Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Filtering by Category: Morality

Being a Keeper of My Brother's Mental Health

The more I think about it, mental health isn’t a personal health problem, where it’s solely our own responsibility to make healthy choices and “get fixed” if our mental state is unhealthy. it’s something for which we have a reciprocal responsibility with others. When it comes to mental health, maybe it’s better - and more accurate - to think about it as something for which we are our brother’s keeper.

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What is good vs. How to become a good person

The most important ethical question I grapple with is not what is good, but rather how to become a good person, especially amidst cultural pressure. In our times, distinguishing those questions is essential.

A lot of the moral philosophy I’ve read in the past focuses on the what. What is right conduct? What is good? How does a good person behave? All this is important, but it is theoretical. The most practical I’ve seen this line of inquiry get is contemplating how to create or manage an ethical society.

I don’t often read ideas about how to turn this question inward and focus on the how for an individual person. How do I, a frail, imperfect, falliable, and mortal being become more good than I am now? The first question of what is descriptive, the second question of how is reflective. And more over, I think if one contemplates how to actually become a better, more ethical person, they must also consider what right conduct is and what a good person does. The question of how encapsulates the question of what.

This perhaps pedantic point matters a lot, I think, because of the times we live in now. Individuals hold much more power than they did even a hundred years ago because each of us now have access to much more knowledge and many more tools to inflict harm on others if we so chose (e.g., weapons, a social media megaphone, transportation, networks of people). It’s not just the ultra-rich or members of high society that can strongly impact others’ lives. As a result, we must all  become good people, because if we do not we are much more capable of causing serious harm.

The times we live in also make actually following through on our notions of right conduct harder. Why? Because we have so much more exposure to social pressures from other humans (e.g., via social media, global travel, news media, the internet) than any other time in history. We have to parse through many more messages that try to persuade us to act and think in a certain way than any of our ancestors did. Listening to our own hearts on what is right and what is wrong and actually walking that walk, is a heck of a lot harder when there’s a cacophony of thousands of other voices in your ear at all times.

In this post, I’m merely pointing out the question of how and trying to give a few reasons of why that question is important. But even though I’m tapping out on answering that question in this post, I do have some ideas.

I’ve been working on this question of how for over a year now. The first part (in very rough form) of my answer to the question of how one becomes a good person is here. If you care about the question of how to become a good person, I’m eager to hear your own reflections or have you share a guest post on this blog.

 

The Little Quits and Moral Indifference

When I’m on a challenging run, it’s so easy to give up in a hundred different ways. I might pass by our house on a loop 1/2 mile before my goal distance and just think that it’s okay to end early. I might say, I am not going to walk until the stop sign but start walking 1/2 block before I get there. The easiest way to give up is thinking, “I’ll go running tomorrow” and never getting out the door in the first place.

And as I was running today, I realized how many other small, relatively inconsequential moments there are to give up on what I know I probably should do. And it’s not just when running. There’s probably an opportunity to have one of the little quits on most of the decisions I make in a day.

Do I really have to take the trash out right now? Nah. Do I have a second to check the news between meetings instead of staying focused? Sure. I haven’t talked to so and so for years, do I need to call them to console them on their grandmother’s passing? Nah, I can probably just post on their facebook wall. Can I cheat on my diet for the second time this week? Yeah, and to justify it I won’t cheat once for all of next week…I pinky swear.

And so on and so on. There are so many opportunities for little quits. And I’m fairly embarrassed to admit that upon actual reflection I make so many little quits. So many.

There are also opportunities to quit on hugely consequential decisions. Big quits are things like…

Should I fire this person? Nah…maybe I’ll just give them one more chance. Should I get out of this dysfunctional relationship? Nah…maybe they’ll change next time. Do I need to change jobs? Nah…maybe I’ll give it another 6 months. Do we need to abandon this strategy for our company? Nah…maybe if we give it more time things will get better.

What’s interesting is that we probably don’t make big quits fast enough. For example, my father in law advised me once that in his career, every time he had to let someone go he’d wished he had done it sooner.

Little quits really don’t matter much, individually. The problem is for every big decision there are probably several hundred little ones. So as it turns out, over the course of a lifetime little quits may matter more (in aggregate) than the big ones.

But here’s the important point, and it’s kind of a few logical steps out from little and big quits but stay with me.

For a long time - probably for 20 years now, at least - I’ve struggled with the question of the nature of humans. Are we born good or are we born evil? Are most people good, or are most people wicked? Am I good or am I wicked?

On my run today, and thinking of how many times I’ve made little quits - even just on runs - over my lifetime I realized that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This whole time, I should’ve been asking about indifference. Are people good, evil, or just indifferent? Do people care about whether they are good or evil? If I really looked at my decisions and my behavior, am I good, evil, or indifferent?

The fact that I make so many little quits, suggest to me that the enemy of good may not only be evil. Indifference may also be the enemy. Why? Because little quits - and the fact I make so many of them - are lazy. They aren’t evil - little quits are too inconsequential for that - but they are demonstrations of the fact that I think it’s okay to let myself off the hook on the little stuff. It’s a signal that the past of least resistance is okay.

But the thing is, it’s not really okay. In aggregate, little quits are not evil. But in aggregate, they aren’t good either.

I am interested in becoming a good person and living in a community of good people. Maybe you are too. If you are, maybe our challenge isn’t ridding ourselves of wickedness. Maybe the real challenge is ridding ourselves of the little quits and the indifference that they represent.

Meaning of life

If we assume our human lives have some deeper meaning, I think it’s not only reasonable but important to be curious about what that meaning is.

The short answer is, I don’t know. And by that I mean, I really don’t know. 

But I’m damn sure it’s not anything like these: 

  • Treat others poorly
  • Put my own needs over others
  • Try to be better than everybody else
  • Hurt others or the natural environment
  • Take more than you need
  • Lie if it is convenient

If my assertions are true, and the meaning of life definitely is not one of those, how much more do we need to know?

What we'd presumably have in common with space-faring aliens

I've been trippin' out over the Fermi Paradox lately. Indeed, it's hard not to. And I've been contemplating - if we were to encounter a space-faring alien civilization in our travels across the universe a few hundred years from now, how similar would they be to us? More similar than we'd want to admit, I think.

They'd probably have senses to detect different things like we do, like light, sound, touch, and others. Maybe their senses wouldn't be exactly the same, but they'd have to have some way of understanding the world around them. They'd probably have discovered and developed some of the same materials that we have, after all, the types of elements in the universe are fixed.

They'd probably have some mechanism in their bodies for capturing, storing, and expending energy. Their bodies would probably have some sort of waste or disease. The universe after all, is not efficient and it is certainly prone to random mutations. They'd probably have some mechanism for reproduction.

If they were space-faring explorers of the universe, they'd probably have a large population. After all, it would be difficult for a single alien or small group of aliens to develop the technology needed to explore space. As a result, they'd probably have some sort of language and some set of social issues arising from many beings having to live and work together.

Surely, it is captivating to think about an alien race's similarity or dissimilarity to us, but here's what gets me. Despite how much we have in common with an alien race, we have much more in common with other humans.

Our emotions, psychological biases, our notions of beauty, art, and God...something, even many of those things have got to be unique. I'd hope that our full humanness is not something that could be replicated by aliens. Human life is special.

At the same time, let's assume that we never find any other space-faring alien civilizations. That even more so makes me believe that humans are special. We could be the only life in the universe that's left. And even if we aren't alone in the universe, we may be the only civilization that ever explores the universe.

So whether we are alone in exploring the universe or whether we aren't, I can't help but think that human life is special. Which means we are all special beings, endowed by God with something magnificent. Which makes me wonder why we treat each other so badly sometimes. I just don't get it.

To whom would your life's work be dedicated?

To Nakul, who in death teaches me every day how to live. If I were to ever write a book of significance, Nakul is who I would dedicate it to. He is my brother, my teacher, and my inspiration.

If you were to write a book of significance - meaning one that you put your heart and soul into - to whom would you dedicate it?

---

A friend from school, Heather, pointed out the dedication in our Professor's text book. The dedication in his textbook is here:

Afuah_Textbook

Afuah_Dedication

An ethics lesson from the Shawshank Redemption

One of my favorite quotes from any movie is from the Shawshank Redemption. In the film, the character played by Tim Robbins (Andy) says you either "get busy livin' or get busy dyin'." It gets me every time. [Here's a link to the video clip]

It's obviously an inspiring scene, but it also brings an interesting observation about human behavior to light - we have a hard time staying where we are.

Andy suggests that as we go through life, we can't stay at the same equilibrium indefinitely. Rather, he says, we either get better or get worse. There's no such thing as staying where you are.

And so it is with acting ethically. I do not think ethics is as simple as drawing a line in the sand saying "I will not cross this line". If that's how we chose to manage ethical behavior we will always lurk toward acting unethically. In real life, it doesn't work for ethics to be a standard.

Rather, ethics is a practice. We have to constantly strive to be more ethical and live our ethics more fully. It's something we must work on every single day. If we don't do that, we'll surely become more unethical as time passes.

Ethics isn't something that can be maintained as a status quo. We must either get busy being more ethical or get busy being less ethical. There's no in between.

Why society depends on love

I thank God everyday for the unconditional love I have in my life. I'm so lucky to have a girlfriend, family, and friends who love me even when I do stupid things or am sinful. And yes, it feels good to be so loved, but there's a societal benefit to that love as well - it tames my human instinct for greed. I, like anyone else, have impulses that I'm not proud of. Let's take business school as an example. Being in business school, I've learned a lot about how to make money. As a result, I've developed a strong ambition to make money, make impact, and make things happen. On the one hand, this ambition is important because it compels me to act and give effort toward things. On the other hand, it compels me to take, and take ruthlessly.

If unchecked, this ambition will become greed. I know this to be true, because it's a theme that runs throughout history. I am not immune to this the fallibility of human nature.

And that's where love comes in. It checks my ambition and greed.

The love that Robyn, my family, friends, and even strangers sometimes, give me is not something I feel afraid of losing. I feel secure in it and know it is there to catch me when I am at my lowest. It's something I can lean on.

That love is enough for me to be happy. Even if I'm not successful in my career or in other pursuits, having and giving love fills me up. Because I have and give love, I do not have to worry about replacing the space it occupies with money, prestige, or power.

This is good, because when money, prestige, and power become an end in themselves, it makes us do funny things. It makes us behave unethically and robotically. At best, the lust for money, prestige, and power stress us out. At worst, that lust will drive us to madness.

Even though, I think hippy-dippy interpretations about love in society are bit superficial, I think those that talk about society needing more love are on to something. Love isn't just something that's nice to have as an individual. Because it's a calming force that tempers greed and the darkest parts of our humanity, love is something society depends on.