Category Archives: Philosophy

Motivational Compass

For as long as I can remember the defining qualities of a good person seemed obvious: competence and integrity. Competence not only contributes and makes possible, but reduces mistakes, inefficiencies, and unfair burdens. Integrity not only underpins ethics and guides competence, but reduces distrust, hostility, and selfishness. Competence and integrity give to the world while their opposites drain from it.

These qualities demand a lot of individuals. They must learn to delay gratification and endure discomfort, inconvenience, and difficulty. They must develop high standards, be self-critical, respect truth, and loathe excuses. They must prioritize performance and potential over perceptions, emotions, and costs.

These qualities bring risks to society. Competence unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, dangerous.1Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this. Integrity unbalanced by other considerations is, among other things, impotent. And many otherwise reasonable combinations are, among other things, overconfident and judgmental.

It is a challenge to embrace these qualities despite their arduous nature and to intertwine their development with enough wisdom to apply and balance them well. This challenge is at the core of classical philosophy. It is prominent in religion, military, science, and engineering. It animates intensive educational experiments by the likes of James Mill, Bertrand Russell, Leo Wiener, and Laszlo Polgar. It finds expression in the idea of the New Soviet Man. Its essence is to instill maximal striving to develop one’s potential, live honorably, and contribute to a larger purpose – and to organize society to aid in this task.

This goal depends on assumptions. It presumes existence of better and worse, possibility of agency and coherence, inescapability of causation and responsibility. Its implementation ties worth to choices and promises evaluation on the basis of efforts and achievements.

On these foundations it erects the expectation of judgment and the desire to prove oneself. It then provides tools to do one’s best: to strive for perfection and accept responsibility; to focus on understanding how things work; to control impulses that might lead one astray; to think carefully about intentions and take care in action; to find it dishonorable to hide behind excuses and ignorance or to get away with carelessness and incompetence. It fundamentally depends on, and encourages, individual pride based on contribution, integrity, and effort.

There are many disagreements about implementation details, but they mostly share prerequisites. And each of these prerequisites has come under growing scrutiny over time. It increasingly feels like the ethos itself is under an unrelenting attack from all sides. And perception of such attacks seems to underlie many vicious disagreements of our time.

These attacks are rooted in societal and personal risks, justified through postmodernism, and emboldened by prosperity.

Continue reading Motivational Compass

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Psychopaths offer an extreme example of this.

Teaching and Learning

When it comes to parenting, coaching, teaching, learning, and education there is a great diversity of approaches – and no shortage of strong opinions, judgments, and excuses. On a level applicable to all projects, this is explainable by difficulties of execution and communication, by differing missions and selfish choices, by resource constraints and conquering battles. But there are sources of disagreement and ineffectiveness that transcend ineptitude, selfishness, and malice and apply more specifically to mentorship. They are most apparent in parenting of small children so I’ll focus there.

Learning Areas

A major culprit is insufficient appreciation that learning experiences influence all of the following domains:

  • Skills specific to the subject being engaged
  • Meta-capabilities like perseverance, concentration, logic, introspection, empathy
  • Values and Habits like honesty, compassion, independence, fairness
  • Facts that define truths of the subject and/or the world
  • Models that explain functioning of the subject and/or the world
  • Resources like status, connections, credentials, memories
  • Relationships with individuals, groups, subject, society, self

Mentoring approaches are optimizations that rank not only specific attainments, but these general areas. When this happens without sufficient awareness, interdependencies threaten unpleasant side-effects. When it isn’t made explicit enough, outsiders are tempted to presume ignorance and defend worthiness of sacrificed components. And even when deliberate and explicit, chosen trade-offs are naturally challenged by proponents of alternate rankings.

Continue reading Teaching and Learning

Circumstances, Agency, and Just Deserts

What is a fair distribution of aid and reward? Although any actual distribution may be driven by pragmatic realities, their underlying justification and general direction rest on an answer to a question: what is a fair measure of individual accomplishment? There are ultimately no nice answers to this question although there are nice-sounding ones. Every answer necessarily exonerates or praises someone. And every exoneration or praise necessarily insults someone else.

At the heart of the evaluation is another question: what is a fair weighing of contributions from circumstances and agency to outcomes? Although sophisticated philosophical positions exist denying influence of circumstances or existence of agency, they rarely cohere with everyday actions of even their proponents. The de facto reality is that both matter, but how much each contributed to any specific outcome is up for debate.

Disagreements hang on the difficulty of measurement. Circumstances and agency interact with enough recursion that influence of either can be claimed all the way to debates on free will. Furthermore, circumstances come bundled in complex, interacting packages. Some ease accomplishment while others complicate it. Often, their impact can be interpreted either way: overabundance of helpful circumstances encourages detrimental entitlement, complacency, or false confidence while challenging circumstances foster useful insights, abilities, or motivations. Continue reading Circumstances, Agency, and Just Deserts

Dictionary of Arguments and Positions

I’ve long been bothered by impediments to good-faith inquiry and difficulty of accurate information transmission. Positions seem disadvantaged by candor and sophistication. This tempts disillusionment, carelessness, and manipulativeness.

While some difficulties are inescapable, I’ve begun to feel that many are created or nurtured by outdated expectations and tools we bring to discourse. I am not yet confident that my thoughts coalesce into a coherent and achievable alternative, but they feel far enough along to attempt relaying.

I’ll start by briefly expanding on annoyances driving this. Next, I’ll diagnose the problem and sketch elements of the solution. Then, I’ll discuss components of implementation. I’ll conclude by touching on difficulties and objections. Finally, in an addendum, I’ll list potentially compatible efforts and tools. Continue reading Dictionary of Arguments and Positions

Cohere, Conquer, Connect: Goals of Communication

We’ve seen the difficulty of constructing coherent action hierarchies and developing the competence to make them real; the challenges of conveying information to others; and the limitations of convergence – even when these efforts are undertaken with integrity, skill, and energy. Genuine pursuit of truth and improvement is responsible for much progress. Candid communication presupposes their value and seeks to enable their advancement. And most communication at least pretends to strive for truth, coherence, and objective betterment.

But there are at least three motivations to converse. One certainly is to candidly pursue truth and cooperatively converge towards optimal solutions: to cohere. Another is to advance predetermined goals: to conquer. And the last is to engage intellectually, emotionally, or physically with others: to connect.

These motivations are not mutually exclusive: we may hope to connect with others to conquer obstacles towards shared, truth-based, coherent goals and to be recognized for our efforts, contributions, and values. Yet one motivation dominates at any specific time. Even if not deliberately chosen, it biases expectations towards integrity, effectiveness, or kindness at crucial points in the conversation – or redirects towards establishing their importance.

These conflicting motivations add a dimension to misunderstandings and layer jumps that I previously simplified away. It is not enough to get the conversation to a shared part of an action hierarchy and constrain context changes. We need to also converge on, and constrain, the mode of engagement. Continue reading Cohere, Conquer, Connect: Goals of Communication

Competition Between Persons, Competition Between Groups

There is a conflict between integrity and effectiveness. An important portion of this conflict cannot be resolved with more sophisticated, longer-term evaluations of effectiveness or with appeals to ways in which integrity bolsters effectiveness. This portion stems from existence of competitive domains indifferent to integrity.

Thoughts of competition tend to bring to mind noble warriors or callous cheats. There are those who pursue agreed upon goals, uphold agreed upon values, follow agreed upon rules, and honorably advance their chosen practice, their community, and themselves. And there are those who just grab what they can get away with. This dichotomy dominates individual experience because competition we encounter tends to have agreed upon goals, values, and rules. Their existence creates a link to integrity.

But there is competition where the only shared understanding is that all will grab what they can get away with. It tends to be the competition to set goals, values, and rules – or to protect them and their enforcers. It increasingly dominates as scope grows and encounters with incompatible positions intensify. It culminates with international relations.

Although this competition is acted out by individuals who may desire integrity and respect the standards of their craft, it isn’t about them. Nor is it won merely through their individual prowess.

The capacity of a group to dispense largesse or inflict pain, its value as a partner, its strength and independence combine with shrewdness of its guardians to enhance its advantage. The importance of such assets percolates to pressure more mundane interactions within the group – and to constrain which internal goals, values, and rules are viable.

But the influence of integrity on member effectiveness and group solidarity also constrains what such pressure can productively accomplish. And internal expectations of integrity put pressure on goals and methods of group’s external competition.

There are two broad types of competition and they interact but conflict. There is competition between persons where integrity matters and there is competition between groups where effectiveness rules.

The inescapability of conflict between them is at the heart of Plurality of Absolutes. I owe the framing to Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States in which Michael Lind presents American history as a conflict between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideals. Continue reading Competition Between Persons, Competition Between Groups

Two Paths Towards Happiness

Underneath every pursuit is a choice. A choice between relishing tasks as a path towards excellence internal to a practice or dispatching them en route to other ends. A choice between seeing challenges as a necessity and opportunity or as an annoyance and expense. A choice between considering burdens as developing and validating the virtues or as interfering with desires and needs.

This choice reveals the extent to which the endeavor is motivated by self-actualization over lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A pattern of such choices illuminates the significance of self-actualization to the individual.

As different as the lower pursuits of material goods, social belonging, esteem of others, and self-esteem can be from each other, they share a property of having their aim be separate from that of the task being performed – and therefore being in tension with it.

This is easiest to see with material concerns which can be satisfied with explicit dishonesty. Social belonging is only a small step removed: we can cement it with favors that aren’t ours to give. Things get fuzzier with esteem of others: we can gain it by cheating, but this appears to sacrifice the very thing we are being esteemed for. And it seems even stranger to esteem ourselves after cheating.

But recognition by others and belief in our own worth bring benefits as surely as social belonging and material possessions. Cheating doesn’t preclude these benefits because they come from perception of worth rather than from reality.

What makes accuracy important is a separate desire to be a good person with integrity, real worth, and justly earned recognition. Nevertheless, perceived accuracy of such evaluations can assuage even this desire as well as the real thing. Why not achieve excellence by adjusting the standards by which it is measured?

While conscious self-deception is unacceptable to self-esteem and conscious deception risks penalties, we’ve evolved less overt ways to justify, mislead, forget. Among the most insidious and powerful is development of something akin to plausible deniability: a capacity to genuinely deny or excuse inadequacies.

It is influential because it develops naturally unless external forces intervene: simply allow yourself to lower standards. Begin when tasks are small or immaterial enough for your capitulation to be missed or dismissed.

Over time, such self-handicapping both develops the capacity for self-delusion and stunts development of skills, habits, and preferences necessary to act persistently, advance competently, evaluate objectively. Performance truly seems unimprovable and failures unavoidable.

Only at self-actualization does truth become indispensable and our aims become inseparable from the task: self-actualization demands reaching our potential, not merely feeling like we did. Achievement of lower levels of the hierarchy at its expense is an affront. Self-esteem and recognition only matter when they are compatible with the pursuit.

Self-actualization seems rewarding, honorable, authentic. But its pursuit proves unexpectedly uncertain, difficult, and dangerous. Dangerous not just materially or physically, but emotionally. Because hiding underneath it is ultimately a choice between being happy and being right – a choice that isn’t obviously inescapable until it is too late to choose happiness. Continue reading Two Paths Towards Happiness

On the Shoulders of Contemptible Giants

The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants sought to reconcile the magnitude of past greats with the ability of successors to move beyond their accomplishments. It had moderns bow gratefully before past prowess and meekly acknowledge their indebtedness. Yet it also had them boldly assert their usefulness and worth by standards shared with the ancients.

Today, we seem more inclined to perceive ourselves as wading through predecessors’ trash than as riding on their shoulders. We question the stature and agency of giants, doubt their ethics, and blame them for our ills.

We see ugliness, flaws, constraints. We see how they encourage draining, suboptimal, desperate, unethical behavior. We see how more care, thought, effort, or sacrifice by our predecessors could have avoided these problems. We conclude that instead of hoisting us on their shoulders, they pushed us into the muck.

We neglect that progress carries costs, action brings mistakes, choices have trade-offs, and hindsight arouses certitude. Being hoisted higher makes new costs, errors, imperfections, challenges, and possibilities easier to see while allowing old ones to fade from view. Continue reading On the Shoulders of Contemptible Giants

Laws of Absolute Belief and Plurality

There is an incredible diversity of positions and arguments. But underneath this variety are comparatively few causes, many of which rest on disagreement over fundamental concepts like good, right, and happy. Contemporary arguments are overwhelmingly instantiations of ancient disagreements in the sense that both would cease if such concepts were genuinely agreed upon.

Although all necessary disagreements terminate in conflicting axioms, passionate disagreements endure when several sets of such axioms are valuable despite being incompatible. The worth of essential systems, validated by empirical effectiveness and grounded in coherent positions that reduce to these axiom sets, impassion argument. Justifications grow in sophistication, but remain in tension because they point to irreconcilable truths.

Over the last eight posts I attempted to illuminate the most fundamental of such tensions; a tension I find latent in most arguments that, as long as it remains latent, reduces them to minor acts of refinement rather than advancement – in those rare cases when they rise above propaganda or derp. This is the tension about the inevitability of tension itself.

My argument consists of two substantially independent tracts which represent two sides of this tension: one that argues for the value of absolutes and another that argues for the limits to agreement on them. I have come to view both of these positions as axiomatic to the point that I am willing to call them laws:

Law of Absolute Belief: “Purpose and effectiveness rest on absolute belief.”


Law of Plurality: “Universal agreement on absolutes is impossible.”

These seemingly paradoxical laws have disturbing implications and I did not come easily to their acceptance. But now that I have accepted them, I am not easily compelled to engage propositions that question them. Yet such propositions are ubiquitous. A major motivation for this series was to justify my reluctance to argue past a violation of these laws. Continue reading Laws of Absolute Belief and Plurality

Significance of Agreement

As we pursue our action hierarchies with inspiration backed by clarity of vision and identity we encounter people, institutions, ideas, and experiences that contradict our models of the world. At first, we enthusiastically take up the challenge: we assume misunderstanding, poor implementation, or immorality. But as ostensibly minor contradictions unveil complex belief systems and seemingly isolated experiences coalesce, bewilderment unsettles energetic certitude.

Our incredulity rises when we are asked why we care. Why does existence of different beliefs, projects, and people concern us even when they are too abstract, remote, or tangential to our practical actions? And not just concern us, but interrupts, demotivates, and redirects our efforts? Continue reading Significance of Agreement