Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

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Location: North Carolina, United States

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Let’s Discuss Ethics


Note: Here's the note with all the comments, which obsolete some of the opinions presented here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=10150229119843506

In this note, I originally went with the idea of moral vs. immoral. However, as Corinna and Dan pointed out in the comments, morals are imposed from without, while ethics are considered from within. So, it's fairly accurate to think of ethics as moral philosophy- morals reached via reason. So, I went through the note and changed words accordingly (hopefully the changes aren’t too glitchy). Thanks for the constructive feedback.

~~~

In my last note, I asked everyone to address the morality of a series of actions. If you look at the responses, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions. Feel free to go back to that thread to contribute, debate, or discuss.

So, what do I think about this? To start, I probably should have gone with “ethics” instead of “morals” in the original note, so we’ll be jumping trains for this entry.

Anyhow, my view of ethics is socially based. Unethical actions, briefly defined as “wrong conduct, as defined by a set of reasoned principles”,  can only exist in the context of other people; there has to be someone else who’s being wronged. You can’t act wrongly within or against yourself- we all possess ourselves, and thus it is not wrong for us to treat ourselves however we choose, *unless* doing so negatively affects another person, whom we do not possess, and therefore cannot treat as we please.

But, this is where things get tricky: how often do we act without affecting other people, even with self-directed actions? For example- in a vacuum, suicide is totally fine. But, how often does one exist in a vacuum? More realistically, let’s throw in some loved ones who are relying on you, and maybe some major job responsibilities. We’ve got a serious problem here- killing yourself is an unethical choice. But, let’s try another scenario, involving late stage brain cancer, high pain, low quality of life, and no career or family obligations. Let’s say you have family members, but given your level of suffering, it would be unreasonable for them to ask you to stay alive. Here, killing yourself is clearly a ethical choice.

The above examples illustrate that the key to discerning the ethicality of most actions is context. Does this action negatively affect someone? If so, who? Directly or indirectly? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Is there a greater good at stake?

Another thing to point out is that a negative physical or psychological outcome does not determine the ethicality of an action. If you are working on a construction site, and seriously injure one of your co-workers by dropping something heavy on him, did you act unethically? No. Intent is more important- what are you trying to accomplish, and what foreseeable implications would your actions have?

Finally, consent is a key factor concerning potentially damaging behaviors. If a person consents to a risky action which could potentially harm him or her, in order to gain the benefits of the action, then the actor can proceed without worrying about acting unethically. Granted, implications of that potential harm in relation to others outside of this action should be taken into account, as well as the perceived chance of damage, as well as the magnitude of that damage. So, three questions: Who else could be affected by the potential damage resulting from this action? What are the chances that this action will result in damage? If damaging occurs, how great will it be? Yes, it’s complicated.

This is all coming straight from head to paper, so it’s still a fairly rough conception of ethics, but it’s a reasonable start. Here’s a quick review of important points to consider:

1. The wronging of others
2.  The context of the action
3. The intent of the action
4. The consent of those facing potential harm

Great. Now, let’s look at the items I presented in the previous post:

~~~

1. physician-assisted suicide to alleviate extreme pain (doctor prescribes pills, patient ingests pills)

Ethical in most cases. In select situations, it might be important to endure a bit longer to accomplish something before dying, but these are rare instances.

2. receiving the services of a prostitute

Sometimes ethical. Cases for unethicality: you know the prostitute is a sex slave (trafficked), you are violating the trust of a significant other. But, if the prostitute is a worker, and you have no relational obligations to *not* pay for sex services—ethical.

3. consentual sex, with responsible use of birth control, before marriage

Always ethical, assuming both parties are fit to give informed consent (e.g., they are reasonably informed of STD risks, they’re not psychologically impaired, etc.).

4. child abuse

Never ethical. Granted, abuse is never a good thing, but with children in particular, they *really* can’t be held responsible for their actions, nor can they consent to being harmed.

5. gay adoption, assuming responsible adults

Always ethical- if the parents, regardless of sexual orientation (the psych literature speaks to this), are responsible and loving, the kid will benefit.

6. high-risk downhill mountain biking as a hobby

Sometimes ethical. In this case, the key is consideration of context: who would suffer if I were to die from a high-risk, optional behavior? If you’re single, and your parents aren’t relying on you for support, then it’s no big deal. Have a spouse? If she consents to your downhill biking, then that’s fine- she’s smart enough to know the risks. Have kids? No getting around this one- kids can’t comprehend the damage of losing a father at an early age. So, they can’t consent to the action, making it clearly unethical.

7. incest (tricky, but assume the sterility of one person, to avoid this leading to abortion discussions)

Sometimes ethical. In this case, there has to be consent on both ends, as well as low expectations of psychological damage on both ends. Yes, there’s an obvious ick factor for most people, but that has nothing to do with ethicality.

8. using your nation's flag to clean your toilet

Ethical in all cases that assume privacy. I could conceive of cases in which it might be unethical to do so in public, but I wrote this item with an assumption of privacy (hey, bathrooms!).

9. not apologizing to someone for a clear transgression

I’m going to say almost always ethical. There are probably a few situations in which not apologizing would be justified, but generally speaking, people should own up to their mistakes- apologizing can repair emotional damage caused by the transgression, so you owe it to the person to say sorry.

10. feeding dead people to animals (assume no disease problems, and the given consent of the dead people beforehand)

With the assumptions above, always ethical. I threw this in for two reasons: one, because it’s a disgusting thought for some, and two, because I think it’s a cool idea, since burying or cremating people is wasteful in comparison (edited; credit to Aimee for helping me with it).

11. thinking about killing someone (no justifiable reason)

Always ethical. Having thoughts does not harm others, even if the thoughts are about harming others. I think we all have a responsibility to hold each other accountable for bad actions, but bad thoughts? Not really a problem, until they lead to action.

12. using pornography while in a relationship with a romantic partner

This is not the item included in the previous post; I should have been clearer. Anyhow—sometimes ethical.  If your partner has no problem with you using porn, then by all means, carry on. But, if your partner objects on the grounds of self-esteem issues, feeling unwanted, etc., then it would be unethical to simply carry on without discussing the problem.

13. being a super-special-awesome helpful, honest, hardworking, wonderful person (don't overthink this one)

Not gonna overthink this- always ethical.

~~~~~~~

Obviously, this is just one perspective of many (philosophy has a field day describing and defining ethics), but I think it’s a fairly functional one. Feel free to discuss, argue, etc., and I’ll try to respond.

Take care,
~Neil

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Still, Almost- Three Versions

Still, Almost

I still almost pray some nights. Laying there,
soft in bed, the world settles with me,
immense with thoughts and things in knots,
and always spinning. The spinning keeps me
awake, awake, with a need to slake
this looming discomfort.

I still feel water on my lips. Sinking through,
tossed about the murky blue, a place
thickens into heaviness
within.  The concave mind, flailing,
fails the surface, breathless.

Falling sleep is almost like falling.
The weightlessness, the waiting,
the world spinning ever-faster,
knotting into being

alone is lonelier at night,
anchorless.
Maybe I will marry someday.

I can feel it on my
what if


~~~~~

Hey look, it’s a poem! This is the final draft of a poem that had to go through a couple major edits in order to really shape up into something that works. So, what failures did the first couple drafts have? Well, let’s take a look:

~~~~~

Still, Almost

I still almost pray some nights. Laying there,
soft in bed, the world settles down with me,
immense with thoughts and things and knots,
and always spinning. The spinning keeps me
awake, awake, with a need to slake
some looming discomfort.

I used to think God was the best listener.
He never interrupted, not once- just listened
To everything and everyone. I used to wish
He would interrupt, just once! to let me know
That He was really there at all. He never did.

I can still feel the water on my lips. Sometimes,
it helps to feel before I sleep, before I sink
into the dreamy deep, where the dizzy blur
obscures the real sound, the real touch
that I care about so much.

Once I thought dreams might be like heaven.
Anything is possible, after all.
Then I remembered the nightmares.
Anything is possible.

Falling asleep is almost like falling, sometimes.
The weightlessness, the waiting,
the world spinning ever-faster,
knotting itself into worries.

“Please keep my family and friends
 Healthy and safe.” I prayed every night
In fear of what would happen if I didn’t.

Being alone is lonelier at night,
in a dark and sleepless room.
Maybe I will marry someday.

I never used to think about hell.
I was going to heaven, after all…

I can taste the salt on my lips.
What if I die too soon…

Nothingness seemed too empty to…


~~~~~

This is the first draft of the poem. There are some good moments, but it drags overall and the italic sections detract more than they add. Someone pointed these things out to me, resulting in this version:

~~~~~

Still, Almost

I still almost pray some nights. Laying there,
soft in bed, the world settles down with me,
immense with thoughts and things and knots,
and always spinning. The spinning keeps me
awake, awake, with a need to slake
some looming discomfort.

I can still feel the water on my lips. Sometimes,
it helps to feel before I sleep, before I sink
into the dreamy deep, where the dizzy blur
obscures the real sound, the real touch
that I care about so much.

Falling asleep is almost like falling, sometimes.
The weightlessness, the waiting,
the world spinning ever-faster,
knotting into worries.

Being alone is lonelier at night,
still in the sleepless dark.
Maybe I will marry someday.

I can taste it on my lips.
What if


~~~~~

Okay, I thought, much better. And, it is better. But, I got more input when I sent it to some other people. Consider what might be improved (you could compare it to the final version, but try just taking a look, right now, and picking out what’s *less* effective about this version), then take a look at some of these comments:

~~~~~

(about line 1) nice use of lay which references it to the world rather than the I

(about the second stanza) torch this stanza- a real letdown from the first- almost nothing works! (sure, this doesn’t elaborate on why the second stanza is bad, but it did force me to take a close look and see what wasn’t working)

The first one starts off nicely, but when you hit the last line of the first stanza, you can almost see it go off the rails.

Still, Almost -- Good little thing you do with the title. Usually, poems that reference the title so early on are worse for it, but the way you break the title apart with a comma adds another dimension, making the reader feel there's something else going on, too. (never hurts to mix in some positive feedback)

think the third line, "things and knots," should be "things in knots," b/c now, w/ fewer variables, you have something a little more concrete to contrast off the more abstract.

I agree... that the second stanza isn't very good, but, actually, look at the first couple of lines again -- there's something evocative about the suddenness of, "I can still feel the water on my lips" -- perhaps the speaker just got up to drink? Perhaps it's drool? Whatever it is, if you decide to keep the stanza, you need to connect it more deeply to the rest -- and I'd make that first line the axis on which this turns. (really useful advice for the rewrite!)

"Falling asleep is almost like falling, sometimes" -- the "sometimes" is weak and throwaway. "Still in the sleepless dark" is a weak line. But, "Maybe I will marry someday" is strong in its suddenness -- you should do something with it.

(about stanzas 3-4) move “being” up to the previous stanza (used this, but a little differently)

use “falling sleep” instead of “falling asleep” (this works, since the “a” will be added to “sleep” by readers automatically)

~~~~~

The critics quoted here are fair and focus on the quality of the poem. If you’re reading this, thanks for the help.

This post is somewhat related to the last one, but really, I just wanted to open up the (re)writing process a little bit and highlight what leads to the final product.

Take care,
~Neil

Friday, June 17, 2011

(Un)Emotionally Involved: Taking the Heart out of Art

Note: I found out from someone that I did a really bad job communicating certain things in this note, so I'm going to clear a few things up beforehand (it's easier to do this, since changing things within the note would make the clarifications hard to find):


1. I do not, in ANY way, think that a person should be permanently detached from their artwork. It's a temporary shift in thought when you're trying to work on a piece or apply the criticism of someone else. I *am* attached to my art—it's very special to me, and one of the things that defines me as a person—but I try and pull back emotionally during the critiquing process, to try and think clearly about improving. After the product is finished, I am proud, and I do care very much for the piece as something I have accomplished.


2. When I say that emotion is worthless if it's not grounded in technical skill, I'm not by any means saying that you have to have perfect technical skill for emotion to be of any worth. The emotional simply shouldn't overshadow the technical aspect of a composition or performance (e.g., really, really hamming up a piano solo by swaying and closing your eyes, all the while misplaying several chords). Reading over this again, I stated this poorly and too harshly, so it deserves clarification.



3. The title might be misleading, so I'll just say this: emotion is integral in art, because it is much of what is being conveyed. Without emotion, art would lose a large part of its purpose, because it would have much less to communicate. I noted this in the entry, but perhaps not clearly enough.


Normally, I feel like I bridge the audience gap pretty well, but I lost some people this time, and I apologize.


~Neil

~~~~~

(I guess you could try to take the art out of heart, but that would be a bit sexist, now wouldn’t it?)

~~~

Exhibit A:

Artist sends artwork (poem, novel, concerto, painting, etc.) to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist becomes angry, and argues back with emotional, subjective, and irrelevant points, without considering that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve.

~~~~~

Exhibit B:

Artist sends artwork to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist becomes sad, and bemoans the fact that the product of his soul has been criticized, without considering that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve.

~~~~~~~

These aren’t the only two scenarios possible in such a situation (there will be an Exhibit C shortly), but this sort of interaction is excruciatingly common. People become too emotionally connected to their artwork, leaving them tied down, bound up, and unable to achieve the distance from their work necessary to not only critique themselves, but also to accept the criticism of others. If every work of art you’ve produced is bound by strings to your heart, then every time your art is “hurt”, you’re going to be hurt, too- and once you become angry or sad about the attacks directed at your artwork by the enemies (how dare they!), you’re going to have trouble rationally analyzing the quality of their critiques and deciding how you can use what they’ve given you to achieve a better product.

Now, the solution is obvious, but for some, it sounds painful, ridiculous, or any number of other adjectives that shortly precede an insistent “No! I won’t do that!” But, even if we don’t like immunization shots or cough syrup, we know they’re good for us, and accept them— so, assuming I convince you that the solution to the current problem (emotartionwork?) is effective and worthwhile, then you should accept it. That said—

Cut the strings. Then, do what you couldn’t do before— back up, and take a good look at the collection of words, notes, or brushstrokes in front of you. The thing in front of you isn’t your child, or your girlfriend, or your husband; it’s a work of art that must be objectively considered against the standards that an art form possesses. If someone else criticizes it, you shouldn’t have any problem accepting the criticism and working to improve the product— after all, it’s not as if someone just walked up and told you how ugly and loud your girlfriend is, or that your child should probably lay off of the Oreos. There’s no need to be defensive.

~~~

Exhibit C:

Artist sends artwork to reviewer.

Reviewer gives negative, but useful, feedback grounded in objective observation.

Artist considers that the reviewer’s comments might be used to improve, and accepts or rejects each point of feedback on the basis of whether each point seems to increase or decrease the quality of the artwork.

~~~~~~~

Much better.

Note that I’m certainly not saying that art must be devoid of all emotion. Ideas for art can be emotional, and emotions can be expressed through art. But, the process of creating art must be grounded in objective, technical skill, and as such, reactions to criticism should also be grounded in objectivity. Sure, some emotion can also be thrown into the creative process, but should never dominate.

Aside: Although this article is about composition, the same rules apply to performance. Sure, we like to see performers who seem to be enjoying what they’re doing on an emotional level; however, once you strip a performance of its technical groundings, the emotion is no longer of any value whatsoever. The performance of a violinist who wears the face of anguish or joy as she plays is worth nothing if she cannot keep rhythm and tune pitches. Why shouldn’t we hold composers, music or otherwise, to the same standard? Probably because composition is more difficult to grade by objective measures, but that’s not a good excuse.

Although I’ve focused on the artist in this article, the reviewer deserves a brief mention, since he also must not become emotionally involved. The reviewer may wish that he had come up with the idea of the artist,  or that he were as talented as the artist— or, alternatively, he may just not like the artist on a personal level. Should these things affect the criticism that the artwork receives? Of course not- but, bias slips in all the time, and it’s necessary to learn to counteract this tendency as effectively as possible.

Emotion-based bias is good to some extent when considering, say, yourself or your lover; but it’s not good at all when considering art. So, keep some distance, make your own useful observations, and consider the criticisms of others. Ironically, removing emotion from the creation of art facilitates the creation of art that poignantly expresses emotion— and, who can argue with that?

Take care,
~Neil

Friday, June 10, 2011

Carpe Diem- No Better Choice

Now, maybe I should refrain from advocating outright impulsiveness on a daily basis, but I'm a little tempted, given what there is to know about one of our all-time favorite emotions, regret. Initially you might think that actions with negative outcomes probably cause more regret than inactions with negative outcomes- and, you'd be right, in the short-term. If I were to switch from stock A to stock B, then lose a bunch of money, I would regret doing so more than I would regret sticking with stock A and losing a bunch of money. That's the natural reaction we have- we feel more responsibility for our actions, and their consequences are more salient, so we feel more regret short-term for our actions. But, consider this: what do people regret years down the road, when they're older and opportunities have passed them by?

"I wish I had pursued a better education." "I wish I had given a relationship with her a chance." "I wish I had spent more time with my family members when I had the chance." Woulda, coulda, shoulda. In the long-term, it's our regrettable inactions that really bite, more than our regrettable actions. Why is that? I'll touch on a few of the reasons.

When you do something that doesn't turn out so well (e.g., cheating on your partner, failing a test because you didn't study enough), sure, you regret it. But you also do things to counteract these failings: you ask for the forgiveness of your partner, or you study much harder for the next test. These failings are finite, and easily recognizable as failings in the short-term, when there's still time to "make things right". On top of that, you try and focus on that ever-so-comforting "silver lining" that comes from a bad experience, even if you end up failing to fix the initial problem outright. Your partner dumps you anyway? At least you learned not to cheat. You fail the class anyhow? Now you know to study harder in the future. Also, because these events are finite, it's easier to gain some sort of closure- that is, you don't become emotional every time you think about something wrong you did.

But, when you fail to do something and regret your failure to act later on, it's a lot harder to patch things up. Consider looking back on these two scenarios when you're 60 years old. Scene one: you passed up the opportunity to apply to few really great colleges, because you didn't think you could get in, and weren't sure you could handle a long-term relationship with your partner. Scene two: you decided to not have children, even though you wanted to, because you didn't think that you could handle career pressures and raising kids at the same time.

Now, try to fit the consequences of these regrettable inactions into a box, the way we did with the regrettable actions. Tough? Thought so. The "What if?" thoughts are so numerous in these situations that it's dizzying; infinite, in fact, barring any limitations your imagination imposes. On top of that, inactions are often characterized by a lack of confidence at the deciding hour; we break down, struggling beneath the weight of potential failure, and choose not to act. But, in retrospect, we think: "I could have done that. Why didn't I do that?" and we come up empty, lacking a good, solid reason for why we didn't just go for it.

Worse still, we also tend to think about regrettable inactions a lot more often than regrettable actions. The Zeigarnik effect states that people tend to be more preoccupied with incomplete goals or tasks. This leads to thinking more about these things; thinking about them more often equates to remembering them better. If you have a clearer recollection of something regrettable, that's going to lead to more frequent memories of that thing, and thus more pain. Hooray? Not really.

A quick side note, before wrapping things up: the top three domains of most regretted inactions, in no particular order, are education, career, and romance. Unfortunate, really, because the first two can easily conflict with the third, but that's how things are. I've previously considered this dilemma, and though I'm still not sure exactly how I feel about it, I've shifted my position some as of late, partly because of long-term regret.

Now, I'm not sure I can advocate complete impulsivity, since it's important to take into some consideration current consequences and the impact your actions will have on other people. But, it's usually best to shore up what confidence you have, call it enough, and take action. Think of doing so as taking care of yourself for the future- try and keep those wistful nights of wondering about "what could have been" down to a minimum by acting now.

So, the basic lesson of all this, in a few words? Well, "carpe diem" is a good phrase. Nike also has the right idea- "Just Do It." That works too. Though, I was talking to my friend Josh about this a couple days ago, and we agreed that it's important to "do stuff", so that's what I'm going to go with.

The moral: Do stuff.

Take care,
~Neil

~~~

            Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102(2), 379-395. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.379