Reflections in a Cup: Do Ideas Matter?
By Stuart Daw
Do Ideas Matter?
By Stuart Daw
At a recent Toastmasters meeting I attended, one man rose to answer a
“Table Topics” question relating to the largesse of Bill and Melinda
Gates, along with Warren Buffet’s magnanimous donation to the Gates
He had recently been watching Gates testify before a committee of
Congress, and was flabbergasted that Gates, as he put it, “turned out
to be such a dummy.” Apparently he had expected Gates, so successful in
his own industry, to be conversant with every issue in, or aspect of,
At a recent Toastmasters meeting I attended, one man rose to answer a “Table Topics” question relating to the largesse of Bill and Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffet’s magnanimous donation to the Gates charities.
He had recently been watching Gates testify before a committee of Congress, and was flabbergasted that Gates, as he put it, “turned out to be such a dummy.” Apparently he had expected Gates, so successful in his own industry, to be conversant with every issue in, or aspect of, society.
To his surprise Gates was a functional idiot in the speaker’s view, on any subject outside his particular sphere of interest in information technology. For evidence in support of his thesis, he cited Gates having already lost tens of millions on an ill-advised foray into public education.
For me, this brought to mind some important things about people in general. When I was much younger, I was often impressed by the proclamations of some authority on a given subject, only to later find that he seemed to know very little about certain other things.
That kind of realization brought me to a conclusion I would try to remember in such cases: never be in awe of a man in his own specialty.
All of this brings me to the hot button I have harboured for a few years: the role played by philosophy in one’s life, and how so few people recognize it. And I speak of people high in the social system and in almost any sphere of activity, including governments. They may have learned how to operate successfully in a given area, absorbing by induction the required lessons to be learned. But they haven’t seen the crucial importance of needing to develop a rational set of principles they can then apply to all aspects of their lives.
This was certainly true of people that I, as a young fuzzy-cheeked coffee man, met in the foodservice business. The restaurateur, the foodservice executive, the large vending operator, all seemed so knowledgeable, so successful, how could I keep up with them? But gradually I began to notice that some people, so sensible in business could, outside of that business, hold a clear view of a certain principle only to act in a way that seemed to contradict it.
To cite just one small example: years ago as a board member of a public company in the soluble coffee business, I had a particularly nice rapport with another director, a fine man in his 70s who had a track record of success in a company he had founded, built, and sold many years earlier. He had soon identified me as a rather fervent advocate of capitalism.
Because we came from areas many miles apart, we would only see each other at board meetings. On each occasion, before the meeting began, he would greet me warmly and immediately want to discuss the virtues of the free market. This was the way one such day began, but at the following board meeting the president happened to mention the loss of a fairly large soluble coffee customer to Nestlé.
Almost leaping from his chair, my director friend demanded to know what our lobbyist in Washington was doing about it. After all, he exclaimed, our company is American, whereas a few Swiss families own Nestlé.
Before the president, somewhat taken aback could answer, I gently put my hand on my irate friend’s arm and said, “Whatever happened to the free market out there in the lobby that we were so enthused about?”
“Oh, that’s just theory; this is the real world,” he replied impatiently, clearly ready to pursue some remedy to our competitive problem.
What we had here was obviously a case of accepting a principle in the abstract, while denying its efficacy in reality, illustrated by the old slogan, “it’s okay in theory, but it won’t work in practice.”
Of course there can be no such thing. If something won’t work in practice, then the theory has to be wrong. Indeed, one reason for a new operator failing in OCS and vending is by charging off outside the box with a “great idea,” oblivious of the fact that many others long ago tried and stumbled on the same concept.
On reflection and observation, you may see it is far more common than you had realized, and that an honest, inward look may reveal it is true even of yourself.
“But what,” you might ask, “has philosophy got to do with it – philosophy, that terribly boring thing in which they tried to get me interested in college.”
The answer? “Almost everything.
First, in the illustration above, my friend was treating ethics – that branch of philosophy that tells one how one should behave – rather carelessly. Instead of questioning the business issues of service, product quality, and pricing, he was quick to invoke the power of the government to fight the company’s competitive wars.
Further, in addition to his denial of the wisdom of a free market, he was being a philosophical intrinsicist, saying in effect, “this is an American company, therefore we have an intrinsic right to the business over any foreign competitor.”
Most of us are guilty of committing such errors all the time without even thinking about it. But how do we know whether we are right or wrong on any issue if we have no yardstick with which to measure our ideas? Most people have never taken the trouble to study philosophy; especially the fundamental conclusions that help us make the right ethical choices, and the crucial politics that always flow from one’s views on ethics.
There are four main branches of philosophy, two of which make up the foundation, the other two being derivatives.
As an illustration, let’s say we have two people, Jack and Bill, who are both startup OCS guys in the same large city, and who seem to have diametrically opposite ideas about business and life in general.
First, you want to assess their grasp of reality, so you inquire about their Metaphysics, which is the branch of philosophy that asks, “What is?” Jack says he believes this world, this universe, is real, governed by the immutable laws of nature. It holds everything we need to survive and be happy right here on earth, happiness being the proper condition for mankind.
Bill disagrees. He says that this world is an inhospitable place, that man is as a chip floating on a dark, menacing ocean, or as existentialist Jean Paul Sartre said, “Alone and afraid in a world I never made.” We might as well live for today, for who know what’s coming tomorrow?
Then you want to check out their view of the second basic branch of philosophy, epistemology. Epistemology, the theory of knowledge asks, “How do I know what is?”
Jack says knowledge comes by means of the senses, which gather data from reality and transmit it to the brain, which then integrates that raw material (hopefully, if one is rational) into non-contradictory concepts, giving us the power of reason.
Bill says no, that knowledge comes intuitively, or that we had all the world’s knowledge when we were born, and merely grasp it bit by bit as we grow older, through what Plato called “knowledge by reminiscence.” Or maybe we get it through mystical insights, or the zodiac, or even drug trances.
Now you get into the payoff branches of philosophy: the third, ethics, and the fourth branch that depends on one’s view of ethics known as politics.
In ethics, Jack believes that man should be free, free to think and to act on the product of his thought. He knows that freedom means to be literally free from the use of physical force or fraud by one man against another, that the most important minority is the minority of one. Each man should be free to produce, and to enjoy the fruits of his labor. You realize that Jack is a rational egoist.
Bill disagrees. He says that “it takes a village,” that a man can not fend for himself without the help of others, that people are born as indentured semi-slaves, in effect, and they must be prepared to live their lives in sacrifice for others as necessary. You conclude that Bill is an altruist.
So you wonder about the boys’ politics. You start by asking Jack. He seems surprised, for he correctly assumed you would know he is a capitalist, once you had the basic stuff on him. He even gives you a definition he picked up from some woman philosopher named Rand, and he paraphrases her by saying that “capitalism is a social system based on individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned, and in which no one is allowed to initiate force or fraud against anyone else.”
That, Jack says, is the ideal, which of course we have never achieved in our society, and from which we have been moving away because of the growing power of governments that have a legal monopoly on the use of force. But he for one intends to be true to that ideal.
Bill vehemently disagrees. Karl Marx had the right idea, he says, and that if it were not for the imperfections in man, socialism would have been proven to be the right political system, if only we had been prepared to follow the altruistic imperative of self sacrifice for the common good.
Jack and Bill have both approached you for a modest investment in their respective coffee start-ups. You want to avoid any conflict of interest. Which one do you choose?
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