Sunday, September 27, 2009

Personal Laws, II

Last November, I described an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which a one-shot character had a list of 102 personal 'laws'. These were aphoristic principles that guided her life. In the past year, I've been intentional about formulating such life lessons. I keep a MS Word document on my hard drive listing these thoughts, and each one goes through a probationary period before being accepted as both true and important. Here are some of the results, including some probationary laws, with explanations:
  • Don’t poke the snake with a stick. Avoid conflict whenever possible, and avoid people who are dangerous. Do not assume that you can contain their wickedness at a boundary.

  • Just because you’ve done stupid stuff doesn’t mean that you have to keep on doing stupid stuff in order to be consistent. This is a reflection of Harry Browne's Previous Investment Trap. Consistency is a vastly overrated virtue, and it is better to admit that you were wrong and stop going in the wrong direction.

  • Not everyone who is on your side is on your side. In a group interpersonal conflict, individuals may choose sides for purely selfish or strategic reasons, rather than those that they state openly.

  • There is nothing inherently ennobling about hardship. My concept of masculinity long held that a man undertook great and challenging tasks and overcame obstacles. Suffering for a cause is noble. I now think otherwise.

  • Go where the cheese is. Taken from the book Who Moved My Cheese?, anticipate that shit will fall out of the sky, and be prepared to move as conditions change. Be on the lookout for change, have a backup plan for everything, and implement it immediately when the change occurs. That you do not like the change will not prevent it from taking place.

  • ‘Should be’ got nothing to do with it. Partially inspired by Harry Browne's Rights Trap, this rule asserts that just because something ought to be has no bearing on what will actually happen. Protesting violations of rights, ethical codes, or even written laws will not help you at all.

35 comments:

Jeff the Baptist said...

Suffering for a cause is noble.

Suffering for a cause can be noble. If you're suffering for a good cause and if there is a reasonable expectation that this suffering could accomplish something. If either of those things isn't true, they you're probably just throwing your life away for nothing.

bob said...

John, Do you actually feel you need to think about these principles or are they observations of how you would act instinctually

John said...

Bob, these laws are largely correctives toward past mistakes or habits of thought.

Dan Trabue said...

Protesting violations of rights, ethical codes, or even written laws will not help you at all.

I wonder what exactly you mean by this? Do you think the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-Apartheid movement or Gandhi's followers would agree that protesting wrongs will not help you at all?

Bro. Dave said...

I agree with Dan. The protests around the Garbage Workers Strike in Memphis made a difference. Martin Luther King Jr. made a difference. To not protest when one's rights are violated makes one a patsy at best.

John said...

Harry Browne referred to this as the "Burning Issue Trap" -- that there's some larger social issue that demands your immediate attention and devotion of energy, time, and money. He said that causes rarely succeed and that you're better off trying to figure out how to improve your own life rather than save the world. At this point, I'm inclined to agree.

Blacks who protested with Martin Luther King during the 50s and 60s, and other civil rights leaders ultimately benefited. But people are individuals; singular, not plural. Did the individual Black American benefit from personally participating in the movement in a way that he wouldn't benefit if he hadn't participated in the movement?

To use a personal example, there are a host of social justice and civil rights issues that I am concerned about: the rights of the accused, gun rights, emminent domain abuse, and asset forfeiture abuse. Now I could give much of my income to these causes or spend all of my freetime (and then some) by marching in protest rallies or organizing grassroots support and agitation. But even if successful, how would I benefit from doing so, in a way that I wouldn't benefit if I did not participate in these movements?

I've written about this subject here, if you're interested.

Dan Trabue said...

He said that causes rarely succeed and that you're better off trying to figure out how to improve your own life rather than save the world.

But, had SOMEBODY not taken some actions, would there not still be slavery, still be jim crow laws, still be apartheid, etc?

I don't believe laissez faire is a good way to conduct an economy, an ecology or a nation. Perhaps (maybe even "quite likely") we try TOO much to protest too many things, but some actions ought to be taken for our own sake, even if we're not the direct beneficiary of those steps. If for no other reasons than the way that turning a blind eye damages us spiritually.

On the other hand, I agree with Wendell Berry that if you're REALLY concerned about environmental issues, the first thing and perhaps best thing you should do is grow a potato.

John said...

Sure, somebody has to do something. But why does that have to be me? There are so many crosses to be nailed to, and so few of me. In fact, there's just one. So, I have a decision to make: do I want to devote my every waking moment to these numerous causes, or even a significant portion of my life, to any or many of these causes, or do I want to take care of myself?

I think that I'm going to take care of myself and my family, and let the world settle itself out. Whatever resolution comes out in these social issues and others will almost certainly take place regardless of what I do. I think that I have a much better chance of improving my own life and that of my family in a significant way, than in improving the world in a significant way.

Bro. Dave said...

From your jump page:
"Now if everyone took this attitude, this country would go to hell in a handbasket very quickly. But I'm not trying to be everyone; I'm trying to be me."

So what you are proposing is not universally applicable. Interesting.

"I'm not trying to make my daughter's future world a better place; I'm trying to make her individual life a better one to live. And I think that therein lies my true parental duty."

Wouldn't making your daughter's future world a better place ensure that her individual life would be better? You may be the best parent in the world, but if the economy tanks, or the environment continues to erode, or political anarchy takes hold, your daughter might have some good memories of a loving father, but she will not have much of a future.

John said...

Bro. Dave wrote:

So what you are proposing is not universally applicable. Interesting.


Yes.

Wouldn't making your daughter's future world a better place ensure that her individual life would be better? You may be the best parent in the world, but if the economy tanks, or the environment continues to erode, or political anarchy takes hold, your daughter might have some good memories of a loving father, but she will not have much of a future.


I don't have the ability to improve the economy, save the environment, or save the republic. I can, however, make her life better. For example, I could guide to go a high-paying career and possibly pay her tuition. This is a far more achievable goal than saving the economy, the environment, or the republic.

Yes, her individual life will be better if the economy, environment, and republic are healthy. So what? Practically speaking, I have no control over these things.

Bro. Dave said...

You say, "I don't have the ability to improve the economy, save the environment, or save the republic."

Perhaps you sell yourself short. What is the difference between you and, let's say, Barack Obama, who sincerely thinks he CAN improve the economy, et al.? (At the same time he tries to be a pretty good father to his two daughters.)

I have followed your blog for some time now. You seem to be an intelligent person with a sharp sense of humor and a very analytical mind. Surely you could put that to a greater use than just the rearing of one child.

John said...

What would you estimate are my chances of getting elected President? 1 out of....What number would you say?

John said...

Bro.Dave -- thank you for the props.

Dan Trabue said...

Sure, somebody has to do something. But why does that have to be me? There are so many crosses to be nailed to, and so few of me.

Oh, I'm relatively sure if we probed at this enough, you'd agree on some level at least. You're just in your cynical phase these days, wouldn't that be fair to say, John?

If, for instance, your children were being treated unjustly at school (along with other children from similar backgrounds) because they believed, for instance, in zombies and they had a writing assignment to write a fictional story about anything they want and your children wrote about zombies and the teacher tore it up and said, "No, you can't write about zombies!" you might get angry and get involved and try to make a difference - even if it helped OTHER children who also wrote about zombies, right?

(Wow, that was a long, rambling sentence and it probably should have been torn up by a teacher...)

But you get my point: IF you thought there was an action taking place that would hurt your children (or perhaps your grandchildren, one day?), don't you think there's a chance you'd get involved for the sake of those children and maybe grandchildren?

Bah, humbug, I don't believe you're as cynical as you're trying to be...

John said...

Oh, I'm relatively sure if we probed at this enough, you'd agree on some level at least. You're just in your cynical phase these days, wouldn't that be fair to say, John?


Yes.

But you get my point: IF you thought there was an action taking place that would hurt your children (or perhaps your grandchildren, one day?), don't you think there's a chance you'd get involved for the sake of those children and maybe grandchildren?


It's possible. Caring about others is a personal failing of mine. But I swear, I'm trying to get better!

Bah, humbug, I don't believe you're as cynical as you're trying to be...


Probably not, but I strive to be better every day. Deprogramming takes a while.

The pendulum has swung. Perhaps overcorrecting rather than correcting. But for now, I'm being cautious about committing to anything that does not directly profit me.

Dan Trabue said...

Caring about others is a personal failing of mine.

Isn't that a direct line from "A Christmas Carol"?

Bro. Dave said...

You ask, "What would you estimate are my chances of getting elected President? 1 out of....What number would you say?"

What would you have said the odds were of a tall, black man with mixed-race parents and a Muslim father getting elected President in 2008?

If we learned anything from that it is that anyone really can become President.

John said...

What would you have said the odds were of a tall, black man with mixed-race parents and a Muslim father getting elected President in 2008?


I'd say about one in twenty. About one in five for a Black American without any other qualifiers.

So, that's the number that I would assign to your question of probability. I return to the question: what would you say are the chances of me being elected President? I ask this specific, numerical question not to hassle you, but to make a point about how probabilities do and should guide the major life decisions that we make. What is your numerical answer?

Divers and Sundry said...

Bro Dave said: "Surely you could put that to a greater use than just the rearing of one child."

Oooo, "greater use than just the rearing of one child"? Don't knock the right rearing of one child. As you're pointing out, individuals can make a huge difference in the world; so "just" being an effective parent may be enough for some people, even if it seems a small matter to you.

Dan Trabue said...

I don't know Brother Dave at all, but I rather suspect that he was in no way intending to belittle "just parenting..." nor that he thinks being a good parent a small matter.

I suspect that he was suggesting that IN ADDITION to parenting your own child, one ought to be concerned beyond that one child. That one child's children, if nothing else...

Divers and Sundry said...

"I suspect that he was suggesting that IN ADDITION to parenting your own child, one ought to be concerned beyond that one child."

Yes, I assumed that also, but he's still saying that being a good parent and taking care of one's own family is not enough and, as you say, "one ought" to do more.

He was speaking particularly to the author of this blog in saying, "Surely you could put that to a greater use than just the rearing of one child," and I suppose I shouldn't have generalized. Having spent most of my adult years as a stay-at-home mom, though, I'm particularly struck by the topic. Phrases like "one ought" and "just the rearing of one child" strike close to home for me.

Dan Trabue said...

Fair enough. I get that some times people denigrate "just" parenting and they ought not do so.

Still, the notion that one ought to do more for the sake of our children's children, seems to me to be a hard notion to knock, no?

Divers and Sundry said...

"Still, the notion that one ought to do more for the sake of our children's children, seems to me to be a hard notion to knock, no?"

No. Well, you did ask. ;)

I think that to tell somebody else that they "ought" to do more than they are doing is presumptuous. Unless, I guess, you have a very close, intimate relationship, but, even then...

You can't please everybody. A person "ought" to do whatever is the right thing for them, for their own family and support group, in their own lives however broadly or narrowly they want to live them. For some, that includes active social and political work. For others, it does not. Some people devote their entire adult lives to solitary prayer. Others spend their lives in active mission to others. To each his/her own.

Other people (outside the law) don't get to decide what I "ought" to do.

Bro. Dave said...

John, if --prior to the election -- you gave Barack Obama (specifically)a 1-in-20 chance of being elected, I would have to give you a 1-in-10.

In reality, the odds of you or me being elected president is probably closer to 6 million-to-1. The real odds of Barack Obama being elected were probably closer to 1,000-to-1.

Bro. Dave said...

Divers and Sundry, in the exchange of ideas here, one can assume that what I write is my own opinion. Your postings, I assume, are your opinions. I am not telling anyone what they "ought" to do, but merely expressing how I view the issue at hand.

I do not disparage parenthood; Lord knows we need better parents in the world today. However, IMHO, one shouldn't commit her/his entire resources and energy to the raising of one child... or to the affection of one adult... or to a single cause. One should be individual, parent, employee, citizen and activist, all at the same time.

Divers and Sundry said...

Yes, it's our own opinions. But you did say, "Surely you could put that to a greater use than just the rearing of one child," which had an "ought/should" sound to it to me, as does this:

"one shouldn't commit her/his entire resources and energy to the raising of one child... or to the affection of one adult... or to a single cause. One should be individual, parent, employee, citizen and activist, all at the same time."

It just sounds, to me, like it's filled with one-ought-to and should.

John said...

John, if --prior to the election -- you gave Barack Obama (specifically)a 1-in-20 chance of being elected, I would have to give you a 1-in-10.

In reality, the odds of you or me being elected president is probably closer to 6 million-to-1. The real odds of Barack Obama being elected were probably closer to 1,000-to-1.



I thought that we were just talking about a person with the characteristics that you mentioned, not Barack Obama specifically. Now as time progressed, Obama's odds improved considerably. When just a baby, Obama's odds were one in six million, or a little more or less. When he managed to get elected to the US Senate, then I'd say that his odds had improved to one in twenty.

But I'll go with your fixed odds that my chance of getting elected President at any point in my life are one in six million. Given the extreme unlikelihood of success, wouldn't you say that I have a better chance of improving my own life and that of my family, than the one-in-six million odds of getting elected President?

I point this out because it's easy to make dreamy statements like "I could become President someday", but there comes a point when we have to actually make decisions about what each of us is going to, individually, do with our lives. We have to calculate the odds of success and determine if the payoff is sufficient to take the risk for the various possible outcomes.

When I say that I won't be able to make a significant difference in the world, the economy, or the republic, it's making a realistic assessment of probability.

Here's a more obvious example: you could just as easily say "I could win the lottery" -- and it would technically be true. The individual can win the lottery. And he can greatly improve his odds by liquidating all of his financial resources and spending the results on lottery tickets. But spending all of your money on lottery tickets is a pretty bad idea, right?

Now if we live out this principle -- assessing the odds -- in less than noble efforts, such as winning the lottery, why shouldn't we do the same on noble efforts, such as saving the economy, environment, or republic?

John said...

D&S wrote:

You can't please everybody. A person "ought" to do whatever is the right thing for them, for their own family and support group, in their own lives however broadly or narrowly they want to live them. For some, that includes active social and political work. For others, it does not. Some people devote their entire adult lives to solitary prayer. Others spend their lives in active mission to others. To each his/her own.

Other people (outside the law) don't get to decide what I "ought" to do.



Amen! To quote Harry Browne:

Everyone is selfish; everyone is doing what be believes will make himself happier. The recognition of that can take most of the sting out of accusations that you're being "selfish." Why should you feel guilty for seeking your own happiness when that's what everyone else is doing, too?

The demand that you be unselfish can be motivated by any number of reasons: that you'd help create a better world, that you have a moral obligation to be unselfish, that you give up your happiness to the selfishness of someone else, or that the person demanding it has just never thought it out.

Whatever the reason, you're not likely to convince such a person to stop his demands. But it will create much less pressure on you if you realize that it's his selfish reason. And you can eliminate the problem entirely by looking for more compatible companions.

To find constant, profound happiness requires that you be free to seek the gratification of your own desires. It means making positive choices.

If you slip into the Unselfishness Trap, you'll spend a good part of your time making negative choices — trying to avoid the censure of those who tell you not to think of yourself. You won't have time to be free.

If someone finds happiness by doing "good works" for others, let him. That doesn't mean that's the best way for you to find happiness.

And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he's upset only because you aren't doing what he selfishly wants you to do.

John said...

Oh, here's the link:

http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/UnselfishnessTrap.htm

Bro. Dave said...

Divers and Sundry says, "It just sounds, to me, like it's filled with one-ought-to and should."

Again, in my opinion... in my world view... I have no power over you. You are free to do and think as you wish.

Bro. Dave said...

John quotes Harry Browne (?), "If someone finds happiness by doing "good works" for others, let him. That doesn't mean that's the best way for you to find happiness.

"And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he's upset only because you aren't doing what he selfishly wants you to do."

For me it is not about being selfish or trying to control others. I strive to make my own personal laws universally applicable (my first comment to John). If everyone takes the position you advocate, society will break down. We need people who will rush into a burning building, who will patrol the streets and enforce the laws, who will help a neighbor when s/he is down.

After Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4), God asked Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"

Cain's response: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

In my world view, the answer is "Yes".

P.S. - The only reason you are still at 6 million-to-1 odds is that you don't want to be President.

Divers and Sundry said...

"in my world view... I have no power over you. You are free to do and think as you wish."

You say that folks are free to do what they want, but then you say what they should/shouldn't be doing. Your statement, "I strive to make my own personal laws universally applicable" may explain it.

John said...

Bro. Dave, I get what you're saying. But when the brothers that you keeping bite your hands which feed them, it's not a bad reaction to say "fuck it" and take care of yourself.

But as Dan says, I'm in a cynical phase.

You're write to (imply) that an selfishiness-based morality is incomplete. At some point, each one of us is going to be knocked down and unable to get up -- like a flipped-over turtle -- and will need help. And it'll be important that there's someone there to help us up, with no compensation granted. The problem comes when all you're doing is flipping over turtles, who then flip you off in return.

bob said...

As long as you're not living as a recluse you will make the world better. Just by doing our own thing we're effecting others and unless our own thing is antisocial or negatively impacting we will benefit our fellow man.

John said...

Bob, that was a point that Browne made: if everyone is trying to improve his/her own condition, the world as a whole becomes a better place.