Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Life Lessons I Learned From Traffic Signs: Part I

October 30, 2012

Lots of people are constantly looking for “signs” in life. They want to know the way, they want to be guided by some divine inspiration, they want the road of life to be smooth. They’re tired of bungling around in their careers, their relationships, and their general place in the cosmos, without a gigantic hand reaching down from the clouds and placing them in the right place and the right time – or even having a decent road map to steer by.

Well, there are signs all over the place. We see hundreds of them on the street and highways every day. The problem is, we generally ignore them.

In the first place, I’m talking about actual traffic signs, not something “inspired” by a god, or even a great philosopher. In the second place, they are short, and so obvious as to be insignificant. Or are they? A great haiku can be fraught with meaning.

Therefore, perhaps it’s only the interpretation that’s missing. After all, traffic signs are definitely symbols, and symbology can be extremely difficult to understand even if you’re Carl Sagen. So, not having Carl around to interpret things for us, I thought I would pass on a few of the simplistic lessons I gained, after many long minutes of contemplation, from studying a few of our most interesting traffic signs.

For today, only a few of the most common signs. More to come!

Stop

After you stop at this sign, what next? You look both ways, both for other traffic and people crossing the street. You decide when it’s safe to proceed.

This is something we often fail to do in life. We move ahead like we’re wearing blinders, charging toward a goal that may or not be where we really want to end up. We don’t look for dangers.

Sometimes, we need to come to a complete halt in our life, look around, count to three thousand, and reassess the situation. Maybe we’re going in the wrong direction but did not realize it. Maybe there’s another vehicle headed straight for us, and we would not have seen it if we had not been forced to pause for just a moment. Perhaps there’s a child rolling a ball right in our way, but we didn’t notice, and that child might have been badly hurt because we were ignoring him or her.

Sometimes we hear very distinctly someone tell us to stop. Our spouse, a teacher, a boss or colleague, a good friend. Maybe it’s because we’re having an argument and they want a timeout. Maybe they see us going (in their opinion) in the wrong direction, and think we should pause, look around, and evaluate before moving again. Maybe even it’s our child just wanting some attention. Did we pay attention to the warning?

Sometimes there’s a physical stop sign. We have a heart attack. We’ve been drinking and driving and we swerve off the road. We have several relationships end quickly, or we get fired from work. Do we just keep charging ahead blindly, doing the same things that prompted the stop sign?

On rare occasions, while we are driving we will be so oblivious as to miss seeing the stop sign. In life, we miss them quite often, either because we were oblivious or because we just decided to ignore them. As with being on the road, driving through a stop sign can get us seriously injured or even killed.

When things go wrong repeatedly in the same essential situation, there’s a stop sign in front of you, possibly even a red light. It can be hazardous to your health—physically and emotionally—to ignore it. Learn to recognize the stop signs, and act as if you were at a red light, patiently waiting for it to turn green.

Yield

You don’t have to stop, but you must slow down and consider the situation. Remember, a car moving in the through lane has right-of-way, so you don’t want to be the cause of an accident. When it’s safe, we can keep moving, but how long did we think about the situation to have really evaluated that it’s safe?

We come to many yield signs in our life. They may involve our spouse, some other family member, a friend, a colleague or our boss. Is someone else in the right? If so, did we fail to yield, and thereby cause a terrible collision, one that was totally avoidable?

Sometimes, we see the yield sign, and it applies to cars coming in from the side. But maybe that car has not seen the yield sign and plows right on through. Even though we are in the right, is it worth it to be “dead right” just to insist on having your way?

In a car, it can be very irritating when someone violates your right-of-way. But, in life, it can actually be quite satisfying to yield, to let the other person have their way when the consequences do not involve life or death, especially if that other person is a loved one. In the case of a boss, it can be politically expedient!

Whether you know you are in the wrong or believe you are in the right, when you see a yield sign, be prepared to give way. Sometimes, it can make you much happier in the long run. Sometimes, it can save your life.

Slower Traffic Keep Right

This is one I often see disobeyed, on the road and in life. On the road, there are two reasons I ascribe to this, based on observed behavior. First, the driver looks straight ahead, never to the right or left or even in their rearview mirror. They are totally oblivious to traffic around or behind them. Second, the driver looks at the cars behind, or as they pass to the right, and gives a smug smile. This indicates they feel they are doing the “safe or legal speed”, and believe themselves to be a regulator of proper traffic condition.

In life, this is generally the case with the old getting in the way of the young. Quite often, we are just too absorbed in our own direction, and unwilling to bother to look around to see if we are impeding somebody else’s progress. We might think of this as just minding our own business, while those around us would consider it selfish. Frankly, life moves on. The pace of life has increased; the amount of knowledge young people have these days is amazing because of the information influx in the media and especially the Internet, and other technologies move virtually every aspect of daily life along just a tiny bit faster every generation. Are you one of the old folks who are resentful that you can’t keep up anymore? You don’t have to. Just move over to the slower lanes and let them whiz by.

Or are you a self-satisfied traffic regulator? Some older folks like to drive at exactly the speed limit or below on the motorway and never obey the signs that tell them to move to the right, and are deliberately trying to slow down everyone else around them. They feel they are morally superior to everyone else. Kids are in too much of a hurry these days, they have no respect for the older generation and society’s conventions, and they are very rude about wanting to pass you by. Why can’t things be like in “the old days”?

I’ve got news for them: things were exactly like that in their generation. Their parents complained about the same things. I know that, when I was a young man, I was very impatient with adults who “just wanted to get in my way” and not let me go at the speed I wanted. After all, if I ran into problems, that was my concern, wasn’t it? As long as the hot-rodders don’t cause an accident on the road that involves you, it’s sort of the same deal.

Whether we like it or not, music gets louder and less coherent, art gets wilder, literature gets lighter and faster paced, and car engines become more powerful. One man’s passion is the next generation’s poison, and all that jazz – or rock, or heavy metal, or hip hop. It’s the job of the police to regulate traffic, not yours. Do what you’re supposed to do: Move over to the right if you don’t want to keep up with the pace.

A Response to a Reader’s Criticism of My Articles on “Truth”

April 13, 2012

One reader who very kindly responded to my posts on “truth” brought out some very interesting suppositions contradicting my assertion that there was no such thing as a “universal truth”. There are certain facts, that is, things that can be proven over and over under all circumstances, but I claimed that “the truth” is what you believe it to be, simply because your personal truths are the guiding principles in your life. For a more in-depth explanation of this, please read those two blogs.

Here is her comment: “The pursuit of/yearning for love is a universal truth. The desire to know a higher being/consciousness is a universal feeling and therefore truth; that fear motivates one way and love motivates another way is a universal truth; the desire for security is a universal truth; the need for self-esteem is a universal truth; that men/people will ignore wisdom to carve out their own flawed philosophies is a universal truth.”

In this blog, I will only deal with the topics of love, fear/love motivation, security, and self-esteem. It’s clear where she’s going with that “higher being” topic, and I’m writing a book on it, so that will be a long answer for another posting.

Wisdom?

As to the last comment, I will further address that in the same post about a supreme being. However, I will say now that it’s clear this “truism” implies that anyone who doesn’t believe in the “wisdom” of a true believer (i.e., a religious person) is ignorant, and intellectually blind to the “truth”. I absolutely confess to being ignorant about many subjects. I may even be a fool. However, I personally don’t think that not believing the “wisdom” some preacher hands down or a text clearly written by men (Torah, Bible, Qur’an, etc.) makes me either one. It just means I don’t think the same way as you do. Ironically, this is not a religious person vs. atheist thing; all religions use the same argument to “prove” that their religion is right and all the others wrong.

A Little Math…

I beg you for a little indulgence here: I studied probabilities and statistics when I was young and even more foolish, so part of this “universal” thing is related to total population. You can skip the next paragraph, but the point is even tiny statistical variations can mean millions of people when talking about “everyone” in the world – which is what universal means.

“In statistical significance testing, the p-value is the probability of obtaining a test statistic at least as extreme as the one that was actually observed, assuming that the null hypothesis (i.e., no relationship) is true. In this context, value ‘a’ is considered more “extreme” than ‘b’ if ‘a’ is less likely to occur under the null. One often rejects the null hypothesis when the p-value is less than the significance level α (Greek alpha), which is often 0.05 or 0.01. When the null hypothesis is rejected, the result is said to be statistically significant. When you have a large sample size, very small differences will be detected as significant. This means that you are very sure that the difference is real (i.e., it didn’t happen by fluke).”

Okay, now for some really BIG numbers. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) describes an epidemic as affecting around (yes, the percentage fluctuates…) seven percent of the population of a given area. Therefore, if even seven percent of the people have different opinions from what some people consider “the truth”, this would represent a huge number of people in the world.

Love

So, given the above, we’ll start with love. I suppose this is the closest “universal truth” that I would agree with. However, we don’t all seek the same kind of love. Some people truly only seek the “love” on an alien space being who is all-powerful. Some people are really happy being loved by their pets, and don’t want anything to have to do with other humans. You think that extreme? A sociopath is a person “with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.” They hate people and do not seek love. While there are many people who have either neurotic or actually psychopathic degrees of this disorder, there are many other “normal” people whose motto is “I don’t like being around other people”. In fact (very ironically), there is a website entitled Experience Project where they discuss their feelings, presumably without ever wanting to meet. There are undoubtedly many others who want to totally ostracize humanity by having no contact whatsoever.

Security

We’ll move on to security. This is a little lower down the Maslowian “Hierarchy of Needs” discussion, which is a big part of the teacher education process. That means it’s more basic, but not less important than love. First, “security” is a very abstract word. What does it mean to you? According to Maslow, it’s equivalent to safety. Does it mean not being killed? Does it mean having a home or situation you can count on? Second, I know of many people who actually want “adventure”, whatever that means. To most of them, it means moving on from home and security, to a life of excitement. When I was a young man, I loved cliff diving. Others I knew did hang gliding, or drag racing, or other dangerous activities. Perhaps as a person grows older they desire security, but how many young people really seek it out? That is a huge part of the human population.

Motivation

As to motivation, I’ve written articles on that. I claim there is actually no extrinsic motivation, only intrinsic. You’ll have to read the article on that to fully understand what I mean, but basically it’s that other people—your parents, teachers, preachers, et alia—can only seek to push the buttons that motivate you as a person, they cannot in themselves make you act in a certain way outside of coercion, which is vastly different from motivation, which is the desire to act in a certain way. What is more, some people in love act like “maniacs”, quite often killing or committing other externally destructive acts to demonstrate their love, while others will commit any act of self-sacrifice to prove their love.  This is not “acting one way”; such actions are polar opposites, and there are many variations in between. The same applies to hate: some people become subservient to those they hate in order to try to gain favor or sublimate their feelings, while other may murder and mutilate someone they truly hate. While hate is the flip side of love, in many people it manifests the same manic reactions.

Self-esteem

Self-esteem is much along the same psychological path, one step higher than the social need of love. Yet it’s a much more slippery slope. Not only is “self-esteem” a variable from one person to the next, I don’t agree that everyone seeks it. An extreme case: I know there is a BDSM community out there where many men and women not only seek humiliation, they enjoy it. There seem to be many people who subscribe to that particular “enjoyment”. Would most of us describe receiving the desired humiliation and subjugation as seeking self-esteem? Seems a very bizarre interpretation of self-esteem to me. There are a surprising number of religious people who actually enjoy being told by their clergyman that they are “evil sinners”, and will go straight to hell if they don’t seek god’s forgiveness for their inequities. There are many, most prominently Catholic sects, who practice self-flagellation. Frankly, I don’t consider either of those as people with great self-esteem; they simply seek their humiliation in different ways from the BDSM crowd. Then there are people, mostly women, who will remain in a severely abusive relationship because, deep down, they know the man really loves them and only hits them … what? Because he can’t control his temper? Because they actually deserve to be abused? Not my idea of self-esteem. Have we started to hit epidemic proportions yet?

Security

Security is a myth, and we don’t all seek it. Let’s start with the thrill seekers: diving from cliffs, racing cars or motorbikes on highways at terrible speeds, shooting hard drugs, playing Russian roulette, and so on. Some people don’t have to be homeless, but they prefer it. Addictive personalities, such as die-hard gamblers or alcoholics, are certainly not concerned with security. The tens of thousands of people in the world who commit suicide each year are not seeking security (although some of them commit suicide because they have no security; go figure). I could go on, but the point is the numbers here are huge. In fact, we can’t even define security: again, each person has their own concept of what that means. Definitely way past epidemic proportions!

SO – NO!

All of those warnings you hear about using medications (‘May cause this or that’) are because no human body reacts exactly the same to any given drug. The same drug and dosage may cause anything from no reaction to death, depending on a person’s body chemistry. Multiply that by about a million times of complexity and you get the human mind. Do you really think all people react the same to the same stimulus? If so, that shows a deep ignorance of the psychology of most human beings.

So, no, Ms. Responder, you have not proven to me in the least that there are universal truths. There are perhaps some “general population” truths, but even the particular flavor of that truth changes according to individual taste buds. I stand by my previous contentions.

Your turn!

What is “Truth”, and Why is it Important?

April 8, 2012

Part 2: What is the value of Truth?

If every single person has their own version of “the truth”, then what’s the value of even having such a word, or a concept? The most obvious use is that it gives us a starting point for seeking agreement on any given subject, whether the subject is scientific, legal, political, philosophical, religious, or “other”. Within those subjects, we devise a code of behavior by which we can live. Within that code of behavior there are (in my opinion) two basic, distinctly separate sets of guidelines. The first is morality, and the second is ethics.

There have been many definitions of those worlds. In the most simplistic sense, I like to think of morals as the group code of behavior. Ethics are the individual’s code of behavior. These could be exactly the same, but they rarely are. Generally speaking, codes of behavior are truly specific to the individual, no matter how much the individual may strive to adhere to the code of their group.

No matter what the group, each one has a basic code of behavior, although not every single aspect of behavior may be encompassed by that group. Certainly every religion has a highly codified set of behaviors, which are usually all-encompassing in the lives of the adherents of that religion. More to the point, each group has a unique code. While every religion has a morality, each sect and each church has its own variations. Each school or subgroup within that school, each business or division or department within that business, each ethnicity or segment within that ethnicity, each culture and subculture, each neighborhood, and so on, all have their own general codes of behavior. If a person belongs to that group, they are expected to follow that code of behavior as much as possible.

However, while most members will generally identify with the behavioral precepts of the group (or else they would not be a member!), it is within the nature of humans to have their own opinions that may differ with some of the group’s precepts on behavior. That’s where ethics enters into the picture. Whenever the individual differs from the group, they do so because, within their personal set of beliefs, a particular code or behavior of the group is not right for them. If a person finds that there is no general group code to which they can “in good conscience” subscribe, then they must form their own code, which is personal ethics.

Therefore, to be “amoral” does not necessarily mean that a person is “bad”, although every religion and many other organizations (such as governments) would wish you to believe so. On the other hand, if a person considers themselves to be ethical, that does not mean anyone else in the world would consider them to be “good”. Many serial murderers considered themselves to be very ethical. There is little doubt that Tomás de Torquemada, the Dominican friar who was the first Inquisitor General of Spain, considered himself to be highly moral. It is all a matter of viewpoint. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Act II, scene 2).

After many years of living, studying, and contemplating, I have come to the belief that the ultimate ethical standard of behavior is to do no deliberate harm to anyone else. That is far more complicated than it sounds, and perhaps no human is capable of completely following that maxim. After all, sometimes just a careless comment to someone can be insulting or otherwise hurtful to them. Still, given that basic maxim, it is then possible to build an entire ethical system by which a person may strive to live–that is, as long as that person subscribes to that particular belief.

Another important reason for understanding “truth” is that we can more easily relate to the behavior of others if we are aware that our truth is not necessarily that of someone else and, even more importantly, that ours is not any more valuable than that of the other person. After all, how can we prove that our truth is correct and that of the other person is wrong? For example, the question of whether or not god exists cannot be proven. For an atheist, how can you prove the non-existence of a non-existent being? By the same token, if god does exist, then which religion is the correct religion and subscribes to the “true” dogma? Many wars have been fought, and many people have died trying to resolve that issue.

… and the Truth Shall Set You Free

How much more tolerance could there be in the world if everyone honestly thought that another person’s truths were just as valuable, within the world of that person, as their own truths are to them? How much more peaceful would the world be if fanatics of all stripes did not seek to impose their “truths” on other people by force? That is not to say that we should never seek to convince another person toward our way of thinking, if invited to do so, by the force of our logic. But, if we do so, we should be just as willing to listen to their counter-arguments. Once again, that is one of the great values of having an open mind. Just like a cage, we have no freedom if the door is locked tight.

What is “Truth”, and Why is it Important?

April 7, 2012

Part 1: What are Truth, Information, and Facts?

There are many words that we bandy about that have deep meaning in our lives, both emotionally and intellectually. Among the most powerful is the word “truth”. Most of us believe we know what the “truth” is, yet it is such an incredible object of argumentation for most of the people in the world. So, what is the truth?

All information you have recorded since you became sentient, all thoughts you have weighed, all external opinions you have absorbed, and all emotions you have felt, have led you to what you believe: to your truths. Some of these truths are as simple as daily activities, such as you might believe you must brush your teeth at least once a day if you want to keep them healthy. Some are as profound as your most deeply held religious and philosophical principles. If you are open-minded and willing to absorb and consider further information on a given subject, you may decide to change what you believe–your truth. However, until that moment, what you believe now is, for you, the truth.

Therefore, the truth is whatever you believe it to be. And that is the truth. There can be no other definition, or even explanation of what truth is. Isn’t that a pretty closed-minded statement? Only if you believe in “universal truths”, that is, statements that would be true for every single person in every single circumstance. But that would mean that every single person would have to share the same circumstances and the same manner of thinking, which would be a very boring universe indeed.

Many writers and speakers try to convince us that what they believe is the truth, the absolute truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you god you’d better damn well believe them. They use phrases such as “it’s a fact” and “the information is clear” and “everyone knows” to try to prove their contentions. Do those words have any value? Let’s examine them.

Information

What we call “information” is everywhere. We gain information from looking at the sky, from tasting objects, from reading books. However, even most information is subjective. For example, we know from looking at a thermometer that the air is at a certain degree (either Celsius or Fahrenheit), but is the temperature warm, hot, or just comfortable? That depends on how our individual body reacts to temperature. We can measure the direction and speed of the wind, but is it a mild breeze or a stiff wind? That depends on how we react to wind, and whether we find that amount of wind to be useful (such as in sailing) or a nuisance (especially when it’s blowing in our face). We can taste a particular bottle of wine, but is the wine bitter, sweet, dry, acidic, full-bodied, or oakie? Does a dish have too much salt or not enough? That depends on our taste buds. While the “information” may be the same for everyone, the opinion about the information may be quite different depending on each person’s preferences.

Facts

Facts are not subject to subjectivity–which is why there are so few of them. A fact is something that can be proven, over and over and over.

The speed of sound is 343 meters per second (1,125 ft/s). At least, it is in dry air at 20 degrees C (68 degrees F). How do we know that? Because many scientists, using different methods, have measured it. No matter who does it, or how they do it, the results always come out the same–as long as the instruments have been calibrated properly and the conditions are similar. Naturally, the speed of sound varies at different temperatures, so we must take that into account when discussing the “fact” of the speed of sound. It also varies when passing through solids or liquids, so we would have to consider the circumstances as well if we wanted to be perfectly objective.

On the other hand, an object pulled by the force of gravity accelerates at 32 ft/sec/sec. The equation for the force of gravity is F = mg, with the general result being that all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of their mass. Gravity on the moon and on other planets would have different values of acceleration due to the different sizes and densities of those bodies, but the effects of the force are similar. Of course, we’re assuming no other influencing factors, such as a parachute slowing down the object due to wind resistance. So, we can pretty much take the acceleration of a falling object on Earth as a fact. But you can see that’s also a bit arbitrary!

There are certain pieces of information that everyone today accepts as facts, many of which were not accepted hundreds of years ago. For example, all heavenly bodies in our solar system revolve around Sol, as proposed in the 3rd Century BC by Aristarchus of Samos. In spite of what the Catholic Church insisted on for centuries, Galileo proved heliocentrism … over and over again. Another fact is that all living objects must have water for their existence. Every living object will someday die. Those are facts. Most of the rest of the things that we know are either raw information or factoids, both subject to interpretation.

What’s a factoid? Something that sounds like a “fact”, but is actually only a generalization of accepted information. For example, the world is round. Really? Actually, the basic shape “approximates an oblate spheroid, a sphere flattened along the axis from pole to pole such that there is a bulge around the equator.” (Milbert, D. G.; Smith, D. A.) It also has such an irregular shape that the highest peak, Mount Everest, is 8,848 meters above local sea level and the deepest “canyon” is the Mariana Trench, 10,911 meters below local sea level. Why “local”? Because even sea level varies from place to place and from time to time. “Sea level” is also a factoid.

Tomorrow: What is the value of Truth?