What Can We Learn from the World’s Most Peaceful Societies?

What Can We Learn from the World’s Most Peaceful Societies?

By PETER T. COLEMANDOUGLAS P. FRY | Greater Good Magazine

A multidisciplinary team of researchers is discovering what makes some societies more peaceful than others.

Given the grinding wars and toxic political divisions that dominate the news, it might come as a surprise to hear that there are also a multitude of sustainably peaceful societies thriving across the globe today. These are communities that have managed to figure out how to live together in peace—internally within their borders, externally with neighbors, or both—for 50, 100, even several hundred years. This simple fact directly refutes the widely held and often self-fulfilling belief that humans are innately territorial and hardwired for war.

What does it take to live in peace? The Sustaining Peace Project is finding out.

The international community has struggled with a similar attention-to-peace deficit disorder. In fact, the United Nations has been attempting for decades to pivot from crisis management to its primary mandate to “sustain international peace in all its dimensions.” Yet by its own account, “the key Charter task of sustaining peace remains critically under-recognized, under-prioritized, and under-resourced globally and within the United Nations.”

Science could play a crucial role in specifying the aspects of community life that contribute to sustaining peace. Unfortunately, our understanding of more pacific societies is limited by the fact that they are rarely studied. Humans mostly study the things we fear—cancer, depression, violence, and war—and so we have mostly studied peace in the context or aftermath of war. When peaceful places are studied, researchers (much like the U.N.) tend to focus primarily on negative peace, or the circumstances that keep violence at bay, to the neglect of positive peace, or the things that promote and sustain more just, harmonious, prosocial relations. As a result, we know much more about how to get out of war than we do about how to build thriving, peaceful communities.

In response to this gap in our understanding of how to sustain peace, an eclectic group of scholars started gathering together in 2014. We are psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, astrophysicists, environmental scientists, political scientists, data scientists, and communications experts, who are interested in gaining a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of lasting peace. We also share an appreciation of the benefits of using methods from complexity science to better visualize and model the complex dynamics of such societies, and as a platform for communicating with one another across such different disciplines to develop a shared understanding of stable, peaceful societies and of peace systems.

Peace systems are clusters of neighboring societies that do not make war with each other, and anthropological and historical cases of such non-warring social systems exist across time and around the globe. None of the five Nordic nations, for instance, have met one another on the battlefield for over 200 years. Other examples of peace systems include 10 neighboring tribes of the Brazilian Upper Xingu River basin, the Swiss cantons that unified to form Switzerland in 1848, the Iroquois Confederation, and the E.U.

The mere existence of peace systems challenges the assumption that societies everywhere are prone to wage war with their neighbors—and what we have gleaned from studying these societies is promising.

Finding the seeds of peace

Our journey to date has been circuitous but fruitful. It began with a dive into the published science on peacefulness, which helped us to identify some of the more influential scholars in this area. We then surveyed this group to identify their sense of the most central components of achieving lasting peace (74 experts from 35 disciplines responded), and then invited the respondents to a day-long workshop to make sense of the findings. Next, our core team worked with this information to develop a basic conceptual model of sustaining peace.

The focus of our model is simple. It views the central dynamic responsible for the emergence of sustainably peaceful relations in communities as the thousands or millions of daily reciprocal interactions that happen between members of different groups in those communities, and the degree to which more positive interactions outweigh more negative. That’s it. The more positive reciprocity and the less negative reciprocity between members of different groups, the more sustainable the peace.

In other words, peace is not just an absence of violence and war, but also people and groups getting along prosocially with each other: the cooperation, sharing, and kindness that we see in everyday society. Sustaining peace happens through positive reciprocity: I show you a kindness and you do me a favor in return, multiplied throughout the social world a million times over.

Next, we started gathering together all the relevant science on positive or negative intergroup reciprocity. For example, studies on Mauritius, the most peaceful nation in Africa, have found intentionality in how members of different ethnic groups speak with one another in public. Mauritians of all stripes tend to be respectful and careful in their daily encounters with others. This even translates to differences in how journalists and editors report the news, and how teachers, politicians, and clergy take up their roles in society. These findings suggest that the citizens of this highly diverse nation do not take their peacefulness for granted—they recognize that it must be cultivated and protected.

We then organized these variables by three levels (individual, group, and society) and by their dominant effects (promoting peacefulness or preventing violence). Here are the elements we found promoted peace and nonviolence in individuals (the micro level):



  • Endorsement of self-transcendent values
  • Endorsement of openness
  • Endorsement of cooperative orientation
  • Endorsement of peace beliefs


  • Strength of moral reasoning and a broad moral scope
  • Degree to which intergroup beliefs are malleable
  • Degree of neural plasticity
  • Fluency of language for peacefulness
  • Strength of global identity


  • Levels of empathy and compassion
  • Level of hopefulness and positivity
  • Level of general trust


  • Degree of willingness to compromise
  • Level of mindfulness

  • Endorsement of nonviolent values and attitudes
  • Low levels of authoritarianism
  • Low endorsement of ethnocentrism
  • Degree to which basic needs are met


  • Level of social identity complexity
  • Level of constructive conflict resolution skills
  • Level of integrative complexity


  • Low levels of fear, anger, and negativity reservoirs
  • Low levels of humiliation
  • Low level of perceived threat


  • Active positive engagement with members of outgroups
  • Degree of perspective taking
  • Level of outgroup tolerance
  • Degree of self-regulation
  • Level of capacity for forgiveness

Here are the factors that promote peace and nonviolence on the family and community (or “meso”) level:


  • Degree to which parenting norms stress warmth, caring, and nurturance
  • Degree of physical synchronization across groups
  • High ratios of positivity-to-negativity in parenting
  • High levels of education and literacy
  • Degree of cooperative task, goal, and reward structures
  • Degree to which meaningful superordinate identity groups unify across differences
  • Level of a strong shared identity as a peaceful community
  • Degree of peaceful language in media and daily discourse
  • Degree of early access to tolerance and multiculturalism in education
  • Degree of peace ceremonies and symbols
  • Strength of shared peace vision and understanding
  • Degree to which leaders model peaceful values
  • Degree of shared egalitarian values and norms
  • Degree of open and comprehensive collective remembering
  • Strength of taboos against violence
  • Respect for gender equity
  • Levels of effective mechanisms for procedural and distributive justice
  • Degree of access to crosscutting structures
  • Level of access to mechanisms for constructive conflict resolution
  • Degree to which human rights are respected
  • Degree of effective treatment of past trauma
  • Levels of equitability of opportunity structures
  • Degree of economic equality across groups

And, finally, at the macro level of society and internationally, we found these qualities that promote positive intergroup interactions—and those that prevent or mitigate negative relations:


Effectiveness and resilience of civil society

  • Degree of free flow of information
  • Degree to which transcultural elite model constructive, nonviolent action
  • Level of gender parity in leadership
  • Strength of norms regarding territorial acquisition and decolonization
  • Degree to which governance structures tend toward integration, egalitarianism, and democracy
  • Degree of economic interdependence
  • Levels of cultural and civilian exchanges
  • Degree of good governance that emphasizes unity, integrity, and fairness
  • Degree of transparency of institutions
  • Levels of coordination between local governments, civil society, and international organizations
  • Presence and effectiveness of a social safety net
  • Presence and effectiveness of early warning systems
  • Degree of minority inclusion
  • Commitment to a fair, healthy, and functioning economy
  • Degree to which media offer accurate, nuanced accounts
  • Strength of the Rule of Law
  • Commitment to sustainable development policies and practices
  • Effectiveness of regional organizations that support peace
  • Effectiveness and function of global organizations and institutions

We then began to map the effects that each of these variables have on positive and negative group interactions, and on the other variables in the system. This is called causal-loop diagramming, and entails synthesizing the findings from hundreds of studies on dozens of variables to understand one simple dynamic: how they increase the chances that members of in-groups treat members of out-groups positively and inclusively rather than negatively and exclusively. This visualization gives us a coherent, birds-eye view of a larger system of peace dynamics.

At this point, our in-house astrophysicist, Larry Liebovitch, went rogue one long weekend and decided to mathematize this model (I believe with the aid of lots of caffeinated soda), developing an algorithm that captured its core dynamics. This allowed us to build a computer simulation that invites us (and you) to play with the different variables in the model to see how increasing or decreasing them might change patterns in this complex system.

Through this work, we’ve found that sustaining peace can be understood as a high ratio of positive intergroup reciprocity to negative intergroup reciprocity that is stable over time. In fact, this is exactly the type of interpersonal dynamic that researchers have found to lead to more thriving, stable marriages and families. This simple micro-dynamic of peacefulness has allowed us to begin to connect the dots between the multitude of variables investigated in thousands of studies across dozens of disciplines relevant to sustaining peace. This more basic and comprehensive approach to thinking about peace offers scholars, policymakers, and the public a sense of its complexity and simplicity, as well as (with the aid of the math model) insight into how particular policies and programs may result in intended, unintended, and even quite harmful consequences.

In parallel to building the math model, Doug Fry and Geneviève Souillac went back into the tomes of ethnographic studies that they had compiled over decades on peaceful societies and peace systems, and with their students coded for variables that they had found through previous research to be prominent in these societies. This allowed them to conduct a comparison study between 16 peace systems (such as the Nordic countries since 1815 and the Orang Asli of Malaysia) and 30 non-peace systems.

During this time, another subgroup of the team began developing new ways of measuring trends relevant to sustaining peace. The most promising of these forays to date has been working with data scientists on the development of two types of word lexicons: one for peace speech and one for conflict speech. This has been done by employing machine learning and natural language processing methods to comb through millions of newspaper articles published within highly peaceful and highly conflictual societies. The goal of this initiative is to fill the gap that currently exists for metrics that allow us to better track and therefore promote positive peace.

Finally, we have also been engaging directly with peaceful communities and those struggling to find peace. This has entailed building local partnerships and holding dialogues between our scientists and community stakeholders.

This work began in the Basque region of Spain, a society recently emerging from civil war and hungry for peace, but currently involves working with diverse sets of stakeholders living in Mauritius and Costa Rica. This has taught us about the critical importance of local understanding of some of the key variables.

For example, religious differences can be a source of great divisiveness in many communities. However, in Mauritius, a highly religious nation with large populations of Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, religiosity is tempered by tolerance and taboos around proselytizing, as well as a general belief in the value of spirituality, no matter the denomination. Such contextualization of variables highlights the limitations of the current inclination to employ top-down, one-size-fits-all indices to track and rank national peacefulness, and the need for more locally informed methods.

What peaceful societies have in common

Even a cursory glimpse at our causal-loop diagram of the science on sustaining peace gives you a sense of the highly complex nature of the system of drivers. We have found that there are many different paths to peacefulness through both our review of the science and our conversations with community members living in peace. In fact, most of the societies that currently rank as highly peaceful—the Nordic nations, New Zealand and Australia, Costa Rica, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Qatar—came to peace through very different processes and maintain it through distinct means.

However, when our team systematically compared a sample of peace systems with a randomly selected comparison group, we discovered that peace systems tend to share certain commonalities:

  • Overarching common identities, such as shared national or regional identities (like Africans, Latin Americans, or Christians) that emphasize commonalities between different ethnic groups.
  • Greater positive interconnectedness and independence in the realms of economics, ecology, and security. In other words, they have public spaces, institutions, and activities that bring members of different groups together and help them realize that their fates are closely linked.
  • Stronger non-warring norms, values, rituals, and symbols, like commemorations of successful peacemakers and monuments that celebrate the prevention of war. In fact, using a machine learning technique called Random Forest, we discovered that the single most important contributor to peace is non-warring norms, followed in decreasing importance by non-warring rituals, non-warring values, mutual security dependencies, superordinate institutions, and economic interdependence. This suggests that developing norms that are supportive of positive reciprocal social relationships may be more important for peace than previously assumed.
  • Peace language in the press. We have been developing a technique to help us measure and track the power of peace speech—peaceable language for building and maintaining more peaceful communities. Our preliminary findings are promising, suggesting that the distinct qualities of conflict vs. peace words in our lexicons are related to the relative “tightness/ordered” versus “looseness/creative” nature of the terms. In other words, journalism in peaceful places seems to employ language of a looser, more open, playful nature, while reporting from non-peaceful societies reflects tighter, more closed, or bureaucratic language.
  • A greater degree of peace leadership from politicians, corporations, clergy, and community activists who help establish a vision and set a course toward peace. Peace leadership occurred, for instance, when the Iroquois peace prophet unified five warring tribes and replaced the weapons of war with dialogue and consensus-seeking. Other bastions of peacefulness like Costa Rica and the E.U. have evidenced similar visionary leadership for peace.

Ultimately, we have found that when these different peace variables align and reinforce one another, virtuous cycles are often created that become more resistant to changing conditions. This, we suggest, is the essence of sustainability.

There is still much to learn. We recently launched a short video and a public website that provides an overview of the project and the team, which includes a map locating contemporary societies sustaining peace, an interactive version of the causal-loop diagram that allows users to explore the evidence behind it, and an interactive version of the mathematical model that encourages users to plug in values and play with the model.

In the end, it is vital to remember that peace exists today in pockets all around the globe, and that the more we study and learn from such societies, the higher our chances of building a global peace system for all. Peace is possible—and the more we understand, the more probable it becomes.

Five College Campuses that Managed to Bridge Differences

Five College Campuses that Managed to Bridge Differences


Campus leaders across the U.S. are implementing strategies for better relationships, dialogue, and understanding across divides.

Most colleges and universities provide an opportunity to meet people who have different faiths, politics, identities, and life experiences. If the campus culture fosters belonging, this diversity exposes students to new ways of thinking. It expands students’ outlook about the world around them, and even changes the way they see themselves. That is what the college experience should be all about!

But this diversity can also present enormous challenges, especially in today’s climate of worsening division and polarization—whether it’s about mask protocols or vaccinations for COVID-19, or demands for the campus to do more on racial justice. Global issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict can find their way onto an American campus and lead to interpersonal conflict across individuals and groups. Sometimes that conflict isn’t productive, and becomes harmful or violent—arguments turn into lawsuits, property damage, or worse.

2017 survey of more than 3,000 college students, conducted by Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, found that 61% of students believe that “the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views.” It’s not just students who are experiencing these ruptures on campuses across the country—so are faculty, staff, and administrators.

This is why the Greater Good Science Center created the Bridging Differences course with a special emphasis on higher education. The goal of the course is to teach research-based strategies for better relationships, dialogue, and understanding across divides—and though we created it with campuses in mind, the course is relevant to anyone navigating conflicts and differences.

We’ve heard from campus leaders across the country that a course like this is timely, beneficial, and necessary. Out of these conversations, we surfaced five times when campus leaders succeeded in building bridges between antagonistic groups. We hope they’ll provide you with some inspiration for building bridges, wherever you live and work.

1. Navigating controversial topics at an Oregon community college

Four students debate the art piece at Linn Benton Community College.Four students debate the art piece at Linn Benton Community College.© Josh Stickrod for The Commuter, a weekly student-run newspaper in Albany, Oregon

A few semesters ago, Linn Benton Community College in Oregon put up a public sculpture by a local artist that depicted two naked men holding each other. It sparked a controversy on campus—the local newspaper wrote about it, the Board of Education and parents got involved, and students were split into two factions.

“Some people thought it was very bold and in support of the LGBTQ community,” said Mark Urista, who teaches public speaking and argumentation. “Others thought it was inappropriate and a threat to their morals and values.”

When a big donor threatened to stop contributing to the school, “it turned into a full-on crisis,” Urista said.

Like most community colleges, Linn Benton has a very diverse student body, and it sits between two politically divergent counties: Linn County, which has voted for a Republican U.S. president since the 1970s; and Benton County, which has voted for a Democratic U.S. president since the 1980s.

“I thought it would be such a great topic for my argumentation class, but tensions were so high that I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up,” Urista said. “After one of my classes, two students came into my office and said, ‘We think the artwork is inappropriate and we want to debate it in class.’”

For Urista’s class, students must be prepared to argue both positions. Then, on the day of the debate, students flip a coin to decide whether they are for or against the topic—in this case whether the art piece should be kept up or removed, and why.

Before the debate, the two students created arguments that supported their own beliefs about why the art piece should be taken down. But they also pushed themselves to consider why it should stay up—even though this was in opposition to their views.

On the day of the debate, the two students flipped a coin and had a spirited debate. By the end, the whole class got out of their seats and applauded—it was one of the only times in Urista’s career that he’d ever seen a response like that to a debate.

“Afterward, the students told me, ‘You know Mark, we aren’t fans of the art work but we do have an issue with censorship,’” he said. “‘If we took it down, it could open the door for other things to be censored, too.’”

The debate made such an impact that Urista and the two students decided to do another one with a larger audience. They recruited two additional students and hosted a well-attended campus-wide debate.

In the end, the students of Linn Benton were able to have a productive dialogue by embracing bridging practices such as perspective taking and giving, and by providing an avenue for students to argue both sides. The conversation led to a new policy for racy art work that warned students they would see something that might feel inappropriate to their culture or beliefs. They formed a Debate Club to tackle similar issues on campus, and administrators at Linn Benton Community College—all the way up to the president—made public statements about the need for understanding and relationships across differences.

Bridging Differences Playbook

“This is exactly the kind of thing that should be happening on a college campus,” Urista said.

2. Bridging campus and community at Bethel University

Carrie Olinger (Bethel student) and Melvin Giles (co-facilitator of the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance)Carrie Olinger (Bethel student) and Melvin Giles (co-facilitator of the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance)© Tenden Brekke

Tanden Brekke works as the assistant director for community engagement at Bethel University, a private, evangelical Christian university. For more than 20 years, the university has run programs with Frogtown, a neighborhood in St. Paul just a few miles south of the campus.

While Bethel is predominantly a white and Christian institution, the Frogtown neighborhood is composed of people with a diversity of identities, including faith, race, and economics. Frogtown has also been negatively impacted by policies that have further marginalized people, especially communities of color and the poor. At the same time, Brekke said, Frogtown has emerged as a leader in addressing social injustices.

“Initially, there was some white saviorism at play with this engagement,” Brekke said. “It was this idea that ‘we need to contribute to the community because they need our help.’”

One of Brekke’s predecessors acknowledged the importance of combating that one-directional saviorship in favor of listening and coming from a place of humility. Through this process, they established a more mutual relationship, which transformed the community engagement program from “what can we do for them?” to “what can we do for each other?”

Through the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance, students work full-time in the Frogtown community during the summer to learn about urban agriculture, food justice, and environmental racism. This exposes many of them to communities they’ve never interacted with, and it expands their views. Sometimes, there is a conflict between students and community members.

For one student who felt challenged by Black elders, said Brekke, “it was empowering for that student to realize what it means to be white, to follow the leadership of people of color, and to claim their own voice in this process.”

It’s clear that students are taking away a lot from these community engagement projects, but Brekke said the trickier part is ensuring Bethel is also having a positive impact on the Frogtown community.

“We spend a lot of time trying to listen and being honest about what we can and can’t contribute,” Brekke said. “Bridging is also internal work because we have to be willing to ask ourselves what it means to be Christian, and be willing to be changed by others . . . which can feel exciting, challenging, and fearful.”

3. Mindfulness and emotional regulation skills for students in Pennsylvania

Lia Howard
Lia Howard© Photo by Don Henry


Before teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Lia Howard taught a big introductory class on American politics at Saint Joseph’s University. It felt like a “normal” academic course for Lia until everything shifted during the 2016 presidential election season. Topics that hadn’t felt emotional before now created a visceral tension in the classroom.

“I’d write a quote from James Madison [and the classroom] would erupt into anger,” she said. “There was so much emotion in the room and it was qualitatively different to teach political science after the 2016 elections.”

That semester changed everything for her. She realized that the civic fabric for the country needed repair, so she transitioned from being a full-time faculty member to a nonprofit that works on constructive dialogue efforts.

Now at the University of Pennsylvania with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Paideia Program, she’s teaching a class on political empathy and deliberative democracy. In the class, she’s pairing students and creating a space for them to have a dialogue about their diverse experiences of living in this country.

In one assignment, students go on a walking tour in Philadelphia with a peer and immerse themselves in the city. They have conversations about what they’re seeing and hearing, and what it’s bringing up for them.

In another assignment based on the book Our Patchwork Nation, students explore the country’s complex cultural and political landscape by “taking on” the views of people who are different from them. For instance, a student might deeply absorb the mindsets and behaviors of a community that is connected to the military, or those working in agriculture on rural lands.

Howard infuses mindfulness and wellness into the curriculum, and she’s trying to norm the conversations to ensure they’re productive. As she learned during the 2016 elections, teaching a course on politics is full of emotions—and students must develop individual techniques like self-distancing so they can self-regulate when activated by heated topics, and learn to communicate across differences with compassion. These are 21st century skills that students can take into their work and life.

“With the class, the purpose is to get students to see they’re connected deeply to other people,” she said. “They can’t just ‘turn off’ because they don’t agree, they have to try to listen, care, and be connected to each other.”

4. Negotiating power imbalances during a pandemic

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the social and political landscape of college campuses. Universities shifted classes online, debated mask and testing and vaccine policies, and aligned with or defied local and national regulations. Even at the administration, faculty, and staff levels, there was heated debate about what universities should do in response to the pandemic.

Jacqueline Young, a project manager at Howard University, said it has been a tense and difficult time for her campus and many others across the country.

“Some faculty had more power to push back and say, ‘I’m not coming back to teach and I’m going to go online,’” Young said. “While I felt like some staff members didn’t have as much of a voice that we could or should have.”

While everyone was hearing about COVID-19 protocols through initiatives like town halls, Young said, many sessions were done in silos—one call for staff, and another for faculty.

Like most campuses, even before COVID, there’s sometimes this unspoken and unconscious hierarchy that exists between faculty and staff. Even if you come together for a social event like a holiday party, the work that faculty, staff, and administrators do is not always integrated well.

“Being in academia and not being the Ph.D. person can make you feel like an outsider,” Young said.

Still, Young found ways to bridge on Howard’s campus between staff and faculty. She pitched an idea called “What’s Really Happening in the Virtual Classroom?” During the staff-organized session, faculty from across the university spoke about the challenges they were encountering while teaching in the virtual classroom, with the goal of learning from one another, building compassion and sympathy, and swapping best practices.

The program was successful at raising attention to needs across the university, from counseling to new technology. Something that came up from faculty that Young mentioned in particular: the need for more staff.

“It sparked a more public conversation about how the coronavirus was impacting teachers, students, and especially the staff who support them,” she said.

Young wants to see more bridging opportunities that bring together staff and faculty at universities.

“COVID exposed a lot to all of us about how we communicate,” she said. “Bridging should become a norm on campuses everywhere so people come together across their differences, which includes the occupation they hold.”

5. Deepening diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in California

“I met yesterday with a group of college leaders who I greatly respect to discuss last week’s senseless killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota,” wrote the president of California’s Sierra College in June 2020. He continued:

The intent of the meeting was to determine what we could do, what steps we could take, to address the pain many of our students, staff, and faculty are experiencing. Pain caused by injustice in not only the case of George Floyd but other recent tragic deaths, including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among far too many others, that has created continual and compounded trauma for so many.

Later, the college released data demonstrating that Black and Brown students are disproportionately being called in for conduct by campus security. The college was effectively naming their participation in racist systems, and encouraging everyone across the campus to exercise their power to respond and enact change.

Megan D’Errico, an associate dean for Sierra College, has been involved with figuring out what kind of action to take—and she’s found that it starts with utilizing bridging skills like challenging our views and active listening.

As a result of that effort, the college launched campus-wide initiatives, such as shifting its hiring practices and devoting more resources to Black student success. They’re sitting down with Black students to hear their stories, and finding ways to amplify their voices. They are also synthesizing the data.

During a planning session to take an initial look at the stories and data they were gathering, D’Errico led an exercise she learned from the Bridging Differences course to challenge the views of faculty, staff, and administrators.

The exercise helped participants focus on individuality rather than group identity and supported them with challenging their unconscious biases. They became more curious and open before jumping into the work, and D’Errico said it was also a great way to get to know each other as colleagues in a deeper way.

When reviewing data for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, the bridging practice of challenging our views and assumptions is critical. This prevents the solutions from being too generalized, or based on stereotypes or stigma about a certain student population group.

The outcome of the planning sessions was a week of campus programming focused solely on Black student success. Throughout this effort, everyone is being asked: What can you do based on the role or position you have on campus? Whether they’re a part of student services to the faculty, or if they’re students themselves, everyone has a role to play to advance the mission of Black student success, D’Errico said.

These are just five stories of bridging happening in higher ed across the country. For this academic year starting last fall, the Greater Good Science Center has been bringing together more than 50 other leaders like the five mentioned in this story—from other diverse campuses including faith-based institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and private and state universities to community colleges. These stories demonstrate what so many are feeling on campuses everywhere—a complex and sometimes tense culture where bridging is a required act from all, including faculty, administrators, staff, and students.

What’s happening in higher education is a microcosm for society. If we can figure out ways to bridge effectively in these formative spaces, we might discover tools and insights into how heterogeneous groups around the world can work, live, play, and pray together.

Where People in 17 Countries Find Meaning in Life

Where People in 17 Countries Find Meaning in Life


A new report asked people around the world what made their life meaningful during the pandemic.

In the first half of 2021, the Pew Research Center surveyed almost 20,000 people in 17 countries. Their question was simple: “What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying?”

Each of these advanced economies—including Canada, France, Greece, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan—was having a different experience at the time. Some were ravaged by COVID-19 and some had very low case counts; many were in economic doldrums, while others were doing fine. In some of these countries, people traveled freely; in others, like Australia and New Zealand, movement was severely curtailed. And, of course, each country has a different culture and history, often encompassing many regional or minority traditions, values, and dialects.

Coders analyzed people’s open-ended responses for themes, which were separated into categories like family, friends, institutions, work, hobbies, and pets. In some ways, the overall results weren’t surprising. “Family is preeminent for most publics but work, material well-being, and health also play a key role” in people’s sense of meaning, write the researchers in their report. Indeed, people ranked family as their main source of meaning in 14 out of the 17 countries.

But what about those other three? The report gets interesting when we drill down into the results, to discover how varied meaning seems to be among human beings. While the findings suggest that there is no single “truth” for all people everywhere, they do reveal what we have in common—and how where we live might shape our search for meaning in life.

1. Some places embrace many sources of meaning—but some don’t

Since the question was open-ended, people could answer in many different ways.

For example, people in some countries tended to choose only one or two sources of meaning. In South Korea, a stunning 63% attributed meaning to only one thing—often material well-being—and a majority of Japanese also focused on one thing, usually either family or material well-being. In contrast, only a quarter of Americans and Australians mentioned only one source of meaning in their lives. In the United States, family, friends, and material well-being topped the list.

Despite this diversity, however, there is a common thread that runs through multiple domains of meaning: connection to others. People around the world feel that family, romantic partners, friends, community, and pets can all make life more meaningful—an insight that confirms decades of scientific studies into the roots of well-being.

2. Religion was almost never a source of meaning—except in the United States

“Outside of the U.S., religion is never one of the top 10 sources of meaning cited—and no more than 5% of any non-American public mention it,” write the researchers. “In the U.S., however, 15% mention religion or God as a source of meaning, making it the fifth most mentioned topic.”

Evangelical Protestants were the group most likely to look to religion to make their lives meaningful—often, it seems, because church provides a pathway to social connection. “My husband just died, so life is not very fulfilling right now,” wrote one respondent. “The support of family and friends, church, and his coworkers have helped me find meaning, as well as thinking about the good things we shared.”

No more than 1% of adults in France, Sweden, Belgium, South Korea, and Japan mentioned religion as a source of meaning. In those places and others, people were much more likely to turn to nature as a source of awe and meaning.

“We live in a country which has natural beauty and has a great deal of respect for nature which in turn helps us get a better connection to the country,” said an 18 year old in New Zealand, the country where people ranked nature most highly. “I like going outside, going for a run every day, and seeing blue skies, forests and the wonderful people and it has a positive impact on my mental health.”

3. Jobs were never a top source of meaning—but they usually ranked second or third

In no country did a substantial number of people claim their paying work was the primary source of meaning in their lives, but that doesn’t mean jobs were meaningless. They were among the top three sources in 12 of the countries surveyed. Work was most meaningful in Italy, mentioned by 43% of people, compared to the low of 6% in South Korea.

On average, the people most likely to find meaning in work were those under 50, as well as people with higher incomes and education. “The most important thing for me is work,” said one 25 year old in the Netherlands. “I think it is very important to build my career, to build my life, so that I’m doing better and better.”

However, people in many countries put the emphasis on material well-being, rather than work—indeed, it was one of the top five sources of meaning in nearly every country. In other words, people preferred to work in order to live, not the other way around, and derived fulfillment from daily life outside of work. This was most pronounced in South Korea, where paying work was rarely mentioned but material comfort was ranked as the number one source of meaning in life.

  • The Science of Happiness Course

    The Science of Happiness Course

    A self-paced, online course featuring research and practices on empathy, mindfulness, self-compassion, and more.


“I work and lead a comfortable life in these hard times without any major worries,” explained one South Korean woman. A woman in Belgium put it this way: “Although I don’t have that much money, it’s enough to live decently. I don’t need to be rich to be happy. I know that one needs money to live, but should not live for money.”

Beyond work and material well-being, people often found meaning in things they did, like hobbies, sports, travel, learning, and community service.

4. In many places, people found meaning in society and institutions—especially if their country responded well to COVID-19

Society and institutions all ranked among the top 10 sources of meaning in every country. People found meaning and satisfaction in the availability of social services and health care, a good economy, public safety, public transport, and a good education system.

This seemed to be especially true in Asia, where, for example, 38% of Taiwanese and a quarter of Singaporeans mentioned society and institutions as a source of meaning. It was the top source of meaning in Taiwan, above family, occupation, and material well-being.

Why? Taiwanese emphasized the ease of living on the island: “Food, clothing, housing, and transportation are all convenient. Life is safe and tranquil,” said one woman. “There are many convenient stores in Taiwan,” said another. “The public health insurance system is good; medical service is convenient.” They were also happy with their country’s political system. One woman said that she is “fortunate to live in Taiwan, especially in the aspect of public health, democracy, and the rule of law and human rights, because it is very free.”

Around the world, in places with an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people seemed to look to their governments and fellow citizens for meaning. In many Asian countries and in Australia and New Zealand, survey participants praised how well their governments handled the crisis—in stark contrast to other places, like the United States.

In some places, the pandemic simply helped people to see how important society and social contact were to them. “I find it remarkable how the COVID crisis affected our behaviors,” said one German man. “I, for one, appreciate very much personal contact with those around me.”

5. Hardships like COVID-19 can make life more meaningful—but only to a point

Things that are meaningful don’t always make us happy. When survey participants talked about family, society, or institutions as sources of meaning, they weren’t always positive—and hardships like economic distress or the pandemic were often mentioned as meaningful events. But challenges and difficulties can also interfere with our search for fulfillment; a median of 10% of people across all 17 societies mentioned examples of this.

“Notably, Americans who mention something negative in their response are nearly 30 points more likely to bring up American society or where they live,” says the report. “Nearly half (41%) of those who bring up something negative in the U.S. mention society, compared with just 12% of those who do not mention anything negative.”

Responses to COVID-19 were especially complex. “In fact, how a topic like COVID-19 comes up—or doesn’t—highlights where the commonalities end and the differences between these 17 advanced economies emerge,” write the authors of the report. A median of 65% said that the coronavirus changed their lives “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” ranging from a low of 33% in New Zealand to a high of 87% in South Korea. Around the world, people under 30 were most likely to say that the pandemic changed their lives.

While some people felt that the pandemic made their lives meaningless, others saw it as an invitation to reflect on their lives and the importance of social connections, government, and a strong, cohesive society. “I had COVID and it was the scariest thing and it really changed my outlook on life,” said one American woman. Here’s a Dutch man describing how COVID-19 imbued simple health-maintenance routines with meaning:

What I find important for a fulfilling life are things like: to do sports, meaning active exercise two to three times a week; to eat a varied diet . . . now in this pandemic, you still have to make sure that you get enough exercise and try to bring structure into your life by making day or week schedules.

Through these results, a formula emerges for a more meaningful life: Stay connected with other people, and try to find the meaning in the things you do in daily life, like working, exercising, and volunteering. When hardship hits, look to something bigger than yourself—such as society, nature, or spirituality—for help and inspiration. People around the world find meaning in many different places. The trick is for you to discover where your own meaning lies.

11 Films that Highlight the Best in Humanity

11 Films that Highlight the Best in Humanity


It’s time for the Greater Goodies, honoring movies from the past year that exemplify optimism, love, empathy, and other keys to our well-being.

For many people, the past year was filled with ups and downs, to an unusual degree. Widespread vaccination against COVID-19 allowed our worlds to open up a bit more, but that promise of greater freedom seemed dashed when the Omicron wave rolled over us. That combination of hope and disappointment seemed to define 2021—and that’s true as well for the films we’re honoring this year with “Greater Goodies,” our version of the Academy Awards. We surveyed our contributors to ask them which films from the past year lifted them up or gave them insight about how humans get through difficult times. Here’s what they came up with.

The Bravery Award: Being the Ricardos

“I’m not funny,” Lucille Ball once said. “What I am is brave.”

You get the tiniest peek at how brave she could be in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s very soft look at a very bad week in 1953 for Ball (a tart Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Desi Arnaz (an affable Javier Bardem). She was America’s favorite redhead, he was her glamorous bandleader husband, and they were adored by millions who watched their pioneering sitcom “I Love Lucy.” But not everyone loved Lucy—sometimes not even Lucy and Desi themselves.

Lucy and Desi come off like nastier, edgier versions of their TV alter egos. “Lucy, I’m home,” Desi announces right at the start of the film at their real house. “Where the hell have you been, you Cuban dimwit?” she bellows. A minute later, they are pawing at each other, instigating a push and pull that continues throughout the movie.

The bigger drama arrives when powerful gossipmonger Walter Winchell drops a bombshell about Ball into his radio broadcast: “The most popular of all television stars was confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” Joe McCarthy was hunting supposed communists and the Hollywood blacklist was in full effect; Winchell’s item was potentially career-killing and life-destroying.

Being the Ricardos is lively, chatty, and somewhat odd. It’s also an inspiring portrait of one woman’s bravery in facing her husband’s infidelity at home and the Red Scare in public. — Andrea King Collier

The Bridging Differences Award: CODA

“You’re the girl with the deaf family—everyone but you? And you sing…interesting,” observes Mr. V, new director of 17-year-old Ruby’s choir. As a child of deaf adults (C.O.D.A.), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member in her working-class, fisherman’s family.

From the start of this film, it’s clear that Ruby, like most teenagers, longs to individuate from her parents, but she feels weighed down by her responsibilities to them. She thinks they need her, as translator, business partner, and advocate. Yet she also finds herself nervously stumbling into a new elective choir course at school—and discovering that she has an exquisite singing voice that no one had ever heard before.

The film’s most poignant scenes feature her family’s communication struggles and victories, ranging from stark disconnection to profound emotional resonance. For example, CODA’s director cuts off all sound during Ruby’s rousing choir performance so that we experience the same painful, cavernous silence that her family does as they sit in the audience.

After the performance, Ruby’s dad is quiet and pensive. He wants to feel her joy, too—and to understand why music is so precious to her. So, he asks her to sing to him in their backyard later that evening. They are almost uncomfortably close as he tenderly places his hands on her throat, sensing the vibrations in her voice.

That moment of recognition and deep connection shifts the trajectory of the film. As Ruby expresses herself and is “heard,” she feels new agency in her life, and so does her family. “Let them [this community] figure out how to deal with deaf people,” says her brother. “We’re not helpless.” — Amy L. Eva

The Care Award: C’mon, C’mon

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely videographer immersed in a project interviewing kids about their thoughts about the future. His work is interrupted, though, when his estranged sister Viv (Gabby Hoffman) asks him for a favor: She needs him to watch her son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while she goes to assist her ex-husband, who’s having a psychotic episode.

Johnny agrees to help, and shifts from his bachelor solitude to being a caregiver to his nephew. But while you might expect silly comedy to ensue from this set up, C’mon, C’mon goes in a very different direction—aided, in part, by its being filmed in black and white, which creates a particular mood. Jesse has lost his father to mental illness and is clearly affected, creating imaginary worlds and elaborate rituals to help him cope. But, though just a kid, he doesn’t want to be pandered to—he wants answers to difficult questions, something that Johnny is not sure he’s equipped to give.

When his time with Jesse becomes unexpectedly extended, Johnny decides to take Jesse on his travels to interview kids, teaching him how to be an assistant videographer. Interspersed throughout the movie, these unscripted video interviews (conducted with actual kids, not actors) add substance to the story, revealing kids’ inner lives and their universal need to be heard—especially by the adults around them.

While Johnny may think he’s only helping his sister out of a jam, it’s he who ends up getting the most from caring for Jesse. By growing his capacity for empathy and compassion, he learns to understand better his own pain, the importance of his relationships, and what brings meaning to one’s life. — Jill Suttie

The Hard-Earned Happiness Award: Encanto

This Disney animated film is about the Madrigal family—three generations living together in the mountains of Colombia.

Each member of the family is gifted a power by their magical house, like healing with an arepa, shape-shifting, or controlling the weather with your mind. They seem perfect and happy. Everyone except 15-year-old Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who was never gifted any powers.

But then the family’s power begins to weaken and the very foundation of their home begins to crack. Mirabel goes on a mission to find out why. In the process, she discovers that things are not as perfect as they seem. The siblings are unhappy. They put on a facade to support their family and their community, but they’re paying a price for being untrue to themselves.

For example, Louisa (Jessica Darrow), the eldest of three sisters in Maribel’s immediate family, can lift buildings and carry mountains—a metaphor for the weight that many eldest children know. The oldest child needs to support and nurture the rest. They’re taking care of others more than being taken care of. But under pressure, they can break.

Mirabel wasn’t given a magical gift. But in the quest to help her family, she develops her own gifts. She learns how to listen, to empathize, to work hard, and to have faith in her own strength and resilience. In doing so, she becomes the cornerstone of her family.

Encanto reminds us of a core value of the Greater Good Science CenterHappiness is not something that is given to you as a gift. Just like gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, it’s something that is cultivated through our own inner reflections and outer efforts. — Shuka Kalantari

The Wise Love Award: I’m Your Man

My son is on his high school robotics team. Their goal is to get a machine to do things that we humans take for granted: picking up a ball and putting it into a basket, for example.

It may seem counterintuitive to some, but the quest to make a machine that can replicate humans is really a quest to understand how humans work. In the German film I’m Your Man, Alma (Maren Eggert) is a lonely archeologist who is roped into testing Tom (Dan Stevens), an android designed to be her perfect partner—and in the process Alma and Tom reveal something about how love, imagination, and happiness interact in the human mind.

At the heart of I’m Your Man, we find a series of interlocking questions. Is love simply a matter of finding someone who will meet your needs, or is it about learning to be alone with another, autonomous person? What happens to humans when all our needs are met at the push of a button? What is the difference between addiction and love? Is our “soulmate” something we must earn, or can they be willed into existence? Can someone become your soulmate if they have no soul? Can we ever be at our best with someone who has no needs?

If you’re looking for black-and-white answers to those questions, I’m Your Man is not your movie. As the film ponders the distance between the ideal and the real person we choose as our attachment object, we discover that both are constantly changing—and so too is our happiness, as we evolve, and as we see our mates evolve. What’s the alternative? According to this movie, it’s to love wisely, thoughtfully, mindfully. — Jeremy Adam Smith

The Perseverance Award: King Richard

There is so much written about the rise of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams. But King Richard is the story of their father, Richard Williams, and his singular drive to get his daughters to the top.

Today we might call Williams, who is masterfully portrayed by Will Smith, a helicopter dad. But King Richard gives us some real insight into what parents could do to not only protect and nurture their children, but show them that they can do or be anything with hard work and belief.

The portrayals of Black men as fathers and family members in film often omit fierce love and the desire for a better life. Richard Williams is a flawed person, and we get to see that. But we also get to see what makes him tick—and I was touched by his understanding that his girls also needed to have a childhood. For example, he rejects high-end tournament play for them as youngsters, in order to give them that anchor of normalcy.

Aunjanue Ellis gives a stellar (and Oscar-nominated) performance as the Williams girls’ mother Oracene. She is every bit as fierce in her mission to help lift her children up, but she is also determined to support the girls, even when Richard gets caught up in his focus for them. Despite the focus on the father, this movie is a wonderful success story about an entire American family. — Andrea King Collier

The Optimism Award: Licorice Pizza

When 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman) first meets 25-year-old Alana (Alana Haim), she’s assisting a photographer at his high school, and he’s in line to have his portrait taken. Immediately, he’s smitten with her and asks her out to dinner. While Alana has zero interest in dating a kid, she’s intrigued by his charisma and bravado—and she ends up meeting him for dinner anyway.

So begins this quirky coming-of-age story set in 1970s San Fernando Valley, California. Gary, a former child actor, is the eternal optimist and will not take “no” for an answer—in love or in life. He uses his wit, charm, and perseverance in pursuing Alana, as well as in ventures like a waterbed business. Alana, in turn, develops a warm friendship with Gary and tags along with him through a series of adventures and misadventures.

Gary’s self-confidence is endearing, and, as it turns out, a winning strategy. His attitude begins to rub off on Alana, spurring her to pursue new opportunities and gain self-esteem and agency. While her feelings for him zigzag throughout the movie, his youthful optimism and clear, loving attention toward her are just what she needs. — Jill Suttie

The Authenticity Award (tie): Passing

Passing is based on the 1929 novel by a Black author, Nella Larsen. It tells the story of two light-skinned Black women, childhood friends, who have “European” features. When they run into each other after many years in a segregated New York restaurant, they’re both passing as white. Irene (Tessa Thompson) is just passing for the afternoon in order to enjoy tea. For Clare (Ruth Negga), passing is a way of life. She has opted to live her life freely as a white woman, married to a white man.

Her husband doesn’t know her secret. In fact, when we see him talking about Black people, he is full of disdain and even hatred. But Clare brushes it off in order to live the comfortable life she has chosen. Irene has carved out a comfortable life, too, on different terms. She’s married to a prominent Black physician, and they both enjoy a robust social life in Harlem. After Clare inserts herself into Irene’s life, the tension is palpable. Each of the women is curious about the other one’s life; both of them doubt their own choices. As their lives intertwine, tragedy looms.

Passing doesn’t make any big loud pronouncements about race or racism in America. It instead shows how Black people shape-shift to survive in a racist society. It raises a question for all viewers: If you could make your life easier, and more comfortable, and safer by leaving family and friends to embrace a new identity, would you? There’s an answer embedded in the story: If you do choose to pass as something that you’re not, you always pay a price. — Andrea King Collier

The Authenticity Award (tie): The Power of the Dog

Toxic masculinity gets an innovative face lift in The Power of the Dog—and raises questions about what happens when you’re not able to live authentically.

In 1920s Montana, we meet the film’s main character, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). We learn that he probably had a secret homosexual relationship with an older friend and mentor, who eventually dies. Ashamed and unable to share that part of himself, Phil shows aggression toward those who don’t live up to his hyper-masculine standards.

Enter Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the son of a widower who runs a local boarding house, who openly betrays the gender norms of the wild, wild west. The film centers on the initial tension and eventual metamorphosis of their relationship.

Never has the Western film genre explored themes of gender and sexuality with such beautiful cinematography, scoring, and poignant juxtaposition. The movie makes the viewer think about how social norms can harm society as well as the individuals perpetuating those norms.

When Peter is openly taunted by Phil about making paper flowers, an act deemed to be for a woman, Peter proudly accepts responsibility, as if oblivious to any gender norms that forbid him from such artistic expressions. And at the same time he is fiercely protective of his mother. Peter’s authenticity affords him curiosity and vulnerability, while Phil’s shell brings him, and those around him, only anger and sadness.

Unfortunately, a recent comment by the movie’s director Jane Campion (which touched upon another film on this list, King Richard), suggests that she could benefit from a widening of her own lens to understand how the theme of her movie can be applied to a variety of marginalized groups. — Shanna B. Tiayon

The Joyful Diversity Award: Summer of Soul

The Harlem Cultural Festival ran for six weeks in 1969–100 miles away from another big concert you might have heard of, in Woodstock, New York.

As the documentary Summer of Soul unfolds, we go well beyond this one event to see the rest of America through Black eyes at the end of the ’60s. A method emerges: As each act takes the stage, director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson threads present-day interviews with both artists and audience members through the performances. We discover the cultural significance of each band and the conflicts they embodied.

For example, members of the 5th Dimension talk about sounding white but being Black, and what it meant to them to be received by a Harlem audience. The gospel groups explore the tensions between their Christian faith and politics of the day, and we are able to see how the Black church incubated so much talent. There are Latino and African performers, as well, which allows Questlove to talk about East “Spanish” Harlem and the emergence of the Young Lords Party, as well as the struggles in Africa against apartheid and European colonialism.

Along the way, we discover why Sly and Family Stone looked and sounded so revolutionary in their time. We see Nina Simone as a charismatic elder stateswoman whose political and musical radicalism felt and still feels dangerous. We hear some brilliantly insightful commentary from Greg Tate, the legendary music critic who passed away last year.

“We are not African, we are not European, we are a new people,” says a young and vibrant Jesse Jackson onstage. “We are a beautiful people.” In Summer of Soul, you can hear the voice of that new people—and it is, indeed, beautiful. — Jeremy Adam Smith

The Revolutionary Representation Award: Turning Red

Although more than half the human population will experience menstruation, precious few films touch the topic. Pixar’s Turning Red centers this important human experience in a movie that’s both hilarious and heartwarming.

Director Domee Shi, the first Asian woman to direct a feature film for Pixar, centers a Chinese Canadian girl, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), whose hormonal changes turn her into a giant red panda whenever her emotions become volatile, in a metaphor for puberty.

The movie is smart and charming, showing Meilin and her group of best girlfriends plotting to attend a boy band concert. Meilin’s plans are nearly thwarted by her overprotective mother (Sandra Oh), in an expansive sub-theme about growing up in a Chinese immigrant family.

Domineering Asian moms are practically a cliché these days, but Oh’s vocal talent adds depth and empathy to her character—and Pixar’s animators nail Oh’s real-life expressive eyebrows perfectly.

And while the film’s witty imagery and wild plot twists have fun with the tropes of ’90s adolescence, from Tamagotchi to boy-band choreography, it takes its heroines’ budding (straight) sexuality seriously, inviting audiences to laugh with them, never at them.

Turning Red is a revolutionary production that for once does not hypersexualize or objectify Asian girls and women for the white-male gaze, but shows us in our human complexity: funny, fierce, confused, complicated, and even, yes, at times as smelly and hairy and wild as a giant red panda. — May-lee Chai

What Does Justice for Animals Look Like?

What Does Justice for Animals Look Like?

By HOPE REESE | Greater Good Magazine

According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, animal justice means allowing animals the freedom to live full lives.

Should a hummingbird be able to be a plaintiff in court? According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the answer is yes.

In her new book, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility, the distinguished professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago offers a new theory of animal justice that is meant to inform our law and policy. Her theory is based on the “capabilities approach,” which looks not only at the harm done to animals, but whether we’re infringing on their freedom to live full lives.

Granting animals the rights, under the law, that they deserve has never been so urgent, Nussbaum contends.

Animals are being threatened as a direct result of human activity. “The habitats of large land animals are shrinking. In the seas, plastic trash is choking whales and dolphins,” she says. “Oil drilling is polluting the sea with [damaging] noise. And in the skies, air pollution is choking migratory birds.”

“Human domination is doing a lot of harm,” says Nussbaum. “We need to forge a human consensus to do something about the problem.”

Nussbaum hopes her theory could be integrated into a “virtual constitution,” adopted across the globe. She believes that the most egregious offenses—factory farming, puppy mills—should be the first we shut down.

I talked with Nussbaum about how we should think about animal rights and how laws might change to allow animals to live peacefully and freely. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Hope Reese: Why now, more than at any point in history, should we consider animal rights?

Martha Nussbaum, Ph.D.Martha Nussbaum, Ph.D.

Martha Nussbaum: Science has made enormous progress in the last 30 years. It’s clear that animals are not brute beasts; they have complicated forms of perception, some of which humans don’t even have. There’s a lot of evidence that animals have complicated behaviors—social behaviors that are learned, not just genetic. They are like humans—they develop their behaviors through learning.

Thirty years ago, people thought birds had no intelligence at all. They thought, “Oh, if you don’t have a neocortex, you don’t have any intelligence.” But birds, by a different evolutionary path, have converged on a lot of the abilities that humans and other mammals get through the neocortex. And they’re some of the most intelligent creatures. They communicate in languages that even involve syntax. They do wonderful feats of social interaction. They’re also really resourceful in the way they plan ahead. Birds can navigate by sensing magnetic fields. That’s something that humans can’t do.

HR: Why is it important that animals have social learning?

MN: The key behaviors of marine mammals are learned through social teaching. They’re not automatons; they’re much more like humans than we thought. It tells us what harm we do when we rip their social fabric apart. When we kidnap young whales and put them in a theme park, this deprives them of the chance to learn to be a whale or a dolphin—just as a human being who’s brought up without any human company would be deformed beyond recognition.

HR: What kind of animals should be granted justice, in your view?

MN: It’s important to ask which animals are sentient—that is, capable not only of feeling pain, but of having a point of view of the world. Right now we believe that vertebrates and many invertebrates have those capacities. Scientists think the crustaceans probably don’t and that insects probably don’t. It’s important to develop ethical criteria, but then to be prepared to use them in accordance with what we know.

HR: What is the difference between your theory and others? Why do you think yours is better?

MN: The Nonhuman Rights Project does a lot of litigation on behalf of animals, using what I call the “so-like-us” approach—which judges animals by an alleged likeness to human beings, using the old traditional idea of a ladder of nature with us securely at the top. It’s a religious idea, which means we’re closer to God and the others straggle behind.

Steven Wise uses this approach because he thinks he’ll be able to make progress on behalf of animals such as elephants, that he judges to be very human. But if you use the wrong approach, it sends you down the wrong path. It means that these animals are cut off legally and morally from the other animals who are suffering greatly, and who are very intelligent in their own way. It also presents a false picture of nature. There is no vertical ranking of creatures—each has their own idiosyncrasies, their own abilities. What we really should be doing is relating to each creature in its own way.

The utilitarian view of Jeremy Bentham and Principles of Morals and Legislation issued a clarion call for concern for animals. He pointed to the fact that animals are just as capable of suffering and dying as humans are. He thinks suffering is the key thing. The problem with that is, first of all, it’s an average. It doesn’t look at the world in terms of how each being gets to live. It asks: What is the average pleasure or the average pain? So it has trouble doing justice to those who are at the bottom of society’s ladder.

Animals need freedom from pain. Absolutely. But they also need sociability with creatures of their own kind. They need stimulation of their senses. They need to have a diverse sensory environment, which they would seek out if they could. And they need to have room to move around. Elephants typically cover 200 miles a day. We need to know these things about creatures—and the utilitarian approach doesn’t capture that.

The important thing is for each animal to have opportunities. I do think, over time, there can be convergence between these theories.

HR: What do animal rights currently look like, legally? You mention a case involving whale protection in your book.

<em><a href=“http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1982102500?ie=UTF8&tag=gregooscicen-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1982102500”>Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility</a></em> (Simon & Schuster, 2023, 400 pages)Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility (Simon & Schuster, 2023, 400 pages)

MN: The U.S. Navy sonar program is now ruled illegal because it disrupts the behavior of whales. Well, the question was, what’s bad? If you thought that only pain is bad, then you would think the sonar program is good because it does not inflict pain. But it does disrupt life activities. For example, interrupting reproduction, interrupting migration, creating heightened emotional stress.

This law that’s been on the books for a very long time, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, was not held to create any problems for the U.S. Navy’s sonar program. But when judges really looked at whales and looked at how they live and act, they realized that these disruptions caused an adverse impact.

HR: So you argue that the whales themselves should have the right to go to court as plaintiffs of a legal action, right?

MN: Standing means the ability to go to court as the plaintiff of an action. You have to show under the law of standing that you’ve suffered a particularized injury.

[Right now,] to challenge harm to animals, some human has to be able to go in and say, “I have suffered a particularized injury because of this abuse.” And only certain kinds of injuries are admitted. But where are the animals?

Of course, animals don’t walk into court themselves. But neither do most humans. We always have lawyers. Furthermore, there are lots of humans who have guardians: young children, people with severe cognitive disabilities, elderly people with severe cognitive disabilities, and so on. But those people, because they’re human, have legal standing.

HR: Hypothetically, if animals are granted this right to defend themselves or have somebody defend them, how does that work?

MN: There are many humane organizations and NGOs trying to get into court representing animals. In the whale case, at least the Natural Resources Defense Council was allowed to go to court on behalf of the whales—that was a departure from previous practice. But that’s always tricky and it requires judges who are sympathetic.

If the whales themselves would be the plaintiffs, then the NRDC would be their legal representative. There are many other organizations. The Humane Society of the United States does a lot of litigation on behalf of puppy mills. There’s no shortage of qualified representatives. And the more local it is, the easier it is to do relief.

In Chicago, we have a Department of Child and Family Services where if I witness any abuse to a child on main campus, I am required as a mandatory reporter to call up the D.C. office and report that. I’m proposing something similar for animals. Of course, these things are covered by law, but the laws are not enforced. So the way we get enforcement is to have this mandatory reporting mechanism where people are required to call up the Department of Animal Welfare and report that I saw a dog being detained or I saw a dog that looks malnourished.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act have been delegated to certain federal departments like the Department of Commerce. The thing is that their hands are tied—no one can really sue.

If animals had standing, then those departments—in addition to some humane organizations—would be their legal representatives.

HR: This subject is personal to you—your daughter, Rachel, an animal rights lawyer, died in 2019. What did you learn, and how are you trying to carry on her work?

MN: As I was doing the work with Rachel earlier, I learned a lot through her about whales and dolphins—because that was her particular passion. That was the biggest surprise.

During the work on the book, I learned a lot more about farm animals, and pigs in particular. I really knew zero about birds. The pleasure of learning was so great—it didn’t actually change the direction of my theory, but it made me think it’s much more urgent.