Category Archives: Ethics & Values

Why Myths Benefit Society

Do you know the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree? My daughter, in the tradition of generations of American school children, learned it for President’s Day. It teaches the virtue of telling the truth, even when doing so may result in being punished. Is the story truth or legend? More importantly, does it matter?

Why Myths Benefit Society

When I got to the submarine squadron, I met the chaplain for Naval Base Point Loma. We had a delightful conversation that addressed many subjects, among them the place of myth in the fabric of a society. We talked about how the Bible often uses parables and allegories to explain moral lessons.

That many of these stories did not happen is irrelevant to the profound teachings they reveal. They endure because they are vivid and memorable. Perhaps it will not seem strange that we were equally fervent in embracing cultural myths. One stipulation: they must convey truth.

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By all accounts, George Washington was extraordinarily honest. That Mason Locke Weems may have fabricated the cherry tree story does not detract from its value as a lesson in civic virtue. Arguably, Weems’s myth has done a great service by making such an admirable characteristic of our first president indelible.

As we strive for truth, it is well to remember that it can be uncovered in many ways.

Question – Which myths do you find to be valuable or destructive?

You can leave a comment on this question or ask another question below ↓

How to Beat Inflation – In Language

Remember Mary Poppins? A beloved film classic, the scene of the nannies being blown away by the wind astounded my daughter. They seemed to be actually flying. While explaining how the effect was done, I thought about contemporary movies with similar scenes, the one coming most readily to mind being Spiderman. Don’t the nannies flying in harnesses with wires look much more real than a CGI Spiderman swinging from building to building?

How to Beat Inflation – In Language

While CGI-laden movies make big money at the box office, it is interesting to note that on Box Office Mojo’s 50 all-time top domestic grossing movies, adjusted for ticket price inflation, only ten are ones that use extensive CGI. Mary Poppins is 25th on the list while Spiderman is 36th. So the awe-inspiring movie, at least as demonstrated by my daughter’s reaction, is higher on the list than a movie with a type of effects, CGI, which is routinely labeled awesome. Do you see the contradiction?

It appears people know the difference between the everyday and the extraordinary. But for some reason, they feel compelled to exaggerate.

The overuse of the word awesome is a phenomenon I call language inflation. At some point calling something good was not good enough so it became successively great, rad, and eventually awesome. Now the most mundane thing is awesome. How do we describe that which truly inspires awe? Lest you think I am picking on the word awesome, language inflation afflicts negative descriptions too. Bad was eventually magnified to evil. If the commonplace is evil what was Hitler?

If you want to communicate well, avoid language inflation:

  1. Take a beat before speaking to ensure that you are not overstating the case. For instance, when complaining about your spouse’s behavior is it really true he never puts down the toilet seat? She is always late? Always? Not only is inflated language inaccurate, it can be inflammatory, causing arguments or bad feelings that more precise words would avoid.
  2. Practice refraining from language inflation in your everyday speech. Especially in the heat of an argument, it is easy to forget that words have meaning. Make it a habit to be careful when choosing words.
  3. Expand your vocabulary to improve your communication skills and relationships. The richness of English gives you so many choices. There are numerous, free apps to help you. I use’s.

Imagine a society in which we say what we mean and do not offend people. Do I dare say it? It would be awesome.

Question - Is being well-spoken obsolete? Please leave a comment below.

How to Judge People by Standards

Standards. Are they permanent or variable? Are some the former and others the latter? How should people be held accountable to them? These are not idle philosophical questions. They get to the root of how we view the past and interact in the present.

How to Judge People by Standards


Recently I finished reading several Charlie Chan novels. One of the most famous characters in detective fiction, when I saw the book on sale for $1 I realized I had never read any of the stories or seen the movies. While reading them I kept swinging back and forth between thinking the author, Earl Derr Biggers, was quite enlightened in his attitude toward the Chinese or a racist.

Researching his life, I found that Mr. Biggers was disgusted by the bigotry toward the Chinese in California during the early decades of the 20th century. While vacationing in Hawaii, he decided to write about a Chinese professional, loosely based on a police officer he met there. In the novels, Charlie Chan takes umbrage at overtly racist attitudes by other characters. He bristles at the less obvious ones. Yet at times Mr. Biggers accords to Detective Chan what today can only be characterized as grossly stereotypical behavior.

How do we judge Mr. Biggers and his work? By the standard of his day, Mr. Biggers’s portrayal of a Chinese man was enlightened. It countered the common image of the evil, conniving Chinaman. Yet by our standards, Charlie Chan appears one-dimensional, clichéd. Is it just to hold Mr. Biggers and his writing to a standard that he knew nothing about? Should his laurels be revoked because in today’s world he would not merit such praise? Or can we justify applauding him for his enlightened views on race, perhaps not even footnoting the change in societal standards?

I maintain people should be judged in the context of their own time. Stipulations based on a change of standards should the exception.

In contemporary times the issue is more complex. First, I distinguish between a settled societal standard and a popularly espoused view. Few people would assert that randomly shooting someone to death is acceptable. But what constitutes murder is open to any number of opinions. Next, I decide which viewpoints, though I disagree, fall within an acceptable range. This is tricky since the tendency is to conclude that those who disagree with me fall outside my range. I am challenged to stretch in the interest of civility while not abandoning standards.

Question – How do you decide the standard to which you will hold someone?

You can leave a comment on this question or ask another question below

Want to Be Decisive?

Pressure mounts. Information is rolling in but it seems impossible to make hide nor hair of it. Others are frantic but the leader sits calmly. And then, seemingly out of thin air she makes a decision. And when everyone hears it, they know it is right. How did she do it?

Want to Be Decisive?


I admire people who get more coolheaded as the tension builds up. Don’t you? Even more, I respect those who can quickly analyze the available facts and options then firmly outline a plan of action. For a long time, I thought people were born with this ability.

But six years in the military showed me that decisiveness is an outgrowth of knowing one’s values and having a clear objective. When faced with a challenge, if you have well-defined principles and you know where you want to go you can make good decisions quickly. Here is how to know if your values are clear:

  1. Make a list of your beliefs. For example, you may think it is important to be kind.
  2. For each of your beliefs, write down two to four very specific scenarios where the belief applies. Using the previous example, a scenario might be: dealing with my daughter when she wants something.
  3. For each scenario, think through how the value is relevant the situation. Better yet, write down your response. Let’s say my daughter wants a cookie. Is the kind response to always give her one? If I know my objective is to help her learn self-discipline and good eating habits in most cases it is probably unkind to give her a cookie since this teaches her to be indulgent and does not reinforce the idea of a healthy diet. The truly kind response is to say no and explain why, saving yes as a reward for a lesson well learned or a special occasion.

Undoubtedly you have many beliefs. But do you really understand their implications? If so, you are probably already decisive. If not, by going through this exercise you will develop the foundation with which you can decide how to respond to situations quickly and in a way that feels right because it is in concert with your deeply held values.

For setting clear objectives, see my previous blog posts on having a mission statement and setting goals.

Question – What ideas do you have for better understanding your values? Please comment below.

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