Thursday, August 03, 2017

On Being A Simpleton by Choice

A few years ago, I received seemingly contradictory assessments of my code of conduct:

One of my colleagues interjected during our conversation: "But you are an idealist." Her tone suggested that she meant it as a partial compliment. When I replied that I try hard to find the right mix of idealism and realism, she simply repeated her point, slightly differently, and with a big smile: "No, you're an idealist."

Within days of this event, my boss commented negatively about my same code of conduct. She said something to the effect: "I must tell you that I have sensed some immaturity." I laughed and said: "Then it is too late for me." She smiled and nodded.

They were both right. Being a simpleton by choice is neither good nor bad. It's just a choice.

Part of this is also nature. There is no comparison, but I think that this illustration is useful: When the great Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal (the most prestigious mathematics prize), passed away, my brother (who is her colleague at Stanford) said that it was a terrible tragedy. That she was both brilliant and very down to earth. I told him that it couldn't have been otherwise. The same biology that made her so brilliant is the one that killed her.

The question remains: If one's nature is such that he prefers to be a simpleton -- if this is where he finds whatever measure of peace he can -- is he being negligent, because he could have been more useful to others by being clever? All great moral teachings point in the other direction: Be a simpleton (honest, truthful, etc.) even when others aren't, and even when it will hurt you. [Of course, Plato's version of Thrasymachus would say that this type of ethics was invented by the strong to facilitate exploitation of the week.]

The problem with this teaching is that when you are a simpleton, by choice or otherwise, others also get hurt. The problem with the opposite (Machiavellian) logic is that it rationalizes greed and outright immorality, ostensibly to make more good. It violates the Kantian principle of not taking people as means to other ends. But Kant told us little about how to handle moral dilemmas when protecting some people (as ends in themselves) requires being clever to use other people as means to that end. [In all fairness, Kant's duty ethics are non-consequentialist, so they skirt this problem completely.]

So, it remains a simple, albeit radical, choice to be a simpleton. Maybe it's just Nature.


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