Cap'n Arbyte's


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This post is not about economics, or about finance, or politics or even about pirates. This one's about ethics. But it's not a continuation of my ethics in emergencies series. I'd like to talk about everyday ethics.

I remember a conversation I had many years ago when I was in college. I was talking to someone about ethics (in a philosophy group) and this person believed that the whole subject of ethics was fundamentally about how to interact with other people. A person stranded alone on a desert island would not, in their view, have any use for ethics. I think this is tragically myopic.

Everyone needs ethics, all the time, because we are constantly faced with alternatives. Ethics is the science that provides the mental framework for evaluating alternatives, enabling us to select the "best" (note the normative language) alternative. In the plainest language, we need ethics because we have to make choices. Ethics guides our goal-setting and helps us evaluate whether our means are compatible with our ends.

The subject on my mind tonight is pride. Ayn Rand described pride as "moral ambitiousness", and I've always loved that description because it's terrifically useful. Pride is about continuously improving one's own character — building value within yourself, as against seeking value from the external world. Pride is a truly individual virtue. It has nothing to do with other people. A conception of ethics that is limited to interpersonal interactions is blind to the important virtue of pride.

Therefore it is with some sense of irony that my most recent exercise in self-improvement is something I decided not to do by myself. I wanted the help of an expert, because there is much to learn. (Not a professional, but someone who is clearly my superior.) I enlisted the help of a friend to be my teacher/assistant/guide.

The specific self-improvement I'm trying to achieve isn't relevant. What matters here is that my expert is … unreliable. We haven't done very much yet — scheduling issues, you see. I was aware that this might happen, and in fact I'm not surprised it did. But now I'm in an uncomfortable position. I still don't want to do this on my own — it will take much longer and the results won't be as good — but I also don't want to change experts, again because the results won't be as good. I perceive a large quality gap between my chosen expert and the runner-up.

It's not a good situation to have your self-improvement tied to another person's actions. I'll try to ameliorate this by talking to my expert and seeing if we can raise the priority by making this a trade instead of a favor.

Ha! Incentives! This post was about economics after all… ;)

If improving the incentive doesn't work, I'll go it alone. Patience is a fine thing in many circumstances, but not when it stymies progress toward your goal. My advice is this: surround yourself with fellow travellers, but do not let them alter your course. Do not let your goals become subordinate to the whimsies of others. It is better to pursue a goal alone than to wait for help that isn't coming.

Tiny Island