Rules to live by

Moral philosophy is a sticky wicket.

While going through life behaving well isn’t so hard – most moral choices are straightforward – it’s very difficult to reduce “behaving well” to first principles. In general, I’d say I’m a greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number kind of girl, but I fully acknowledge the difficulty of such a far-reaching and enigmatic calculation.

Immanuel Kant thought he had the first principle nailed. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” was so compelling to him that he called it the Categorical Imperative. (Not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill imperative, mind you.) While it’s hard to find fault with something that boils down, essentially, to “do unto others … ,” I’m not sure it helps with the really tricky moral dilemmas. Those usually involve overcrowded lifeboats, tragic accidents, or concentration camps. Thinking of your actions as a universal law doesn’t help you decide whether you should have drowned the child Adolph Hitler, if you’d had the chance.

I have gone through nearly fifty years of life on this planet without ever having encountered what I’d consider a tricky moral dilemma, so the lack of a compelling philosophy has had very little practical significance. Most of what we all consider moral behavior is uncomplicated. You don’t need a coherent first principle to figure out that, when the cashier gives you too much change, you give it back.

Life is governed, instead, by a series of smaller, less important rules. One of my favorites, borrowed from my friend Rafe, is “Never refuse a mint.” Miss Piggy contributes “Never eat anything you can’t lift.” The only billionaire of my acquaintance adds “Always do a billionaire a favor.”

Here’s my contribution to the pantheon: “Always make friends with the local brewer.”

I will confess that I did not think of this rule in a flash of foresight. It was only after Kevin and I had met our local brewer, Todd Marcus, and decided he and his wife Beth were interesting, funny, and smart that we began to see the real advantages of that friendship. Like, when we invited them over for pizza and they brought a cooler full of their products. Or when our out-of-town friends come to visit and we get to take them backstage at the Cape Cod Beer brewery.

Being friends with a brewer is particularly important during bluefish season which, for us, began this past Saturday.

The weather was good, and it was my stepson Eamon’s last weekend with us. We rigged the rods with wire leaders and metal lures, filled the boat with gas and the cooler with ice, and headed out to Horseshoe Shoal, about six miles due south of Osterville.

There was some chop in Nantucket Sound, and it took us a while to get out. Once we got there, it was better. The Shoal is a big shallow area in the middle of the Sound and, when the wind is from the south, the north end stays relatively calm. We went to our favorite spot, dropped the lines in, and I had the first fish in the boat inside ten minutes.

We spent the whole morning, and came home with thirteen fish. I fileted them all and we grilled three that night, Nantucket-style. The rest went into a brine, overnight.

On Sunday, Kevin fired up the brand-new smokehouse for his first attempt at fish smoking. Last year, he perfected a kettle-grill method, but the smokehouse lets him do a much bigger batch. There are still a few kinks to be worked out (at which point I’ll tell you in more detail about the smokehouse), but we ended up with twenty filets of smoked bluefish. A little softer and moister than is ideal, but with a balanced, smoky flavor.

When I posted our haul on Facebook, Beth posted back: “You wanna trade for beer?”

Always make friends with the local brewer.

Oh, and the local gardeners. Bluefish season corresponds, coincidentally, with garden bounty season, and Dianne and Doug gave me a very nice bunch of raspberries and blackberries. Past bluefish hauls have earned us produce of all stripes, from Doug and Dianne, from Al and Christl, from Amanda. From our friends who don’t garden or brew, there is goodwill and gratitude.

We value goodwill and gratitude a lot, if not quite as much as beer.

The problem with my rule is that it does not pass the Categorical Imperative test. If “make friends with the brewer” were a universal law, and everyone did it, there would be no beer left for us.

Such are the limits of moral philosophy.

10 people are having a conversation about “Rules to live by

  1. I’ve always been pretty fond of ‘don’t carry a grudge- it’s heavy and doesn’t have a handle.’ But is that really a moral philosophy, like forgive and forget, or is it just good advice?

    Since my husband brews, and is pretty darn good at it, I’d be willing to make friends with a fisherman. Or even a talented mushroom hunter.

    I guess making friends with a mushroom hunter would be more a life rule, rather than a morel philosophy.

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist it.

  2. ..“Always make friends with the local brewer.” I like the cut of your jib! I did the same, no brewer but a neighbour has a still and makes moonshine which is tasty..just last weekend a bunch of us polished off a bottle.

    The smokehouse is amazing..sounds like you have an old fashioned trade economy on the go!

  3. One of my persanl favourites (sadly not my own) went something like:

    “Before you criticize someone walk a mile in their shoes. That way you will be a mile away from them. And have their shoes.”


  4. Myrna Bowman says:

    Interesting thought. While we seldom drink beer (or anything alcoholic) and don’t know any brewers; we have a lively currency in fresh fruit which buys us many favors and goodies in season. Friends do our canning for us as in season we are busy with the fruitstand and have no time to can. Also for fresh spuds; again, no time to glean, same reason, also fresh jam, fresh corn; for freezer and the goats and chickens. Guess our biggest moral dilemma is whether to shop at WalMart or not. We do and feel mildly guilty about it while enjoying the reduced prices. Standing joke is we make our standard monthly pilgrimage to support the Chinese. Gets some funny looks.

  5. i suppose the point is this. if you were to lose the farm (ha, see what I did there) and if the garden didn’t grow and the fish didn’t bite and the lobsters didn’t crawl into the traps or the chickens were felled by a weird strain of rainbow unicorn disease… you’d still have the relationships with your friends. friendships persist. so… what you have or don’t have to trade is irrelevant:)

    but I AM sending you a bill for those paper towels you used last time you were over. because I mean. CMON.

  6. Javier’s contribution is an oldie but a goodie. I have nothing to contribute on the topic of moral imperatives, or even lesser rules to live by. I just wanted to inanely comment that the inside of your smokehouse looks like the inside of a nice sauna. Are you going to build a sauna? If you build it (be warned) I will come.

  7. If I lived closer, I would trade for baked goods. The last person who loaned me a book went away with a plate of mint brownies.

    These definitely don’t count as moral imperatives, but whenever anyone talks about tips, I share these:
    – Never play leap frog with a unicorn.
    – Never look up into a flock of sea gulls.

    For real moral imperatives, I tend to agree with you about whatever is best for the most people, but yes, that gets sticky as soon as you start to talk about specific situations. You just do the best with what you have at the time and hope it was the right thing to do.

  8. Hi Tamar,

    Check out my comment in July 2010 where I wrote it in the wrong spot. A good way to cook Blue fish!.


  9. One of the shortcomings of the Internet is that I can’t actually trade produce with all the people I know virtually. Myrna, I’d be in for the fruit. And, Paula, I’d trade mushrooms or fish for some carpentry lessons, any day. Carol, I have to be careful about baked goods. They call to me.

    Kate, our first thought when we built it was that our smokehouse looked like a sauna, and we were glad to have a back-up plan in case we could never get the draw right. We used a couple of those cedar closet-lining kits on the inside, and it’s a dead ringer for the sauna I used to use at the West Side YMCA in New York. And, for the record, if we DO build a sauna, you’re invited.

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