"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Don’t Settle For Less

Robert Goodin has recently published On Settling, a book about the natural human tendency to settle for position, money, acquisitions rather than strive for higher attainment or achievement.  Cass Sunstein has written a review in The Atlantic (2.25.13) commenting on this tendency, and its many personal, social, and economic aspects. Sunstein is particularly exercised by the now-popular phrase, “It is what it is” – in his mind a smug but defeatist sentiment that diminishes human enterprise and ambition.  He goes on to summarize Goodin’s discussion of the many aspects of settling, both good and bad, but comes down resolutely on the side of doing something; and in that he is archetypically American:

By moving on to other concerns [other than settling], we make striving possible. Goodin rightly says that settling is not always resignation, but he does not deny what is obviously true, which is that it is often exactly that. True, no human life can do without resignation. We have to resign ourselves to that fact. But there’s a matter of when, and how, and with what attitude. Goodin’s wise book doesn’t embrace the awful phrase, but I think that it would have been even better if it had devoted more space to exploring what is dark and dreary, and not on the side of life, about the very idea of settling.

However much Sunstein finds something depressing, dark, and dreary about the whole notion of settling, it has very noble roots.  Both Buddhism and Hinduism are based on the principle of acceptance – there is no point in striving, for the world itself is illusion, and one will only be deceived and ultimately dissatisfied by the vain, hopeless, and unnecessarily fatiguing struggle for progress, gain, and achievement.  The only way to attain enlightenment is through an understanding that the wheel of life turns perpetually through the mud of miseries, false promises, and deceptions of the world, and that man’s only real purpose is to get off.

Indians have often been criticized by Westerners, especially striving Americans, for their a priori acceptance of things the way they are.  Indians, we say, accept the undemocratic consignment of individuals to the prison of caste, and ignore poverty, inequality and misery because they are are personal affairs, reflecting individual karma.  They are therefore settlers of the worst kind. 

From an Indian perspective, this is far from the truth and a distortion and misinterpretation of Hinduism.  For Hindus, since the world is only illusion, and since striving within it is meaningless, the rigid structure and social and personal discipline prescribed in the Upanishads are ways of eliminating the noise of a spiritually polluted environment, allowing the individual to focus on progressive personal enlightenment. The goal of life is spiritual, not material as it is for Americans.

Stoicism, although a secular philosophy, was very similar in its understanding of the world and the universe:

The Stoic ethic espouses a deterministic perspective; in regard to those who lack Stoic virtue, Cleanthes once opined that the wicked man is "like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes." A Stoic of virtue, by contrast, would amend his will to suit the world and remain, in the words of Epictetus, "sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy," thus positing a "completely autonomous" individual will, and at the same time a universe that is "a rigidly deterministic single whole." (Wikipedia)

This ‘settling’ for a universe which is ‘a rigidly deterministic single whole’, enables the individual to control his passions and emotions, for there is no point in struggling against this powerful and unstoppable tide:

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logos). A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual's ethical and moral well-being: "Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature."This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” (Wikipedia)

Islam is a ‘settling’ religion for its principal tenet is submission to God. Some Christian sects like our very own Calvinists believed in predestination, and that one had to settle for the cards that God dealt.  Other sects were far more individualistic and robust in their thinking about the relationship between Man and God, but all followed the edict, “It is God’s will”.  These religions teach that only God knows all, determines all, and is responsible for all; and that we must follow His way – all others are illusory and ultimately unrewarding. Even the treacly aphorism stuck on a million refrigerator doors -  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” – encapsulates in popular wisdom the preeminence of God and the acknowledgment that “It is the way it is”.

No one lives only in a philosophical universe, and except for a few sadhus high in the Himalayas who have renounced the material world, most of us have chosen to live a life of contradictions.  As much as we believe that the world is illusory, meaningless, and perpetual; we must make real-life decisions which require action. Which kind of bread should I buy? Is it time to trade in the clunker? Should I finally tell her I love her?  And once we start down that slippery slope, striving is not far ahead.  It is not enough to choose between Wonder bread and Pepperidge Farm; we must have the finest, stone-ground, organic, locally produced and baked bread; and such purchases take money for which we have to set goals, work hard, employ all our intellectual social talents, and earn a lot.  And when we strive and are disappointed, we realize that we should have been more stoic or Hindu.

There is a great Don Williams country song which expresses our very American desire for the best:

I've been loved by the best
I can't settle now for less,
Why bother with the rest
Baby, I've been to the top, I guess,
With you I have been blessed
I won't take nothin' less,
I've been loved by the best.

In the world of business as well in that of love, we should strive for the very best and never settle for less.

Goodin’s book – or at least Sunstein’s accounting of it gets very boring, very predictable, very quickly:

Goodin contends that settling, understood in terms of fixity, has a number of virtues. First, it helps to promote planning and agency. One advantage of a proper settlement is that it produces not merely an end but also a secure one. If we are in the midst of a fight, we might well hope to settle, because fights are ugly and potentially dangerous. Being “unsettled” is “worse than merely being “uncertain”—it is a sort of stultifying uncertainty,” one that “stymies your planning.”

Nothing much new here. Settling is as much a part of human activity as any other guiding principle.  Man is an economic animal, said Marx, and (here I distort a bit) all human contracts are governed by the principles of supply and demand.  Whether legal contracts or marital tiffs about household chores, parties constantly jockey for position and if not dominance, then parity.  Settling, or better put, negotiation, is part of the transaction.  If you cannot get your way, which is always first and foremost, then, despite the words of wisdom from Don Williams, you settle for less.

There is even less new in the observation that we all like to be settled or settled down.  If we were always in a maelstrom of striving, change, and uncertainty, we all would be driven mad in a very short time indeed.  Although we do not all want a little English garden, tea in the afternoon, and a brisk, rainy walk in the downs; most of us want something familiar, some comfort food, and a loving touch.

Goodin goes on to talk about the relationship between settling and trust – a settled life allows us to take the measure of someone before we trust him; and then to talk of the organizational power of settling.  We need to have our life organized and settled so that we can move on to bigger and better things than deciding on brands of bread.  I remember a great scene in the remake of the movie The Fly with Jeff Goldblum.  When his girlfriend chides him for never changing his clothes, he is surprised, and says he changes them every day. “But you wear the same thing every day”, his girlfriend replies. At this point Goldblum throws open his wardrobe to show a rack of neatly arranged identical jackets and pants.  Very Hindu, I thought at the time.

A bit more interesting is Goodin’s consideration of economics and how settling can be the smartest market choice; but as one can see from the following, his observations are mundane and unsurprising:

To decide whether to settle, people should assess the potential outcomes and their various probabilities. If you have an excellent chance of doing a lot better, you probably ought not to settle. And in making these judgments, you will be alert not only to the matter at hand, but to the range of decisions that you are facing, and hence to whether a decision to settle will make it easier to focus on more pressing matters.

“Search theory” and “Option value”, and the “Precautionary principle” add only a bit of spice and rigor to an otherwise prosaic treatment of the economic aspects of negotiated risk.

From Sunstein’s review, it seems hard to believe that anyone would spend the $24.95 to discover what most of us already know.  Perhaps Goodin does discuss religion and philosophy somewhere in the book, but Sunstein does not refer to them.  I would far rather read about Epictetus, the Vedanta, and especially Nietzsche who had some might impressive things to say about the settling herd.  Perhaps in another book.

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