I am uncomfortable about this title. I will be talking about a character trait I share. What does good boy even mean? I don’t like to think of myself as a good person, because thinking thus is proud, and one can never be humble enough. The second problem is connected with Cato’s position that he would like it better for people to ask why there is no statue of him than why one has been built in his name. Here is the connection. It is better for others to say you are good. The third problem with the title is gender. The trait actually goes both ways. I have decided to keep the title because it more direct. Imagine me saying the Good Person Mentality. How boring!
Without wasting time, I will tell you what this trait is. I am a traditionalist. I will not break a rule until I think there is good reason to do so. I will give an example to illustrate this. Throughout my Secondary Education I missed school only about five times deliberately. I say deliberately because there were other times I couldn’t go to school because I was sick. The days I decided consciously to miss school we had inter-school games.
These days there is a fetish around being chaotic. It’s sometimes even confused with good risk taking. This position is not well founded. I will admit that a chaotic temperament like that of Steve Jobs may lead to creativity. But this isn’t obvious. It’s also not obvious that being chaotic is a good risk strategy. Let me give an example to illustrate this. In my Senior High School class I had colleagues who I feel missed school because they thought the idea was cool. Some of them ended up repeated. Others struggled with school work. Being chaotic for no reason is a stupid strategy. It’s like someone who picks a fight easily without considering how important the issue at stake is. He ends up with a broken nose for no good reason.
I get the reason why people adore stubborn people. They are inspiring. However what people forget is that there is a reason stubborn people are known for their stubbornness. It’s usually in their act than their temperament. This reminds me of Rosa Parks. Her stubbornness was little based on her temperament. She was one of those people who had quiet strength.
Of course there are iconoclasts who are good at what they do. But my point is that it isn’t obvious that being chaotic is the right way to live. I believe that more often than not it is a bad strategy. Take the story of tech entrepreneurs who quit school. They often did it because there was a better thing they could use their time for. Examples will be Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. We can also mention Steve Jobs who left school because tuition was expensive; he didn’t actually quit because he continued to attend classes he was interested in. So it makes sense to quit school, for example, if you have other things to do. Not because it has become fashionable.
We put ourselves in danger when we glorify chaotic behaviour. Modern life glorifies libertine lifestyles. There’s a tendency to think values are arbitrary especially when we come to the conclusion that the basis of our values are unlikely to be factual. Cultural norms are usually presented as imperatives- the word of God. But this move in the opposite direction is unnecessary. I mean doing the opposite of the dictates of traditional values. These values often seem to have an intrinsic logic to them which I think goes beyond our social environment. One such logic is symmetry. Let’s take for example, thou shall not steal. It is not obvious as a reasonable position until we consider the notion of symmetry. If you don’t steal from me, and I don’t steal from you, we can both build trust which can lead to further non-zero sum relationships. Also, we wouldn’t have to spend so much energy guarding what is ours when such a rule exists and is enforced. We wouldn’t be discouraged to do anything worthwhile in such an environment. When I talk about the symmetry of values I mean that they are mutually beneficial.
It is my belief that traditional values evolve from trial and error. They are given as imperatives when people in traditional societies converge to an accepted way of doing things. Now how exactly do they do this? Is it their elite who impose their will on the majority? I am not sure. I need to study the subject further. Another problem with this sort of enquiry is having a way of knowing when you are wrong, which isn’t easy. So I can be said to be speculating. Before I continue I would like to remind you of my topic- the good boy mentality. My thesis is that disorder for its own sake is often harmful. Now, I am trying to make the point that traditional values are usually reasonable, and that it makes sense to follow them. Having said that, I am not also saying that we should simply follow dictates because they are our culture or God said them. We cannot leave our responsibility for making rational decisions to anyone. Man does not become a living soul until he thinks for himself. This qualification is necessary because great evil has been done and can be done in the name of this is how we do things. This means we can’t have a conversation about them. We can’t examine them critically. So it is critical examination of values that I am after. I think going against traditional values can be dangerous. However it is important to go against any value which is harmful. An example is female genital mutilation. Only a lout will justify that. My point however is that going against traditional values isn’t necessarily sensible. Let us take an example in the commoditization of sex. These days you can hardly watch a movie without seeing people kissing or going naked. You will hardly find a song without sexual undertones. Undertones is an understatement! Sexual stimulation is the goal. But it is not obvious that going against the traditional value of chastity is sensible. Of course it is good that people can make productions without fear of getting censored. But sexual laxity is not an improvement on chastity.
Disregard for traditional values because their supposed origin is suspect is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is easy for us to see life as a debate. That everything on the other side is wrong. The fact that you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you cannot learn from him. The fact that traditional values aren’t set in stone or that some of them are downright harmful doesn’t mean they are nonsensical. The proper way to actually debate is to present your opponent’s perspective in its highest form. You admit to its strong points and concede your own weaknesses. In this way a critical analysis can be made.
We often take things for granted. For me, the reason why we should respect traditional values is one of gratitude. We come into this world with nothing, and we find ourselves in a society which works fine, if we are lucky. Even when the society isn’t working there is a sense in which we realize that things are not right. It isn’t obvious that we should realize this. We can compare our society to others. We see its flaws and feel disappointment. And that is a good thing. We should be grateful for our ability to make the contrast. Another reason why I tend to respect traditional values especially when they are not harmful is that I respect old people. The older something is the greater its tendency to be robust.
Now I am going to elaborate on why I think we should respect traditional values. Their themes have been running through the essay but I will try to state them explicitly. I think they are rational reasons so you wouldn’t need a great leap of faith to follow.
The first I have just stated. That traditional values are robust. If something has been around for a long time it is likely that it is there for a good reason and will likely continue to be around for a longer time. Of course it will continue to be around unless we interfere with it. Populations have survived with certain moral codes. We throw them away at our peril. It is wrong to think that what is rational is what you can explain. If something is not harmful but has survived for a long time it is better to leave it be. This reminds me of a story Nassim Taleb tells in one of his books about tonsillectomies. So at some point doctors didn’t see the use of tonsils and some people had the procedure which resulted in grave problems in the future. This story should make us humble in the face of phenomena we might not fully understand. This point might seem to be a naturalistic fallacy because in some way we will be deriving what ought to be from what is. But maybe not because we are examining values, not necessarily facts. Also, we often imitate people’s actual actions if they seem to us to work. However we can’t escape our responsibility to think for ourselves. It isn’t necessarily right to act in a certain way because that is how things were done in the past. The past is only a guide.
My second reason is a conjecture which I mentioned earlier in this essay. It is this. Traditional values are the unconscious resolution of ethical dilemmas through countless trial and error. It is my belief that this is the reason why we often act them out even when we come to the conclusion that their historical basis are false. A further speculation. We can imagine all human beings who ever lived to those of us living now- consider the time progression- as a single growing organism who wakes up one day and realizes that he is conscious. Like an adolescent who doesn’t remember his early childhood years. This could be how values evolved. So they make sense to us on some deep level and maybe difficult to explain. Let me give an example. Before my example I will like to deal with an issue. I haven’t said what I mean by traditional values. I have taken it for granted. I will sidestep this problem by equating it with Christian values. I accept that this equation is problematic. Going back to the example. Let’s take the Christian idea that all men are equal. This is irrespective of race, birth or gender. It is not an obvious idea. When you actually make the attempt to reason through it you realize that it is not impossible for someone to have the opposite view. How do you reason with someone who believes that men are not equal? I especially like the libertarian perspective on this. Denying others their humanity is denying your humanity too. That the ideal is to have laws you can be comfortable under if you are in the minority. However it will be difficult to reason with someone who sees others below him. They are cockroaches. It maybe difficult to explain to him that he might be the cockroach tomorrow. So such a simple idea that all men are equal may not be as easy as assumed to defend. You might think my point is a bit too abstract until you ask yourself what gave birth to the Nazis. To some extent we have to assume that the other person we are talking to agrees with our moral principles, or our conversation breaks down. Discussion seems pointless. Imagine having a discussion with someone who doesn’t believe in any sort of discourse with an opponent. You can’t have any discussion. My point is not to be amoral or to say that different values are equally justifiable. Some statements are value judgements. It is fair to consider all men equal. It is a belief that requires faith in the divinity of each human being. And it is not irrational. I am not going to explain why it is a rational position although I have made intimations about it here, because doing that might take too much space. My emphasis here is that traditional values like fairness are right even though we may practice it unconsciously. I would go on to even say that fairness is good even if it doesn’t make sense. What if you stand to lose by being fair, do you decide not to do the right thing? I will argue that it will be irrational in the short term. Being fair will however be rational in the long term. If you are a cheat you will likely be found out over time. Life is a reiterated long term game; it seems to me that playing the long term game will be the better strategy. I am uncomfortable with trying to make the argument about doing the right thing about self interest. I am not perfect but I believe that good is good. Treat people right even when you have no reason to. Just because it is the right thing. This is virtue for its own sake.
Before I close I would like to deal with what I think will be a reasonable objection against this essay. It is this. If one follows what I say one would follow the status quo. You would be right in a general sense because I believe that revolutions often create more problems and suffering that those they propose to solve. To emphasize how ridiculous my argument can be, I will like to illustrate with an example. Imagine you find yourself in a new environment. Say in front of an office building. You observe that everyone who enters the office building hops over what “appears” to be an obstacle, but you see no obstacle. If you follow my argument in this essay you will also hop. Isn’t this ridiculous? Of course it is. But we also need to consider the risk of harm. If it is not harmful why not jump too? Accepting the perspective in the aforementioned question will mean that you did not understand the spirit of the essay. My point is not to be foolishly obedient, but that we should ask questions, be critical and humble. Humility is key here because there are a lot of things we don’t know. So the right thing to do when faced with such a situation, here I abstract my illustration, where people are doing things that don’t make any sense to you is to ask them why they are doing it. You can then analyse the reasons they give. You might find out they perform such actions because they see others do it. You need to also take into consideration that people might not know why they do what they do. This will inform you on the right action to take.
Aside asking questions, another good thing one can do is to make piecemeal changes. Instead of walking through the invisible obstacle it would be better to try walking through it with a leg in order to see what happens. I admit that you might look more ridiculous than another who just jumps over the unseen obstacle. Looking uncool is the price we pay for humility. But in the long run we earn the price of not being wrong.
In the end, I am arguing for an open society.
I need to make a confession. Sometimes I go against convention for its own sake. I have walked out the entry section of supermarkets just to be stubborn. Other times going against convention is convenient. I have penchant for transporting load on my head. I find it easier to do this than to carry heavy load in my hands. But people find it ungentlemanly, and act surprised when they see me do it. I try not to care.
Thank you for reading.