The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser - Cambridge, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, September 21, 2012
Edward Glaeser

All those aggressive drivers, dreadful waiters, and clueless politicians may not be as terrible as we think. Instead of letting hatred cloud his judgment, economist Edward Glaeser says he prefers to see others as decent people doing the best they can.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in the presumption of decency.

While I like to think of myself as being as rational as an economist should be, I can get a little miffed at minor offenses that somehow appear to me, momentarily, as great villainy. In some of my more embarrassing moments, I’ve come to see law-abiding and therefore slow cab drivers as violators of the basic standards of taxicab decency, which, in my haste, I have convinced myself demand utterly break-neck speed. While my retribution may be limited to cutting their tips from 15 to 13.25 percent, I have then spent the next hour furious at the cab driver, his dispatcher, his country of origin, and pretty much anything else in my way.

Sadly, I have also privately vilified editors who have rejected my research, restaurants that haven’t taken my reservations, and even politicians who have had the audacity to push policies that I oppose. This is the type of folly that can be avoided with the presumption of decency.

Academics can be a little arrogant, and I am certainly among those who are quite comfortable thinking that I am right and that someone else is wrong. But it is one thing to think that someone else is misled and another to think that they are evil. We don’t hate the merely annoying or the purely pathetic. Hatred starts by believing someone to be a villain without decency. And hatred is a pretty good emotion to avoid. It is personally painful to hate. Hatred clouds our judgment and can lead us to make spiteful decisions that do no one any good.

There is a personal value — the presumption of decency — which counteracts the tendency to let hatred befuddle our reason. If we hold tightly to the view that people around us are as decent as ourselves, trying, like us, to muddle honorably through life, it is harder to turn them into villains and to turn ourselves into creatures of irrational judgment. Besides, I’m certainly no more decent than most of mankind.

The presumption of decency is not naiveté. Instead, it requires a certain amount of realism. If you expect perfection, you will spend your days being furious at irresponsible teenage babysitters and equally irresponsible politicians. A better approach is to recognize human frailty and to be generous in our judgments. Today’s political dialogues could particularly benefit from the recognition that both parties are led by imperfect but not terrible people, whose mistaken policies are more often the result of error than evil.

I don’t always succeed in presuming the decency of others, but I do my best. Like most people, I’m pretty flawed but trying to be decent, and I’m trying to believe the same about others.

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard where his research focuses on urban growth, and the role of cities in fostering and transmitting ideas. Glaeser is the author of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (2011, The Penguin Press).

Independently produced by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory, and Viki Merrick. Photo courtesy of WBUR/Phoebe Sexton.