Pencil Theory

There are a lot of problems out there – problems in the philosophical sense. Questions that cry out for answers. If North Korea detonates a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, what should the rest of us do about it? Or, should we bother sending people to Mars? Or, is capital punishment ever ethical? Or, should newborns be circumcised?

We’re pretty flush with problems, but we tend to come up short on solutions. There are 9 billion people out there, most of which are eager to shout their opinions, but that shouting doesn’t always result in consensus. And even if it did, consensus doesn’t make a thing correct.

It isn’t just a trick of numbers either. Think of whatever smaller group you like: your country, your city, your job, or, if you have them, your political party, your church, your parents, siblings, children, or spouse. The closer group you consider, the more similar your opinions are likely to be, but you also know more about them. So, you’ve no doubt found the little exceptions where you disagree.

For this thought exercise, I think of my martial arts group. I’m not sure how many of us there are – maybe 50. We meet up, week after week, year after year, to study ethics, basically: how to protect people, and why. Now, you might expect – or at least I did – that such a group would have a lot in common in other areas, like politics. But it isn’t so. And whatever groups you are a part of are, no doubt, just as diverse.

Why is that? Well, there’s probably no consensus answer to that question either, but here’s my take on it. Bear with me because it starts out a little abstract.


Think about this: Nobody knows how to make a pencil – just an ordinary yellow #2 pencil.

It’s true.

But it’s weird, so let’s take a moment to reflect. What does it really take to make a pencil? You carve the two halves out of wood, you glue them around a stick of graphite, paint the thing yellow, and clamp an eraser to the end of it, and you’re done. But that’s not really making a pencil. That’s assembling a pencil out of pencil parts.

If you didn’t have the parts, the list of things you need to know gets a lot longer. To cherry pick a few, you would have to –

  • Harvest and treat wood from cedar trees, which you either find or cultivate.
  • Mine graphite, and form it into sticks somehow.
  • Make the glue. (Is it horse? You don’t know.)
  • Make yellow pigment for the paint. It’s cadmium sulfide, made by mining and processing cadmium and sulfur ores, and then doing a little chemistry.
  • Make acrylic paint medium, a polymer synthesized from oil, which you’ll have to drill and refine.
  • Make synthetic rubber for the eraser (another polymer) and infuse that with pumice (which you mine) suspended in vegetable oil. So now you also have to grow vegetables.
  • Make the thing that holds the eraser in place. It’s called a ferrule, and it’s made of aluminum. So, back to the mines, this time for bauxite. Refine that into aluminum oxide. Smelt that into aluminum. Machine that into a ferrule.
  • Assemble your pencil.

But wait, there’s more. You can’t smelt aluminum in some shitty blast furnace, like you can with steel. Aluminum smelting takes a lot of electricity, which you’ll no doubt pull off of the grid instead of making your own. It’s high voltage, so good luck generating and transforming it yourself.

And for that matter, you’ll need a lot of tools, which I assume you’ll just buy, as opposed to making from iron that you dig out of the ground with your bare hands. And that doesn’t even consider all the mining and oil drilling equipment you’ll need, or the chemistry equipment, or whatever implement you use to slaughter the horse.

There is no end to this exercise. You cannot make a pencil – or much else – except in the context of a modern, industrial society. If you still aren’t convinced, imagine waking up tomorrow on an island, never to see another human being. How long do you think it will take to work your way back to pencil making?

We like to imagine ourselves as rugged individualists, who aren’t dependent on society, who could take it or leave it. But that is a pure delusion, unless you like the idea of eating berries and carrion, and dying when you’re 32. Aristotle argued that a person who doesn’t partake in society must be either a beast or a god. And before we decide to take that as a compliment, consider that a god would have no trouble making a pencil.

Here’s the point. If one person can’t make a pencil, how can we expect one person to know how to make an economic policy that encourages innovation, or a justice system that consistently rehabilitates violent offenders, or a war strategy that preserves the greatest amount of life? How do we make any of those things?

There is an answer, and it’s the same as the answer to the pencil thing: There are a whole bunch of us! One person cannot do these things alone, but one person does not need to do these things alone.

But that’s also what creates these disagreements. The things we find important are so complex that it is unfathomable that we would agree on them, especially right off the bat with no discussion. The discord we see in the world is an artifact of our finite minds attempting to understand an infinitely complex universe.

And since it’s that, it doesn’t need to be anything else. We shouldn’t need a further explanation. Where there is complexity there is disagreement. That is a sufficient explanation.

So, think of a simple political issue. Think of minimum wage. Some people support a minimum wage, because (they argue) it increases the income of some people. Others oppose a minimum wage, because (they argue) it eliminates some jobs.

Who is right doesn’t matter for this discussion. We’re not going to unpack that issue today. What does matter is that both sides of this argument agree on what the goal is. They have the same values. Poverty is bad, prosperity is good. So this is not an ethical issue. It’s an issue of engineering. The only place where these two sides disagree is which method is the most likely to achieve the goal they both want.

We tend to think of people who disagree with us as unethical, because that explanation is easy and coherent. It takes work for me to sort through the nuances of economics that lead you to believe your solution is better than mine. It’s much easier for me to assume you disagree about minimum wage because you hate poor people.

But you don’t, do you? It would be rare if you did. Ethical disagreements exist, but they’re much less common.

What do you think about guns? Should there be more of them, or less? Should there be more regulation, or less? I don’t know what you believe, but I know why you believe it: Life is worth protecting. Wherever you fall on this issue, you fall there because you believe it protects life the best. There is no position in the gun debate that argues that there ought to be more murder.

Notice how trivial the argument would be if there were. The pro-murder people are wrong, and it’s so obvious that it’s hard to argue in any more depth than that. There are edge cases, but for the most part ethical matters are simple and straightforward. Only the implementation is hard. Because, again, we’re talking about a system so complex that no one person can possibly understand it all.

We deal with the same issue in martial arts. We don’t meet up week after week, year after year, to discuss whether to protect people. We meet up to discuss how. What to do – that’s easy. Why to do it – that’s kind of easy. How to do it – that’s extraordinarily complex.

It’s important to recognize the difference between an ethical disagreement and a procedural one. It’s the difference between an enemy, and someone who doesn’t need to be an enemy. If you agree with someone’s values, and only differ about implementation, then you already agree on the most important part. You are already attempting to move toward the same goal.

Differences on how to get to that goal can be hashed out. We can discuss. We can debate. We can collaborate, and eventually arrive at some course of action. That – I think – is why we are so prone to argue. It’s how we reconcile the differences in how we believe the world works. It’s how we are able, in the long run, to make society. Disagreement is the first step toward agreement.

It’s important to recognize who our potential allies are. We’re going to need a lot of them. The end goal – in martial arts and in life, if you’re doing either of them right – is to make the world better.

To do that, you’re going to need as many allies as you can get your hands on. You cannot hope to change the world alone. Society is by far the most complicated thing people have ever made, and you don’t even know how to make a pencil.

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