Monthly Archives: January 2015

Honesty and Social Clues

There’s this quintessential moral dilemma: someone asks for your opinion on something and your honest feedback is…less than positive. Do you give positive feedback out of a sense of compassion, or give negative feedback out of a commitment to honesty?

It’s a question open to great debate.

But it may be primarily a debate of theory – when asked for feedback on someone’s hideous new outfit, for example, it’s possible that the most common reaction is neither lie nor truth – it’s paralysis and, possibly, fear.

Nobody knows what to say.

It’s not just a problem of moral paralysis, it is a problem of social paralysis. What is the “right” thing to say? Asks both about what is moral and what is socially optimal – and the later is definitely context dependent.

If someone is bristling with excitement over the outfit they just dropped a small fortune on you may not want to respond in the same you would to someone who is trying to decide how they feel about their newest hand-me-down.

What’s particularly interesting is that in many of these conversations you – the person beading with sweat trying to figure out how to respond – are really just a spectator to another person’s inner dialogue.

When someone asks what you think, it doesn’t always mean they care what you think.

Perhaps they are looking for validation or confirmation of what they’ve already decided. You can give it or not, but either way it’s not really about you. You’re just a mirror for what they want to see.

The real social challenge is that generally we don’t know what’s in the other person’s head. Do they really want feedback? Do they just want a reinforcement of their view? If that’s the case, what is their view and what kind of reinforcement can be provided?

These are the types of thoughts that run through my head as I stare panic-stricken at my interrogator.

So I think, actually, the best response to stall for information. Ask questions, make non-committal statements, see how they play their hand.

My favorite response is what I call the air-suck, that is, the noise you make when someone asks for feedback and you respond with, “Well….<air-suck>.” It may be the universal sign that you’re not comfortable providing your honest feedback.

And it provides your questioner with an important opportunity – they can create a space for honest dialogue or they can finish the thought for you. In that case, you didn’t lie – though you didn’t tell the truth – but you did serve as a mirror, which is all that was really asked of you anyway.

And, of course, if someone is genuinely interested in your honest, open feedback, the solution is simple – give it.


$100 or 100 Friends

This morning, someone on my Facebook feed posed a tantalizing question – Would you rather have $100 or 100 friends?

The question seemed particularly timely since just last night I had a (pleasant) argument with a certain street canvasser who seemed convinced I wasn’t doing my part philanthropically.

Ever since my illustrious 2-day stint working for MassPirg, I’ve made a point of being friendly to street canvassers, but I rarely, if ever, donate that way since I find it an inefficient fundraising tool with questionable labor practices.

Usually my conversations simply entail a quick, polite exchange, but the gentleman last night was particularly persistent. He started with a soft sell of small talk, then asked that I at least hear him out before repeatedly refusing my rebuffs.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant conversation – even if it was 15 degrees out I could talk all day about the philosophy of philanthropy. But I was fairly certain I was wasting his time.

When I first declined, saying that I had other philanthropic obligations, he said:

Let me ask you this – if you had more money would you give to more things?

That seemed an odd question. I paused.

No, no no, he corrected, if you had all the money would you give to all the things?

Probably not all the things, I told him. Before he could clarify what he meant by “all” I explained my hesitation –

If I had more money, I think, it would be a question of whether its better to give to more things or to give more to the same things. Since I don’t have more money, I told him, I hadn’t given that question sufficient thought.

He was nonplussed.

He wanted me to commit to giving $1 a day to his organization. Is there anything in your life, he asked, that you wouldn’t be able to do if you gave $7 a week more?

Well….yes, I told him.

He didn’t believe me.

Now it’s perfectly fair to question whether I do enough philanthropically. I probably don’t. And I probably should do more.

Can I give $7 a week more? That’s a really good question and one I should ask myself constantly. One I should push myself on. I don’t honestly know the answer, and I’m probably won’t be able to determine the answer standing on a street corner talking to a stranger.

But it’s a good question to think about.

And now I come back to the original question – Would you rather have $100 or 100 friends?

I guess the truth is $100 doesn’t go that far. Whether you spend it on yourself or give it away, unless you’re in need of the food or shelter $100 could help provide, it doesn’t really provide much value.

$100 or 100 friends?

I think I’d rather have 100 conversations with strangers.



Einstein’s famous formula is truly a work of art.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nature is a work of art, but the beauty that can be contained in a seemingly simple mathematical formula is truly astounding.

I have a very distinct memory of learning the famous E=MC^2 equation in high school, at which point it was explained something like this:

Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light squared. That means that the amount of energy in a hamburger (yes, that was the example) is equal to the mass of that hamburger times the the speed of light squared. The speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s, so that number squared is really really big. Therefore the amount of energy in a hamburger is really really big.

Mind = blown.

Well, sort of.

The above description is accurate and it is, in fact, remarkable that so much energy could be contained in something of small mass. But that explanation is so flat, so uninspiring, so…uninformative.

Why should anyone care that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared? And what does the speed of light have to do with anything? It is just some magic number that you can throw into an equation to solve all your problems and sound really smart?

The famous E=MC^2 equation is the most practical form if you’d like to calculate energy, but I personally prefer to think in terms of that mysterious constant, c:

The speed of light – in a vacuum, a critical detail – is equal to the square root of energy over mass.

That is to say, energy and mass have an inverse relationship, and their ratio is constant. That ratio is the square of the maximum speed an object with no mass can travel –

The speed of light in a vacuum.


Paradigm Shift

You don’t get it, we don’t want to end the exploitation – we want to become the exploiters!

That satirical utterance from a television character so eloquently captures one of the greatest challenges in tackling inequality in all its forms.

And if you doubt for a moment that people still believe that they can grow up to be multimillionaires, consider this excerpt from Senator Marco Rubio’s 2011 floor speech:

We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.

The American Dream has been a driver of great vision and innovation in this country, but it has also been a driver of great disparity.

Our system is not set up to have only “haves.” I suspect economists would argue that no system could be.

So we’re left with a system where we each desperately try to claw our way to the top, only to try to keep everybody else down once we get there. A sort of global King of the Hill.

And not only are we willing to elbow our way to success, we’re hesitant to support policies which address issues such as income inequality – because we believe that one day those policies might benefit ourselves.

As John Oliver recently joked, “I can clearly see this game is rigged, which is what’s going to make it so sweet when I win this thing!”

But is this the way things really need to be.

What if we started to generate a new culture? One where people worked to help those around them flourish? Where we each put our talents and resources to use supporting the growth and well being of others?

Could we then, bit by bit, shift this paradigm? Shift the every [person] for themselves mentally and find a system where we all had the opportunity to develop and live as our greatest selves?

Would that be possible?



2015 Summer Institute of Civic Studies

The annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies is now accepting applications for its 2015 session.

This two-week, graduate level seminar is an intensive experience – discussions cover about a thousand pages of reading over nine full days. But it’s an amazing experience for anyone interested in exploring an academic, interdisciplinary understanding of citizens and societies.

The seminar brings together an impressive range of scholars and practitioners, all with a variety of experience but with a shared commitment of improving societies.

Of course, there’s plenty to question, argue about, and discuss when it comes to questions of what is a good society or how we might get there.

And that’s what makes this Institute so fun.

The Summer Institute will take place from June 15-27, 2015. For best consideration, applications should be submitted by March 15, 2015.

You can read all about the Summer Institute here:



Guerilla Service

Sometimes it takes an awful long time to get things done.

That’s not necessarily anybody’s fault, but it is a reality of bureaucracy – a process which does, indeed, have many benefits in it’s favor.

But when you’re outside the the bureaucracy, when it’s not your money to spend or your ducks to get in a row, delay can seem long and unnecessary.

Years ago – not too long before they rebuilt a certain MBTA stop – I used to go through that stop every day.

The paint was peeling in a most unsightly manner. This left the bare wood exposed to the elements, which only compounded the dilemma. It had been getting progressively worse over the years and it was getting to the point where a homeowner’s neighbors might start complaining.

Something really needed to be done.

Of course, something was done – the whole station was replaced a few years later. But as I stared at the peeling paint, I couldn’t help but wonder if something should happen sooner.

I had this dream – a crazy idea, of course, and I never did end up acting on it. But I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen –

If a broken into the station at night an repainted the walls.

I really wanted to do it.

Of course, the whole idea was impractical. I’d need to strip the wood, treat the wood, paint the wood, and probably let it dry between a few coats. That would never happen in one night. Even if I got a few people together.

It was a shame it wouldn’t have worked.

I always wondered what would happen if somebody did that. Technically it would be trespassing and vandalism, but would the state press charges if the work was completed in a professional manner? Would their be complaints about a citizen service vigilante taking on this work which needed to be done?

I didn’t know, and I really wanted to hear the conversation after.

Of course, there is another point, which could be raised in the face of well-meaning service: does a citizen’s volunteer work imply that such tasks are not the responsibility of the government?

A city, for example, ought to devote resources to maintaining it’s public parks, so a dedicated citizen ought to demand government action rather than cleaning the park themselves.

That is a valid concern, but I’m not sure what is better. All I know is that when I see old, dingy paint peeling off of old, dingy, walls –

I just want to get it done.


Love’s Such An Old Fashioned Word

It’s possible I have simply spent too much time in New England, but it seems, perhaps, there is only a certain amount of care one ought to express for others – that anything more would be unseemly.

This statement, of course, is at once complicated by the vast array of different types of relationships one has with others.

A simplified model considers these relationships as a series of concentric circles with descending levels of intimacy: you at the center, your closest family next, good friends, followed by acquaintances and circumscribed by a band of strangers. There may be other levels in there or the whole thing could be considered as a spectrum, but the basic idea is the same: there are a few people we are very close to, a whole mess of people we have no closeness to, and a lot of people at various levels in between.

There’s a lot of value in this model. It can be used, for example, to help develop healthy relationships with a mutually-agreed upon level of intimacy. If you’re wondering whether you should make an inappropriate joke to someone, for example, it’s probably wise to stick to those inner circles.

But this model is often assumed to double as a guide for compassion – with a person showing more concern for their inner circles and decreasing concern moving outward.

And in some ways that approach makes sense. After all, it seems antithetical to human nature – and arguably somewhat abhorrent – to love a stranger as much as you love your child.

But concentric circles of concern quickly break down as moral guide: Should you be more moved by the tragedy of “someone like you” than by the tragedy of someone completely foreign? Feeling that way is arguably natural, but it’s repugnant to think that a white person should indeed care more for a European than an African.

And while this, of course, raises important and critical points regarding international aid and human dignity, I find myself particularly interested in another level of this mystery.

Perhaps it’s a less pressing moral question, but I find it more relevant to every day life – what amount of care, I wonder, ought a person to show to all the random people who come in and out of their life?

I imagine there’s a certain baseline of compassion or concern most people would agree they ought to express – perhaps most simply that they shouldn’t do violence to others.

But that’s different from having and showing real care and compassion for those you meet. At some level, this sounds like an obvious thing every good person ought to do, but in practice…it’s not that easy and mostly it feels awkward.

I’ve written before about debating whether an action is “crazy or thoughtful” – too often doing something “nice” feels dangerously close to doing something “crazy.” As if one ought not too care too much about anyone beyond their most inner circle.

And while I’ve been using words like care, concern, and compassion – I’m not sure those words are quite what I mean. Love is, perhaps, too strong in English, but it may be somewhat closer. I imagine the Greeks had the perfect word for it – a sort of permeating love for humanity.

However it is, I sometimes think Queen put it best –

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
….Under pressure.


Why Read Dead Authors?

There are all sorts of clichéd arguments for why one ought to study the past or explore the wisdom of long dead scholars.

Yes, yes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Or, perhaps, with so much wisdom in our collective past, we shouldn’t waste our time reinventing the wheel.


It’s not that those aren’t good arguments. They’re perfectly fine arguments, and perfectly fine reasons for studying ancient works.

But. There’s something more –

The way I perceive and understand the world is deeply rooted in my given place and time. The way I think is shaped not only by my individual experiences, but my broader cultural context.

That is to say, not only can an individual’s morals be considered as a network, but the ideas a person understands can be considered as a network. There are plenty of values which I don’t hold as my own, but when I meet someone with those values I understand where they are coming from.

In some ways, this understanding is simply a feature of my own network – when someone holds a value different from my own, I naturally try to understand it using the network of values I do hold.

But I’m not sure relying on our existing network provides a broad enough perspective.

Thales of Miletus is famously recorded as having thought that archê, the ultimate principle, was water.

Did you miss that?

Everything is water.

What does that mean?

I’ve read many (inconsistent) explanations of what that means, and I suppose I understand it enough to try to explain it. But, really…it’s kind of crazy talk. Right? I remember learning about Thales in high school and laughing to myself. Man, those ancient Greeks were crazy.

But his argument was also important.

Interpreting his belief quite literally, in the physics realm, Thales of Miletus is credited with being the first (in recorded, Western, history) to conceive of the idea of a fundamental particle. That is to say, with his argument that “everything is water,” Thales led humanity down a path of thought which brought us to molecules, atoms, protons, quarks, and leptons.

There’s a moral in there about how we should always listen to our crazy elders because you never know what nugget of wisdom will propel you forward –

But that’s not my point.

“Everything is water” sounds crazy because I have no context through which to interpret that phrase. Being more accurate that “archê is water” doesn’t help.

But it made sense at the time.

In Metaphysics, Artistole explains simply:

Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

And then he moves on, as if that’s all you might ever need to know about someone who thought that water was the essence of the universe.

Perhaps Thales is a trivial example – it may not be all that relevant exactly what Thales thought or meant. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more foreign idea than that.

And that’s the reason why I like to study dead authors from around the world.

Understandings of public and private, political and social, citizen and society have varied not only across the globe but across time.

It’s hard to see the assumptions of your culture when you are a part of it. But trying to understand someone else’s perspective – not only a moral system, but a whole framework and way of thinking that is foreign to you – expands your capacity to think, to examine, or perhaps simply…to consider the possibilities.

And that has real value.


Nothing is true/Everything is beautiful

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche recounts the so-called assassins creed – the secret motto of “that unconquered Order of Assassins, that free-spirited order par excellence.”

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

“Well now,” Nietzsche writes, “That was spiritual freedom. With that the very belief in truth was cancelled.”

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

One might find cause to worry at those words – even if the phrase weren’t attributed to a secret order of assassins, a group of men whose morals almost certainly fall outside my own.

“Nothing is true,” is nearly damning in itself, but the haunting corollary “Everything is permitted,” seems a dreadful fate. It invokes, perhaps, a world of chaos and anarchy. Where men do as they please and where “as they please” is almost never pleasant.

Everything is permitted allows the worst of humanity the freedom to reign.


In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut offers what feels like the next breath in the thought:

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

As far as I know, these two lines have never appeared together, yet they fit for me like two lines from the same stanza.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

Vonnegut’s words appear on a tombstone, indicating, perhaps, the freedom of non-existence which comes with death. Oblivion, it seems, is not all that bad. It comes, at least, with a release from pain and an awe-inspiring awareness of the beauty of mere existence.

Profoundly tragic and sublime, Vonnegut’s vision of the void seems to offer…peace, if that rough word can do this idea justice.

But what does this have to do with a world where all is permitted? Where men run wild and loose their will upon the world?…

It is commonly assumed that a dissolution of truth will necessarily descend into despair. That men would go mad should they stare into the void, that all would be lost if they dare believe for a moment that nothing is true and everything is permitted.

Perhaps, like a number of townspeople in Albert Camus’ The Plague, they would spend their days boozing, whoring, or simply doing nothing…unable to face the death that seemed certain to destroy them. Or perhaps, like Rieux, Tarrou, or Grand, they would find new meaning through their lives in the doomed town of Oran.

Everything is beautiful.

There is beauty in the void. There is something positive, hopeful, numinous – none of our English words seem to do it justice. But that awe is there.

Nothing is true is not synonymous with all is lost. It’s an expression of freedom.

Everything is beautiful.

Everything is permitted is not an entitlement to carte blanche, it’s a commitment of profound responsibility.

And nothing hurt.