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Moral Strength: Learning from Nietzsche and the Wolf

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Morality is a muscle. In some it never gets a chance to develop – atrophied from birth by spineless role models. In others it develops through childhood and the idealistic days of youth, but withers in the face of the so-called pragmatics of life, leaving us unable to exert any moral force at all when the situation desperately calls for it (refer, Deus Ex Machina and Speaking Truth to Power). We allow immoral things to happen and, in so doing, contribute to evil. We allow the present moment, that instant in time when we can choose to act, to be corrupted by our memory of what has been and our desire for what might be. We allow fear of consequence to cloud our morality.

A soul in agony can fight its way out of this. Think about the philosopher Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return. What if time is not a line but a circle and you are destined to relive your life over and over again? Then ask yourself this question:

Are you the person with whom you would like to spend eternity?

That is what the wolf taught Mark Rowlands1 and what my brother Buzz (a Kelpie Labrador cross) taught me. Buzz was the time keeper. At five pm each day he would place his head in my lap and look up at me. If there was no response he would snout my wrist making typing impossible. It was time for a run and a ball chasing session at the local park. These moments were repeated with the precision of a real time operating system, most days, for ten years. Watching Buzz enjoy these moments never failed to lift my spirits. He’s gone now but I still meet him in dreams … living happily, in the moment, until eternity.


Yes, the wolf lives in the moment and takes great pleasure in it. The wolf does what wolves do and accepts the consequences, without excuses and without complaint. The wolf is driven by what he needs to do to survive, it’s in his DNA and his training from birth in the Wild.

Engineers can learn from the wolf. It is so important because we are responsible, not only for our own lives, but for the survival of others. Think on this: the meaning of your life is to be found in those high moral moments, complete in themselves, when you act. When you point blank refuse to deploy a system that has not been thoroughly tested,  when you refuse to commit to an end date without proper scope definition, when you say no to a manager who wants design to stop and coding to start RIGHT NOW! These moments are never pleasant but in them you touch the best you can be, you put away what you have and what you want and find out who you are.

So, in the moment, do it because you know it’s right. Do it because it’s what engineers do. Do it because you want to be the person with whom you will spend eternity.



End Note

1. Rowlands, Mark (2008), The Philosopher and the Wolf, Granta Books

This is the story of a philosopher who raised a wolf called Brenin and learnt from him. This book has many profound insights on the human condition and, as such, is a recommended read for engineers. It is most likely to be appreciated by anyone who has loved an animal. I was fascinated to recognise Brenin’s behaviours in my beloved dog Buzz who passed on one month ago. I have Mark to thank for the realisation that Buzz was not my pet – he was my brother.


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