Ethical Capitalism

This happens to me from time to time.  Over a span of no more than a few weeks, without any preconceived agenda or plan, I come across several disparate pieces of information (books, articles, movies, websites, etc.) that all inadvertently conspire to solidify concepts that have previously been loosely floating around my brain.  The last time it happened was when I started getting the feeling that evolutionary psychology was approaching a tipping point on its way to becoming a set of ideas that would have applicability beyond the walls of academia. This time, the focus is on capitalism – specifically, whether it is possible to have a long-term capitalist system that does not ultimately cause more problems that it solves.  To start with my conclusion, the answer is a resounding yes.

As the ten or so folks who visit this site regularly know, I’ve suffered some painful disillusionment recently with respect to America’s behavior on the international stage over the last few decades.  (See this and this.)  That was the start.  Then, I saw the documentary, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, which essentially explains the whole debacle from Enron’s inception to its eventual demise.  Not pretty, to say the very least, and as the trial of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling gets underway, it would be very easy to look at all this and come away with the feeling that capitalism is just another band in a spectrum of insidious human institutions.  However, it’s tough to square that with the irrefutable fact that those populations that have embraced free market capitalism have, on pretty much any measure you care to examine, enjoyed more prosperity than they did under any other system. Still, there must be something going on here.  That something is the constant of human corruption.

I think it’s critical to recognize that some systems, such as communism, are inherently flawed, which is to say that no cadre of saints could ever wring success from them.  Even if you were to hypothetically (read: impossibly) factor out all manner of human corruption, the result would be the same – mass suffering and a general decline in overall prosperity.  In the case of communism and its cousin, socialism, the culprit is the necessary role of information in the execution of decisions regarding the means of production and the distribution of that which is produced.  As Friedrich Hayek tells us in, The Fatal Conceit, it is simply impossible for a centralized authority to have the information it needs to make good decisions across a panoply of individual situations.  That’s how you end up with a surplus of plates, but a shortage of forks.  But capitalism is not one of those institutions.

Capitalism, as an institution, is perfectly sound.  It works with human nature, which is why it works at all.  But like all other institutions that involve our species, it is always at risk of being corrupted from within.  As Brian Tracy so clearly writes in, Something for Nothing, all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  In addition, all humans have the same basic hierarchy of needs – safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The question is how we get from our inherent attributes to the satisfaction of our needs.  It would be easy to say that good institutions are the answer.  In a sense, they are, but I think we’re now seeing that our good institutions could still use some work.

Is capitalism bad because big oil has enough money and enough influence to push our leaders to embrace wholly unethical practices when dealing with underdeveloped countries?  After all, it was capitalism that made it possible for big oil to get where it is today.  Is capitalism bad because a few nefarious fellows (like Lay, Skilling, and Fastow) can conspire to plunge California into an energy crisis and hoodwink Wall Street and the rest of the world into losing billions of dollars on a house of cards?  No and no.  The problem is ethics.

I have recently come across a company called LRN.  Here’s what they do:

LRN helps leading companies around the world inspire do-it-right cultures. We provide everyone in the enterprise with the legal and ethics knowledge needed to make better decisions and take appropriate actions.

The founder and CEO of the company is a guy called, Dov Seidman.  He’s a Harvard Law grad (The company has its roots as a legal services provider.), and it appears that his mission in life (and business) is to bring ethics to the forefront of corporate American culture.  What intrigues me is that it appears that the business environment in this country following all of the scandals of late is becoming more and more receptive to this.  Sounds good, right?  So how does it work?

The basic idea is that companies, especially large ones, have to embrace a culture of ethics.  That means they can’t just look at regulatory and legal issues as hindrances to business as usual.  They, meaning the employees at large, have to internalize what it means to operate ethically.   Again, it sounds great, but how do you make it happen?

It takes a commitment from the very top to instruct every member of the organization on what it means to do business ethically, and it takes a system that is designed to penalize unethical behavior, and, more importantly, to reward ethical behavior.  The idea is not to determine some universal set of ethics across all industries and then chip away at getting more and more companies to buy into them.  It’s about getting each and every company out there to settle on a set of values and then implement systems that ensure that they are observed at all levels.  This is no easy task, but it can happen.

Up until summer of 2005, I worked for IBM.  One thing that I really appreciated about working for Big Blue was the fact that every employee had to commit to a set of Business Conduct Guidelines.  Every year, we had to login to the IBM intranet, read the guidelines, and acknowledge our commitment to them.  Though I can’t speak for everyone, I can certainly say that I took those guidelines seriously.  They meant a lot to me, and I was all too happy to share them with customers.

As a business development professional (read: sales guy), I was constantly competing with other big names for business.  I often emphasized the fact that IBM is an ethical company with a commitment to doing the right thing by its customers.  To some, this no doubt came off as standard sales fluff.  However, given the fact that no complex business relationship is hiccup-free, savvy customers are comforted to know that when things go wrong, the company on the other end has a policy of being on the up and up.  Culturally-speaking, we at IBM believed we held the moral high ground, and I can tell you that we were often rewarded for it.  This is what Seidman envisions for corporate America.

In fact, in 2004, Seidman testified before the United States Sentencing Commission.  Here’s the deal with the commission:

The United States Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the judicial branch of government. Its principal purposes are: (1) to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for offenders convicted of federal crimes; (2) to advise and assist Congress and the executive branch in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and (3) to collect, analyze, research, and distribute a broad array of information on federal crime and sentencing issues, serving as an information resource for Congress, the executive branch, the courts, criminal justice practitioners, the academic community, and the public.

At the time of Seidman’s testimony, they were considering the role of ethics in determining how to handle legal infractions by business, large and small.  Here’s a link to the whole transcript.  It’s a bit long, but Seidman’s arguments are really compelling.  Here’s a snapshot:

Compliance is about self-governance by its very nature. And therefore, if we believe that the most powerful form of self-governance is further down the spectrum of culture beyond mere acquiescence with law, then only ethics can get us there. I’m also rejecting as unfeasible in today’s world is that a set of corporate mechanisms and bureaucracies can be created, indeed pure compliance programs that attempt to ensure that everyone acquiesces and complies with the law. Instead, I believe that compliance with law is, in fact, an outcome – an outcome of a true self-governing culture.

Quite right.  In terms of Tracy’s basic human attributes, we can say that the system that positively harnesses our inherent greed and selfishness in the pursuit of our aims is ethics.  And when the right ethics are in place, we find that our needs for love, respect, and fulfillment are more easily satisfied.  You see, as social animals, we thrive on the acceptance of others.  Having a common set of values and a system that illuminates breaches in those values is the key to keeping the dark side of human nature in check.  It’s a kinder, gentler version of the public hanging.

If, during my says at IBM, I had chosen to do as many competitors did, offering kick-backs to decision-makers for choosing IBM, I would have been met with raised eyebrows at the very least (and, more likely, disciplinary action).  My colleagues would have thought less of me for taking the easy wrong over the hard right.  Though we were co-workers, we were also competing with one another in some ways – in terms of quota attainment and such.  By operating unethically, I would have given myself an edge, which was tantamount to cheating.  Yes, I lost deals to competitors who delivered big screen TVs to CIOs who bought their wares, but I could always hold my head up, and that was ultimately more important to me than getting the deal or my acknowledgement of the IBM Business Conduct Guidelines.  That’s an ethical culture, and it came about because I was working within a system that would not allow me to overly satisfy my needs for security and comfort (by way of sales commissions) without jeopardizing my need for respect.  A good ethical system creates checks and balances between human attributes and human needs – breaches mean that needs don’t get met.  Simple, and completely consistent with human nature.

The bottom line is that the solution to the problems of capitalism are out there.  They’re not easy, and they have costs, but the benefits far outweigh them.  Indeed, as Seidman says, compliance with the law is an outcome of an ethical culture.  But there are many others, the best of which is the value of being known for doing the right thing.  That means that we have to reject the understandable, but intellectually lazy, conclusion that capitalism in itself is the problem.  As always, it is our implacable human nature that poses the challenge.  Fortunately, just as the invisible hand co-opts our nature to produce the best of all possible environments, so can ethics keep the invisible hand from reaching in the cookie jar when no one is looking.

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Relationship Is A Four Letter Word, Especially With Kids

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That word is simple – work. Yes, we’ve heard it a million times, but that’s because it’s true far more often than it is not. Maybe people get confused by this because they think in snapshots instead of movies. If you take a snapshot of your romance or friendship or family relationship when things are going well, it’ll be hard to reconcile the idea that relationships are work with the picture you get. It’s the not-so-great times that drive the point home. A good example in my own life is raising my son.

I’ll admit this, even though I know some folks will shudder – I wasn’t particularly into my kid for at least the first fifteen or so months of his life. Now, don’t make too much of this. Of course, I loved him in the way that nature programmed me to love him – I would have gladly thrown myself in front of a bus for him, even when he was a cute little eating, shitting, sleeping, crying bag of fat. What I’m saying is that I didn’t get much out of the beginning of his life. Yes, I’m a selfish bastard – just like everyone. The point is that, despite the fact that the personal benefit balance did not seem to be tipped in my favor, I clocked in.

I changed my share of diapers, and I spent as much time with my son as my life would allow. It was hard, especially since he cried incessantly for the first three months of his life. Nevertheless, as I am a long-term thinker, I knew that the work would pay off, and it has, like nothing I could have ever imagined. What I have now is a 24-month old son who absolutely loves his daddy. Now I can’t get enough of him. Have I transitioned into the blissful part of relationships? Was it just a “pay your dues” and then reap the benefits situation? Yes and no. Things have changed, but they’re still tough.

One thing that Brian Tracy talks about in Something for Nothing (see my review) is the idea that we should place the people we care about most in the center of our lives. We should build our worlds around them, placing the highest priority on spending time with each and every one. In fact, Tracy said something that I had never heard and is perhaps one of the most prescient statements in the book – How does a child spell “love”? Answer: “T-I-M-E!” How right he is, but there’s a bit more to it.

In some ways, my relationship with my son is the simplest, most wonderful thing in my life. But, it’s still work. You see, just spending time with a child isn’t really enough. You have to actually interact with them. You have to engage them on their level, and that’s not easy if you’re used to multi-tasking and thinking about all manner of complex philosophical and occupational subjects. Even now, I think of my time with my son as work, but it’s truly a labor of love.
I so look forward to the time we have together, but I have to admit that I find myself watching the clock after a while, looking forward to when I’ll be “off-duty.” How crazy is that? Just when I think I’m a good dad, I take a glance at my watch and then cringe at what a loser I am. Then, I take a step back.

I used to feel unbelievably guilty about this, but not any more. The fact is that raising my child is not unlike many of the other types of work I engage in – even though the good things outweigh the bad, the unpleasant or difficult parts are still there (That’s why it’s called work, right?), and they still have to be dealt with. I’m just fortunate that child-rearing gets more and more enjoyable as time goes on. The key is that the focus is on interacting with my son so that I can teach him how to be a well-adjusted little person.

How many people pay lip service to the idea that we have to spend time with our loved ones to keep the relationships producing that ever-important two-way flow of love? Maybe they think proximity equals spending time. This would explain the ever-present DVD players with screens aimed at the backseats of SUVs and mini-vans. Now, I’m not judging here – all kids are different, so who I am to say when the “mesmerizer” is or is not justified during travel times? But there’s no question that when the little ones are absorbed in a video, they are not interacting with anyone else in the vehicle. They’re locked onto Bob the Builder or Winnie the Pooh to the exclusion of all other stimuli, including the words of the folks in the front seats. This, to me, is not spending time. It’s sharing time, and in investment terms, the contributions are pretty much nil, which means the payoff is inevitably similar. Same thing with daycare, nannies, and on and on.

Of course, I understand that we all have to do what we have to do when it comes to raising our children. As the child of a single mother, I was in full-time daycare from week seven of my life. There was simply no other way, but when mom got home, it was all about me, and I knew it. This is what matters. Surprising as it may be, one of the best concepts about children that I ever heard came from Bill Clinton. It was somewhere around 1995, and Bill was in the midst of one of his classic “it’s about the chiiildren” speeches. He said, “More than anything else, every child needs to know that he or she is the center of someone’s universe, that there is nothing more important than him or her to that person.” Wise words, indeed. Now let’s place that idea right next to the idea that time interacting spells love to a child.

If kids interpret their importance in the minds of their parents or primary care-givers in terms of the amount of time they spend interacting with them, then the inescapable conclusion is that people who have children have an obligation to clock in. There’s no other way. If what you want is a great relationship with your kids, then it’s going to cost you. You’re going to have to suck it up and get down on their level for extended periods of time. The good news is that once they get to a certain age (18 months or so, for most), the rewards are intoxicating.

When my son wakes in the middle of the night and cries out for daddy and not mommy, I stagger to his room with the biggest smile on my face. Interestingly, it only happens when I’ve spent the whole day with him. If I’ve been traveling or have been too busy to spend more than a couple of hours with him, it’s all mommy. Simple things like that have a profound effect on how I plan my schedule. Mind you, it’s not a competition. I just know that mommy is his number one person, so any time I’m top of mind, I know I’m doing something right. My investments are paying off in the kind of love that I could never have dreamed of three years ago, but they are investments all the same.

In the final analysis, the conclusion is clear – relationships are like everything else – there is no free lunch. There is no something for nothing. So if your relationships (with your kids or otherwise) are not what you’d like them to be, it’s time to take stock. It’s time to honestly evaluate how much time you spend with them. More importantly, it’s time to evaluate how much time you could spend with them, but spend doing other things that maybe aren’t as much work. If you’re honest, you’ll find that you could be giving more.

Lest I come off as one who stands on the high ground shouting to my lessers, I’m no different. My life is a constant struggle to stay focused on what’s important, and like everyone else, I fail on a regular basis. But these are what I like to call personal best-practices – the things we know are right and strive to do at all times. What matters is that we recognize what we need to do – spend quality time with our loved ones – and we commit to sacrificing whatever we have to to do it. It’s work, but nothing is more worth it.

Book Review: Something for Nothing

Whilst poking around the blogosphere in my jammies (I’m between work gigs at the moment.), I came across this review of a new book by Brian Tracy called, Something for Nothing: The All-Consuming Desire That Turns The American Dream Into A Social Nightmare.  While the author, Rebecca Hagelin, provides a nice overview, I think there’s more to be said.

For those who don’t know, I believe the first priority in any review is to provide readers with a read or don’t read recommendation.  Hagelin’s recommendation was a very enthusiastic read!, and mine is no different.  This is an excellent book.  In fact, as I was reading the first hundred pages of the book, I kept thinking that Tracy had somehow surreptitiously gained access to a dozen or more ideas that have been floating in my head for some time and corralled them into an excellent treatise on human nature, one fit for the masses.  There’s nothing like some good confirmation bias to get you into a book.  Anyhow, by the end of the book, I concluded that there are good things and bad things to say about this work.  First the good.

Tracy’s underlying premise is that all humans are hardwired to be lazy, greedy, ambitious, selfish, vain, ignorant, and impatient.  I agree completely.  In fact, were I in a more theoretical mindset, I would probably take on the task of connecting the dots between these attributes and our caveman heritage.  (It’d be pretty easy.)  But I’m about practicality these days, so I’ll stick to clarifying what this means.

To say that we’re all naturally lazy is not a criticism of our species; it’s a value-neutral statement of fact. Indeed, Tracy’s larger point is that what matters is how we translate these natural proclivities into the way we think and act in the world.  I, for example, am one seriously lazy bastard.  I absolutely abhor wasting time on fruitless activities, but this is a good thing.  My disdain for waste drives me to innovate, to get every ounce of productivity out of the time I spend doing what’s necessary in life.  I am, therefore, using my laziness in a positive way.  But not everyone does, and this is where the concept of something for nothing comes in.

Tracy argues that an environment that allows people to get what they want/need without actually doing anything for it breeds the worst of all possible responses to inherent human laziness – the drive to get something for nothing.  And, just to keep the human generalizations ball rolling, Tracy provides a list of the basic wants/needs of all humans.

All of us are motivated by an intense desire to achieve safety, security, comfort, leisure, love, respect, and fulfillment – in that order.  The key is that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy – we pursue the first ones until they are satisfied, and then we pursue the next ones until they are satisfied.  This is why humans for most of history have had little time for contemplation – the activities associated with finding survival and security consumed all moments.  But we are now living in a time when survival and security are pretty much a given for most people in the US.  And given may just be the operative word there.

With the constant expansion of social entitlement programs, the possibility of getting something for nothing is less and less difficult.  If your choices are a painful minimum wage job or a free check at the beginning of every month, the human tendency for laziness says that you’ll choose the latter.  This is because of what Tracy calls the Expediency Factor (or E Factor) –

“People continually strive to get the things they want the fastest and easiest way possible, with little or no concern for the secondary consequences of their behaviors.”

Humans are expedient in their use of their natural tendencies to acquire the things they need and want.  But wait, wait, wait, you may be shouting.  This is all nonsense, you might say.  I’m not like that, you’ll bristle.  Okay, fine, you’re different, but not because you’re not wired this way.  You’re different because the tendency to ignore secondary consequences has been trained out of you at some point in your journey through life.   Maybe you had good parents who taught you that thinking short term is a recipe for disaster.  Or maybe you learned the hard way from making bad decisions.  Whatever the case, the fact is that had you not been taught otherwise, you would be a short-term thinker.  That’s the human animal.

And you might also take issue with Tracy’s list of human characteristics.  You might say, “I’m not lazy!!”  Bullshit, I’d say.  If I give you a choice between a handsaw and chainsaw to cut down abig tree, you’ll choose the chainsaw (unless you’re a luddite puss).  Same thing with greed.  As Tracy points out, when people are offered $100,000 or $95,000 to do the same job, all people choose $100,000.  The point is that our genes have been carefully crafted over the eons to make us into a species with these basic drives.  This does not mean that our behavior is always malevolent.

It is possible to channel these human tendencies into positive behaviors that are beneficial to ourselves and others.  Indeed, this appears to be Tracy’s mission – to help us recalibrate the way we approach life so as to take full advantage of our nature while simultaneously helping ourselves and the world around us.  This is why I really like this book.  He’s singing my tune, and I’m loving his rendition.  But all is not roses and sunshine in Something for Nothing.

Brian Tracy is a guru in the personal and business self-improvement world.  He’s been around for a long time doing seminars and writing books.  He’s traveled the world, and his insights are evidence of a very centered and humanitarian kind of guy.  Alas, even though he gets the big picture completely right, his solutions for the masses are a bit too idealistic for my taste.

The first four chapters of the book lay down the basics that I’ve described above.  He explains his claims as to human tendencies and human needs, and he goes into how character is the key to meeting our needs in positive ways.  All good stuff.  But then Tracy turns to the current situation in America.  He talks about the role of useless politicians in ushering in the era of something for nothing and the damage that mentality does to people who hold it and to society at large.  Again, all good stuff.  But then, our esteemed author strays into fantasy land.

First Tracy offers advice on how to avoid falling victim to the something for nothing disease.  He provides a pledge that you can take that entails promising to never take something for nothing and to never abide people or organizations that do.  I’m on board with committing to do never taking something for nothing, but the idea that we can simply turn our noses up to those who do is a mistake.

Yes, I get just as disgusted as the next guy when I see some welfare queen in line with food stamps buying prime rib as she chats on her cell phone.  I’m not looking to buddy up to her anyway.  But what about the workplace?  Tracy devotes a whole chapter to how to fix the workplace.  Were I to buy into the whole pledge, I’d have very few options in terms of employment.  (Assuming I were employed, of course.)   The fact is that most companies have plenty of folks who do almost nothing and collect paychecks.  This fact seems to elude Mr. Tracy.

Well, actually, he mentions it, but his solution is just to get rid of these people.  Oh yeah.  Sure.  And his solutions for government are much the same.  How do we stop the entitlement mentality?  Do away with programs that give something for nothing.  Genius.  How do we get rid of politicians who foment resentment of the rich to garner cash for their consituents?  You got it – replace them with statesmen who have a longer term and less selfish view of public policy.  Yes, that’s it!!  We’ll just get rid of the assholes, and when we do, all the people who are currently afflicted with the something for nothing disease will slowly begin to be productive.  Wow.  I found myself wondering how a guy who clearly has such a good feel for human nature could come up with so asinine a solution.

Let me just say that I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Tracy’s arguments.  There’s no question that eliminating the possibility of getting something for nothing will spur the vast majority of humans to start taking steps to meet their needs productively.  But I’m afraid we’re at a point where we simply can’t get there from here.  Ironically, Tracy explains why this is so.

The author says that studies have been done showing that fear of losing met needs is 2.5 times more powerful than the desire to meet them.  (I should point out that the book has no footnotes, so we believe at our peril.  However, my experience shows this to be basically true.)   If this is true, then we should expect it to be nearly impossible to do what Tracy wants done, especially in our sound-bite driven, biased-media world.

So what are we to make of this book?  It’s good because it explains in very clear terms what we’re about as human beings.  It’s also good because it reminds us that we are responsible for our lives, and that our success depends upon the decisions we make and the actions we take.  And it’s even good that it provides a lot of basic historical and economic information that lends credence to the overall thesis.  That’s enough to justify the cost of admission – by a long shot.  But I think we have to be wary of pie-in-the-sky solutions to problems like this.

If we’re really going to make progress – for ourselves and the world around us – we have to take the situation as it is and find ways to navigate through it.  Sure, there are changes we can make that can be very beneficial.  For example, if we all get serious about making the Fair Tax a reality, many of the problems in our society will dissolve before our eyes.  (He doesn’t mention it.)  But the larger point is that we have cards in our hand, cards that we have to play.  Tracy would have us discard until the cards come up all aces.  Unfortunately, the deck’s not that big.  In the end, there’s useful information in this book, but it’s up to us to figure out how to use it to get what we want out of life.  Tracy has given us a clear picture of the stage upon which we act.  We now have the task of writing the script.

Relationships 101 – Part 2 – Bridging the Gap

Original Post (with comments)
This is a series about relationships – why we need them, how we get them, and how we keep them. There are four parts. This is the second – it focuses on the changes you have to make. Additional parts include:

  • identifying the target; (click here)
  • how we take control of our environment to make it friendly to our efforts; (click here)
  • the difference between getting relationships and keeping them;(click here)
  • real interpersonal feedback – quantitative concurrence; (click here)

I’m sure there will be more to this as it evolves, but that’s what you have to look forward to. Off we go.

With a basic hierarchy of love-producing relationships established, it’s time to figure out how to get what we want. A river-crossing metaphor seems appropriate. We stand on one side looking across at the promised land, the place where our lives will be centered most around gratifying and enjoyable relationships, where the measure of our contentment is the additive effect of the love we give and the love we receive.

For some, the river is shallow, calm, and narrow enough for easy crossing. All it takes is the will to take the first step. For others, the river is quite wide, and it is perilously swift and deep. For those folks, will is not enough. Their crossings will require planning and the development of specific skills. It will take time, but they have the resources they need to make it happen. And if the promised land is not motivation enough, then I don’t know what is. Perhaps a meth buzz. But then…moving on.

For a difficult river crossing, one has to be able to assess the situation – identify a safe route, identify the best mode of crossing (rope, boat, etc.), and identify the obstacles. Things are much the same when it comes to getting from where we are today to where we want to be relationship-wise; we just have different things to assess. Fortunately, we really only need to worry about three things – looks, personality, and courage.

It is tempting to say that any one of the three can be enough to do the trick. But this really isn’t true. You can probably get by on just a really good personality, but that’s probably the only one. If looks are your strong suit, you’ll have it easy when it comes to “opening” new people (Opening is a term used to refer to beginning an interaction with someone), thus eliminating the need for courage, but a lasting love-producing relationship will require some personality. Similarly, if you’re infinitely courageous but you have no looks or personality, you’re doomed. The point is that you have to figure out your assets. You have to determine what you’ve got and what you need to bridge the gap, and you have to be unflinchingly honest.

Though this can be unbelievably scary, it’s part of the deal. Sorry. This kind of self-analysis is crucial to becoming the kind of people who attain and maintain healthy love relationships over long periods of time. And if you’re like most folks – you either tend to inflate or deflate your assessments of yourself – a good neutral party is always a good idea. Find someone who seems to live on the other side of the river, if you know what I mean. Most nice folks will help you out. Hell, I’ll help you out. Send your story to enlightenedcaveman at gmail dot com along with a picture, and I’ll do my best to point you in the right direction. (This shit is useless if we don’t put it to work, right?)

So you assess your situation. Once you do, you know what you need to work on. For that, let’s turn to a recently published, and kick-ass, book called, The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, by Neil Strauss. It’s about this not-so-suave-with-the-ladies author and music critic who decided to immerse himself in an online community of pickup artists to try to solve his romance problems. Through the course of the book, he transforms his looks and his personality entirely. He goes from being a dork to being a master pickup artist, able to bed everything from Playboy bunnies to actresses at will. Of course, since he’s a smart guy, he eventually realizes that his exploits are empty and unfulfilling, so he puts his new looks and personality to work to find real love. To my knowledge, he’s still with the girl he ended up with in the book. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them.

Now, I am not advocating this sex-oriented/conquest sort of lifestyle, per se. But the concept is legit – the concept of transforming your looks and personality to get the kinds of relationships you want. And lest I offend our female readers – all of this applies more or less to women – they just need a little less in the courage department. The unpleasant truth is that the skills employed by a pickup artist are largely the skills required to get in the relationship game, especially if your river is wide and treacherous. (In Part 4, I’ll address the difference between obtaining a good relationship and keeping it.) Now, I haven’t mentioned courage yet, but it’s implicit in the transformation process, at least for the fellas.

Most of the guys who are drawn to the pickup society are guys who have experienced so much rejection from ladies that they are gun-shy and totally uncomfortable around them. It is the transformation in looks and personality (which includes the routines they learn to get conversations started and keep them going) that provides the confidence to gather the courage to open attractive women. The simple fact is that guys who have the right combination of looks, personality, and courage do better with women than guys who don’t. And, as I’ve said before, the good news is that the resources are there to make the necessary changes.

We’ll start with looks. This one is easy. One interesting thing about the pickup community is they are not a group of dashing playboys. Sure, there’s the occasional GQ guy, but most are ordinary guys making the best with what they’ve got. Of course, the archetype of physical beauty is fairly well-established. Heterosexual females will almost universally prefer to look at say, Johnnie Depp, than Michael Moore, and males prefer Pammy to Oprah. This is largely genetic, as in, it indicates fitness (Check out my posts on Appearance Deltas and Gimmick Theory.), however, the archetype of beauty is no match for a damned good personality. Personality transcends fitness; it points to status, which is the primary engine of the caveman mind. So, when it comes to looks, you do the basic stuff – you look like you care about your appearance.

For some, that simply means paying a little more attention to personal hygiene and trading that flannel shirt for something a little more in fashion. For others, it implies more drastic measures. The author of The Game, who by the way nicknamed himself, Style, shaved his head, got laser surgery, and had his teeth whitened. He also started working out regularly. Nothing wrong with that. It let people know that he cared about how he looked, which had the effect of lowering the amount of personality he’d need come pickup time. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t need it. It only matters that he made the effort. As they say, every little bit helps, and this is no exception.

Personality is a little more complicated. At the highest level, it comes down to being trustworthy and interesting, but there are dimensions a-plenty to each of those. Being trustworthy is about being interpersonally reliable. Remember – we’re cavemen at heart, which means we’re wired to be attracted to reciprocally altruistic relationships. Be truthful, even when it hurts (you, that is), and know when it is acceptable not to be truthful (as in when your cyclops friend asks if he looks funny in his new sunglass). For more on this, click here. Keep your word and repay your debts – both monetary and otherwise. Simple stuff, but essential to having the right kind of personality to succeed.

And be interesting, for god’s sake. Have a personality. Getting emotionally connected to someone means finding common ground. Yeah, you can talk about the weather and fluff like that, but you’ll never find the kinds of commonalities that glue people together unless you know what makes you tick and you learn to find people who complement those aspects of your personality. (Compliment, not necessarily share.) And to do this, you need a baseline of information not so much about who you are, but about who we all are. (Click here for a crash course.) Once you know what your genes are pushing you to think and do, you can decide what you’re really interested in. This is all part of the personality transformation process, and believe me, it’s a process.

Your next task is to go out into the world and explore, and to do this, you need people. You need to interact with all sorts of people, and you need to do so openly and courageously. You see, the courage it takes to open a potential new relationship is developed through opening people with whom you have no initial interest in long-term relationships. That is the subject of Part 3 – Fashioning a Friendly Environment.

Relationships 101 – Part 1 – Identifying the Target

Original Post (including comments)
What follows is a series about relationships – why we need them, how we get them, and how we keep them. There are four parts. This is the first – it establishes the target, so to speak. Additional parts include:

  • identifying the target; (click here)
  • how we take control of our environment to make it friendly to our efforts; (click here)
  • the difference between getting relationships and keeping them;(click here)
  • real interpersonal feedback – quantitative concurrence; (click here)

I’m sure there will be more to this as it evolves, but that’s what you have to look forward to. Off we go.

Part 1 – Identifying the Target
It’s all about relationships. If you’re not already tuned into this really basic concept, take my word for it. Or you can go to an old folks home and interrogate the inmates. The ones who can remember their names will, in the vast majority, tell you that the best times in their lives were the ones spent with their loved ones. They won’t go on about their house or their favorite football team. It’ll be love, love, love. Believe me. So, we, being just smart enough to recognize that epiphanies like that, when realized early-on, have a tremendous ripple effect through life, give the idea some thought. And once we do, the pieces fall into place.

It comes down to love – a two-way street of emotional connection and gratification. The desired effect is achieved when there is some balance between love dispensed and love received. The key to that is long-term relationships that are rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and of course, enjoyable. You need all four to get the balance that elicits the full life-enhancing effects of love.
So this is what we’re after – relationships that have these qualities. Fortunately, we can break things down into nice simple terms. There’s a hierarchy, as I see it, which provides a basis for subsequent communication on the topic. It is as follows:

  1. Parent/child relationships. They necessarily embody all of the aforementioned characteristics (if done even half-right).
  2. Sibling relationships. These are deep and wide if all four characteristics are present. Often they’re not enjoyable or rewarding, so the siblings share very little of the kind of love we’re talking about. Yes, they love one another, but they don’t share love with one another; the connection is there, but it is rarely used.
  3. Committed pair-bond relationships. Marriage, partnership, civil union, whatever you want to call it. It’s the duration and the “stuck with each other” factor that creates the dynamic and challenging aspects. Like I said, you need all four. It doesn’t matter how people come by their commitments to one another; it only matters that the commitments are known (even if only among both parties) and that there are understood harmful consequences associated with breaching them.
  4. Extended familial relationships. Aunts, cousins, etc. These adhere to the same rules as sibling relationships – they just yield a little less of the good stuff.
  5. Exclusive (or semi-exclusive) trusted friend relationships. These may be acquired through extended shared experiences or by way of a vouch. They may be Platonic or romantic (as in the case of a relationship headed toward the committed pair-bond category.) The exclusivity is the notion that each person knows that they are the other person’s best friend. Corny as it sounds, this is where the Best Friends Forever (BFF) thing comes in. I have to stop. This is cracking me up.

    (Close laptop)
    (1 Minute Later)

    And, as serendipity would have it, Pammy is on Leno in a skimpy Santa Suit. I’m saved.
    Now (with a completely straight face), the BFF thing hits the key aspects of a productive relationship (in the ideal love balance sense) because there is much satisfaction to be derived from the feeling of exclusivity with other human beings. It is but a perk in the committed pair-bond relationship, but it’s the heart of the BFF. This kind of relationship is dynamic because anything over a long period of time with humans is bound to change, and it is challenging because all parties will work to keep it going. Gay or not, it’s a lot better than being alone.

  6. 6. Non-exclusive trusted friend relationships. Like the BFF relationship – this can be Platonic or romantic. Even though all parties can walk away (either figuratively or literally), there are usually commonalities that keep things together – could be a shared interest, or a shared existence (as in people who work together). And even though there’s no exclusivity, these relationships can be quite deep and gratifying, such as in the case of soldiers who serve in war together.

Beyond those six main types of relationships, you’re not likely to be dealing in much love, or at least not healthy love. You may loooove Tom Cruise, but two-way emotional connections do not transpire when the parties in question don’t know each other. At least not yet. It’s the fucking Innernet, man, so who knows. Regardless, and this requires a delicate touch, the more you think a relationship like that is love, the longer your life sucks.

Now to the matter at hand. We get to decide – because we’re free and we know that life doesn’t happen to us; we happen to it – which of these types of relationships we want to pursue. We can do so through long deliberation or simply by trial and error, which at least has the benefit of getting results. But no matter how we approach it, the fact is that finding worthwhile relationships is different for everyone, but the strategy is basically the same. First the difference.

It’s a real good idea to figure out where you stand on this curve. If you’re the gregarious type and are never at a loss for people to hang out with, you have it easy. If you’re the shy type, you don’t. On another level, even if you’re gregarious in “friend” environments, you may be the shy type in potential pair-bonding situations. In that case, you have it easy for some relationships and tough for others. The point is that it is incumbent upon all of us to know this aspect of ourselves. This is because there’s a cure for whatever ails you. More on that in a moment.

In terms of strategy, it’s also a good idea to start at the bottom of the list and work your way up. Hopefully, it is perfectly obvious that it makes sense to try to extract love from non-exclusive friend relationships before you tackle committed pair-bonds. So how do you do this? The simple answer is to be a good friend and be interesting. That means you’re honest and trustworthy…and fun. Some people find this stuff, the simple stuff, very challenging, and they want for love as a result. But fear not. As I said, there’s a cure.
Alas, my time is up. Sorry for the cliffhanger but compromises have been made. It’s this or nothing.

Abstract to Happy Fantasy – A Leap to the Abyss?

My thinking right now begins with the idea my brain (and yours, too) has an approximation of reality digitally represented within its physical existence. It all hinges on two things. The first is the notion that there is such a thing as absolute truth, if you take it to mean that there is a consistency to things, an immutable quality (or multitude of qualities) that permeates the perceivable universe. The second is the idea that our neurons are malleable enough to gather information about the world and code it into some sort of usable storage. Both are utterly defensible. In simple terms, our little neurons work together to construct a complex model of the perceivable universe, which is knowable and constant. What got me down this path is thinking that there was no fortune, evolutionarily-speaking, for the flawed mental model, but only to a point. After that, the flawed model may be the key to happiness. (And the little annoying tap on the shoulder.)

I suppose the evolutionary background for this is the idea that starting back in ancestral time and moving forward, those individuals who had the most “realistic” neural models of reality stood a better chance of surviving than those whose models were, shall we say, deficient. Perhaps the bad models were overly general, classifying all berries as edible, thus resulting in the demise of their purveyors. Or maybe they were overly specific in their grouping of entities; they could not generalize that a large, agile cat, though it might not have stripes, might be dangerous. The genes that made these inferior mental models were, so it would seem, stopped dead in their tracks. Literally.

But it goes further than that. Evolution is about escalation. It’s safe to assume that the totally inferior models would have fallen away early in the mental evolutionary process. But there would still have been the matter of scarce resources, which lead directly to competition. That is to say, once the simple things killed off the stupid people, there was still a competition for limited resources. And, once again, the accuracy of the neural model would have been the chief arbiter of survival.

The basic details of reality would, at that point (some theoretical space in time), have been fairly consistent among the existing humans. Most everyone would share a similar mental model for the difference between poisionous berries and edible berries (or at least the notion that there are different types), or the similarity between tigers and lions. But more complex aspects of reality, such as the tendency of humans to deceive one another, especially in certain situations, might not be shared. And those types of differences would have to have been heavily influential on the genetic makeup of the populations that followed. Basically, the suckers didn’t make it.

And here we are. It seems clear that our mental models are now the result of genetic predispositions in the hands of significant cultural influences. Who knows when the shift from primarily genetically-influenced minds to minds built by genetics mixed with culture happened. All we know is that, now, nature and nurture are heavy-duty bedfellows. The notion of a human mental model of reality is greatly affected by this.

I’d venture to say that most humans, at least western humans, share a very complex mental model of reality, some of which is genetic, and some of which is cultural. However, there are also vast differences, and many of them are completely fabricated, and most (if not all) of those are cultural. In fact, the point of this wandering is to say that we are now, and probably have been for quite a while, living in a time when the direction of our shared mental model is straying markedly away from reality. Our culture is driving, and it cares not where absolute truth wants to go.

It’s not that we’re straying purposefully. It’s just that some aspects of reality have actually been changed. For example, for most of man’s existence, it has been an axiom that if you didn’t take steps to provide for your own food, you were going to starve to death. Nowadays, in some places (most western cities), you can do just about nothing, and you’ll never starve. That’s a big change to the basic mental model of reality that has existed in the minds of humans for millennia. And when an axiom of reality shifts, it isn’t nuts to suppose that lots of them have shifted. This is how we get to fantasy land.

It’s been a looong time since little differences in our mental models have had any significant impact on our survivability. The creation of institutions (both government and economic) pretty much gutted that risk factor – by shifting reality in some areas and promising to shift reality in other areas. As long as we don’t die, there are really no consequences for believing erroneous things, such as that the minimum wage helps poor people, or that Allah demands the annihilation of the west. We’re able to disconnect from reality more and more as our institutions grow in their influence upon our everyday lives. And we would have it no other way. Indeed, this could very well be part of the force behind our tendency to cling to institutions. (The other being the need for concurrence, but I don’t want to digress.)

Our minds, being good at building models, which ultimately are nothing more than categories (and all of the characteristics that describe them) filled with definitions of specific entities, are masters of abstraction. They assimilate disparate ideas into concepts that define their relationship, and then use the new concepts as disparate ideas to be included in still broader terms. When you get high enough on the abstraction ladder, you are creating reality. You’re imagining ideas that may or may not be true, and you have no practical means to tell the difference. And so long as these ideas don’t fail you (i.e. nothing contrary to the concepts happens to you), you have no reason to suspect their inaccuracy. So your mind constructs a fantasy. The question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Whenever I travel to third-world countries, I’m always reminded of how far my fantastic version of reality can venture from the real thing. Actually, maybe it’s better to say that my flimsy version of reality – the one that holds up most of the time but could fall at any moment – is a far cry from the more sturdy version of reality that I see when I travel. But no matter how much “perspective” I may gain from my forays into the land of bare necessities, I’m always glad to pull into my driveway, the perfectly smooth concrete driveway in my fantasy land where food, health, shelter, and lifelong companionship are a given. And not the basics – the high end stuff. It’s a given, all of it. I’m happy to excuse thoughts of mortality and deprivation as mere glimpses into a reality that I don’t experience. Indeed, I have to. We all do.

I met an old American Indian guy this past weekend who has a little village set up as a tourist attraction. While my two-year old son was running wild from tee-pee to tee-pee, this old guy was telling my wife and I how his ancestors lived off the land. He showed us all the things they made from the animals they hunted. Story after story of ingenuity and independence. I finally commented that the Indians must have been really tough folks to have lived like they did. He came back with a fitting closing to this post. He said, “To be us now and look back to their life, yeah it looks tough. But to them, not knowing what we know now, life was easy. Easier than it is now. The earth provided everything they needed, and they spent their time on the good things – enjoying the life they were gi
ven.”

Post-script:
I’m not advocating some dumbass “get back to nature” lifestyle. That’s nothing more than placing bets on the cards you wish you had instead of the cards in your hand. I’m just saying that it’s useful to recognize that our version of reality, though it may be durable, is likely to be something entirely different from what reality is (and always has been) for most humans. Considering the possibility that something like a Hurricane Katrina or a 9-11 could come along and re-introduce us to man’s most experienced reality, it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time pondering what to do if the fantasy fails. This is not sky is falling kind of stuff; just a little light contingency planning.

Post-Modern Or Grasping At Straws?

I’ve been neck deep in philosophy of late, getting to know some of the most twisted minds of the last two hundred years. Stephen Hicks, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford College, Illinois (named, I think, after the cheekiest of all TV private investigators, Jim Rockford), wrote a book called Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. As the title suggests, the author traces postmodernism (that is, intellectual douchebaggery) from its departure from modernist thought to the present. It’s highly informative, with an unexpected twist or two, but ultimately I found it to be much ado about nothing.

First a twist – here’s a quiz. True or False: the nuttiest of today’s lefty academics are ideologically derived from Immanuel Kant. Most (including myself as recently as a week ago) would respond with a resounding NO. Kant, after all, is heralded as one of the key Enlightenment thinkers, right? Right…and wrong. Although Kant did a lot for reason in terms of advocating its usefulness in establishing logical relationships between entities, he dealt it a devastating blow in saying that reason could never get us in touch with reality.

The Kantian view is that reality, at least what we think of as reality, is something fabricated entirely by our minds. He was enough of a realist to believe that there is some kind of absolute truth, but he believed that our minds are simply incapable of getting anywhere near it. Instead, we create reality according the constructs and limitations of our grey matter. Space and time do not really exist; we create them. Reading this did not shock me – I’ve known for a long time that Kant saw limits to reason, and that he, along with David Hume, officially abandoned it by the end of their lives. However, I was shocked to learn that guys like Hegel, Shopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all used Kantian anti-reason as a jumping off point for their ravings. Furthermore, that those ravings eventually became the basis for American (and much of European) leftist thinking.

Perhaps I should make a point here. Hicks’ objective, I assume (he never quite says), is to help us understand what informs the mindset of so many of the wackos in our midst, especially those who are pervasive in academia. Ostensibly, once we get this, we can construct arguments (or at least responses) that will be more satisfying than being frozen like a deer in headlights at the sheer lunacy of what comes out of their mouths. On this, I think he’s reaching, but only because this never happens to me, and because he’s giving most liberals far too much credit. First a little more background – I’ll lay out postmodernism’s main tenets and then tie them to contemporary liberal perspectives. (To be clear, my use of the term ‘liberal’ is meant to refer to a modern liberal, like say Barbara Boxer, not a classical liberal, like say Milton Friedman.)

  1. In terms of metaphysics (that is, what is reality?), the postmodernist is strictly anti-realist, which is to say that there is no such thing. Everything is a construct of the human mind. Somehow, these crazies have concluded that we live in The Matrix, but without the Matrix.The modern liberal embraces this wholeheartedly. They refuse to deal in fact and reality. To them, humanity can be perfected and all men are good, if only the systems that organize them were right.
  2. In terms of epistemology (that is, how do we know what we know?), the postmodernist believes in social subjectivism, which is to say it’s all good. Whatever and however you want to come by knowledge is just fine, since you’re creating reality in your head anyway.Here are the seeds of multiculturalism. If any way of approaching the world is as good as any other, then no culture is better than any other. Hence, the PCification of society.
  3. In terms of human nature, the postmodernist believes we are the results of social construction, which is to say that our social and cultural environment creates whatever nature we may have.Again, this is the liberal’s battlecry against exploitative capitalism, gender socialization, racism, blah, blah, blah.
  4. In terms of ethics (that is, who or what is the arbiter of right and wrong?), the postmodernist is a collectivist, which is to say that the individual is always secondary to the group, which can be defined by race, nationality, sex, or religion.Liberals think in terms of groups and abhor those who put the needs and desires of individuals ahead of them.
  5. In terms of politics and economics, the postmodernist is a socialist, which is to say, dumbass.

We can get at this one indirectly by noticing that our society has become more and more socialist over the centuries since 1776, and it has been the liberals, almost exclusively, who have made it so. We can also get at it directly by noting that most lefty causes are joined by communist and socialist groups right alongside the likes George Soros and Michael Moore. (Anyone checked out Camp Casey lately?)

So there you have it, the breakdown of the postmodernist mentality and its modern liberal cousin. One might wonder how it is that I disagree with Hicks when I seem to have validated his primary thesis. Fair enough. Here’s the deal – Hicks’ main argument is that people today who exhibit these thought processes are direct cognitive descendants of the aforementioned philosophers. Though he focuses on four contemporary and well-known postmodernists (Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, and Lyotard), the implication is that most leftists have this philosophical pedigree coursing through their veins. This is where we part ways.

There is a thread that runs all the way from Immanueal Kant to Ted Kennedy, and it isn’t the same philosophical contemplation and subsequent conclusion. It is very simple – none of these people had or have the stomach for reality. It truly is that simple. We don’t need to put on our propeller hats and get down and dirty with Kierkegaard to recognize that, across the board, from postmodernist philosopher to modern-day politician, the mindset is the same – if reality doesn’t look like I want it to, I will deny its existence.

Indeed, in the second preface to Kant’s, Critique of Pure Reason, he asserts, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” Boom! There you have it – liberalism in a nutshell. (Yes, I realize that libs aren’t heavy into Jesus. I’m talking about the notion of abandoning reality for something you like more.) There are interesting things that flow from this. For starters, if there is no reality and all knowledge is subjective, then there is no such thing as truth. That’s right. So while we pound our fists on the table about facts and honesty, the anti-realist liberal is calculating truth (or what we think of as truth) as a matter of convenience.

You see, as long as realists are in power, they will bash anti-realists over the head with it, and though there really is no reality, getting bashed over the head with faux-reality still doesn’t feel good. Sooo…the answer is to snatch power from the hands of realists, and rhetoric is the most powerful tool for doing so. You getting the picture here? I see folks, usually conservatives, getting so wound up over the dishonesty of liberals, but what they fail to realize is that the libs are playing a completely different game. It’s not about being right (there’s no such thing, remember); it’s about power. Plain and simple.

The problem is that too many people, though they most assuredly do not know it, buy into Kant’s (or Hegel’s, to be precise) ideas about reality – namely, that it doesn’t really exist. I have often wondered what Kant would have said if Bill and Ted had brought him back instead of Sigmund Freud. Given that science has advanced to the point that we can be pretty darned sure about reality until we get down to the quantum level, I wonder if Kant would have been able to find middle ground in his thinking. To him, it was either that the real world gives its impression to the human mind or the mind gives its impression to the real world. When faced with those choices, it’s easy to see how he concluded as he did. In any case, I am a realist, so I acknowledge that we have what we have – some folks deal in reality, and some don’t. Unlike Stephen Hicks, I don’t believe that most of those don’t have any philosophical basis for their approach. I think, in the immortal spirit of Nicholson’s character in, A Few Good Men, they just can’t handle the truth. They’re not postmodern, they’re just grasping at straws.

BTW – I’m not back, I’m still on hiatus. Really – don’t get your hopes up. This one just couldn’t wait.

The Rational Morality Debate

A recent post led to a fairly extensive thread that wandered into the subject of morality. At issue is whether morality can be rationally conceived, and whether it really makes that big of a difference. I think it can be and that it makes all the difference. Our welcoming wench, Alice, however, has finally got my number. Or does she…

Alice: Chris. You believe that there is a right way to proceed. You believe that free markets are always better than collective schemes. You believe that the only reason Hitler emerged is because of the Treaty of Versailles. You think the only way to insure having a good marriage is to move in together and have a trial run at it. You have a much clearer vision than I do.

I believe in the ebb and flow method, that there is rarely a clear path to anywhere and it is all of the myriad influences which are present which will produce the outcome.I believe in accidents. I think when things work out well, such as the formation of the United States, it’s an accident. Something which happened because of a confluence of events, not because of one or even a few men.

When you say it that way, my position sounds so Type A. More explanation is apparently needed. Perhaps a story.

I know a guy who has a brother. In his house growing up, parental discipline was pretty much non-existent. Nevertheless, both he and his brother have turned out fine – good jobs, family, stability, etc.. But it turns out that his two sisters are majorly messed up. There were never any consequences for doing stupid things when they grew up, and they are both now literally incapable of living responsible lives. They sign leases and break them. They buy cars on credit and end up having to have their parents pay for them. One even has two kids that are now being raised by my friend’s brother. It’s tragic.

There’s no question as to the cause of these girls’ misfortunes. Their parents simply failed them. They should have recognized that, though successful, well-adjusted people *sometimes* emerge from consequenceless homes, too often they do not. They ebbed when they should have flowed.

My position is not about some delusional prediction about what happens every time you do this or that – that would be quite contrary to my Kantian view of the universe – uncertainty is the starting point of all thought. It’s about probabilities and the stakes of mistakes.

I do happen to believe that free markets are always better than collective ones, but only because there has never been an example of a collective one that led to prosperity without coercion. I believe there are lots of Hitlers lying around this planet, and that the Treaty of Versailles created the conditions necessary for one to obtain absolute power. I don’t think the only way to have a good marriage is to move in together first. I believe that moving in together ahead of time dramatically increases the chances of the couple, should they end up marrying, going the distance happily. It’s an extended interview process – how is that interpersonal due diligence is so anathema to you? Is that rational?

In all of these areas, I believe the actions that are taken, based upon the prevailing morality – the person in question’s measure of right and wrong – have important ramifications on how things unfold later on.

This is no different than wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle – if the goal (the moral) is to stay healthy, and you can assume there’s a reasonable chance you’ll wreck (your fault or not), and you can assume that hitting your head at speed will be disastrous to your health, then a helmet is the obvious choice. It’s not about a clear vision. It’s about being informed and having an idea where you want to go in life.

So my point in all of this is to say it is possible to rationally conceive of our view of right and wrong, and that this is extremely necessary because our choices and actions have larger consequences than we often imagine. And in a society increasingly obsessed with instant gratification, awareness of this is that much more critical.

And lest I ignore an important historical sidebar, Alice also has this to say:

Take the Treaty of Versailles for instance. That begot the Marshall plan. It wasn’t invented out of the blue, it came about because people saw that punishing the loser didn’t work too well.

This is what I mean by ebb and flow. People are only smart in retrospect. We ain’t psychic.

More proof to my point. The aspects of the Treaty of Versailles that caused the problems that created WW2 were the punitive ones – the ones that forced Germany to accept full responsibility for the war, the ones that forced Germany to pay exorbitant reparations, the ones that forced Germany to relinquish colonies and territories. None of these were present in Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, which was the US model for the Treaty.

In fact, Clemenceau (the French guy, for the historically challenged) and Wilson were quite at odds through the entire process of establishing the Treaty, heatedly so. The French, having been severely ravaged by the war, and because Clemenceau was a bulldog of magnificent proportions, won out in the end. Nevertheless, someone did know better than to do the Germans as they were done, and that someone was the leader of what has become the greatest nation on this planet. He was enlightened, in a sense, which means he understood enough about humans to know that the French need for revenge would end up coming back to bite them, and maybe everyone else. His morality and his knowledge of his species were the guide to his vision. Several million people would be alive today were it not for an ebb when there should have been a flow.

Lastly, in response to my assertion that individual human action has been one of the most dramatic forces that have shaped human history, specifically my statement that without George Washington, there would be no USA, Alice comes back with this:

…to that I would say, no King George, no USA. If England had acted differently and had been in a different financial position and had not imposed such heavy taxation, it is unlikely the colonists would have agreed to revolt against the mother country.

See, it was the confluence of events. AKA, an accident.

No, it was not an accident. You’re quite right that King George’s oppression of the colonies was the catalyst for the revolutionary war, but his attitudes and actions were not accidental, not by a long shot. They were a direct result of his morality, which was based upon inherent absolute power of the monarchy and the obligation of all English peoples to bow to it. It is well known that there were those in Britain who recommended just cutting us loose. George would have nothing of it – his pride and his vision of how things should have been (his morality) were being challenged. He, too, ebbed when he should have flowed. It was the widespread dissemination of enlightenment ideas by people like Thomas Paine and John Locke that alerted the masses to his error. Just as Thomas Paine risked death by writing Common Sense, so did the colonial army in defying and clashing with the British, and both because of their morality, the one that was rationally conceived by a new generation of intellectuals.

At every step of the way through life, there are choices to be made, forks in the road. Each path corresponds to a ripple through the future – some are big, some are small. It is our morality that guides us in choosing a path, which means it is incumbent upon us to conceive of our morality methodically through the use of reason. More importantly, it is incumbent upon us to reject moralistic ideals that do not stand up to rationally scrutiny (read, dogmatic morality). This is a lynchpin in the enlightened modern mind.

(Sorry for picking on you, Alice, but we simply outgrew the comments area. This is an important and clarifying difference of opinion, and if anyone can take it, I know you can.)

Riding The Horse

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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty nervous around horses. They’re very big, and they are (as far as I’m concerned) very unpredictable. I’ve heard horror stories of people who got kicked by horses, and I’m pretty much soured on them. But it occurred to me this evening that managing the caveman within each of us is very much like riding a horse. First you have to tame him, then you can take him wherever you please.

Think of our primal tendencies as the horse. When unsaddled and unbroken, the horse does pretty much what he wants, according to his natural proclivities – he seeks safety, food, and sex, and not necessarily in that order. And he’s big, which means he’s due a wide berth when he’s got a head of steam for something. Our goal as enlightened cavemen (and women) is to contain the horse, to control it. This is not unlike the process of breaking a wild mustang.

I have long believed that the human populations (in Africa or the Middle East, for example) that fare the worst in life are dominated by people who are driven exclusively by unbroken horses. Ancient emotions run wild – the quest for status, the indignation and enmity that come from reciprocal altruism unfulfilled, the in-group versus out-group mentality, the male urge to spread his seed far and wide, the willingness to believe falsehood if it supports any of the aforementioned, all of it. The horse lacks the benefit of a harness that is held by a rational, big-picture thinker. But, lest we miss a critical component of this concept, the thinker is not enough.

Were we jockeys without horses, we would be largely unfit for purpose. The thinker would be deprived of the chief instrument of his plans. Indeed, the thinker is never as good at finding shelter, food, and sex as the horse is. No, the horse is essential. He brings with him the courage, the strength, and the resolve to execute the visions of the thinker, even the most primitive of visions. So the first task is to harness the horse, to control him, and a daunting task it is.

The choice of the horse as the embodiment of the caveman mentality is not arbitrary. It is precisely the juxtaposition of power and unpredictability that make the horse the obvious choice. We cannot simply lasso him and expect him to submit. We have to convince him that he cannot win. Fortunately, the rich history of our species is replete with examples from which we can draw our confidence as horse breakers. So long as the horse believes that we are in control, he is ours to do with what we will. And still, it is not easy.

The unpredictability of our horse, even when broken, limits our options. If he gets spooked by dogs, we cannot expect his submission to override this. We must extend our thinking to include accounting for his quirks, for at least he is predictably unpredictable – he won’t spook for nothing, but when he does, there’s no telling what he’ll do. So the thinker gets to know his horse. He gets to know what spooks him and what soothes him so he can guide him gingerly around the obstacles that promote unpredictability. This is our task, and as with any worthwhile task, the rewards are manifest.

When we tame the horse, when we control the horse, we can ride him. We can find a delicate (but durable) balance between our big-picture designs and his power to achieve them. We can steer him around interpersonal conflicts that back him into a corner, but, when options evaporate, a few heels to the hindquarters are all it takes to spur him into action. This is what I’m after. This is what we should all be after – a tame horse that can be unleashed at will. Luckily, this is all figurative. No matter how much I may like this analogy, don’t look for me on a horse any time soon.

So You Want To Help Africa?

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Did you ever wonder why Lex Luthor could abuse his henchmen, the man-children who could have easily stomped him into the dirt? If you did, it probably wasn’t for long. He had something over them. He had some form of control. It was either the promise of riches or the threat of physical injury. In the case of latter, how, one might ask, would little Luthor pose a credible threat to a menacing minion? Simple, the rebellious henchman would be handled by upstart henchmen looking to make a name for themselves – key word, themselves – even the biggest guy can be felled by a group. It’s like a circle of fear, with the guy at the top calling the shots. It occurs to me that, though this theme is almost cartoony in the Superman series, it is very real in places like Africa.

I recently watched the movie, Hotel Rwanda. It’s like an African version of Schindler’s List. A hotel manager finagles the safety of 1200 plus refugees during the genocide that took place in 1994. A sobering experience, this movie (but worth watching, for certain). As usual, I ended up focusing on the background, rather than on the compelling story of the main character. I was taken in by the abject absurdity of it all. The whole conflict was based upon the differences between two groups, the Tutsis and the Hutus.

What made them different? If Hotel Rwanda is historically accurate (once again, I’m too busy for good diligence), The Belgians. Back in the days when people bought into social Darwinism, the Belgians were colonizing Rwanda. They segregated the indigenous population based upon physical appearance – the fitter looking people (they measured the bridge of peoples’ noses) were designated as Tutsis. The rest were Hutus.

From there, these European geniuses arranged the economy to have the Tutsis making the decisions while the Hutus executed them. Obviously, over time, there developed a significant resentment on the part of the Hutus toward the Tutsis. The conflict in 1994 was the culmination of that resentment – the Hutus took control and began the systematic removal of the Tutsis from the Rwandan landscape. They purposefully targeted children to eliminate the next generation. And people wonder why Africa has so many problems.

Here we see a classic example of the caveman mentality run wild. The people of Rwanda grabbed onto the notion of in-groups versus out-groups, a standard issue tendency in the caveman mind, and took it to its most heinous ends. The sad irony is that the distinction between the people was arbitrary with respect to any notion of human value. It was based upon looks, which absolutely do not correlate with worth as a person. All it took was the enforcement (by the Belgians) of this distinction for a few generations and the caveman mind was primed to continue the phenomenon indefinitely. Had they only immediately rejected the division when the Belgians left town, all of the bloodshed would have been avoided. Is this not curious?

Not really. Once a certain group has attained a particular standard of living, regardless of who is propping up the fantasy, they are unlikely to relinquish it. So the Tutsis clung to the distinction, which further flamed the fires of resentment in the Hutus. It’s a Pandora’s Box situation, I think, but what are we to make of it?

This matters when we think about the concept of aid to Africa. What exactly do they need? Is it food? Certainly. Is it water? Most definitely. So we should send as much of both as we can? Uh, no. The fact is that the situation in Africa is one in which resources are not exactly distributed equitably. The very same mentality that accounts for the pervasive conflict on the continent accounts for the fact that aid resources rarely make it to their intended destinations. They fatten the wolves and serve as bartering chips with other wolves. It’s a caveman’s world, but there is a solution, a not so pretty one.

If Africa is to truly be helped, force is the only answer, systematic force aimed at eliminating the arbitrary divisions between the people there. A vast marketing plan for human rights, a la Thomas Payne’s “Common Sense,” would have to be put in motion to start. Then, forces would have to be installed to prevent discrimination on the grounds of the prohibited divisions. But, as I said, this is not pretty.

It requires us, and I mean all of us, to acknowledge the notion that our culture is better than the African culture. We are not saying that our people are better than theirs. We’re saying that the way we’ve set up our society promotes the kinds of life experience that every human deserves. Our society is better, but we have no exclusivity on it. There are but two important conditions that must exist to enable any population to experience the fear-free lives that most of us in the Western world experience – firm belief in the validity of human rights and the rule of the law, and the courage to enforce those beliefs. Isn’t our aid misguided if we’re not committed to fostering this in Africa?

Oh, but this sounds very neocon, doesn’t it? Liberals will shriek at coming right out and saying that our way is better, yet they believe it deep down as much as anyone. They’ll recoil in horror at the thought of pointing guns at African power-mongers who’d as soon burn everything down than walk away quietly. But the fact remains, someone has to get dirty if Africa is ever going to break free from the cycle of conflict. Sending $654 million in “aid” is our way of avoiding getting dirty. Let’s at least call it what it is. In closing, read Mark Steyn’s recent column. He’s got it nailed.