Sunday, December 20, 2009

Benevolent Misanthropes

Another really fun discussion I had with my dad over Thanksgiving had to do with the importance of people's motivations and integrity. The subject of our discussion was a friend (or former friend depending on your perspective) whom I considered to be a great teacher and someone from whom the planet had benefited significantly, but whose personal dealings with people and business ethics leave something to be desired from my perspective.

My dad had decided that the latter canceled the former, i.e., you can't be a great thus-and-such and simultaneously be ill-intended, or unethical, or lacking in integrity, or self-justified, etc. For my dad, a person's motivations are paramount. Therefore, the teacher, whom even my dad had once lauded, was now not even a good teacher, nor was he ever.

And we were off and running.

What Do I Care?
My response to my dad was that I wasn't particularly concerned about a person's motivations, or ethics or integrity, only their actions, and particularly, the results those actions yielded. Of particular annoyance to my dad was the fact that I was only concerned about the actions and results insofar as they were directly experienced by or directly affected me. I find that forming an opinion about someone based on hearsay is almost always a losing proposition. I also prefer not to take offense for actions directed at me, let alone for those directed at someone else.

In the end, if someone offered to paint my house, I would consider the quality and reliability of her work and the price. I wouldn't really be concerned about the quality or reliability of her as a person. Nor would I be particularly concerned about the quality of the work she had done for others. Just what she would do for me.

Weighing the Evidence
Now you may say at this point, "Wait! Doesn't the quality of the work done before provide a strong indication of the what I might expect!"

And the answer would be, "Yes, and no."

Previous actions can indeed provide a strong indication of what a person might do in the future, but they're not a guarantee. Further, deciding what a person will do in the future based exclusively on what they've done in the past with others completely discounts your own impact on the situation. So, just because a person previously performed poorly doesn't mandate that they're a hopeless cause. It may just require a little better management on your part.

Motivation as a Causal Factor
My dad wasn't buying any of it. So, I said, what if we were to find out that Einstein had been an immoral, philandering, self-gratifying bastard? Would you toss out relativity as a concept? What if Newton had been an axe-murderer? Would you give up on gravity?

My dad's response was, "If Einstein had been completely ill-intended and immoral, he couldn't have conceived of relativity."

Hmmm... Interesting point. My dad had implied a causal (not casual) relationship between intention and performance: well-intended and moral people with integrity perform better than ill-intended and immoral people.

One could certainly site the current state of world finance as an example of the performance benefits of ill-intended people. The political world is ripe with illustrations of the effects of people whose primary concern is re-election.

My dad's theory certainly appears to have merit. By extension, one might suggest that quality and performance are inversely proportional to degree of ill-intention, i.e., the more ill-intended the person, the less capable the person. (We didn't go the other way as my dad could site many well-intended people who can't do crap.)

God Bless that Bastard Einstein
"OK", I said, "Let's go with that! Let's say that Einstein, being a misanthropic creep, never had the capacity to conceive of relativity? What if he actually stole the idea from someone else and then marketed it better? In fact, what if Einstein's misanthropy blinded him to science, but enabled him as a shameless self-promoter? Then, what do you do with relativity?"

"On the flip side, what if the guy who actually did come up with relativity were so unconcerned about recognition, that, having conceived of it, he wrote it in his notebook, placed it on a shelf and moved on to the next interesting problem? Perhaps none of us would ever have heard: e=mc2? "

"In this case, we could be thankful for both Einstein and the other guy. Then we could view that bastard Einstein's misanthropic self-promotion as a valuable quality that had no relevance to the concept of relativity, yet benefited us all."

This is the point in the conversation where Mark K usually says, "Is Iris around?"

My dad simply said that he didn't want to talk about this anymore.

Loving Shameless Self-promoters
Of course, we never really know another person's motivations and intentions. (With all the questions I ask people, I often wonder if people know their own motivations and intentions.) All we have in the end is our experience of another's actions and we can deem them as beneficial and useful... or not. Someone might be a completely self-aggrandizing, misanthropic cretin who doesn't give a hoot about anyone but himself, and still be helpful to me.

Further, although we're taught over and again that we can predict someone's future behaviors based on their past behaviors, we'd be in a pretty sorry state if that were always the case. None of us would ever change. Perhaps this is the reason so many of us move on in life (to new situations and new people) before making significant changes in ourselves. We simply can't overcome the inertia of other people's beliefs about us, so we find other people who will believe in us.

Finally, when we imbue our heroes with extraordinary moral character or competence in other areas of expertise, we set them up for a fall.

What About You?
What do you think? Can someone be simultaneously ill-intended or "lacking in character" and great at something else? Can they be creeps with others and still be wonderful with you? If so, what do you do with them? How do you navigate the apparent contradiction?

Are there people in your life whom you've written off due to past performance? Perhaps you've never voiced it as such, but you simply expect less from them than from others? Have you (subtly or explicitly) been written off? Have you written yourself off?

Do you imbue great teachers, leaders, friends, family members, celebrities with other characteristics and strengths that may have nothing to do with who they are? What are you satisfying in yourself by doing so?

Would love to know what you guys think!

Happy Sunday!

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