What does “Virtue is its own reward” mean? And, what does “virtue” mean? When I searched the web, I came across this video of Barry Schwartz speaking at a TED conference about virtue. In his case, he defines virtue as a moral and social concept. I believe this is the most common way that the word “virtue” is used. Despite my respect for his ideas on the paradox of choice, I disagree with his thesis on this topic. I think he got the order wrong. When you practice virtue as its own reward, what appears to be moral is actually not moral at all. It only appears so to other people who are observing your act.
I define “virtue” as disinterested beauty whose reward is itself. So, it does not need to have any external purpose, reason, or justification. If morality is what is motivating you to perform something, it is not virtue in my definition, because morality is a social construct, which means you would not practice it in non-social / non-moral situations (such as keeping your own house clean for its own virtue).
Interestingly enough, at the opening of his speech, Barry Schwartz lists typical tasks that janitors are responsible for, such as sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, etc.. I thought he was going to explain the virtues of them, but to my disappointment, he essentially used the list as matters that are unrelated to the concept of “virtue”.
I believe he has it backwards. Being able to find virtue in these mundane non-social tasks is the key to being able to perform any tasks virtuously, whether the task is social or not is irrelevant. For virtue to be its own reward, we have to be able to find the drive or the motivation within the task itself.
Being able to find virtue in mundane things like mopping the floor is not easy, but it can be done. Every time I peel an apple, I try to do it better than I did last time. I also try to be creative in my approach, not just simply repeat the same process every time. I also try to cut them into pieces that are perfectly geometric and identical; as if they were processed by a machine, which involves sharpening the knife perfectly too. Nobody notices my efforts, mainly because I usually eat them all myself. My effort to perfect or improve my apple peeling skill does not help, save, or inspire anyone, yet strangely, I get a feeling of satisfaction from this act.
I also find a strange sense of joy in washing dishes too. When I was a teenager, working for a sushi restaurant in Japan, my favorite thing was to wash dishes during the lunch rush hours. Even to this day, I enjoy it, constantly optimizing my movements. I also enjoy the feeling of water on my hands.
I believe there is some inherent (maybe even evolutionary or biochemical) reason we find joy in doing anything well. When you can enjoy mundane tasks for their own virtue, you can naturally extend your ability to social tasks also. In fact, there is no line between the two. When virtue is its own reward (in my sense of the term), any task at hand is disinterested, that is, it is not about you or anyone else. It’s like being able to admire a nude model without getting sexually aroused. You can do so only if you are able to efface self and others from the experience. When you are dealing with a social task, improving the society becomes the virtue of the task. You are not doing it for you or for the people of the society. You do them for their own virtue. In this scenario, there is no morality at all, but other people often project morality onto your act.
In fact, not all tasks performed for their own virtue are socially or morally beneficial or positive. Dynamite was originally invented with the intention of improving the safety of mining and construction workers, but it became a popular weapon in wars and has killed millions of people. (Einstein’s contribution to the development of atomic bomb is another example.) What I consider socially beneficial or morally correct, may not be so to others. Once we start debating “morality” in depth, we eventually come to a conclusion that nothing can be determined as right or wrong, and everything we do begins to look futile and pointless. For any arguments built on morality to work, they must rely on a certain degree of ignorance about what morality is. They wouldn’t hold water for anyone who are willing to question the premise of morality deeper. I find this type of arguments manipulative, and so try to avoid them. Any arguments based on “common sense” have the same problem.
Many people are willing to accept fantasy as logical truth in situations where emotional investment is significant. I think this TED conference was one such situation, because we are in the midst of trying to fix our economy which was devastated by the irresponsible Wall Street bankers. Morally-based arguments are useful in galvanizing people, but in the long run, I believe that they lose steam, and the reality will push the believers to other emotionally powerful arguments. In the world of “spirituality”, people often keep jumping from one guru to the next precisely for this reason.
This leads back to the significance of virtue as its own reward. Once you can do everything for its own virtue, you wouldn’t need to listen to any motivational speakers because the motivation lies within the task itself.
For the rich and powerful, the fact that everyone can vote in this country is a real nuisance. They would prefer it if they could just fight among themselves without the masses who they consider are too stupid and ignorant to make any judgment.
Imagine if you were a billionaire on Wall Street, and you want some bank regulations changed in your favor. Naturally, not all rich people would agree. You would have enemies you have to fight to get what you want. The problem, however, is that you cannot directly fight your opponents. You have to fight indirectly by helping the representatives on your side win the elections, but to do this, you would have to get the masses involved because they have the votes. The masses are not going to understand, or be interested in, any bank regulations. The fight would have to be about the issues that the masses can understand and relate to. So, you, as a Wall Street billionaire, have no choice but to figure out how to play up the issues that have nothing to do with the issues that matter to you.
In this manner, the election war is like a cockfight financed by the rich and powerful in order to make the masses vote in their favor. The control that the masses think they have over their own situations is an illusion. As an ordinary citizen, if you happen to get what you wanted as a result of the election, that is because your opinion happens to coincide with that of some rich and powerful people who orchestrated and manipulated the media circus.
This research by a Princeton professor is interesting in that he and his team have proved statistically what we all have been speculating about the rich and powerful. It’s not a conspiracy theory. And, reading the leaked emails of Hillary Clinton supports this too. They are feeding us this cockfight and trying to make us believe that we have the power to decide our future, when in fact we don’t. When the small number of rich and powerful disagree with the rest of us, they always get what they want. What they are really after are the issues that we are not even aware of. We are fighting over their decoys.
This is another problem of representative democracy where many issues are bundled into one representative. The politicians abuse their power over the issues that the public has no knowledge of.
Why do we end up with a binary choice in the US presidential election? Because people see it as a war. It is not an occasion where we express our values while we respect those of others. One side must be absolutely right, and the other absolutely wrong. So we wage a war in the name of righteousness.
So, why does a war lead to a binary choice? Because in order to defeat an enemy, we have to unite. “You’re either with us, or against us.” In the face of a common enemy, we are willing to suppress our differences in order to win. We must quell dissent within our own army, because, if we split, neither would be able to defeat the enemy. We have to force unity. We also have to discourage our soldiers from knowing too much about our enemy. They won’t be able to fight effecively if they develop too much sympathy or empathy towards the enemy. We also have to suppress independent critical thinking because ideas can spread like a virus and undermine the unity.
How is it possible for someone like Hitler to come to power through a democratic process? It is precisely through this type of peer pressure to conform and unite in order to fight the objects of our fear. It was not because the millions of Germans were inherently evil.
Our democratic process falls apart when we look at it as a war. We cannot harness the wisdom of crowds if the crowds are driven by hysteria and herd mentality. For our collective decisions to be wise, we need a diversity of opinions expressed honestly without peer pressure. We are destroying this mechanism when we look at the election as a war.
If someone built a gravity-defying flying saucer and said he doesn’t know how he did it, we might consider him a genius but not “intelligent.” The criteria by which we determine someone to be “intelligent” is use of logic. Use of logic is “intelligent” not because we can prove this claim, but because we defined “intelligence” as such.
In the split between the mind and the body, the former is seen as the intelligent part and the latter the dumb part, but the truly intelligent part is actually the body. It can convert matters into energy. It can move fluidly and efficiently. It can heal itself from cuts, bruises, and scrapes. It can fight pathogens. And, it can reproduce itself. The mind can comprehend only a fraction of what the body can do.
There is a practical reason why some philosophical writers use abstruse and/or cryptic language on purpose.
It can prevent people from rushing to judgement. It naturally repels people who expect everything to be a passive form of entertainment.
We love our enemies because they distract our attention away from ourselves. But it’s too much work for us to find our own enemies, so our two-party political system and the media create our enemies for us. But wait, there is even more. They supply the words we can repeat so we can vent our anger safely in our own echo chambers.
When we use the word “abstract”, we generally mean to say that it makes logical sense but lacks a connection to anything real. In this sense, “abstract painting” is a misuse of the word. It’s true that an abstract painting does not point to anything real but it’s because the painting itself is the beautiful object. The term is misleading in that it implies it is still a pointer, or a sign, that happens not to point to anything.
In fact, very few things are truly abstract. For instance, for most people, music theory is abstract. Even if they can understand it theoretically, it would feel abstract, especially if they don’t play any instruments. But it does not mean that music theory is inherently abstract. It’s only abstract to those who have not developed an intuitive sense through physical practice. Something being “abstract” is subjective.
Historically speaking, for most subjects we study, theories came after the fact. When we study any new subject, we tend to start from theories. This leads us to believe that theories came first for everyone. This is partly why many people struggle to understand abstract works of art; because they go in head first, instead of allowing themselves to just experience them first. Having nothing for their brains to process throws them off.
The word “radicalized” is used in the media as if it’s a fact that can be verified by scanning their brains with MRI. Someone joining ISIS or Al-Qaeda is a fact, but apparently, that isn’t enough for them. They somehow feel the need to alert the audience to the danger of someone’s inner transformation.
The use of the word “radicalized” seems to imply that anyone having radically different ideas about our society should be weeded out. The people who use that term must have some degree of unconscious (or even conscious) preference for normalized people. So, when they see a terrorist, what draws their attention is the fact that he is radically different from them. It’s a xenophobic expression. The media and our government are subliminally injecting a normative ideology by associating the idea of being radical with terrorists. We can be radical and be peaceful. Gandhi was radical. The media should just stick to facts.
Not that I was ever so into watching the Olympics but I’ve now completely lost interest in it. The thing is, human bodies have limitations. It is never going to be possible to run, say, 100m in a second. So obviously, we humans are going to hit a wall sooner or later. We cannot keep pushing our bodies. I think we have already hit the limit in most of the categories. So what is an athlete to do? Enhance their performance by unnatural means, whether it’s drugs, cutting edge science, or some sort of expensive technologies. It seems rather dehumanizing.
I think everything has its natural end beyond which it is counter-productive or meaningless to keep going.
When the first iPhone came out, it inspired our imagination and opened many possibilities for improving smart phones. Now it has reached a point where they are good enough for most things. It’s time for Apple to move on to something else. They can’t keep perfecting the same thing.
What makes human beings unique is creativity. In a field where we are expected to keep improving the performance given a rigid set of rules, creativity can’t flourish. If our bodies have hit the limit, then the only way that our creativity can be applied is towards something other than our bodies, like inventing performance enhancing drugs. But then It would turn into a drug war. So, it seems, at this point, a reasonable thing to do is to move on to something entirely different.