An intellectual journey: dodging the culture wars, thinking for myself

MercatorNet.com has just published my latest article on seeking truth instead of victory, and avoiding the pitfalls of a partisan approach:

It is vital that we likewise resist the temptation to let old answers take the place of live reason. If we succumb to this temptation we cease to exercise the virtues of wisdom and instead become mere partisans of a different stripe. We risk replacing naïve liberal narratives and attitudes with conservative or neo-conservative ones. The problem is not that the narratives are liberal or conservative, but that in either case we allow narratives to inform our thoughts instead of doing the hard work of thinking for ourselves. The truth is neither liberal nor conservative, and we should be wary of any tendency in ourselves to let the difficult and elegant pursuit of truth collapse into a partisan attitude.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/an_intellectual_journey_dodging_the_culture_wars_thinking_for_myself

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The ethics of management

I have a friend who is considering studying philosophy next year, and I once would have told him to do something useful and interesting like….anything that pays money and isn’t fundamentally hateful.

But “I need money” is not an ideal motivation for pursuing a vocational path, and in light of what I’ve since learned about melancholic idealists, pursuing a less-than-ideal motive is psychologically and spiritually self-destructive.

Look at me: I stuck with a weird and uncertain job for two years because it was the sensible thing to do, leaving only when my ‘superiors’ had completed their task of making my and my colleagues’ roles entirely redundant.  It wasn’t a good position to be in, though I learned a great deal about the inanity of corporate culture and can now list on my CV under ‘achievements’: “gained a healthy and fully justified contempt for management practices in the corporate not-for-profit sector.”

My time in that role taught me two things about philosophy:

Firstly, philosophy is totally beyond the scope of most people, including otherwise intelligent or seemingly successful corporate types.  Not beyond them by nature, but beyond them by training, inclination, and perhaps by temperament.  For most people, engaging in philosophy would be a real struggle.  They might struggle to appreciate the point or the purpose, they might struggle to understand the necessary distinctions and subtleties, and they may well struggle with the sheer practical demands of having to read a great deal and think a great deal.

Secondly, I learned that something like a corporate not-for-profit actually needs philosophy, and ethics in particular. But they get along fine without philosophy, if by ‘fine’ we mean something better than criminal incompetence but so short of the ideal that any actual idealists within their ranks will inevitably adopt a defeated and cynical attitude.  What passes for idealism in such an environment is actually the motivated self-belief and personal ‘marketing’ of key choleric (ambitious) individuals; the kinds who generate enthusiasm that is entirely directed toward their own career goals, and whom underlings learn to fear for their self-interested domineering.  A best-case-scenario is that an ambitious corporate choleric will pursue self-interest through an intelligent and genuinely beneficial scheme, delivering real improvements while enhancing their own career.  Unfortunately not all cholerics are intelligent enough to achieve such a ‘win-win’ outcome.  Other, less enlightened cholerics will simply lie, exaggerate, and play politics with Machiavellian intent if not intelligence.

This is the basic difference between a choleric and a melancholic: a melancholic will look at the unethical behaviour of various employees and say “this is not how it is meant to be”.  A choleric will make the same observation but add “and I’m the one to change it”.  A corporate choleric will go one step further, latching onto ‘business ethics’ as the Next Big Thing, and using it to promote his or her own position within the organisation, replete with powerpoint presentations, posters, wristbands and other corporate merchandise, and perhaps a business-wide ‘be ethical’ day where everyone makes a special effort to do something ethical and tell everyone about it.

The relationship between a manager and her team is fundamentally an ethical one.  The need for an ethical perspective is clear when a manager lies, deceives, or otherwise undermines her team for the sake of her own career or under the auspices of her superiors.  Indeed, a corporate culture or ethos that requires its managers not merely withhold information but actively lie to their subordinates, is unethical and hence dysfunctional.  All the effort, time and money invested in trite and manipulative management theories and techniques, unscientific personality type indicators such as the Myers-Briggs, and corporate propaganda such as values statements and clever slogans, would be better spent inducting the organisation into a basic set of ethical principles.  All the superficial management tricks are belied the moment a superior treats a subordinate unethically without repercussion or justice from within the organisation.  An organisation that cannot do right by its employees may survive, but it will never reach the heights portrayed in its own propaganda or PR.  And in nevertheless persisting with a positive image that it cannot or will not strive to fulfill, it will continue to cultivate cynicism, distrust, and contempt among its employees.

Philosophy could fix this, but unfortunately philosophy and ethics are not deemed useful in such an environment.  A corporation will not open itself to philosophy and ethics unless it has an appreciation for the benefits these disciplines can bring.  Yet corporations are ruled by individuals who have gotten where they are in part because they have not dedicated themselves to philosophy and ethics, but have sought personal profit and career advancement over all.  The tragedy is that any adoption of ethical principles would require ‘buy in’ from precisely the kinds of people who regard lying and scheming as necessary – not even necessary evils, but simply necessary to the achievement of their personal aims.

As Socrates recounts in the first book of Plato’s Republic, when he and Glaucon are imposed upon by a group:

“May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?
But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured. ”

 

 

iWant! iWant! iWant!

My latest article on MercatorNet is a reflection on the era of the smartphone from the perspective of an increasingly existential, anti-consumerist, somewhat hypocritical parent whose 18 month old son would apparently be quite happy to spend all day playing with the damn thing:

Imagine as an infant, looking around a world of strange new objects, only to find one object with a dazzling array of colour and sound, that responds to your touch and is, as evidenced by the attention your parents lavish upon it, clearly one of the most important things in your world.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/iwant_iwant_iwant

The superior man needs an income

The subtitle of this blog indicates the ambivalence of the virtue traditions towards utility. Whether Chinese or Western, philosophy has never sold itself as the means to everyday ends such as wealth, power, prestige, or any of the untold lusts and desires that drive human behaviour.

Yet we are so used to thinking and speaking in terms of utility that we can hardly communicate the excellence of this path. Everyday terms, utilitarian terms of ‘skill’, ‘values’, ‘proficiencies’, and ‘outcomes’ seem out of place when discussing virtue, wisdom, reason, and the countless fields of inquiry to which philosophers have turned their attention.

Nonetheless this is my challenge: I have been asked for the sake of my future employment prospects to elucidate my abilities; and while it may be tempting to simply write ‘analytic skills and problem solving’, I feel it doesn’t really do justice to what is on the one hand my most obvious ‘proficiency’, and on the other hand the greatest obstacle for my future employment. Anyway, here goes:

Whenever a situation, problem, usual or unusual circumstance comes to my attention I can’t help but try to understand it. By understanding I mean separating the essential from the non-essential, analysing all constituents or components, observing their many interactions and relationships, and determining their purpose or significance as individual parts, a greater whole, and one thing among many.

Even while arriving at this understanding, inspiration comes into play, both drawing upon and contributing to understanding. How are a pencil and a knife similar? You can stab someone with a pencil, you can carve your name with a knife, and let’s not forget that you can use the knife to sharpen the pencil. Such partial analogies as these require understanding, and they also further understanding. But they do not arise from any process within our control. Inspiration, creativity, are free. The best we can do is prepare the ground – ourselves – for the work they will bring.
As understanding and creativity progress they draw in questions: what is this like? How does it work? What is it for? What is its purpose? How is it being used? Answering these questions necessarily brings thoughts of improvement, enhancement, efficiency and waste; after all, if we understand how something works, we can also see why it isn’t working as well as it might.

Understanding and creativity can also uncover alternative ways of achieving the same goals, and alternative goals to which these existing methods may be applied. There might be nothing wrong with your method, but a different method could achieve the same goal more easily. Or your method might be so good that we could apply its lessons to other areas of life.

But ultimately understanding is its own reward and these other things are just potentially useful by-products. Philosophers seek to know, and at the same time they ruthlessly scrutinise the integrity of their own knowledge. That is why we have a convergence from the West: “He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”, and from the East: “The Master said, ‘Yû, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;– this is knowledge.”

That is why I characterise this deep desire to understand as both a proficiency of sorts and a hindrance. It is clearly the basis of my skills yet it leaves me with little regard for the utility of those skills. I find I’m driven to understand with an intensity that dies the minute I turn my mind primarily to profit. Only in writing, thus far, have I found a balance of understanding and creativity for which people have been willing to pay. If other avenues exist I hope to find them, or else make writing a career to sustain myself and my family.

The unexamined iphone is not worth buying

Reader dtcwee, keeping me honest, notes in regard to the previous post:

I think there is a type of shallow goal that still needs investigation. That of a shallow goal which ‘normal’ society earnestly believes is worthy. There is no intended deception or wilful negligence here. Indeed, this could be quite important, for how would you otherwise know if you have embarked in good faith towards a goal of no substance?

So far we’ve looked at naive people pursuing genuine goals with shallow efforts, and duplicitous people pursuing shallow goals that masquerade as genuine.  But what about people who, under the influence of societal norms, accept and work towards shallow goals in good faith?

Implicit in the question is a critique of societal norms, and hence a rejection of mainstream assessments of shallowness.  While we’ve looked at naive people and duplicitous people, either category could potentially be recognised as shallow by the mainstream given the right circumstances.

But critiquing mainstream norms as shallow is clearly not something the mainstream can accept.  Things are getting serious…

Firstly, critiquing mainstream norms in any fashion is likely to annoy or upset a lot of people.  Secondly, despite criticisms mainstream norms do have certain benefits: it’s better to be obese when the mainstream is obese than to be an unusual obese outlier with a set of expensive medical requirements. Anyone with a rare disease can tell you that increased incidence translates into all sorts of indirect benefits, while rarity may leave you with underdeveloped research and under-subsidised treatments.

Or in terms of mainstream financial choices: if a bank can be too big to fail, can an over-mortgaged majority be too big to face the consequences of bad decisions?

Importantly, the critique of mainstream norms has to come from somewhere; we need a vantage point from which to say that the mainstream is shallow.

Religious and philosophical perspectives have served us well in this regard, from Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, to Christ’s “But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”

The most basic level of critique falls in line more with Socrates than with Christ, and that is the simple question of whether our goals are chosen by us or chosen for us by the mysterious processes of societal norms.  To have unexamined goals is to have no personal role in determining the value of your objectives. It is, in a sense, to be slave to the will and whims of the majority.  It’s almost as though one’s true goal in such circumstances is to want what everyone else wants, or simply to take the ‘safest’ route of following conventional wisdom, trusting in the security of numbers.

In this sense, the shallowness lies in one’s acceptance of conventional goals, the unexamined life, the reflexive urge to do what everyone else is doing.  In this context, the critique from a position of depth is that one is not truly thinking about or engaging with one’s goals and actions, and as such the goals and actions are not truly one’s own.

This is neither a shallow effort at a genuine goal nor a shallow goal masquerading as a deep one, but a shallow approach to goals that, ideally, ought to be closely examined and existentially integrated.

Some people copy the mainstream for purely pragmatic reasons, fully aware of what they doing; a minority examine life and decide that the mainstream norms are truly what they want. But for others there is, perhaps, a common characteristic of self-deception: the failure to acknowledge that you might be simply buying into the hype and marketing of a lifestyle and goals the merits of which are, to you, ultimately unknown.