Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett has a brilliant and original mind. One of the seven tools he advocates (in his most recent book) for those of us who want to think more clearly and make better use of our time caused me to reflect on one of the most persistent criticism I receive about Ethics Alarms. one of America’s foremost thinkers. Here are the seven, with a sample of Dennett’s comments about them:
1. USE YOUR MISTAKES
“Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities just so you can then recover from them.”
2. RESPECT YOUR OPPONENT
“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack….”
3. THE “SURELY” KLAXON
“…Here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for “surely” in the document and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word “surely” is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument…”
4. ANSWER RHETORICAL QUESTIONS
“…Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question….”
5. EMPLOY OCCAM’S RAZOR
“…The idea is straightforward: don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well….”
6. DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME ON RUBBISH
“Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs.”
7. BEWARE OF DEEPITIES
“A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That’s a deepity….”
I like them all, but the one that intrigued me most was #6, “Don’t waste time on rubbish.” I write a lot of posts about what I’m sure Dennett, a world-renowned philosopher, would regard as unworthy of serious ethical analysis. Rude customers at Dunkin’ Donuts. Lindsay Lohan. American Idol. Baseball games. TV commercials. “The Walking Dead.” Charlie Sheen. Tweets from pop stars. Hooters rip-offs. Spam, which is literally rubbish. And yet, with the occasional exception for a light-hearted post, I continue to believe that substantive, useful ethics issues can be found in the most trivial incidents, and therefore are not a waste of my time, or yours.
Sometimes, in fact, the ethics lessons of relatively minor incidents and subjects—“rubbish,” in other words–can be profound or even warn of worse to come, like the idiotic “no-hit piñata” that attracted my ire in 2011. Looking back on that silly effort to stop children from using a stick to break open a “poor helpless papier-mâché animal hanging off a tree by a string,” I can see the roots of the anti-violence and gun hysteria that is leading to outright child abuse now, in the wake of Sandy Hook. Yesterday, it was crazed fanatics preventing children from playing a traditional Mexican game because “it rewards violent behavior with candy.” Today, those same fanatics and their new recruits are branding 8-year olds as having disciplinary problems if they chewed a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun.
Another Ethics Alarms topic many thought was trivial was Beyonce’s lip-synching to her own recording at the Inaugural ceremonies. I argued that the official launching of a new Presidential term, especially one for a President promising “transparency,” with a deception was an ominous sign. Shortly thereafter, when Subway’s use of a ruler to advertise a “footlong” sub that was actually less than a foot was defended by mocking bloggers who invoked the rationalization I have dubbed “The Management Shrug,” I wrote,
“What difference does it make? Integrity and honesty, that’s what, just like Benghazi, Beyonce, and Armstrong. Zorn and his ilk, and there are some shockingly prominent and powerful ilk, want the American public to be like the proverbial frog, who would jump out of a pot of boiling water but will remain placidly comfortable in a pot of cool water slowly heated to a deadly boil. They think we should all allow ourselves to be slowly poached in a constantly intensifying culture of lies, in our government, our journalism, our sports, and our entertainment. Why? Because it makes it so much easier for them, you see. What’s a few days before the truth is told? What’s a little fudging? What’s a little cheating? What’s the difference between a live performance and a recorded one, if it sounds the same, and if it sounds the same, why not call the one by the other, more impressive name? What’s an inch of sandwich?”
I think we’ve seen in recent weeks and months how the handling of “rubbish” can be a useful predictor of ethical proclivities in more important matters.
And yes, I admit it: “rubbish” interests more people than the Great Issues ever will. War, capital punishment, social justice, abortion, racism, world hunger, poverty, capitalism…not only is it difficult to write about these and other classic ethical debates without being awash in partisan talking points, it is also time-consuming, redundant and mostly futile. The sheer weight of these topics tend to overwhelm any incidental truths or wisdom that can be uncovered in writing about them. I do get into these subjects from time to time, but they are not really blog topics, and it is difficult to produce anything original about such things in 750 words. The single most read post among the more than 3,700 here was on the earth-shattering topic of conservatives spreading the joke web-rumor that Harry Reid is a pederast.
So as much as I admire Mr. Dennett, I am not abandoning the examination of the ethical lessons to be found in “rubbish.” How we handle the rubbish in our lives define our character, and can train us well when those “significant” dilemmas come along.
Graphic: Play Station Lifestyle