Sunday, March 26, 2006
There was a time when the way to enter a profession or a
trade was to do an apprenticeship training. This lasted a
very long time and cost a lot of money, even by the
standards of the time.
An apprentice would, basically, be taken under the guidance
and care of a master in the chosen trade or profession. The
master would teach the young pupil how to do the work
relating to the profession, provide some basic form of
subsistence, transferred some of his knowledge and of course
was the main reference in later life. The master was the
beginning and the end of one�s profession. Of course, one
really started at the very lowest possible activity in a
profession, probably doing the things the master felt were
beneath him to even contemplate doing. This is how our
historical monuments were built, how master pieces were
painted and how empires were conquered.
In the apprenticeship model I describe above, which is of
course rather basic, we have a number of important factors
at play: knowledge transfer, knowledge acquisition, personal
development, skills, instructions, coaching and, of course,
From this list of features, apprenticeship provided two very
important things for the pupil: knowledge transfer and hands
on experience of the profession or trade. Knowledge transfer
is basically learning the things other people had learnt by
experience. And hands on experience is personal knowledge in
how to make things happen. Hence, no matter how many times
or how many books one reads about driving cars, the time
will eventually come to put the first gear in place. Getting
the car to move is personal experience.
Given that the scope and breath of the topic is so wide, I
will focus this essay on work related experience. So by
implication, value can be interpreted as a degree of
usefulness. In other words, interpreting experience as
having an utilitarian value.
When we talk of knowledge, especially in a work environment,
we need to distinguish between knowing-about and
knowing-how-to. Knowing-about is really knowing what others
have experienced or through their experience discovered new
knowledge or information. In a way, knowing-about is
theoretical type of knowledge since we do not have direct
experience of it or the experience of an original
discoverer. Passing knowledge on to others is quite common
in nature. We have all seen a lionesses teaching her cubs
how to hunt.
Knowing-how-to, is of course knowing-how-to do things, how
to achieve objectives and targets. This is the equivalent to
raw experience, probably after repeating the task in
question a good number of times. So, if you ask someone, do
you know-how-to drive a lorry, they would say yes if they
successfully used lorries to deliver goods in the past. Of
course, there might be a legitimate half way interpretation.
We might know-how-to do something if we had to do it, but we
might not have actually done it. We might have read the
instructions on how to operate a particular program, but not
necessarily having used the software in the past. There are
many things in our life we know-how-to in this manner. For
example, calling the emergency services, applying basic
first aid or even restoring a crashed PC system. These are
not things we have to do every day.
Today�s knowing-about and knowing-how-to have evolved quite
considerably even from the time when there were apprentices
and masters. Maybe, the first most important change that was
made to knowledge was when people stared recoding it in
written form. Passing knowledge orally certainly did work in
the past, but when people started writing their experience
they instantly made that knowledge available to more people
than would have been possible orally. One of the important
features of written material is that it is more permanent
than a verbal description of past events or a personal
This, in itself, was quite a revolutionary step in human
communication. The next significant change came when people
started applying methodology and verification to their
experience and knowledge. This would eventually lead to
modern science and technology. The significance of this is
that this type of knowledge is of better quality than
knowledge that is not carefully scrutinised. Quality
knowledge and information is more likely to produce
predictable results. So, knowing about other people�s
experience is not enough; knowing that their experience is
more likely to produce the desired results is certainly more
In a work environment, being able to do things is very
valuable indeed. In an open competitive market, having the
right skills and ability to take advantage of opportunities
in the market place will, certainly ensure an income. Of
course, knowing-about type of knowledge is available to a
good number of people these days; books, universities, the
internet. And instruction type knowledge and information is
also equally available to most people. This suggests that
the more knowledge and information that is available to
people the lower the advantages we have in employing our
personal experience. After all, the more people there are
who can do things, the stronger the competition for the
individual. But we also know that the more competition there
is in the market place the more opportunities. But reality
also tend to be tainted with corruption, unfair practices
and unnatural advantages.
If we look at cultures that have taken to writing their
experiences, we can point at certain discriminatory
practices especially towards older people, who by definition
would have the most experience. The impression seems to be
that the more we record our personal experiences, the less
need we have for the individual to personally tell us about
it. The discrimination or maybe the unfair treatment of
older people is probably the evidence we need to prove the
point about how important individuals become when people
started recording their experiences.
The most immediate discrimination is that in most countries
people have to retire at the age of 65. This is done
irrespective of whether the person is interested in
retiring, whether the person is fit to work that long or
whether this is the best policy to enable individuals to
contribute to their society. Then there is the
discrimination of some employers by actively not employing
older people. And although the present anti-ageism lobby and
certain government actions are putting this problem on the
political agenda, a lot still needs to be done.
Against this reality, there are positive trends afoot
addressing these issues about discriminating against older
people. Companies are becoming more conscious of the needs
of this age group and in western countries old age is
becoming big business for medical health services.
Furthermore, �older� today does mean a good number of years,
maybe well into the eighties. In western countries, the idea
of being old at forty has long gone. Of course, when young
children and even teenagers think that forty is old this
certainly reflects their lack of knowledge of what is forty
and what is old. It certainly reflects their lack of
experience of the real world.
In other words, old age is no longer a guarantee to give us
an edge in the market place. The experience we have of our
job is not a guarantee that we have a job. Apart from the
fact that some jobs just disappear because of new technology
other jobs disappear because other people can do our work
much cheaper. But to day there is another type of experience
that is becoming important, besides knowing-about and
knowing-how-to. By looking at the fashions and trends of
today, the emphasis seems to be towards personal
development. How to develop our skills, our personality and,
most of all, our relationships with others.
However, is this something new or something repackaged?
Apart from being both, I would hazard a guess and suggest
that there is enough knowledge and information about this
topic to make it a legitimate source of knowledge for
others. The way we look at personal development is different
from the past. For example, because our societies are more
complex than in the past. But if we look at the real world
of employment this idea of personal development seems to
contradict the facts on the ground. If there is something
that can be described as the antimatter of personal
development it must surely be command and control management
together with bureaucracy. These two forces have been
responsible for a lot of frustration and dread in the world
Maybe personal development is relative. The fact that there
are enough people working in these bureaucratic institutions
suggests that there are enough people who can adapt their
character and personality to meet the needs of most
environment. Maybe, one type of experience that is valuable
is learning about one's self. Reinforcing positive
characteristics and learning from mistakes. Surely this type
of experience helps us increase our sum total of knowledge
about ourselves and how we are best suited to achieve our
Taking charge of one's personal development is, by
definition, a valuable character trait. However, this has to
be balanced against the fact that most of what we do, we
have to do it with others. Today, the word team-work is part
of every day jargon in a work environment. Employers demand
it and actively seek qualities in people that show they are
Of course, there are two obvious problems here. The first is
that if the team comes first then this must happen at the
expense of personal development. What is the right balance?
And are the experiences gained as a team player and an
individual compatible? The second problem is this, given
that people have always had to cooperate with each other,
what is the difference of being a team player today?
Maybe in the past people were less free to choose what they
did. Today, maybe we are freer in this respect, but it does
not mean that we are freer to do what we want. The balance
is maybe closer to 50/50; half of the time we are
responsible for our personal development and the other half
we have to give to the team. The experience we gain in
balancing this state of affairs is probably as valuable as
knowing the in�s and out�s of our job.
If we really want to judge whether experience is valuable or
has a value we can perform an empirical test and look around
us. Is what we see around us what we feel comfortable with
and maybe proud of. Or is what we see around us something
that makes us feel ashamed?
Going back to the apprentice, the promise of a professional
life in the future, meant a reduction is short term
earnings. Of course, some apprentice did reach the promised
land of employment in the same way that today some people
make it to the top jobs. However, not everyone is
remunerated handsomely for their labours. Cheap labour is
still a business advantage, especially for those who are
paid by how the company performs and not by the piece. And
this is probably where experience is most valuable. Having
the experience and character to accept nothing, but a fair�s
wage for a fairs day�s work.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
It took western civilization quite a long while to discover and use the number zero. We also use the idea of nothingness in expressions, such as, “It cost me nothing to transfer the money to my other bank account.” Or, “The shop had nothing, it was a waste of time.”
The “nothing” (zero) of the decimal counting system, the “nothing” of no charge and the “nothing” of lack of interest, are examples of how we use nothingness. We have many other uses of the word nothing. For this essay I will assume that nothing and nothingness are synonyms in ordinary language. The fact is that nothingness does not appear as high frequency word in ordinary English usage.
Zero is a mathematical concept, which could mean something like, position or the set-with-no-members. Having said that, the set-with-no-members has given philosophers and mathematicians quite a few headaches, so I am using this term without the necessary due caution. As a number, we treat zero in many different ways. For example, in the sequence 0 1 2 3 4 5, we have five numbers, but six numerical places. When we do a count down we usually include zero, but not when we start counting. In the binary system, the zero (0) has a really specific meaning especially when applied to computers. In the case of electronics, it means “Off,” i.e. no electric current. In sports, 0 means no score, but in some sports no score does not mean no points, for example, in away games in football.
While zero clearly has a set of rules on how we use it, what it means and the implications of its use, the “nothing” of ordinary language does not have such a rules structure. Of course, it has to conform to grammatical conventions, but it does not get a VIP treatment in ordinary language. For example, ''The present queen of
Clearly, in the first sentence nothing means, the queen did not utter any words, she stayed quiet, she chose to be quiet or it was the sort of thing the monarch would do in these circumstances. In the second sentence, we have a grammatically correct sentence and the word nothing is used correctly; but what does it mean? There is no queen of
The problem with the queen of
There is a paradox associated with nothing and nothingness: is nothing, a something? In the examples used so far, it could easily be said that the word nothing has the status of something by making it mean ''I did not like the things in the shop'' or ''the queen chose not to speak.'' So nothing in these contexts does refer to something that exists, hence a nothing being a something.
We can also approach the issue of nothing by asking what is the opposite of nothing? Is it “something”, “anything” or the traditional partner, “being”? The example, “there was nothing in the shop,” is totally understandable. But not the sentence, ''there was something in the shop.'' This begs the question, “so what?”
For grammatical reasons we can exclude “anything”, and “being” does not work either. The opposite to, ''the shop had nothing I wanted to buy,'' becomes, ''I bought a nice shirt from the shop today.'' In other words, the opposite of the single word “nothing” does not have to be a single or noun-group word concept. A nice shirt is a real thing, the words, “something,” “anything” and “being” are just that, words or concepts. I suggest that the opposite of nothing is something real.
However, are we really concerned about the ontological or existential status of the queen’s speaking habits or the contents of a shop? The nothing in these examples has the important ingredient of disappointment. So, “there was nothing in the shop,” not only means that I did not like anything there, but also I was disappointed for not having bought anything. I am happy to accept that in everyday language, “nothing” means all the above interpretations and in the appropriate cases disappointment.
This leaves us with the nothingness of philosophy; the metaphysical nothingness. The nothingness if god does not exist or the nothingness of the conscious self trying to achieve self fulfillment or the nothingness of we are nothing.
One of the big problems with philosophy, but not exclusive to philosophy, is that in many cases we are dealing with texts expressing ideas that have come to us via a translation. Now, it is one thing to read on a menu in a restaurant that they can offer you straw-ham or that your new DVD player comes with an instruction booklet translated into a dozen languages, and in a dozen languages it does not tell you how to switch on the machine. We can more or less feel at ease with these problems. But what are we to do when we come to translate concepts like nothingness or being?
In English we already have a good word for ''being'' and that is ''exist.'' Sure, we use being in a number of ways, for example, human being, or I am being treated for minor injuries (after an accident). We can even broaden our interpretation a bit and refer to the “I am” of the historical
We can show the existence of something by pointing out information about it. I know that my computer exists because I have information about it. Most of this information has come to me via my sense perception when I’m in front of my computer and that it conforms with other information I have about computers. For example, I have information that some computers can be used to manage language text; now my computer does that. I have had other people referring to my computer and some of the things they told me was compatible with my knowledge of computers and so on and so forth. Of course, the information we have, whether direct or indirect, must be the right sort of information. Having a picture of my computer or cardboard cut out of my computer will not do.
Any statement or sense perception about my computer also has a probability of truth about it. That my computer can manage text, should be balanced with the equally valid fact that sometimes it crashes and cannot manage anything. The first evidence we have of something is an event. Of course, lack of evidence is not in itself evidence either for the existence of something nor the non existence of something.
We are now back to context since events take place in a context. When I believe that my computer can manage text, I do so in the context that the shop assistant sold it to me as such, the manual says so, people who bought a similar computer confirmed that this model can manage text and so on and so forth. So if my computer does not manage text, i.e. no evidence towards the claim that it manages text, maybe because it crashes, it is more reasonable to see this as evidence that there is something wrong with the computer rather than that my computer does not exist.
Therefore, how we process information (see information theory) is as important to us as the information we receive. Context helps us deal with the “how we process information” part of the project. Take the tsunami tragedy that hit
In the computer example, I was faced with two types of information. Old information, which I already knew about, and new information. Every time I came across a piece of information that my computer can manage text, my sum total of information about my computer did not increase. At most, it increased the probability that my computer is capable of managing text. However, with new information, my sum total of information about my computer did increase. For example, knowing that I can legally install a text management program for free on my computer was valuable information.
Maybe here we have come close to the core of what nothingness is, at least in a philosophical sense. Nothingness is the absence of information in a context. This is not the same as not understanding the information we have nor does it mean that we don't have direct information. It means just that: no information. In astronomy and physics they refer to information reaching us through a light come. Imagine that an event took place yesterday on one of the stars we see at night. For us to know about that event information about that event has to travel at the speed of light over huge distance to reach us. Now, given the literally astronomical distance involved that information can take a very long time to get here. Before that happens not only don't we know about it, but as far as we are concerned it is nothingness; it does not exist.
In fact, it is impossible to talk about an event which we have no information about. Compare this with say black holes. Black holes are supposed to have such a strong gravitational field that nothing can escape from them; although there are reports that black holes do generate some information. For this discussion, it is irrelevant whether black holes destroy all information or release information because we still have a lot of information about black holes. Information need not be direct but also indirect, in fact a lot of science is conducted using indirect information. However, there is a serious paradox called the information loss paradox; to cut a long and controversial story short, this says that black holes destroy information in principle and not just in practice. This lack of information is, I suggest, a very good idea of the concept nothingness. (NB: there is a lot of technical information on the internet for those who are interested on this matter.)
It is only new information that adds to our sum total of the information we already have and as a consequence, our knowledge. Furthermore, repeated information does not add to our information, although it might help reinforce existing information. Of course it matters a lot how we reinforce this information.
Going back to the expression, “we are nothing,” how does it fit with the idea that nothingness is really no information. First of all, this expression can easily have two contexts. The every day use of the expression and the philosophical context.
The everyday use of the expression implies in its meaning helplessness. We look around us and see all these amazing structures in the universe. We see the futility of human life, so short, so painful and think that we are of no consequence. At the end, we don't matter in the big picture, at the end we are insignificant. Of course we have a number of options about what to do should we be inclined to escape from this depression. Finish it all, become rich or a hermit. Join a club, join a religion, or whatever else takes our fancy. One thing we cannot change, though, is the world around us. However, we can always try to change ourselves. Basically this is a practical issue,: how can I change my life to the better? More relevant, however, is that issues relating to our worth and value are more suited to ethics than metaphysics.
The metaphysical aspects of the question of nothingness are probably more interesting. We start by excluding nothing and nothingness to mean, we are dead. Strictly speaking, the conservation of energy rule prevents us from disappearing just like that, so strictly speaking, information about us is still around. In practice we are easily forgotten! And then again, there is the information paradox mentioned above or the possibility of hitting a lump of anti-matter, which should lead to the same results. But just because people do not remember us, it does not mean that we didn’t or don’t exist.
A better candidate to explain “we are nothing” is before we are born. There is certainly no information about us before we are born so this meets the criteria that nothingness is no information. We also have no context for our existence. The future children of our parents does not qualify. Not only no one could know that our parents were going to have children, but there was no guarantee that one of those children would be us. This is not even an event that has not yet reached us.
So by implication “we are nothing” or anything connecting us to nothingness is a fallacy. Information about us implies that we exist. When
And that is the beauty and the point about consciousness. Consciousness is our way of generating a certain type of information about ourselves and processing a certain type of information about the world around us. That's proof enough that we are not nothingness. And if you want a rational test to show what nothingness feels like, it is this: trying to think and nothing happens.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Tolerance – Intolerance
It is very easy for things to get out of hand: without even trying or wanting to. Take the following case.
A topic was voted to discuss during the philosophy meeting! However, maybe due to some distraction or inattention the coordinator seriously believed that the topic voted was “hypocrisy” and not tolerance. For those interested in the forensic evidence of the case, hypocrisy was written on the notes sheet as a topic immediately after tolerance. A curious fact is that hypocrisy did not have any recordable votes, but as future events would prove this did not reflect the real interest in the topic.
On the day of the meeting the error was soon discovered to the disbelief of all those present. The rational solution was to vote again confirming the topic. But in the confusion of the moment the topic that was confirmed was “intolerance” rather than tolerance. The immediate fallout of this was that other topics did not get a fair chance to a vote. And strictly speaking, the original topic has now been changed to tolerance-intolerance.
It is evident from this example that when we lose control of things we just don’t know what might happen. However, what might happen can easily have a negative consequence on others. In our case, we did not keep to our plans which might have inconvenienced some people and certainly inconvenienced those who came prepared to suggest a new topic for the next meeting. In other words, even with all the good will in the world and all the understanding tolerance, things can easily go wrong.
There is an important issue about tolerance, which is well discussed by
Moreover, those who actually have to decide whether to be tolerant or not, this paradox is also a dilemma. Should we take the risk and allow those who are not tolerant to live among us? Or should we play safe and restrict the activities of intolerant people in advance? Once again, taking the middle road is the best option. Not too virtuous that we become a walk over, and not too intolerant that we become the centre of collective hatred.
On the other hand, we also have to remember that taking risks can sometimes pay dividends, especially if they are reasonable and calculated. So, as long as both the tolerant and the intolerant play within the same set of risk taking parameters or boundaries there is a good chance of both living in harmony with each other. In other word, the tolerant takes a risk, maybe not to be harassed by the intolerant, and the intolerant is give some free space to operate.
However, there seems to be no binding reason why those who are not members of these groups, the groups who set the boundaries, why they should operate within these boundaries. For example, there is no reason why non smokers should tolerate smoking in pubs when they were not responsible for settings the boundaries between smokers and drinkers. I’m thinking on the lines that landlords allowed smoking because smokers bought more beer; and of course, smokers implicitly did buy more beer; maybe even because they were the majority drinkers in the pub. However, since non smokers can buy as much beer as smokers, why should they tolerate smoking? Especially that now they could easily make up the majority of people in the pub.
We can take this line of questioning into all sorts of situations. For example, if there are people who feel that their land has been invaded, why should they tolerate what they consider an invader or their practices? Why should a modern society tolerate the injustices of the past? In fact, why should we tolerate the intolerant, irrespective of what we did in the past? From the smokers’ example above, I seem to be suggesting that the majority should always have its way. Or more seriously, that might is right. Of course, we don’t really want to go the way of might, but then again, fewer people want smoking in pubs these days.
Usually, at this point, philosophers and non-philosophers alike would invoke the golden rule to tame this paradox or dilemma. Now, as we all know, there are probably more versions of the golden rule then there are ice cream flavours at a typical seaside resort in the
What this is telling us is that if we want others to be tolerant with us, we should be tolerant with others. But as someone might legitimately point out, who cares what others want to do to us. All we’re interested in is what we want to do. In other words, the golden rule only applies if we want to be bound by it. But this is not the only serious objection to the golden rule we can think of.
Probably, the reason why the golden rule has such chequered past is because it assumes that we have a right, of some sort, to tell others what to do. Where do we get the right from, to: do unto others? Who gave us this right to tell others what to do let alone do to others what we would like others do to us? Of course, some might say that this “do unto others” is only metaphorical, only a mental exercise. Sure, but we’re still starting from the wrong premise. Whether, we assume this right as physical or metaphorical, I am not convinced that we do have such a right to even consider: do unto others what you would like done to you. The golden rule is a non starter because we cannot even get past the starting point.
So, if we cannot tell others what to do and others cannot tell us what to do, whether real or metaphorical, are we left with everyone doing what they want? Not necessarily, of course. There are many things which we do that does not interfere with others: learning, writing, resting and so on. Secondly, doing what we want does not mean that we can do it. And then of course, the more people we manage to annoy, the fewer the chance we might have to do what we want. However, if we're too busy looking after ourselves and trying not to get in the way of others, then surely we would have a better chance of doing what is probably the right thing to do, at least for us.
As we also know, however, cooperation is better than confrontation. If that is the case, why does confrontation seem to be the norm? Why does, for example, an open competitive market function better and is more efficient than say a controlled economy? Theoretically, at least, a controlled economy, is supposed to be based on cooperation, equitable share of resources and to benefit everyone without exception. That's the theory, but of course anything can be made to look good in theory. An open capitalist economy is, in theory, based on confrontation and self interest, with disregard to the weak and the unfortunate. At least this is the theory, but as we know, in a theory everything can be made to look bad.
Which ever way we care to look at the world, a high degree of cooperation is required for any system to function. So being selfish or being a thug does not imply that one does not cooperate. This is an important point because it seems to suggest that cooperation is more fundamental and basic to our existence. Which is all for the best, since having dismissed the golden rule we might feel somewhat philosophically naked and exposed. We, therefore, ought to be tolerant not because we want others to be tolerant with us, but because tolerance is a natural form of cooperation, in the same way as altruism is a natural form of cooperation. Which might explain why a competitive system might have some virtues after all. It is not so much the survival of the fittest, but the survival of those who cooperate. Whether it is a thieves’ honour or a legally biding contract, they both succeed when the relevant parties cooperate.
Of course, corruption, cheating and thuggery, do have a certain short term advantage, if no one else is doing the same. But if every one is cheating each other, then any material advantage would be lost or diluted. The issue should not be seen as whether to cheat or not to cheat. But rather, given that cheating, or whatever, is not a natural form of cooperation, at which point does cheating stop being an advantage? And at which point does it start to be a serious detriment to our survival? At least in our society, big cases of corruption and such like still make the front page news. Maybe in our society we have learnt from our history that cheating and such negative behaviour is not acceptable because it can lead to serious consequences. If making a mistake about a topic for discussion can lead to negative consequences, how serious would be the consequences of cheating or corruption?
Could it be that the norm in real life is actually cooperation. Could it be that our fascination with bad news is due to some inbuilt instinct to alert us about possible dangerous situations and as a source of shared experience? In other words, our interest in murder cases, for example, is not that we have some morbid and perverted interest in death and crime. But rather, we have an inbuilt curiosity and inquisitive instinct to know about bad news and learn from it. If there was a murder in our neighbourhood, we are more likely to be interested in it in order to protect ourselves much better. Maybe this explains why although domestic violence is one of the more common causes of crime , we do not seem to get into a frenzied panic at the news of a death as a result of domestic crime. Compare this with a shoot out outside a pub or a small terrorist bomb. The reason is simple, we don't feel threatened with someone else’s domestic violence, but we do with a terrorist bomb.
The word tolerance does have the idea that we are giving permission to others to do what they want to do. As if, that is, we had some authority or power over others. Indeed, intolerance does have the idea of rejecting such authority or power, and by implication it also carries the idea of negativity. Intolerance is never a virtue, even if we are intolerant about abusive behaviour or unreasonable political ideologies.
But what exactly is tolerance? From example, it makes no sense to talk about being tolerant with someone we have no control or authority over. For example, my neighbours can be very tolerant with their children's unruly behaviour. But we cannot say that we're are being tolerant with their children. We have no authority over them, and our options are quite limited. We either accept the situation or report the family to the relevant authorities. Of course, there is always the option of leaving the neighbourhood. We can only be tolerant with those who we are cooperating with, but how far can we extend this? Should we be tolerant with a dictator who we have no links with? And since we have not links with such a dictator, is it even our business to be or not to be tolerant?
This probably is the reason why it makes more sense to always try and build relationships and dialogues with one’s opponents. Paradoxically, by trying to start a dialogue with our enemy, not only does it give us a chance, by taking the risk, of solving our problems, but if they are not solved, we have a legitimate reason for taking self defence action. Of course, some people see talking with one’s enemies as a weakness. It can only be a weakness if we are afraid of our enemy, because maybe we haven’t prepared ourselves.
Look at it this way, the intolerant need not exploit our weaknesses to succeed, they only have to use their strength. Maybe, they just don't care about us because they don't feel threatened by us. Threatened, that is, in all possible manners: physical, legal, moral or social. History, once again, is littered with the corpses of people who became victims of this unfortunate reasoning. The relevant people in Nazi Germany thought that they could get a way with invading
Which brings us back to how easily things can get out of hand. Being tolerant or intolerant is not a question of just moral virtue, there is something more basic than that, as basic as cooperation. But cooperation is as strong as the way we interpret the information we receive from others or by simply confirming the information we think we have about others. Sometimes, it is as simple as looking once again at one’s notes.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Intentions and beliefs are at the heart of hypocrisy. With hypocrisy, someone professes to have certain beliefs, but still acts contrary to what we would expect from them. They give us one impression, but when it matters they do something that is not normally expected. In fact, they do more than just let the side down, they actually intend to deceive us.
What is the difference between hypocrisy, lying, dishonesty and cheating? These actions certainly have one thing in common: the intention to act in a way that will disadvantage others. But if we take lying, this might be due to circumstances and we do not assume that someone who lies is going to lie all the time. It is reasonable to assume that sometimes even the most of habitual liars can tell the truth. Dishonesty and cheating are usually aimed at gaining some material advantage over others; usually something which the other person has. Of course, in real life all these terms overlap, with, maybe the difference being in seriousness and not the nature of the offence.
However, hypocrisy tends to be slightly different. What is unacceptable about hypocrisy is not so much that someone wants to take something away from us, but that they want to change our beliefs; especially our beliefs about them or their cause. In a way, there is nothing more personal than our beliefs. Hypocrisy attacks the very nature of what it is to be a person, an individual and a human being.
Of course, our property, our money and our chattels are also personal and we are very much attached to them. But we are attached to our chattels as long as they serve a purpose. However, we are always prepared to exchange our chattels for other things and not necessarily for a monitory value. For example, many people have given up their property for freedom or good health. We can also protect our chattels by building defences, safes or taking out an insurance.
Changing our beliefs, and if you wish, robbing us of our beliefs, goes to the heart of what makes us a person. Furthermore, beliefs are one of the most fundamental components of consciousness. For example, when we're asleep, it can be said that we're still alive, and even possess the same beliefs as the time before we went to sleep, but when we're asleep we are not actively involved with our beliefs. Sure, the brain might be working away in the background improving things, but it is not the same as consciously interacting with our beliefs. It is as if we wanted to buy a kilo of cheese, but the shops were closed. Sure the cheese is in the shops, but it's as good as naught (pronounced: nawt).
Our beliefs are also the power-house of what we do as individual human beings. And although our physical bodies function more or less the same, our mental capacity to originate and nurture our beliefs is not universal. My way of thinking and my beliefs are unique to me. This does not mean that we might not agree on the same thing or believe the same thing, but that I choose what to believe.
The curious thing, of course, is that we have the same brain structure, but at the same time its effects are completely different and unique to us individually. We cannot say the same about our lungs, for example. Our lungs have the same effect in all of us, and if someone’s lungs do not cause the determined effects they probably have a serious problem. Not the same with our beliefs; my beliefs about the beauty of a painting are not incompatible with your beliefs if they are different from mine. Nevertheless, we both have the same brain structure.
Beliefs are closely linked with motivation and why we do certain things. For example, believing that my friend’s party is going to be fun is a good motivation to go to the party. Usually, we believe that when we act we have a reason to do so. And although such reasons need not be rational or wise, they are nevertheless reasons. Beliefs, in other words, give us motivation to do things.
Although it is true that beliefs are always present when we act as persons, it is a different matter whether those beliefs are justified, objectively valid or the best of all possible world. This is important for us, because intention is important for hypocrisy. Having the wrong information or having false beliefs could lead to serious misunderstandings, misrepresentations or even behaviour that at face value looks like hypocrisy, but maybe it’s not. False beliefs can easily lead to the wrong actions and we also ascribe actions as intentional unless we can point out to some uncontrolled cause. Of course, there is always some moral duty to check and verify our information, but it is equally a moral question where we should place the cut off point. What is reasonable and what is moral when it comes to validating our beliefs and information? How far should we go to verify our beliefs or information?
The first thing to consider is how practical it is to confirm our information and beliefs? For example, if I believe that freedom of speech is the best political belief we can pursue, what duty do I have to confirm the veracity of this belief? In my case, armed with a good ADSL internet connection, access to most sites on the internet, a network of close friends who are very clever in these matters and connected with enough TV and radio channels to keep me up to date with world events, I would say that my moral duty to check my belief is quite high. But what about some unfortunate person in sub Sahara Africa who probably never saw a clean glass for water, never mind an ADSL connection. Under these situations what are their responsibilities if they believe that Western ideology is oppressive?
But then again, even with all the information available to us, there is always the little matter of actually understanding it. For example, it is one thing to have access to the latest news and another to understand it in the context of what the real agenda of a government is. But this is a complex example, how about understand the cultural conventions of a peoples we have little or no contact with. When we see people demonstrating in the streets of their capital city, how can we understand this in the context of their lives if we don’t know what their lives are like. Even still, our duty to check out beliefs is nevertheless hampered with the practicality of having access to the information and the intellectual challenge of understanding it in the first place.
Although hypocrisy attacks our beliefs, beliefs themselves are not exactly above concern. In other words, we might think that someone might be a hypocrite, but there is always the possibility we might be wrong or the other party might equally be an innocent victim of reality.
When we discover that someone is a hypocrite we also discover that they intended to deceive us. That hurts and is damn annoying! Probably because we immediately recognise in the intention the act of a person and not some automaton. But if we discover that we were victims of a hypocrite, we might consider ourselves luck. We know about it and can do something about it. However, the damage is done when we don’t know that someone is a hypocrite.
Another important factor to take into consideration is time. Hypocrisy usually takes place over a period of time. Hypocrisy is not a case of something happening at the spur of the moment, it is contemplated and is part of a scheme or plan. However, time can work both ways. It can help the hypocrite weave a better plot and of course time can help the victim discover the true worth of the hypocrite. Moreover, from experience we know that the longer the deception the bigger the disappointment.
The time factor is very relevant to the moral aspect of hypocrisy because it gives more credence to the idea that hypocrisy is intentional and not an accident. The principle could easily be that the more we do something the more it seems that we want to do it. Hence, someone who is a hypocrite over a long period of time really wants to deceive us in a very serious way.
Other factors to take into account are of course cultural and personal considerations. Some culture based practices conflict with those from other cultures. Marital practices in different countries are a good example of culture based hypocrisy. In some cultures divorce is basically the right of the male partner only, however the same cultures also believe that they are a morally upright peoples.
At an individual level we might look at the death penalty. The views of some people on this matter does seem to be a prima facie case of hypocrisy. Some individuals in Christian communities are also ardent supporters of the death penalty. At the very least, there seems to be a direct challenge to the principle of Christian forgiveness. Forgiveness, does not mean, in this context, release from prison, but not to perform judicial execution.
However, some serious issues that arise from hypocrisy arise from holding beliefs in good faith. One of the most challenging cases is the conscientious objector. A conscientious objector honestly believes that fighting is morally unacceptable. However, the same person also realises that the enemy is literally at the borders with its full military might. The issue that concerns us is that the conscientious objector still wants to enjoy the freedom that accrues from fighting. Is a conscientious objector a hypocrite, a naïve person or a principled moral person?
An other of today’s topical issues on the internet is the acquiescence by some internet related companies to censorship by the Chinese government. By Western standards, this sort of censorship is not only unacceptable but a direct challenge to constitutions. Should these companies continue operating under these conditions? If we had to look at this from the typical Chinese user some might argue that they are well experienced in dealing with censorship and on balance it is better to have a censored service than no service at all.
These top tier examples of hypocrisy show that it is not enough to look at the face value of a situation. Looking at the background and context of hypocrisy might well present us with situations that we did not expect. And given that even we are subject to beliefs and intentions it might also be worth our while to look at things closer to home.