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.
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.
I just saw a guy smoking in our court yard and figured his roommate or wife must have told him to smoke outside. I then wondered what really happened economically after the smoking ban over ten years ago. I came across this article which I thought was interesting.
When the threat of the ban was looming, many smokers were outraged, but they were able to feel outraged only because smoking indoors was perfectly normal then. When something is accepted as the norm, most people do not question it because they are more interested in getting along with others than being fair for its own sake. This is how all sorts of cultural conflicts arise too. Whatever is the norm in your own culture, you would assume to be right, better, and/or fair, but the inherent unfairness, contradictions, or flaws become quite obvious when evaluating the norms of other cultures.
Before the smoking ban went into effect, my argument was this: Suppose you like the smell of burning rubber, and you decide to burn a piece of rubber in a bar. Do you think you can get away with that? The only reason you could burn a cigarette in a bar and get away with it is because it just happens to be the norm in our society. Objectively speaking, it’s as rude and obnoxious as burning a piece of rubber because the smoke directly affects others in the bar, in the same way loudly talking on the phone in a restaurant would.
Now that 10 years have passed since the ban, the norm has decidedly shifted. People finally see the rudeness of smoking for what it is.
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.