Reviewing Good and Bad

Marcus Aurelius has a great way of thinking about the events which occur throughout our lifetime and the way in which we react to those events. Part of the stoic philosophy involves rational thought before emotional action, and through reflection Aurelius explains what he thinks of the way we often look at good and bad events in the world. He writes, “…good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” What is great about the way that Aurelius looks at the events that happen in our life is that he does not dwell on whether they are overall positive or negative, and he does not fret about why good things happen for bad people or why bad things happen to good people.  His thoughts are filled with a level of realism and pragmatism that we don’t often build into our own lives.  He takes the world as it is, and  tries to identify how to best move forward given the situation and experiences that we all face and share.

 

What I like about Aurelius’ quote, which is an idea he brings up throughout Meditations, is the focus on the perspective that we bring to all of our experiences and the idea that we are constantly trying to judge and keep track of our life.  We can spend time and mental focus worrying about why good or bad things happen to us, and we can continually judge our experiences as good or bad, but ultimately, this thought does not get us where we want to go. What we see as either positive, neutral, or negative can be interpreted in widely different ways by people with different social economic status, racial backgrounds, and experiences.  What we may perceive as a positive event in our life could be a tragically negative event in the life of another person.  Rather than spending time ascribing a positive or negative qualifier to anything that happens in our life, Marcus Aurelius would argue that we should think of how an event impacts our lives and the lives of others, and we should move forward from that event in way that is guided by reason so that we can better grow and participate in society.

 

I think that Aurelius’ ideas parallel nicely with Bob Berg’s ideas about relationships from his book The Go Giver. Berg wrote about how we view what happens in relationships and what we expect to get our of relationships. When we enter a relationship, be it personal, sexual, business, or any other form, our expectations and desires will influence how well we connect with another.  If we can approach a relationship without worrying about whether something was good or bad for us, and without judging everything in terms of how it relates just to us, then we can grow and connect better with others. Berg writes about being selfless in relationships and avoiding the mental accounting of keeping track of the good that you receive verses the good that the other receives.  He writes that a focus on making sure each event is equally matched for both partners by another event of reciprocal value will eventually pull you apart.  When you can understand that good and bad things happen to you both equally, you can focus your relationship on the other person and what your goal is together.

Building Steady Thought

Marcus Aurelius focused on mindfulness in every action and every decision that he made as Emperor of Rome, and his writings in Meditations reflect his approach toward mindfulness.  He stresses the importance of doing every action with meaningful intent so that no time is wasted, and so that no effort is half-hearted.  By becoming more focused and making sure that every action is undertaken with focus and intent we are able to build more awareness into our lives, and we can focus on not just what we do, but how we think about what we do throughout the day. Aurelius writes (emphasis mine),

 

“Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what though hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts.  And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.”

 

What he is explaining is that a greater state of mindfulness can guide a person to be more diligent and effective in the work they do, in the efforts they make outside of work, and in the activities in which they participate throughout their life.  In his passage he is advocating for an abandonment of desires and passions which distract people from living peacefully with the things they have.  He is not telling us to abandon our comforts or live with injustice, but he is urging us to channel our feelings into meaningful actions to move forward.  By failing to control our passions we spin about and are pulled in multiple directions with our time and effort.

 

Aurelius at the end of his quote says that we cannot be discontented with our difficult lives, nor compare our lives to those who seem to have more than us.  When we do, we fail to channel our energies in the right direction, and instead sit without direction as we complain about the poor hand that life has dealt us.  His advice is that we take an honest look at our life and find ways to move forward by accepting the challenges ahead of us, and using reason to open a new path.  Mindfulness will guide us on this journey by helping us recognize the advantages and disadvantages that we have, and by giving us the ability to persevere without complaint.

Character

Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character focuses on the importance of strong moral character traits in the leaders of today. Kiel’s book is about business, but many of the ideas he expresses go well beyond business and can manifest in our every day life.  The central idea to Kiel’s book is that those who are truly successful in life are individuals with high moral character. He continues with a business focus to say that those companies who are the most successful and provide the most value to their customers, employees, communities, and societies are lead by truly virtuous leaders with strong moral characters.

In looking at character and what it means to have a strong character Kiel quotes E. O. Wilson from his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

“True character rises from a deeper well than religion.  It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and diversity.  The principles are fitted together into what we call … the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true.  Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue.  It stands by itself and excites admiration in others.  It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.”

Kiel explains this quote by examining the way that an individual with high character is able to recognize the behaviors expected and accepted as morally correct in a society. The quote also shows that the individual has a choice to accept these behaviors, and then choose how to incorporate those behaviors into their life.  Kiel shows that those with the strongest moral character are able to do this in a way that will best amplify those positive traits beyond what is simply expected.

I like this quote because it shows the dynamic nature of morals and character, and it reflects on the ways in which we can use self awareness and reflection to boost our character. Through our power of reason we are able to recognize the behaviors and characteristics we find to be helpful or harmful to ourselves, those around us, or those in society who are affected by our decisions. Through reason, we are able to consider our actions and reactions, and develop a practice that allows us to move toward developing a better character.

Reason, Action, Passion

While describing effective altruists, author and philosopher Peter Singer makes a distinction in the philosophy of reason and how we can look at effective altruists.  Singer establishes that effective altruists, or those who seek to do the most good that they can possibly do out of a sense of value for all people as opposed to seeking to do the most good they can do out of religious convictions or warm glow sentiments, empathize with all individuals across the globe because they are able to recognize the shared value in all humanity.  An effective altruist is drawn to help those who are in the most need and those who can be helped the most efficiently. Singer argues that their actions result from a strong sense of moral reasoning derived from the individual faculties of mind of effective altruists.  Moving in a very philosophical direction to examine the views of effective altruists Singer writes,

 

“The strongest objection to the claim that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists comes from Hume’s influential view that reason can never initiate an action because all action starts with a passion or desire … This is, in modern parlance, an instrumentalist view of reason.  Reason helps us to get what we want: it cannot tell us what to want or at least not what to want for its own sake.  To argue that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists, we have to reject this instrumentalist view of practical reason.”

 

At the end of the quote above Singer states that we need a different view of rationalization to be able to understand the actions of effective altruists.  The view reflected by Hume would suggest that effective altruists are truly only motivated by the warm glow we receive from helping others. He would argue that we receive an incentive to live altruistically because of the rewards generated by our actions. Singer on the other hand would argue that we would recognize these incentives only as byproducts of a positive lifestyle, and not the underlying goal for our actions.

 

Ultimately Singer is trying to place reason and rationality above emotions such as passion and desire.  For me this has always been a tricky area to disentangle.  We are very skilled at rationalizing our behavior to fit the reason we want our actions to be centered around. While Hume is arguing that our passions are what truly drive us at all times, singer is arguing that our passions grow from our reason.

The Breadth of Empathy

When Peter Singer describes empathy in his book The Most Good You Can Do, he explains that there are four separate parts that make up empathy, and that those four parts come together to form two separate categories of empathy. The different aspects of empathy manifest in their own way as we react to others and have different experiences related to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

 

The first of the two larger categories of empathy, according to Singer, is emotional empathy. “Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual,” Singer writes.  He describes this type of empathy as our emotional responses to the thoughts and feelings of others. Emotional empathy, he explains, covers empathetic concern and personal distress, two pieces of empathy that mesh our emotional experiences with that of others.  It is our ability to feel compassion and concern for others and their experiences, and our ability to experience the same feelings of unease and discomfort when we are with or speaking to an individual who is going through a challenging period.  It is the mirroring of the emotions of others, and our emotional urge to assist those in need.

 

Our second category of empathy, as explained by Singer, is what he calls cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy involves the way we feel about others, cognitive empathy involves the way we rationally think about the lives, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Wrapped up in cognitive empathy is perspective taking and fantasy, the former referring to our ability to adopt the point of view of others, and the latter referring to our ability to imagine ourselves going through the same experiences of others. Cognitive empathy helps us see the challenges that many people face, but it does not always help us truly feel the urge to act. Singer writes, “We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.” What Singer is explaining is that we may recognize that others do not have water or access to food, but it is hard for us to truly understand what life is like in those circumstances. We may also be dwarfed by the number of individuals who need our assistance, leading us to feel as though we cannot have an impact since we cannot help them all.

 

Throughout his book Singer argues that the world needs to find a better way to make use of cognitive empathy to change the world. Most people tend to be warm glow givers, or those who donate impulsively to causes that are emotionally charged. Few people can truly bring themselves to make a donation or work for a cause that will help unidentifiable individuals in another country.  Unfortunately, it is those who we cannot see who we can often impact the most. Understanding that empathy can manifest in multiple manners will help us understand how to better connect with those around us, and those living in the world beyond the close boarders in which we typically think and interact.  Singer encourages us to recognize and use both types of empathy to have a greater impact on this planet, and to maximize the decisions we make.  Combining our cognitive with our emotional empathy can help us reach a greater level of catharsis by acting deliberately to use our resources and ability to help those who truly need it the most.

The Emotional Pull of Making Decisions

The Make-A-Wish foundation is a successful charity in the United States which has done a lot of great things for young children diagnosed with life threatening diseases, however, in his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains that effective altruists, or a budding group of people who are focused on using their resources to provide the greatest value to people who need it the most, do not find the charity to be a place where they should focus their money when they are trying to change the world or do something truly great for other people.

 

In his book Singer explains the value of Make-A-Wish, the value of the emotional fulfillment people receive when they participate in Make-A-Wish events, and what pulls us toward the charity to make donations. The charity is focused on children who often live in our community and who do not have the opportunity to live a full life with the joys that we have experienced in ours. When Make-A-Wish stories air, we see an individual child and are able to connect with their story possibly even identifying a piece of ourselves in that child and their story. Making a donation satisfies a core part of who we are, and we get to see the children who actually benefit from our donation.

 

However, effective altruists likely would not find the Make-A-Wish foundation to be the most impactful place for their donations. Singer explains it this way, “Effective altruists would, like anyone else, feel emotionally drawn toward making the wishes of sick children come true, but they would also know that $7,500 could, by protecting families from malaria, save the lives of at least three children and many more.” The $7,500 figure is the average cost according to Make-A-Wish of fulfilling a wish. The argument for Singer and effective altruists is that we could use the money that we direct toward providing one child with a very special day, and save the lives of multiple children.  An effective altruist would argue that saving a life is more important and provides more positivity for the world.

 

Continuing on and writing about a Make-A-Wish recipient nick-named Batkid, Singer writes, “Why then do so many people give to Make-A-Wish when they could do more good by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation, which is a highly effective provider of bed-nets to families in malaria-prone regions?  The answer lies in part in the motional pull of knowing that you are helping this child, one whose face you can see on television, rather than the unknown and unknowable children who would have died from malaria if your donation had not provided the nets under which they sleep. It also lies in part in the fact that Make-A-Wish appeals to Americans, and Miles is an American child” Singer shows us that we are more likely to make donations that will remain close to us and benefit those who look like us. We are less likely to feel the same emotional pull when considering a donation to a charity that helps people in a different culture far away from us who do not dress, act, or look very similar to us.

 

By pausing and reflecting on how their money is used, effective altruists are able to reason past these shortcomings of the human mind. Our biases limit our donations and create a prejudice against making donations and helping those far away from where we live. Singer contrasts effective altruists against average donors, “Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child from their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do.” He shows that effective altruists are truly focused on finding the best use for their extra resources and finding the best way to help people. They focus and reason through their donations, avoiding the emotional pull of spontaneous donations. All of their daily actions align one way or another with their philosophy, helping them do the most good possible. In this way, and effective altruist is able to ensure that the donations they make will help shape the world for the better, save lives, and reduce global suffering.