That means that if this blog were a book, it would feel pretty good hanging out with the tomes of David Foster Wallace, Gore Vidal, and Neal Stephenson. It wouldn't feel at all inadequate when chilling on the shelf with those books, and would resist the temptation to perhaps throw its weight around, drink too much, flirt with underage people and try to impress them.
Also, if it were a book, you could pick it up and kill an attacking thug or vicious animal with it.
But it's not a book. It's a blog. An ephemeral outpouring of my brainial reactions going on for about nine years already. Sound and fury, so I decided to try and accomplish something with my 1500th "landmark" entry. I put this very important question (indeed, you could make an argument that it is central to our continued shared existence on the planet) to a bunch of people who are smarter than I am: “How can we make being decent to one's fellows in the best interest of the person being decent?”
Because it seems like that's at the root of it, yeah? Some people do it because they're afraid of afterlife punishment or to garner good karma, while some do it just because it makes them feel good. Some people are just nice. Speaking personally, I try to make the occasions when I am decent to people outnumber the ones where I am not, because I am disgusted and angry with the way many people treat others, and I don't want to feel disgusted and angry with myself.
But what if you're someone for whom none of those motivations work? What if you're a prick? Shouldn't we, as a group of developing, intelligent people, be able to come up with some way to incentivize good behavior? Make it worth people's while in an immediate, tangible way to help their brother or sister out? Here's what other people thought:
Erin Hannon: "I'm afraid I think that selfish people are selfish people, and that there are selfish reasons to be decent to others (like, others will be decent back, your world is better, etc.), but I also think that being decent means disregarding how you feel about the act of being decent and simply deciding that you need to be decent. This is more of a view on charity (tzedakah-- don't worry, I'm not Jewish but I like the way Jews talk about certain things). It doesn't really matter how you feel about doing the good deed, it just matters that you do it. And I guess my attitude has always been that people should be compelled by something other than self-interest when it comes to behaving altruistically towards others."
Carissa Cascio: "My initial thoughts turn to culture...and the western (and especially American) emphasis on the individual. Personal responsibility, the "self-made man," the heavy focus on independence, etc. We're all taught to look out for #1 because no one else will, and in this kind of a system, being good to other people must always at a cost to our own interests in one way or another. I wish we could move a little more in the direction of cultures that place a stronger emphasis on groups, and much less on ownership and individual achievement. It seems that more of this mindset would make it easier for us to do right by each other, because we'd be more accustomed to thinking in terms of the greater good and of ourselves as a small part of a more important whole. Of course, there would be downsides too, but I think your question itself shows how far we are to one extreme of that cultural continuum."
Eric S. Piotrowski: "My first response is to paraphrase Gautama Buddha: Suffering can be ended by following the noble eightfold path -- right action leads to less suffering. Not only for others, but for ourselves.
People who do nasty things tend to suffer -- James Baldwin said "People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it, very simply, by the lives they lead."
Now, Garrett, you have said in the past that this requires a leap of faith -- and what are we to do if the universe does NOT mete out this consequence to those who do ill toward their fellow humans? Alas, I don't have a very good answer to that question.
But I will say that it seems to me that most acts of incredible mercy (Emmit Till's mother, Debbie Morris -- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/angel/interviews/dmorris1.html -- etc) produce goodness in others, especially people unconnected to the ones giving or receiving mercy. On the other hand, cycles of vengeance and punishment tend not to make things better in the long run, Instead (as in Israel/Palestine, to give just one example) we just go around and around, shedding more blood and causing more pain.
Fania Davis said: "Harmed people harm people. Healed people heal people." I've found that to be true for the most part. So I try to help people get healed."
Kristin Mary Johnson: "If you're remotely inherently decent, you'll sleep better. If you're not but "christian," St. Peter and/or God will be happier to see you. If your choice between decency and indecency is in reaction, you may give up legal recourse if you choose the latter. If your decency has a dollar value, it may be tax-deductible. In any case, if you're not decent and simultaneously intolerant of indecency, you're a hypocrite. Nobody likes hypocrites."
Janet Heilbronn: "By being kind to someone else I learn to "practice" kindness. It is a place of grace, sometimes forgiveness (for a transgression - ie; hurtful words etc) and love. It expands the very thing I want to grow - what I focus on comes more into focus. Being kind/decent to others helps me navigate kindness/decency toward myself and in turn toward others and in turn toward myself ..... you get the idea."
By doing this I can pause and remember that "just like me they are doing the best they can, just like them I am doing the best I can"....grace
Whitney Flatt: "In a word—networking. You never know who you may re-run into in life, and it’s advantageous for each person to show kindness to strangers and non-strangers alike. A simple, kind exchange with someone could come full circle and benefit you in the long run (e.g. they could do you a favor, help you get a job, bequeath you large sums of money (if you’re extra extra nice), etc). Niceness is, thus, an investment in your own future.
Let the record reflect, I don't personally feel this should be the main motivator for being nice. However, it is an option for those who are difficult to motivate."
Chelle Lee: "I've done a poll. We are discussing this now, and I apologize for the simplicity of it. For us, it's two different things: those you are a boss to and those you aren't. It's easier for those over whom you are the boss. In order for them to get a raise or whatever, they sorta have to. For those you aren't, you and I have actually discussed this. It seems like a cop out, but it really is a "do unto others" thing. One that lives on, or at least tries to, that principal, the answer is easy: you do what makes it "easy" or palatable for yourself. Understanding others is the hard part. When you are happy enough with yourself, or can accept yourself and the person you are, making other people happy with your decision isn't as important. For me, however, I struggle daily with the balance between what I know won't make waves and what is "ok" with me. While I'm no "bible thumper", I do live by that rule. "Decent" is relative. It's relative to the person delivering the decency. I'm sorry if this sounds around the world, but I have spent these weeks thinking on it and it comes back to me as somewhat selfish: it's not about them...it's about you. As a nation and a population, I think we've list sight of that. We are so afraid of "being selfish" that we try to keep everyone else happy while never thinking of the smaller picture. Make you and yours happy, productive people and citizens and, little by little, the world will be a better place."
Meredith Hansel: "Consequences. I'd rather face the consequences of being a good person instead of the consequences of being a bad person."
Cayce Callaway: "Okay, maybe I'm simple; probably I am, but this doesn't seem so hard to me. My husband can tell you I've been saying some version of this for a long time: It's just a way more pleasant way to live when you keep conflict with others to a minimum. So maybe I'm less simple than selfish. I just prefer being happy. It makes my life easier. And I assume others also want their lives to be easier, so if I'm decent to them we're all better off.
In addition, I've never really seen a benefit from treating others like crap. Even if I don't agree with them, I'm not going to change them, so jumping up and down and making a lot of noise is more about me than them (that one took me awhile in life).
I believe, in general, we gravitate toward what makes us feel good. Paradoxically, sometimes what makes us feel good is behaving in a way that makes someone else feel bad. I think we're better off simmering on that bit of character and weaning ourselves off the aggression tit than assuming we're changing the world one asshole at a time. Because we're not making anyone better with a hammer.
In summary, when we're decent to those around us - even the ones who will never be our best friends - life gets a little easier for all of us."
Matt Olson: "I don't have much to add to Cayce's sentiments except to say that being decent (a low bar, really) is its own reward. It's said that there is no logical, evolutionary explanation for altruism, yet people are altruistic on a daily basis. It is hard to change people's behavior by force of will, but comparatively easy to comport yourself in the manner which you wish others would comport themselves. You may often find yourself disappointed, but how is that different from now?"
LJ Ratliff: "I view us all as connected, all part of nature and the whole that is the Earth and all of her beings. The animals and plants who help each other as simply what they are here to do to create mutual support for life, and humans are part of this system. We breathe out carbon dioxide that the trees breathe in to live and the trees breathe out oxygen which we breathe in to live. This is how the world works. So with this deeply natural and logical belief system, I feel like I am doing my part, playing my distinct role on the planet, when I can engage in mutually supportive relationships with others. When I "help" another I receive spiritually simply because I have helped. I feel rewarded emotionally. I believe in compassion. And so the person I have helped has in turn, helped me. People who do not feel the gift of serving have shut down the part of them that is deeply connected to the natural world, the spiritual world, the world. They may have been wounded so badly they have a protective wall around them and thus cannot allow themselves to care or give or feel the gift of being able to give. Patch Adams, M.D. is a clown and doctor in West Virginia who prescribes that his patients with depression all go to visit elderly people living in nursing homes. The simple act of connecting and giving to another is therapeutic. I ask my depressed clients to step out of their own misery to volunteer in some way in the world and they experience moments of emotional stability because of it. Some experience life changing transformations."
Mitch Silverman: "I can't exactly answer your question--because I don't think it's possible. That is, we can't make anything in anyone's best interests. Well, I guess we could, but any such regime would smack awfully of 1984.
So, I'll refactor the question: "How can we teach people that being decent to each other is in everyone's best interests?" Note two shifts: "Make" to "teach," and from "one's fellows... [to another] person" to "each other." I think behaving decently is reflexive. That is, being nice to others is being nice to yourself. Also, it's much easier to be nice to others if you are nice to yourself. The woman my wife heard the other day berating her daughter in Wal-Mart... how must she feel about herself to be so horrible to her own flesh and blood?
There are three ideas--techniques--that I think would really help people be nice to each other. First is positive psychology. So much of what mental-health workers do today is directed at pathology--how to treat clinical and personality disorders, how to treat mentally ill people. Positive psychology is simply the notion that studying and habilitating how humans function well helps people, families, and groups to thrive.
If mental-health professionals can enhance how people interact instead of dealing with people’s pathology (and pathologizing people), then fewer people will be so out of balance so as to scream at their children.
The second idea is mindfulness--being conscious, in a nonjudgmental way, of yourself at a given moment. If you're an automaton, it's easy to scream at your child—effortless. But, much harder if you can look at yourself and realize that there is another way you could engage with someone else—or yourself.
The third idea is compassion. As this graphic says, you have no idea what someone else is going through. Or, maybe you do. Screaming at your child: How would you have felt if your mother screamed at you that way? Or maybe she did—so put yourself in your daughter’s shoes.
These last two ideas are parts, I think, of the Buddhist concept of “right action.” To me, right action is trying to do the best thing I can at any given moment. And remember: We didn’t get this messed up overnight, so, progress, not perfection.
But there is one other key. Without it, all this is worthless. With it, even one of these ideas—even a little bit of one—could do a lot of good. These ideas need to be taught—and shown by example, not just preached. Jesus may have tried this—but it’s hard to tell. But there is textual evidence (see Stephen Batchelor’s books) that the Buddha was more the Albert Ellis of his time than Joseph Smith.
So: Be positive—and get help with it. Keep an eye on yourself. Remember that others are among the sick and suffering, just like you. And teach these ideas, by word and example.
Becky Katz: "I think that one thing many people tend to forget is that the people around them are human beings—and that we all have different hopes and dreams, as well as baggage, battles and challenges. We should be extra-decent to some of the people others tend to treat like furniture: the undocumented immigrant, the busboy, the waitress at an inexpensive diner, the toll-taker, the cleaning staff, the mail person and many others. We all have different burdens and personal battles. You never know who’s being beaten by their spouse, going hungry, struggling with a food addiction, fighting with their children, separated from their family, being taken advantage of by their boss, dealing with a bad illness or a relative’s impending death... The point, if there is one, is that being decent, since you never know what others are going through, is good for you in itself. It gives you a very different outlook in life, making you more positive in general and reminding you of how lucky you really are."
Jesse Greist: "As we look at the collected canon of the worlds major (and less major) religious traditions, one tenet seems to appear nearly everywhere - The so called "Golden Rule". It is ignored in practice by many of the worlds faithful, and is misunderstood by even more, but it is truly amazing that in so many corners of the once unconnected world, this basic idea appeared so often, and in many cases has developed independently.
Here are a few textual extracts: "And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself" -From Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Baha'i)
"Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful" - Udana-Varga 5:18 (Buddhism)
"And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" - Matthew 7:12 (Christianity, King James Bible)
"Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" - from Analects 15:23 (Confucianism)
"Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you" - Mahabharata 5:1517 (Hinduism)
"None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself" - # 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths (Islam)
"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" -Leviticus 19:18 (Judaism)
"Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss" -T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien (Taoism)
"An' it harm no one, do what thou wilt" - The Wiccan Recede
"Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others" - Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29 (Zoroastrianism)
that is to say, we all basically agree that it is in one's best interests to be decent and even kind to others. History has shown us however, that beliefs and actions are often difficult to align."
Joe Basilone: "I suppose this is how religion has been persuading us to act for thousands of years now, only without the whole "if you don't act with decency, consider your ass smote" clause tacked onto the end? I'm going to assume for the sake of argument that my own drive to be a positive, decent force in this world is part and parcel to my ego-maniacal desire to leave some sort of legacy behind. Not just any legacy, but a guaranteed spot in the 5th grade McGraw-Hill textbook-style legacy. There's two ways to do that, and to paraphrase Mr. Benjamin Franklin, it's to write something worth reading, or do something worth writing about. Either way, you've got a choice: good or evil, decent or not. I'd prefer to not be remembered as a prick. So there you have it. My drive to be decent to others is completely intertwined with my own crippling selfishness. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. Does this even remotely begin to address your question?"
Jess Falcone: "karma:)"