Saturday, October 3, 2009

My New Philosophy

The 1999 Broadway revival of Clark Gesner's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown contained two additional songs by Andrew Lippa, one of which is My New Philosophy, sung to great effect by the amazing Kristin Chenoweth, in the character of Sally.

 It is great fun, and captures the spirit of an actively evolving sense of self. A personal philosophy becomes a lens for viewing the world, and a framework for thinking about and responding to events. Also, the true value of a philosophy is found less in the answers it provides than in the questions it asks. Sally's first "new philosophy" is "Why are you telling me?" I like it.

In the spirit of Sally, I've decided that my new philosophy is "Compared to what?" It is a question that is asked far too infrequently. We are faced constantly with assertions by family, friends, neighbors, pundits, politicians, etc. that X is good or Y is bad, or you should do A and shouldn't do B, and so forth. To all of these I reply, "Compared to what?" The proposed new federal controls over health care are good? Compared to what? It is bad to allow large financial institutions to collapse from their mistakes? Compared to what? Surgery is the best treatment for your cancer? Compared to what? I am sure that Winston Churchill felt the "Compared to what?" philosophy in his bones when he famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (House of Commons speech, Nov 11, 1947). Once the "compared to what?" philosophy becomes yours, you become empowered to make better choices in life.

But beware. People who want to influence you to choose their interests over yours, have developed a countermeasure to the powerful "compared to what?" philosophy. It is the false dichotomy, or false choice, or straw-man argument. They will say that their proposal is good, and then defend it by comparing it to an obviously bad alternative, as if that alternative were the only option, or by selectively excluding the benefits of an alternative and focusing only on the harms. If you don't judge for yourself what the alternatives are, and let others do it for you, the "compared to what?" philosophy is robbed of its power. "Cheap tires imported from China harm the American tire industry. We should tax them." But if tires are cheaper, fewer people will be tempted to drive on over-worn tires and rear-end your family in a rainstorm. Furthermore, the money saved by millions of consumers will be spent in innumerable other American industries and make them stronger. (credit to Frédéric Bastiat's famous 1848 essay, What is Seen and What is Not Seen.) "We must pass this health care bill, because to do nothing is unacceptable." Who said doing nothing is the only alternative? Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey wrote about eight steps in the right direction, none of which are part of the current proposals before Congress. "Surgery is the only cure for your cancer. You should get an operation." But if the surgery will leave you physically impaired, and cancer is the kind that grows so slowly that it probably will not cause any problems for 10 years and you are already 75 years old, what's the rush? And aren't there medicines that will treat the problems that come up? And might there not be even better medicines in 10 years?

Sometimes people become paralyzed in their decision-making process because they are consciously or subconsciously comparing their choices to some unreasonable ideal. This is the vice of perfectionism and utopianism. It is what the French philosopher, Voltaire, was thinking about in 1772 when he wrote "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," usually translated as "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Have you ever spent hours writing and re-writing a letter, e-mail, or yes, even a blog post, trying to say something in just the right way, only to delete it, and miss the opportunity to say something that mattered to you, and maybe to someone else too? Voltaire has your number, and mine. Guilty as charged. So today I am re-energizing myself with the spirit of Sally Brown, and my new philosophy, "compared to what?"