BOOKS: Most Good, Least Harm

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2009:

Most Good, Least Harm by Zoe Weil
Simon & Schuster (1230 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020),
2009. 192-page download; $14.00. 224-page paperback; $15.00.

Institute for Humane Education cofounder Zoe Weil’s latest
book, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World
and a Meaningful Life prescribes seven MOGO principles –MOGO is
short for “Most Good”–to build a viable future for our children and
our planet.


The MOGO principles begin with:
1) Live your epitaph, as how you would like to be
remembered. For example, Weil’s friend Khalif Williams “gave all he
had, took only what he needed, and would have loved you with all
his heart.” Khalif and his wife built a house from salvaged
material. They lived without running water and grew their own
vegetables. Electricity came from solar panels. Khalif Williams and
his family would be remembered as simple, decent people. Not
everyone wants to be remembered that way. Some want a legacy as
infamous killers or ruthless leaders. What would Idi Amin’s
self-written epitaph say?
2) Pursue joy through service. Weil suggests volunteer work
at a homeless shelter, senior center or a school. Monetary donations
are helpful for those who can afford to make them. Service can be as
basic as holding doors open or a smile. But people who define “Most
good” as just what is most good for them will not find joy through
service, and MOGO principles will not make them into nice people.
3) Make connections and build self-respect. Weil uses
T-shirts made in overseas factories as an example. Were they sewn by
child labor? Did the workers earn a decent wage? Is it better to
work in a sweatshop than to be unemployed? To follow MOGO
principles, be active in the world around you. Write to the
manufacturer and demand that fair labor standards be observed.
To do this, one must be motivated to exercise conscience.
Others are unlikely to try to follow Weil’s prescription.
4) Model your message and work for change. Weil uses anger
as an example. Animal and child abuse enrage her. “I try to
understand how I might use my anger to propel me toward efforts that
do good,” she says. Weil offers alternatives to expressing anger in
trying situations such as “counting to ten” and “taking deep breaths.”
These strategies have been incorporated into sermons,
classroom lessons, and anger management classes for well over 150
years. Yet the same exercises are often preludes to violence. Comic
actor Jackie Gleason burlesqued such advice in The Honey-mooners,
one of the first hit TV situation comedies. His oft-irate character
Ralph Kramden never followed through on fist-shaking threats to send
his wife Alice “Bam, to the moon!”–but only because neighbor Ed
Norton always arrived in mid-countdown.
Not every troubled household has an intervenor on cue, and
counting to ten and breathing deeply, like Kramden, have not erased
the need for domestic violence shelters.
5) Find and create community, Weil says. She offers a
variety of ways to become involved in a MOGO community. Weil suggests
posting notes in your local library or food co-op to encourage people
interested in MOGO living to meet. But if I saw an ad in my library
asking people interested in MOGO living to meet, and had not read
Most Good, Least Harm to write this review, I’d wonder if MOGOs
were a cult.
6) Take responsibility. Says Weil, “We may not be able to
single-handedly create a peaceful world, but we can strive to live
without causing avoidable violence and destruction.” Weil says that
we choose our actions. Only we determine how we will act.
This is true –but when the result is unfavorable we often
blame someone else, and often in a way that enables us to believe we
are taking responsibility when actually we are passing blame.
For example, some parents “take responsibility” for their
children’s education by suing the school when their children fail.
7) Strive for balance. Weil offers no simple guideline
here. Lots of people make huge efforts to improve the world, and
have for a long time. But others don’t care what happens around
them. Some are so beaten down by unrelenting poverty, nagging
hunger, and overall despair that striving for balance is far beyond
their capacity.
Weil talks about food. A vegetarian diet will spare
animals, cut down on heart disease, and reduce obesity. Buying in
bulk, as Weil recomends, can make natural foods affordable for
those on a budget.
Unfortunately, Weil is not looking at reality. Nearly 63%
of the American public are overweight by medical definition. They
might feel better if they followed Weil’s advice, but Weil needs to
consider why so many people eat fast food, which may be bought and
eaten while driving, instead of shopping and cooking.
“Take stock of your job or career,” Weil advises. “Is your
work doing more than paying the bills?” In today’s weak economy,
most people cling to their jobs, if they still have jobs. With
unemployment at a 30-year peak, this is not the time for people to
leave jobs to seek more meaningful work. Advice about how to find
more meaning in the work that readers have might be more appropriate.
Weil seems to be a thoughtful, giving person who has high
standards of herself, family and friends. But expecting people to
live the rugged lifestyle of her friend Khalif Williams is
unreasonable. Weil dreams of a kinder, more humane world where all
people are treated fairly. In her world, animal suffering ends.
There is nothing wrong with those dreams, but the fight for social
justice is as old as recorded history. Animal rights activism is
nothing new and neither is recycling. Volunteerism has been around
for centuries.
We live in a challenging world. Foreclosures leave people
homeless. Corporate giants like General Motors and Citibank are on
the verge of collapse. Middle class people scrape by on food stamps.
Thousands of pets are surrendered to shelters because their owners
can’t care for them.
The turnaround we need requires a combination of wit, skill,
cooperation among nations, and perhaps even a bit of luck. The path
to inner peace will have to wait until the world is a bit more
stable.

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