Yo Don’t Have To be Selfless In a Crisis- Just Be Useful

Want to help your neighbors during the COVID-2019 coronavirus pandemic?

You don’t necessarily have to do it for free. Some of the most useful people will be people who are doing remunerative work.

There are nurses and doctors, yes. But there are also sanitation workers, engineers, truck drivers, electricians, farmers, mechanics, and countless others who in the course of doing their jobs will be helping out. Even Instacart delivery-persons will be performing a vital service for people isolated at home.

People like this guy will be making your comfortable quarantine – or your long, slow recovery from illness – possible:

These people aren’t “selfless.” They’re making money AND they’re providing value to address human needs. We should all hope to be so lucky as to be able to do both.

This crisis may bring many charitable people to think that only non-profit or full-volunteer work are acceptable responses. But a great many jobs and business opportunities exist that practically address the needs of pandemic prevention and recovery. For those of us not thrilled at the idea of watching Netflix, this is an interesting way out.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Do Intellectuals Make Life Any Better?

There’s a path my life could have taken – could still take – toward the life of an intellectual.

I’ve just about always been interested in one or more of the favorite intellectual subjects of philosophy, history, politics, theology, economics, psychology, and sociology (whatever that is). I’ve always liked to have big opinions on things. And I’ve always preferred toying with ideas to toying with numbers or machines.

But I’m beginning to think this is an aptitude worth resisting. It’s not obvious to me that intellectuals as such bring a whole lot of benefit to the world.

Obviously this will be controversial to say.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using a Wikipedia-derived definition:

An intellectual is a person who engages in critical thinking and reading, research, and human self-reflection about society; they may propose solutions for its problems and gain authority as a public figure.”

Let me be clear that I think everyone ought to engage in critical thinking. It’s in the rest of the definition that the problems start to emerge.

Every intellectual is a person who not only has a pet theory about what’s wrong with the world – but who makes it their job to reflect/research on that problem and write about that problem.

When you think about these intellectuals, what do you think of?

My mind wanders to the endless number of think-pieces, essays, and books with takes what’s wrong with humans, what’s wrong with society, or what’s wrong with intellectuals (that’s right – I’m currently writing a think-piece. Shit.) The history of this produce of intellectualism is an a stream of lazy, simplified pontifications from individuals about things vast and complex, like “society,” “America,” “the working classes,” “the female psyche,” etc. in relation to something even more vast and complex: “human life.”

It’s not that thinking about these things are wrong: it’s that most of the ink spilled about them is probably wasteful. Why?

Because core to the definition of intellectualism defined above is its divorce from action. Intellectuals engage in “reading, research, and human self-reflection,” “propose solutions,” and “gain authority as public figures,” but none of these acts require them to get their hands dirty to test their hypotheses or solve their proposed problems.

The whole “ivory tower” criticism isn’t new, so I won’t belabor the point. But I will point out two consequences of intellectualism’s separation from practical reality.

First, intellectuals don’t often tend to be great people. Morally, I mean. Tolstoy left his wife in a lurch when he gave up his wealth. Marx knocked up one of his servants and then kicked her out of his house. Rousseau abandoned his children. Even Ayn Rand (whom I love) could be accused of being cultlike in her control of her intellectual circle. Those are just the notable ones – it’s fair to say that most of the mediocre “public intellectuals” we have aren’t exactly action heroes. While they may not be especially bad, they aren’t especially good on the whole.

There seems to be some link between a career which rewards abstract thought (without regard for action) and the mediocre or downright bad lifestyle choices of our most famous intellectuals.

The second major problem with intellectuals springs from the fact that nearly everything the intellectual does is intensely self-conscious. Whether it’s a philosopher reflecting on his inability to find love and theorizing about the universe accordingly or an American sociologist writing about the decline of American civilization, the intellectual is reflecting back upon what’s wrong with himself or his culture or his situation constantly, usually in a way that creates a strong sense of mental unease or even anguish.

Have you ever seen an intellectual coming from an obvious place of joy? The social commentators are almost always operating from malaise and malcontent, which almost always arise from a deep self-consciousness.

Of course it’s anyone’s right to start overthinking what’s the matter with the world, and to feel bad as a result. The real problem is that the intellectual insists on making it his job to convince everyone else to share in his self-conscious state of misery, too.

How many Americans would know, believe, or care that “America” or “Western Civilization” was declining if some intellectual hadn’t said so? How many working class people, or women, or men would believe they are “oppressed”? How many humans would be staying up at night asking themselves whether reality is real? Both are utterly foreign to the daily experience of real, commonsense human life. And while the intellectual may draw on real examples in his theories, he’s usually not content to allow for the exceptions and exemptions which are inevitable in a complex world: his intellectual theory trumps experience. The people must *believe* they are oppressed, or unfulfilled, or unenlightened, or ignorant of the “true forms” of this, that, or the other.

I’m wary of big intellectual theories for this reason, and increasingly partial to the view that wisdom comes less from thinking in a dark corner and more from living in the sunshine and the dirt. The real measure of many of these theories is how quickly they are forgotten or dismantled when brought out into daily life.

People who use their intellects to act? The best in the world. But intellectuals who traffic solely in ideas-about-what’s-wrong for their careers? More often than not, they are more miserable and not-very-admirable entertainers than they are net benefactors to the world.

The ability to think philosophically is important. But that skill must be used in the arena. Produce art. Produce inventions. Be kind. Action is the redemption of intellectualism.

Disclaimers

*By “intellectuals,” I don’t mean scientists. On the humanities side, I don’t even mean artists. The problem isn’t artists: it’s art critics. It’s not scientists: it’s people who write about the “state of science.”

There are exceptions to the bad shows among intellectuals, but usually these are the intellectuals who are busy fighting the bad, ideas of other intellectuals: people like Ludwig von Mises fighting the ideas of classical socialism, or . The best ideas to come from people like this are ideas which don’t require people to believe in them.*

And don’t get me wrong: this is as much a mea culpa as a criticism of others. I’ve spent much of my life headed down the path of being an intellectual. I’m starting to realize that it’s a big mistake.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

What You and the Pandemic Virus Have in Common

What can the COVID-19 virus teach us about philosophy?

With any virus – but particularly with an especially infectious one – we get a perfect working metaphor for the relationship between individual actions and society.

Namely: the only thing that spreads as far and as fast as a pandemic are the consequences of your moral actions.

If you contract a virus – say, for instance, the COVID-19 coronavirus – you immediately become a member of a great chain. Someone before you had the virus. Now you have it because of them. And more likely than not, someone else – multiple people, really – will have it because of you. When you become a carrier for a virus, everything you do becomes a potential vector for infecting people. And you alone can infect hundreds or thousands of people if you do things badly enough.

As a member of a chain of infections, though, your contribution to a pandemic can be far worse than just infecting a dozen or a hundred or a thousand other people. Those people you infect aren’t just sick because of you – they’re carriers too because of you. They can now infect dozens or hundreds or thousands more.

It is in this way that a single human being – a “patient zero” – can be responsible for infecting hundreds of millions or billions of people.

This viral example brings home the significance not just of personal hygiene but of all personal ethics and personal action. We live in networks and chains, and all of our actions “transmit” something to the people around us. If we transmit fear, that fear “infects” the people around us, then the people around them. If we transmit

These networks are how an abusive father’s actions can lead eventually to mass prison camps, or how a friend’s faithfulness can lead to the defeat of a great tyrant. The content of our actions transmits virally, and at scale it can become something very dangerous and destructive, or beautiful and healing.

Take time during this time of pandemic to reflect on the vast significance of your own actions and your connectedness to others – not just in health, but in everything.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Do Your Goddamn Duty During the Goddamn Pandemic, Dammit

“In the name of Goddo your duty.” – Atticus Finch, To Kill a. Mockingbird

In case you missed it, we are now living through a pandemic. COVID-2019 (AKA “coronavirus”) is a highly infectious virus known to infected more than 128,000 people (but due to lack of testing, probably many more) and killed 4,720 people in dozens of countries.

The virus spreads through contact as well as through the air. The contagion estimate (R0) is that a person with this virus is likely to infect 1.5-3 more people. The real twist? Symptoms don’t appear for days, or may not show up at all. So you may be carrying coronavirus and not even know it.

Why does this matter?

Because you have a job to do in this pandemic.

You may not be old. You may not have a weak immune system. You may think that you are healthy enough to recover from coronavirus. And so you may not be interested in taking precautions to avoid becoming infected – doing things like cancelling travel, cancelling events, and avoiding public spaces. You may decide to go on your merry way and pretend like this isn’t happening.

If you want to risk your own sickness, that’s fine. The problem is that you won’t just be impacting yourself. If you get infected and continue to go to public places, you are causing the pandemic to get worse. You are infecting others who will put additional burden on a healthcare system which is (at this rate) going to be overwhelmed. And you are infecting people who may die from this virus.

Imagine being the jerk who brings the flu to your office for no reason – and living with the possibility that you spread it to multiple colleagues, including some who died from it. You wouldn’t feel so good about that. You would realize that you were responsible.

Now put that same responsibility into the context of a pandemic. Your actions matter even more. Even if you don’t mind getting sick, by practicing “social distancing” you can prevent further unnecessary spread of this disease, reduce the burden on the medical system, and ensure that more people continue to live and work through this. That’s good for you and good for everybody you care about.

So for God’s sake stop going to big events, stop going to restaurants and movie theatres and the like, start washing your hands and wearing gloves, cover your damn mouth if you cough or sneeze, and prepare yourself so that you won’t need to burden hospitals with your sickness when the time comes.

Do that, and you will have done your duty in a major crisis. And that’s about one of the best things you can hope to do.

Open This Content

Danger Is Temporary: Cowardice Is Forever

Who pays the greater price and takes the greater risk – the brave man, or the coward?

The man who volunteers to defend his village against the dragon only experiences pain and danger momentarily. He either dies (temporary pain passing into nothingness) or lives (temporary danger or pain), but his negative state is temporary (exception: physical and emotional wounds).

Stack this up against the price the coward chooses to pay.

The man who – from fear – shrinks from his responsibility to defend his village still experiences the same anxiety of danger (it’s why he refuses to fight), but he does avoid physical pain and physical danger. However he has one negative state now which will follow him forever: the internal feeling or the social reminder of being a coward. This persists well beyond the time when the danger is past.

Danger and pain are external: you feel them and experience them, and then they are gone. Your own conscience and your society discharge you.

Cowardice is a state of mind – and the memory of it lasts forever. Your conscience and your society hold you captive.

Which would you rather have?

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

None of Your Business

My generation may have been the last one born in which privacy was the default rather than the exception. Of course, it didn’t take long for that to change.

In my younger years I saw the birth of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – just about every social media tool there is. As more of these platforms gained popularity with me and my friends, our default attitude about life changed.

Once upon a time we might have asked: “will I share this with someone?

Now we go somewhere on a trip, hike some mountains, have some interesting days at work – and the default mode is to think that we’ll share it somehow. Sharing is inextricable from the activity. Every photo taken is a memory we want to show someone else. Every life change or major event is publicly accessible within minutes, hours, or days. We post the photos on Instagram, or Facebook, and the news is out – perhaps to most of our network of friends and family and random people – in one fell swoop. We don’t demand anything of anyone for profound access to our lives.

This is a very interesting change. And it’s not necessarily bad. We’re humans: we like to share things, and we like to look cool. That is not going to change.

But it’s still worth noticing – and worth understanding how strange it is in the grand scheme of history.

Most of our predecessors got to experience what is was like to have anonymous or private experiences that people never found out about – or at least found out about later. People had to actually ask them what they were up to: “where are you moving?” “What are you doing for work?” “Do you have a girlfriend?”. And our pre-digital predecessors had to make the decision on a case by case basis about whether to share and how much to share.

What if things were still like this? What if you didn’t broadcast everything out to a wide audience? If you don’t know or can’t remember, it’s probably a sign.

Privacy is not everything. But we shouldn’t deny ourselves the experience of being the only one “in the know” (about good stuff – not just bad stuff) for a while. We might want to get more comfortable with the phrase “none of. your business.” We might expect people to earn more trust and more respect before we tell them our plans, hopes, dreams, and doings.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content