Philosophers Arguing Over How to Be Good at Things, Plus Some Completely Unrelated Stuff About Genetics and Ethics

Here’s eclectic post of stuff to read that will allow for some enlightened procrastination from whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing right now.

First, a piece from the philosophy blog over at the New York Times in which the author, Barbara Gail Montero, pushes back against the idea that star athletes or other people at the top of their fields act on instinct when performing at their peak. It’s not uncommon to hear a commentator say someone is “thinking too much” when they fail, and most of us can probably relate in some way or another. She frames her argument against that of the book I just finished the other week (and wrote about in my post about David Foster Wallace and the trouble with relying on one’s will to find happiness), All Things Shining, which Montero effectively summarizes as “a paean to the idea that exemplary performance happens to, rather than is done by, an individual.”

On a certain level, I agree with the argument of All Things Shining; I sure don’t consider myself an expert or star in any real field, but I do write a lot, and while there are some blissful moments when the writing comes naturally, this is not the status quo. Moreover, trying to consciously force myself into that state hardly ever works. Instead, it arises out of certain moods that I simply have to seize hold of when they come my way. It seems almost stupidly simple. It just happens.

But, as Montero notes, simply following the moods isn’t going to make one a star writer or hockey player or whatever else one might aspire to be. I can certainly relate to the ballet dancer Montero mentions who cannot watch herself dance; I absolutely hate reading my own writing because I know it can always be better, and I don’t think that will ever change. According to Montero (and Plato), I shouldn’t want it to: that belief that it can be better is what pushes me to keep writing. To stick with something even when it seems perpetually imperfect takes a real commitment, and that isn’t something one can find simply by riding moods as they come along. But, in deference to the authors of All Things Shining (Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly), it isn’t a matter of mere willpower, either. It is something far more deeply ingrained; something that one must fall in love with, and be perfectly willing to suffer through because it is inseparable from one’s being.

In the end, I think Montero and Dreyfus and Kelly agree more than they disagree. Montero talks of the relentless desire to improve, while Dreyfus and Kelly discuss the attitude of craftsmen honing their skills in a way that makes them one with their project. The two notions are almost certainly interrelated, and come together in people performing at the height of their abilities. These people lose themselves in their task so fully that they know no other option, and from there can blend the receptivity to moods of All Things Shining with an expert’s intuition. It is, to return to the theme of this blog, always a cycle.


Next, we make a foray into biology with an article from Discover magazine that discusses how traumatic and/or life-changing incidents can also alter DNA. The biology alone is fascinating, but the part that absorbs me involves the ethical implications of the final line:

If … a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?

My gut response to this is an immediate ‘no.’ I am leery of any medical effort to wipe away our imperfections via genetic engineering. Looking at the traits I’ve most likely inherited from my parents and their parents and so on, it is hard to label them as ‘good’ and ‘bad;’ they just are, and I think many of our defining traits can wind up being both our biggest strengths and our biggest weaknesses, depending on the situation, or how far we take them. A high-strung, paranoid person can be extraordinarily successful if she channels that intensity into a productive field, while a person who grows up without any exposure to stress will probably be pretty useless when a crisis strikes. I am no biologist, but I suspect that labeling genes as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ would seriously impoverish our understanding of them, and might have unfathomable consequences.

For example, my childhood involved the death of a close family member; it was the sort of trauma that most children don’t have to deal with. I would hazard to guess it was enough to alter a methyl group or two, and that little variation could be something I pass on to my own children. Naturally, I wish the death hadn’t happened. But it also is such an important part of my life that I can’t conceive of my life without that event. It led to pain and anguish, yes, and it’s hard to know just how far that sort of effect reaches. (It’s probably fruitless to even guess.) What is clear, however, is that it also led to growth—not necessarily good or bad, but significant to the extent that I’m stuck with it. Wiping that away with a pill would fundamentally alter who I am, and that prospect unsettles me deeply.

On the other hand, I do recognize that, in many, many ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky in life. I had a strong support network that many people do not have, and I can think of many traumas that are probably more deeply scarring than what I went through. Some people are fundamentally broken by grief or other pathologies they cannot escape, and a lecture from me about the cycle of highs and lows in life isn’t going to do them a bit of good. Is it possible to draw a line between the traumas and stresses that alter human livelihood, and those that don’t? To separate out the stress caused by a death in the family while holding on to the insights that come out of a cycle of grief? Those questions will need answers before this research can have any practical medical application. Humans being humans, we’re probably going to open up this Pandora’s Box no matter what; the question is one of how we go about opening it.

Alright, enough philosophy and ethics for one day—it’s time to cycle back out of the intellectual world, and into the world immediately at hand. I’m off to embroil myself in local politics, and then to do some more hockey history work.


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