When meaning gets thin

I have been working for some years now on Ursula LeGuin’s book, The Farthest Shore.Ged 1 There is a lot to like about the book. It is the third of her EarthSea Trilogy. [1] I liked it first because it was a really good story and because I had already invested deeply in Ged, the Archmage of Roke Island. But even at first, I knew there was more. The central myth of this story resonates powerfully with some other, some more central, myth.

Eventually, I came to see that I had fit it into a “sin-and-salvation” framework and that is why it was so powerful for me. You don’t really need to know the plot, except as a framework for today’s remarks, but briefly, it is this.

A proud mage (Cob) who had been humiliated, vowed revenge and in wreaking it, opened “a hole” in the world and through this hole, out into nothingness, flowed light and beauty and meaning. Alerted first by what seem unrelated symptoms of disease—individual, social, political—Ged and his helper, Arren, locate the source of the evil and Ged, by spending all of his powers of magic, closes the hole and restores the world. He empties himself [2] in completing that task and is not longer the Archmage. In fact, he is no longer a mage at all. As a very wise man on Roke Island says of him as a summary, “He is done with doing. He goes home.”

Very early in this story—on page 6 of the volume I have—young Arren is meeting Ged for the first time and is telling him the story that his father, the prince of Enlad has sent him to tell. This is the way it goes.

“Then in the New Year, in the Festival of Lambs that we hold in Enlad, when the shepherds’ wives come into the city bringing the firstlings of the flocks, my father named the wizard Root to say the spells of increase over the lambs. But Root came back to our hall distressed and laid his staff down and said, ‘My lord, I cannot say the spells.’ My father questioned him, but he could say only, ‘I have forgotten the words and the patterning.’ So my father went to the marketplace and said the spells himself, and the festival was completed. But I saw him come home to the palace that evening, and he looked grim and weary, and he said to me, ‘I said the words, but I do not know if they had meaning.’

The two failures—by the wizard, then by the prince—are distant effects of the crack in the world, through which light and meaning escape. The wizard fails completely. He has forgotten the words and the patterning. This is for a spell he learned early and which he has used annually for most of his life. The prince is more powerful and has greater integrity and he can say the spells, but look what he says. Even as he said them, he says, he doubted that they meant anything.

Why might that be?

Of the reasons why it might be hard to do, I have two kinds of reasons in mind. The first is the inner rationalizer of which Jonathan Haidt has written so persuasively in The Righteous Mind. For the purposes of making this point, it might be just as well to imagine that there is some part of you—let’s call it IT—that wants things or fears things and it is your job to make some sense of that. Haidt talks about the rider and the elephant. The elephant goes where he wants to go and the rider’s job (that’s you) is to give a plausible account of that course of action. Problems like that make up the first reason. I have written about those in another context. I just didn’t want to skip over them here without admitting that they exist..

The second reason is another kind of thing entirely and that is the kind I want to deal with here. In this second case, agency is not lost. You intend and choose and do just as you always have. But the sense that what you choose matters slowly decays. At that point, you realize that the choices you made have always required the sense that they took place in a matrix of meaning; the actions you took were the right actions, given the larger context of meaning.

I had my first small lesson in this important truth when I broke up with my first girlfriend. It was near the end of the term. We both knew the relationship didn’t have a future. We decided—oddly, it seems to me now—that it would make less of a mess if we just pretended to continue the relationship for the last week or so of the term.

That was when I learned how much of the excitement of the relationship had been borrowed from a projected common future. We, as a relationship, were “going somewhere.” We were “becoming something,” we thought.  That gave the things we did together weight and significance. I learned that because as we continued to go through the motions of “still being together,” it was a chore. We did what we chose to do, but it was a long slog without the meaning that had given it life.

That was when I learned that “the larger context of meaning,” which I referred to above, didn’t deny agency at all. It just made it pointless.. That is when you realize that there is a feedback function. The actions not only produce effects, but they produce the emotions that belong with those effects. It is not that the emotional resonance is the reason you are making the choices, nor even that the emotional resonance is necessary to your continuing to make those choices. But without that feedback, your sense that what you are doing matters gets…faint.

This is clear in the case of the prince of Enlad. Unlike the mage, he could remember the words of the spells and the gestures of the patterning. But always before, doing those things connected him to the intact order of the world, of EarthSea, which is founded on magic. This time, he sensed no connection at all. That doesn’t mean, as I noted above, that the connection was not there, but the automatic reassurance that it was there—the taken for granted assurance— was missing this time.

In EarthSea, these early failures are the result of the seductions of the world-destroying mage, the one who opened the hole in the world and who calls people to come to him, to deny death, to “live forever.” Arren falls for that enticement, not because he has doubts, but because he is young and vulnerable. Ged feels the pull too, but he is old and wise and strong and recognizes it for what it is. It is false; he knows who is offering this “live forever” message. [3] And it is wrong. Living forever is wrong and so wanting to live forever is wrong, however natural it might be as a desire.

“How is it,” Ged asks of Arren (page 208), “that he does not call to me? It is because I will not listen. I will not hear that voice again.” And then, in summary: “…I who am old, who have done what I must do, who stand in the daylight facing my own death…I know that there is only one power that is real and worth the having. And that is the power, not to take, but to accept.”

And that is how Ged is able to operate by duty so he is not as dependent on the emotional feedback that resonance that tells us even as we are doing them, that our acts have meaning.. For Ged, that is the whole answer. For many of the rest of us, including the prince of Enlad, we need to know that the “good things” we are doing, have meaning. We need the confirmatory feedback without which only the heroes among us can manage at all. [4]

[1] This “trilogy” now counts four full length books, several novellas, and some short stories in the tri- of trilogy.
[2] People with my kind of background will hear the kenosis passage in Philippians 2 lying behind that word.
[3] I mentioned above “a proud mage who had been humiliated and who had vowed revenge.” Ged is the one who humiliated him and the one on whom the mage seeks revenge.
[4] Mother Theresa of Calcutta is a good example. She received “a calling” to serve the poor of Calcutta from a source that was wholly persuasive and from which she never heard again. She prayed and pled for “confirmatory feedback” and never got any. So she continued to do what she knew was her duty. A hero.

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What is “carn-ism?”

The only people I know who are writing and talking about eating meat are people who are treating it as a moral matter or who are allergic to it.  I make an exception, of course, of the American Beef Council, which for years ran an ad, the closing line of which was: “Beef.  It’s what’s for dinner.”

Here is a passage from Melanie Joy, founder and president of an organization called Beyond Carnism.

For example, carnism teaches us that eating certain animals is normal, natural, and necessary, a belief that makes little ethical or logical sense, but which sufficiently disconnects us from our natural empathy toward “edible” animals.

The two words that are of interest to me in this paragraph are “carnism” and “beyond.”  

I was not surprised to see that none of the dictionaries readily available to me has the “word” carnism. [1]  Carnism is a proposed word, but it is a very familiar kind of word.  It refers to an unprecedentedly broad category and it tacks the pejorative -ism on the end of it.

carnism 1And if case you missed any of that, Ms. Joy adds: “The power of the $4.6 trillion global carnistic industry is unprecedented.”  So now, knowing nothing at all about this “industry,” we know already that it is huge (a whole new category); that it is powerful (unprecedented power) and that if works by disconnecting us from our “natural empathy.”  Nothing there sounds good to me, so I would say that this new word is a notable success.

The second word is “beyond.”  Ms. Joy’s group is called “Beyond Carnism.”  “Beyond” is a word that imagines a linear space and that there is some object in this space that is nearer us.  There has to be some such entity for the new proposal would not be “beyond” anything.  It would just be far away.

So Ms. Joy has the wit not to be “against” carnism, but rather to have transcended it as we move naturally “beyond” childish forms of expression or undiscriminating a taste for sweet wines.

So “Beyond Carnism”—apart entirely from what it might mean—gives us something bad (an -ism) and powerful, which we have already transcended.

[1] I was very much surprised, when I consulted the etymology of a more familiar term, like “carnivore,” to learn that the nominative form of all the carno- series is caro-.  With no n-.  We don’t get the n- until the genitive carnis.

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Are we worth saving?

“Let me tell you something, my friend, Red says to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” And that may be true. Or it may be the only thing that gives the human species a reason to prevent our own extinction.

It seems almost paradoxical.

The most powerful incentive to prevent our extinction of our species is the hope that we extinct 2might be worth saving. That is the take home lesson of some thought experiments reported this week on VOX by Kelsey Piper.

Here is where she comes out.

If people don’t believe there’s a meaningful and good future on the other side of the challenges ahead of us, then it looks like they have a hard time rating our extinction as a uniquely bad thing.

We are, to use Piper’s phrasing, “shockingly blasė” about the end of our world.

Despite many people rating extinction “somewhat likely” in the next 15 years, few people rate the causes of extinction as among their top policy priorities for the next president or Congress. People say extinction is kinda bad and under some circumstances they even say it’s likely, but they don’t take it that seriously.

It seems clear to me that the work to be done to keep the globe from turning into an inhospitable environment for humans is going be really hard work. It is going to require that we change a lot about the way we in the developed world life. It is going to cost a lot of money, It might very well require more authoritarian governments, the kind we accept as a matter of course in wartime. “Shockingly blasė” is not going to get that done.

Here is what would help. It would help if people could concretely envision a good human future. If we had a good clear picture—a picture with details in it—about a good 2100 A.D., we might be willing to do the work and accept the sacrifices that will be necessary.

In the research Piper reports, much of it by University of Oxford scholars
Stefan Schubert, Lucius Caviola, and Nadira Faber, people who participate in thought experiments don’t regard the end of the human species with anything like alarm. Here is the way the research was set up.

Here’s one of the questions they asked of thousands of people in the US and UK:

Compare three futures for humanity:
(1) There is no catastrophe.
(2) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 80% of the world’s population
(3) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 100% of the world’s population.
Rank them from best to worst.

It turned out that #3 wasn’t much different from #2. When the asked the same set of question about zebras, they got a surprising and different result. People felt there was a big difference between #2 and #3. A world with no more zebras ever again seemed like a uniquely awful thing.

To get a response about humans that was as favorable as the one about zebras, the researchers had to change the question to a catastrophe that renders most humans sterile compared to a catastrophe that rendered all humans sterile. That version got people to rank the future of humankind as high as they ranked the future of zebra-hood.

But to get people to agree in substantial numbers that it would a an awful thing if humans ceased to exist, they had to promise something really big. Here is the way Piper describes it.

Finally, to get the overwhelming majority of respondents to agree that extinction was uniquely bad, you had to be even more direct and tell them to imagine that human civilization will go on to a long, happy, prosperous future — unless a catastrophe wipes us out.Suddenly, almost everyone agreed that human extinction was uniquely bad.

It seems to me that if it takes the prospect of “a long, happy, prosperous future” to get us to value the continued existence of our species, then we ought to get at it. Soon.

If environmentalists had approached me 25 years ago and asked whether I thoughtextinct 1 people could be scared into responsible environmental action or enticed into it, I would have chosen “scared.” If we are contemplating big changes, I would rather rely on sticks than carrots. But this research suggests that it takes some carrots just to keep the question before us at all.

Distant catastrophes can be so easily denied. All you have to do is not bring the consequences forward in a meaningful way. But these studies show that it is the difference between the good and bad scenarios that enables us even to want to choose the good scenario. Something needs to say to us, “Look what you would be giving up if you gave up on the human species!”

Currently, as Piper points out, not many people are saying that. And when I try one or another phrasings in my head, they don’t sound persuasive. Furthermore, they don’t sound like me. It would be very hard for me to say those things to the people I hang around with.

But I think somebody needs to start trying.

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“You will govern in the interests of rage…”

This week, Jenni Russell, a columnist for The Times of London offered some language I would like to think further about.  She was writing about Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his electoral strategist, Dominic Cummings, but I think that we are facing these same questions in the U. S.

We face, for instance, “the rage or left-behind…voters.”  We have strategy to win seats by focusing on, inciting, and harnessing rage.  We have the language “not of traditional political disagreement, but of betrayal.  We have a government “under huge pressure to cater to …anger.”

And we face the consequences pointed to in this conclusion: “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage.”  I think that is what caught my attention.  It seems to me that it blows right by a lot of more common American electoral patterns.

The way it used to be

It was once thought, for instance, that “the people” were the best judge of their own interests.  The notion that the people had “interests” and would reward candidates that promised to cater to them was never very high-minded.  These “interests” played, in the electoral system, the role that greed played in the economic system.  It was ugly in each instance, but across the system, it played out to the benefit of all.  That was the idea.

outrage 2Then there came the shift that I associate with Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?  They don’t “vote their own interests,” Frank said, meaning that they don’t vote their “real” (economic) interests.  The response was that they were “values voters” and voted their real—religious and social—interests, not being dissuaded by the economic promises.

We are now, it seems to me, in the next stage.  Religious/social values are “interests,” still.  They are not the ones the first analysts imagined, but they are plausible goals of public policy.  But “inciting and harnessing rage” cannot be kept within that framework.  Rage has its value in its expression, not in its effect.  Rage is not a tool.

It may be authentic or not.  It may be induced or not.  It may be understood or not.  But there is no plausible policy outcome of rage.  Rage validates itself to you as you express it either on the grounds that it feels so good or that it feels so right.  It would be a detour, at this point, to examine just why it feels so good or why the “authenticity” of the rage validates it [1]

Rage is, therefore, not a “position” on the political spectrum, as liberalism and conservatism are and cannot be satisfied by a political response as liberals and conservatives can be.  

On the other hand, given the role that rage plays in keeping the outrageous in power, it is not satisfying it but continually stoking it that the outrageous must do.  And the idea that those who owe their current position to popular outrage must—they have to—has evaded my attention until I read this article.

If a woman were elected president because she was so beautiful and maintained heroutrage 4 power by being beautiful at every public appearance, sooner or later someone would begin to speculate on what it must cost her to have to be beautiful all the time.  There is no way she could present herself as being beautiful in public appearances because she likes being beautiful—that it is, in other words,  a choice she is making because she wants to.  Like this one?

So what happens to President Trump on the day he gets tired of being outrageous?  He attended a World Series game in Washington D. C. this year and was booed.  If it is true, as the “British insider” told Jenni Russell, that “If you campaign in fury, you will govern in the interests of rage,” then I think the answer is that President Trump is forced to elicit rage everywhere he goes.  I think that is why he was booed at the World Series game.

President Trump gives every evidence of enjoying his outrageous behavior, so perhaps he does.  But as with the presidential beauty queen, she may very well enjoy being beautiful, but I am quite sure she does not enjoy being forced to be beautiful all the time.  So let’s say that President Trump does not enjoy being forced to top one daily outrage with yet another and another.  If he must “govern in the interests of rage,” he really doesn’t have a choice.  The daily outrages are required and he must commit them in good spirits or bad. [2]

outrage 5Behaving outrageously when you are outraged must feel pretty good, but being required to behave outrageously no matter how you are feeling, likely does not satisfy anything fundamental.  So we may be, now, in “he who rides the tiger” territory. [3]  Donald Trump climbed on the tiger when he “campaigned in fury,” knowing he could not possibly win.  How he is forced to govern in the interests of rage, because he supporters will eat him alive if he does not.

Notice the transition from “political disagreement” to “betrayal.”  If President Trump is in the business of “stoking resentment and populism;” if he has been presenting “opponents as saboteurs;” if he has been whipping up fury against Washington [Jenni Russell’s article said “Westminster:”] elites, then anything that looked like getting off the tiger could be fraught.

His base is now tuned to “betrayal;” the business of “my honorable opponent will disagree, but….” has been left behind.  The people who oppose the Trump goals or even the Trump tactics can be tarred as “saboteurs.”  In the U. S., the press is severely limited by having been successfully labeled the purveyors of “fake news.”  And an electoral sector like that will not treat signs of moderation kindly.  They will retaliate if the liberal elites will give them room enough to do that.


Jenni Russell offered what I thought was a perceptive look at the dilemma facing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  I thought that most of the difficulty she foresaw for Johnson was applicable to Mr. Trump.  That was a new perspective on our situation.  And then the notion that, despite President Trump’s apparent relish for outrage, he if were forced to keep on producing it whether he wants to or not—that was the point of the beauty queen metaphor—really intrigued me.

[1]  That is a long and unhappy story with its roots in the Romantic movement of the 18th Century.

[2]  This reminds me of Ida, a Polish movie about a novice who wants to take her orders as a nun, but is sent out to square matters with her family first.  She comes suddenly into quite a bit of money and begins cranking out sins one after another.  These are “sins” as they would appear to a nun and she performs them all with not the slightest flicker of enjoyment, as if she were checking off all the boxes.  Then she walks back to the convent to take her holy orders.

[3]  “He who rides the tiger is afraid to dismount.”

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I wanna be a hero

I don’t know how it is with girls, but there is a persistent attraction among adolescent boys toward “heroism.” It can take really ugly forms as well as really attractive ones. I think there is nothing good or bad about being drawn toward heroism as such. I think there are good heroisms and bad heroisms.

I got to thinking about this because of a column by Joanna Schroeder in the New York Times from Sunday, October 13. The author was concerned about the attractiveness of the far right in online settings and its appeal to “heroism.”

hero 1Ms. Schroeder is concerned about the vulnerability of white males, her sons in particular, to the extremist appeals that are available online. Certainly she should be and so should we all. But I would like to take her column as a starting place and to think about just what we have on hand to oppose it.

The ideal, it seems to me would be to oppose “our kind of heroism” to “their kind of heroism.” It just might be, I am afraid, that we don’t have one of our kind. What we are asking our adolescent boys to do is to forego heroism entirely,. That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

Thus example from the column illustrates some key dimensions of the problem.

The next red flag: I watched my son scroll through Instagram and double-click on an image, lighting up a heart that signifies a “like.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said, snatching his phone. “Was that Hitler?”

The meme showed a man in contemporary clothing tipping off the Nazi leader to the invasion of Normandy. My son said he hadn’t even read it, he’d just assumed the time traveler was trying to kill Hitler, not help him. He was shocked and embarrassed when I pointed out the actual message: that it would have been better if the Holocaust had continued.

“I’m not stupid enough to like a Hitler meme on purpose, Mom,” he said. “And anyway, I’m sure my friend shared it to be ironic.”

Once again, Ms. Schroeder is writing about parenting and I am writing about heroism. But before we get there, let’s look at the kind of attention the mother and the son paid to this online clip. [1] When he saw someone in modern dress talking to Hitler, he assumed it had to do with opposing Hitler in some way. Why else would his friend have put it online and if it came from a friend, what is wrong with “liking” it:?

This changes the focus from whose communication this is—a question of “belonging” to “what it says,” a question of meaning. And not just meaning in some immediate and concrete sense, but “meaning” in the sense that Hitler connects to Holocaust which connects with a friend who has a death camp tattoo on her arm. The son is a lot more interested in belonging and that means “liking” a lot of things, too many, really, to have to read them carefully. [2]

So there is a dimension of this little episode that raises the question of how one reads (carefully and analytically, or casually and informally) and whether meaning or solidarity is more important.  That isn’t what Ms. Schroeder is writing about, but I think they are essential elements of the dilemma.

So what does Ms. Schroeder have in mind for her sons? What are her goals for them? One of the kids used the term “snowflake” (easily offended) and she responded this way:

Who is more of a delicate snowflake? The person who wants people to stop racial slurs or mocking of gay people or the person who is upset and offended by the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays?”

She wants to say that good behavior is more in line with stopping racial slurs or mocking gay people than it is in line with being easily offended by the substitution of “holidays” for “Christmas.” And she is right. That’s what good character calls for. What does heroism call for? Fox News says there is “a war on Christmas.” Fighting a war to save a cherished American institution could be called heroism if you pushed it hard enough. Refusing to mock gay people could not be called heroic no matter how hard you tried.

Or consider this one:

But of course, it’s not just that we want to prevent our sons from becoming perpetrators of mass shootings. We want to raise them to be the kind of men who would never march with the neo-Nazis …we want to keep them from becoming supporters of the racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and gender- or sexuality-based hatred that is on the rise.

This way of dealing with the kids’ yearning for heroism is to stop them from being supporters of bad causes. Not neo-Nazis, not racists, not anti-Semites, not Islamophobes, etc. But there is nothing heroic in simply not being a supporter of bad causes. If you are hungry and thirsty for heroism, this list of “not doing things” will leave you as hungry and thirsty as you were at the beginning.

I really think there is not choice but action against the odds. Do a brave thing; a daring thing. Do it in the company of people who will call themselves your sisters and brothers and be willing to go down in flames. That’s an adolescent notion of heroism.

It is hard for a stable liberal democracy to produce such causes. Hating the “other” evenhero 2 if you are no supposed to could be construed as heroic. Affirming all people despite their differences probably cannot be called “heroic” no matter how hard you try.

I think the message implicit in Ms. Schroeder’s column is that guiding teenage sons to generous and affirming behavior when their friends are out there testing the limits is going to be a tough sell. Telling adolescent boys to forego their hopes of being heroes is going to be a tough sell also. The extremists will aways have better access to the hopeless hero status, but I think we could do better than we are doing.

[1] Calling this a “meme” stretches the word out of any useful range of meanings, it seems to me.
[2] I am familiar with the problem. To get from one screen to another, I have to say that I have read (I have not) and agree to (what are my options, really?) the massive block of legal language it offers.

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Catching Eli’s Attention

The story of old Eli and young Samuel has been told a lot of times.  The story I have always heard is how Samuel learned, finally, to hear God’s voice.  It’s a really good story.  But lately, I have been noticing what Eli hears.

Eli 1Eli can’t hear God speaking to him anymore.  He did once.  Now he needs help and Samuel provides the help Eli needs.  He doesn’t know he is doing that.  Samuel is innocent entirely of God’s plan for Eli, but he helps Eli to hear God by doing all the things he is supposed to do.  It’ a sobering thought.

Let’s look at it from God’s point of view.  How do you get a message to Eli when Eli has stopped listening?  Answer: you call Samuel.  I chose this picture because Eli looks really irked and Samuel looks clueless.

Samuel has no idea what is going on.  He hears his name being called and there are only two of them there, so he knows it is Eli calling.  So he runs to Eli to see what he wants.  Eli has no idea yet what is going on, but he is sure that he did not call Samuel and he tells Samuel that.  Samuel doesn’t know how to understand what Eli is telling him—might not believe it either—but he goes back to bed as Eli has told him to do.

Note the difference at this point between understanding what is going on and doing what you are supposed to do.

Samuel goes back to sleep and hears his name being called again.  Since it can only be Eli, he goes back to see Eli and gets the same answer.  Eli might be puzzling a little about why Samuel keeps hearing his name being called, but he is way past doing anything about it.  Only being wakened again and again out of a sound sleep by a very obedient little boy is going to raise that question in his mind.

The discrepancy between what Samuel thinks is going on and what Eli suspects is going on has now gotten sharp.  Eli now needs another explanation for why his servant keeps coming up and waking him.  This is a big deal.  He has lived for many years without stumbling on this discrepancy.  It is the equivalent of the harassment tactic of phoning a victim’s number every hour all night.  At some point, the victim will say, “Who are you and what do you want.”

Samuel knows that only he and Eli are there.  That’s how he knows who is calling him.  But Eli knows—now that he has been forced to consider it—that  there are three there: Eli knows Yahweh is there as well.  Samuel does not know that.  That means that if Samuel keeps getting called and Eli knows he is not doing the calling, it is God.  

It has been a long time since Eli has heard anything from God.  He has learned how not to hear God.  If spiritual sensitivity could be compared to wearing hearing aids, Eli has taken his hearing aids out.  He is slowly dying and everything is fine, but he can’t keep Samuel from waking him up and, eventually, he can’t help noticing what is going on.

God’s project of contacting Eli is now half done.  Eli is paying attention.  So God tells Samuel everything Samuel needs to hear, including a bunch of really nasty stuff about Eli.  The next step is for Samuel to break the bad news to Eli and he doesn’t want to.

But Eli has been awakened now, and from a much more substantial sleep that the one Samuel kept interrupting;  he understands, now, that the little boy is not going to want to tell him the bad stuff.  So he instructs Samuel very directly to tell him all the bad stuff and Samuel does.

17Eli asked, ‘What message did he give you? Please do not hide it from me. May God bring unnameable ills on you and worse ones, too if you hide from me anything of what he said to you.’ 18Samuel then told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Eli said, ‘He is Yahweh; let him do what he thinks good.’

As I was reading over this familiar story and seeing if from another angle, I rememberedeli 2 a very bad movie about God.  It is Oh, God, with George Burns playing God.  He wants to get a message to Jerry Landers (John Denver), who doesn’t believe in God in any way practical enough to allow God to give instructions.  God gives Jerry a written note inviting him to come and see Him.  Jerry wades it up and throws it away.  The next day, that note is in the outer leaves of a head of lettuce.  Jerry wads it up and throws it away.  Then it shows up on his pillow that night.

Jerry still doesn’t believe in God, but he wants his life back with the same intensity with which Eli wants his night’s sleep back.  So he goes to the place where God is and hears what God wants to tell him and is forever changed.

You can see why the story of Eli reminded me of the story of Jerry.  But in Oh God, the role of Samuel is played by a piece of paper that magically reappears over and over until Jerry gets tired of throwing it away.  If you don’t have a magic piece of paper, you will need someone like Samuel.

Who’s like Samuel?

Samuel is, in this story, God’s catalyst.  He has no idea what is going on, but he does his job.  He is, in that one sense, inert.  God knows what is going on and Eli once knew what was going on, but Samuel does not.  Samuel knows his duty and he does his duty and in that way, God is able to get Eli’s attention without using a magically reappearing piece of paper.

I look around, sometimes, for what I think of as “meaningful work.”  By that, I mean work that means something to me.  I’m not sure I have the patience to do the catalytic work Samuel was called to do.

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The Greater Good and Its Rivals

Of all the ways to “look at things,” I would like to explore one particular set that is currently bedeviling us. These ways of looking at things are based on value premises that are contradictory, if either is allowed to dominate,  but they can be integrated harmoniously under some circumstances.

One way of looking at things gives priority to “the good of all.” The right thing to do is the thing that will leave everyone better off. The other looks at the achievement of personal goals. Succeeding at what you are trying to do is not only invigorating, it is primal. We would not have gotten to this point in our history without it.

I know this is an argument that has been going on for a long time, but I keep stubbing my toe on it in casual conversation, so I thought I’d examine it again.

See now 1983

I ran into this in a new and unforgettable form in 1983. I was legislative assistant to arationale 1 newly elected State Representative (House District #1 in Oregon) [1] He thought I was politically naive (which was certainly true, although not in the way he thought) so he would bring me into the office from time to time and ask me a question. I thought it felt a good bit like a catechism. The question was, “What is a good idea?” The correct answer was, “Sixteen and 31.” [2] So, roughly, if you can sell it to a majority, it’s a good idea. [3]

And he was right about me in a way. I was much more vulnerable than I am now to the idea that proposed legislation that would be beneficial to everyone ought to be passed on the grounds that it would be beneficial to everyone. There is a “we” in there. It is a category we all belong to and by pulling together, we can achieve great things. What I discovered, over and over, was that people who were being asked to vote for something [4] needed to see that it was in their interest, somehow, to vote for it. The question, always implicit and sometimes also explicit, was, “Why would I do that?” The answer, “Because it’s the right thing to do” was nearly always thought to be inadequate.

The lesson I learned, that has served me on beyond the legislative context is that people, by and large, join movements that are in their interest. When you explain to them what voting yes will do for something they already care about, they are perfectly willing to go along. I might say, inventing the context just for this example, “It will help a lot of school children and it will free up money for the irrigation subsidies you have been proposing.” When he stands up on the floor and votes “Aye,” I am thinking of the school children and he is thinking about the irrigation machinery, but the Clerk of the House just records the vote as “Aye.”

Is there really a tradeoff?

Not necessarily. Sometimes actions taken for personal reasons have the effect of benefitting the whole system. The the rationales and clearly incompatible. Adam Smith, the foundational economist (see illustration below), tried to marry to two motivations by inventing an “Invisible Hand,” (the capital letters are supposed to suggest a deity) with will transform actions taken by individuals for their own benefit into a pattern of outcomes that are good for everyone. According to Smith’s rationale, what is done for private gain has the effect of producing public benefit.

It’s a very attractive argument, but capitalism, the economic system he was justifying, doesn’t actually work the to benefit of all. It works to the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. It is, in that way, like evolution, where progress is made on the corpses of all the species whose adaptation was comparatively inadequate. So the less good adaptors failed to the benefit of the better adaptors and that is how good things happened. The new modern giraffe with the long neck wins and thousands of almost-giraffes with less long necks, die.


So let’s say I want to propose a new plant-based menu for the CCRC [5] where I live. I could start with the “It’s the right thing to do” arguments and I could produce studies that show how much better everyone will be if they accept the new plant-based menu. My interest in bringing this example up has nothing to do with food; it has to do with rationales.

rationale 4People who like more “meat” [6] will wonder why they should shift from a menu they like to a menu they do not like. That seems to me a reasonable question. There is a good tight relationship between the preferences of the resident carnivores and their meal choices. They like to eat meat and so they choose meat dishes from the menu. The counterargument, that they really should have different preferences than the ones they do have, will sound faint to their ears and if it persists, it will become annoying. Doing what you like to do—provided that it is not illegal, immoral, or fattening—is your right.

Notice how taut the line is kept between my preferences and my chosen actions. It is hard to ignore that. Note how loose the line is between the overall benefits that will come to all the residents of the CCRC and my nightly experience of dinner. From the standpoint of the rationales alone, the more immediate one, the personal one, will always win out and the system advantages will always be foregone.

It’s the Tragedy of the Commons (again) but with attention paid this time only to the rationales being used.

Overcoming Resistance

Anyone who has ever tried it has learned that telling people that they ought to feel differently than they do feel is an exercise in futility. People quite rightly object that they feel the way they feel about the matter at hand and they intend to pursue the course of action that feeling indicates. If they like eating meat, for instance, they would have to be given a reason for not eating it that is so cogent and so immediate and so personal that they will act in some way that their feelings so not dictate at the moment,.

Is there a solution?

Of course. All we need to do is to set up a system in which the behaviors (and subsequently, the hearts and minds) are those that are in the public interest. In the well-known case of grazing your cattle on the commons, you refuse to graze more than “your share, ” that if you do it, others will do it and the common grazing area will be destroyed. This is not one of those capitalist moments where private knowing greed is supposed to produce the common good. Nor is it reasonable to expect a given owner to refuse to enrich himself by grazing more than his share of the commons. The fact is that some will and others will not.

rationale 5So neither rationale—neither do the right thing nor do what you want to do—is going to work here. What works, instead, is an approach toCommon Pool Resources (CPR), such as Elinor Ostrom considers in her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. . In Törbel, Switzerland, for instance they live with the possibility of private overgrazing at public cost and they deal with it. How? First, they inculcate the attitudes that will make voluntary compliance the normal thing. [7] Second, they rely on all the members of the association to monitor and report infractions. The association also hires people to monitor infractions, but they are not expected to do all the work, only to supplement the work the residents do. Third, they punish violators with both disapproval of their neighbors and with financial penalties.

I surveyed the two rationales above. This is neither, in a way, because it is both. It emphasizes the value of preserving the common resources, on the one hand, and on avoiding the punishments that the neighbors and law enforces would levy. [8] The first is systemic and remote; the second personal and immediate.


Either kind of rationale, taken alone, has deficiencies. Telling people [9] that “they really oughta wanna,” which is the way the systemic solutions are most often marketed, doesn’t work very often, and it annoys the target audience. [10] Telling people that you understand that they have to do whatever they think is in their own interest, is an easy sell, but is disastrous to the system. Building structures that encourage people to make choices that sustain the system and that identify and punish choices that selfishly harm the system is very promising. I am not quite sure whether it would work at the CCRC where I live, but I think people should adopt it anyway because…you know…it’s the right thing to do.

[1] I proposed that we devise a mural for the small bulletin board that faced the hallway outside our cubicle. It would have pictures from various settings proclaiming “We’re number 1!” Football teams, banks, insurance companies, soft drinks, whatever. Then we would say that what is a claim for them is a simple fact for us. We are, in fact, #1. I was not able to sell the idea and it still disappoints me a little.
[2] Those would be majority votes in the 30-member Senate and the 60 member house.
[3] I don’t really think he believed that. I think he thought it was a useful corrective for me.
[4] Or to lobby for it or to support it or to contribute money to people who are promising to vote for it—I’m putting all those in the same category.
[5] A Continuing Care Retirement Community, in my case, Holladay Park Plaza in Portland, Oregon.
[6] For purposes of convenience, any food a vegan would reject will be considered “meat.”
[7] Obviously, this works only for a closed system, so all the members of the association are alert for incursions into their pastures by outsiders.
[8] Please note: violators are not told to go back to where they came from. They pay their fines; they may or may not demonstrate a public penitence; and then life goes on.
[9] Robert Mager and Peter Pipe have written a very good book with a world class subtitle. The title—informative if not imaginative—is Analyzing Performance Problems. But the subtitle includes the phrase “you really oughta wanna,” which I think captures the dilemma of the first motivation taken alone.
[10] I chose that particular phrasing for the benefit of Mark Twain fans. You know who you are.

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