About one and a half years ago, I wrote an essay on morality with the telling title On Cynicism and Meta-Ethics. People who have read my thoughts back then will be aware that I was not in a particular well-adjusted state of mind. But this very state was also necessary to bring me to the conclusions I discovered back in those days and from which I benefit to this day.
Recently, I experienced a new wave of motivation to write an updated version of my current thoughts. I wanted to do this for a quite a while but sometimes life just happens, and you have to prioritize other things. But since I am once more severely sleep deprived, it appears to be the perfect time to lie down, focus and write. What could go wrong?
Started From The Bottom
In those dark days of a not-so-distant past I coined the term of a “reliable moral framework” for me. This meant that I needed to find a system of ethics which I was able to rely on, even and especially whenever my whole world turns to shit and everything around and inside of me starts to burn.
My single goal was to find a way of keeping that nasty beast inside of me locked up, which strives to break free during these desperate times. Looking back, I can confidently say that I was able to achieve that goal. No matter how fucked up I felt, I was able to retain a healthy amount of decency and was usually able to treat others with enough kindness to make them feel valued.
Why usually? Because, of course, I have no way of knowing for sure. My assumption is purely based on the reactions I received during these interactions, and it might very well be possible, that I still messed things up with someone but at least I tried to the best of my abilities – which is far more than I did previously.
Between Deception And Care
I can already hear the voices.
“Why do you pretend to be nice when, in reality, you don’t really care? Isn’t that deception?”
Maybe. In a way. But I would argue that life often isn’t as black or white as I would like it to be.
That’s a realization which took me years to fully understand. Yes, it is true, I very rarely feel any emotional connection to anyone or anything. But what bothered me for so many years, also enables me to take quite a unique perspective.
I’m simply not as affected by issues people tend to get highly emotional about. I am not constantly mad about the state of the world and how corrupt governments and companies are profiting of the back of the very planet we all call home. I understand rationally that this is a huge problem and there needs to be action against it, but it doesn’t bother me on an emotional level.
It’s also next to impossible to offend me. I can think of no insult you could throw at me and I would be like “Oh, yeah, I am going to break your nose for that.”
I just don’t care enough.
And yes, I struggled with this issue for a very long time and to some extent I still do. But I also started to see it as an incredibly useful trait to have. It usually allows me to take a step back, think and find a reasonable way of dealing with a situation – and be it by just walking away. More than 2000 years ago the Greek stoic Seneca framed this ability as follows:
“The greatest remedy for anger is delay.”
Intuitively I have done this for years, even before I became fully aware of it. Whenever I deemed an interaction to be too burdened with negative emotions, I encouraged myself and others to pause and focus on something different. It was practically impossible to get into a heated argument with me because I would simply refuse to let the debate escalate to this extent.
Not because I was afraid of confrontation or didn’t know what to say. I’m usually never shy of arguing about pretty much everything. I just don’t see the point of pursuing a discussion when tensions are high and emotions boil.
This is also something I always tell potential romantic partners beforehand. Don’t expect me to get into heated fights with you. I will literally just walk out and do something else until you, I, or we both calm down. This reduces the risk of saying something you will regret later tremendously.
So, what about the accusation of deception?
I value honesty. I really do. But (yes, it’s a typical “I think X, but…” – sue me) I also developed an understanding of people and the society we live in. Complete, brutal honesty all the time simply doesn’t work. No matter what people are telling you or themselves, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to deal with your absolutely honest opinion in every situation.
Which is fine, I don’t judge them for it. Our brain tells us lies about ourselves all the time, so it comes to no surprise that we like to hear the occasional lie from others as well.
If I would openly tell most people that I don’t really care about them, their lives, or their opinion whenever they talk to me, I would most likely find myself in a very disadvantaged position very fast.
Which brings me to the next point. Even though I might not be able to connect to other people on an emotional level, I can still recognise their individual needs, desires and feelings and respond accordingly.
Here it is where rational empathy comes into play. People who remember my previous essay will notice, that I spoke of cognitive empathy back then, which is essentially the same. I also said I was dissatisfied with this approach, since it didn’t provide me with the ability to pursue actions of kindness even in the darkest of times. Which is why I needed the additional, reliable moral framework I created for me.
But being dissatisfied with something doesn’t mean you throw it away altogether. Instead, you re-evaluate, refine and adapt it to your needs. Back then I only had one part of the equation and now I discovered another one.
When I treat people decently instead of telling them to fuck off, I don’t think I am deceiving them. I recognize their need for interaction, it doesn’t hurt me to do it and I don’t mind the additional skill training in proper social behaviour.
This kind of gamification is another aspect which might appear odd for some people, but it helped me greatly. I view a lot of these things as trainings sessions. I may not enjoy them very much, but they tend to be quite useful in furthering my understanding of human interactions and how to behave in a given social situation.
There is, of course, an upper limit to which I am willing or able to go. At some point I will cut the interaction and do something else instead. But this is mainly dependent on my mood and how much I assume I am going to gain by continuing the interaction. Be it in entertainment value, knowledge, or distractions. Social interactions serve different purposes.
When Everything Burns, Walk Into The Fire
So, why is it that I put so much emphasis on treating others with a minimum of decency, to strive to be kind whenever humanly possible?
Because I refuse to take the easy route. Telling someone to fuck off is the easy way out. It’s probably among the least challenging things in the world to be an asshole. Just lose control, follow your darkest impulses and crush everyone who looks at you the wrong way. Been there, done that.
I met many people, myself included, who conflated some weird sense of “honesty” with simply being a rude jerk.
I can tell you the same fact, the same opinion in hundreds of different ways – some more polite, some less. But actually, taking into consideration how you may perceive my statement, what kinds of thoughts or emotions it’s going to trigger inside your brain – the so-called theory of mind – takes a lot more effort to pull off.
Over the years and a lot of different interactions I noticed a very reliable pattern. Most people don’t like being outright challenged or called out on what they deem as valuable regarding their believes or certain behaviours. They start to get defensive really fast, emotions rise and your chances of getting through with your point, let alone change the other person’s mind are pretty close to zero.
Nowadays I usually prefer listening and asking directed questions. Of course, I always have a certain opinion about the other person and what they are telling me. But taking out my sledgehammer and crushing their skull until they submit to my point of view is quite tedious. I rather guide them in the direction I deem superior, let them draw their own conclusions and eventually they reach the understanding I want them to have.
This is, of course, an ideal depiction. It rarely works as linear as that. But my rate of success in making people reflect on their own behaviours and opinions skyrocketed after I started to approach these situations differently.
People have told me on multiple occasions that they appreciated it greatly that I took the time to listen to them and provided them with a different perspective. Note, this is not some bullshit story about “do these 10 steps and people will find you irresistible”. Far from it.
See it more as a guiding principle to make it easier for yourself to get your own points across. As soon as the other party feels like you value their opinion and time, it is way more likely they will reciprocate.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t really care about them at all, you can still provide them with value and maybe receive something in return.
The Good, The Bad, The Opportunist
This is it where it gets interesting.
In our morally superior society, the term “opportunist” comes along with a lot of baggage. He is ruthless, without scruple, using others only for personal gains and in general a despicable human being. Why would anyone ever be like that willingly?
Personally, I think this depiction gets a lot of things very wrong. In order to be able to paint the term as bad as it is perceived, it has to be assumed that there is a morally superior counterpart. Where is darkness, there is light.
When you ask people what they believe the opposite to opportunism would be, a lot of answers are probably going to be along the lines of some form of altruism. True self-less acts or whatever the current fashionable word may be for describing the very same.
But it doesn’t stop there. When you look into official definitions, you will read a lot about selfishness, disregard for others, no worries about possible negative consequences, etc. Obviously, the good old opportunist has a pretty big rap sheet and is in dire need of some positive marketing.
Lucky for him, I do work in marketing, so here I am.
I propose a different angle. I want you to take a step back and simply think of opportunism as the ability to make use of the opportunities you encounter. Without all the shady baggage it usually entails.
For once, take a neutral stance.
Of course, these opportunities can evolve in every direction. You absolutely can be a giant dick to everyone and simply pursue your own goals and stomp over everyone in your path (fun fact: I was writing this paragraph while talking to a friend who works in one of my favourite bars and initially, I wrote “bath” instead of “path” – it probably would have worked as well to get my point across, but I still prefer the corrected version).
Should you do it? Probably not, but you are free to make your own mistakes.
Opportunism is not inherently good or bad. You take what you got and try to make the best use of it.
The bad reputation of opportunism is probably connected to our human desire of feeling morally superior to everyone else. Many people want to be perceived as selfless and good, as someone who acts not only with his own self-interest in mind but for a greater good. Whatever that may be.
But if you take a closer look, you will notice very fast that apparently self-less acts are usually far from it.
I would argue that there is no true selflessness in the sense that you do something without expecting anything in return. This doesn’t have to be an immediate material or socio-economical advantage but can be far more subtle. If you are familiar with kin selection you will already know that a creature close to someone’s offspring is relatively likely to sacrifice its own reproductive fitness to make sure the offspring of the family member survives and lives a prosperous life.
This can partially be explained by the shared genes of the close relative and the offspring of their family members. The genes live on, even if the individual creature dies without reproducing.
Yes, I am fully aware that humans are a tad more complex than being steered by a dull biological programming.
But the expected value still doesn’t have to be anything particular obvious, even to the acting person.
Quite often our brains reward us with neurotransmitters which make us feel good, when we help others and see the joy or gratefulness in their reactions.
Other members of the society might perceive us as generous and treat us better. We help others because it makes us feel good.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s an important motivator to be able to cooperate and go beyond pure selfish gains. We might even sacrifice some of our own well-being to make the lives of other people better. But in one way or another we will always receive at least something in return. This might change on a case-by-case basis but the assumption that an action can be guided by true self-lessness appears to be quite disconnected from reality. Again, this is not a bad thing, just how human brains work.
Now back to the main point.
Kindness breeds opportunity.
Let that sink in. By choosing kindness over disinterest or outright rudeness you expand your pool of possible available options. This was the key to the moral framework I created for myself when I wrote the first essay.
Granted, I didn’t put it in exactly that way but that’s why you are reading this now, to have a more refined version available.
If I have learned anything over the course of my life, it’s that you will never know who you will going to meet twice. I lost and gained many opportunities based on how I interacted with someone for the first time we encountered each other.
This is where we can draw back the circle to the title. The very reason why I framed this essay as the optimistic opportunist. Because, of course, I am still constantly on the lookout for the best possible outcome in almost every interaction – and I have to be, otherwise the whole framework wouldn’t work. If I didn’t believe the possibility of encountering someone again and this time it might benefit me, there would be no point putting so much emphasis on treating others with kindness.
But I truly do believe that. I experienced it many times. Kindness opens doors which otherwise may have been closed forever. You can see it as a catalyst to maximize your opportunity gains.
Of course, I am not able to predict the future, nobody can. Maybe I interact with someone, and they will vanish into obscurity never to be seen again. That’s quite a likely outcome for many interactions.
But the mere possibility of receiving something far greater than the effort you once put into this interaction outweighs the possible losses greatly. It’s maybe just one evening of listening to someone’s sorrows and provide them with someone they can talk to. And one day they will remember and present you with an opportunity you never expected. Been there, received that.
Injustice Is The Limit
But what if someone is just a jerk, belittles others and treats them as nothing more than steppingstones?
I hear you; I really do.
As I mentioned earlier, there is an upper limit.
I’m neither a pacifist nor do I wear rose-tinted glasses thinking the whole world is sunshine and butterflies. I know it’s not.
When it comes to injustice and intolerance I am pretty much on the same page as Karl Popper was. You cannot and should not tolerate either. You have to be intolerant against intolerance and injustice. Otherwise, those ideas will take over and all the tolerant people will one day wake up wondering why their freedoms and rights have suddenly vanished.
Treat others with kindness and respect whenever possible. Yes, all the power to you. But you will encounter situations when this is simply not possible and probably not the best solution either.
Some people need to understand boundaries and occasionally even be reminded of those by force. I’m not going to be understanding and hugging towards the racist shithead who is yelling at someone to “go back to their own country”.
I will call him out on his shitty behaviour and, if necessary, humiliate him in public to make him be at the receiving end of a shitty treatment for once.
There are a multitude of different examples, and you have to figure out when force or when kindness is the appropriate response.
What I’m trying to do in my own life is to find a good balance between both. In order to find some closure, I will leave you with this guideline:
Be kind whenever possible, be cruel in the face of injustice.