Solus Ipse

I have developed this theme numerous times in this blog, but it bears repeating in light of one of the most popular sit-coms on television that recently closed up shop. I am speaking about “The Big Bang Theory” which had eleven successful years before finally going the way of all old sit-coms: syndication. The question is: why was it so popular? The answer is complex, but part of the explanation has to do with the central character, Sheldon Cooper,  a genius who is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. He also has asperger’s syndrome, a condition in which the individual is totally unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He lacks sensitivity and a sense of humor in addition to having no compassion whatever and being socially inept. His behavior ranges from amusing to peculiar, even maddening.

The show also has several other characters including a pretty “dumb blonde” who seems brighter than the other supposedly bright people the show centers around. She may well be at least part of the reason why the show was so popular. In any event, the Sheldon character is most interesting because, as I see it, he is an extension of the way so many of us are becoming: self-absorbed, totally unaware of others around us: solus ipse.

The Sheldon character may have been modeled after the lead in a British sit-com titled “Doc Martin” which centers around a physician in a small village in Cornwall who also has asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that Doc Martin, who also lacks a sense of humor and social skills, is very much aware of others (for the most part they annoy him) — though unaware of the effect his behavior has on others. He is a physician and has a deep and genuine sense of duty to his patients — many of whom would try the patience of a saint! And it is this sense of duty, together with his dawning awareness that he needs to work on his social skills — which must be learned by those suffering from his condition — that makes him a more sympathetic character.

What makes these two characters interesting is that they speak volumes about the fact that so many people are apparently drawn to the two of them. Despite his many strange “tics,” Doc Martin is someone we can identify with and for some strange reason care about. So also, although to a lesser degree, is Sheldon Cooper. I have suggested why this is so, and I will repeat that we care about such fellows because more and more of us are becoming just like them. One thing that many find appealing, I read from the comments others have made, is that they are totally honest: they say exactly what is on their minds. They do not “suffer fools.” And this is true. Both of these characters say exactly what they are thinking despite the fact that in many cases what they say is hurtful to others around them, even those they regard as friends. And both of these characters are similar in refusing to accept any responsibility whatever for the blunders they may commit. Remind you of anyone?

At times, the behavior of such folks as Doc Martin and Sheldon Cooper strikes viewers as sadistic, but this would be so only if they knew they were hurting others whereas these two people do not. If they hurt others, it is collateral damage, something out of the range of their awareness. The question is whether this excuses them. Are we to say “no foul” if those around us are unaware of the effect their behavior has on us and others around us? I think not. These people can be taught how to behave toward others, even if their behavior does not stem from genuine concern. And this is certainly the case for the rest of us who seem increasingly to be trending in their direction. It’s all about awareness and concern for others — and accepting responsibility for our actions.

This is why the trend toward increasing involvement with electronic devices is so disturbing: it encourages a loss of awareness of the real world and other people coupled with a gradual desensitization to the pain of others. It has been shown that it releases dopamine in the brain of users and therefore is addictive, and this is certainly a concern. But as we become increasingly lost in an electronic world in which we talk to machines and they talk back even as they drive our cars, we risk becoming increasingly less aware and less concerned — in a world where a sense of community and the desire to live in common are things that separate us from the wild animals. And from people like Sheldon Cooper and Doc Martin.

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Inverted Consciousness

I wrote this post several years ago in attempt to understand why folks seem to have become lost in the world inside their own heads. It is a topic I had written a book about a few years ago and one that continues to intrigue me. With a few adjustments to the earlier version, here is my attempt to understand the condition known medically as “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

“a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.”

Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these folks  have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the other’s presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking a sense of humor and any instinctive reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
I wrote a book about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it. My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: Aspergers is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 1930s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves. World War II soon followed, interestingly enough.
Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time,

“The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”

But he is incapable of that.
I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. It seems apparent that our current President suffers from the condition to a high degree as well. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us tend to turn our attention inward. In addition, the countless number of electronic toys that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I recall vividly the photograph of a group of teenagers sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting — totally unaware of the extraordinary painting nearby. Note how all of these devices turn the individual’s attention away from what is around them (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic.

Buck Up!

In the superb sit-com “The Big Bang Theory” when Leonard turns for help to his mother, a renown psychiatrist, she will tell him: “Buck Up!” If he asks for more, she will tell him to “Buck Up, Sissypants!” If that doesn’t work, she will tell him to read one of her books available on Amazon.

One of the basic rules of participatory democracy is that we get involved in elections, vote for the candidate of our choice and if that person doesn’t win we accept the consequences. One of the unwritten rules in Civics 101 is that participation necessitates acceptance of the results. The same rule applies in sports. We can’t agree to play and then get pissed off when we or our favorite get beaten and then crawl into a corner and sulk. It is obvious that this rule has not been explained to a great many voters in this country who are pissed off and sulking. Some have become downright nasty. We read about John Schnatter, millionaire owner of a pizza franchise, who threatens to raise the prices of his products and cut back his workers’ hours because of the election; we read about the owner of a coal mine who lays off 50 of his employees — taking his frustrations out on those who would work for him; we read about thousands of people who sign petitions to have their states secede from the Union. To all of these people, I say with Leonard’s Mom: “Buck Up, Sissypants!”

But the following story takes the cake. You can’t make this stuff up!

PHOENIX (Reuters) – An Arizona woman, in despair at the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama, ran down her husband with the family car in suburban Phoenix on Saturday because he failed to vote in the election, police said on Monday.

Holly Solomon, 28, was arrested after running over husband Daniel Solomon following a wild chase that left him pinned underneath the vehicle.

Daniel Solomon, 36, was in critical condition at a local hospital, but is expected to survive, Gilbert police spokesman Sergeant Jesse Sanger said.

Police said Daniel Solomon told them his wife became angry over his “lack of voter participation” in last Tuesday’s presidential election and believed her family would face hardship as a result of Obama winning another term.

Witnesses reported the argument broke out on Saturday morning in a parking lot and escalated. Mrs Solomon then chased her husband around the lot with the car, yelling at him as he tried to hide behind a light pole, police said. He was struck after attempting to flee to a nearby street.

Obama won the national election with 332 electoral votes compared with 206 for Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Arizona’s 11 electoral votes were won by Romney.

To be sure, the Republican strategy during the campaigns was to keep hitting the “jobs and economy” button, trying to scare people into voting for their man who was said to be the only one on earth who could fix things that had gone wrong under the sitting President. After the election, one religious zealot actually said that Mitt Romney’s loss was a good thing because if he had won people would have thought him another Moses come to lead his people to the promised land!

To be sure there is some fear at work in Holly Solomon’s damaged mind along with rage and deep disappointment. But, let’s face it folks, there is also a good dose of racial hatred in this as well– along with some pent-up anger at her husband, no doubt. Combine these powerful emotions and you get aberrant behavior that starts at the low end of mere petulance and goes to the extreme of running over your partner with the family car. To these people I say: “Buck Up, Sissypants.”

Mill’s Methods and Violence

John Stuart Mill wrote a book many years ago that very few people have read — except maybe his mother and his wife.. . . and me (don’t ask me why).  It is a book on inductive logic and scientific method. I learned a number of interesting things in reading the book. For instance I learned that evidence and arguments “imply” conclusions; we “infer” the conclusion from the evidence. In a word, inference is something we do whereas implication is something arguments and evidence do. Further, I learned that points cannot be “valid,” and neither can ideas — though Sheldon Cooper (on “The Big Bang Theory”) keeps insisting they are. Arguments are valid (or invalid) whereas points and ideas can be spot on, insightful, interesting, telling, or perhaps simply stupid — they cannot be “valid.” So you can see my time was not wasted. I dearly love Sheldon Cooper but am delighted to trip him up!

But I also learned something much more interesting, because in his book Mill explained his methods for determining causes. These rules were, respectively, “the “method of similarity” and “the method of difference.” I won’t go into detail, but the former tells us that if you want to know why a group of people got sick at a convention, for example, look for the common denominator — something they all ate or drank. Isolate the item and you can pretty much figure that’s the cause. Years ago it was determined that the cause of a large group of convention-goers getting sick was the ventilating system at their hotel. They all ate and drank different things, but they all breathed the same air.

On the other hand, the method of difference seeks to isolate the causal factor by looking at the one thing that is different in a group that exhibits some strange affliction. Let’s say we want to know why America is such a violent nation. Now we know that there is violence in other countries, but that violence pales in contrast to the frequent violence in this country. Why is that?? Michael Moore made a movie (“Bowling for Columbine”) that attempted to determine the cause and he concluded that it was probably (we can’t be sure) the frequent violence in our news broadcasts. Let’s examine his reasoning.

We begin by comparing and contrasting America with, say, Britain, Japan, and Germany and we look at what the countries have in common: they all watch violent TV, play violent video games, and watch violent movies (often American movies that are known for their violence). Moore thus ruled out those factors as causes of violence in America. What he found was that American news broadcasts are much more violent than the news broadcasts in other developed countries. So he suggested that violence in the news we watch is the likely cause of violence in this country.

This reasoning is sound as far as it goes. But we might just as well pick out coffee as the single factor that separates America from the other countries. In the other three countries tea is the drink of choice; Americans drink a lot of coffee. Or perhaps it’s widespread ownership of guns: Americans own more guns than most other people on earth — except for the Canadians, as I understand it. And the Canadians watch just as much violent TV, movies, and play violent video games. So it can’t be gun ownership. Perhaps it is the violent news programs, as Moore suggested. Or the coffee. Canadians also drink tea as their drink of choice, not coffee. I’m going with coffee.

But then, perhaps it is a combination of the factors listed above. We know that animals learn by imitation and that humans are animals. Further, we know that Americans watch a great deal of violence in their TV, video games, and movies — and their news programs. They also own a great many guns.  And they also drink a lot of coffee. So, perhaps, the cause of violence in America is a combination of these factors: the many guns we own together with violence we are exposed to plus the stimulation of a drink spiked with lots of caffeine. You never know! Damn! Causal reasoning is hard.

And yet, there are politicians out there who think it’s easy. They say that the sitting President is the cause of the poor economy because he is the sitting president and the economy is weak. It’s like saying coffee is the cause of violence in America because Americans drink a lot of coffee. And it’s just as stupid.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.” Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these people have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the others’ presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking any reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
     I wrote about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it.  My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: this condition is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
     As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 30s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves.  World War II soon followed.
     Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time, “The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”  But he is incapable of that.
     I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us are causal factors. In addition, the countless number of technical devices that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I was recently at a restaurant, for example, and noted the table next to me where three of the five people were texting while they waited to be served — presumably to people elsewhere. But note how all of these technical devices turn the individual’s attention inward (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
     In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic. And we may be more like them than we want to admit.

“The Big Bang,” Science, and Ethics

I have blogged before about our need to make distinctions to be clear about what we say and there is a key distinction that we frequently fail to make. That’s where I am going now with the help of a popular sit-com.

Science is not technology. Sheldon Cooper — of “The Big Bang Theory” — is a theoretical physicist. He is a pure scientist (or the character is). Like Einstein, he doesn’t care a whit for applied science (note in the show Sheldon’s low opinion of Leonard because the latter is an experimental physicist. The suggestion that he needs to conduct experiments to prove his theories makes Sheldon laugh….or snicker.) As a general rule, however, scientists do not eschew experimentation. Indeed, there is an episode of “Big Bang” where Sheldon and Leonard collaborate and are asked to deliver a paper together. In any event, experiments are routinely conducted to verify theories in science, though at the highest levels of theoretical physics mathematics sometimes can suffice. Einstein didn’t need to conduct experiments to establish his theory of relativity, for example.

But there are other sciences, of course, both exact (like physics and chemistry) and inexact (like geology and biology) which rely on mathematics to a greater or lesser degree. And there are social sciences that mimic the exact sciences by using mathematics in the form of statistics — though their experiments and even their calculations are notoriously inexact, dealing in probabilities rather than certainties. But all of these sciences, exact or not, rely on the empirical method — looking and recording — and some sort of calculation. And all are desirous of knowing why things happen as they do. Why do objects tend toward the center of the earth?  Why do blond parents have red-headed children? Why did the dinosaurs become extinct? Scientists want to know. That’s what they do: they look and they record, and they draw tentative conclusions that lead to theories that are in turn verified — or falsified — by experiments or new empirical data.

Technology, on the  other hand, is not science for a number of reasons. Technology is all about “How?” and not “Why?” On “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz is the designated technologist. Because Howard has “only” a Master’s Degree from M.I.T. in engineering — which involves considerable math and physics — he is relegated on this show to designing toilets and telescopes for NASA –merely technical tasks. In a word, he figures out how to do things and he does them without asking why. In the case of toilets for the space station, the “why” is fairly obvious, but what about the “why” question as it regards the entire NASA endeavor? Few of us question that at all. In any event, the difference between science and technology was made clear in an episode of “Big Bang” when Penny’s car engine failed but the scientists could not fix it even though they knew all about how internal combustion engines work — in theory.

As Jacques Ellul said many years ago, ours is a technological age: we tend to denigrate theory. We laugh at Sheldon, not just because Jim Parsons is a superb comic actor and the writers have given him some juicy lines, but because he is a theoretician in a world in which, strange to say, Howard Wolowitz is much more at home, much more like the rest of us. Like Howard, we don’t seem to care about why things happen as they do, we just keep doing what we are doing and worry about the consequences later on when they become another problem to be solved. And we are convinced someone can solve it regardless of how complicated it might be — a dangerous assumption indeed.

Interestingly, what neither the scientist nor the technologist ventures into are the ethical implications of what they do. Thus, we have theoretical physicists who work together to develop the Atom bomb. Or we have medical technologists who conduct experiments to determine whether certain cosmetics will blind rabbits without asking whether or not this is the right thing to do. We have medical researchers who give placebos to cancer patients as part of an experiment. There’s a wonderful scene in one of the “Big Bang” episodes where Penny asks the guys why they rigged their computer so it could turn on the light by sending signals around the world; they respond in unison: “because we can.” Note that even Sheldon chimes in. Indeed. That is our society’s answer, and we are content with it — until a crisis arises that we simply cannot fix because we failed to look deep enough or far enough — or ask “why?” As Ellul suggests, it is precisely the failure to inquire into the moral and theoretical implications of what we do that gets us in trouble. And some of it is deep trouble indeed.

Sheldon’s Problem

In one of my favorite episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Laurie Metcalf plays a large role, Sheldon Cooper has had a miserable day because his Mom spends the day with Sheldon’s friends. She would rather do that than go to a lecture with him and listen to him trip-up the Nobel Prize-winning speaker. She tells Sheldon she would rather to go to Hollywood so she can talk to a wax statue of Ronald Reagan and thank him for his service to his country!  At the end of the day Sheldon has caught a cold and lies in bed while his Mom rubs Vaporub onto his chest and sings “Soft Kitty.” Near the end of the scene Sheldon tells his mother that he regrets that he hasn’t been able to spend time with her on this trip. His mother asks, “And whose fault is that?” Sheldon replies, “Yours.” Funny, yes. But also a bit sad. In Shelden’s world it is always the other person’s fault. Increasingly this seems to be the same world we all live in: when things go wrong, it is always someone else’s fault.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of The Country features a heroine, Undine Spragg, who marries Ralph Marvell a man with little money but “Old New York” family connections. The marriage goes terribly wrong because Undine cannot control her spending and, like her parents, her husband can’t say “no.” Undine, like Sheldon, blames her husband: the failed marriage couldn’t possibly be her fault. And that is the problem: Undine is a self-absorbed, spoiled child.  No one has ever denied her anything. And despite the fact that these are fictional characters, they both reflect a common feature of our culture.

We may not have Sheldon’s problem — which would require extensive psychological counselling. But more and more of us have Undine’s problem: we are spoiled rotten and our attention is turned inward. I suspect there is a connection here. I have spoken about the unwillingness of so many of us in this culture to accept responsibility for our actions. The problem is widespread. But while I have never discussed the possible causes, I think there is a definite connection between our increasing preoccupation with ourselves and our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions.

As we become increasingly self-centered and others become reduced to a means toward our personal ends, and those around us (especially our parents and teachers) confirm this preoccupation with self by gratifying our every wish and telling us how wonderful we are, we grow in our sense of entitlement. We are thus subjected to ego enhancement at every turn. As the ego becomes enlarged, and the world becomes our world, it becomes harder and harder to accept the fact that we may have caused the things that go wrong in that world. It simply cannot be our fault: we are too wonderful. It must be someone else’s fault.

Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s Syndrome, which may not be treatable. Undine Spragg is simply a self-absorbed, spoiled brat. But her problem may also be untreatable, since she has reached adulthood and it has developed into a character flaw. These are fictional characters, but they resemble us in important ways; as their condition becomes widespread among the population at large, our society takes on the character of those who comprise it. We are used to seeing people duck responsibility and indulge themselves at others’ expense. A few people complain, but on the whole, it’s what we do. It’s who we are.

In 1810 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend John Langdon in which he spoke of kings; he said, in part, “. . .take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and they [become delusional and self-absorbed].” We are all kings today, with little or no political power, but with more power over the things that affect us directly than even the kings of Jefferson’s day might have had. Let us hope we don’t all turn into Undine Spragg.

Ali’s Courage

Sports Illustrated recently did a nice story about Muhammad Ali on the occasion of his 70th birthday. In a letter praising the magazine and the fighter, the writer noted the man’s “courage. . .which always allowed him to be himself, and his unwavering insistence on living by his beliefs. . .” Let’s think about this.

To begin with, “living by his beliefs” is empty praise. Hitler lived by his beliefs, as did Torquemada, Joseph Stalin, and other, lesser, fanatics. History is full of evil men who lived (and died) by their beliefs. That’s hardly praise. Further, it’s never clear what it means to say his “courage allowed him to be himself.” Again, the same thing could be said of so many evil people. How could a man be anything but himself, anyway? I gather the writer wants to praise Ali for being honest and courageous.

To be sure, Ali stood by his beliefs, which is to say his principles, during the Viet Nam war in which he refused to participate. It did take courage, to be sure, to buck the system. It also cost him some of the best years of his fighting life. But standing up for one’s principles, being “always himself,” is praiseworthy only if the principles one stands up for are also worthy of praise. Standing up — and even being willing to die — for the principle of white supremacy, let us say, is certainly not praiseworthy, except in a bizarre sense of that term. It crosses the line between courage and stupidity. In this case, it’s not clear that Ali’s courage was admirable.

If we are going to praise a man or a woman for being courageous and standing by his or her principles in difficult times, the principles themselves need to be examined.

In Ali’s case, the principles would stand the test of critical examination if they reflected an opposition to the Viet Nam war on grounds of conscience. War itself is never a good thing (except, perhaps, in self-defense or as a last resort). But the Viet Nam war was of questionable moral worth. Those who stood against it were often persons of courage, especially if they suffered as a result. In Ali’s case, unfortunately, his public statement  “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Cong” suggests self-interest, which is not an acknowledged moral principle. Ali may have been honest and willing to accept the consequences of his actions. In some sense, his action took courage, as mentioned above. But it is not at all clear that he was taking the moral high ground. Contrast Ali’s simple statement with Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and you see immediately how different is an appeal to ethical principles from mere self-interest.

Honesty in itself is not an inherently good thing, either, despite the fact that we tend to embrace it blindly in this culture. If I tell my neighbor lady that her new hat is hideous, it may be an honest thing to say, but it hurts her feelings unnecessarily and is therefore morally reprehensible. Sheldon Cooper on the popular TV show “The Big Bang Theory” is relentlessly honest, and the people he hurts are legion. But their hurt is skin deep, as it must be if we are to laugh. In his case, Sheldon’s honesty is one of his comical features on a very funny show. But honesty is not in itself at all funny. Nor is it necessarily admirable.

So we need to be clear about what the honest talk or courageous action comes to mean, what the context is. If Ali’s honesty and courage were praiseworthy, it was not because of his “unwavering insistence on living by his beliefs,” but because his beliefs were themselves praiseworthy. If, for example, his conversion to the Muslim religion resulted in deep antipathy to war of all kinds, we could acknowledge that his decision was a matter of principle, or a matter of conscience at the very least. But we don’t know that. It’s not at all clear that Muhammad Ali acted on principle at all. Until we know more about the principles that informed his decision we must in all honesty withhold praise.