Deontological Ethics via Ambiguous Aphorisms

Written by  on April 12, 2018 

This post, Effective Leadership Requires Integrity and Intellectual Humility, whose gist I entirely accept and endorse, really irritates me, not least because the entire body of “Leadership” follows the new age thought self-help genre. But mostly, it’s irritating because each and every one of these rules is pure idealism, in its most pernicious form: idealism that masquerades as practicality. Perhaps I’m only thinking this way because, just yesterday, I started trying/failing to grok the opposition between stoicism and skepticism (spurred on by my skeptical inferences from C.S.Peirce’s “pragmaticism”). But all that aside, I’ll criticize each of the 15 rules with what I think are practical situations where each is simply wrong, morally and effectively. But, again, I wholeheartedly agree with the underlying message and intent. So, my criticism is, perhaps, a bit stupid.

  1. Underachievers make excuses; Winners make time.
  2. Winners also provide explanations, reasons, for their failures. What is the difference between an excuse versus a reason for one’s failures? When is a justification/explanation for some series of events or situation an inadequate explanation and when is it an authentic attempt to identify one’s own flaws? I think the answer lies in one’s willingness to admit failure. If the one who failed pretends they haven’t failed and provides a justification for the situation, then we label it an excuse. If they provide the exact same justification, yet admit their role in the outcome, then they’re “making time”. My criticism being that one should be exceedingly careful when accusing another (or themselves, especially in catastrophic conditions like addiction or a political situation where people die or whatnot) of making excuses.

    Further everyone is a loser and a failure. There are no winners, in any absolute sense. The only difference between a “winner” and an “underachiever” is, like the expert, the winner has failed more times than the underachiever has even tried.

  3. Learn when to give in, but don’t EVER give up.
  4. Yes, please give up sometimes, most importantly, when it’s time for you to die. A significant part of wisdom is knowing how to choose one’s battles. If you choose the wrong battle, please give up that battle. Don’t insist on “giving in” and saying things like “Let’s call it a draw, then”, when/if you’ve actually lost. Knowing how to lose gracefully is critical. But a loss is not a compromise, which is what this ambiguous aphoristic rule seems to imply.

  5. Lapses in judgment are human, but there is no such thing as a lapse of integrity.
  6. Yes, there are lapses in integrity. Everyone experiences these. As always, the difference is how one handles them. If you happen to lapse in your integrity (e.g. doing something you’ve preached against doing), admit it, show that you recognize your fallibility, and thereby restore your steady-state integrity in the face of your instantaneous failing. This ambiguous rule relies on a conflation of unitary action versus trends or collections of actions. And that conflation is over and above my previous criticism against “excuse making”, in that it’s reputational. The state of “having integrity” is assigned by, attributed by, other people, not oneself. You cannot tell whether or not you have integrity or not. The best thing you can do is pay attention to whether others think you have it.

  7. Intelligent people fight fire with water, never with fire.
  8. This is just blatantly, ironically, false. We often take away the fuel of a wild fire with a controlled burn … literally fighting fire with fire. Pffft. Metaphorically, the implication we’re supposed to take is something like, perhaps, getting angry when someone else is angry at you, or fudging data to fix the fudging someone else has done, or whatever … the old “two wrongs don’t make a right” thing-a-ma-jig. But, again, the ambiguity is subverting the message. In fact, this aphorism’s ambiguity is guilty of what it professes against. Don’t apply ambiguous metaphors in order to persuade someone that some other ambiguous aphorism, the details of which will be supplied by the naïve audience, is practically meaningful.

    In reality, a response to a situation is … situational. Sometimes we fight fire with fire. Sometimes we fight it with water. Sometimes we let it burn (fight it by no response at all.) Don’t let vague rules rule your response.

  9. Be equally passionate about understanding others as you are in your desire to be understood.
  10. This is one of the least objectionable in this list of 15. However, it is still so idealistic as to encourage those who fail at it to think badly of themselves, further prompting them to “make excuses” for their failures. Everyone is (sometimes) selfish. It’s just a fact of biology. Yes, higher life forms are more capable of empathy. But even us humans, with our big brains, are incapable of simulating every other perspective of every other thing we happen to interact with.

    So, I claim it’s adequate to try to understand others as much as you try to be understood. But when you fail, simply admit it and keep trying. In the end, the two are the same thing, anyway. Understanding is mutual. If they understand you, then you understand them, and vice versa. Also, complete understanding is impossible. So, the 80/20 rule applies. At some point, it’s OK to stop and just sit quietly, basking in your 80% adequate understanding.

  11. Know to be INTERESTING, you must first be INTERESTED! Be an articulate and passionate storyteller but a more memorable listener!
  12. This is demonstrably false, cf rule #14. Most of the “characters” you might be inclined to reference will (at least appear to) be narcissists, who care and think much more about themselves than they do about others. If reality TV has taught us anything, it is that many of us are voyeurs, entertained by showboats and hotdogs. To boot, many of those “characters” are intellectually humble, at least during some activities, and then very self-absorbed in other activities. Take Richard Feynman as an example. When he’s exhibiting how he thinks, rather than encouraging us to think, his words are fundamentally different. Or, imagine a top-tier athlete. When they’re performing, they aren’t listening to you, they’re showing you.

    So, no, you don’t have to be interested to be interesting and you don’t have to always mix demonstrating with explaining.

  13. Understand that while TIME may heal all wounds, it will kill all deals. Be expeditious, passionate and determined to finish what you start.
  14. This is simple to criticize if you refer back to my criticism of rule #3. It conflates the instantaneous with the longer term. Some deals must be quick and some take a long time to gestate. Don’t let an ambiguous rule interfere with your situational awareness. … And, know when to walk away from a deal gone bad. Sometimes “finishing what you start” means simply back off, go away.

  15. Possess a childlike curiosity to go along with a contagious smile and an awe inspiring humbleness.
  16. Or, perhaps, express a cynical nihilism so that your IoT device is more secure against hackers than those built by childlike naïveté, championed by overly enthusiastic advocates, who claim they don’t understand the technology?

    “It takes a village” to do anything. Some in the village are grumpy old experts who complain about every change because they engineered the thing (be it a bureaucratic process or a 1957 restored Chevy) to work the way it does. Some in the village are spirit-uplifting innovators from whom ideas (good and bad) gush like from an artesian well. Leadership and what it means to be humble depend fundamentally on the type of people you’re leading. Know when to express childlike curiosity and when to express mature criticality and apply your manifold expressions situationally.

  17. Know what you don’t know, and be so open-minded that you learn something from EVERYONE you meet, EVERY single day.
  18. Again, who could argue with this? Well, Dunning-Kruger tell us that nobody can actually know what they don’t know. But what’s meant, I suppose, is to simply be a bit doubtful about what you think you know and accept the doubt others express about what you may or may not know. And, most importantly, be ready to modify your knowledge, to incorporate new information. Build and be proud of your ability to change your mind.

    But, as always, remember that others also cannot know what they don’t know and should be doubtful of their own knowledge. So, when you meet a sanctimonious blow-hard who wants you to learn from them, feel free to be closed-minded and reject their attempts to prove that you know less than they know (while simultaneously learning everything you can of what they know, of course).

  19. Have high expectations of others, but even higher expectations of yourself.
  20. More importantly, forgive yourself when you fail. And forgive others when they fail. Learn from your failure. Learn from others’ failure. And encourage others to learn from your, and their, failure.

    I.e. have high expectations for the ability to forgive and learn, in whoever.

  21. Compromise to cooperate, but never at the expense of your principals, integrity or your partners.
  22. Unless your principles are toxic (or false), of course. Rule #11 directly contradicts the other rules mentioning “open-minded” or “childlike”, etc. If your (reputational) integrity is built on, say, a capitalist commitment to slavery or an efficient logistics for dealing heroin to trust-fund twenty-somethings, then perhaps it would be best for you to compromise and cooperate at the expense of your principles.

    This criticism may seem ridiculous. But witness the polarization in debates about, e.g., gun control, abortion, or affirmative action. These debates become polarized precisely because the participants stick to their idealistic principles without understanding the implications of practical applications of those principles.

    So, always be ready to compromise at the expense of your principles and integrity. Again, don’t let some rule interfere with your situational awareness.

  23. Be understated with a grasp that extends past your reach. The world already has too many overstated people with reaches that extend way beyond their grasp.
  24. And if we all followed this rule, no progress would ever be made. The history of innovations is replete with arrogant jerks who reached beyond their grasp. The gist, however, is to realize that our grasp is better than your grasp, from Aristotle to Albert Einstein. So, don’t be shy. Reach as far as you can and help us grasp more than we ever have before. If you’re accidentally a bit of a jerk and cause some bad consequences, recognize it, accept others’ criticism, and get better.

  25. Forever be optimistic and genuinely excited about the future success of others and let them know it.
  26. Again, nobody can be forever anything. Even if we’re someday immortal, I’d bet we’ll still change over time. Sometimes people get depressed. That’s fine. If you can’t come out of it on your own, you should admit it and ask for help. Sometimes our optimism blinds us to bad actors (e.g. Enron or Bernie Madoff … or Donald Trump). When that happens, abandon your optimism for as long as it takes to put in place good counter measures.

    Nobody is or should be always any one way. We’re living, evolving creatures. Be alive and evolve and help others live and evolve.

  27. Demand the highest in quality from your partners and always choose “character” over “characters”.
  28. Rule #14 is, again, ironically arguing against the very humility it is supposed to argue for. You, being intellectually humble, don’t know the difference between “character” and “characters”. Is Joe merely an esoteric jerk? Or does he, perhaps, have high integrity and adheres to his ideal of his craft? A better aphorism would be to facilitate the personalities and competencies of the partners you have and choose new partners so that they complement the partners you already have. Don’t assume that you can define “quality” any better than any of the characters you are or might partner(ed) with.

  29. Express genuine concern, interest, benevolence, compassion, tolerance, and understanding towards everyone.
  30. Do not express concern, interest, benevolence, compassion, tolerance, and understanding toward someone who is demonstrably misanthropic. Bad actors must first show their willingness to be part of a team before they will clearly understand any good faith acts or expressions toward them. If they do not understand the damage their actions entail, then expressing concern, interest, etc. will only encourage them to continue in their bad actions. But if/when a bad actor stops or reduces their bad actions, then encourage them and facilitate their good actions, regardless of how badly they’ve acted in the past. See my criticism of rule #10.

In summary, don’t make decisions based on a set of ill-stated rules that rarely apply or are very difficult to apply. Instead, how about this for an aphorism:

Pay attention and try not to be a jerk.

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