Liberalism & Moral Judgments

There is a very common misconception that liberalism endorses an “everything goes” approach to morality, where people can do whatever they want. Some of my liberal friends feel guilty when they judge others, seeing it as a personal weakness that taints their liberal outlook.

Liberalism is not synonymous with moral relativism. To be a liberal simply means accepting that people’s life choices are theirs to make, and you cannot impose your views on them, or compel them to live by your own moral values.

Can you consider their life choices bad? Absolutely.

Can you try to persuade them to change their lifestyle? Only if they are willing to listen. Again, you cannot force your views on others.

Can you share your moral views publicly? You must, if you want to have any influence on the culture you live within. You cannot lament the spread of fanaticism, intolerance, immorality, and lack of consideration when you are not taking an active part in promoting your moral views.

To lead a healthy, moral life you must first begin by exemplifying your values through your personal conduct. That alone is far more influential than trying to persuade others with evidence and arguments they see clashing with your behavior.

Next, you should appeal to other people’s views, before you seek to change their values. Present rational arguments that lead to a change in perspective, rather than demand they adopt your values with threats of violence or through legislative means. Liberalism opposes the use of force, both physical and legal in trying to control human behavior.

If you want to influence others, speak up. Some will listen to you, many will ignore you, and others will speak against you. That’s part of engaging with society and causing a mental shift in people’s views and values.

Finally, I would like to stress on the difference between passing judgment and being judgmental. The first is about evaluating behaviors, whereas the second is about obsessing over other people’s behaviors and trying to evaluate them as people.

Morality isn’t about throwing people into “Good” and “Bad” categories. It’s about encouraging good behaviors (that lead to well-being and happiness), while discouraging bad ones (that lead to hostility and harm). This means that humans have the capacity to make moral choices and take responsibility for their actions.

If you’re not happy with the state of the world, begin with yourself, then contribute to a positive trend in society. Others live by their own choices, but you can help them make better ones.

Problems & Problematic Solutions

We often think in terms of problems and solutions: what don’t we want, and how to get rid of them.

But in many cases, personal and political, the proposed solutions contribute to the problem, instead of fixing it. The solution simply takes the problem in a new direction or to a new level.

This is incredibly common in politics, where solutions are proposed on party lines, all other solutions are dismissed or ridiculed, and there is no evaluation of how effective solutions are. What’s worse is that those who oppose a policy (proposed solution) are vilified, without considering whether the opposition has merit or not.

We think in terms of being part of the problem or part of the solution, while failing to identify the problems masquerading as solutions.

Solving problems demands that we constantly evaluate and re-evaluate our understanding of the problem and the effectiveness of the solutions we propose, as well as an openness to consider other possible solutions.

Kuwait & Corruption

Wainra7at (Kuwaiti for: where did it – i.e. the money – go?) is a Twitter account that lists (in Arabic) the tenders granted by the Kuwaiti government, giving the amount paid, for what service, and to which company. Some of the numbers are extremely depressing, when you compare the amount paid to the service requested, especially when you know how poorly the job was done.

Many Kuwaitis feel frustrated by the corruption and seek to end such inflated tenders, as a way of protecting public money.

While measures should be taken to prevent such corruption, I’m personally not concerned with the amounts paid as I am with the services rendered. It seems that those who request the services – in many cases – don’t know how to evaluate the quality of the work they’re asking for. Visit any government institute or ministry website (examples here and here), and you’ll wonder who signed off on such projects.

Please sit down before you read the next sentence: one ministry website I used (I don’t recall which) produced an error message that the service I was trying to use can only be used with Internet Explorer!

Spending a great deal of money on a website is unfortunate. Spending a great deal for a terrible website is catastrophic.

There are two problems highlighted by the Wainra7at account, which can be tackled separately:

  1. How much is being paid: This can be addressed by drawing comparisons between similar tenders (and the cost differences between them), or a comparison with a similar project conducted outside Kuwait, and how much that cost
  2. The quality of the service offered: This can be tackled by setting standards for the services offered to (and paid by) the Kuwaiti government. The input of experts in the field can be enormously helpful, in addition to feedback from actual users

What do you think? How can corruption be tackled? And are you more concerned about the money spent by the government or the quality of the services provided by companies who win government tenders?

Should You Work On One Habit At A Time?

A number of writers in the field of personal growth recommend working on developing a single habit, and only move on to the next habit once you have etched the previous habit in your psyche & daily routine. Some advocate working on forming a habit for 21 consecutive days, whereas others suggest sticking to a habit for 30 days. At one point Leo Babauta (of Zen Habits) recommended working on only 6 habits for the entire year.

I recently went back on the slow carb diet (mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body book, and summarized in this post) after 2 years of ungodly, mindless eating habits. I’ve been on the diet for just over 10 days, but during that time I’ve:

  • Stopped eating carbs (rice, bread, and sweets) – except on cheat day
  • Stopped drinking diet coke and other soft drinks
  • Stopped consuming dairy products
  • Replaced coffee with green tea
  • Started listening to audiobooks on the road
  • Started drinking over 2L of water a day
  • Started publishing blog posts again
  • And have probably made other changes I can’t recall at the moment

I’ve made all these changes within the span of a week, and I’m feeling very comfortable with the changes so far. I didn’t adopt all these changes at once, but made the changes when I felt comfortable doing so. I’m aiming to adopt a few more habits in the upcoming days.

That’s because one change encourages other changes, as I celebrate my success with one habit, gain more confidence to tackle another, and experience more energy that allows me to do more and be more mindful and attentive to my choices.

From personal experience, I believe what matters isn’t how many habits we choose to focus on, but that we pick a starting point, rather than feel overwhelmed with all the changes we want to experience.

My advice is: Visualize what changes you can make tomorrow to your daily routine, focus only on the changes you have chosen, then notice what other changes you can make, while making progress towards the life you want to lead.

What has been your experience with forming habits? Have you been able to work on more than one habit at a time?

Dirty Politics

I’ve heard the following opinion expressed by secularists justifying the need for the separation of religion and politics:

Religion has no place in politics. Politics is a dirty game fueled by personal interests, which will only taint the sanctity of religion.

I’m not entirely sure whether it’s an intentional misrepresentation of both religion and politics, or a genuine misunderstanding of the two, but such an argument doesn’t support secularism. It simply raises the question:

Why would any decent human being be involved in politics if it’s so dirty?

The fact that there is a great deal of corruption and deception in politics doesn’t mean that this must always be the case. In fact, the impression of politics as dirty justifies these tactics to some politicians as a necessary evil and part of the game.

In the same way businessmen can justify unethical practices with the excuse “business is business,” politicians can try to get away with their unethical practices by blaming the rules of the game than taking responsibility for their actions.

Anyone who claims politics is a dirty game narrows the chances of ethical conduct in politics. Removing religion from the game doesn’t make it more or less ethical. But we need to assert that politics – again, just like business – can be practiced ethically, without any deception or compromise of moral values.

It is also false to assume that religion is too clean to be mixed with politics. It is often the case that politics is dirtied by religion, and not the other way around. Politics simply offers religion greater powers, a wider scope of operation, and the legitimacy to enact its teachings as laws. It depends on the religion (often the interpretation of a religion by its adherents in power) that determines how fair or fascist the state becomes.

All vices you can imagine have been justified by different religions throughout history. From censorship, to slavery, to child abuse, to rape, to murder, to torture, to war. Religion introduces an additional way of dividing peoples and, unfortunately, many religious preachers advocate hate and animosity towards the followers of other religions, instead of compassion and good will.

It’s not the sanctity of religion that secularism seeks to protect, but the sanctity of human life, freedom and reason. For all citizens, regardless of race or religion.

Secularism aims to treat all citizens equally, and to offer them the freedom to live by their own convictions (religious or not), without any threat or discrimination from the state on account of personal convictions and religious affiliations.

Secularism encourages freethinking, without basing laws on religious dogma that can’t be questioned or reformed. This helps lawmakers study the laws they propose, to search for supporting/opposing evidence, evaluate the results, and be open to change laws that compromise human life or treat citizens unfairly.

Secularism doesn’t aim to prevent people from living by their convictions, but it does prevent them from enforcing their convictions on others.

This cannot be done in a theocracy, where the status of the law is considered divine and must be imposed on all.

Politics can be a means to protecting people’s rights and coordinating their affairs. It can be dirtied with or without religion. We should encourage ethical conduct in politics, rather than contribute to the dirt and corruption we complain about.

Quote: On Emotion In Motion

“Don’t wait for your feelings to change to take the action. Take the action and your feelings will change.”

~Barbara Baron

This is one of my favorite quotes on motivation, productivity, and personal change.

We often try to change our emotions before we engage with our surroundings and take a step towards our goals, when the act of taking that first step will have a much more profound influence on our emotions and seeing the results we want.

Truth & Conviction

One of the most important principles to critical thinking, open-mindedness, and fruitful ideological discussions is that truth and conviction are two different things.

Just because you are convinced of a belief does not make it true, nor does it mean that others must accept it to be true. And even if the belief is true, others have to be convinced that it is before they embrace it.

Critical thinking does not bother too much about whether a conclusion is true or not, but looks at how a thinker arrived at their conclusion. Was the conclusion reached through independent inquiry (as opposed to confirmation biases), a consideration of facts (as opposed to assumptions and inherited beliefs), and rational reasoning (as opposed to rationalizations and logical fallacies)?

If the facts and reasoning are sound, they will take care of the conclusion. But a healthy mind needs to consider facts and connect them through reason to arrive at a conclusion. Without the foundations, a conclusion is simply an assertion. It makes a claim about reality without offering any evidence.

For you to share your convictions with others, they must be exposed to the reasoning you used to arrive at these convictions. Only then can they properly consider your beliefs and whether they can accept them to be true or not.

Human beings don’t think in a vacuum. Any person you have a discussion with will have formed an impression of what the truth is. This is largely influenced by religion and culture (to varying degrees, depending on one’s society and upbringing). For you to effectively communicate your beliefs with others, you have to take their existing beliefs into consideration, and to build your line of reasoning from their current beliefs to yours, in a way that is logical and relevant to their thinking.

I’m always baffled by those who seek to convince others of the truth of their religion by simply quoting their scriptures. They assume that exposure to scripture alone is sufficient in cultivating conviction. And what’s more troubling is the fact that – in most cases – they have never stopped to question their own convictions and how they arrived at them. The vast majority of religious people live their lives with the convictions of their parents, and the beliefs they were taught through their upbringing.

They grow up to assume that their sense of certainty (largely formed as a bubble of ignorance of other beliefs and perspectives) is self-evident or blatantly obvious that no one can deny it, unless they’re intentionally (and cunningly) rejecting the truth. They fail to accept the nature of conviction, how it is formed, and how the truth is different to what we experience as certainty.

It is a sad fact that many people do not care about the truth, even if they preach to others about embracing it. They are simply comfortable with their own convictions and want to experience certainty, rather than live in doubt.

A freethinker is comfortable in admitting the limits of his or her knowledge, is not afraid of experiencing doubt, and knows that whatever convictions he or she currently hold are only attempts at arriving at the truth. They remain open to sharing their ideas and listening to what others have to share.

What Is Learning?

Most educators (whether in official positions or sharing their knowledge and expertise informally) tend to focus on providing information, without paying too much attention to how the information will be received, especially by beginners in the field being taught.

I noticed this recently, while trying to pick up web development again. Most tutorials make too many assumptions about what the learner knows and is capable of learning. They either assume too much knowledge (throwing terms as though their meanings are self-evident) or explain a tiny patch of the web development landscape in great detail (to appeal to a curious beginner), without explaining where this patch is on the map, or how it relates to other areas in web development.

Web development requires the use of a number of technologies together in the process of creating web applications. Learning about a single technology or how to perform one step of the process will not yield any results. That’s why an overview of the subject, the technologies involved and the process taken is required for effective learning.

This isn’t exclusive to learning web development. There is an effective learning process that can be applied to any field you’re interested in learning more about, and an approach to any skill you wish to acquire.

What follows are some of my (unrefined) insights into what learning is, based on my readings on the subject, experience as a teacher, and hours of reflection. I will cover how to learn more effectively in a future post.

  • Learning is the process of building a mental model of reality. “Knowledge” doesn’t exist outside the mind, but constructed mentally to serve as a reference point for reality
  • The benchmark of learning is reality, and the aim is to develop a mental model that is both accurate and detailed
  • A pitfall of learning is to assume that to learn the meanings of terms or to memorize abstract concepts is learning. That’s often a distraction that can lead to a detachment from reality (where you’re unable to apply what you learn to the world), and often leads to inaccurate mental models. But learners who have fallen in this pit are unable to realize the mistake they’ve made because they use their university curriculum or the opinions of experts as the benchmark, and not reality
  • Knowledge is awareness of truth (what is real). What is untrue cannot be referred to as “knowledge”, but rather false ideas, opinions or beliefs (i.e. mental models that do not correspond to reality)
  • All knowledge is imagination, but not all imagination is knowledge. Your mind can visualize different concepts that can either be true or false. Constructing concepts requires imagination (holding an “image” in mind), whether you are recalling an incident or reaching a conclusion about how the world functions. Human advancement requires knowledge that’s grounded in a proper understanding of reality (science) and the creativity to apply this knowledge in new applications (technology)
  • Facts are the building blocks of knowledge. Rational thinking is what glues facts together to form an accurate mental model of reality. If you apply logical fallacies or rely on cognitive biases in the construction of your mental model (i.e. in your learning process), then you will build an inaccurate mental model (and would have formed an opinion, without acquiring knowledge)
  • Acquiring facts without context often leads to a fragmented mental model that’s unable to reconcile gaps or define how facts are related. Those with a fragmented mental model of reality often struggle to make important decisions or make sense of reality because they’re unable to figure out what fragment of their mental model applies to the particular situation they’re facing (i.e. the context they are in)
  • Having a “worldview” (a comprehensive mental model of reality) is not a bad thing. It enables you to add to an existing mental model and accelerates future learning. To continuously “start from scratch” is inefficient, mentally exhausting, and does not support learning, but can be considered as intellectual juggling. The problem is with having a rigid worldview that you’re not willing to question, which is often the case with religious worldviews that were accepted through upbringing on faith and never questioned
  • Your existing knowledge will enable you to filter out false ideas. However, you need to balance your current knowledge with the possibility that your knowledge could be limited and you may have inadvertently made intellectual errors (commonly jumping to conclusions or dropping contexts) as you were constructing your mental model. Ask for evidence before you dismiss any opinions that conflict with your mental model
  • There is a difference between learning psychology and learning Freud’s views on psychology. Both are knowledge, but of different things. Never mix the two. Freud’s views are a model that describe an aspect of reality (how the human mind works). These views can be accurate or inaccurate. It’s often the case that inaccurate views contain elements of truth. But no view should be taken as a substitute for reality, because no view can ever capture reality in accuracy and detail. What you learn in school and university (and beyond) are attempts to make sense of the world (or of other people’s views about the world, which is a big chunk of any academic discipline). Always maintain that distinction: between reality and human attempts to model it
  • Continuous learning requires the refinement of your mental model, in both accuracy and detail. This involves questioning your present mental model, the willingness to unlearn (abandon) what you currently hold to be true, the courage to accept that your mental model is inaccurate and incomplete, and the openness to acquire new knowledge

Overcoming Information Overwhelm

During high school, one of my English teachers said that there was a point in history when you would have been able to read everything that was ever written, but that now it’s impossible to read everything in several lifetimes dedicated solely to learning. This is an important fact to keep in mind: You can’t read everything.

It’s also true that you can’t read everything you’re interested in. Letting go of that desire helps you free some of the overwhelm you could be experiencing.

You can let tweets pass by your timeline without being read, or miss some Facebook posts, or allow books to gather dust on your bookshelf. It’s all OK.

What matters is that you dedicate regular reading/learning times, so you can actually consume information rather than give up because the reading piles are too damn high (and growing).

Another factor that contributes to information overwhelm is the failure to balance consumption with creation. Reading a single book and writing a book review can feel much more rewarding than reading 5 books. Going through 10 web tutorials won’t be as satisfying as writing 10 lines of code.

Thinking about creation helps you filter out a lot of reading material that might not be relevant to you at the moment, and allows you to focus on applying what you learn.

Since I decided to publish articles daily for 30 days, without worrying about what subject to write about, I decided to start reading the books I have, without being too picky on which ones to start with. I’m happy that I overcame my reading bottleneck, too. I am now listening to audiobooks on my way to/from work. I don’t take too long to decide what to listen to, as long as I’m listening to something useful that I can benefit from right now.

Do you experience information overwhelm? What has helped you overcome information overwhelm?

If She Was Kuwaiti…

I was sitting at Caribou writing an article on learning when I overheard a woman say over the phone:

“If she was a Kuwaiti I would’ve forgiven her. But I don’t see why she thinks she’s better than us to be this rude.”

I don’t know the details of the incident she was referring to. But what struck me was the variable in her moral equation: nationality.

A Kuwaiti girl can be forgiven for her rudeness, but a non-Kuwaiti can’t. This superiority complex is seen as a matter of fairness and morality, when it is simply an example of a corrupt moral view that places significance on nationality to determine how others are treated and when they can be forgiven.

I’m sure this woman had every intention to be fair and to do the right thing. But her moral judgement is skewed by an irrational consideration. It would be like discriminating based on skin color or shoe size. We are beginning to realize the obscenity of racism, and discrimination over shoe size seems too bizarre and ridiculous. But discrimination over nationality remains pretty common in Kuwait, unfortunately.

Seeing the world through a nationalistic social identity that attempts to prove the superiority of one’s nationality over others is only a figment of our imagination. It amplifies the offense we might experience from rude behavior because we feel that our identity as a “Kuwaiti” was attacked by someone we perceive as inferior to us.

It’s important to overlook a person’s nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and family when it comes to determining how we should treat them, and to instead aim for positive outcomes that help promote happiness and discourage future conflicts.

Seeing others as anything besides “human” will likely compromise the empathy we might feel towards them, which will lead to compromising rational morality.