The Meaning of Doing the Right Thing

This morning’s random reading over coffee brought together two articles under one theme.  The first was Maria Popova’s “The Day Dostoyevsky Discovered the Meaning of Life in a Dream.”  Immediately upon absorbing that piece I opened “The Right Right Thing to Do” by Irene McMullin.

The Meaning of Life

Dostoevsky didn’t allege that he personally discovered the meaning of life in a dream.  He wrote a story in which the protagonist did, however: “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”  (Translations from Russian lead to some peculiar word combinations.  The title was originally rendered as “The Dream of a Queer Fellow.”)

The man in the story, regarding himself worthy of ridicule, was given to dark brooding — an undercurrent that runs through most of Dostoevsky’s work.  But, from my experience with the author, his stories and novels regularly lead to some resolution, sometimes an Aha! moment for the leading character, sometimes even a joyful discovery.

I’ll let Maria Popova describe both the story and the redemption that it offers, as you read her article in detail.  In his gloom, the man realizes in a dream that life means being kind and looking out for others, for someone in need, especially a complete stranger in dire distress — (in the story he did not respond to an eight-year-old girl’s entreaty for urgent assistance) — and his duty in general is to improve the one human unit over which he has control: himself.

In this story, Dostoevsky omits endorsing a spiritual connection with God, although in his other works that too is an acknowledged virtue.

Doing The Right Right Thing

Irene McMullin, from her position as a professor of philosophy at Essex University in the United Kingdom, explains why it sometimes seems as though you can’t decide between two or more right things to do.

We often think that we are choosing between right and wrong and that choosing a more selfish, if completely moral, action — a self-indulgent action — is somehow automatically wrong.

Prof. McMullin points out that the many things which tug at us align with the first, second, and third person perspectives in our language: I, you, and they.  I can do something for myself or something for you (an individual I’m personally acquainted with), or I can do something for the benefit of everyone in general (they), which includes you and me.

“They,” however, can be thought of as a crowd of individuals each with the right of free choice and expression or as a single body for which I might sacrifice under the fuzzy concept of “the greater good.”

With limited time each day, we continually choose to do things according to the requests or demands that each of these three “groups” make on us.  And how we choose risks disappointing one or the other.  I disappoint myself when, at the end of the day, I am still yearning to do something for me but didn’t have the time because I was doing something for you or for the world.

In her article, Irene McMullin also acknowledges that we are tempted at times to do something morally wrong.  She doesn’t go into detail with it.  And she omits the situation that arises when I come face to face with a threat, the temptation to resist a challenge or attack, the discovery of a theft or affront that angers me, and other circumstances that divert my attention from doing the right right thing.

This article also omits mention of doing the right thing not just because it’s morally desirable but because, for some of us, there is a higher calling.  Some of us regard ourselves as agents of God, and it is that calling that motivates our choice of the right right thing from moment to moment.

So this is how my day began.

=David A. Woodbury=

Quality of Life

James Michener published a slim volume in 1970, The Quality of Life. He wrote, however, of matters that affected people in general, America specifically, and all of us according to groups or group identities, or as Eric Hoffer characterized us: the masses.

Michener is a splendid novelist and one of my all-time favorites. In The Quality of Life he was sounding the alarm, and much of what troubled him then has come to pass. It is now, in its way, a depressing book.

Significantly, we did not heed his alarm, or enough of us did not, anyway, that we could exert any effect on the future. (I was an adult when it was published, and I read it soon thereafter.)

We are all concerned in one way or another for the plight of others, the course of history, the fate of humans everywhere. But daily and locally we must be concerned not so much for the masses but for ourselves, individually. A generation ago we were exhorted to “think globally, act locally.”

If a person is not comfortable as an individual, fulfilled, content, and hopeful, then he is unlikely to have a positive effect on any larger group: his family, neighbors, community, nation, or the world. I have, perhaps selfishly, sought to assure that I, the individual, am indeed comfortable from day to day, fulfilled in my personal pursuits, content with my lot, and optimistic. And yet, were I not so selfishly occupied — were my personal needs not being met, my effect on those around me might have been very unpleasant for all.

I am not at all concerned that there’ll be a shortage of work. There will be plenty of things for people to do. The problem is, they may be things that we don’t want to pay much money for.”

David Siegel in Bloomberg

Bloomberg published an article 12 January 2021 reporting on interviews with three financial industry executives to learn their concerns for the future, meaning what worries them most.

Is it pestilence and pandemics? Asteroids? Global warming? Warfare and famine?

No. One focused on risks in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The other two discussed concerns for the future of the human condition. The comment that stood out to me is quoted above.

One almost can’t be quoted in Bloomberg without acknowledging the chasm between the rich and the poor. Two of the three acknowledged that perennial blot on humanity. One of the three was concerned about high unemployment or under-employment and wide-ranging social unrest. The third, quoted above, had a more esoteric concern that what will be left for humans to do, to support themselves, may be tedious and unstimulating.

This latter expert’s concern assumes performing menial labor in exchange for a minimum-but-perpetually-inadequate wage will be the norm.

In his own words: What we’re doing today is finding more and more ways to essentially reduce the need to have humans involved with work. So much of the investment in business in America is to essentially automate away human labor or, even more curiously, to devalue human labor. -David Siegel

The Human Condition

It strikes me that all three financial executives, the “experts,” barely acknowledge the rest of the world. Their careers are in America’s financial dominance of world affairs. I am aware that there are more than mere pockets of humanity but whole nations — and I have reached such places in my travels — where people live no differently than their ancestors did a thousand years ago, but for the addition of T-shirts bearing commercial slogans and the presence of corrugated galvanized sheet metal for roofing.

Humans have withstood some horrible conditions, by modern American standards, and perhaps half the people in the world still do. If the conditions arise that the three financial executives in Bloombergs interviews worry about, modern Americans will be ill-equipped, mentally and physically, to adapt. But their children will and, better still, their grandchildren will. Because they can, and once they know no better, they will.

We can be poor again.

I have pre-adolescent grandchildren. They are too young to announce career choices yet. Indeed, I hope they are steered away from the notion that they must choose specific careers but that they might, instead, choose a way of life.

In my youth I fell in with Albert Jay Nock’s notion that one attends an institution of higher learning for one’s own edification — for tutelage under the best people, the real experts, in their fields of science or the arts, for instance. I earned a college degree in a “subject” which fascinated me before I enrolled in the program and about which I previously knew nearly nothing. What I would do “for a living” afterward didn’t really concern me. I was more concerned with where I might make my home than what I would do for a living once I settled down. (My college advisor called me an anachronism.)

I plan to use my influence with my grandchildren to counsel them similarly. If one decides to become a medical professional, for instance, well, then, that profession can be pursued almost anywhere. (I suspect that, in the future, it won’t be such a lucrative calling, though.)

I hope that my grandchildren will choose a way of life over a profession, though. And in choosing a way of life, one now faces a fundamental dichotomy: urban versus rural. If they attend college for job training instead of for edification, I hope they choose to be trained in a job that fits with each one’s chosen way of life and chosen environment.

As for me, I have been lured by open space, drawn close to the earth, pulled farther from the conveniences of urban congestion and its attending surfeit of human proximity. Were it not for the life I have led, I could more readily have spent my days nurturing monocotyledonous crops than navigating the vagaries of corporate federal compliance or the challenges of serving customers’ inscrutable preferences in mid-morning snacks, e.g., in a metropolitan coffee shop.

Quality of life, to me — and perhaps to many others, should they think about it — has been determined not by career, social status, entertainment, or excitement, but by family, peaceful surroundings, and meaningful after-work occupations to balance the stress and boredom in the job that brings home a biweekly payroll deposit.

It behooves a person, too, to recognize as early in life as possible that one is not going to be famous, rich, influential, beautiful, or long remembered. Expecting any of that leads to disappointment, stress, heartache, and poverty in spirit if not also in possessions. Those who have understood this and written well about it include Helen and Scott Nearing, Eric Hoffer, and E.F. Schumacher.

Caring for oneself and demanding no more of the world than one contributes to it is a theme in my novel, Cold Morning Shadow. As for the children: They have a choice. We need to make them aware that they do.

=David A. Woodbury=

Four Little Words

February 24, 2018

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education on FEE.org. Use this link to see the original article. It is pertinent as we cross over into 2021 because the new administration in the White House will have much to say about guns.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in a public school, a host of familiar recommendations have resurfaced about how to “prevent this from ever happening again.” Predictably, both conservatives and liberals are looking to the government for a solution. Americans have somehow arrived at a point where they cannot conceive of human action that is not either prohibited, mandated, or, at the very least, centrally planned.

The first problem is the goal. It is absurdly unrealistic to believe any set of rules is going to prevent anything from “ever happening again.” If you doubt that, I invite you to examine the war on drugs. Many decades ago, politicians decided American citizens taking heroin was never going to happen again. They banned that drug completely. You aren’t allowed to possess or sell it under any circumstances. Not after a background check. Not with a doctor’s prescription. Not at all.

Today, that drug is at the center of what the same government calls an opioid “epidemic.” Epidemic. So much for heroin overdoses “never happening again.”

Yet, despite this evidence, liberals still suggest what they’ve always suggested: further restrictions on gun ownership. A good portion of them believes that only government employees charged with national defense or public safety should be allowed to carry guns. Ban them completely for the civilian population, they say, and mass shooters won’t be able to obtain them.

You know, just like drugs.

The conservative answer to liberal prohibition (oxymoron?) is to “arm and train the teachers.” While no one has come out and suggested mandating teachers carry firearms or be trained in using them, every suggestion seems to suggest “we” (i.e., the government) need to do the arming and training.

Here’s a little newsflash for both sides: the teachers are already armed.

No, not every teacher carries firearms and perhaps not as high a percentage of teachers do so as the percentage of the general population that carries. But there are over three million teachers in public schools and some percentage of them have concealed carry permits. It would be unlikely that there aren’t at least some members of every faculty in America that have a concealed carry permit.

It’s not a matter of arming teachers, but rather to cease disarming them when they report to work.

To the extent conservatives acknowledge this option at all, they seem trapped in the same box as liberals in feeling the need to point out there are teachers who are also retired military, in the reserves, or former law enforcement officers. That’s probably true. But there are also tens of millions of Americans, and likely tens of thousands of teachers, who both own firearms and never served in the military or police.

An armed civilian population constitutes that “well-regulated militia” the 2nd Amendment refers to. What makes a militia a militia is the members not being part of the regular army.

I’ve often said the greatest danger to liberty is not a foreign army, terrorists, or even a homegrown tyrant. It is four little words. And they aren’t, “Up against the wall!” That comes later.

They are, “Something must be done.”

Instead of the government “doing something” about mass shootings, it should stop doing something. It should stop prohibiting teachers from carrying into school the same firearms they are licensed and trusted to carry in most other places. It is the path of least resistance to providing realistic protection for schoolchildren. It requires no one to do anything they aren’t already doing.

No, this will not ensure that mass shootings “never happen again.” Nothing will. And not every teacher with a firearm, confronted with the pressure of an active shooter situation, will calmly dispatch the shooter. But as we saw in Parkland, FL, neither will every trained police officer.

Broward County Sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson was assigned to the school as a resource officer and was on the school grounds during the entire incident. He heard the shooting inside the school, but videos show he remained outside for four minutes during the six-minute mass shooting, which claimed seventeen lives.

Peterson wasn’t alone. Three other armed law enforcement officers were on the scene and failed to enter the school before backup arrived.

This wasn’t the only government failure in this case. Local police had been called to Nikolas Cruz’s home thirty-nine times over the past seven years, according to documents obtained by CNN. Members of the family he lived with after his mother’s death report he routinely introduced himself as “a school shooter.”

It wasn’t just local police who dropped the ball on Cruz. The FBI was warned multiple times about Cruz, including by “an unidentified woman close to Cruz” who called the FBI a month before the incident, warning of her fears he would “get into a school and just shoot the place up.” The FBI was also called in September 2017 by a video blogger who said a user named “nikolas cruz” had posted a comment on one of his videos, saying, “I”m going to be a professional school shooter.”

Hopefully, this will inspire more than mere outrage at government incompetence. Americans should take a long, hard look at how much of what should be personal and private they have allowed government to become involved in and how badly it has failed them. And if government can’t run education or health care, it certainly shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as the defense of one’s own life.

Thomas Paine began his pamphlet, Common Sense, widely credited with convincing a critical mass of colonists to support American independence, by making a crucial distinction:

“SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.” He went on to say, “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

It’s time Americans remembered the miracles possible within that blessing called society and the limitations of an institution based on nothing more than consolidated brute force. Mass shootings are horrible situations under any circumstances, but they may be rendered less horrible if the victims have options other than to call the government and wait.

States that haven’t already should repeal any laws necessary to give the right and the responsibility for self-defense back to teachers and other school employees. Allowing them the option to carry firearms will both act as a deterrent to future shooters and give teachers a reasonable chance to defend their students and themselves the next time the need arises.

The government has had its chance. It has failed. It’s time to try a little freedom.

Tom Mullen
Tom Mullen

Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? and A Return to Common  Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America. For more information and more of Tom’s writing, visit www.tommullen.net.

Henry George

An email message from Poland, received February 4, spurred some research on my part. My correspondent, Dr. Olgierd Górecki, a faculty member at the University of Łódź, Departament of Law and Administration, had discovered this site dedicated to A. J. Nock and was writing to ask for help in locating a copy of Nock’s book-length essay, Henry George.

Dr. Górecki wrote that in 2013 he had published a book about Herbert Spencer’s political thought and now he is writing his next book dedicated to Albert Jay Nock.

I don’t own a copy of Henry George, and it took me a few days to begin digging. (I was just completing the publication of my own most recent book, Cold Morning Shadow.) Today I began searching the internet in earnest for Dr. Górecki, and I was able to locate:

  • two original copies of the 1939 book on Amazon for $135 each
  • an intriguing site, which I will explore more fully, which includes, among other things, the complete text of Nock’s short book, Henry George
  • a site with a the complete text of Henry George by Albert Jay Nock in PDF

Naturally, I refer readers of this site to either the second or third options above.

I replied to Dr. Górecki’s email with all three of these leads and a copy of the PDF files containing the complete text. I was pleased with this encounter because it is refreshing to know that someone, somewhere (Poland!) is still examining and reporting on the work of Nock.

=David A. Woodbury=