Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: heuristics for whom to trust; a more powerful of thinking through skills-development; an internal ethical compass of fairness, compassion, and justice; the Māori concept of ‘whakapapa’; ‘Atlas Shrugged’ revisited; against moral sainthood; Greta Thunberg reflects; the courage to talk to our kids about the climate crisis; Collage House in Mumbai; and, finally, fighting against aging stereotypes and the confidence and success that comes with experience.
How to know who’s trustworthy
When issues are too complex for us to tackle on our own, we need others’ help to figure out what and how to think.
“We have to make difficult decisions about who should influence our thinking. Given these circumstances, it helps to have an idea of the kind of person we should allow to aid our deliberations. That’s where philosophy comes in handy, as it helps us to establish a set of heuristics for whom to trust with our intellectual lives,” T Ryan Byerly writes in How to know who’s trustworthy.
Like any sort of dependence, this comes with vulnerabilities. “Politicians can lie for personal gain. Misinformation spreads on social media, tearing at the fabric of democracy. Opportunists prey on the vulnerable. Coworkers conceal their knowledge from the group in order to, among other reasons, get ahead — costing companies multiple billions of dollars every year.”
Asking the experts won’t fix this problem. “Sometimes it’s hard to identify who the experts are. Sometimes the experts themselves disagree. Sometimes we lack access to experts. Sometimes experts are manipulated by perverse incentives,” Byerly writes. “Even more importantly, expertise alone can rarely settle the questions that matter to us. This is because settling these issues isn’t just about making a list of facts. It’s about deliberating about these facts in light of our values and objectives. We have to figure out what we, in our particular situation, should do about the facts. And we can’t figure that out without moral clarity and knowledge of ourselves.”
According to Byerly, you should ask yourself these questions about those you might depend on:
- Do they get excited when I make intellectual progress, or only when they influence my views? The foundational virtue of an intellectually trustworthy person is a genuine care for your intellectual wellbeing. If they’re interested only in influencing your views, research suggests that they might attempt to lead you in more extreme directions.
- Are they fearful about sharing their ideas? Are they over-eager for others to approve of their ideas? What you need is someone who’s transparent in sharing their perspective with you. If the other person is too fearful or eager to please, this can lead them to misrepresent their views, leaving you misinformed.
- Are they willing and able to clarify their meaning if I ask them to? Intellectually dependable people realise that beneficial communication needs to make sense. If the other person shies away from clarifying their meaning, or insists it’s your problem for not getting it, you’re unlikely to learn much from them.
- Do they demonstrate an appreciation of my unique perspective, needs and abilities? It’s important for those you depend on to fit their communications to who you are. If they’re too interested in themselves to pay attention to you, or if they take a distorted view of who you are, this can prevent them from sharing what it’s most important for you to know.
- Do they show patience in trying to understand the complexities of my predicament, or are they in a hurry to identify a solution? A hallmark of the wisdom demanded by an intellectual guide is the ability to patiently suss out the intricacies of the dilemmas you face. Being over-eager to recommend a solution can lead the other person to misdiagnose your case.
“Whether a person is intellectually dependable or undependable will tend to reveal itself in their emotions, thoughts and actions. The better we attend to these signs, the better we can function within our networks, and the better we can figure out what to think about the complex problems we confront.”
Links and books provided by the author
Educating for Intellectual Virtues provides a wealth of free resources for those interested in learning about, growing or teaching others about intellectual virtues.
Tent Talk episode 31: Intellectual Virtues and Vices, the philosopher Heather Battaly talks about intellectual virtue and vice in light of social media and the information economy.
Cultivating Good Minds: A Philosophical & Practical Guide to Educating for Intellectual Virtues, by Jason Baehr (download for free or for a donation).
Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology, Robert C Roberts and W Jay Wood (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Integrity, Honesty, and Truth Seeking, edited by Christian B Miller and Ryan West (Oxford University Press, 2020)
A new metaphor for skills-development
“The heavy focus on short-term ROI and the delivery of narrow skill sets oft-evangelized in L&D circles may well be the very source of the ‘skills shortage’ industries face today. This approach has created managers who know how to navigate a performance management platform or follow employment law, but ultimately lack the empathy to keep employees engaged and productive,” Matthew J. Daniel argues Skills aren’t soft or hard — they’re durable or perishable.
“The term ‘soft skills’ is often met with an eye-roll these days. It is regularly delivered with air quotes to acknowledge that most of us have come to hate the expression. There’s a distinction to be made between broad types of skills, to be sure. But the hard/soft distinction doesn’t quite fit. Never mind that the so-called soft skills are actually the hard ones — they are more challenging to obtain and require a deeper and more enduring commitment. Some organizations have kept the same simple bifurcation in their skills frameworks but rebranded soft skills as ‘human skills’ or ‘power skills.’ This doesn’t hit the mark either; even the most human of skills are dependent on some form of digital delivery, and technical skills without human context are a recipe for failure in a world where empathy has become more critical than ever,” Daniel writes.
Although the term was coined in 1991 in an article in The Independent, it was IDEO’s Tim Brown who popularised the concept of T-shaped person. By now, most organisations have bought into the idea that it is important to develop skills in a T-shape, with a horizontal continuum of ‘soft’ or human skills that intersects with deep expertise in a specific area.
But according to Daniel, “[this] T-shaped framework made perfect sense in earlier generations, when employees spent their entire work lives at one or two companies. But career trajectories have become more fluid, with more frequent shifts from one job or career to the next. Add to that the unrelenting evolution of technology tools, and the T-shaped model of skill development in only one technical area seems even less useful now as any technical specialty likely has its own shelf life.”
In reality, these seemingly perpendicular categories are deeply intertwined. But this growing interdependence of human and technical skills is not the only factor that demands new skill-development frameworks, Daniel notes.
“Research suggests that skills generally have a ‘half-life’ of about five years, with the more technical skills at just two and a half years. This results in something that might resemble ‘E-shaped talent,’ or, eventually, a base with new technical skills constantly being built, but also losing relevance in time. Business leaders and learners need a completely new model for thinking about skills, a model that fosters thinking about emerging questions:
- Are skills more durable or more perishable? ‡
- Are skills transferable across roles, job families or industries?
- Are skills in demand, and will they be so in the future?”
“If we only train team members for perishable skills, such as how to use the latest version of a platform or how to navigate our newest process, we’re ultimately limiting how effectively our talent can move between roles and job families and how fungible they are through the product changes, mergers and iterations the company might undergo. Current inertia carries us toward spending time and money on training for perishable skills, thanks to the proliferation of vendor- or platform-specific training programs constantly being marketed toward our learners and business leaders. Although it helps the adoption of their platforms, it may not ultimately position our talent and company for long-term success,” according to Daniel.
“The T-shaped skills development model that accounted for a grounding of soft skills and a deep-dive into a set of hard skills has been more recently modified into an E-shaped model that allowed for multiple levels of deep expertise. But a tree-shaped model may be a more powerful and effective way of thinking through skill development: Durable skills form the roots of the tree, with semi-durable frameworks forming the branches, and more perishable skills coming and going like the leaves with the changing seasons. Our task is to grow a tree that is tall and wide, and flourishes in every season, feeding the roots that keep the tree steady, growing branches of new expertise, and fostering the leaves that change with the passage of time.”
‡ Daniel distinguishes three categories of durability: perishable skills (half-life of less than two and a half years), semi-durable skills (half-life of two and a half to seven and a half years), and durable skills (half-life of more than seven and a half years). He explores each of them further in the article.
The priorities of companies are rooted in the culture of their times, Gabriel Karageorgiou and Dominic Selwood write in Successful Companies Live Up to This Ancient Greek Ideal.
In its days, the British East India Company was, like its Dutch equivalent, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, largely celebrated by its shareholders as a roaring success. Now, we look back in horror at how the Indian subcontinent and Malay Archipelago were systematically asset-stripped. Today, we believe that, for companies to be successful, they must also act in socially responsible and environmentally sustainable ways. But the various environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics by which we assess this behaviour are merely the observable result of a more fundamental set of values — a notion the authors call ‘corporate philotimy.’
Despite its simple etymology — philos, or friend/love, and timi, or honor — the word ‘philotimy’ carries a universe of rich meanings. “It is decency, dignity, honesty, altruism, and a dozen other ideals encapsulating what it means to live with integrity. It is greater than the individual, with a person’s act of philotimo reflecting positively on his or her family, community, organization, and society. It is a universal, transcendent good, an internal ethical compass of fairness, compassion, and justice,” Karageorgiou and Selwood write.
“In the context of an organization, corporate philotimy is the immutable DNA that determines how a company operates at the cellular level. It is the principle that guides a company’s sustainability behavior, which can then be quantified with ESG metrics.”
Building a company with a strong sense of corporate philotimy starts with people.
“The notion that aggressive employees drive success is long dead. Research has definitively shown that productive teams are the direct result of positive work cultures — of deeply held corporate philotimy. In such environments, individuals feel a moral responsibility not to let their teams down. When they see colleagues struggling, they react with compassion. They give credit for collective achievements and avoid blaming others for failures. As a team, they forge a strong ‘we are in this together’ bond, focused not on the bare minimum they are asked to do but on anything and everything they can do to contribute to the team’s success,” Karageorgiou and Selwood write.
This is supported by both academic and anecdotal evidence, such as Google’s project to understand what makes a perfect team. Dubbed Project Aristotle, in honor of the philosopher’s well-known dictum that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Google “found that cultures of empathy and kindness give teams a psychological safety net. This structural reassurance translates into greater levels of trust, respect, and engagement, enabling individuals to take initiative and share new ideas without fear of judgment.”
As virtue can be tricky to assess, hiring people who will bring a strong sense of philotimy to your team is much more difficult .
“[But] there are tells: candidates who use ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’ who share credit, own errors, and enjoy contributing to collective success. There are no easy answers or foolproof recruiting practices, but prioritizing individual philotimy in your hiring process is central to building organizational integrity.”
“Societies increasingly expect companies to be genuinely sustainable. They expect the businesses they support to look after their customers, their employees, their communities, and the planet. These characteristics — the hallmarks of corporate philotimy — demand a deeply ingrained sense of individual and organizational responsibility, and they create a positive work culture that inevitably translates into higher productivity. Companies that embrace philotimy don’t promise more than they can deliver, and they deliver more than they promise. To paraphrase Socrates, an undying sense of philotimy is what inspires individuals and organizations to behave as they would wish to be remembered.
Tackling the world’s most-pressing social and environmental issues will take authentically self-motivated, purpose-driven organizations working together to build a global business culture of corporate philotimy. In a world where more often than not, politicians and regulators fail to address these vital issues, companies must act with philotimo, embracing their moral obligation to serve as a force for good in their local communities and around the globe.”
And also this…
By reimagining our relationship with time — and coming to terms with death — we can improve our existence, argues the social philosopher and auhor of The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, Roman Krznaric, in Three ideas for how to live a fuller life.
“One of the ways to make sense of our existence is to draw on the wisdom of indigenous cultures whose worldviews dissolve the barriers between life and death, offering a sense of transcendence,” Krznaric writes.
“There is an inspiring Māori concept known as whakapapa, which is their word for ‘lineage’ or ‘genealogy.’ It is the idea that we are all connected in a great chain of life that links the present back to the generations of the past and forward to all the generations going on into the future.
It so happens that the light is shining on this moment, here and now, and the idea of whakapapa helps us shine the light more broadly, so we can see everyone throughout the landscape of time. It allows us to recognise that the living, the dead and the unborn are all here in the room with us. And we need to respect their interests as much as our own. Making this imaginative leap is challenging, especially for those of us immersed in a highly individualistic Western consumer culture.”
“But we can begin to do so with help from another thought experiment that involves journeying through time. Think of a child you know and care about — perhaps a godchild, a niece, or one of your own children or grandchildren. Now imagine them at their 90th birthday party, surrounded by family and friends. Picture their aged face, look at what is happening in the world outside the window. And now imagine someone comes over and places a tiny baby into their arms: it’s their first great-grandchild. They look into the baby’s eyes and ask themselves, ‘What would this child need to survive and thrive into the years and decades ahead?’
Sit with that thought for a moment. Then recognise that this tiny baby could be alive well into the 22nd Century. Their future isn’t science fiction. It’s an intimate family fact, just a couple of steps away from your own life. If we care about that baby’s life, we need to care about all life: all the people it will need for support; the air it will breathe; the whole web of life.
This kind of thought experiment can help us transcend the limits of our own lifespan and get in touch with the wisdom of whakapapa. We are all part of the great chain of life. And by recognising our place in it, we start extending our sense of what constitutes ‘the now,’ shifting from a now of seconds and minutes and hours to a longer now of decades, centuries and even millennia. A now that gives us a sense of responsibility for the legacies we leave for the generations of tomorrow, while respecting the generations of the past.”
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s fourth and final novel from 1957, venerates risk-taking executives and innovators as heroes, Daniel Akst writes in Revisiting Atlas Shrugged. But whatever its literary shortcomings, there’s no denying its cultural impact.
According to Akst, “there is good reason […] to consider the lean parable at the heart of this fat book, and to ask what we can learn from it about the inequality that has become a large and still growing issue worldwide. It’s an issue that business leaders ignore at their peril.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand had one important insight: In the modern world, liberty and inequality will tend to grow or shrivel in tandem. As everyone in business knows, human abilities differ, a fact made obvious when people and their talents are relatively unfettered. As a result, it will be challenging for free societies to limit inequality without also constraining freedom. That challenge is magnified by technology, which allows the most talented to have the widest possible impact and reap the greatest share of rewards.
In the face of such developments, Atlas Shrugged seems relevant not just as a cautionary tale about collusion and creeping socialism, but as a useful caricature of a self-dramatizing elite — one so swollen with wealth and self-importance that it tries to bring the entire country to heel by withholding the magic of its energy and intelligence.”
“Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, and her outlook was shaped by her family’s flight from the Russian Revolution. This formative horror of collectivism probably accounts for her failure to appreciate something wise executives and entrepreneurs know: that if freedom produces inequality, freedom can only persist in a democracy if its greatest beneficiaries voluntarily embrace a very old-fashioned ethic — one of personal propriety and public service firmly anchored in country and community.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the clairvoyant 19th-century Frenchman whose Democracy in America is such an uncanny guide to the national character, said that the United States was marked by a ‘legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater.’ But he also warned of ‘a depraved taste for equality which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.’
Societies need the talents and leadership of their most capable citizens. But it’s dangerous for these gifted individuals to develop a messianic complex, just as it’s dangerous for the rest of us to erect guillotines outside their houses.”
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As philosopher Susan Wolf argues, life is far more meaningful and rich if we do not aim at being morally perfect.
In Moral Saints (1982), Wolf imagines two models of moral sainthood: the Loving Saint and the Rational Saint. “The Loving Saint […] does whatever is morally best in a joyful spirit: such a life is not fun-free, but it is unerringly and unwaveringly focused on morality. We are to think of the Loving Saint as the kind of person who cheerfully sells all of her or his possessions in order to donate the proceeds to famine relief. The Rational Saint is equally devoted to moral causes, but is motivated not by a constantly loving spirit, rather by a sense of duty,” Daniel Callcut writes in Against moral sainthood.
“One ongoing theme in Wolf’s philosophy is that it isn’t the wisest idea to look to moral theories in order to find comprehensive ideals of how to live. Moral concepts mark out very important areas of life but don’t tell us everything about life or how to live it. It’s therefore not a criticism of a moral theory that life wouldn’t be very appealing if we transformed the theory in question into our sole answer to life’s questions. That would be to misunderstand the role of a moral theory. Wolf, in putting moral theory in its place, wants to liberate moral philosophy from some of its excessive moralism. We can be inspired in how to live by all sorts of sources: a lover we met online, a neighbour, a character in a TV series, a line of poetry.
Wolf is particularly interested in leaving room for individual interests and passions to shape one’s life, and thinks that meaning in life is unlikely to come from morality as such. In part, this is because meaning often comes from commitment to your loved ones, and on numerous occasions your commitment to family and friends will come ahead of your commitment to doing what would be morally ideal. Take an example from a recent psychological study by researchers at Oxford and Yale: if you are committed to your grandson, then you might give him money to fix his car ahead of helping a charity dedicated to combating malaria, even if doing the latter would do more good. The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person. You can be ‘perfectly wonderful,’ as Wolf says, ‘without being perfectly moral.’”
“You might find meaning in life from a specific moral cause — working to prevent homelessness for example — but that’s different from trying to find meaning by doing whatever is morally ideal on every occasion. Indeed, the individual character of your life is given by its concrete combination of relationships, passions and interests. Wolf, against the current of much popular philosophical thought, holds the view that meaning in life depends on spending your life absorbed in activities that are objectively good. ‘Meaning in life arises,’ as Wolf says in a brilliant slogan, ‘when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness …’ But the objective goods that typically provide meaning are, according to Wolf, the non-moral goods that a moral saint’s life would be so sorely lacking in: loving relationships (including friendships), engagement with the natural world, love of fine art or great sport, and so on.
These non-moral goods will in practice be instantiated (as philosophers say) in an actual life: in my case, a loving relationship is, for example, a 20-year friendship with Chris; an engagement with the natural world is a nightly walk through Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire; a love of fine art is a love of Frida Kahlo’s paintings; a love of great sport is a Saturday afternoon following the football. We each have our own subjective attractions to the good things in life. ‘Time,’ as the poet Nick Laird wrote, ‘is how you spend your love.’
Nature lovers aren’t typically concerned about Nature in the abstract but rather about specific goings-on that they are directly involved with: how will the puffins cope at Bempton Cliffs now that the sand eels have been overfished, and so on. You might, however, start out with a love of the puffins and end up joining a moral cause to save them: perhaps a local environmental movement. And this could be taken as evidence that Wolf’s strong distinction between the moral and the non-moral is, in practice, blurry. Love can take you from a non-moral interest to a moral commitment, and it might be hard to specify where that line is crossed.
You might, for example, work as a benefits officer and come to like a particular resident of your district. Concern for her grows into concern over the policies that are changing her life and her family’s life for the worse. You could come to be rather saint-like in your dedication to getting the policies changed. But, if you have absorbed Wolf’s lessons, you will not throw away your whole life for the sake of the cause. You will continue to make time for friends, for lazy summer nights watching the bees hum in the lavender, and you won’t lose that brilliantly sarcastic sense of humour. You won’t become, in other words, a moral saint.”
In an interview with National Geographic, Greta Thunberg reflects on living through multiple crises in a ‘post-truth society’ and considers the successes of the youth climate movement and the challenges faces.
[NG] So do you think in order to address the climate crisis, we might need like a cultural shift or a paradigm shift rather than just passing carbon taxes and legislation, influencing leaders and developing technology?
“Well if I say that, then people will take that quote out of context and say that I want a revolution or something. But I mean the climate crisis is not the only problem here. It is just a symptom of a larger crisis. Like the loss of biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, and loss of fertile soil, and so on. And these things will not just be solved by stopping our emissions of greenhouse gases. The earth is a very complex system. If you take one thing and put it out of balance then that will have an impact on things beyond our comprehension. And that goes for equality as well. Humans are part of nature, and if we are not doing well, then nature is not doing well, because we are nature.”
[NG] I’m curious if you feel like your moral duties or your responsibility has changed as you’ve become this more recognized name.
“Well, yes. Of course everyone has a responsibility, but the bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility. And the bigger your power, the bigger your responsibility. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. So of course, as I’ve gotten a bigger platform that also comes with a bigger responsibility. I must use these channels, or whatever you would call them, to educate, to spread awareness.
And the things, all the resources I have, they will disappear one day. I mean, I won’t be this person for a long time. Soon people will lose interest in me and I won’t be so-called ‘famous’ anymore. And then I will have to do something else. So I’m trying to, as long as I have this platform, use it.”
[NG] How do you plan on sustaining this movement? Are there specific things we need to do that are different from what needed to be done two years ago or one year ago or eight months ago?
“I mean, it’s very complex. But right now we have kind of hit the wall. There are no arguments left. There are no excuses left. Now, it’s just, either you try to minimize the crisis or just completely deny it, or you try to distract. We just need to start treating the crisis like a crisis and continue to lift up the science, but now everyone’s blaming each other and we are stuck in a loop. We won’t get anywhere unless someone breaks that chain, so to speak. Someone needs to do something. I mean, of course, many people have to do lots of things, but unless someone with a big platform or big responsibility does something to start treating the crisis like a crisis — for instance, the media — then we won’t be able to move from here.”
In We need to talk to our kids about the climate crisis. But courage fails me when I look at my son, Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s leading writers on climate change, writes:
“Our children carry the lessons learned in childhood far into the future. Uli Edel’s 2009 film The Baader Meinhoff Complex documents the bombings, bank robberies and killings that were carried out by radical gangs in Germany in the 1970s and 80s. Based on detailed evidence, it makes the case that radicalised youth was a response to the unacknowledged Nazi past of their parents’ generation. The Baader Meinhoff gang grew up in a world where prominent Nazis remained in positions of high authority. They acted as they did because they felt there had been no justice — no reckoning for the horrific acts their parents had been part of.
I strongly believe we need to speak with our children about the growing climate threat: about responsibility, impacts and forgiveness. Yet as I look at my young son playing with his Lego or reading his children’s books, my courage fails me. I keep putting the discussion off, as I suspect many workers in the fossil fuels industry do when it comes to speaking to their children.
Yet if we fail to explain the state of the world we have created, and our role in helping create it, I greatly fear that some in the next generation will grow into very angry young people indeed.”
“Living in Mumbai, India it is impossible to ignore the informal settlements in the city, and if looked at closely there are many lessons to be learnt in frugality, adaptability, multi-tasking, resourcefulness and ingenuity. A visual language emerges that is of the found object, ad-hoc, eclectic, patched and collaged.”
At Collage House (2015), S+PS Architects have attempted “to apply some of these lessons without romanticizing or fetishizing them. The project looks at the idea of recycling and collage in several ways, from the very physical — like materials, energy, etc. to the intangible — like history, space and memories.”
As a result, the architects have created stunningly beautiful architecture — a poetic amalgamation of the surrounding urban landscape.
“Perhaps the Hughs’ third act is so pleasing because in essence they are following the trajectory we all hope to follow — in some more minor key and in our far less glamorous ways — in our own lives. Fun-filled early years that manage to sow some decent seeds, consolidate the gains and correct our paths in middle age and then reap the harvest after that.” — Lucy Mangan in A tale of two Hughs: Laurie and Grant reap the rewards of wisdom
“The whole dogma of successful aging is that aging well means working hard to continue to look and move like a younger version of yourself — in effect, to not age. Instead of continuing to grow and expand, there’s pressure to stop the clock. That’s denial.” — Ashton Applewhite in Fighting Against Aging Stereotypes