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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

My Dad Is A Stoic

My Dad runs a soup kitchen out of his church, which serves the poor in the lower income area of his home town. Recently he was telling me about all of the different people that come through there. Included are several good people who are simply poor or can't care for themselves, etc. But there are also many drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and so on.

They often tell him their problems and seek his advice, but he never actively tries to reform them, or tells them they need to straighten up, or tries to encourage them to get a job, or any of that. He just gives out some coffee and doughnuts each morning. But apparently, this is improving the lives of these people and their neighborhood more than one would think.

One older lady tells my Dad about how she has to prepare things for her passing because she's about to have a hip surgery, and at her age surgeries are harder to come out of. My Dad says, "Yeah, that's good that you're preparing for that. At your age that surgery could be it." Expecting words of encouragement, the lady is taken aback. But his calm and light attitude about the whole thing seems to shift her perspective abruptly and they are soon laughing.

Another lady is complaining about how her grown son always takes advantage of her, and how she has to do everything for him. My Dad says, "If you've been doing that all these years he's not ever going to change, and you're not willing to change, so what good does complaining about it do? Just accept it." She hasn't complained since, and more importantly, it has freed up her mind to focus on more important or productive things.

One man has recently had a heart attack, and according to his wife, had been sitting at home doing nothing, waiting to die and certain that all is hopeless. My Dad eventually gets a chance to speak with him and the man moans, "I'll probably get hit with another attack. I could go at any time - it's all pointless." My nods and says, "Yep, you really could go at any time. I felt the same way after my heart attack. But you know, eventually all that sitting around got old. I figured, well dying or not, I've gotta get up and go do something because this is just boring." A few days later the man came into the church and looked brighter, "Well I'm up and around." he told my Dad, "You were right, that sitting around got really boring."

My Dad started out serving everyone in there, cutting cakes and pouring coffee. One man was deeply depressed, had attempted suicide in the past, and said that he felt he had no reason to live. My Dad listened calmly while he worked, only appearing to be offering half his attention. He said, "uh-huh... Say, could you hand me that cup over there?" The man handed him the cup and continued his depressed rant. My Dad, with his hands full, again interrupted, "Could you pour this for those guys over there while I get this food?" Before long, the man was working the room. At the end of the day, my Dad asked if he could help some more. Before long, the man seemed to have something to live for and enjoyed helping the others. Now he is an important part of the soup kitchen and the church and seems much happier.

That's happened with many of the folks that have come in. Where my Dad used to serve everyone, he doesn't do any of the serving anymore. Now the homeless and poor are pouring drinks and serving each other. As a result they are also getting to know one another. Where lone figures once walked up and down the streets of that part of town fearing one another, they now wave. It appears the neighborhood is becoming a friendlier place than it had been. And, with simple listening and the mere example of the right attitude, many of these people are now working to improve their lives.

My Dad has never read much philosophy and didn't know what Stoicism is, but I said to him, "You know, you're a Stoic." I told him that stoics were careful to divide that which they cannot control from that which they can. They knew it was pointless to fret about things they can't control and instead found ways to deal with those things, accept them, and move on.

My Dad knows that these people don't want someone trying to lecture them so he mainly just listens and reacts. Without knowing it, he has managed to spread a little stoic philosophy in one of the last places one would expect to find it, and the results seem quite positive.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


The things some people will try. It's unfortunate that scams work on some poor people, but one telephone scammer made the mistake of calling my brother, who relishes confrontation. I'll try to recount, as best I can remember, how my brother described the call to me...


Brother: (answers) Hello.

Dude: (in very thick Indian accent) Hello, this is Joseph Smith with the United Bank of America (or whatever bank my brother uses - I forget).

Brother: Smith?? Your last name is Smith? I doubt that.

Dude: Yes, I know, it is a common name but it is indeed my name, Sir. It seems we are having questions about your account and I need you to give me your account number so I can verify it is you before we proceed.

Brother: I'm not giving you my account number.

Dude: But you must tell me your account number so we may verify it is you.

Brother: I don't even have a way of knowing if you are really the bank.

Dude: Ok, here is what we can do.

Brother: Ok. (waits)

Dude: Get out your checkbook.

Brother: Ok. (gets out the checkbook)

Dude: The first part of your account number is (gives the first few numbers, and then a few more very quickly and difficult to hear). Now, you tell me the rest.

Brother: That's the part that just identifies the bank - anyone could get that number. I don't think this is the bank, and by the way, I can hear the office sounds in the background have looped! You're not even really in an office!

Dude: Umm, yes, Sir. There are... people... all around me.

Brother: Then let me talk to them. I want to talk to your manager!

Dude: Umm... hold on one moment.

(Some time passes. A person with a thick Indian accent, trying to make it sound more English and deeper comes on the phone)

Dude: Yes, this is Michael Jacobson, the manager.

Brother: This isn't Michael Jacobson - this is Joseph Smith! And you're not even Joseph Smith!!

(The dude hangs up)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Merry Consumas

I only recently discovered when my wife informed me, that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reigndeer was an invention of Montgomery Wards as a promotion back in 1939. It's amazing to me that something so commercial could become an ingrained part of our culture, especially in such a short period of time. This really ties into two thoughts, one of which concerns the ability of corporations to shape culture (which I'll save for a future post) and the other I'll mention now since it's more relative to the holiday season...

This only underscores how commercial Christmas has become. And, really, all of the winter Holyoke are being brought along with it (Hanukkah, Quanza, winter solstice, etc.). Many people seem to be feeling this of late. One Christian group in Australia has turned to calling what most celebrate during this time of the year as "Consumas" and I'm inclined to agree with the label.

But then we are all torn by two influences to the opposite. One, we don't want to seem like grinches and not get others gifts, and two we like to get gifts.

What I would prefer to see is a holiday where people give one gift to those close to them, and that gift be something that they created themselves - something they couldn't simply buy. Unfortunately I didn't plan far enough in advance this year, but maybe I'll try that next year (which brings up another issue about our busy lifestyles and how that encourages simple purchases over gift-making).

In addition, I would think it better to emphasize to children the giving rather than the getting in children. Instead of asking a child, "what do you want for Christmas?", how about asking them, "What are you going to give others for Christmas?" Seems to me that children should be taught to create something special for others, and not to expect more than they give. Maybe even having them donate some of their older toys to more needy children would be a good lesson. I've heard of parents that do things like this and it seems a great idea.

But then there's another thing holding us back from these more noble thoughts about the season, and that's the fact that many of us enjoyed the tradition of Consumas as kids. It seems somehow wrong, or at least hypocritical, to say that about kids today when we remember being surrounded by consumer goods on our Christmases.

So then we remain torn between wanting a more genuine holiday and the greed, tradition, and guilt of the consumer rat wheel. There's another thing working against us too, and that is the many companies that want us on that wheel. They've got millions, if not billions, to spend on public marketing campaigns, which have tremendous influence to establish what the "normal" perspective on things is. But that's an issue for another post!

In the meantime, here's wishing everyone a happy Consumas, and hopefully a little something more :)

Rudolf origin:


Friday, December 10, 2004

Poor Kitty

My wife just showed me her new textbook for her next class in Quantum Mechanics. She said, "Look, it's got a kitty on it!" and it had a cartoon drawing of a cat on the cover. She turned it over on the other side and said, "And on this side he's sleeping."

I asked what a cat has to do with Quantum Mechanics, and immediately after asking I remembered Schrödinger's thought experiment. This is a famous thought experiment concerning quantum mechanics in which a cat could simultaneously be considered both dead and alive (it's a long story). Anyway, realizing the connection to the experiment, I pointed out that the cat on the back must be dead and not sleeping.

Never tell your wife a picture of an immobile cat is dead and not sleeping.

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Virtual Virtue: Your Online Self

The internet is one place where you can find someone willing to say just about anything. In a way, that has lead to a flood of some of the most frank information one could ever get (which can be a good thing). But log on to just about any forum or chat room that isn't strictly moderated and you'll find some of the worst vitriol out there - generally far worse than anything you'd see exchanged between people face to face.

No harm no foul right? After all, it's much easier for people to be direct and up front when they don't have a real identity and, perhaps more importantly, when the other person can't punch you in the face!

I have been posting on this forum or that for several years now, and after a time I noticed myself behaving this way. Actually, it was other people's reaction to me that I noticed. I would post something, fairly straightforward and not meaning to be overtly hostile. But then I'd be taken aback by the response: as if I were just this incredible jerk. "Strange" I thought. No one has ever thought of me as a bad person in my real life, and I generally get along with people very well. Then I thought that maybe this jerk on the forum isn't thought of as a jerk by his friends and family either. What's going on?

So I started to really think about what I was saying, and how I was saying it when I would post online. I found that I had indeed become something I wasn't in real life, and I didn't like that person much. After a nasty exchange with another person I would think, "Well, no big deal. I don't even know that person and will never have to interact with them again." But after finding myself dwelling on it repeatedly for an entire evening I had to start wondering if maybe it was a big deal.

Whenever we respond to something we disagree with online, it is so easy to snap back with an overt harshness that we would never use in real life. It's also easy to forget that there's another person on the other end of that computer. As moral agents, it is our responsibility to spread good in the world, and that includes through the internet. Furthermore, what good is accomplished by angering someone you disagree with? Will this make them listen to your point?

So I began to ask myself, "What if I decided to be more civil and considerate in my virtual life?" What if I treated others like I would a friend or family online? What if in debates I tried to be as sensitive as possible to the concerns and ego of the other poster/chatter? What if I took special care that I didn't hurt feelings or make people feel stupid in the wording of my responses?

I was thrilled with the results. It took a surprisingly short time to begin to reach a real understanding with others online, and for them to begin listening to me because they trusted me to be fair and reasonable. Posters that started off seeming like jerks changed their tune and became reasonable people. The debates themselves took on a whole new life and real communication was achieved - even where we didn't end up convincing one another. And best of all, I didn't walk away from the computer full of stress and trying to convince myself that I didn't care. Instead I walked away with a feeling of contentment.

That's when I decided that from then on, I was going to try and behave in such a way online, that I would feel completely comfortable meeting anyone I interacted with in real life. No longer would I make easy jabs from behind a digital mask. I still have to work at it sometimes because falling back into that knee jerk reaction to people is awfully easy. But the benefits of good online compassion show yet again how virtue is its own reward, even in a world with no physical retribution or consequences.

If you find your avatar surrounded by a bunch of virtual jerks, try leading by example. If you try it, I think you may find your virtual life much more fulfilling.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Unwarranted Compassion

Yesterday I stopped to get some gas and went inside the shop to get a newspaper. The lady behind the counter seemed flustered, rung me up, and then went on about doing something else.

Normally, I would have left thinking, "No 'have a nice day', no 'thank you', nothing. I'm not here for her, she's here for me! But that's the state of service these days - bad!" and I would have been right. I'm a big advocate of consumers demanding good service for their money.

But, for some reason, I didn't think that this time. Instead, I wondered if maybe there had recently been some tragedy in her life, or if she was stuck in a job she hated, or if she was just having a bad day. Of course, none of that would be an excuse to not do a good job and treat the customers nicely.

But, as I left the shop, I turned to her with a smile and said, "Have a nice day" - and not the sarcastic "have a nice day" that you might say if you were trying to remind the clerk that she should have said it.

She looked up with a smile (a real smile, not the "it's my job to smile" kind), somewhat surprised, and just seemed just a little shy about it. Maybe that brightened her mood, I don't know. But for a moment she was happy and I left the shop feeling good instead of angry.

That's the nature of mercy. It's never deserved, but it's often necessary. Since none of us deserve compassion all the time, and since the lack of compassion breeds bitterness, then we can't simply operate by the standard that compassion will always be handed out only when it is deserved. This would lead to a downward spiral where, eventually, there'd be no compassion left - that's simple math. And the best part is, the giver of compassion is often benefited for having shown it - even, in some cases, when it's not deserved.

Monday, November 29, 2004

A Cheating Gene?

Last Wednesday Reuters news agency reported a study on female infidelity(1), which was referenced in a CNN story this morning. According to the study, conducted by St. Thomas' Hospital in London, about 40% of the influence on infidelity and number of sex partners is due to genetics. In the study, they compared identical to non-identical twins, presumably to filter for upbringing and other environmental causes.

But what does this mean? Does it mean that cheaters "can't help it" because they are a slave to their genetic programming? I don't think so, although it is unfortunate that a lot of folks will get this impression by reading about this study.

What I find interesting here was that the study indicated that genetics did not influence the subjects' attitudes about infidelity - which means that some of them tended to cheat even when they thought it was wrong. When we take that fact, along with the fact that the number of sex partners is also tied in, it appears that what's actually being measured here is sex drive. It would stand to reason, then, that there would be a higher incidence of infidelity among those with higher sexual drives.

There is no doubt that it is more difficult for a person with a high sex drive to remain faithful when tempted than it is for a person with a low sex drive. But this is no different than any number of other matters we face day to day. Some people may have a high appetite while others may have a bad temper. We all face our own level of strengths and weaknesses, but it is incumbent upon each of us to resist those urges when they encourage us to be unethical. Regardless of our urges, we must each be held responsible for our own actions and expected to live up to our commitments. And, aside from psychologically damaged or deranged people, it is possible for anyone.

As science continues to understand more and more about human biology, we will no doubt be able to spell out in fine detail every explanation for nearly every action. But who ever said that responsibility only counts when our inner workings are a mystery? What we should keep in mind is this: explanation is not excuse. So, sorry, but genetics aren't a free ticket to do evil.

1. Reference:

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Dating, Relationships, and Virtue

I can't tell you how many people I've known who get into one bad relationship after another. And, of course, we've all heard of the people who keep getting lied to, cheated on, or worse. When one hears them discuss their problems, it seems to me there is a common thread connecting them.

One problem that seems consistent in all of these cases is that they don't seem to be screening their dating partners for virtue. They'll screen for looks, money, common interests, sense of humor, and so on - but never consider their integrity, honesty, or other such traits.

Part of this comes from a prevailing mythos that seems to have been building in this country (the United States) for some time now. That mythos suggests that there are "no bad people - just bad choices." It also paints any sort of discernment as "judgmentalism" which is allegedly to be avoided at all costs. Apart from the fact that this mythos is extremely harmful to ethics and society in general, it also makes for bad relationships.

For instance, it's quite common to find people dating someone who is married. They'll think that this is okay because they themselves aren't married. Never does it occur to them that if this person is cheating on their current spouse, that they may cheat on them someday. Note that I'm not talking about the sort of relationships where a person may be married but separated, or where there are understandings between marriage partners. I'm talking specifically about cases where there is deception.

Instead, the focus is on the immediate circumstances only. They think, "well that spouse of there's is just bad" or "things aren't working out between them." So the fantasy continues that since they will be a good partner and things will work out with their relationship, that there should be no reason for cheating right? Wrong. Such folks are paying no attention to the nature of the character of the person they are seeing. If that person thinks that it's okay to cheat when one has sufficient impetus to do so, then there will be nothing stopping them from cheating with you.

And believe me - the impetus will come someday - it is inevitable. That is, unless you truly think that you are objectively the most beautiful person in the universe. On a planet of billions, it is guaranteed your spouse will run into many he or she finds attractive. It is also guaranteed that, in the normal course of highs and lows, any long term relationship will reach points where things are tough. And when those conditions pass by, someone with an outlook that cheating is permissible will cheat if given the opportunity. It has nothing to do with you or the relationship - it has to do with your partner's character and his or her outlook on relationships.

And this is not just about cheating. It has to do with trustworthiness and integrity in all matters, from birth control, to finances, to a willingness to compromise over differences, and more. This is why, if you want a good relationship, you simply must screen your dating partners for virtue. Observe them over time. What do they say? What do they do? Try to get a sense of what sort of ethos they live by (if any). Are they just following their desires wherever these impulses take them, like a dog, or do they have some sort of principles they live by? And observe - don't ask them because they will always tell you they have principles. What counts is if they walk the walk.

Of course, sometimes people simply aren't compatible and they end up going their separate ways, so there are still issues of common interests and compatibility. But if you start with principled people, then you can be more certain that, however the relationship works out, you will be treated fairly and considerately.

Fortification Exercise

I have just added the "Fortification Exercise" to the Primary Virtues homepage at

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Some Thanksgiving Cooking Enlightenment

Although Thanksgiving has a religious significance to a lot of people, it's also a good time to thank those around us, as well as to take time to appreciate the good things about our lives.

Now, usually my wife does the cooking. Not out of tradition or gender roles, but mainly because I can't make much of anything, except for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich - that, and the fact that I hate cooking.

When I was single I lived in an apartment for two years and my friend was helping me move out. As we were leaving he opened my oven to make sure I had cleaned it, so as to avoid a penalty on my deposit. He started laughing when he saw that, not only was the oven spotless, but the instruction manual was still inside. Later I was dealing with the manager to get my deposit back. I had a cat and the carpet was in bad shape so she had considered deducting for that, but she actually mentioned, "But the kitchen appliances were the cleanest I've seen so that counts for something."

After I was married and in a new place, there was also the time I tried to heat up a frozen pizza in the oven. Same pizza, same process my wife had always used - but somehow it transmogrified in the oven and didn't even behave the way that material should. That's what my wife said and she's a physicist, but I digress.

Anyway, this Thanksgiving I decided to make my first pie ever (actually a chocolate cheesecake, though not really a cake). It would be to signify my thankfulness for her cooking and everything else she does. I think I learned something about the appeal of cooking today.

One of the reasons I've never liked cooking is because it seems so inexact. What the heck is a pinch, and just how many smidgens are in a pinch? But you know how the appeal of riding a roller coaster comes from the feeling that you may suffer massive bodily injury - that at any moment you could be flung out, smashed against a support beam, and torn asunder? I think that somehow must relate to the thrill some people get out of cooking. It seems that at any moment, things could spiral out of control and your kitchen and all of your ingredients could be ruined. So there's a rollercoaster/mountain climbing sort of thrill to it I suppose. At least that's the feeling I get from cooking.

But all worked out for the best. After it was over I realized it couldn't have been too bad, even if it was just a big lump of goo. After all, every single ingredient was something that tasted good on its own (sugar, cheesecake, crust, chocolate), so how can you go wrong with that?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Summary of the Primary Virtues

Last time I gave an introduction to the Primary Virtues. With this post, I'll summarize what they are and how they relate to one another...

These three virtues form the complete system of action for the virtuous person - from priority, to plan, to execution. Like the primary colors, these virtues are the basis of all other virtues and are not themselves made up of any others. Secondary virtues are derived from combinations of the primaries. “Shades” of the primaries form sub-categories. Because virtue is synonymous with wisdom, the three primary virtues together form Wisdom.


In the virtuous person, compassion forms the basis of all moral action and there can be no higher priority. Compassion establishes priorities, it is the ultimate motivation for the virtuous person, and creates the impetus for thought and action. Its shades include, but are not limited to:

· Love for self (self respect)

· Love of life (sense of wonder, adventure, and learning)

· Love for life (valuing all life in the universe)

· Love for fellow human beings (from those close, to whole human family)

· Empathy (ability to feel other’s pains and joys)


Reason provides the basis for facts and the plan of action. It sets the procedures for realizing Compassion’s priorities. While the virtuous person may frolic, he or she is not a slave to his/her passions. Reason (acting to further the causes of compassion) must always remain the master of the virtuous person’s actions. Its shades include:

· Truth/Honesty

· Critical Thinking

· Knowledge

· Objectivity

· Healthy Skepticism


Discipline is putting Reason’s plan to action and seeing it through. It forms the execution of the course that Compassion commands and Reason plots. It provides the control to keep the virtuous person on course, despite a wave of distracting influences and temptations. Its shades include:

· Fortitude (stick-to-it-tiveness)

· Commitment/Loyalty

· Courage

· Temperance (moderation)

· Tolerance/Patience

Secondary Virtues:

Not named as such in order to suggest lesser importance, the Secondary Virtues are merely those which are made up mainly of combinations of the primary virtues. So, the term refers not to importance but to composition. The secondary virtues by far outnumber the primary virtues - there are as many as there are colors. They would include such virtues as the following, for example:

· Justice (Compassion + Reason)

· Humility (Compassion + Discipline)

· Industry (Reason + Discipline)


Many may question why so many extremely important values are relegated to “secondary” status. In simplifying the virtues, it was important that the primaries be so universal as to not have exceptions. Truth, for example, is crucial to moral character. Nevertheless, it has exceptions. There are times when it is necessary to forego truth (lie) in order to protect an innocent, for example. This indicates that there is a higher, overriding (and perhaps more “pure”) ethic upon which this moral decision is made. Compassion has no exception, although there may be times when a greater cause of Compassion overrides another. Reason also has no exception. While it is fine to be foolish for fun, this must always be within Reason. Frolic and emotion form the “spice” of life but may never exceed reasonable boundaries (endangering people or causing harm or irresponsibility). Discipline also has no exception. While some instances do not call for a great degree of Discipline, there is never a case where lack of Discipline is required or considered a virtue.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Primary Virtues are not a psychological model of human behavior. They do not attempt to outline the system of action by which human beings function. In that regard they would be incomplete. Instead, the system outlined by the Primary Virtues is a system of action we might follow if we are attempting to live and act virtuously. We can ask ourselves, "Is my motivation compassionate? Is it reasonable?" Many times we have our hearts in the right place, and our Reason is sound, but we lack the discipline to do what we know needs to be done. This is the sort of model we can refer to as a guide in such matters.

In future installments of Virtuous Living, I will address relevant personal and social issues as seen from this perspective. I will also continue to develope the Primary Virtues into a more full system. However, there is a lot more to the system currently, which is available on the Primary Virtues website at and it includes such topics such as:

• Are the Primary Virtues Compatible With Your Beliefs?

• More detail on each of the Primaries

• The Motivation for Virtue

• Improving our Virtue

• Teaching Virtue

• Virtue Exercises & Techniques

I will keep a link to this site for future reference in the sidebar. Thanks for reading!

Introdcution to the Primary Virtues

The Primary Virtues are a virtue system designed to help conceptualize the relationship of various virtues to one another. They are one way of looking at virtues - not "the" way. Nor are the Primary Virtues necessarily "better" or "worse" than other ways of thinking about virtue. But they may be helpful in guiding one wishing to lead a virtuous life.

This is because the Primary Virtues are more than merely a detached list of different virtues. Instead, the Primary Virtues are arranged into a "system" of action, which begins with the moral basis of virtue, then expands to the means by which we achieve those ends, and concludes with the virtues needed to follow through. The system could be thought of as an embodiment of the heart, mind, and hand.

Furthermore, the Primary Virtues are designed to be compatible with nearly any belief system, worldview, or religion. Using the Primary Virtues in one's life does not preclude one's personal beliefs about the supernatural, the afterlife, or God. The Primary Virtues also do not require one to "add to" or alter their current religious beliefs. No doubt, religious people will find many references in their own belief systems as they are, which already support and promote these very virtues because truth is universal. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Humanist, Atheist, or any other belief, one will find that the Primary Virtues are a helpful tool for remembering virtues and approaching them in this life, as all human being should.

Virtuous Living will generally be a series of entries on everyday life issues, both personal and world issues, but many of the first entries will cover some of the basis of the approach taken on these things. At the same time, Virtuous Living will be a sort of journal as I explore ways of fleshing out the Primary Virtues into a more complete system.

Next time - "Summary of the Primary Virtues"

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


As of right now, I am planning on posting a journal-style entry once per week (usually Mondays). Comments are welcome.