Ninjas, Pirates, Preferences

Posted on Jun 7, 2011

I love this button. It’s permanently affixed to my spring jacket.

A few months ago I was at a random gathering of people, which I’ll refer to as a beer festival, because in fact that’s what it was. I didn’t plan to start my first article off with beer, but hey, these things happen.

The button is a sure-fire conversation starter. While Monique and I were sampling a delightful European microbrew, someone started riffing on the philosophical implications of the Ninja/Pirate juxtaposition. “These are two fundamental forces of nature, aren’t they? Perfectly and eternally in balance, one cannot exist without the presence of the other.”

He was absolutely right. Ninja/Pirate is the yin-yang duality of combat. It rests squarely in the “two sides of a coin” domain of irreducible and self-validating polarities, along with earth and sky, inhaling and exhaling, life and death. I realize that this is obvious, but bear with me.

Last week my friend David inquired about the button, immediately apprehending its depth. “Does it rotate?” he asked. “No, it’s always Ninja-up.” He raised an eyebrow slyly, knowing that he had caught me. “Ah, so you have a preference.”


Recently I was called in for jury duty. It was a case of a teenager accused of a hit and run. During jury selection we were asked if we could be unbiased listeners, perfectly impartial to the contradictory testimony of the teenager — who looked like he had just showered for the first time in weeks — and the police.

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Are they serious?” I wondered. “Everyone will be biased one way or another. Either they’ll mistrust authority and down-weight the testimony of the officer, or they’ll be inclined to believe an upstanding policeman over this dirtbag kid.”

The judge dismissed me from the jury pool. I tried to assure him that I could adjust for my bias, but I couldn’t pretend there was no bias at all.

Honestly, I was thrilled to get out of jury duty. But I was appalled at the strange reality-disconnect the judge was evidencing and seeking in others. Do people genuinely think one can remain deeply unbiased? And more than that, do people think that being unbiased is a preferred state?

Strangely ironic. Think about it.

Are all viewpoints equal?

David caught me in a common trap: believing that I was being impartial when in fact I’m not. I had to concede that I prefer ninjas to pirates. And I’m fine with that.

I also prefer police testimony to that of a creepy teenager, life to death, earth to sky, and tails to heads. I’m sure a statistician would quickly find my performance in a match of Roshambo to be dominated by scissors.

So what?

So everything.

Duality and the fallacy of parity

It’s not uncommon these days to hear smart, spiritual people say things like “God and the devil are one.” It’s a two-sides-of-the-coin argument, and there is merit both logically and spiritually to this kind of claim.

However, we can’t conflate duality with parity. Even if God and the devil co-arise, we all prefer one of them, however slightly. There is no neutral territory. If you’re like the other seven billion people on earth, you probably flip-flop between the two, but make no mistake: that represents shifting preferences, not neutrality.

What happens if we feign indifference? Just ask the Swiss. For all their claims of neutrality in World War II, they manifested a very clear preference. In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stolen gold and other goods were discovered to have been laundered through Swiss banks during the war. To their credit (yes, pun intended), the Swiss apologized for their complicity in aiding the German cause and returned the funds. It nevertheless serves as an example of the sometimes extreme consequences of having a preference while pretending not to.


My attempt to play the “Swiss card” with respect to my Ninja/Pirate button is in a very different league, obviously. (“No pirates were harmed in the making of this button.”) But consider a deeper example: life and death. There’s another idea that pops up regularly in spiritual crowds, where one professes to be indifferent between life and death. On a personal level, it’s a bit silly (“you still eat every day, right?”), but the idea is expansive. You’ll hear people say how irrelevant it is whether humanity as a whole self-destructs. The thinking goes like this: God will just start over again if we fail. And because God is in no hurry, it’s all good.

From every angle, this is not only wrong thinking, but quite a destructive view. We humans very much do have a preference about our survival. And if we look at it from the perspective of God (that’s my shorthand to denote the 14-billion-year investment that has been made in the construction of a conscious and self-reflective arrangement of matter able to think and learn and change) — then of course there’s a preference. And why not? I mean, if there’s another organism out there capable of the same level of consciousness — either currently or in the future — it will have to go through the same bumpy adolescence that the human race is in right now. Namely, the moment when our technological development (and capacity for mass violence) is so far ahead of our moral development that self-destruction is a real possibility.

In other words: the crisis we’re facing now is exactly the same crisis that any race would face at this stage of development. If we don’t pull through, there’s no reason to believe that an alien race (if there is one!) could do any better. So both God and humanity definitely do have a preference of life over death. We’d both prefer for at least one race to make it past this hump, don’t you think?

Just do it.

Allow yourself to tune in to your preferences… because they’re already active. You can then engage them directly: are they serving you? Are they serving humanity? You can choose to let them go, or change them, or embrace and amplify them, renounce them, whatever.

But don’t pretend you don’t have preferences!

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