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Kindness and Reason

This essay originally appeared in my free newsletter.

When we ask someone to be reasonable, what we’re really asking is for them to see things our way. To put on our shoes and walk around a little. Certainly once they’ve seen our point of view they’ll rethink their position on the matter in question.

But reason is not the study of truth, it’s the application of logic, establishment and verification of facts, and justification of our actions and beliefs based on data (experiences, empiricism, convincing arguments we encounter, etc). Reason compels us to use the best information we can find so that we might solidify our truths or to show that our truths are incorrect, which in turn should lead us to new sets of beliefs.

This means that reason is a personal exploration; a venture out into the world to learn new things, have new experiences, meet new people, and reassess what we ‘know’ to be true at every step of the way. It’s evolving and upgrading our own perspective so that if a person were to take a walk in our shoes at two different moments they would see from different perspectives each time. Reason is intentional, fact-based growth.

For many, though, reason is an excuse to pulverize opposition. It’s a means of establishing how one worldview is better than another, and manifests as a sort of rational shaming. I can better defend my beliefs, see how foolish yours look next to mine?

This is something you see among certain wings of the intelligentsia. While they speak out against walling oneself off from knowledge and faith-based beliefs, traditionalist thinking, and the like, they’ll sometimes act as if being able to explain the way they lead their lives makes their way of living more noble and pure.

I would argue that this misses the point of reason, and is perhaps in opposition to it.

While it’s possible to come up with a ‘best fit’ system of living, that system will not necessarily be the same best fit for everyone. To claim moral or philosophical superiority, then, is to be incredibly limited in one’s scope of the world. It assumes that we all have the same goals, have had the same experiences, and hold the same data in the same regard.

Similarly, rational thinking is often applied as an excuse to treat someone else as the lesser in some way. They believe silly things and my beliefs are clearly better supported by data, therefore I needn’t consider their humanity. Screw them and their rain gods.

The value of reason is that it’s an ever-shifting, fluid thing. The more you expose yourself to different ideas, the more variables you have to throw into the equation. By shutting oneself off from any possibility and any group of people and set of beliefs, we’re not being rational. We’re being prejudiced. And we’re using the language of rationality and reason to justify that prejudice.

Reason is a means of seeing the world more clearly, and enriching our experience for the duration of our lives. Kindness is a means of seeing the world in a humanistic way, one in which we needn’t step over others to get what we want and needn’t belittle the calculations other people have made to determine what they believe just because those calculations are using different variables than our own. Or different math entirely.

To me, what’s most conducive to a happy, fulfilling, growth-oriented life is to apply reason wherever possible, figuring out why we do things, adjusting to taste on the fly, and always moving toward some more perfect version of ourselves while allowing others to do the same.

To be internally satisfied with your own beliefs and not feel the need to force them on anyone else shows immense confidence in how you live and how you arrived at your answers. To do otherwise implies the opposite: it says we need the rest of the world to fall into lockstep, lest we feel our fragile worldview is being challenged, which is scrutiny it can’t survive.

To try and force our view of the world on someone else — however we reached that view, whether through ancient writings or the application of reason — is counter to healthy relationships and a healthy society.

If we were successful in converting everyone to our point of view we’d live in a world full of cookie-cutter people, each blip seeing the world in the same way, leaving our species with far fewer perspectives and solutions to draw upon when solving the problems that impact us all. A fragile, homogenous blob.

Far better, I think, to allow people to be at different steps of their own philosophical journey; even with the conflict such variances can sometimes instigate (though, again, these conflicts wouldn’t happen if we’d all stop trying to force our point of view on others).

Kindness and reason are not mutually exclusive. I, for one, think it makes perfect, rational sense to do things that make me and other people happy, and I don’t feel that diminishes the seriousness with which I approach my philosophical development. I’m not going to tell you how to think on the matter, but it’s a point of data worth considering and adding to your equation.

Update: April 21, 2017

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to convince self-declared ‘rationalists’ and ‘skeptics’ that being kind is not a bad, morally indefensible thing. Also that there are other things to spend one’s time on than trying to show how everyone else is an idiot.

There’s a time and place for proving the voracity of one’s beliefs, but to spend 99% of one’s time and energy on that is not my cup of tea.

Blog

Air

Air is common. So common that we don’t think about it most of the time. Typically only if we’re scaling a mountain and the chemical composition of what we’re breathing starts to change, or have just finished a marathon and are struggling to catch our breath.

But beyond nonstandard circumstances, air is valueless. It’s the most valuable thing in the world in that it allows us to exist, but it’s also valueless.

Air on Earth is made up of mostly nitrogen, about a fourth as much oxygen, and trace amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, and a few other gases. This is pretty much the same anywhere you go; it’s a predictable composition that allows us to ignore how dependent we are upon it.

Imagine that you’re drowning.

Suddenly, air is clearly the most valuable thing in the world. More valuable than water, which also sustains life, which you currently have too much of. More valuable than money, which won’t provide the chemical reactions your body needs to live beyond the next few minutes. More valuable even than love, or the fulfillment derived from creating work you care about, or the earnest respect of your peers, or dreams and the freedom to pursue them.

A sudden shift in circumstances has promoted something that’s less valuable than anything else on the planet to the rank of ‘most valuable thing in the universe.’ To you and me, air is nothing. To a drowning man, it’s everything.

I say this not to be morbid, but to point out how context matters in the assessment of value.

What I produce may be valuable to some, but not to others. My writing may roll off the back of those who don’t need it, or want it, or find novelty in it, while for others it may prove to be a lifeline. Exactly what they needed at that moment. This is true of many things, not just writing. Not just air.

The question, then, is for whom might your work be of incredible worth? For whom does the balance of value-arbitrage work in your favor, and theirs? Where does context conspire to make what you have to offer more valuable than it might be elsewhere, and how might you adjust how you work to provide more of it to the people who really, truly find value in it?

All too often, we try to sell air to people who have plenty, and then decide that we’re either producing something valueless or that the world doesn’t understand how vital our offerings might be.

Looking at things from a different angle and determining where our efforts might be better applied, and for whom, allows us to create, while also helping those who’re struggling to catch their breath.

Update: April 21, 2017

This cannot be overstated: your work isn’t equally valuable to everyone. You have the option of reshaping it to fit a particular audience, but you also have the option of instead changing audiences.