There is a new club at North Carolina State University. If you’re interested in learning some proactive steps to taking control of your personal growth, we’ll be meeting once a week to consider a compelling presentation on a wide range of topics — spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and everything in-between.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “personal growth”? All kinds of warm and fuzzy connotations are attached to it, but what does it really mean?
Philosophers, artists, and spiritual thinkers have tried to create or discover a roadmap for growth for centuries. One could be forgiven for observing the state of human society and surmising that all these efforts have been in vain. But believe it or not, people actually have come up with some pretty good ideas over the years, but you probably haven’t heard of most of them. Even when good ideas have made it to the mainstream, they have as a rule become so diluted so as to have lost most of their power.
At Sunday 2.0, we’ve done a lot of digging. We have searched out new ideas from a host of sources, both well-known and esoteric. Although we haven’t found a single silver bullet that answers the questions of Growth and Enlightenment once and for all, we have discovered a number of edifying and practical concepts that we believe are worth sharing.
Finding fellow travelers on your journey will make your quest for personal growth more enjoyable and more successful. Join us Sunday mornings for a presentation on some of the most interesting and inspiring ideas we’ve come across. We hope you hear something you can use to make your life better, and we hope you’ll meet people who are on the same path and can provide support and companionship along the way.
Stefan Molyneux is the founder and host of Freedomain Radio, which he describes as “the largest philosophical conversation on the planet.” Molyneux has an M.A. in History from McGill University, and he has lived in Ireland, England, South Africa, and Canada. He is a former software executive and entrepreneur who currently lives in Toronto. He quit his career in software in 2007 to run Freedomain Radio full-time.
Freedomain Radio is a podcast about philosophy—but that isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds. As Molyneux demonstrates, philosophy touches every aspect of our lives, from abstract topics in politics, economics, and religion, to more personal subjects in psychology, relationships, and parenting. In addition to the podcast series, there is a growing community of listeners who meet online to discuss the topics covered in the podcasts. In fact, the community is increasingly active “off-line,” as people meet and become friends with other listeners who live near them. In London, there is Freedomain Radio-inspired “Psychology Book Club,” which meets once a month to discuss works such as Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child and Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. When I asked Molyneux what he thought set Freedomain Radio apart from other philosophical conversations, he said it was the combination of respect for science and rationality (without falling into determinism) with recognition of the depth and meaning of human experience (without falling into mysticism). “I think that [kind of] balance is really, really unusual in philosophy, and I think it comes out of my immense respect for science and my immense respect for psychology and the pursuit of self-knowledge…I’ve not seen anything like it out there.”
I originally discovered Freedomain Radio and Stefan Molyneux in a political discussion group on Facebook, where someone posted one of his YouTube videos. In this video, Molyneux explained that he believed the cultural and political development of society was governed largely by our individual experiences and personal relationships. His points were of particular interest to me because I had myself been speculating about the effects of self-esteem on politics and religion. Perhaps Molyneux could help me develop this line of thinking further.
After a few weeks of exploring the website and listening to some of his introductory podcasts on psychology, politics, and economics, I realized that Freedomain Radio was one of the most stimulating intellectual resources I had ever found, and I decided to become a regular listener. Since that time I have listened to all of Molyneux’s 1800+ podcasts, and I have become a regular contributor in online discussions. Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Stefan Molyneux in Philadelphia when he debated former presidential candidate Michael Badnarik on the question: “How Much Government is Necessary?”
A few weeks ago I “sat down” with Stefan Molyneux via Skype, and we discussed his views on the topic of leadership.
Leader Background and Development
Molyneux’s training in leadership can probably be traced back to the experience of being on his high school’s debate team, where he got a good deal of practice formulating arguments and learning to ask tough questions. His experience with debating continued—although much less formally—into University, where in addition to debating fellow students he got into arguments with professors.
Molyneux credits his experiences in the business world with helping him overcome shyness. Early in life, he found most other people to generally be “overwhelming” or “intrusive,” and he didn’t have much of a desire to interact with them. Even as he became more comfortable around other people through playing sports or debating, he struggled with how to share his ideas with other people. “I always thought that I had a lot to offer, but I never thought that I could communicate in a way that would be interesting to people.” Frustrated by his ability to communicate effectively, particularly in the face of hostility toward his ideas, Molyneux slid back into shyness. But the business world turned things around for him. “If you can program really well, or if you can do a really excellent sales presentation and think on your feet, then you automatically have something of value to offer—and it’s not something as volatile or as challenging as philosophy. So in the business world, I recovered somewhat from the re-infliction of shyness that occurred for me in the academic world, where because of my political and atheistic beliefs, I ran into a lot of opposition.” He found that in the business world, where productivity and competence are usually more important than ideology, he “could relax and enjoy communicating with [people] more.” Freedomain Radio would later be forged from the synthesis of his controversial philosophy and his new-found relaxed communication style.
As an entrepreneur, he also learned the importance—and difficulty—of providing value to people in the free market. These experiences (with voluntarism and negotiation) helped to confirm his conviction that voluntary solutions for all social problems can exist in the absence of a centralized state. He also gained a greater appreciation for the amount of work it takes to create value, making him skeptical of big promises by government bureaucrats and politicians to solve the world’s problems.
By far the most important element in the development of Molyneux’s leadership abilities and style is his experience with psychotherapy. Molyneux sees self-knowledge as a prerequisite, not just to being a good leader, but to being a good person. Molyneux views “working on yourself” as training for leadership just like going to medical school or residency is training for being a doctor. Self work helps aspiring leaders to “avoid the ‘sin’ of hypocrisy and the ‘sin’ of substituting authority for the embodiment of the virtues that [they] are pursuing…Because if you don’t embody the virtues that you’re trying to motivate or inspire other people to pursue, then you end up having to manipulate them, and you end up having to bully them…and of course you end up attracting people who would respond to that kind of interaction, which is not [what] you really want when you’re trying to motivate people to genuine excellence.”
A major part of self-knowledge is gaining awareness of our own motivation—including our motivation for improving our self-knowledge or becoming leaders. Molyneux suggests that we should pursue self-knowledge in order to develop our own wisdom, virtue, and happiness. If at the end of that process we decide to use our wisdom to help others, then we can begin to think about becoming leaders. Becoming a “leader” should not be our primary goal. “Because I pursued [self-knowledge] for its own sake, I have a kind of credibility…when it comes to the steps that I think are necessary [for people to achieve happiness]—or at least the ones that worked for me, which I think can be reproduced in others.”
Self-esteem also has a role to play in good leadership. But Molyneux says it is vital that a leader not get his or her self-esteem from being a leader. If our self-esteem is tied to our relationship to other people (i.e., leading them), or based on the behavior of other people in any way, then we run the risk of having to manipulate them in order to preserve our tenuous grip on self-esteem. However, if we are confident of our worth and efficacy independently of our role as leaders, then we are more free to treat others with respect and compassion.
For Stefan Molyneux, leadership is about inspiring people. In his words, “the kind of leadership that I aspire to…is motivating people to excellence in virtue and excellence in self-knowledge, and I think that the ideal of leadership is self-obsolescence. You want to motivate people to replace your leadership with their own self-motivated leadership…[T]he true definition of excellence is self-knowledge, self-actualization, and philosophical wisdom.”
But “motivating people” is easier said than done. What is the best way to motivate people? In Molyneux’s formulation, motivation is about demonstration: “[T]he way that you motivate people in what I do is…as simple as putting a thin person on the cover of a diet book. You show people the results that you are trying to motivate them to achieve…you have to embody those results as best you can. And so you want to show them the “after” picture. You see on those websites “I got ripped in four weeks,” and there’s some pasty guy in a basement and some bronzed and ripped guy on a beach. You have the before and after, and everybody—prior to being motivated in the realm of wisdom or virtue—is the ‘before’ picture. I know that I was. And you have a look at the after picture, and you say, ‘Do I want that?’ The way that you motivate people is to embody the goal that you’re trying to achieve.” Molyneux believes that if we genuinely desire to help others, and if we have something of real value to offer them, then we will draw people to ourselves who are interested in what we have to offer.
Molyneux even strives to carry his theory of motivation into the realm of parenting. He wouldn’t exactly say that the goal of parenting is to “inspire children to excellence,” but he likes the idea of using what he calls “positive economics” in childrearing. He assumes that children are basically rational and want to please their parents, and that they can be motivated by encouragement and enthusiasm much more effectively and positively than by punishment and withdrawal. Molyneux has long been skeptical of traditional ideas about the need for punishing or “disciplining” children, but since becoming a father some 15 months ago, he finds the concept of “discipline” almost completely incomprehensible. “It is astonishing the degree to which children mimic their parents…Dozens of times a day I will catch [my daughter] doing something that I’m doing, or I’ll say something and she’ll echo it—even if I’m not talking to her…She’s listening to everything. She’s observing everything.” With children it seems, the “need” for punishment (or some other form of “negative economics”) actually has more to do with the behavior of the parents. “[T]he leadership that we bring to our children will, in many ways, help to determine the kind of leadership that they expect—or perhaps re-create—in their own lives as adults.” Garbage in, garbage out.
In an interview with Profitable Podcaster, Molyneux said that two of the most important characteristics of effective leadership are trust and consistency. For Molyneux “trust” goes both ways. Of course leaders themselves must be trustworthy, but Molyneux also believe that leaders should demonstrate trust in the generosity and good nature of other people. One of the ways he does this is by making all of his content available without charge and relying on voluntary donations to sustain both Freedomain Radio and his personal finances.
Moral consistency is certainly a qualification for good leadership, but Molyneux strives for consistency in other areas as well. He uses his reliance on donations to help motivate himself to consistently produce stimulating material. With most people used to getting things on the Internet for free, and with the vast array of alternatives available, Molyneux knows that he must continue to provide value for his listeners, as everyone is completely free to take their “business” elsewhere.
In his everyday interactions with people, Molyneux also strives for humility. “To the degree that people would hold me in high regard or high esteem, it is absolutely essential for me to not express any kind of superiority to people. If there’s one thing that I want to get right every time I interact with people, [it] is to not give them a sense that I am hurling down tablets from on high…I really do believe that to be treated as an equal by someone who you hold in high esteem is a very empowering thing.” He recounts a story about a time when he met a particular role model of his. Much to his disappointment, he found this man (a prominent psychologist who should have known better) to be arrogant and condescending. In podcasts or listener conversations, Molyneux makes a conscious effort to remind people that he struggles with the same challenges as everyone else. He says that if he is “ahead” of anyone, it is only because he started down the road of philosophy in self-knowledge sooner, and with all the resources available today (“particularly on the web”), people should be able to replicate his successes much more quickly.
Leadership definitely has its challenges. Like any online forum, Freedomain Radio has had to deal with at least its fair share of trolls and spammers. And because of the controversial aspects of some of the ideas it addresses, a few of those trolls have not limited themselves to anonymous online encounters. But Molyneux says the biggest challenge he has faced has been learning how to “deal with a community that is inhabited by such a wide divergence of knowledge bases and skill sets and experience.” On the one hand are the people who have been in the conversation for a long time and understand the complexities of the topics discussed on the show, but on the other end of the spectrum are a lot of people who only started listening recently. And of course there is the full range of experience in between. “I want to have the online community friendly to the people who have been around for a long time, because many of them are friends. But it also has to be friendly to the people who are just starting out, and friendly to all the people in the middle.”
Summary and Conclusion
Stefan Molyneux doesn’t often think of himself as a leader. He said that’s hard to do when most of his day is spent responding to e-mails, editing and uploading files, and tinkering with computer code. The majority of his work consists of this type of “management,” rather than some kind of glorious leadership “position.” But even the more exciting aspects of his job don’t include telling other people what to do. “[F]undamentally I just aim to be a kind of lighthouse. It is a stormy sea out there that we all swim in, and I try to [help] people…see that at the end of this process—or at least as far as I’ve gotten in the path of self-knowledge and wisdom—there is some peace and some joy…” Molyneux brags a lot about his listeners: “[Y]ou people are just incredible…It’s a completely beautiful thing that there are these little meteors of light and truth hitting the world over, that are causing people to wake up to truth, to reason, to philosophy… [and] to distance themselves from superstition and from irrationality and so on. It’s an incredible thing to…be part of. I’m really proud of the good that’s being done in the world.”
Much ado has been made about ends and means. From university-level philosophy and political science classes to the mainstream media, the question is often asked: “Do the ends justify the means?” Historically, this question has been answered in one of two ways. Utilitarians and Consequentialists such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Niccolò Machiavelli have tended to justify or condemn human action based on its consequences. If the expected outcome is considered to be “good,” then the actions necessary to achieve it are good. On the other hand, deontological theorists such as Immanuel Kant have argued that some actions are right or wrong in principle, no matter the consequences.
Instead of constructing morality from the predicted consequences of human action, or attempting to derive principles of preferred behavior rationally or empirically, many religions try to base morality on assertions. The absolute “moral principles” of religion are not the kind of principles that tell doctors how to cure diseases, or that provide ecologists with a methodology for preserving threatened species. They are merely arguments from authority based on the supposed will of an alleged deity, in whose existence we are expected to believe because someone else says so.
Other philosophers have attempted to deal with the ends-means dichotomy without the teeth-gritting willpower of the argument from authority. Ayn Rand contends that the ends do not justify the means. In Rand’s view, the ends determine the means—human action is a “process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (“Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98). Rand recognized the contradiction inherent in Consequentialism: just because the goal is virtuous, it in no way follows that any means which are believed to help achieve it will also be virtuous. The ends and the means must be consistent. Rand writes, “The end does not justify the means. No one’s rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others” (“The Cashing-In: The Student ‘Rebellion,’” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 256).
In the words of modern-day philosopher Stefan Molyneux, Consequentialism is an “argument from effect.” The problem with arguments from effect is that they require perfect knowledge of the results before any action can be taken. We could accomplish very little if we always had to base our actions on philosophically-derived, certain knowledge of the outcome. According to Molyneux, arguments from morality are much more powerful. We may not be able to perfectly predict the outcome of any action, but principles can guide our behavior even when we do not know the future.
An example may be helpful. If we are trying to decide whether a given government program—say welfare—is “good” or not, the argument from effect requires that we predict not only whether welfare programs will help particular individuals (which is very difficult, since some of welfare’s effects do not appear for years or even decades), but also whether welfare is a net benefit to all of society (compounding the initial problem millions of times over). Even if such a computation were possible, it would take lifetimes to complete.
By contrast, the argument from morality allows us to apply a principle (such as, “the initiation of violence is immoral”) to the question of whether welfare is “good.” Now all we have to do is determine whether the welfare programs in question involve the initiation of violence. In our analysis, we will eventually discover that government-run welfare programs are funded by the collection of taxes. Since taxes are taken from citizens against their will (coercively), and since government welfare programs require the collection of taxes, such welfare programs are only possible because of the coercion inherent in taxation. Government welfare programs are tainted by the violence of the taxes upon which they are based, and are therefore bad—even if their “expected outcome” is good.
Because of the complexities inherent in any system (but particularly in systems of human interaction), it is very difficult to predict the outcome of an action with certainty. The same forces that make weather patterns and economic trends so unpredictable are also at work in many other areas of our lives. We do not know whether treating a stranger with respect will result in a “good” outcome or a “bad” one, because we do not intimately know the details of his or her personality and history. We do not have any control over those things, but we do have control over how we behave in the interaction. Instead of guessing, we can choose to follow a principle.
If we wish to be positive change makers in the world, we have to understand that change is only made by pursuing actions consistent with our desired goals. Gandhi’s much-cited but rarely followed aphorism “Be the change you want to see in the world” captures this truth perfectly. We cannot achieve our goals by pursuing their opposites. Peace cannot be achieved through war. If we wish to see more virtue in the world, no amount of complaining, voting, or violence will get us there. We bring virtue to the world by making ourselves more virtuous—by bringing honesty and respect to our relationships with our children, parents, and friends first. As these virtues radiate through our social networks, we will find that we see the change in the world which we have committed to be.
Thus in practice, no distinction can be made between ends and means. We cannot be violent and expect the world to become peaceful. We cannot be uncaring and expect the world to become empathetic. The ends do not “justify” the means. The ends are the means. The ends which we envision today will be the means by which we seek to achieve new ends tomorrow. We achieve our goals by implementing strategies consistent with those goals. But each day, those strategies are also goals, and the steps for achieving them must be consistent as well. “Ends” and “means” are divided arbitrarily by a distinction without a difference. There are no “ends” or “means.” There is only human action, and we would do well to make the most of it.
The following is a list of my favorite podcasts from Stefan Molyneux’s Freedomain Radio, for those in search of his best material or a condensed stream:
Note: “The Best of Freedomain Radio” has been changed from a POST to a PAGE. The new page can be accessed by clicking the link above, or by clicking here.