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We all accept the idea that humans are ‘self-interested,’ but does anyone know what that implies? It’s a term whose meaning can shift at will, largely because it’s unclear what our interests are. Nevertheless, the fallback definition seems to be ‘grow my gain.’ We are taught in economics that individuals have endless demand, and so they seek to have as much as possible. This idea, and others like it, lend themselves to a cold-blooded notion of self-interest, one where we strive to take as much as we can while giving as little as possible. In this paradigm, the only time we help one another is when there is a clear benefit. Even altruism is a calculated maneuver: we give because it makes us better off. It’s not like there aren’t examples of people who act this way—look at anyone working in the US Congress. Even then, I’m not buying this definition; humans have other, better interests. In fact, I think that congressmen make an apt example to show how unnatural their actions are.
Is ‘following the rules’ a driver of ethical decisions? When I think about the times I did the ‘right’ thing, a rule’s existence, at most, served as a hint on what the correct choice was. If I was trying to convince myself to act morally, I’d simply think about what I ought to do. Consulting my conscience has, in most cases, been enough to turn me into a ‘good’ person. And in all my life, my conscience never brought up the rules to win me over. On some level, that makes me wonder what rules are good for.
Sitting in a chair on a veranda, staring into the distance and watching the hours disappear. For about six years, that has been the image I associated with retirement, ever since my pastor told us about his dad’s boredom as a pensioner. This story loomed over my head this summer break, especially on the days when I woke up at an embarrassingly late hour. I felt ashamed, and I wanted to work—to have something to do. Funnily enough, I did have responsibilities at that time; I just didn’t want to perform them. Part of me maintained that this holiday would end and I could simply work then. Recognizing the illogic of my behaviour, and remembering that story, left me wondering how this purgatory-like experience counts as rest. That led to another question: is the way we rest logical?
Here’s a strange concept: writing that has a clear meaning but remains baffling. A piece where everything makes sense, but you’re still confused, and when all is said and done, the question remains: what did you hope to accomplish? This was my thought coming out of a recent column in the Chronicle titled “Duke’s future: Less fun, more woke, more careerist.”
For a few years now, the phrase ‘change my mind’ has signalled that you have found a hill to die on. It can follow an inoffensive statement and people will laugh at the ironic obstinance. What I find more ironic, however, is that we communicate an unwillingness to think differently with an open invitation to be convinced of another viewpoint. Why call for a dialogue when you have no intention of modifying your stance?
Can an action like pulling a lever be moral or immoral? The intuitive answer is no. In a vacuum, where it is just one person arbitrarily moving their lever, it’d be hard to say that this has any moral value. However, in the classic trolley problem, where pulling the lever averts the death of five people by condemning someone else to die for them, that action does acquire an ethical ‘meaning’. Does it matter that we’re pulling a lever, though? The problem would carry the same implications if we pressed a button instead. In fact, if the question was “should you save five people’s lives if it meant ending another one,” we’d see the same dilemma without even describing a particular action. This suggests that actions find their morality from the context that surrounds them and the principles that underpin them. They are moral chameleons; once the trolley passes the split in the track, the action of pulling the lever loses its character. What happens if we try to give certain actions their own independent moral meaning—paint the chameleon? The intuitive answer is nothing good. Unfortunately, that seems to be a popular thing to do.
Consider any truism, from “a stitch in time saves nine” to “what goes around comes around.” Nobody comes into this world with an innate knowledge of those lines, yet they feel obvious to the point of cliche; it’s hard to imagine a time when those lines didn’t go without saying. That time must have existed, though. Truisms find their origins in larger, didactic works, like Aesop’s fables or Jesus’ parables. They serve as a distillation of those stories’ cores. Every time we use a proverb, then, it’s shorthand for humanity’s favorite works. I’d contend, then, that all the best essays will become proverbs.
In my previous column, I mentioned the idea of a false dichotomy between being a liberal or a conservative in the American political arena. A week later, the Chronicle published a survey on Duke students’ political beliefs, with a spectrum ranging from “very conservative” to “very liberal.” This is as good a segue as any to elaborate on how these arbitrary designations rob politics of its principles and the ability to engage in good faith conversations.
On its way out, the Trump administration executed a record amount of people. This decision, like many they made around that time, was unusual and cruel. Understandably, this reignited the perennial debate on the legitimacy of the death penalty. A common argument forwarded by its detractors was that capital punishment is expensive. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, lists the “waste of taxpayer funds” as a “fundamental concern” when discussing death penalty abolition.
Political moderates like to think of themselves as “apolitical.” They argue that, by treating both sides equally, they see the truth in each of them. Supposedly, this lets them steer clear of dogma and recognize that the truth sits “somewhere in the middle.” However, moderates tend to conflate treating ideas equally and treating them as equals. As a result, they consistently adopt positions which are neither correct, nor apolitical.
I’ve been told that voting for a third party is voting for Trump. This statement is emblematic of the Democrats’ role in politics: gaslighting and marginalizing progressives. Buried in that claim is the idea that Joe Biden is the left’s default candidate. Claiming such a thing is the first step of this process. After all, if you don’t agree that a leftist’s vote belongs to Biden, then a ballot for third parties wouldn’t subtract from Biden’s total—he would have never had that vote to begin with. Progressives would simply be voting for Hawkins. Why, then, are they obligated to vote Biden? If I understand liberals correctly, it’s because he’s the most viable candidate left of Trump. When you need to stop Trump, he’s the alternative with a chance of winning. If you want to fight for progressive policies, they argue, it’d be easier to do that under the Democrats. I can understand why either of these arguments would convince a leftist to pick Biden; however, they don’t entitle him to their vote. In fact, it might be better for them to choose a third party, or to not vote at all.
After struggling with anxiety, amongst other things, for years, a friend of mine got better. They’ve written about their growth, and how they’ve overcome that cloudy time of their life. I’m proud of them. At the same time, one line from their writing, in reference to a specific breakthrough, has been stuck on my mind.
New Atheists were the first political movement I encountered online. These were the people who actively attacked Christianity, arguing that it was evil. They would find the most unflattering Bible verses possible and use them to argue that it wasn’t worth reading. Alternatively, they’d bring up the crusades, or the fact that children die, to “prove” that God is malevolent and therefore couldn’t exist. Suffice to say, their takes weren’t hot, but they made up for that with their burning passion.
Something I find interesting about memes is that they can identify common experiences and beliefs. After all, they spread because people can somehow relate to them. They’re funny, or truthful or relatable, so we share them. Most memes, then, don’t come out of nowhere. Their success is a measure of relatability; they are a reflection of popular sentiments. I think that’s why, although meme formats may change, they often tread the same ground. People will always joke about having crushes, or procrastinating work—any topic that people can identify with.
Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party. At least, this is the argument forwarded by The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC run by GOP operatives. I can buy this narrative; the president’s actions are hard to tie to conservatism. He is too aberrant, too individual for comparison with a stereotypical Republican. Put him next to Pence, even, and you’ll see more differences than similarities.
It shouldn’t be remarkable that schools consider race in a holistic application process. The existence of systemic racism is itself a strong case to do so. However, according to the Department of Justice, this would violate the Civil Rights Act.