Universal principles crop up in unexpected places. Here’s one based on the hormetic bell curve: a concept from biology that applies to so much more.
Length: 1058 words, 5-7 minute read
Subject: Philosophical universal principles, Nietzsche, the crisis of modernity, hormesis
“God is dead.”
Began Nietzsche in The Gay Science. But people often forget the context that follows this quote. He goes on to say, “And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”
Nietzsche is referring to the crisis of modernity. Following the enlightenment, the scientific method became widespread and it was suddenly very tough to square religious beliefs with contemporary science. You might think Nietzsche would be pleased about this, but in fact it was Christendom that Nietzsche had complaints with, not spirituality itself. Abandoning Christianity meant freeing ourselves of the yoke of doctrine and dogma, but also losing the moral system that Christianity provided. And Nietzsche understood all too well what sort of people would develop in a moral vacuum.
He knew that we needed a new moral system, but unfortunately his productive years were so short that he never fully developed his alternative – his concept of the uberman. Far from being a eugenic evolution of man, the uberman was intended to be a moral evolution. Nietzsche thought that future man would develop their own moral codes and reasons for living. But even in his own work, he confesses the difficulty in this task. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Zarathustra spends years in isolation developing his own moral principles, only to find that others are unwilling listen when he descends from the mountains to spread his knowledge.
Carl Jung, a famous psychoanalyst and student of Nietzsche (and Freud), would eventually be the one to iron out the kinks in the uberman concept. Jung recognized the difficulty in each person creating a set of sui generis moral principles. And his work into the subconscious proved that it was also unnecessary – correct moral systems were already known to the collective unconscious, embedded in myth and religious story. These stories were not intended to be taken as literally true, but as a metaphor, containing a blueprint for a good life.
Such blueprints are exactly what we want to extract from religion. By exploring our past, we can revivify this ancient knowledge and extract improved principles for morality. I think Kant’s categorical imperative is a great example of this. It is essentially a religious principle restated and universalized, and that principle is the golden rule.
The golden rule states ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
This principle can be naively interpreted in order to do harm to others – for example, internalizing physical abuse as being ‘good for you’ and going on to do the same thing to your own children, as it has already been ‘done unto you’. It also doesn’t work if your preferences are warped – for example, if you were crazy.
Kant’s categorical imperative, by comparison, states ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.‘
This universal principle is much more robust. It might not have objective truth, but it has a subjective, or pragmatic truth, and value in people’s lives. Everyone would be better off following this principle.
Discovering your own universal principles
You should seek to discover and follow moral principles that inspire or help you. Having a strong moral system of your own isn’t restrictive, like you might think. In fact it can give you a safety net of security and confidence. It can help you make tough decisions in a pinch.
You’ll encounter universal principles in all sorts of areas of life. Studying religion, myth, philosophy, psychology or art are great ways to discover moral principles, but they’ll pop up in unexpected places too. Here’s a principle I discovered whilst learning about human biology and diet. It is based on the hormetic bell curve.
Hormesis describes how an organisms exposure to a stressor can have a positive or negative result, depending on the dosage. A low or 0 dosage can be just a negative as a very high dosage, with most benefits coming from middle dosages, creating a bell curve, as shown below.
This has an obvious application in terms of biology. We can take a weakened form of a disease in order to increase hormesis and stimulate the body’s defenses in anticipation of the real thing. No exposure to the disease would leave us at risk if we ever did contract it. Too much exposure would give us the disease. But I think there is a principle here that can be applied to much more.
A universal principle: Aim for the hormetic sweet spot
By aiming to do more than 0 but not too much, we can optimize our benefits. Think about how ‘aiming for the hormetic sweet spot’ can answer these questions:
- How much exercise should I do? No exercise at all is unhealthy, but so is overtraining.
- Is it OK to leave this food out overnight? A small exposure to bacteria is actually beneficial, so 1 day might be a good thing, but 2 would not be.
- How hard should I push myself to practice (some skill)? Some practice every day is essential, but too much practice can become rote and have diminishing returns.
- Will my colleague hate me if I point out his mistake? Pointing out every tiny mistake is unhelpful and comes off as spiteful, but letting someone make the same mistake over and over is also cruel.
You can probably think of many more applications. Try applying this principle to problems you’re struggling with in your own life – a little of something unpleasant, but not too much.
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