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.
You are standing in front of an elephant, and I’m standing behind it. Your experience of the elephant is different from mine, so we try to bridge the gap by describing our experiences in words. We are all constantly trying to bridge these gaps in our lives. When the gap is too large to bridge with words, we feel frustrated and lonely, like nobody in the world can understand what we are going through. We reluctantly accept the reality that some of our experiences will be inexplicable, and that we will have to manage them on our own. From time to time, we say, “Nobody understands me,” and feel sorry for ourselves. I think this is a common sentiment but it has a big assumption: Differences in our experiences lead us to loneliness. We assume that if others could be in our shoes, they would think and feel the same way. But is that true?
Suppose we could be omnipresent. I can experience what you are experiencing from the front of the elephant at the same time I’m experiencing it from behind. And, let’s imagine that we were born this way, so I’ve experienced everything you’ve experienced in your life, and vice versa. Even if our experiences were exactly the same, we would still think differently because our brains are structured differently. It’s like going to a movie theater together; although our experiences would be very similar, our thoughts could be very different. This difference in our thoughts would still motivate us to bridge the gap even if the experience is the same. The differences in experience in and of themselves do not cause feelings of loneliness.
We are actually creating the gaps by thinking about our experiences. That is, as soon as we try to describe our experiences in words, we create the gaps. Our assumption is wrong. Language is not a tool to bridge our gaps. Language creates the gaps. The more we use language to close our gaps under the false assumption, the greater the gaps will be. It’s like drinking from the ocean to quench our thirst; we think language is the solution when in fact it is the cause of the gaps.
I never talk about what I’m grateful for in life. If someone puts me on the spot to answer, within myself, I sense resistance to putting it into words. It’s like how some cultures believed photography can steal their souls. Language, or any system of representation like photography, is a tool to represent what is not there. Words or photos therefore have the effect of reminding us of what is lacking in them. Even in situations where the thing or the person we described in words or in photographs still happens to be there, they remind us of the possibility of disappearance, lack, or loss. This is partly why we take pictures of our joyous moments. As we experience the joy, we are already worrying about the end or the loss of that joy, and this worry can prevent us from fully enjoying that moment. In this sense, language or photography, if used in a certain way, can steal your soul.
Midlife is interesting in that, even if you don’t have any kids, you become a parent in one form or another. Say, for instance, you are a graphic designer and intend to stay in that business for the rest of your life. But by midlife your main expertise would probably be in managing designers and clients, not actually designing anything yourself. The nature of your job would be fundamentally different, like switching to an entirely different career. Just as you wouldn’t compete with your own kids, you wouldn’t compete with others with your skills. You switch your position to being a parent or a teacher, and help the younger people acquire those skills. It’s like you have transcended your former self, and are now working with others who remind you of your younger self. This new perspective of yourself brings about new possibilities.
People want to be lumped in with the group they belong to when it comes to positive deeds and qualities of their members. But they want others to see them as individuals when it comes to negative deeds and qualities. And, when they think about their opponents, they reverse these processes.
When you form an ideological group, the impact is greater than the sum of its parts. So, it is tempting to form a group, but if a significantly negative event were to be associated with the group, even the innocent members are negatively impacted by it.
In other words, under positive circumstances, you as an individual can gain more from forming a group than acting independently. But under negative circumstances, you as an individual can lose more from forming a group than acting independently. That is, the net gain of forming an ideological group is zero.
“Be yourself” implies that you should know who you are. When you are young, you don’t know who you are yet. So, you need to try acting like other people, like trying on a bunch of different jeans. Eventually, you will settle into one that feels right for you. I’m not sure if “be yourself” is a good piece of advice to young people. It’s an ideal incorrectly presented as a solution.
Someone who is tall, big, and strong is great when he is standing in front of you protecting you from enemies. But not so great if he turns around to confront you. You can’t conveniently love just one side of someone.
Before you walk into a gallery, close your eyes for a minute and imagine that your net worth is about 25 million dollars, and have about 500k in liquid assets, and you make, say, a million dollars a year. Imagine a large apartment with a bunch of walls. They look cold and empty. Your rich friends are coming over for a Christmas party in a few weeks. You have a few hundred grand in cash that is earning virtually zero interest. What a waste; you need to do something with that money...
Open your eyes. Now you can see everything from the point of view of your audience. Now go back to your studio and start making some art.
(Not necessary if you are a musician, writer, or filmmaker.)
The Internet as a medium allows the media to construct a story out of real events, and disseminate it at an unprecedented speed in order to arouse the maximum possible emotions in the masses. Journalists craft these stories in such a way that the real events and people function merely as the targets at which the masses can release their own suppressed emotions. They only care about the facts that support their own narratives; the rest are ignored. They are just convenient devices with which the masses write their own narratives in order to justify releasing their anger and frustration, or to arouse a sense of unity/bonding (which allows them to exalt their own identity and power).
The people involved in these events are essentially used as “MacGuffins” in the sense that Alfred Hitchcock used the term. It’s “a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story”, especially at the beginning of the story, but the audience ultimately do not care about it and forget about it by the end of the story.
In the news media, the masses are the characters in their own narratives with the journalists using real humans as MacGuffins. The masses do not care to know the details of these people and their circumstances because they are just storytelling devices to be forgotten in the end. The masses need these devices to write their own narratives which give them an excuse to unite with their own feelings that are normally suppressed out of the need to conform to their day-to-day reality.
If you are ever involved in an incident that has the potential to become a powerful story for the masses, it would be wise to keep the media away from you as far as possible. You shouldn’t even seek sympathy because the media does not care whether your story is sad, angry, or happy. They are just looking to turn you into a MacGuffin. They’ll cherry-pick the facts and truths to fit the narrative they want, and discard you when the story loses traction.
DETROPIA is technically a documentary film but it succeeds in going beyond the genre/category. Typically in storytelling, it’s the plot that carries the story, but in this film it’s the cinematography, sound, and music that carries the story. These visual and audio elements were freed from the restrictions that the plot would otherwise enforce, and were collaged to achieve the maximum aesthetic impact as opposed to intellectual impact. This technique allows us to see the controversial topic with a certain sense of detachment. It makes us reflect on what it means to struggle in life. The politics is used merely as a storytelling device. The ultimate point of the film isn’t to educate or inform us. It gives us an aesthetic experience. The hypnotic and captivating sequences of this film make us want to watch it repeatedly, like a sublime piece of music.
Ultimately, I think the idea of saving energy would be too abstract for the average consumers. Even before hybrids, if people were actually interested in saving energy, they could have bought cars with lower horsepower that would have given them better mileage, but instead, they were drawn to cars with bigger horsepower that they don’t even need. It was the gas price that affected their behavior, not their desire to save energy. (There was an NPR podcast about this.)
I think in the end, it’s the price expectation that determines the energy usage, and people will end up adjusting their lives to consume as much energy as the price they are willing to pay for it. It’s like eating as much as we can eat without having to buy pants with a larger waist size. Our decisions on what to eat is not based on what we need to eat.
As soon as faster computers are introduced into the market, app developers figure out how to make use of the increased speed. Likewise, as soon as more energy-efficient devices are introduced to the market, engineers will come up with ideas that would use up the saved energy. I believe what sets the waist size in this case is the consumer price expectations.
On another NPR podcast, I heard about the reason why controlling our own weight is so difficult: Because there is no immediate feedback. To control anything, we need to be able to see the cause and effect quickly and easily. The problem with saving energy is that we can see how we save money, but we can’t see what saving energy actually does. So, if we take money out of the equation, why we want to save energy becomes too abstract.
Controlling our own weight is hard because the feedback cycle is very slow, but at least the result is quite visible. This problem is even more difficult when it comes to eating healthy. We might not see the effect of it for decades, if ever. The ideology of saving energy is almost as abstract as that. So, if conserving our natural resources or protecting our environment is our ultimate concern/cause, we need to provide a better way to see the cause and effect for the individual consumers. And, we need to do so in a way that makes individual contribution public. Most people chose Prius over other hybrids because it clearly communicated their ideology to the public through their unique design.