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millie O&M David C. Simpson

One thought that occurred to me lately was the fact that there are some goals in life that can never be fully attained, but are nevertheless worth pursuing and getting nearer and nearer to them. Like an asymptotic function in mathematics if you may.

One example that I thought for it is the case of objectivity. Human beings are subjective by nature and so can never be completely objective. However, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to be as objective as possible, or completely give up on being objective. (And by being objective I don't mean having a neutral Point-of-View). Other people can disagree with me that objectivity is a virtue but it's besides the point.

Now a co-worker of mine is a Hasidic Jew, and when I told him that I'm an Objectivist, he said that one cannot be completely Objective. He then gave the fact that the Bible says that God brought the great drought because "Yetzer Lev ha'adam Ra' Mine'urav" (= the desire of the Human's heart is bad from his youth.), and later on decided not to do it again for a similar reason. He brought that as an indication that the Bible indicated that a man is not Objective by nature.

I thought about it for a moment and understood that the same can be said about honesty (or "righteousness" in a more religious language). We can never be completely honest and never lie or do the right thing everytime. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't constantly try to be as honest as possible, or worse succumb to complete dishonesty.

(I was told Immanuel Kant said something along the lines that if one wished, for example, to be sincere, he must not lie even if threatened by death. However, this is silly, because ethical and moral ideals are supposed to help you lead a happier life (as identified by Aristotle in the first book of "Nicomachean Ethics"), not to terminate them prematurely under someone who employs force or threat of force against you, when you otherwise did not do anything wrong.)

After I told it to my co-worker in an MSN Messenger conversation he agreed with me that I was right on both the honesty aspect and, in accordance with the principle, also the Objectivity one.

This concept can be applied to many other values or capabilities we desire. For example, one can always improve as a programmer, which is evident by the fact that most good programmers who take a look at their old code are unhappy with it. But it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to always improve as programmers.

Likewise, if a particular computing technology is large (e.g: Perl, Java, PHP, .NET) and also has possibly spanned a large number of halo technologies (e.g: CPAN, Apache Jakarta, etc.), then mastering the core language would be hard, and time consuming. In the Perl world we constantly say that "no one knows all of Perl, not even Larry Wall". But it doesn't mean you shouldn't do your best to master as much as you can out of it, or need to.

One example that I'm especially sensitive about is politics in a software project (possibly an open-source one ). Obviously, there can never be zero politics, but the project leaders and members should always try to reduce its amount, because not keeping it at bay is a recipe for disaster. I constantly hear about important features that are not implemented or even bugs that are left unfixed in open-source projects due to political reasons.

I can give Subversion and to a lesser extent the perl5-core development tools as good examples of projects with very little politics and a value-maximising attitude.

One can think of many other examples.

My point is that while it is true that we are humans and can never be perfect, we should always aim for perfection in some aspects. And given enough willingness and by learning from our mistakes, we can remain close to perfection in those respects all the time.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 28th, 2008 10:23 am (UTC)
I wonder whether people should look at such goal as asymptotes, or look at them more as finding the point of balance. In fact, what you mentioned regarding Kant is about balance, not about trying every day to go further than you did yesterday. In Buddhism (I'm taking a Buddhism workshop this year) they call this "attentiveness" - getting a feel for the situation and finding where the place of balance (which changes all the time) is.

I don't think we should aim for perfection in anything. I think we should aim for balance, otherwise we just create misery for ourselves, because at some point you might break the balance, and pay for achieving that "extra perfection" in other aspects of the situation. All situations are complex. All of them have many variables, and those variables, well, vary all the time. One has to learn to forgive oneself when he hasn't made that extra step - or the price would be self-flogging.
Apr. 29th, 2008 07:03 am (UTC)
Thanks for the reply! I'll reply to it later.
Hi real_skeptic! Thanks for the reply - it raises many good points. I'd like to reply to it later, but don't hold your breath.
May. 2nd, 2008 07:37 pm (UTC)
I was not trying to advocate Perfectionism


Thanks for your message. One problem I had in my post was that it seemed like I was advocating perfectionism. As noted in "Feeling Good" (a highly recommended self-help Psychology book about Cognitive-Behavioural Psychology), Perfectionism is a bad tendency and can easily lead to many depressions. From what I know of myself, I'm not a perfectionist and don't ever wish to advocate it. For example, in the Technion, I had a policy of never trying to improve my grade for a class as long as it was a passing grade. I even got some 50-something grades and still kept them. The reason was that I wasn't a perfectionist and that I was trying to limit the amount of extra frustration and extra work I'll have to endure. I graduated, and while it cost me a lot of blood, perfectionism would have made it much worse.

Feeling Good also discusses dealing with guilt, and that you shouldn't feel bad about your failures. What I meant in my entry is that we should try to keep some natural, but bad tendencies at bay. One should not worry too much about having erred, but you should strive not to err too much.

Naturally, you need to keep your ideals in context. They are meant to help you lead a better life, not make you miserable.

So I think that when striving for excellence, one should not feel too bad if he or she errs.

May. 7th, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
What is this objectivity you speak of? Perhaps you mean intersubjectivity?
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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