath to her son the aggrieved sense of victimhood her story seemed to warrant, and not to encourage him to judge other people by the labels that had cost her own parents their lives.

The primatologist Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading authorities on bonobos, has documented displays of compassion performed by these good-natured mammals – our closest cousins in the ape family – not only toward their own offspring but also toward other species, such as injured birds. 

Subjects with a particular genetic variant scored consistently higher on an empathy test measuring the ability to infer the mental state of others. 

… there is another kind of resistance that is arguably no easier and no less important – the kind that arises when the stakes are murkier and the circumstances more prosiac. When it takes some imagination to envision that dire consequences might follow from doing what everyone else is. And when some people will think you’re crazy or paranoid for stepping out of line-when, indeed, you might come to wonder this yourself. 

In their book The Whistleblowers, Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer drew on interviews with sixty-four Americans who tried to expose misconduct in their workplaces. Like Leyla, most ended up doing so not because they suspected a lot of people in their profession were crooked but because they naively assumed nobody was. 

“I don’t know, it’s a need. It was the right thing to do, and I feel like my actions, my intentions, have to have a sort of meaning in this life.” 

They had an effect because, even when the people engaging in them have more limited ambitions, acts of conscience have a way of reverberating. Who knows whether the first soldier in Israel who refused to serve in the occupied territories wanted to to anything more than keep his own hands clean, but the fact is that in the decades since, hundreds of other conscripts have done the same thing. It surely wasn’t Paul Gruninger’s aim to prompt Switzerland to reexamine its past and engage in some collective soul-searching when he disobeyed the law in 1938, but that is what his singular act of principled noncooperation played a role in doing. 

The word conscience implies “a shared knowledge of good and evil”, a set of precepts that take shape not in isolation but through interaction with other citizens and engagement in groups, sects, political parties, labor unions, professional organizations, military units. 

… it’s considerably harder for insiders who’ve spent their lives fiercely identifying with the values of the majority than for dissenters accustomed to being on the margins, with their like-minded comrades by their side. 


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