It’s Not The Experiences That Teach Us

I don’t think there’s been a generation on the planet that has the ability to live more full and active lives.  Our lives today are clearly full of all types of experiences.  When we travel to work we often travel at more than a mile a minute.  A pace that was thought impossible by those trekking westward traversing the Oregon Trail on foot!

My kids have traveled over the oceans and seen the Fjords of Norway.  They’ve seen castles in multiple countries and even the little village used to inspire Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

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While we’ve been to a lot of places and had a lot of experiences along the way I was surprised when I came across a quote that briefly articulated that our experiences actually had less value than I had realized.  It’s a short one liner from John Dewey.

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

We often think that a life rich in experiences is a rich life, but if you’re always running from one fast-pass activity to the next you’re missing out on the value those activities provide.  It’s important to take the time to reflect.

Psst!  That’s one reason for this blog.  It gives me my opportunities to reflect.  I just personally prefer to share me reflections in the hopes of sparking a dialogue in the comments.

Is Zero an Even Number?

This might get filed on your list of questions you never knew existed, but it turns out it’s actually a well discussed question that’s been asked online since 1997. Quora has an article about it here and it looks like all sources point to the same answer (at least online). 

But having the same answer or even having the answer can often deprive someone of the valuable insight that comes from exploring the question.  Is Zero Even?  Those of you who’ve been regularly trolling the archives of this blog will remember finding that I’ve enjoyed the concept of Zero so much that I read a book about it back in 2016.

Since I find that the exploration of this question is so much fun and we’re not in person to have the conversation together, I’d like to supply a Numberphile video to help you through the thinking process.

Blind Spots

It’s no doubt that we all have our weaknesses.  One of the aspects of the human condition is how hard it is for us to see our own weaknesses.

One of my weaknesses is the way I say things.  It takes people a while to get used to, but generally once we’ve become acquainted it’s usually not an issue anymore.  They do however, still notice.  I’ve been told at my current job that there’s a list of Jacobisms floating around that eventually they’ll share with me.  Because I don’t notice them I can only imagine how long the list is, or how funny it is out of context.

Just this week I know I’ve said things like, “don’t make me supervise you” (to my boss), and “sometimes, I do things” while at work.  Out of context, these are pretty funny.  I’ve also got the line, “I may not be well informed, but I have a strong opinion about X.” Which is a phrase that is so useful more people should adopt it.

All of these have been understood in context and appreciated by the audience.  All were spoken using English, but its English with a mannerism that is certainly reflective of my personality.

I know I do this, but I have the fault of not being as conscious of it as I should be.

It’s easy for others to see.  It’s not easy for me.  It’s easy for others to see your faults.  It’s not easy to see them ourselves.  I imagine we all have (at times) participated in the art of finding fault in others.  I think it’s part of the teenage experience.

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

-Mark Twain

This week I was having a conversation that was productive to a point, but then I noticed a theme in the discussion.  We were observing and commenting only on the faults of the individuals we were discussing.  We were talking about their blind spots.  I’d like to think we were generally being polite in our discourse, but I knew if we’d continued the dialogue it might have easily shifted to where I would have been uncomfortable having them talk about me, the way I was talking about them.

Then the scripture came to mind in Ether 12:27:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

Remembering that scripture helped me to remember to be kind.  The people who were the subject of the conversation probably have just as many faults as I do (but who’s counting anyway?).  The solution for them is the same for me.  Be humble and take your weaknesses to the Lord so that he can make them strong.

I once wrote that just because someone is on the same path doesn’t mean they have the same destination.  Those who choose to follow Heavenly Father’s plan to overcome their weaknesses are on the same path.  I know what it’s like to walk that path and can relate those who on it with me.

There’s really not much insight in this post other than I found a way to apply a scripture to help me be kinder in my thoughts and more appreciative of those around me.  And now you all know there’s a list of Jacobisms floating around my work.  If I ever get a copy of it, I’ll have to post it here.

Act Utilitarianism

This type of ethical base is best summed up as “End-Result” ethics.  It is commonly thought of as having the ends justifying the means.   This ethical model has a rich heritage engaging ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.  The classical summation for this ethic is “that the right action is the one which produces the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of beings.”  In a simplistic sense, people who care about results employ this ethic.  

Within the Army we formally apply end-result ethics on both the NCO and officer evaluations.  In order to warrant “excellence” one must do something that is unique, quantifiable, and contributes to the success or “good” of the unit.  This formal reinforcement indicates that our organization expects results, and applies end-results ethics.  It is the responsibility of leaders to make determinations on what is the best “good” for the most people.  In some measure this is what commanders do when they sign risk assessments.  They determine which areas they are willing to assume risk, and which controls to implement.  In this aspect they make direct decisions on what is the “greatest good” for those who will be participating in the training, balancing consequences with results.

    Because this has been formally reinforced, most members of the Army may not see these goal-oriented items as having any ethical consequences.  Just because it appears to not be potentially unethical doesn’t mean that the area of decision exists without ethics playing some role.  The term unethical implies a decision must have negative consequences.  The potentially negative consequences for failing in one’s responsibility with regard to risk assessments, or considering the good of the unit when making decisions, will have negative consequences with ripple effects throughout the unit.  In civilian businesses, management will employ a cost-benefit analysis that may also appear to not have ethical dimensions.  These perspectives depend upon how one “punctuates” the situation.  The stockholders will feel a negative consequence if their stock decreases in value, because a competitor took advantage of a market opportunity deemed too risky by their business.  

The goal-oriented expectations of our organization encourage end-result ethics to be applied at the individual or local level.  In our individualized American philosophical heritage, it is assumed that only the individual can properly calculate out what is best for him.  As one applies this ethic across the board to a broader audience, the ability to determine what is good for all becomes difficult, because the population’s diversity leads to different goals.  Hayek understood this in his economic works when he stated, “The principle that the end justifies the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals. In collectivist ethics it becomes necessarily the supreme rule.”  When a Soldier applies this ethic in combat environments integrated with civilians, he assumes that he knows the greatest good for all of those individuals, and in making the decision for them, assumes a level of authority that may or may not be inherent in his mission.

To counter this enticing application of power, there exists a negative connotation of end-results ethics in American society.  This sort of ethical application is often associated with America’s enemies and not with America itself.  This ethic is often seen as the justifying force behind historical and modern enemies such as, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, Hitler & Goebbels, Stalin, Fidel Castro & Ché Guevara, Mussolini, North Korea, The Taliban based government in Afghanistan, the oppressive dictatorship of Saddam in Iraq, S.T.O.R.M., The Invisible Committee, and the 9/11 terrorists.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s response to the charges brought against him are a good example of this ethic being employed by an enemy.  These documents are narrated with repugnance for the general American public, because he reduces America’s moralistic platform by employing a simplistic narration, selecting facts that would only compliment his cause.

During WWII the association of this ethic with America’s enemies emerged in various forms of propaganda created during the time period.  In Frank Capra’s WWII era documentary, “Why We Fight,” the case for defeating the tyrannical governments in Europe and Japan was based upon a conflicting ideology that destroyed freedom.  Yet even while Hollywood was working to get the nation behind preserving freedoms through war the FBI was trying to prosecute Larry Fly for protecting those freedoms specifically guarded by the constitution.

It seems those outside of government were being taught  the maxim that “a nation unwilling to fight an ideological war, will be unable to win the physical one,” but as is often the case those in power were singing a different tune.  

The promoted concept of the films were that if the governments of Germany, Italy, and Japan, were oppressive to their own people, they would in turn be oppressive to every people.  In the United States the citizenry is understood to be the sovereign of the nation, and to oppress those who are seen as the sovereign violates the national cultural and legal foundation to our governance.  Well did our founders promote the ethical ideas of Cicero, enshrining in our government a unique perspective of authority.  Cicero writes, “the administration of the government, like a guardianship, ought to be directed to the good of those who confer, and not of those who receive the trust.”

The iconic image of those who participate in this form of end-results ethics views the actors as societal deviants and not the norm.  Though this ethic is ascribed to our enemies and societal deviants, there is a cultural acknowledgement that certain circumstances warrant purely end-result ethics regardless of application level, but these are presented as rare and very dramatic cases.  Examples of cultural acceptance of end-result ethics include scenarios where the hero must ignore common social norms and sometimes the law.  Usually it is the immediate benefit of the preservation of lives that is used in these examples.  Our physical laws follow this cultural trend.  Trespassing laws in most states do not apply to law enforcement in pursuit of their duty to preserve life.  If someone’s life is threatened on private land, the threat to his or her life is considered justification for entering private property.  The fictional characters of James Bond, Jack Bauer, and, Jason Bourne are known for demonstrating a result-based ethic.  We have a cultural acceptance of individual-focused end-result ethics.  

The members of our military emerge from, and consume these cultural materials and are aware of end-result ethics.  Their station in the military places them in a position of great power, and end-result ethics require power to function.  What they may not be aware of is the slippery slope caused by applying this ethical premise.  If the ends justify the means, then to which ends does one place as a goal?  Does an excessive use of force to disperse a hostile crowd, justify the potential injury or death of innocent civilians?  How much collateral damage is acceptable when engaging a target?  What level of target justifies collateral damage?  Does the R.O.E. need a codified collateral damage to high priority target ratio?  

End-results ethics isn’t just a free-for-all of do what you think is good.  It’s a calculated decision making process that uses positive consequences as its basis for operations.  It is the ethical format of “meaning to do well” which may or may not turn out to be the case.

This ethic is no better enshrined within the Army than in the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) from FM 5-0.

The military decision making process is an iterative planning methodology that integrates the activities of the commander, staff, subordinate headquarters, and other partners to understand the situation and mission; develop and compare courses of action; decide on a course of action that best accomplishes the mission; and produce an operation plan or order for execution.

In order to evaluate these courses of action, the commander and staff will develop a matrix and evaluative criteria.  This criterion comes from a “relative importance to the commander’s guidance.”  This mission oriented cost analysis clearly allows the Commander to weigh the costs of each potential consequence of his plan.  He employs this planning model as a way to carefully evaluate key factors.  Here the “greatest good” is as the NCO creed states, “the accomplishment of [the] mission, and the welfare of [each] Soldier.”  Each commander who employs this planning mechanism is engaging in a process that allows and requires him to weigh the positive and negative consequences of each operation.  FM 5-0 specifically cites that “Commanders adjust criterion selection and weighting according to their own experience and vision. The staff member responsible for a functional area scores each COA using those criteria.”  This scoring mechanism is symptomatic of the application of end-result ethics.  MDMP is one of the clearest ways in which the Army applies end-result ethics.  

End-result ethics are part of the culture our military members consume and are drawn from.  It is the act of calculating the value of the results against the consequences.  Even though our formal evaluation systems encourage results, this ethic is normally associated with our enemies.  It is used at times culturally and historically in circumstances of great distress.  It is canonized in the Military Decision Making Process.  It is not inappropriate to suggest that application and misapplication of this ethic is a statistical reality in the Army.