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.
This interview illustrates the fact that our most meaningful artistic or creative activities are increasingly done on the side these days, because as soon as they become our main bread and butter, various cultural and social pressures would take away our ability to use them as our creative outlets. So, we end up doing our most meaningful work on the side.
I think this is a very recent phenomenon. Here’s my theory: Our tools of production have become so efficient that our capacity for production now far exceeds our ability to come up with meaningful artistic ideas. Just cranking out as many artworks as we can, isn’t so meaningful or fulfilling. Ultimately art is about quality, not quantity. So, we can actually execute our ideas on the side. There is no need for them to be part of our job.
As kids grow up, they are told that tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, and Santa Claus are not real. One by one. But for some reason, for many people, God remains real no matter how old they grow. If the criteria used for God being real were to be applied to Easter bunnies, the latter would be just as real. Tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, Santa Clause, and God should be either all real or all unreal. It does not make sense to argue that Easter bunnies are not real but God is. I’d say they are all real.
I’m often criticized for being insensitive to the feelings of others, but the ultimate point of employing reason is to serve our emotions. Reason is just a tool. Without emotions, it’s a pointless tool.
My belief is that sticking to reason is the best possible way for us to be fair to everyone’s feelings. I accept that our feelings will be hurt as long as we attempt to communicate with one another. It’s possible to delay the pain, but if it doesn’t make sense, if it must be communicated in order to make progress, or if it is unfair, the pain will come back sooner or later, in many cases more hurtful than before. So the only thing I am concerned about is whether those feelings are fair or not. I don’t think about how to avoid the feelings of hurt, because in the long run, I believe that the sum total of all the hurt that you cause to others in your life would be less if fairness, not avoidance, was your first priority.
In fact, I would like to ask these presumably more sensitive people, “Do you really think that the sum total of all the hurt you caused in your life is less than that of mine?” I’ve witnessed plenty of these presumably more sensitive people cause a lot of unnecessary pain. In fact, they make me want to do better by taking a different approach.
As brutal as our legal system may seem (which does not put feelings above facts or reason), the world before it was even more brutal. Reason works to ensure that we don’t have to suffer any more than our fair share.
Right now, there is a big controversy over “high stakes” tests for elementary schools in New York. Some parents are boycotting it. Today, I took some of the reading comprehension tests that my daughter brought home from school to prepare for the real thing. Here is my analysis:
There are obvious patterns to all the questions. Each question asks for a specific answer, and then always also asks to “support” the answer by providing the details. I took a look at the sample answers, and what they are essentially asking the students to do is to find the answer in the passages they provide and to paraphrase them. So, for every question, you could underline a sentence in the passage which would be the answer, and then you could figure out how to paraphrase it.
I’m not sure what the educational theory behind this pattern is. In most cases, you can skip reading the passage, read the question, locate the answer, and then paraphrase. In fact, that would be the quickest way to take the test.
I felt that some of the tests were actually interesting. The passages they provided were educational in themselves, and taught me things I didn’t know (made me curious to learn more about them). But the one I took today was quite boring. My mind kept drifting away, and I had a hard time concentrating, because it was so boring. It appears that different tests are designed by different people. The quality seems to be inconsistent.
When they provide boring materials, what exactly are they trying to test? My ability to tolerate boredom? I have an exceptional ability to ignore everything that is going on around me when I’m engaged in something that I’m interested in. In fact, my inability to focus on boring things helped me navigate my career towards what I enjoy. It’s a good inability to have (unless you really want to spend your life locked up in a cubicle doing things you hate). I’m wondering if the test designers deliberately chose boring materials to test some specific ability, or if they were the best they could come up with.
Some of the questions were maddeningly vague and imprecise. For instance, one question asks: “Before his cousin gave him paints and brushes, what did Benny use to make his pictures? Use two details from the passage to support your answer.”
“What” implies that it wants a specific answer; X or Y. In this particular case, they are: “Mother’s indigo” for blue (the passage provides no answer for WHAT he used to make red and yellow), and “cat hair” for brush. Now, I’m asked to “support” these answers. I’m not the one who is telling the story. The story is simply telling me what he used. I’m not in a position to support or back up the author’s claim. The answers are “Mother’s indigo” and “cat hair”, period. These are not MY claim, therefore it makes no sense for me to “support” it.
All the questions consistently asks for more “details”, and I’m wondering why they encourage more details. In my own life, I’m often criticized for providing too much detail. People hate me for it. If so, why encourage that to kids? If there is a shorter and more precise way to answer a question, shouldn’t we be encouraging that instead?
Then another question asks: “How was making pictures more important to Benny than working or going to school?” I could understand this question if it were a “Why”. I would then figure out what caused them to be important for Benny. But “How”? How is anything the way they are? How is this apple red? How is Jonny short? How is Mary angry? How do you answer these questions? I could also understand it if it were: “How did making pictures BECOME more important to Benny?” I could then describe the process or progression. It is completely unclear to me what exactly the test designer wants to know with this question.
So far, I have three tests for which I would rate the test designers as A, C, and F.
These days, I often come across articles urging kids not to go to college (written by college graduates). I find this very sad. Their arguments make sense if we look at college as a job training school, but that’s not what college should be about. There are a lot more amazing, fascinating, and beautiful things in life to learn than the skills required to make a living or to be rich. In our late teens, we should be given the opportunity to devour these incredible things, and explore the possibilities of life, without having to worry about how to make a living. What we gain by doing so at that age will supply the fuel for our passion for the rest of our lives, the passion that will make us want to get up every morning. It is so much more important than learning skills that would become obsolete in several years. College is not for learning how to live but for learning why you want to live. If you do see college as a job training school, or if you just don’t want to go, then yes, just skip it. But no kids should be discouraged from going to college. College I consider is a basic human right.
What’s interesting about a photograph to me isn’t what the photo is of but why the photographer took it. Normally it takes a fraction of a second for me to get the why, but occasionally I come across some that stop me and make me think. And often they are not beautiful because beauty is the easiest and the most predictable reason why people take photos.
Learning in a classroom is equivalent to listening to an audio book, which cannot be paused or rewound, in a nightclub. And, the book has a highly complex plot. If anything distracts you, and if you miss anything, nothing you hear after that makes sense. Because a nightclub is a highly social setting, there are many things that would distract you. And, you have to cope with a variety of anxieties and fears. To minimize these problems, you read the book at home before going to the nightclub, but now you are bored because you already know what happens next; so you would just focus on partying. I would bet that in 100 years, people would read about how we used to teach, and wonder how we ever learned anything in a classroom.
The writer of this article completely misses the point of Khan Academy. She is stuck in her own tiny bubble, unable to see the big picture. She goes on about the content of Khan’s videos. Obviously, the specifics of how he explains each topic would not be as good as how professional educators would do, but the point that Khan is trying to make is that the problem is not what we are teaching but how we are teaching. The form, not the content, is the problem.
“Critical thinking” is poorly defined on Wikipedia. According to it, it just means thinking well, which is not what critical thinking is about. To think critically means to think for yourself, to apply your own creativity or perspective on existing thoughts/ideas. Thinking well to arrive at the correct answer in math, for instance, is not “critical” thinking. For a thought to be critical it must challenge or criticize someone. Whether it’s a product, policy, artwork, idea, society, or culture, there must always be someone behind what you are thinking critical of. After all, it would be absurd to be critical of, say, mountains, fish, or rain. To think critically is to think in your own ways, distinct from how others think.
We tend to think that people who are in control of their own emotions always stay “cool” under any circumstances. And, when we see these people staying calm, you get a sense that they are indeed “controlling” their own emotions. But if you think about it, this is how alcoholics behave; they are either in control (don’t drink at all) or out of control (always drunk). We shouldn’t aspire to be cool-headed.