Good to go

By Emanuel Derman
November 10, 2011

Everyone avers that honesty, ethics, morality, art, literature, science, etc. are good, but if you look at the way people behave most of the time, their actions give the lie to their beliefs.

The difficulty is essential: we struggle against each other, to compete, to survive, to exercise our egos in bursts of short term volatility, to shout Me Me Me or Mine Mine Mine, and each Me Me Me refers to a different Me. But we all know that those Me’s are made out of the same matter, and are progeny of the same human and even animal antecedents. Our brother or sisterhood isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fact.

The tension of society comes from the antagonism between each individual’s strong sense of a unique personal self and the fact that everyone has their own one.

I think you could argue that the quality that all instinctively recognizable Good things have in common is that they are the product of individual acts that make the actor simultaneously aware of both his personal uniqueness AND at the same time aware of his commonality with, even indistinguishability from, in the larger view, other people and objects.

Short term happiness is the volatility that comes from flexing your individual muscles to satisfy the self’s demands. Longer-term, it must be tempered by the knowledge that there is mean reversion; we are a Brownian bridge; we come from common dust and revert to it. Longer term happiness requires the recognition that ultimately you’re made of the same stuff as everyone and everything else.

The acknowledged Goodness of art, literature, charity and mercy stem from their combining volatility with mean reversion; individuals employ their individuality in bursts of selfishness (in writing, painting, business, science, philanthropy, even competition) to make themselves and others aware of their common origin, trajectory and fate: birth, love, pleasure, disappointment, death.  What’s Good about good art is its ability to make one see through others eyes and recognize that their eyes are much like ours.

One cannot eliminate the individual self. But many of the Good things have in common their capacity to utilize the Subjective in the purpose of the Objective.

P.S. At the risk of being sacrilegious and foolish, I think you could argue that Steve Jobs and the iPad are a kind of “profane” version of this kind of goodness, despite the device’s expense and luxury. The fact, as I pointed out recently, that many iPad owners behave as though they feel they invented it themselves, is a hint.

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