Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > March 2019


Those who cannot learn from the mistakes of others are doomed to forever repeat them.

It is fairly common for people to read books published about famous people, in the hope of discovering the secret of their success. But for every outstanding success, often there are many who tried almost the same thing with lesser success or even failure. To find out the difference, you need also to learn about the mistakes that were made!

Consider an example of someone who drove their car off the edge of an icy curve on a road. Suppose that after getting it towed out they tell you of their experience. Would you choose to drive that same icy road, ignoring that advice because they were "not an inspiring example of a successful person?"

That's a very similar situation to the Hot Wheels picture above, where the red car driver is about to repeat the failure of other cars on a jump that is too far apart! At this stage it's too late to avoid the problem. Perhaps to check in advance would have been useful!

You will also notice in this picture that there are several cars that have crashed. In the photo, they are in the majority. This leads to the next point: the majority is not always right.

It is surprising how often people will "follow the herd" even when they should know better. A classic example of that is tobacco smoking in the 1960s. Smoking had been suspected of being harmful since the early 1800s, but by the 1960s the proof was well established. Nevertheless, the majority of North American adults smoked in the 1960s, and worse yet the children of smokers most often choose to smoke as well!

Tradition and peer pressure have an incredible effect on people! For many teenagers in the 1960s, it was more important to be socially accepted than to have a healthy life. Yet at the same time there were also some teens who choose instead to have a better future, who refused to be entrapped by smoking. They decided that they would not be "doomed to forever repeat the mistakes of the past." The result: gradually, over the next generations, the smoking fad diminished to a small minority of people. Now, people no longer feel obligated to smoke.

That was a positive step, but there remain other steps that still need to be taken. An example very similar to that of tobacco is that of alcohol, where social pressure leads people to "follow the herd" without consideration to whether it's a good idea or not. How many youth choosing to drink alcohol have investigated research into its effect? Do they know about fetal alcohol syndrome, risks of impaired driving, risk of alcoholism, it's toxic effect within the body, or even what it is (a biological waste product)?

Thousands of years ago, a tradition formed that might have been reasonable at the time. People needed vitamin C to avoid getting skurvy, and for many people the only available preservable supply would be grape juice or other bottled juices. Pasturization had not been invented, nor refrigeration, so it was inevitable the juices would pick up some amount of alcohol over time. There was no real "grape juice" but only "new wine" or "old wine." So people took what they needed and tried to avoid using too much - often unsuccessfully.

Today there are better options, and yet people continue the tradition without much thought. To rationalize that choice, a person may identify a successful person who has drunk "responsibly" in limited amounts, thereby minimizing the risks and harm. But that is the mistake that I identified at the outset, of ignoring the reports of those who have sufferred from it. When a person begins drinking alcohol it starts a lifetime habit, and they cannot predict what level of harm they will suffer from it. It also is a manifestation of a second error, that of choosing a "second best" alternative when a better one is available.

Some traditions are good, but every tradition needs to be reconsidered. In ancient times, people could deplete natural resources or pollute their land, but the population was small and there was always somewhere else people could move to. Now the land is populated by people almost everywhere, and these problems can no longer be ignored.

On a positive note, there is an incredible amount of knowledge that is available to people in the modern world. If someone really wants to know how to make the best choices, they can find out. The information is readily available online and in libraries. It is the best time to revisit the traditions, to keep the good ones, relinquish those that are less than ideal, and build new traditions. It is not just for your own benefit! Your friends, your children, they are watching you. Your behavior becomes an example to others, and it can counter adverse social pressure that perpetuates harmful traditions. Your behavior is your vote for the kind of world you want not just for yourself, but for all whom you care about.

- Arthur de Leyssac, March 2019.


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