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.
The urge to define our own existence is amplified in youth culture, therefore easier to analyze. We are existentially volatile and unstable as teens and 20-somethings. It’s almost impossible to feel our own existence because we are preoccupied with conceptually understanding the world around us. The noise generated from the conceptual struggles drowns out our innate sense of existence. We are in constant need of vehicles/devices that allow us to perform identity/existential differentiation, such as magazines, bands, and even fashion brands. We are dependent on them. To craft our own existence, we carefully associate ourselves with people, institutions, ideas, and identities that are already recognized by our culture. We piggyback on their existence and cultural significance, like grafting ourselves onto bigger trees. For existential purposes, the trees that we don’t belong to are just as important as the trees that we belong to.
Our reliance on conceptual differentiation should ideally wane as we age. In this sense, what young people need is not another tree to graft themselves onto. Creating yet another power structure (”alternative” or otherwise) to serve their need to symbolically define their own existence does not ultimately lead to spiritual progress. They should be encouraged to examine ideas irrespective of who wrote or published them, and develop the ability to evaluate them according to their own standards. For this reason, I like Google News because it is less dependent on human curation and shows me articles irrespective of who published them. This is the advantage of today’s youths. The previous generations did not have the same means; the only way to publish anything to the masses was to go through the established curators and gatekeepers of public opinions, who essentially controlled the means by which the youths defined their own existence. Today’s youths should be encouraged to curate and publish their own ideas and thoughts without the dictators/influencers of ideas, opinions, and taste.
Not all genetic combinations are destined for financial success. Some are in fact destined for failure. The same holds true for the environments we are born into—parents, country, time in history, etc.. It is not our job to correct or circumvent these destinies. From the point of view of evolution, our duty in life is to fully express the situations that we are born into, even if it means we can’t survive and have to die early. Evolution itself does not know the future or what’s advantageous for survival; that’s why it creates diversity. It’s not our job to figure out how to survive. Our duty is to express what we are; an amalgam of genes, environments, and timing.
If your natural compulsion is to sing the blues, then keep singing until you can’t, even if it means you would die poor and unknown. The fact that you did not succeed is not your problem or fault. You will have completed your duty in life; that’s all that matters.
There is a fundamental problem with eating ice cream at home. Your freezer at home should be at least 0F. Ideally colder, like -6F to make sure that your food preserves longer. But the ideal serving temperature for ice cream is around +6F.
At 0F and below, it’s too hard. Not only that it’s hard to scoop with a spoon, but it cannot melt and spread in your mouth quickly enough when you eat. It’s like eating a frozen candy.
You cannot evenly raise the temperature of your ice cream to the ideal by leaving it out of the freezer. The outer part would start melting while the inner part remain rock solid. The only way to set the temperature of whole ice cream to +6F evenly is to keep it in a freezer set to +6F. You cannot do this at home unless you can dedicate a whole freezer to ice cream.
A solution, or compromise, for this problem is to buy highly aerated ice cream. It allows you to scoop easily with a spoon, and it melts in your mouth quickly as it should. Aerated ice cream is considered inferior to “premium” ice cream, but if the latter cannot be served properly at home, “premium” does not mean anything.
Some would argue that it’s silly to pay for air, but would they say the same thing about bread? Would they buy only dense breads with as little air as possible? And, if the only way to serve a Kobe steak at home was over-cooked and tough, would you bother?
It’s “premium” only conceptually. In blind tests, I would bet that most people would find aerated ice cream to be superior, provided that the quality of ingredients is the same.
Most brands indeed make aerated ice cream from lower quality ingredients (corn syrup and chemicals), but there are some that use all natural ingredients and sugar. In my view, they are superior for home consumption.
In the corporate world, the power you have (and the ability to make money too) is a mirage. What is powerful is the position you hold, not you. It’s very much like a political office. The legal structure of corporation (particularly public corporation) allows us to create entities and positions that are powerful as we can pool money publicly.
If you lose your powerful position in a corporation, your powerful aura could stick around with you for a few months but they begin to fade away if you don’t get another job. A half-life of that power is probably 6 months. After 12 months, you would be stripped naked, back to your old self. You would then know who you really are. This is why most corporate employees try to jump from one company to next while they still have jobs.
They can make money because their positions are properly empowered to do so; not necessarily because the people holding the positions are actually good at making money. If they were truly good at making money, they wouldn’t be working for faceless shareholders; they would be starting their own business (especially in today’s economy where VC money is easy to find).
Working for corporations is becoming less popular now because each corporation is hiring less and less people (by increasing efficiency). Young people now prefer small startups because they are more exciting, and more encouraging of self-expression. But I personally think working for big corporations while you are young is a better choice, as you could learn a lot about how the corporate world works, and that opportunity would not be available to you later in life (if you didn’t choose the corporate life right after school). But you do need to get out of the corporate world before you are 30. Once you have kids, you would probably be too scared to leave.
In the old days, people worked for others so that they could learn and eventually open their own business. Nowadays, people just keep working for others all their lives, never figuring out a way to make a living being who they are. We only live once. It’s a waste of life to toil away for anonymous shareholders who care about nothing but the bottom line.
So I realized that it’s possible to use Facebook like Twitter. Here’s how:
On Facebook, you can flag any of your friends as “Close Friends”. Ignore the fact that it says “Close Friends”, use this in the same manner as “Follow” on Twitter. For anyone whose content you’d like to follow, flag him/her as “Close Friends”. Then set your smart-phone to notify you when any of them post something new. Because Facebook notifies you as soon as they post, your notification queue would look like Twitter; everything listed in the reverse-chronological order. This allows you to ignore Facebook’s ranking algorithm. You wouldn’t be looking at what Facebook thinks is important for you; you would be controlling what you want to see and when.
This way of using Facebook eliminates the need for you to actively check Facebook on a regular basis. If there is something you should check, it would let you know. Otherwise, you can ignore it.
Here’s how you set this up:
When you roll over the name of a person, you get a little pop-up box with a drop-down labelled “Friends”. Select “Close Friends” for anyone whose content you want to follow.
From the little down-arrow in the upper right corner, select “Settings”. Then select “Notifications”. Assuming that you have Facebook App on your smart-phone, turn off Email notification by selecting “Only notifications about your account, security and privacy.” (Unless you want to be notified twice.)
Then, go to your Facebook App, select “More”, scroll down and select “Settings”, and select “Notifications”, scroll down and select “Close Friends activity”. Check “Get notifications”.
Now every time the people you follow post anything new, your smart phone will let you know.
How we make money is interesting in that it is a bigger challenge for most of us. How we spend money is entirely within our own control, but to make money, we have to be useful/valuable to others. We cannot entirely control what others want.
How we spend money is interesting in a different way. It is the opposite side of the same coin. Someone’s spending is someone else’s earning. It’s like how we calculate GDP. I’ve wondered about how differently people spend their money. I’m sure companies like Mint would have a pretty good idea of this although their demographic is very skewed.
The biggest difference I notice is in how we spend our money in traveling. I know, for instance, some families who travel to Japan every year. A round trip ticket to Japan from NY costs about $1,800. If a whole family of four went, it’s $7,200. And, that’s just the plane tickets. If we considered the expenses in Japan, we are talking about 10K. Families that are not doing any better financially than my family is, are doing this every year. Personally this baffles me but I think it’s just a matter of priority. They are probably looking at the three MacBook Pros laying around in our apartment and wondering how we afford them. To me, spending ten grand every year on a trip that only lasts a few weeks is utterly frivolous. I would not do it unless I start making a million dollars a year (I’m not exaggerating). But for some, it’s so important that they would sacrifice anything else to do it. How we set our spending priorities reveals a lot about what we value in our lives.
How we make money is interesting because it tells us how the world sees/values us. How we spend money tells us how we see/value the world.
Within the next 100 years, New York Times will publish an article saying that kids should not eat vegetables. Not only that all our struggles as parents would be proven pointless, but also we’ll be blamed for their childhood traumas (vege-phobia).
In your life, if you consistently sided with what is true, the majority of people will hate you. You will go nowhere in life. That is a mathematical certainty as denial is more powerful than our desire to know the truth.
I went to see Adam Phillips, British psychoanalyst/author, speak with Daphne Merkin at 92Y last night. Merkin had this odd way of asking questions where she would pile many questions in one go, reading from her prepared notes. By the time she finished asking them, I couldn’t remember what her first question was. She was visibly nervous. Pretty obvious that she is not an experienced public speaker. I related to her fear/pain and felt nervous for her. Phillips, on the other hand, is a skilled public speaker; smooth, witty, funny, and relaxed. His British accent added to his aura of authority too. By the middle of the talk, it became quite clear that it wasn’t just me who found Merkin’s style of questioning jarring, or even annoying. In a few instances, Phillips stopped her from piling on more questions. “Can I respond to that first?” he interjected. Towards the end, Merkin was given a stack of cards with questions from the audience, and Phillips jokingly said, “Can I answer one at a time?” The audience broke into laughter. In that moment, Phillips bonded with the audience over that pain, officially acknowledging the fact that it was annoying, which lead to a sense of relief for the audience, which in turn was expressed as laughter. I wondered; if so many people felt the same way, why didn’t SHE see it? What prevented her from perceiving the same thing which was so obvious to everyone else?
After the event, I became more curious of Daphne Merkin. I kept thinking about her, as if the event was about her. Phillips was interesting but made no lasting impression on me. In comparison to Merkin, he was like a charming machine. There was something very human and vulnerable about Merkin, so I Googled her and found this essay about her struggle with her own weight where she bravely exposes her vulnerability. In a way, what I saw at 92Y was an exchange between a typical psychoanalyst and his client. I believe that most psychoanalysts and therapists become interested in psychology as a way to deal with their own vulnerability. Their method is to apply the maximum intellectual control whereas people like Merkin choose to apply the least, or even remove their impulse to control. Two different paths with two clearly different results, like yin and yang of human vulnerability.