The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: “How To Think” Booklet

Some Acts Are Always Evil

This is a post a lot of readers will misunderstand or refuse to understand, because our society requires us to do evil regularly and we want to pretend it isn’t evil.

Some acts are always evil.

To understand this you need to make the correct division between an act and the consequences of that act.

The act and the consequences are two different things.

Let’s take something which is, I hope, universally agreed among my readers. Rape is always evil. It is always an evil act. Even if someone comes up with a convoluted scenario under which some good came as a consequence rape is always an evil act.

We start here to show something simple: that some acts are evil.

This is necessary because our society has gone too far in cultural determinism. “Evil and good are completely social constructs.”

No. They are human, but they are not constructs. We understand that slavery is an evil act. We understand that murder is an evil act. We understand that torture is an evil act.

It may be that on some occasions the results of an evil act are good, but that does not make the act itself good. I don’t believe in torture for getting information, but even if it did work, torturing someone to get information which saves people is still an evil act. The act is evil, even if the consequences are good.

In debt-slavery, common in the ancient world, you would sell yourself into slavery to settle your debts and get money. Let us say you did so and it saved your family from starvation because master now feeds you and your family.

The slavery is still evil, even if some of the consequences of it are not.

This is at the heart of just war theory. All wars are evil. There are no exceptions. Sometimes the consequences of war are better than not fighting the war. That does not, however, make the war itself not evil. (I can think of very few wars which were worth the evil of the war itself. WWII is the only recent major example.)

Some years ago I wrote an article on what the Tao teaches those who want a better world.

I’m going to quote it at length here:

In the Tao Te Ching there is a famous passage, as follows:

When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

What is appropriate isn’t always what is good, but what is good makes up the vast majority of what is appropriate.

When one no longer knows what is appropriate, one devolves to the good and is still doing most of what should be done.

Kindness makes up most of what is good, so when one loses what is good, one devolves to kindness and retains most of what is good.

Losing kindness, one retreats to justice. The loss here is steep. Justice is maybe half of what is kind, because justice without kindness is about balance and tends to not restore people, but punish them: “an eye for an eye” and all that.

And then there is ritual, and ritual, in this context, is without any of the higher virtues, and thus leads to injustice, cruelty and evil, because it has lost almost all of appropriateness: it simply accepts that action A should lead to action B, and that will often be the wrong action, unguided by appropriateness, goodness, kindness or even justice.

I would add that when even ritual is lost; when people no longer obey the rules and are guided by no sense of ethics, that all chances of a good society and good results are lost.

The problem with “ends justify means” is that means are most of what we do. If you do evil acts all day, all week, all year, all life because they are part of how your society runs, then the amount of evil you do usually overwhelms all the “consequences”. This is why only someone who “has the Tao” should ever do evil, and since 99.9999% of us don’t have the Tao and don’t have the judgment to know when evil is justified, we should avoid evil actions like the plague. Certainly our leaders, who are the worst of us, shouldn’t be allowed to do evil.

But that’s consequence talk. You don’t not do evil acts because of the consequences, you don’t do them because they are evil. If you start engaging too much in consequence talk, then pretty soon you’re justifying all sorts of evil action.

Don’t rape. It’s always evil, no matter who does it or why. Don’t mistake whether an act is evil and with the questions “are the consequences of this act evil or good.”

And tamp down your social constructivism and moral relativism. Some things are always wrong.

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Why People Don’t Learn: You Can’t Look It Up and You Can’t Give It Away

I have a friend who is a serious meditator. For many years, when someone asked him to help them become enlightened, he would teach them a simple meditation, then instruct: “Do that for six months, every day, for one hour. Then return.” He called it “the very minimum required.”

Over the years, people have come to me wanting some of what I have, intellectually. Not a lot of people, more than five, less than ten.

In every case, I have given them a list of books to read, and said: “As you read each book, get back to me, and we’ll discuss them.”

Only one person ever did, he is the only person I ever charged money for teaching.

You can’t give the good stuff, the actually valuable stuff, away.

He read five books or so, we talked about them, and I gave him assignments and we discussed the assignments. He then stopped, because he had what he wanted, which was to learn how to learn more effectively, and he had proved this to himself by using the skills he was taught, and I was charging him enough money that it mattered to him (not a lot, but he wasn’t rich).

Back when I did some consulting, in the 2000s, I noticed something similar: When I didn’t charge people enough, or said, “Oh, I’ll help you for free,” they never took my advice. If I made them bleed, they did what I said and benefited.

You can’t give it away. I really wish you could.

Anyway, this is a winding intro to my point, which is that if you want to actually understand certain topics, you have to read. A lot.

Let’s run some numbers. From the time I was eight through to age 12, I read at least two books a day. I know this because I went to the library once a week and took out the limit, and I also checked books out of the school library, and I read my father’s books. Actually, I read more than two books a day. Call it 700 a year, so 3,500 books.

From age thirteen to thirty-five, we’ll count it at a book a day. 7,700 books.

From 35 to the end of 45 (11 years), I read two books a week, because I was blogging and reading online articles (they are not a substitute, online content is mostly trash). So 1,100 books, though the proportion of non-fiction books was higher than before.

And for the last four years, I’ve been back to one or more a day, but we’ll count it as one a day. Add another 1,400.

Total? Thirteen thousand, seven hundred books. Put it at 90 percent fiction, and 10 percent non fiction, so about 1,370 non-fiction books.

This is an understatement, at every point I have gone with the lowest estimate. It is not unusual, even today, for me to read three books in a day. Sometimes I read four. The real number is probably close to twenty thousand.

This is not meant as a brag and should not be taken as such. By most people’s standards, my life is trash and I didn’t read so much because “discipline,” I did it because I like reading books and thinking about ideas. If I enjoyed making money, working out, meditating, and eating healthy as much as I liked books and games, well, I’d have a rather different life.

But I have read a lot of books. I have thought about what I read. I have discussed what I read with other people.

Because I have read those books, I can think using the knowledge they contained. You cannot think with knowledge you do not know, and you cannot even look up most Knowledge, because you have to know what you don’t know. The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.

If you want to engage in the life of ideas, you have to read. You have to read a lot.

Yes, someone like me can make it easier. I’ve read a lot of not very useful books. I can say: “These are the most useful ones!” But you still have to go read them, think about them, and integrate them into your worldview. You need to be able to restate their arguments, and you need to understand the model they are using, and you need to know the assumptions upon which they are based, and you need to know the problems with all of those things, and why it matters and doesn’t matter.

There are shorter roads, but there are no shortcuts, if you really want to know. You just have to read, and then you have to work with what you read. (If this means math, you’ve got to do the math until it integrates. If it’s about human body movements, you’ve got to do the movements. If it’s about “spirituality” you have to actually meditate enough to get the basic insights.)

Discipline is shit. Discipline is only the main tool at the start. If you don’t start enjoying what you’re doing, why the hell are you doing it? The biggest mistake I made intellectually was spending years trying to figure out how economies work because I thought, “Shit, these people (economists, policy makers) are making things worse. I’d better figure it out!”

I did, but it was a lot less fun than the topics I really cared about. (Though it all came around in the end, because it turned out that the technical details were secondary to things like identity, ideology, organization, and all the stuff I write about in “Construction of Reality.”)

Most people have the curiosity and joy of reading and learning beaten out of them by our school system, which seems designed to be one of the most anti-intellectual, anti-wonder ways of “learning” one can imagine. It makes people into machines; spewing out the answer teach wants, talking only when allowed, sitting, and hating.

I mostly ignored school and would even read books in class when I could. My grades were middling, but I was learning.

You want to learn? Find the wonder in it. Find what’s cool and interesting. Yeah, you’ll have to power through some shit, but it’s worth it if you care.

But don’t think you can skip the actual work. Reading for intellectual work is like drills for athletic work, or whatever.

Just figure out why it’s worth doing.

Again, you can’t think with information you don’t know. You cannot look information up you don’t know you don’t know. Any system for which you do not understand the underlying axioms and assumptions, which you try to use, is actually using you. You are just a machine, doing what the creator(s) wanted.

So read and think.

And find it fun!

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