The Astonishing Popularity of Bad Rules of Life

Sunday, 10-27-2019


People are attracted to some awfully bad rules of life.  Maybe you’ve noticed.

Since we are a rational species, and most people aren’t idiots, how do bad rules of life become so popular?

Case in point:  The phenomenally successful Nike advertising slogan, "Just do it."

A marketing expert who writes that he was in on its coining opines that a slogan “must evoke transcendent qualities of human soulfulness.  And to do that it has to express deep insight into its unique purpose in the world.”

Don’t expect clear speech from an advertiser.  I translate that warm bath of self-congratulatory words as meaning, “The slogan must exploit powerful motives on the part of the consumer.  And it has to connect these motives somehow with the product.”

We knew that already.

More interesting is how the originator of the slogan “Just do it” actually came up with it.  When asked, he said he “took inspiration from the last words of a convicted murderer, Gary Gilmore, who said ‘Let’s do it.’”

But that still doesn’t explain why Nike thought the slogan would sell shoes.

To me the matter seems pretty simple.

We are attracted to a bad rule of life when it has two things going for it:  First, there have to be certain isolated truths that make it superficially plausible.  Second, we have to want to believe it.

So – part one -- what makes “Just do it” superficially plausible?  The fact that in at least two kinds of situations, we really shouldn’t think too hard before acting.

The first kind is the carpe diem situation:  Don’t overanalyze, just hit the ball.  Don’t obsess over whether you can win the race, just run.  Seize the day!  This is the kind of thought that Nike was trying to evoke.

The second kind is moral conduct under temptation:  Don’t worry about what will happen if you don’t lie, just don’t.  Don’t give thought to the next door lady’s charms, just be faithful to your wife.  Do the right thing!  I gravely doubt that Nike was even thinking about this one; in fact, the company would have preferred that consumers not think about it.

The problem about both situations is that usually we do have to think before acting.  Before carping the diem, we have to know that the diem is really at hand; timing is everything.  And given that we have to do the right thing, we often have to deliberate what the right thing is.  So you have to deliberate even to know when to stop deliberating and act.

But from the testimonies some people post to the internet about how following the Nike slogan changed their lives, “just doing it” without deliberation solves every problem and applies to every life decision.  Relationships.  Travel.  Finances.  And, I guess, being executed.

Which is crazy.

So – part two -- what makes people want to believe in such a foolish rule of life?  The fact that it provides a convenient excuse for doing things we want to do, shouldn’t do, and wouldn’t do if we did deliberate properly.

Another Nike advertisement said, “We are hedonists.”  That was less successful, because it was less flattering.  “Just do it” gives us an excuse to be hedonists by flattering us with the image of a high and lofty spirit.

Don’t worry that you’re already sloshed, just have another drink.  Don’t think about whether you should be sleeping with strangers, just put the moves on her.  Don’t obsess about whether you can afford the purchase, just swipe the damn card.

Don’t consider whether doing this is wise.  Don’t worry about whether it’s right.  Don’t fret about what you will think of yourself for having done it.

Just do it.  Just do it.

Advertisers and pimps understand these things.


Two Can Play That Game

Monday, 10-21-2019


Most young Christians are unfamiliar with their own intellectual traditions.  They are disconcerted when persons of an unserious disposition taunt them with questions like “If God exists, then why is there evil in the world?” or “If God made everything, then who made God?”

It isn’t that these are bad questions, but that we have been answering them for centuries, and persons of the taunting sort aren’t listening.  I would rather have a real conversation than a conversation-stopper.

But if that is the game, it doesn’t hurt to point out that two can play it.  Perhaps it will give young persons a little break from the taunters while they are taking the time to acquire those traditions they ought to have.

If God is a being who can’t not be, then why does He need to have been made?

If God doesn’t exist, then why is there good in the world?

If good and evil are illusions, then why do we have them in the first place?

If ethics is just a trick our genes play on us to get us to cooperate, then why not skip the trick and just have a gene to cooperate?

If morality is just an instinct, then why does it sometimes tell us to resist our other instincts?

If we are nothing but evolved mud, adapted to its environment, then why don’t we feel at home in this world?

If every possible desire is for something in this life, then why, when we get what we wanted, do we ask “Is this all there is?”

If there is no meaning, then considering that seeking nonexistent things is maladaptive, why do we seek meaning?

If the only reason for intelligence is that it helped our ancestors find mates, catch food, and escape from things that might eat them, then why do we also compose fugues and concertos?

If using our minds to answer the question doesn’t count, so the only reason people believe in God is that they want Him to exist, then wouldn’t we also have to say that the only reason people disbelieve in God is that they don’t want Him to exist?

If everything is about survival, then why don’t we just kill the old, sick, helpless, and all others who cost resources?

Oh, I forgot.  Perhaps you think we should.



Monday, 10-14-2019


How much do we read?  I suppose the answer depend on what one means by reading.  Much of what we call by that name is barely the same activity.  We say we have no time for real reading.  But we seem to have plenty of time for snack prose.

Unlike the older forms of prose, which encourage patience and thoughtfulness, snack prose encourages hastiness in thought and expression.  It also promotes a higher emotional temperature and lower ideational content.  No wonder there are so many insults on Twitter:  The median tweet is 34 characters.  That’s enough for what is flatteringly termed a “thought,” but not for an argument.

Interestingly, snack prose begins to set the style of prose in general.  Smaller bites.  Shorter paragraphs.  Gnomic sentences.

Just look at the ones in this post.

At the personal level, there is a solution, for anyone who cares enough to implement it:  Read more.

And turn all that other junk off.



Thursday, 10-10-2019


On a cold summer day in the morning

Edward’s teacher gave Ed a grave warning.

“Read humbly, my boy,

“Learning’s not just a toy,

“For you can’t learn from what you are scorning.”


Spontaneous Homicide

Monday, 10-07-2019


From time to time someone argues that abortion couldn’t be against the natural law, because sometimes during the course of gestation spontaneous abortions occur.

Here is the difference.  In one case, the unborn child dies because something goes dreadfully wrong during the natural process of development.  In the other, he dies because someone kills him.

The two kinds of death are not comparable.  A miscarriage should no more be called a “spontaneous abortion” than the death of a grown man from a heart attack should be called a “spontaneous homicide.”


Posts about abortion

History’s Highest Function

Monday, 09-30-2019


“This I regard as history’s highest function,” says the Roman historian Tacitus, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.”

Curious.  Today we tend to think that the commemoration of virtuous deeds and the condemnation of wicked ones is suitable, perhaps, for teaching children about the founders of the country (and perhaps not even then), but not to be taken seriously by adults.  History for grown-up people isn’t about unscientific things like virtue and vice, we say, but about causes and effects, about what makes things happen.

But whatever Tacitus may have got wrong about the history of his own people, he understood that virtue and vice are real causal factors in affairs.  Vicious persons behave differently than virtuous ones, and although there are various ways, such as checks and balances, to protect some approximation of the common good even with less virtue than we wish that we had, there is no way to get by without any.

Thus to leave virtues and vices out of the picture is not more grown-up and scientific, but less.

Math and Morality

Monday, 09-23-2019


For it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.  --  Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

How is morality like and unlike mathematics?

Alike:  In both math and morality, there are right and wrong answers.

Alike:  Everyone knows something about both math and morality.

Alike:  Both math and morality employ reasoning to find out more.

Unlike:  In math the mind uses calculation a great deal, but in ethics it makes greater use of good judgment -- that was Aristotle’s point.

Alike:  However, in both math and morality, mastery is best judged by those who have achieved it.

Because of the one unlike, superficial people tend to forget the four alikes.  They think there are no right or wrong answers in morality, that everyone is in the dark about right and wrong, that reasoning has nothing to do with it, and that no one may dare judge whether anyone is better at it than anyone else.