Tag Archives: Philosophy

Ryan Holiday on Reading, What it Means to be a Stoic, and How to Take Notes

On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk reading and so much more with Ryan Holiday.

Ryan Holiday is the author of Trust Me I’m Lying, The Obstacle is the Way, and Ego is the Enemy.

On this episode you’ll learn how he reads, what it means to be a Stoic, the two sides of Seneca, dealing with over-work, what he learned from working with Robert Greene and his system for taking notes.

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Listen

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Books Mentioned:
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Stoics in Book 7)
Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power
James Romm Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
Pierre Hadot The Inner Citadel
Robert Caro The Years of Lyndon Johnson

 

Transcript:
A complete transcript is available for members.

The HP Way: Dave Packard on How to Operate a Company

In 1960, David Packard gave an informal speech that wasn’t originally intended for publication. In fact the speech only surfaced again during the debate over the merger between Hewlett Packard and Compaq. At the time the leadership of HP portrayed themselves as doing exactly “what Dave Packard would have done.”

As a rebuttal to this dubious use of language, David Packard Jr. published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (March 15, 2002) reprinting a wonderful speech his father gave in the ’60s to a group of HP managers. Nothing could be better evidence of the philosophy than the words, delivered on the job from his father.

The speech, which can be found in The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, dealt with a number of subjects including why a company exists, the difference between management by objective and management by control, how to manage people, the importance of financial responsibility and more.

Packard opens his speech by saying “I think this is going to be crucial in determining whether we are able to continue to grow and keep an efficient organization and maintain the character of our company”.

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When discussing why a company exists in the first place, Packard writes:

I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental).

[…]

So with that in mind let us discuss why the Hewlett-Packard Company exists. I think it is obvious that we started this company because Bill and I, and some of those working with us in the early days, felt that we were able to design and make instruments which were not as yet available. I believe that our company has grown over the years for that very reason. Working together we have been able to provide for the technical people, our customers, things which are better than they were able to get anywhere else. The real reason for our existence is that we provide something which is unique. Our particular area of contribution is to design, develop, and manufacture electronic measuring instruments.

[T]he reason for our existence and the measure of our success is how well we are able to make our product.

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As for how the individual person fits into these efforts, Packard hits on the difference between management by objective and management by control:

The individual works, partly to make money, of course, but we should also realize that the individual who is doing a worthwhile job is working because he feels he is accomplishing something worthwhile. This is important in your association with these individuals. You know that those people you work with that are working only for money are not making any real contribution. I want to emphasize then that people work to make a contribution and they do this best when they have a real objective when they know what they are trying to achieve and are able to use their own capabilities to the greatest extent. This is a basic philosophy which we have discussed before— Management by Objective as compared to Management by Control.

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Continuing, Packard hits on the notion of what it means to supervise someone:

In other words when we discuss supervision and management we are not talking about a military type organization where the man at the top issues an order and it is passed on down the line until the man at the bottom does as he is told without question (or reason). That is precisely the type of organization we do not want. We feel our objectives can best be achieved by people who understand what they are trying to do and can utilize their own capabilities to do them. I have noticed when we promote people from a routine job to a supervisory position, there is a tremendous likelihood that these people will get carried away by the authority. They figure that all they have to do now is tell everyone else what to do and quite often this attitude causes trouble. We must realize that supervision is not a job of giving orders; it is a job of providing the opportunity for people to use their capabilities efficiently and effectively. I don’t mean you are not to give orders. I mean that what you are trying to get is something else. One of the underlying requirements of this sort of approach is that we do understand a little more specifically what the objectives of the company are. These then have to be translated into the objectives of the departments and groups and so on down.

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While Steve Jobs famously said that focus is the ability to say no, Packard approached focus from another angle:

The other objective which is complementary to this and equally important is to try to make everything we do worthwhile. We want to do our best when we take on a job. … The logical result of this is that as we concentrate our efforts on these areas and are able to find better ways to do the job, we will logically, develop a better line of general purpose measuring instruments.

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Getting the product to the customer is only half the job.

In engineering, there are two basic criteria that are uppermost in the definition of what we hope to be able to do. As we develop these new instruments, we hope they will be creative in their design, and they will provide better ways of doing a job. There are many examples of this— the instruments our engineers have developed this last year give us some good examples. The clip-on milliammeter, the new wave analyzer, the sampling scope— all are really creative designs. They give people who buy them methods of making measurements they could not make before those instruments were available. However, creative design alone is not enough and never will be. In order to make these into useful devices, there must be meticulous attention to detail. The engineers understand this. They get an instrument to the place where it is about ready to go and the job is about half done. The same applies in the manufacturing end of the program. We need to produce efficiently in order to achieve our slogan of inexpensive quality. Cost is a very important part of the objective in manufacturing, but producing an instrument in the quickest manner is not satisfactory unless at the same time every detail is right. Attention to detail is as important in manufacturing as it is in engineering.

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It’s not about what you sell, it’s about the problems you solve.

We certainly are not anxious to sell a customer something he does not want, nor need. You may laugh, but this has happened— in other companies of course, not ours! Also, we want to be sure that when the instrument is delivered, it performs the function the customer wanted.

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Packard, ever the financial conservative, offers a timeless lesson on financial responsibility:

Financial responsibility is equally important, however different in nature. It is essentially a service function to see that we generate the resources which make it possible for us all to do our job.

These things translated mean that in addition to having the objective of trying to make a contribution to our customers, we must consider our responsibilities in a broader sense. If our main thought is to make money, we won’t care about these details. If we don’t care about the details, we won’t make as much money. They go hand in hand.

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On the company’s responsibility to employees:

We are not interested only in making a better product. We feel that in asking you people to work for us, we in turn have an obligation. This is an important point and one which we ask each of you to relay to all the employees. Our first obligation, which is self-evident from my previous remarks, is to let people know they are doing something worthwhile. We must provide a means of letting our employees know they have done a good job. You as supervisors must convey this to your groups. Don’t just give orders. Provide the opportunity for your people to do something important. Encourage them.

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On the contentious question of whether a manager needs to understand the realities of their people, Packard offers a clear rebuttal of the argument that management skills are sufficient.

Some say you can be a good manager without having the slightest idea of what you are trying to manage, that the techniques of management are all important. There are many organizations which work that way. I don’t argue that the job can’t be done that way but I do argue strongly that the best job can be done when the manager or supervisor has a real and genuine understanding of his group’s work. … I don’t see how a person can even understand what proper standards are and what performance is required unless he does understand in some detail the very specific nature of the work he is trying to supervise.

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As to what traits management should exhibit

Tolerance is tremendously significant. Unless you are tolerant of the people under you, you really can’t do a good job of being a supervisor. You must have understanding— understanding of the little things that affect people. You must have a sense of fairness, and you must know what it is reasonable to expect of your people. You must have a good set of standards for your group but you must maintain these standards with fairness and understanding.

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Lest you think Packard was a socialist, he argues that profits are the only path towards achieving the management philosophy he laid out.

I want to say that I have mentioned our primary objectives, but none of these can be accomplished unless the company makes a profit. Profit is the measure of our contribution to our customers— it is a measure of what our customers are willing to pay us over and above the actual cost of an instrument. Only to the extent that we can do something worthwhile, can provide more for the customer, will he year in and year out pay us enough so we have something left over. So profit is the measure of how well we work together. It is really the final measure because, if we cannot do these things so the customer will pay us, our work is futile.

 

If you liked this you’ll love:

11 Simple Rules For Getting Along With Others — More timeless advice from David Packard deepening our understanding of his philosophy on work and life.

The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball — Thinking about the fundamental lesson of biology — the need to survive — offers a potent lens through which we can view our relationships.

The Difference Between Love and Tolerance

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
— Alice Walker

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New Jersey Senator Cory Booker‘s new book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good offers a welcome refuge from the day-to-day politics that splash across the headlines. Booker shares his wisdom on the difference between love and tolerance, why cynicism is a refuge for cowards, an important lesson his father taught him, and the reason that, while we’re indebted to the past, we must pay it forward.

Booker offers a distinction between love and tolerance:

Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, Booker professes:

I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

[…]

We do owe a debt that we can’t pay back but must pay forward.

Adding to the belief in small acts of kindness, Booker observes:

[A]lways remember that the biggest thing you can offer on any given day is a small act of kindness.

On an important lesson his father taught him:

Son, there are two ways to go through life, as a thermometer or a thermostat. Don’t be a thermometer, just reflecting what’s around you, going up or down with your surroundings. Be a thermostat and set the temperature.

And finally, in an interview, he boldly admonishes people hiding behind cynicism.

We all have so much power that we don’t use. And I think it’s because of cynicism, which is a toxic spiritual state. Cynicism is a refuge for cowards.

Lewis Thomas on our Social Nature and “Getting the Air Right”


“What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.”
— Lewis Thomas

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In his wonderful collection of essays, The Lives of a Cell, the biologist Lewis Thomas displays a fairly pronounced tendency to compare humans to the “social insects” — primarily bees and ants. It’s not unfair to wonder: Looked at from a properly high perch, are humans simply doing the equivalent of hive-building and colony-building?

In a manner Yuval Harari would later echo in his book Sapiens, Thomas concludes that, while we’re similar, there are some pretty essential differences. He wonders aloud in the essay titled Social Talk:

Nobody wants to think that the rapidly expanding mass of mankind, spreading out over the surface of the earth, blackening the ground, bears any meaningful resemblance to the life of an anthill or a hive. Who would consider for a moment that the more than 3 billion of us are a sort of stupendous animal when we become linked together? We are not mindless, nor is our day-to-day behavior coded out to the last detail by our genomes, nor do we seem to be engaged together, compulsively, in any single, universal, stereotyped task analogous to the construction of a nest. If we were ever to put all our brains together in fact, to make a common mind the way the ants do, it would be an unthinkable thought, way over our heads.

Social animals tend to keep at a particular thing, generally something huge for their size; they work at it ceaselessly under genetic instructions and genetic compulsion, using it to house the species and protect it, assuring permanence.

There are, to be sure, superficial resemblance’s in some of the things we do together, like building glass and plastic cities on all the land and farming under the sea, or assembling in armies, or landing samples of ourselves on the moon, or sending memoranda into the next galaxy. We do these together without being quite sure why, but we can stop doing one thing and move to another whenever we like. We are not committed or bound by our genes to stick to one activity forever, like the wasps.

Today’s behavior is no more fixed than when we tumbled out over Europe to build cathedrals in the twelfth century. At that time we were convinced that it would go on forever, that this was the way to live, but it was not; indeed, most of us have already forgotten what it was all about. Anything we do in this transient, secondary social way, compulsively and with all our energies but only for a brief period of our history, cannot be counted as social behavior in the biological sense. If we can turn it on and off, on whims, it isn’t likely that our genes are providing the detailed instructions. Constructing Charters was good for our minds, but we found that our lives went on, and it is no more likely that we will find survival in Rome plows or laser bombs, or rapid mass transport or a Mars lander, or solar power, or even synthetic protein. We do tend to improvise things like this as we go along, but it is clear that we can pick and choose.

With our basic nature as a backdrop, human beings “pick and choose,” in Thomas’s words, among the possible activities we might engage in. These can range from pyramid building to art and music, from group campfire songs to extreme and brutal war. The wide range, the ability to decide to be a warring society sometimes and a peaceful society sometimes, might be seen as evidence that there are major qualitative differences between what humans do as a group and what the social insects are up to. Maybe we’re not just hive-builders after all.

What causes the difference then? Thomas thought it might well be our innate capacity for language, and the information it allows us to share:

It begins to look, more and more disturbingly, as if the gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from all the rest of life. Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.

We are born knowing how to use language. The capacity to recognize syntax, to organize and deploy words into intelligible sentences, is innate in the human mind. We are programmed to identify patterns and generate grammar. There are invariant and variable structures in speech that are common to all of us. As chicks are endowed with an innate capacity to read information in the shapes of overhanging shadows, telling hawk from other birds, we can identify the meaning of grammar in a string of words, and we are born this way. According to Chomsky, who has examined it as a biologist looks at live tissue, language “must simply be a biological property of the human mind.” The universal attributes of language are genetically set; we do not learn them, or make them up as we go along.

We work at this all our lives, and collectively we give it life, but we do not exert the least control over language, not as individuals or committees or academies or governments. Language, once it comes alive, behaves like an active, motile organism. Parts of it are always being changed, by a ceaseless activity to which all of us are committed; new words are invented and inserted, old ones have their meaning altered or abandoned. New ways of stringing words and sentences together come into fashion and vanish again, but the underlying structure simply grows, enriches itself, and expands. Individual languages age away and seem to die, but they leave progeny all over the place. Separate languages can exist side by side for centuries without touching each other, maintaining their integrity with the vigor of incompatible tissues. At other times, two languages may come together, fuse, replicate, and give rise to nests of new tongues.

The thing about the development of language is its unplannedness. There’s no language committee directing the whole enterprise. Not only is language innate, as Noam Chomsky and his student Steven Pinker have so well proven, but it’s extremely flexible based on the needs of its users. All the strange things about our language that seem so poorly drawn up were never drawn up at all. (What kind of masochist would put an “s” in the word lisp?)

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One commonality to the social insects that Thomas does see is something he calls Getting the Air Right – his description of a really productive human group as a direct reflection of a really productive bee colony. In this case, he’s talking about getting great science done, but the application to other human endeavors seems clear.

The following piece, pulled from his essay titled Natural Science, is worth reading and re-reading closely when you’re tempted to “command and control” others around you.

I don’t know of any other human occupation, even including what I have seen of art, in which the people engaged in it are so caught up, so totally preoccupied, so driven beyond their strength and resources.

Scientists at work have the look of creatures following genetic instructions; they seem to be under the influence of a deeply placed human instinct. They are, despite their efforts at dignity, rather like young animals engaged in savage play. When they are near to an answer their hair stands on end, they sweat, they are awash in their own adrenalin. To grab the answer, and grab it first, is for them a more powerful drive than feeding or breeding or protecting themselves against the elements.

It sometimes looks like a lonely activity, but it is as much the opposite of lonely as human behavior can be. There is nothing so social, so communal, and so interdependent. An active field of science is like an immense intellectual anthill; the individual almost vanishes into the mass of minds tumbling over each other, carrying information from place to place, passing it around at the speed of light.

There are special kinds of information that seem to be chemotactic. As soon as a trace is released, receptors at the back of the neck are caused to tremble, there is a massive convergence of motile minds flying upwind on a gradient of surprise, crowding around the source. It is an infiltration of intellects, an inflammation.

There is nothing to touch the spectacle. In the midst of what seems a collective derangement of minds in total disorder, with bits of information being scattered about, torn to shreds, disintegrated, deconstituted, engulfed, in a kind of activity that seems as random and agitated as that of bees in a disturbed part of the hive, there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.

In short, it works. It is the most powerful and productive of the things human beings have learned to do together in many centuries, more effective than farming, or hunting and fishing, or building cathedrals, or making money. It is instinctive behavior, in my view, and I do not understand how it works.

It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.

What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.

Still Interested? Check out another great biologist, E.O. Wilson, writing about his experiences in science, or yet another, Richard Dawkins, writing about why chain letters work as a method for understanding natural selection.

Agnes Martin on The Secret of Happiness

“The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.”

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Agnes Martin was a famous abstract painter and minimalist.

In this short interview with Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama from her studio in 1997, the 85-year-old Martin shares the secret of happiness, and some wisdom on solitude.

On happiness …

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … That’s the way to be happy.

Later in the interview she turns the table and asks Smith if he feels like he’s doing what he was born to do. When he responds in the affirmative, she replies “that’s the way to be happy.” (This runs counter Cal Newport’s stark opposition to not follow your passion.)

On the worst thing to think about — you:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself. … (because when you do) you make mistakes.

Another interesting part of the interview is when she responds to the question on how she feels when the painting is done. She fails to let herself decide right away … instead she waits.

Once the painting is done … I ask if it was a good painting. But I also wait three days before I decide.

While we’re not advocates of the stop-thinking approach, there are opposing ends of the spectrum and thinking too much or even being too rational is not always the best way to live. Martin gave up meditation when she trained herself to stop thinking.

Before you train yourself to stop thinking … I don’t believe what the intellectuals put out. The intellectuals discover one fact and then another fact and then another and they say from all these facts we can deduce so-and-so. No good. That’s just a bad guess. Nothing can come but inaccuracy.

The last point is perhaps the most important. This one strikes at the heart of today’s culture and into the value of an empty mind — free from busyness and distractions. Martin believes that when you have an empty mind, you can see things when they come into it. Imagine the freedom of an empty mind — one not bound by to-do lists, meetings, work and the other muck we dump into it. When the mind is full our attention revolves around the meaningless. And yet attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have.

I’m reminded of the words of W.H. Auden

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

Rebecca Goldstein and Why We Need to Matter

“The will to survive evolves, in a higher creature like us, into the will to matter.”
-Rebecca Goldstein

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Why do we need to matter? It sounds like kind of a hollow question. Of course we matter. But when you really consider it, do you think an ant has decided whether it matters or not? We tend to think not.

When it comes to humans, though, we seem to have a deep need to believe that our actions carry us towards some essential goal. Otherwise, why bother? (In fact, we think our lives matter so much that most of us seek straight-up immortality.) And in a new essay on Edge, philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein argues that this mattering is a necessary, biological imperative. In fact, contrary to some popular thinking, it is science, more specifically the science of evolutionary psychology, which can give us some insight into the problem of why we need to matter. As Goldstein argues, this is a place where science and philosophy very usefully overlap.

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Goldstein calls this need to matter the Mattering Instinct, labeling it as such to give it a flavor of biological grounding; something that exists not just in a metaphysical way. We do really, actually, need to matter. We’re dependent on it. It’s not abstract, but a core part of what makes us tick and survive.

We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter.” Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.

Goldstein sees the concept of mattering as so important that we’d live an incoherent life without it. Imagine if you took the concept of true nihilism to its logical conclusion: What kind of Joker-like tricks might you be tempted to play on the world? Of course, some solve this problem in the opposite way, through religion: I matter because God cares about me, and because my soul will live eternally in an afterlife. But what if you can’t get yourself to accept a religious worldview?

Mattering and Morality

Goldstein argues that you don’t really need either conception, nihilism or religion; that mattering is simply a precursor to successful living and survival at all.

And I also ought to mention that I think the mattering instinct is a natural consequence of natural selection. The basic unit of survival in natural selection is the gene, which survives by being replicated in future generations—the gist of Richard Dawkins’ useful, if misunderstood phrase, “the selfish gene.” A gene’s default scheme is to give the organism traits that help it (the organism) to survive, and to endow that organism with an unthinking ceaseless instinct to survive: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and a gene’s best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated. Of course, individual organisms eventually wear out their usefulness to the genes, which is why senescence is built into living cells, leading to inevitable decline and death. From the vantage point of the gene, individuals are always expendable, which is something that individuals—certainly us!—find profoundly regrettable. If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the motivation that’s a prerequisite for all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it. This is a presumption that lies beyond the sphere of justification. To be within that sphere is to be subject to the possibility of doubt, to require grounding. Natural selection wasn’t going to leave it to such an uncertain process as that!

This philosophy is taken by some to mean that a pure biological view of life leads naturally to selfishness and amorality. Goldstein disagrees. This drive to matter creates a very useful non-religious morality. As Goldstein puts it, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. So not only does mattering have a core impact on how we carry out our lives, it also leads us to greater general morality over time. This is philosophy’s greatest achievement.

Returning to some themes we took up toward the beginning of our conversation, that far from invalidating our moral intuitions evolutionary psychology can be put to work to help ground them. I bring it back to the concept of mattering. We can’t live lives that are recognizably human without presuming an attitude toward our own mattering. If we’re going to presume that we matter and that others have to treat us as if we matter, either we think that we’re somehow ontologically special and the universe revolves around us—which is to be certifiably nuts—or we’re going to have to extend this modicum of mattering to other creatures like us. How far do we take it? What are the justifiable borders of demarcation between our own obvious mattering and others to whom we attribute a lesser portion of mattering or even no mattering at all?

My view about morality is that it’s rooted in human nature but in such a way as to objectively ground moral conclusions we draw. There are certain things that we have to take for granted about our own life. We can’t live a coherently human life without taking for granted that we have the right to live and to flourish, and that’s what we all try to do. You can begin to explain what it is to pursue a life without seeing how this commitment to our own mattering operates. This means that in simply pursuing a recognizably human life, we’re already occupying moral ground, and then you have to see what follows from that. We don’t have to make the impossible leap between is and ought. We’re already firmly implanted in the land of oughts.

That’s what the history of moral philosophy has tried to show us. You have to extend the mattering you claim for yourself to enslaved people, to colonized people, even to women. They have as much right to matter as men, to pursue their lives and find their own diverse ways of working out their mattering, even if their doing so sometimes has bad effects on male egos, making them feel like they matter less because of this striving to matter of women. How are they going to impress women if those women are achieving so much?

Does What Matters to You, Matter to Me?

Where the mattering instinct can go wrong, though, is when it leads us to think that what matters to us is what should matter greatly to all. Goldstein calls attention to something she calls the mattering map. We each have our own map, but we sometimes cannot see outside our own mattering maps. We can barely conceive that someone else’s map would look a lot different than our own. And this leads to us being upset or combative when we simply need to do a better job of putting ourselves into others’ shoes or to step back and take in the larger perspective.

I’m a philosopher and a writer. It matters to me that I think well and that I write well. I could feel like I don’t matter—to the point of genuine depression—because other people think so much better than I or write so much better than I. It’s good to gain perspective on these sorts of things. Such perspective is part of what it is to attain wisdom. And it helps sometimes to realize that there’s no absolute value to the region of the mattering map you happen to occupy, by reason of your own individual traits and talents and history. I might want to put a gun to my head because I’m not the most brilliant philosopher of my generation, but to the guy situated in the next mattering region over, philosophy doesn’t matter in the least—the whole subject is a waste of time. He’s got the gun to this head because he’s not the greatest physicist of his generation, or not the greatest speed skater of his generation, or actor of his generation, or is losing his fabulous looks.

I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the mattering instinct can go terribly wrong—not only psychologically but ethically. The mattering instinct is so strong in us, and our tendency to want to justify our own mattering is so persistent that it leads us to universalize what individually matters to us into dicta about what ought to matter to everybody. This is a tendency that ought to be resisted.

When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion?

In some ways, this line of reasoning reminds us of David Foster Wallace’s speech, wherein he says that whatever deep needs we live by are the things we’ll die by when they’re no longer being met. It’s up to us to rein in that mattering instinct a little bit and give it a leash in order to save ourselves from being too harsh on ourselves and too narrow with others.

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In the end, we all feel the need to matter, and there are deep biological roots for that, roots which help us survive. These roots help us form a Golden Rule style morality that exists independent of our views on religion or our existential place in the universe. But at the end of the day, we must realize that everyone else carries around their own mattering instinct, and live in a way that respects this basic truth.

Still Interested? Check out Goldstein’s conversation on reasoning with her husband Stephen Pinker.