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.
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.
The older I get, the less I care about friendship. What is interesting to me is our urge to define “friendship” or “friends”. Why do we want “friends” and why does this categorization matter to us? Why do we want to differentiate “friends” from those who are not? In my 20s, I cared a great deal too. Now I find it ironic. Just like the desire for “peace” is what incites “war”, our desire for “friends” is what induces loneliness, which in turn makes us crave for “friends” more.
So, one way to solve this problem is to stop categorizing and ranking friends. This is a good example of how language creates unnecessary problems. Thinking is the wrong tool for solving many of the problems we encounter in life. Not only that, in many cases, thinking is their cause. You cannot solve the problem of friendship by thinking; it creates the problem.
We walk funny if we start thinking about how we walk. When we start thinking about “friends,” we start acting funny in front of them.
For most specialized topics, we are not capable of evaluating any ideas or opinions on their own merits because we do not have sufficient understanding of the topics. So, credibility is not earned from making sense of things. Things make sense when they come from someone credible. We fool ourselves into thinking that what we heard was credible because it made sense. We don’t actually have that ability in most cases.
In order to become an authority, you have to gather your credibility first, like degrees, licenses, awards, endorsements, and institutional affiliations. Whether you actually know or understand anything is secondary. In short, fake it till you make it.
It’s superficial but there is no way around it as we cannot know everything to evaluate everything on its own merit. This is why politics is so superficial. We are making decisions on issues that we do not have sufficient knowledge of, yet we pretend like we vote based on facts and reason. I find this the biggest flaw of our political system.
“How do I look? Tell me the truth.” In this context, what do we mean by “the truth”? We mean we want the person to set aside her concerns about feelings, and tell us exactly what she sees and thinks. We do not mean the universal truth. There is no such thing anyway. Even the law of gravity can be proven false in the future through new scientific discoveries. When we use the word “truth”, we simply mean what we individually know and think. Even if someone presumably knows the universal truth, we are generally not very interested in that type of truth.
“Which is more important: truth or feelings?” To a question like this, I think most people would answer “truth.” Yet in practice, we do the opposite. We sacrifice the truth for the sake of managing people’s feelings. This is our ultimate lie about lying. When we teach our kids how to socialize, for the most part, we are teaching them how to tactfully lie or suppress the truth. But at the same time, we tell them that lying is bad and that they should always tell the truth.
Even though we do this left and right every day, when we discover that someone lied to us, we furiously retort, “You lied to me!” Why should this be a surprise? In order to survive in this society where this is the norm, we have to lie all the time. We shouldn’t be surprised when we are lied to.
To an autistic mind, this is one of the most difficult social conventions to understand and accept; lie but tell the truth. Since an autistic mind has trouble relying on his instincts to navigate the social situations, he must rely heavily on logic, but, from his logical perspective, “lie but tell the truth” does not compute. Not only that, an autistic mind has trouble understanding how people can lie and not know that they are lying, and accuse others of lying. If everyone can at least admit that they are lying all the time, it would be a lot easier to an autistic mind.
Just because this is how the majority of people prefer to interact with one another, it does not mean that it’s the right or better way. It’s just a convention established through the power of the majority. Just as women have to adopt the conventions established by men in the business world, autistic minds have to adopt this convention of lying and not be aware of it.
If it’s any consolation to autistic minds, the history of civilization has so far been progressing towards a more autistic way of communicating. That is, we humans are relying more and more on reason instead of feelings, instincts, or intuitions as a way to get along with one another with vastly different values and beliefs. Thankfully, we can now tell the type of truth that would have lead to our heads getting chopped many centuries ago.
Fear is a response to a real threat whereas anxiety is a response to a perceived threat. When you differentiate them in this way, I think it becomes clear that, as we age, the amount of fear we experience decreases and the amount of anxiety we experience increases. Why? I think because we can become immune to, or numb to, threats that are real as we experience more of them. This is why exposure therapies work for phobias like a fear of heights. But the opposite happens with imaginary threats; the more we think about them, the worse they get. The ultimate cause of anxiety is our own death, but death is not something we can experience first-hand, which means it can never be a real threat to us. Even to the last minute, death will always be an imaginary threat. So, as we get closer and closer to death, our anxiety keeps increasing, although our fears decrease.
It’s not that you should do it because it makes sense; it’s that what you should do makes sense after the fact. With the former, you are absolving yourself of responsibility by invoking higher—presumably more objective—authority. You might speak loudly, but your true voice can be hidden, never exposed to risk. In this, it makes no difference whether this authority is God or reason. This is what is perceived as arrogance, even if you act as a humble servant of God or reason.
People who debate about politics logically; I wonder what they are expecting. “Oh, you are right. My argument is logically flawed. OK. Now I’m on your side.” Try to recall if that has ever happened to you in your whole life.
Both politics and religion are positional. Logic was not the reason why they took particular positions in the first place. Logic was applied after the fact to rationalize their choices. So, no amount of logic will convince them to change their positions. When people logically debate about politics or religion, they are ultimately trying to justify and rationalize their own positions. In other words, they are talking to themselves.
If someone changes his political position after a logical debate, the credit goes almost entirely to the person who changed his mind, not to the person who debated him.
These positional issues make up the foundation of one’s self-image or ego. To change any of them would have a profound impact on how you stand in the world, and how you think of yourself. It is highly destabilizing and painful. J. Krishnamurti said “A confident man is a dead human being.” This makes sense in this light. Our confidence is built on these assumptions we make in our lives. When these assumptions are destabilized, we lose confidence. But to be open-minded and willing to change your fundamental positions, you have to sacrifice your confidence. Most people would rather feel confident because the alternative does not seem to offer any immediate benefit.
Our brains are indeed like muscles. We can train them constantly and look like bodybuilders, and not be good at any particular thing. For athletes like soccer players and marathon runners, excessive muscles get in the way of achieving their goals.