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.
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.
“Quiet” by Susan Cain will probably go down in my personal history as one of the most pragmatically influential books I’ve read. With this book, Cain has launched a campaign to fight against the prejudice that is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even recognize it as a prejudice. Extraversion is considered so superior to introversion that the latter is pathologized in our culture. Not only in our corporate culture but even at schools, we are relentlessly pressured to socialize. If a kid would rather read a book by herself in the corner when other kids are playing together, she is considered antisocial. If you would rather go home and listen to music alone instead of going out drinking with your coworkers after work, you are considered antisocial too. But this particular interpretation of socialization is based on extraverts’ style of socializing, and our culture fails to see that introverts have a different way of socializing—it’s not that they hate people. Trying to cure them of their introversion will actually make them ill, like trying to “cure” gay people.
One highly successful introverted salesman interviewed in this book said: “I discovered early on that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling. They buy because they feel understood.” If you want people to feel understood, you need to listen, not talk. This is one of many advantages of introversion that we overlook in our culture because we so blindly worship extroverts. Introverts are forced to learn the ways of extroverts but most extroverts do not bother learning the ways of introverts because they think extroversion is superior. But when some extroverts do respect and appreciate the ways of introverts, tremendous successes can be achieved like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did.
When trying to find what you love, if you focus on the end results, your options would be severely limited because you would think of the most obvious manifestations of what you love, like painting, novel, film, music, etc.. Focus on finding the PROCESS you love, a lot more options open up. Besides, just because you love the end results, it doesn’t mean you love the process. No matter what you choose to do, most of your time would be spent on the PROCESS. The end results would just give you fleeting happiness.
It would be interesting to measure the economic effect of bluntness. I would imagine that two people who are both naturally blunt conducting business together is more efficient than two people who are sensitive about each other’s feelings. For the latter group, it is more time-consuming to negotiate anything. The idea would be to measure how long it takes for these two groups to negotiate contracts and get something done.
In Game Theory (I read somewhere), trusting a stranger by default is a more efficient way to succeed, but the caveat is that this is true only in a community of similarly trusting people. The trust-by-default strategy doesn’t work in a community where the majority distrust one another by default.
I think the same would hold true with bluntness; it would work only in a community of people who mutually respect/value bluntness. (The startup community is very much like this where they are constantly trying to circumvent people’s tendencies to lie to protect feelings in order to get at the truth about the market and their own ideas.)
I also heard that someone actually measured how long it takes to compose a typical business letter in Japanese versus English, and showed that it takes significantly more time to do so in Japanese (although this was before the advancement in character input technologies). This means the Japanese are inherently handicapped by their own language. If it takes 1.5 times longer, it literally means it costs 1.5 time more money to get the same task done just because of the inefficiency of the language. Collectively, it’s a massive amount of money being wasted for it.
I also think that women are handicapped in a similar way because they have been socialized to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings. When a woman is blunt, our society tends to see her as acting like a man.
We, startup techies, are typically not good at dealing with people. Our negotiation and leadership skills are relatively poor, so we would rather force changes on people through technologies by “disrupting”, and try to amass wealth all for ourselves, instead of figuring out mutually beneficial ways to coexist with others.
I don’t think this can continue forever. There will soon be a huge public backlash against “disruption”, and the word “disrupt” will be uncool even in the startup world. The entrepreneurs and VCs who are still chasing the greatest disruptive innovations are falling behind the times. Disruption is not where the future is.
I realize, as I get older, what’s more valuable and meaningful than having expert knowledge is to have a perspective. For one, expert knowledge is easy to attain as long as you focus all your time and energy in one specific subject. Almost certainly, without risk, you can attain the title of “expert”. But over time, others will catch up with you as the degree to which you are an “expert” reaches a point of diminishing returns. The rest is about how you are able to connect the dots outside of your own expertise. This becomes more art than science.
Cutie and the Boxer is a portrait of a narcissistic couple who fell in love with the idea of “artists”, and with the mirrors that reflected their own narcissism. So enmeshed in their own narcissism that eventually all they could do was to turn their own narcissism into the subject of their art, becoming parodies of their own past without a sense of irony, frozen in time, with no objectivity about the context in which they exist, creating art that imitates art.
Cutie feels inferior to him and assumes that it’s about her talent but the film makes it abundantly clear that it’s her narcissism that’s inferior to his. The Boxer’s narcissism is so powerful that only when he is shit-faced drunk that he can break free of the tyranny of his own narcissism and see a glimpse of the reality.
I think the filmmaker too became hypnotized by the power of their narcissism, sucked into the vortex of their romanticism, unable to hold onto the rope that would have allowed him to give the film some cultural relevance. It’s unfortunate because it just encourages other narcissists to chase the mirages of themselves as artists. This world doesn’t need any more narcissists imitating artists. We need more real artists who can look at themselves and the world with a disinterested gaze.
If a normal person were sitting in a room with another person, he would find that person to be more interesting than anything else in the same room. My social problems stem from the fact that 99% of the time, the most interesting thing in the room is not a human being. But it’s not like I don’t like human beings; in that 1%, I find that person exhilarating and makes life worth living. This is not snobbery; it’s just a reality that I have to cope with.
What is business? Business is understanding what people want and supplying it in exchange for what you want. What you want does not have to be money; it could be in the form of social or cultural currency. If we are depending on others to survive or thrive, we are conducting business.
If you don’t understand what people want, you would fail even if you are able to supply goods and services.
If you can’t supply goods and services, you would fail even if you understand what people want.
Business requires balancing the two sides of the equation.
Apple just released their diversity report, and many are saying there are no surprises, but I’m a little surprised. If you read the headlines only, you would think Apple and other tech companies are privileging white workers, but that is apparently not the case. Take a look at the chart I created below. The percentages of white people at these tech companies are less than the percentage of Whites in the US, which means they are not doing particularly well in the tech sector. Given that Whites in the US have natural advantages, even if they held the same US percentage, it would imply that they are underperforming. The biggest issue here is obviously the Asians. The race that accounts only for 4.4% of the US population is filling up 15% of Apple, 30% of Google, and 34% of Facebook. In other words, all the other races are being squeezed by Asians, not by Whites.