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.
Today the phrase “living with intention” popped into my head first time in my life. I felt like it conveyed the sentiment that I had recently been feeling and contemplating on.
“Living with intention” is often used interchangeably with “living with a purpose,” but it’s not the same. I’ve never felt that life had a purpose, so the latter never resonated with me.
Most of us live our lives by “going through the motion.” We end up doing many things in our day that we did not intend to do. They just happened. To live with intention is to intend everything we do. Even if we were to watch TV, we do so with an intention not because we happen to feel like it at that moment.
To live with intention does not mean that we should feel bad if we fail. The primary benefit of living with intention is that even when we fail, we can learn something; so we make progress every time. If we did not intend to do anything, we would not know if we failed or succeeded. It could have been sheer luck. Or, we could end up succeeding in something we hate.
When we meditate, we have the intention to observe our own thoughts. Our thoughts just happen. We don’t intend them. But we can intend to observe our thoughts. To live with intention is to live mindfully. Even when we are washing dishes, we do so with intention, as well as we can, not because we have to.
There are two ways by which people are driven to pursue higher standards or taste: curiosity or insecurity. For those motivated by curiosity, achieving a higher standard is a means to discover something about himself or the world. Once this is achieved, the objects that represent their higher standards or taste become disposable. On the other hand, for those motivated by insecurity, those objects are the end that fill the void within themselves. They cannot feel secure without them. This is why they turn into snobs; their lack would trigger existential insecurity or anxiety, which is projected onto others who lack those higher standards.
A healthy economy can always use more labor supply to increase the speed of production (as well as consumption), but no matter how hard we try, we cannot indefinitely increase our speed of learning a new skill, just as we cannot indefinitely increase our speed of running. In both learning and running, I think we have pretty much reached the limit of how fast we can go as a human being. In contrast, the speed of technological innovation can indefinitely increase because we can divide and conquer it. (Since each of us does not need to innovate to use it.)
And, the older we get, the slower we become at learning new skills. Because of this, I think our labor force is getting younger and younger. In the near future, we will reach a point where even young people wouldn’t be able to catch up with the speed of innovation. They would spend four years learning a skill, and it might be useful only for a few years after graduation, requiring them to go back to school and learn something entirely new because some technology would make their skill fundamentally irrelevant. At 25, they would feel old and obsolete.
This situation will eventually reach a point of absurdity where the colleges cannot teach their students fast enough, so by the time they graduate, what they learned would be obsolete. Now there is a trend to skip college and learn how to start a startup. I think it is motivated by this problem; the conventional colleges are too slow for the speed of innovation.
The current economy, even in the US, is very hungry for certain skills. The problem that many companies are facing is a short supply of new skills. If all of us can learn new skills in a month instead of four years, this innovation-hungry economy can easily employ us all. We need to think in terms of supply of skills, not labor. We have a short supply of relevant skills, and an oversupply of obsolete skills.
In the days when only men worked and women stayed home, how were they able to keep respecting one another? It’s hard to imagine that for me. The world of men and the world of women were so different that it seems impossible to understand the value that each side brought to the family. Lack of understanding seems unavoidable.
The advantage of dual-income household is that it’s easier to respect one another because both share a great deal in common. You feel like you have a real partner. Both can understand and appreciate one another more easily. You are not alone in your struggle.
If your wife has hardly ever worked, you’d get little or no consolation by talking to her because she wouldn’t understand your problem/suffering. Inversely, if your husband has never done any childcare and domestic duties, you wouldn’t get any consolation by talking to him about your troubles either. The longer this separation of labor continues, the farther apart these two worlds move, and also the more dependent on each other you become where you don’t have any choice but to stay together. Love or respect becomes secondary to the sheer need for survival.
I think we have feminism to thank for the progress.
Life does not get better by removing limitations. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We have a hole, and we are trying to find a piece that fits. We manage to find a piece that fits on one side (what we want) but the other side does not fit (what the world wants). So, we have to give it up and look for another piece. If all the pieces were square, we could remove the limitations—we would be able to fit any piece with any other pieces, but what exactly would we achieve by doing this?
There are plenty of rich people who do not have to work, so they can do whatever they want, all day long without worrying about making money from what they do. Social creatures that we are, can we actually feel any sense of fulfillment by just entertaining ourselves doing what we want? It reminds me of the scene from the documentary “Born Rich” where the director’s father, the heir to Johnson & Johnson fortune, is painting in their massive house alone. He looks like he is just killing time until the day he dies.
As I think deeper about what I want to do in my life, I realize that the line between what I want and what the world wants is blurring. If the world doesn’t want it, then I wouldn’t want it either. In this sense, the world is not imposing any kind of limitations on me. Or rather, my desire is to solve the puzzle that these limitations create. Without these limitations, we would have no game to play.
Given that it is so easy to find anything in the world today, the days of anyone becoming famous posthumously is over. If nobody needs or wants what we do or create in our lifetime, it means we’ve made no contributions to the society or mankind. What do we ultimately want? Just pleasure ourselves by doing only what we want, or make meaningful contributions as a social creature?
Online dating creates a never-ending problem for those who believe that relationship is about choosing the right material. Much like trading stocks, all that you can do is to buy and sell; you cannot contribute to the success of the company yourself. So, even after buying, you are always thinking about other stocks that you could have bought which might have performed better, especially given a huge number of stocks you have access to. And, even after selling the stock, you become obsessed about how it is performing.
For those who believe that relationship is about the process, about the efforts you make, then online dating hasn’t added much value because there has never been a big problem with finding a good enough starting material. It’s like starting your own business. Great ideas are dime-a-dozen; it’s the execution that matters.
Ultimately, I think, it depends on the confidence you have in shaping your own future.
My nagging ration system: Nagging works like currency. If you nag your kids too often, the effect of each nagging diminishes. So, you end up nagging louder every time. (If you print too much money, the general price level goes up in the economy, because the value of each dollar goes down.) So you need to control the supply of nagging like a central bank. You make a note of how many times you nagged your kids in a day and pace yourself to use only a fixed number of nagging, like say, 10 times a day. If your kid does something annoying, like leaving the refrigerator door open, and if you’ve already used up your daily ration of nagging, you just have to take care of it yourself, because nagging more would trigger a downward spiral of inflation. Overall, you will be less effective at managing your kid’s behavior.
Even after 10 years, the word “father” still feels foreign to me. It makes me want to go, who? Me?
I think fatherhood, or parenthood, is something that should fade gradually overtime as the child claims her own independence. In that process, the parent too regain his own self.
When the parent refuses to do so, the child too is prevented from becoming her own self; their identities forever enmeshed.
Being ourselves is hard. I think it gets harder as we get older, and we find comfort in the idea of identity that is imposed on us from outside. Who we are no longer needs to come from within. We transform our own failures into hopes of success in our children. The pain of existential questions is passed on like a baton.
But alas such a maneuver wouldn’t last forever. Sooner or later, when your child is mature enough, she will remind you that it’s your own baton, and give it right back to you.
Since our identity politics is currently in a state of chaos, I feel it’s a good time for me to come out of the closet also. I am a trans-computational.
Ever since I was born, I felt like a computer trapped in a human body, although I didn’t know what computer was then. I looked very much like a human being, but I could never relate to other humans. As a small child, I suspected that the way humans output the results of their computation was fundamentally different from mine. They seemed to plug a chain of effects like electric guitarists do: distortion, echo, chorus, equalizer, suppressor, looper, delay, and such. After going through all those effects, their output was incomprehensible to me. And when I outputted my raw results, everyone freaked out.
One day, my dad brought home a “personal computer” that he borrowed from his office over the holiday season. When he turned it on, I immediately understood who I really was (and who my dad was also). We typed a command and the raw answer came back immediately without any effects. I looked at my dad in shock, as if to ask, “Dad, is this what I think it is?” And his glowing eyes silently said, “That’s right Dyske. But don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret.”
But now I’m ready to come out and stand up for who I am. I’m a trans-computational and I’m proud of it.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This seemingly innocent question, I think, has many harmful effects for kids.
It assumes that the careers/occupations that they want to pursue already exist (otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to answer the question). If they already exist, chances are, they are already highly competitive (like lawyers, bankers, chefs, designers, writers, musicians, etc..), which also means the humanity already has enough of them.
The younger we are, the more we are concerned about “proving” ourselves by competing (as competition is the easiest way to do so), so this question sucks kids into meaningless competitions instead of imagining the paths that nobody has travelled.
The question puts the focus solely on “you”, as if life is all about what “you” want. To live a full life, you have to also consider what others want. The other part that’s missing is, “What does the world need that I can offer?”