Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: August 2011

Sufficiency is Wealth

Nevertheless the soul can be just as thoroughly ruined by excessive poverty as by excessive wealth; both wound with equal severity, for wealth and beggary are two extremes. The mean is called sufficiency, and that is where abundant virtues lie, for Solomon has written, without reservation, in the thirtieth chapter, in fact, of a book of his entitled Proverbs: “By your power, O God, preserve me from wealth and beggary, for when a rich man takes to thinking too much about his wealth, he so sets his heart upon madness that he forgets his creator. And how can I save a man from sin when he is assailed by beggary? It would be hard for him not to be a thief or a perjurer…

I neither say nor maintain that kings should be called rich any more than the common folk who go through the streets on foot, for sufficiency equals wealth, and covetousness equals poverty.

(Guillaume de Lorris) & Jean de Muin: The Romance of the Rose

The idea that sufficiency is equal to wealth may seem paradoxical. Its truth depends on understanding the way in which inequality poisons life between fellow human beings – the excessively poor are tempted into one set of vices and the excessively rich are tempted into a different set of vices. However, in order to accept this analysis you may need to be able to see that we should judge social life by moral standards: economic growth and achievement, on its own, has no real meaning. It is what we do with our wealth that matters.

Another way of thinking about this is to recognise that one of the keys to citizenship is sufficient income security. If someone is too poor then they become unduly dependent upon others – this damages their status. However if someone is too rich they do not need others and this also damages their status (an oligarch is not a citizen). Having ‘just enough’ is also important in that it leaves us with room for growth, earning, development – that is, incentives for deeper citizenship.

Perhaps His Blood is Redder

In fourth-century Babylon, a man came to Rabbi Rava and said: “The governor of my town has ordered me to murder someone [who is innocent], and has warned me that if I do not do so he will have me killed. [Can I murder the man to save my life?]” Rava refused him permission. “Let yourself be killed but do not kill him. Who says your blood is redder? Perhaps the blood of that man is redder.”

Pesachim 25b

This simple and powerful moral dilemma represents an absolute fulcrum for our moral perspective. On any account of morality based upon enlightened self-interest or the power of rationality (e.g. Korsgaard) we will not reach the proper moral perspective represented by Rabbi Rava: self-sacrifice cannot be justified by reference to the self. So, unless we are prepared to accept these lower forms of morality, we must seek a stronger, even if more uncertain, form of justification.

The idea that his blood is redder is simply code for the fact that we are not worthy to judge. Only God can judge. So we must presume our own unworthiness: we must put ourselves last.

The Prince and the Rooster

Once, in an ancient kingdom, there lived a fine and handsome and intelligent prince. But one day he got it into his head that he was a rooster. At first the king believed this was simply a passing thought, a phase his son was going through. But when the prince took off all his clothes and began flapping his arms and crowing like a rooster, the king knew he had a real problem. The prince took up residence under the dining-room table and would eat only kernels of corn dropped onto the royal carpet. The king was sad to see his son in such a state. He called in his best doctors, his miracle workers, his magicians. One by one they talked to the prince, tried medicine and magic. But he remained convinced that he was a rooster. One by one they filed out.

Each time, the rooster crowed. The king fell into a deep depression, convinced that no one could cure his son of his tragic malady. He told his servants to allow no more medicine men or fortune seekers into the palace. He had had enough. One day an unknown sage approached the palace and loudly knocked upon the palace gate. The king’s chief servant cracked open the wooden door and saw an old man with piercing eyes staring at him. “I understand the king’s son believes he is a rooster. Well, I am here to convince him otherwise.” The servant slammed the large wooden door. “So many have tried and failed. Go away, old man!” The next day, the servant heard once again a loud knock upon the gate. Again he cracked open the door. “I have a message for the king,” said the unknown sage. “What is it?” said the servant. “Give it and be gone.” “Tell the king these words exactly: ‘To pull a man out of the mud, sometimes a friend must set foot into that mud.’ The servant had no idea what it meant, but he left the sage waiting outside the gate and took the message to the king.

Slumped on his throne, the king listened to the cryptic message. “To pull a man out of the mud, a friend must set foot into that mud.” Hmm, what did he mean by that? But as he thought about it, the words began to make sense. He sat straight up and said, “Yes, bring him in. I will give him a chance!”

To everyone’s amazement, the wise man began by taking off all his clothes. The king shook his head. Now there were two naked men under the dining-room table, crowing like roosters. Soon the prince said to the wise man, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” “Can’t you see?” said the sage. “I’m a rooster, just like you.” The prince was happy to have found a friend, and the palace resounded with flapping and crowing. But the next day, the wise man got out from under the table, straightened his back, and stretched. “What? What are you doing?” asked the prince. “Not to worry,” said the sage. “Just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean you have to live under a table.” The prince admired his friend, so he tried it. It was true. A rooster can stand and stretch, and still be a rooster. The next day, the sage actually put on a shirt and a pair of pants. “Have you lost your mind?” asked the prince. “I was a little chilly,” said the sage. “Besides, just because you are a rooster doesn’t mean that you can’t put on a man’s clothing. You still remain a rooster.”

Puzzled, the prince reluctantly tried on some clothes. The sage then asked for a meal to be served on the golden platters of the king. He sat down with the prince, and without realising it, the prince began to eat. The sage engaged him in a lively conversation about the affairs of the kingdom. Suddenly the prince jumped up from the table and cried, “Don’t you realise that we are roosters? How can we be sitting at this table eating and talking as if we were men?” “Aha!” cried the sage. “I will now tell you a great secret. You can dress like a man, eat like a man, and talk like a man, but still remain a rooster.” “Hmm,” said the prince. And from that day forward, he behaved just like a man. In a few years, he assumed the throne. He led his kingdom to great glory. But every once in a while, the thought occurred to him that he was, in fact, still a rooster-and when he was all alone he would crow a little bit, just to make sure.

Rabbi Nachman from Nina Jaffe & Steve Zeitlin (1993). While standing on one foot. Puzzle stories & wisdom tales from the Jewish tradition. NY: Henry Hot. 70-75. Prince Rooster

I first heard this story from that great promoter of Hasidic Wisdom, John O’Brien. This story also reminds me of the work of Womencentre in Halifax. What is magical about their work is the way in which each woman sees herself as working alongside the woman who is in need. And as an equal they can help, enable and challenge within a relationship based upon trust – focusing on the real issues facing the woman – not their labels or reputations.

The best support is always paradoxical in this way – it lifts people up as equals – not from above, not from below – but alongside.

Three (or Four) Kinds of People

Three officials were assigned to guard the king’s treasures. They proved to be corrupt, and dividing the valuables, ran away. One thought better of it, and returned of his own accord. The second was persuaded by a friend to return. The third witnessed the execution of an embezzler and returned out of fear. The first was restored to the king’s confidence; the second received a less responsible post, the third was appointed executioner of the embezzlers: 

“There are three kinds of people in the world who act like these three officials with respect to the fulfillment of God’s injunctions” explained the Pulnoer.

An Hasidic Tale

This story reveals a theme which runs through moral philosophy. Are we motivated to act rightly because of duty itself or because of external influence or fear?

In my own work I find the similar fourfold distinction useful – not for analysing moral behaviour – but in terms of attitude to change:

  1. Motivation by belief – to have a vision of the possible and faith in the unseen – these are the natural innovators
  2. Motivation by status – to seek evidence  and stay close to authority – these are the followers of fashion, the makers of movements
  3. Motivation by price – to look for the consequent value of the innovation: it makes life easier, cheaper, more fun – these are the utilitarians who wait for trends to be set and for prices to drop
  4. Motivation by fear – to know the negative value of the innovation: to fear the loss, the change and the unknown – these are the sceptics

Notice that each of us takes a different attitude to change in different aspects of our life. Nobody is an innovator in every walk of life. Notice also that each attitude has a positive purpose and that the tensions between these perspectives are legitimate.

So if you value an innovation remember that the other person, who does not seem to understand the value of the innovation, is not being purposefully stupid or wicked. Instead they are either:

  • Worrying that there is not enough evidence – What would it look like if they backed something that proved false?
  • Worrying that there is not enough value yet – Is it the right time to invest in this? What will my return be?
  • Worrying that they will lose something else they value –  Doesn’t this threaten me?

For social innovators it is important to respect these fears – knowing that you cannot resolve them at once. You also need to develop strategies that:

  • Increase data and improve understanding of the value of the innovation
  • Reduce the price, increase simplicity and ease of application of the innovation
  • Design the innovation so that it is sustainable and respectful of other values and approaches
Perhaps most importantly, if you have a vision of how things could be better, you will need to find ways of sharing your vision. Most powerfully this is achieved by making your vision real – even if its just in some small way.

The Mohawk Prayer

“Because are human, we are going to mess up, we are going to make errors and omissions – so we are asking for your forgiveness in advance…”
My thanks Nan Carle for sharing this with me. It needs no commentary.

Medical Power & Personal Health Budgets

The modern doctor evokes respect and awe, mixed with some fear and suspicion. At the most basic level a power relationship starts to exist as soon as we feel that another person holds in their hands an important key to our own life, death or happiness. We feel that we need them and this gives them power. However modern medicine reinforces this age-old pattern of dependency further because of the enormous progress made by modern medical science; progress which is underpinned by an interlocking system of research, education, accreditation, power and money. So, to put this another way, for thousands of years doctors have had power over patients; but since the development of modern medicine in this power has grown considerably – because modern medicine really works.

Ultimately Personal Health Budgets cannot be understood without thinking about this relationship, because it is an innovation within the doctor-patient relationship. It is not an innovation that effects everything in medicine directly; for there are many areas of modern medicine where the use of Personal Health Budgets would be entirely inappropriate. However it does create the possibility of a new kind of partnership between doctors and patients – at certain points – and as such this does start to change the whole relationship.

Make Learning Fun for All

The following lessons are shared by experts in inclusive education – committed to ensuring that disabled children play a full part in classrooms, schools and the whole educational experience.

  1. Teach people to get enjoyment from all their senses! – We have many senses and many ways of learning
  2. Feed the need! – If we really feel a need to learn, explore and experiment then that’s where attention should go
  3. Let one system or domain support another! – We are not all good at everything, so let strengths in one area support the developments in others
  4. Don’t hurt, it must be fun! – We don’t learn when we’re in pain – physical or mental
  5. Compensate and let development come where it may! – We don’t all grow and develop at the same pace nor in the same areas
  6. Keep it cheap, fresh and novel! – Education should be fun for everyone – especially teachers (after all – its their job)

Food for thought for all of us at every stage of life.

The Fictional Economy

One of the most frightening things we do as human beings is to hurt ourselves with fictional entities. One of these fictional entities is ‘the economy’.

We tell ourselves that we must not lose the economic race (although its not clear who we are racing against or why); we must make the economy grow (even if bigger doesn’t actually mean better); we must respond to the latest demands of the economy (even though there is no such thing). The economy demands – so we must respond.

But what is this entity, the economy?

We certainly each have needs and we have capabilities. And if the idea of an economy merely describes the interactions between these two human conditions then of course there are legitimate economic questions: What stops needs being met? What increases the chance of people’s capability being advanced?

But this isn’t what advocates of ‘the economy’ mean. They are not concerned with meeting human needs or supporting human beings to flourish – these things just get in the way. The economy has become a goal in itself, with its own strange needs, to which real human beings must be sacrificed. It is as if the economy is an instrument of war and we are all seeking the biggest weapon.

Churchill and the Persians

Churchill observed “America will always do the right thing… but only after exhausting all other possibilities.” He could have deduced this from Katz’s Law which is that “Men and nations will act rationally when other possibilities have been exhausted.”

We can treat this as a cynical statement about our weakness and our tendency to always fall for the easy, but wrong, alternative. However it is also tells us something about the demands of rationality. If it is true  – don’t despair – think things through, make safe experiments, argue things out.

We are all prone to this weakness – we all want the quick and easy win – we resent the unintended and unforeseen consequence. So we need to develop some better habits to help us see things from different perspectives.

Herodotus says that the Persians used to review their plans both while they were drunk and while they were sober. Only if they thought the plan was good when drunk and sober would they commit to it.

The problem we face today in developing good public policies is not that we are often wrong. Our biggest problem is that we are so frightened of being seen to be wrong that we will never learn how to be right – we will never exhaust any of those other possibilities. We are stuck with what we’ve got and we have to make it seem right despite all evidence to the contrary.

Six Blind Men of Hindustan

There were six men of Hindustan,
to learning much inclined,
Who went to see an elephant,
though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
might satisfy his mind.

The first approached the elephant,
and happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
at once began to bawl,
“This mystery of an elephant
is very like a wall.”

The second, feeling of the tusk,
cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an elephant
is very like a spear.”

The third approached the elephant,
and happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
thus boldly up and spake,
“I see,” quoth he,
“the elephant is very like a snake.”

The fourth reached out an eager hand,
and felt above the knee,
“What this most wondrous beast
is like is very plain” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the elephant
is very like a tree.”

The fifth who chanced to touch the ear
said, “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
deny the fact who can;
This marvel of an elephant
is very like a fan.”

The sixth no sooner had begun
about the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
that fell within his scope;
“I see,” said he, “the elephant
is very like a rope.”

So six blind men of Hindustan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceeding stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

It may be that the treatment for attitude is experience. But what do we each experience? Our experiences are never the same. As Hannah Arendt argues: it is only when we allow different perspectives to come into view and when we try to understand and integrate those perspectives that we can then come towards some kind of ‘sanity’ (wholeness).

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