The problem with my Moist Robot view of the world – the one that says we are all animated meat, bouncing around according to the laws of physics – is that there is no accounting for morality or ethical behavior in that world view.
Is that a problem?
I don’t subscribe to any religious belief and yet I am never tempted to hurt other people for personal gain. Most non-believers would say the same. So there must be something in the operating systems of our brains that provides the equivalent of a moral code no matter what we think of the afterlife. Today I will try to put that moral code for non-believers into words.
My suggestion for a non-believer’s moral code can be reduced to two words:
That’s my personal way of seeing the world. I didn’t invent the notion, but it seems to fit me best.
To me, a well-lived life starts with total selfishness, as a baby, and over time you learn to take care of yourself before turning outward and trying to help those around you. I’m at the helpful age now. I enjoy recreation, but I only find meaning and satisfaction from being useful to other people. I think that change in a person happens automatically after we satisfy our own needs. Our strongest instincts after self-preservation are, apparently, to protect the tribe.
You probably think “useful” is a vague standard, and far too subjective. But you might be surprised at how often it clarifies your world and your role in it.
My only expectation from other humans is that they are trying to move up the scale from useless (as a baby) to relatively useful as an adult. And by that I mean you add to society more than you subtract. I don’t think we should assume some “normal” rate at which people should become useful. Everyone is different. But I do think the world is better when everyone is trying to move in that direction.
Keep in mind that we are flawed creatures, so our sense of what is useful at any given moment might be biased or totally mistaken. But as long as our intentions are leaning the right way, I think it all works out in the long run.
The first time I heard the word “intention” in a philosophical context was during a personal conversation with Salesforce’s founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, before I gave a talk to a gathering of his managers. I had always seen the world in terms of action, not intention. After ten minutes with Benioff, I started to think I lived on a different plane of existence. Benioff managed intentions – his own and others – and became a billionaire philanthropist. I was stuck on some plane that seemed more about the physical realm.
Let me give you an example of intention from my Benioff experience. As the evening’s speaker, I was seated next to Benioff for dinner, along with several of his direct reports. One of the executives was updating Benioff about a PowerPoint slide deck he had just finished. Benioff asked if the first slide stated the company’s philanthropic intentions. The manager said no, and explained how his presentation was perfect the way it was.
But it wasn’t right according to Benioff. It didn’t set the right intention. It was merely information. So Benioff asked him to make the social objective the first page.
The executive resisted. It didn’t seem the right flow for the information.
I think it took Benioff three or four attempts to convey the idea that intention needs to be the first page, not the afterthought. But Benioff succeeded, largely because he was not willing to engage in any other part of the conversation until the executive confirmed that his first page would be about charitable giving. (And it helps to be the boss, obviously.)
Intention. Intention. Intention.
You might recall from my prior posts that a Master Wizard describes a better version of you and invites you to rise to it. Benioff invites his employees to be givers. And to be better givers, Salesforce has to make more money. It is capitalism, but Benioff-style.
I would love to tell you that billionaire philanthropist Marc Benioff is a regular guy who worked hard and got lucky. That wasn’t my sense of him. I think Benioff understands the power of intention, and his success follows from that. He is one of the least normal people I have ever met, but in a good way. And my impression was that it is 100% genuine. Benioff is trying to fix the world, starting with intentions first.
And that leads me to Be Useful. We humans will certainly fail to do the right things, at least sometimes. But in our intentions, we can be perfect.
Intend to be useful.
You will be amazed how right it feels.