Perception, Projection, and the Trap of Illusion

A marionette is a kind of puppet whose articulated parts are manipulated by someone pulling on strings or wires from above. Evidently, marionettes have been in use for four thousand years, give or take. Historically, their  function went beyond mere entertainment. They were used to teach lessons in morality to illiterate masses, shame errant children of nobles, and convey messages to kings in a way that saved the messengers from possible execution. Puppets could get away with saying and doing things in public that would have been taboo for real people.

Predicating all of these uses is our ability to suspend disbelief so we can think of the marionette as real while knowing it is not.

As I watched the video of the dancing skeleton, it was easy for me to see it as a person—not as a collection of plastic bones held together by bits of string or wire and manipulated by a real person. I projected on it a lecherous personality. It was the clacking of the teeth—presumably at an attractive woman—that did it. But then, toward the end, as he (it!) gets down on his knees to check the take and sees how sparse it is, he sobs despairingly. Aw, he can’t be all bad. A passer-by thinks so too, and drops in some cash.

It’s obviously an illusion, yet it evoked sympathy. 


But isn’t this the way with people to? I mean we form opinions about people based on our perceptions—all of the data that come through our senses—and create a story so convincing it becomes true. 

But it isn’t true. Any two people will see another person differently—and most certainly differently from how that person sees himself. There will be as many views, and  opinions, of that one person as there are people doing the viewing. No single view—not even one’s own self-view—can be considered the “right” one. My story about me isn’t “true” because it’s impossible for me to view myself as others see me.

Even with this knowledge, our stories about ourselves and others are so convincing they become real and true. Yet they aren’t true, not in a universal sense, anyway. The stories we tell ourselves are illusions.

It seems to me a trap.

What is Skillful?

I began this series with some thoughts on the differences between liberals and conservatives—views that have everything to do with one’s beliefs about things like justice, patriotism, authority, and spiritual purity. Most recently, I concluded that one’s actions, what one does, are fundamental to one’s morality and live outside the above categories. On the surface it may sound as if I’m saying there is a difference between belief and action. Not at all. Belief and action are interrelated. 

I suggested that morality and virtue are skills one can develop, much like a musician or a woodworker can develop skills. A person can be skillful at being a person. 

Sabio, a commenter on my earlier post, responded:

…I would say the normal use of this word is:

Skillful: the quality of actions which allow acquiring the desired product with a specific qualifier such as better, faster, prettier, effeciently ….


All to say, I don’t think “Skillful” is going to get us anywhere in building a ethical nest that will be universally comfortable nor conforming to everyone’s common sense.

Well, I’m not attempting to find some common ground that is universally comfortable or conforming. That’s futility in action (possibly, what I’m talking about here is futility in action too). But I do maintain that one can be a morally skillful person according to the above definition. In that regard, I must define morally skillful actions as those that when carried out result in one’s longterm benefit and the longterm benefit of others. If my actions benefit me but harm someone else then they would not qualify as skillful. 

The difficulty—and here I use “difficulty” in its strongest sense—is discerning between what is skillful and what is unskillful, between what is harmful and what is beneficial. This takes a lot of work. It requires an ongoing examination of one’s actions and their results. To do so, one must first shed the armor of self-deception. That, too, is difficult.

What actions can we consider harmful? I think we can all agree that causing someone physical harm would not be to that person’s benefit. Certainly, killing someone would cause the maximum harm and would be unskillful. And here I can hear the rebuttals: What about executing dangerous criminals? What about killing terrorists who would kill us first? What about war to defend our country? Remember, I’m talking about developing qualities in oneself that would be morally skillful as opposed to morally unskillful. If you are the kind of person who never harms anyone or anything in any way, I have nothing to fear from you. Nothing at all. Regardless of who you are or where you’re from.

Further, if one professes non-harm in one circumstance but does harm in another, then there is a double-standard. Double standards are suspect.

Words also can cause harm. All of us are familiar with this one. But which is more skillful, honesty or dishonesty? How about words spoken with kindness or words spoken in anger or hatred? Or word used to bring people together and not divide? If you are the kind of person who never lies to anyone and always speaks kindly, then I am sure what you tell me is true and you will never malign me. 

Further, if one professes honesty in one circumstance but is dishonest in another, then there is a double standard. Double standards are suspect.

I can apply the same argument to stealing. If you never take anything that isn’t given to you, then I can trust that you will never steal anything from me. 

What I’m getting at here—aside from bringing this series to an end—is that morality and virtue have nothing to do with blind allegiance to doctrines or ideologies, or with professions of faith for that matter. Morality has everything to do with action. Actions spring forth from a core belief that acknowledges, Everything I do, for good or bad, has a consequence for me and for others. And what a person doesn’t do could be of greater moral significance than what a person does. 

The Irony of Teaching by Example

Dad shoots daughter's computer at close rangeA Youtube video making the rounds is one where a man in a white cowboy hat publicly berates his 15-year-old daughter for posting her own rant against him and her family on Facebook. The indignant father reads his child’s diatribe for the camera, text in one hand, cigarette in the other. He is seated in an Adirondack chair, apparently in his backyard. 

He is angry and incredulous that his child would again do such an ungrateful and disrespectful thing. He grounded her the first time she did it, but apparently that wasn’t enough of a lesson. 

After responding to all her complaints, he shows for the camera the girl’s laptop computer on the ground and his .45 caliber pistol in his hand. He then fires seven hollow-point bullets through the computer (“This one’s for your mother!”). He notes that the bullets are $1 apiece, and his daughter must pay him back for them. 

After watching the video, I read through some of the comments. So many of them are as disturbing as the video itself.

I support this father ! HE IS A GOOD FATHER ! THUMBS UP if you agree with me!


She is lucky the laptop took the heat. In the 80’s parent were allowed to bust that ass. I say bring the ass whoppins back. One good ass bustin on kids these days would be all they woould need. Most kids dont even have an ass anymore because all they do is sit on their backbone and type and text all damned day. Call me, I will come over and bust your kids ass for free.


This Dad is right. No matter what you and say and say….this Dad is right. He is a good man. Kids these days are ungrateful and revolting…..I hope she learns.

Ok, enough. You get the picture. Agree or disagree, this guy has a lot of support.

Now I don’t know the family situation, and I won’t even attempt to defend the daughter or her actions—which are disrespectful and ungrateful. But I’ve raised enough children to know that each has a unique personality and each responds differently to various parenting techniques. I know that some kids are harder to reach than others. I know how, at times, kids can bring out the worst in a parent and the best, too.

I also know this: Example is the best teacher. After watching this video I wondered if that angry, hateful, vengeful father didn’t teach his angry, hateful, vengeful daughter everything she knows.

Here’s the link, if you’re curious. So far it’s had only about 23 million views. A few more won’t hurt.

Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality

In earlier posts, beginning here, I talked about the five pillars of morality as defined by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist working in the field of moral psychology. He conducts studies to determine the differences between liberals and conservatives, both politically and spiritually.

He does what psychologists do: studies what drives peoples’ behavior. Psychologists want to know why people do the things they do. Of course, Haidt may be completely wrong about his five foundations of morality—after all, they are just ideas. Yet looking at people I’ve known over the years, many of them seem to fit well within Haidt’s categories. I don’t mean to argue that he’s right. Nor do I mean to dispute his theories.

People do things for many different reasons. On the surface, they may say things like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It’s what God wants me to do,” or what have you. But I’ll assert that deep down, most of us really don’t know why we do what we do.

On thing I’m sure of, most people, most average people, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, will state they are moral. And they will say so without giving any particular thought why they believe themselves to be moral individuals.

I stated in the first post of this series that morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. What matters is what one does.

Being liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Being American or Iranian doesn’t matter. Being Christian or Jewish or Mormon or atheist or Muslim or Hindu doesn’t matter. But one’s actions, now they matter.

Oh, yeah, I know. The argument about faith versus works is an old one. There are those who believe that all one needs is faith—meaning faith in Jesus, of course; nothing else will do—to be “saved.” A person who believes this may also believe that negative and harmful actions are irrelevant. They may also insist that, no matter how good a person is and how many good works he performs, unless he has faith in the proper form, he is doomed to hell for eternity. OK, fine. But I say again: Actions matter.

I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it. If one believes that actions do matter, then one is more likely to be heedful of what one does. If one believes that faith is all that matters but does not take care with actions, then less consideration may be given to possible harm to others.

Actions can fit into two broad categories: those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. Actions can have short-term benefit but may be harmful in the longterm. Or actions may appear harmful in the short term, but have lasting benefit later on. Sometimes it’s hard to know. But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

Another important aspect here is: harmful or beneficial to whom? Actions that benefit the individual may be harmful to others. So the best actions, meaning actions that are the most skillful, are those that lead to the long-lasting benefit of oneself and others. This is virtuous behavior based on high moral standards.

Revisiting Haidt for a moment, we can see he’s on to something with his harm/care foundation. I would say that the other four are relative to, and dependent upon, harm/care because they form the basis for how we treat others.

I like the idea of being skillful with one’s actions. There are skillful doctors, mechanics, baseball players. We can be skillful at being people, too. Virtue—good moral conduct—is a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

Next: Determining what is skillful and what isn’t.