Friday, July 29, 2011

How then shall I live?

Normally I don't have much time for philosophy but my last post did put me into a bit of a philosophical frame of mind.  How should I go through life?  What are the important qualities to strive for?  Which bedrock virtues are best used as a foundation for everything else?  It's more difficult to decide than it sounds on the surface since a lot of virtuous things really aren't necessarily virtuous.  For instance, loyalty.  Being loyal is good, right?  Not necessarily!  Many were loyal to Hitler and Stalin, terrorists can be loyal to their cause and  I consider none of that to be virtuous!  I'm looking for concepts that can stand on their own two feet so to speak, things that are intrinsically good to be.

Well I'm no philosopher and also I'm still pretty young so consider this a work in progress.  So far I've settled on three things: being good, being smart and being skeptical.  By "good" I refer to treating others with the kindness, decency and respect they deserve, to actively care about the wellbeing of others and the betterment of the world you live in.  By "smart" I don't necessarily just refer to intelligence (which is rather out of your control) but rather to a commitment to do all you can with the intellectual resources you were dealt.  The mind is a muscle that can move the world and it needs to be stimulated and exercised.  To me a smart person is someone who is willing to learn and open to be educated.  There is no excuse for a life of ignorance in the Information Age.  By "skeptical" I refer to a commitment to grounding your beliefs in reality, to not believe things without evidence and especially not to trust in things despite evidence to the contrary.  None of these qualities are innate to humanity and therefore all three things need to be constantly striven for and cultivated.  I think these three things form a very solid foundation on which to build your life but these things all require one another and you can't just have some of them, you need them all to be present.

If someone is smart but neither skeptical or good then they tend to be the kind of person who does a lot of harm for really bad reasons.  Worst case examples would be people like Dr Mengele or those CIA scientists who did the crazy unethical experiments with LSD and attempted psychic warfare.  These weren't stupid men but a little goodness would have prevented their cruelty and a little skepticism would have prevented their ridiculous experiments entirely.

If someone is smart and skeptical but not good then they may have some valuable insights but no one is going to give them the time of day because they're probably going to be raging assholes.  Actually asshole is the best case scenario here, worst case scenario would be professional mediums, psychics and other con artists.  They're smart enough to expertly deceive others and they know they're fake so they don't lack skepticism but they are happy to take full advantage of the good nature and credulity of others.

If someone is smart and good but not skeptical they may be a very pleasant person to have a conversation with but you really should be careful when taking advice from them.  They may be well meaning, intelligent people but they tend to promote a whole lot of nonsense.  Good examples would be the scientists who fell hook, line and sinker for Uri Gellar or Project Alpha.  I think Dr Oz would also be a perfect example - a charismatic, gifted surgeon who wants what is best for people but is gullible as hell and is now unleashing an escalating parade of quackery on the public.

If someone is skeptical but not good or smart they typically end up as contrarians, going against the stream simply for the sake of going against the stream.  They tend to call all the wrong things into question for all the wrong reasons.  They often find their niche as trolls on internet discussion forums, being skeptical on things such as the holocaust, global warming, evolution and the germ theory of disease.

If someone is skeptical and good but not smart they tend to be skeptics of the well intentioned but profoundly misguided sort.  In their most harmless incarnation they could be conspiracy buffs, skeptical about everything the government says and passionate about getting the "truth" out.  Unfortunately this combo can also manifest in parents who don't have their kids vaccinated or who use alternative medicine to treat actual illnesses.  Despite doing it because they want the best for their kids, they are doing harm because they are skeptical of all the wrong things.

People who are just good but not smart or skeptical tend to epitomize the expression that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  With some power at their disposal they can do some real damage even though they mean others nothing but the best.  Unfortunately they are too uninformed and gullible to know what that is.  When these people are in government it can be a disaster.  Or if they have their own talk show they can spread terrible misinformation like no other (looking at you Oprah).  When they have no power they tend to be simply the kindhearted suckers that con artists prey on.  The Nigerian prince scam unfortunately only succeeds because people like this exist.

Alternately I guess you could lack all three of these qualities in which case I hope to never run into you.  The Inquisition was staffed almost exclusively with people lacking goodness, smarts and skepticism if you ask me!

These three things aren't perfect but they work really well and they work even better when you start building with other things upon the foundation they provide.  Several things will actually enhance them all.  With added humility for instance, you will know that there are limits to how smart and informed you are and that maybe you don't know as much as you think you do.  Humility tells you that despite your best intentions you may not be doing as much good as you think you are and also it can remind you to be skeptical of your own skepticism because you may have a pretty big blind spot in there somewhere (looking at you Bill Maher).  Another good thing to add on top would be courage - the courage to choose kindness when indifference is easier, the courage to follow the evidence to wherever the truth may lie and the bravery necessary to admit to yourself when what you know turns out to be wrong so you can go out and learn anew.

Anyway, I'm 34 and this is my best shot in the dark.  In five to ten years I may have a completely different life philosophy, who knows?  Like I said, this is a work in progress but so far it seems right to me.


Tania said...

Well said, and food for thought. I will also give this topic a good thinking-through!

Eugene said...

I hope you blog about it!