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.
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.
One of the advantages of digital publishing is that you can learn a lot about your audience. I’ve noticed, for instance, that a piece that appeals to the people I know does not appeal to complete strangers, and vice versa. I’m not sure if this is just me, but when I get strong reactions from my friends on Facebook, I get nothing publicly, and when I get strong reactions from the general public, I get nothing from my friends.
I’m coming around to the idea that reading and writing through physical mediums (books, pen, and paper) is better for learning. I believe it is because of the inefficiency. It is precisely because digital mediums are so efficient that we don’t remember what we learn. How we humans learn is inherently inefficient so we need inefficient ways of learning.
For instance, research has shown that we remember better when a textbook is set with a typeface that is hard to read. We often remember where on the page some piece of information appeared. We also remember what kind of notebook and pen we used to write down something. These types of contextual information have no direct relationship to the actual content we want to retain or retrieve but play a significant role in how we remember.
I think inefficiency in general plays an important role in improving the quality of our lives but we all assume efficiency to be a universally desirable quality. Our relentless pursuit of efficiency has already passed the optimal point for the quality of our lives. It is beginning to decline because of efficiency.
I finally watched “Finding Vivian Maier” after getting recommendations from numerous friends. I agree with one of the people interviewed in the film who said her story is more interesting than her work. In fact, because the story of the discovery is so romantic—a perfect Hollywood story—that it’s hard to look at her work on its own merits. The story distorts the work. A question I have is: Would she have succeeded as an artist without that story? That is, what if she tried to show her work? Would it have stood on its own without the story?
It’s ironic in that the reason the story is so romantic is because it is about artwork having its own merits without a self-promoting and self-aggrandizing artist. Especially in today’s society where nothing seems authentic, we crave for stories of authenticity. But it’s a catch-22 situation. If she had promoted her own work, her work would have to win the audience without this romantic story. Would she have succeeded? I have my doubts. I believe there have been countless photographers of her caliber we haven’t heard of. If you take a hundred thousand photos, some of them will, of course, be good. We are only seeing a small fraction of her work. Curating your own work is a crucial part of being a photographer/artist. Just as photographers must choose what to take pictures of, they also need to select which photos to show. That is a critical part of the art of photography especially in our postmodern era where readymades have artistic value. Maier did not do that.
The director, John Maloof, I think, is a great entrepreneur. He made a very risky investment in Maier’s work. He knew how to negotiate, tell the story, market, and monetize it. In a way, Vivian Maier is his startup.
The problem I see with retirement is that, without work, we would have no compelling reason to connect with other people. In business, we tend to build a network of diverse people. In friendship, we tend to stick to our own kind, which means we would be socializing only with people of our age. Younger people would have no compelling reason to socialize with us. Since our friends will start dying, our network of bingo players will keep shrinking. Our only hope then would be our kids to come visit us if we nag them enough.
Building a network of human connections is time-consuming, so once we let it fall apart, building it back up again would be hard, especially if we are old. In this sense, retirement is social suicide. It’s a sure way to paint ourselves into a corner of loneliness.
What this means to me is that we have to be able to enjoy working. If working is not enjoyable, it might seem natural to assume that not working is better. But that is only an assumption. It could in fact be worse.
What differentiates artists from non-artists, especially in this postmodern era, is the willingness to expose their own neurosis. It’s not about talent or skills. Most people are simply too scared to share such intimate inner selves. But if nobody did what artists did, we would all be more neurotic because our standards of normal behavior would keep going up, which in turn will alienate us further and make us more neurotic.
If you want to develop an audience who consumes your content on a regular basis, your website, YouTube channel, or Facebook Page can’t just be about providing pieces of knowledge. This becomes clear when you study Bob Ross’ painting videos. The vast majority of his audience never painted; they just liked watching him paint. Likewise, a cooking show too has to have value by itself even if the audience never cooks. Regardless of the type of content, there has to be some redeeming quality to the act of reading or watching it.
“Cooking with Dog” has over a million subscribers. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of those subscribers have never cooked anything they saw in the videos. Those videos are just funny to watch. I think this is also true with many popular podcast producers and radio show hosts; the quality of their voice might be a more significant factor in their popularity than what they are saying.
If people want to know how to cook gnocchi, for instance, they would search “gnocchi” on YouTube. Once they learn what they need to know, they would discard it. They wouldn’t care about the other videos you might have in your channel. When people search anything on the Web, it’s about the knowledge they seek. They are not looking to be a regular audience unless the content has something more than just the piece of knowledge they were looking for.
It’s actually worse than that. Searchers have specific goals they want to achieve. Searching is just a step in that process, so even if your website has more than just the answers they seek, they are not in a mental state to check out anything else you have; they need to go back to completing their goals. You are catching them at the wrong time.
If you want to make money from advertising, you would need to build an audience. You cannot just be a destination for search results. Searchers are not loyal. They just get what they want and leave. I think this is why social networking sites are better platforms to promote content.