The Isolated Indentured Servitude Dilemma

Gah, readers, GAHHHHH!

Not very descriptive, but I have two topics this week that I’m really excited about, and I’m not going to have the space / time to write them out, but I’m going to try anyway! Basically, I’ve had two mindspace changes: changes in perspective in how I’m looking at things that have always been true. These reframings are pretty irrelevant in terms of my actions, but changes in perspective make all the difference in life as far as I can tell!

All right! So excited to get started. I’m going to start out with a bit of context, so you can see where my mind’s been. It’ll all get connected eventually…

Last week I was talking with one of my friends about the blog. I don’t remember what specifically, but we had a conversation that went like this:

“Okay, so, Monica, you talk a lot about ‘shoulds’ and that it’s important to give back and such.”

“Yes—I feel like there’s something, some purpose, I should be working towards.”

“But where does the purpose come from? Given that everything we think is constrained to humans, and there’s no universal truth.”

“Yeah, I know we both believe there’s no meaning outside of humanity. But I feel like there are things we should be working towards, like making sure nobody’s poor and everyone’s healthy and stuff.”

“Isn’t that just a branch off of your utility function? Where everyone’s trying to maximize some ‘utility’ in their life—my favorite is ‘happiness’. So everyone’s trying to maximize their happiness, and you do things that make you happy, and giving to this ‘greater purpose’ is just a part of that.”

“They feel qualitatively different. Like, I do a lot of things in life because they’re fun, but I also feel like I have to do a lot of things and there are moral things that I should do even though they’re hard. But I see what you mean—that the reason I pursue this ‘humanity’s purpose’ is to make myself feel happy, or satisfied morally, on some level.”

“But isn’t that a really indirect way of maximizing happiness? Having this purpose thing be some offshoot that doesn’t make you directly happy?”

“Huh.” And then I got stumped. Because yes, if I was trying to maximize my personal happiness, and the reason I was pursuing this “greater good” thing was in some sense to make myself feel better about myself, then it was a very indirect way of going about things. We sat for a little while. They drank tea.

“I’ll have to think about it,” was my final conclusion. And that was that.

(By the way, the conversation obviously did not go actually like this, because both characters are entirely in my voice here, and there’s too much exposition because real conversations are amazing and loaded with all sorts of implicit context and knowledge, but I’m all about conveying gist :).)

And so that part of the conversation finished and we continued on and at some point during my bike ride home a day later I was like: fineeee, I said I’d think about it, this means I actually have to think about it. And so I mused for a little bit, and got stuck. But after a little bit it became an interesting problem, and then it morphed into this gigantic thing that I got to engage a lot of people on, and it’s been fantastic, and I’m calling it the “isolated indentured servitude dilemma”, because if that doesn’t make you laugh and listen incredulously, I don’t know what will :).

The Isolated Indentured Servitude Dilemma

All right. So I usually start this off pretty abstract and then motivate why it’s real-life and why you should care from that point. Abstraction begins!

Say there is a group of people somewhere. They’re isolated, and what they think doesn’t affect anyone outside them. They are being oppressed somehow—say they’re indentured servants, or they beat all of their women or something. BUT, this is the thing, they don’t know they’re oppressed, and they’re blissfully happy with their lives.

You come along, and you see they’re oppressed, and you can tell them this. Telling them that they’re living in horrible conditions will probably make them unhappy. This may be a problem that can’t be fixed within their lifetimes, or maybe it can be fixed during their children’s lifetimes, or not at all.

Here’s the question: do you tell them?

…Excellent. That’s the prompt, and the next response is usually: what heck kind of philosophy problem is this with all of these weird constraints? But wait, it has connections with real life, see! Here are some connections (though I’ve found that adding in the woman-beating thing into my description helps people see some relevance).

Relevance 1: I’ve written before about my friend Tiffany who went to the Dominican Republic a while back, and she described this original situation to me. She said that there were a group of plantation workers who were basically indentured servants, died young, didn’t get to eat enough, got sick often, but were blissfully (and ignorantly) happy. So it does happen.

Relevance 2: Try this one out—say there’s a group of people somewhere in the US who are intellectually isolated within their communities and think certain things and you’ve decided that they’re thinking the wrong things and want to tell them that they’re wrong. (This obviously applies to both camps.) Do you tell them?

Great, hopefully things are somewhat relevant now and you’re convinced it’s an interesting problem. If not, I hope you can just suspend judgment and go for the philosophy thing.

So, this is SUCH A FUN QUESTION. People split pretty evenly, have strong preferences, don’t feel personally attacked and so will discuss, have to think about the question, think it’s a hard question, and all have different reasons why they think what they do. It’s spectacular. This has been part of my wonderful new experience of being able to ask other people what they think instead of trying to think things through on my own, and it’s so much easier and more variable than what I could pull out of my head. Here are some responses that people gave me, filtered through my biases and memory.

Friend 1: Life’s all about personal happiness. I wouldn’t tell the group, because telling them would make them unhappy, and the whole point of life is to maximize happiness. Moreover, who are you to say that what you think is right—you deciding they’re oppressed—is objectively right? Telling them would be imposing your own morality on them, and that’s not something you should be doing. Respect other people and their happiness—if they’re not already unhappy, then don’t make them so. That said, if you’re in a society where everyone’s already aware of the problem and unhappy, then certainly work to fix the problem.

Friend 2: Tell them. We each hold certain values, and they’re on different levels. One of my most fundamental values is fairness and equality. Everyone should be treated equally, it’s something universal. If they’re being treated badly, then you should take steps to fix that situation.

Friend 3: Wow, this is like a meta-meta question: not ‘should you fix the problem’ but rather ‘should you give information by which the problem may or may not be fixed.’ For me… it’d depend on if the problem could be fixed within two generations or not. If the children would benefit from it, then I’d tell them. Presumably they’re replacing themselves—if they weren’t having children, I probably wouldn’t tell them.

Friend 4: You should tell them. It’s… I think that information should always be shared. Overarching principle—information should be shared. They can choose whether to act on it or not. It’s also important how many people are in this group—if it were a bigger group I’d be more likely to tell them.

Friend 5: The assumption that you’d be making them unhappier by telling them is flawed. Don’t think about the utility function as ‘happiness’—’hope’ works even better. Telling them that the system could be better is giving people hope. As a child of an immigrant—my parents gave up everything to come here. That’s hope for their children.

Friend 6: I’d tell them. There are some universal principles like justice and fairness we need to work towards. And you can’t just throw up your hands and say ‘I give up’. I’m going to be working in the medical industry, and you can’t just say ‘I’m done’ if people don’t make the behavioral changes they need to make, again and again. You have to have hope in them, you have to keep on trying.

Friend 7: We don’t have the right to answer this question. We don’t have a right to make a decision for them— that’s the first thing they teach you in sociology! You don’t impose your values. …If I had to make a decision… it’s not the answer you’re looking for, but this is context-dependent. How many people, what specifically is going on, what the problem is, it all depends.

Friend 8: Interesting… you know, I have this same situation with my cat. Like, he’s an indoor cat, but I don’t want to ever let him outside, because then he’ll know, you know? Know that there’s a bigger world out there. That seems cruel. …But to the question, I don’t think I’d tell them. I agree with the personal happiness thing, and it’d just make me feel so guilty to have possibly made them unhappy, and I don’t want to be responsible for that. So, just so that I don’t have that responsibility, I think I wouldn’t do it, I’d take the path of inaction. I think you could train yourself to think you have the moral responsibility to tell them, and then you wouldn’t be made so unhappy by telling them because you’ve changed your utility function, but I haven’t made that change so I wouldn’t tell them.

Friend 9: I’d tell them. I know I’m being self-contradictory—I agree with the personal happiness thing—but my intuition says to tell them. They have the choice of whether to act on it or not.

…Beautiful, right? So many different reasons, so many responses. People vary in how confident they are. People vary in how they responded to how I’d framed the problem—through this question I actually have a much better idea of who believes in utility functions, who believes in maximizing personal happiness, who believes in universal principles outside humanity. There’s some interesting correlations with religion, immigrant parents, and medicine / science / artificial intelligence degrees. (…Yeah, my choice of people is extremely limited and biased. I pretty much only know med students or science students. Also these correlations aren’t actually valid because my sample size is like, 2 people each.) People draw on different resources for dealing with this problem, and what surprised me most was that this is a moral question, but it seems to be such a good boundary case that people really don’t have strong moral intuitions that enable them to respond immediately.

People were also pretty consistent in their responses, oddly enough. It encouraged debate, and people were listening and sensitive to what other people were saying, but only one or two people changed their mind after listening to opposing views.

And then, because I always do this, I also have to talk about the sort of meta thing in which I really enjoyed the act of bringing this point up for discussion. One of my favorite parts (I love when this happens) is that I wasn’t at any point asked for my own opinion. That’s when you know you’re doing it completely right—when you’re being aggressive enough and quick enough that people don’t have time to return the question because they’re focusing so hard on clarifying what they think. I don’t think it’s a trivial achievement, because you have to be processing quickly—understanding what they’re saying, rephrasing to show you’ve understood, asking clarifying questions. Then at the point where you’ve gotten their opinion, the next bit is to present arguments that other people have argued as quickly as possible, and to deliver quite a few of them in a row, so that people are overwhelmed evaluating their argument against the “others”, and also feel like they have a source of comparison and social consensus without actually getting your opinion. Like I said, I know that when no one asks me I’m doing it right.

On the other hand, I’m not perfect at it. I got told separately by two people “this feels like an interview” which is exactly the wrong impression I wanted. You don’t want to play Devil’s Advocate so hard that people feel pressured and not like it’s a fun abstract discussion. (You also don’t want to let it get non-abstract, or personal, at any point. That’s a HUGE problem. Especially because a lot of abstract moral problems are questionable morally—that’s the point—and you definitely don’t want to introduce anything that might potentially bring up, say, the death of a family member. I’ve done this before on accident, and I really would not like to repeat it, though I’m sure I’ll fumble my way into it again at some point :(.) I brought up the “interview” comment with both of the people who told me, and they told me that it was just a comment and that I was all right. So that was a sign of bad execution, but no one was permanently bothered so I think it’s okay.

Another point to bring up is that I was prompting people like crazy. I had certain points I wanted to get the answers to here—I always seem to do my best on-the-fly thinking when I really want the answer—centered around whether we believe in personal happiness being the point of life, or whether there’s some greater purpose we want to impose. I was able to drive people pretty easily because I think a lot of people have the same sense that I do, that there’s some greater purpose like equality that we want to impose on everyone, but my friend’s arguments, that we’re imposing and individuals’ happiness is the most important goal, also make a good deal of logical sense. It’s the contradiction in values that gets me, and gets other people, and if you keep on nailing that discrepancy it keeps people thinking beyond their initial responses. Another thing I re-discovered: it is REALLY HARD TO LISTEN TO PEOPLE. Around junior year I figured out how to listen to people, and it involves me not saying anything and listening really hard and trying to figure out their worldviews and contexts from the words they say. If I’m doing that, I get lost in trying to imagine what they’re thinking, and I’m not able to actually evaluate any arguments. On the other hand, if I have a definitive hypothesis in mind I’m trying to prove false, I can pick holes in other peoples’ arguments, no problem. It’s the balance that’s so difficult for me—trying to actually understand what people are saying in their context, while evaluating their arguments AND context against my arguments.

I could actively feel myself trying to balance understanding-others and evaluating-arguments during these discussions, and I was pretty amused with my brain. A snapshot: all right, that aligns with what Friend x said, that’s a similar argument and can be boxed here, oh wait, they just expressed a universal argument, need to counter with the individual happiness argument to see what they think about that, oh, that’s a completely new opinion, how does that group—nope they just pulled children argument, need to bring up that we have to discount the children somewhat because the future is uncertain, ooh, NEW argument, that’s interesting, think about—shoot, that pause is too long, let’s rephrase, nope didn’t prompt anything new, let’s summarize what other arguments have been, whoops I grouped that wrong, oh, new person, here we go—

It’s quite invigorating, really. And if people get stuck, then I can just throw in a “yeah, that’s what I would do” and then they get motivated by the agreement, and we’re off again. (To make it clear: I don’t lie here, and if it’s not something I can see myself doing then I’ll just mention that other people agreed they would do that.)

(Final note: it’s been funny to see myself writing down the arguments that people made here, because I’ve completely formalized them through one lens, and you don’t get to see people’s personalities as much as I would like. Like, the way that people talk about these things, especially during appeal to idealisms, is so unique to them and their backgrounds, and I wish that could be captured here while still being able to easily compare the arguments. That’s what real life is like: everyone stating their opinions in their unique voices, and it’s tremendously hard to put everything in one context so I can evaluate them against each other, but there’s beauty in each of our internal worlds.)

ANYHOW, that’s the isolated indentured servitude dilemma. Kudos to the original friend for sparking the original thoughts on it. I’m really curious to hear your opinions :).

All right. So why did I personally actually care about this problem? Here’s the real crux of it, and why I was motivated enough to go this far in the first place.

State of Monica last Tuesday: Sad. (It was election day.) State of Monica last Wednesday: still sad. State of Monica at the beginning of Thursday: still sad. State of other people: almost everyone angry or sad, very occasionally not sad and trying to encourage kindness and optimism and future thinking— …wait, what?

When you’re sad you kind of expect the rest of the world to be sad with you, but I was looking out at the shimmering lights of San Francisco and I was like: well, they’re not stopping. And some people are being optimistic right now, and that feels really wrong, but… is it wrong? Why is it wrong to not feel sad? Do I morally have to feel sad? What?

I decided, upon reflection, that being sad was not helping anyone. In fact, sadness is probably about the least helpful emotion in terms of actions, because it’s passive. Anger is not passive, but anger isn’t really my thing, and my personal sadness wasn’t doing anyone any good, so I decided: fine, you know what, we can channel these emotions into action.

(Tangent: how do you refer to yourself? I’m sometimes “I”, I’m sometimes “we”, I’m sometimes “Monica”, and when I’m being particularly absurd I label myself with a petname and then tell myself to gently shush because, really, that thought was pretty stupid. I’ll hopefully get into the ‘dividing myself up with different names like “Rational Monica”‘ practice again, which I tried fairly successfully a couple of weeks ago.)

Great, I don’t need to feel sad anymore, because I’m going to take action! Excellent, good work Monica. Now… what’s that action?

The annoying thing about my moving-emotions-around tendency is that I feel like I can’t just un-become unhappy by saying I’m going to take an action without actually taking any action. That’s the same as just getting rid of the moral guilt, which defeats the point of having guilt in the first place. Fortunately or unfortunately, this was the point at which I got myself into formulating the isolated indentured servitude dilemma in order to indirectly solve my “what action am I supposed to be taking” problem. I hope you can see how it relates. I don’t, particularly, but I think there are some tenuous links there. In any case, I got myself fascinated by that dilemma and then forgot to be sad, which was nice because I felt like I was working towards my action problem but didn’t have to feel bad about not doing anything not-fascinating.

But when framing my isolated indentured servitude dilemma, I usually introduced it with my “feeling sad” problem first. Because that was the original question: if I spend the majority of my time doing science, because it’s fun and it brings me personal happiness, but I also feel like I have this separate obligation to fulfill some great humanity-benefitting purpose, then what the heck am I doing with my life?

Not being efficient, that’s what. If my goal is to fulfill some greater purpose, then doing science, my kind of abstract computational psychology science, wasn’t doing it. I’d need to become a doctor or policy person or political leader or something—I don’t know, and other people also don’t seem to know, but that’s slightly besides the point at this moment. All I know is that learning about science isn’t the maximally efficient path.

But if my goal is to pursue personal happiness, then having this ‘purpose’ thing that I angst about all the time but don’t actually know what actions to take towards, because I don’t want to quit my awesome science job, that’s not being efficient either. And that’s kind of the crux of the very first argument that I brought up in this post, in that I’m being very indirect if I profess to care only about an individual happiness utility function.

I discussed the isolated indentured servitude problem with quite a few people, and only in one group of two did we successfully circle back to my original problem about trying to not be sad by figuring out some action. And one of those people said: “this is a subjective moral problem. It’s your choice.”

And I was like: it’s a subjective moral problem? It’s SUBJECTIVE? THANK GOD. That there was no objective right efficient answer, and I was responsible for doing whatever I liked with my own moral objective. That’s the kind of thing I want to hear. (It didn’t occur to me before I heard it though. I felt like there was definitely a right answer along with this whole greater good purpose thing.)

Great, so now we’ve got this subjective—or at least one person told me it was subjective, and no one else seems to have any answer at all—moral problem. Which means I get to choose how personally happy I want to be, versus how much I’m going to help the world. For however I decide to help the world.

At this point we got tracked into talking about personal skills. Which is relevant but feels a little bit like a tangent to me, for reasons following. The idea is that if you’re good at something, you’re going to be maximally efficient, so maybe being a scientist is best for me because I enjoy it and I’m going to do it well. The problem is, I have this unfounded confidence in myself that I can do almost anything well if you give me enough time at it, and I also am confident in my ability to do work I don’t like to do as long as I think I’m working towards a worthy goal, so this argument doesn’t really convince me that I should only be focusing on being a scientist. I think I could be a perfectly reasonably efficient worker-in-whatever-is-greater-good-related while not liking what I was doing, as long as there was an excellent goal that I felt I was making progress towards. (…if this sounds unreasonable, there’s this institution called undergrad, in which there are some great things that are really fun to learn, and a lot of other things that you are told will someday be incredibly useful but are in the meantime not something you’d ever pick up for fun.)

Weeelll. I’m trying to figure out how to weight this personal-happiness and purpose thing, and most is unknown, but there’s at least one thing I’m sure of. And that’s what I’m pretty unwilling to quit my job. I’d really really rather not quit my job for personal happiness reasons, and I think it’s reasonable for those personal happiness reasons to be weighted enough that I keep my job and pursue other avenues for the purpose thing. In fact, based on all of my previous actions, during which time I’d always had these dual personal-happiness / greater-good preferences, I’d continued to not quit my job as a student, and that indicates that personal-happiness should be weighted at least that much in this calculation.

So that’s good! Progress. Personal happiness is weighted as much as I get to keep my job. Next point: how am I going to do the purpose thing within these constraints. This harks me back to so many previous posts when I angst about this very problem, except now I know that I’m going to keep my job, because I’m calling this a subjective moral problem in which I get to decide my weights and no one gets to absolutely judge me, and so I don’t have to feel guilty about not quitting and going off and becoming who-knows-what. Look at that, guilt already alleviated. (Tiffany said, upon my describing this original problem to her: “I find it interesting that guilt is motivating so much of this.” True that, Tiffany. True that.)

Well! I already have some answers to this, because I’ve been told that I should do outreach-y stuff in my station as a scientist. But that’s just offloading the problem again—now we have this independent branch that’s labeled “greater good” that’s mostly orthogonal to me doing my job, in that if I do outreachy-stuff I’m not doing science, and if I’m doing science I’m not doing outreachy-stuff. I mean, they overlap a little, but not enough to motivate me not mostly quitting my job. (Tiffany: “…why do these personal happiness and purpose things you keep talking about have to be separate? Why can’t you do both?”)

But wait! I like my job, I’m employed in my job, and I think I’ll make progress in my job—whoa, progress? I think there’s some greater good in my job? Speaking of, people don’t consider science a useless venture. They consider it to be something pretty useful in advancing human society. In my opinion, to do that I’d have to be doing medical research, but if I relax the maximally-efficient goal then I’m doing something vaguely useful, in that psychology is relevant to peoples’ lives. Still, let’s forget about the details of what specific science I’m doing because not being maximally-efficient is making me uncomfortable. Let’s talk about Science. Science with a capital S, and no one should ever write it that way, but let’s about the venture of Science.

Science is good. Science in general advances the world. In fact, it’s probably a worthwhile thing to invest your life in, even if you’re not doing anything super super relevant, because if you can throw your life into something reasonably useful, and do really well and spend all of your time in that moderately useful domain, then you’re being equivalent to someone who’s spending a decent amount of time and is relatively effective into something extremely useful. All right, that sounds reasonable. I think I can be good at science and make progress, and if I enjoy it then I’ll spend more time there, and that means that I’m justified in greater-good-ing through science.

All right. This is good! Science is what I should be working towards, in fulfilling both goals. I just need to work insanely hard to make up for the fact that I’m not pursuing a maximally-useful career. (I love that I still haven’t defined what that is. I’m not going to, by the way, because I have vague intuitions but I don’t know. Most people say: you’re probably thinking of something relevant to the election. Me: sure. I think I just want to make a lot of people happier in some way. I think the approach I’m hoping to take now is through improving thinking. But that’s just one indirect path: I don’t know what job makes the most people happiest, but I think it’s something in medicine or government.)

Well—okay, so I’ve now successfully shifted my guilt from something off-shooty and indirect into my work. Not decreased the guilt in any way, but it has moved. In fact, it even aligns with my current actions and emotions now! …Though I’d really hoped for a solution with less guilt. I don’t particularly like feeling guilty all the time for not constantly working. I mean, I work a lot already, I’ve been in this situation for years where I’m not actually willing to cut more out (like exercise, sleeping, blogging, social stuff) and so now I just get to continue feeling guilty about not doing enough while not changing anything. On the other hand, though, at least we’ve simplified the utility function.

But this does seem to be the right path. People I respect in this field do work constantly. A lot of professors pretty much work all the time, and a lot of them work until they die. So this seems like it’s probably the right thing. I’m all about concepts only being moral within the context of humanity, so if really top-of-the-field humans are doing their science jobs really well, then I think it’s a pretty good signal that the moral thing to do as a human is to do my science job really well, in us working towards our greater good of “truth” or “advancement of knowledge” or however it is we decide to frame what we’re working towards. (Truth and advancement of knowledge are my personal favorites for the purpose of science.) (And, to confirm, working towards my “purpose” is now correctly integrated into my “personal happiness” goals in that the same actions now both produce the two kinds of happiness. This is the point where you could describe the “two kinds of happiness” as one happiness and I’d say it’s just framing.)

So. Basically back where we started, except that I’m all happiness utility-function-aligned now, and have extra reason to feel guilty for not working towards my greater good by working harder in my job. You know, I wasn’t particularly pleased with this conclusion.

Wait, cause for hope—I’ve spotted a thinking flaw. You know how I was arguing that really good scientists seem to also believe in their work being for a greater good and that they pour all of their effort into working towards this greater good? There are other hypotheses: people could be working really hard because of greater-good arguments, but also combinations of greater-good and personal-happiness arguments, or maybe they’re just working really hard because of personal happiness arguments. Since I believe in consequentialism—only the actions matter—it doesn’t actually matter how I’m motivated. I could be motivated by purely personal-happiness arguments, as long as I achieve the required working-intensely-until-I-die action.

Problem is, I suspect that if I were motivated only by personal-happiness arguments, I would not execute the working-intensely-until-I-die action. I’m as streamlined as I am with non-work-activities because of guilt; I do discipline well because I don’t like negative feelings, and I compare myself a lot to what others around me are doing and get plenty of reinforcement from that. But let’s consider it: if I were only working based on personal happiness, I don’t think my actions would change TOO much. I mean, I generally really enjoy what I’m doing. It’s probably worth an experiment. But… but no, wait, this doesn’t work. I’m feeling really uneasy about what’s happening here, because essentially what I’ve done is take my greater-good motivation, moved it over to my job, and now I’m going to remove it completely, all without actually taking any action. This moving-around process misses the point, because I have this intuition that I’m not allowed to stop feeling bad about something, to not use the opportunity of having negative emotions to motivate me to take action (use ALL the emotions. Emotions are great motivators) and not do something independent of what I’m already doing. I don’t like the idea of having something unusual affect me negatively, and then completely not reacting to whatever that unusual event was.

(I don’t know if this is a logical intuition, and am open to debate on this point.)

So I’m not on moral ground I’m okay with, and I still don’t have evidence that the really top people in the field don’t use the greater-good argument all the time, which is what I think would work best for making me work constantly, since it’s obviously worked in the past. I have enough outside-work activities to prevent burn-out, and I anticipate continuing for a while. And since feeling guilty is my default state, I don’t have super strong evidence here that I’m allowed to stop feeling guilty, since I’ve now decided that the way to maximally fulfill greater-good is to work constantly at my job, and the top people in the field hit this action with whatever motivation they have, and I think that probably the best way I have to produce that action is to keep the guilt. Plus, on top of this, I’m really not sure what to do with the moving-around-emotions thing, and so in absence of having a solution to that problem that I think is reasonable, things are going to stay in default safe-state until I figure it out or figure out what experiment I can logically run.

Still not pleased with this situation. And negative emotions = more thinking. They’re excellent motivators.

And then.

And then.

AND THEN I CAME UP WITH THE MOST MIRACULOUS ARGUMENT THAT IS NOW MAKING MY LIFE SO EXCELLENT. I mean, it’s a tremendously obvious argument, it was there the whole time, and people had even indirectly pointed it out to me, but there it is, right there, and I see finally how new knowledge is generated, it’s from people coming at old knowledge from a specific angle where they’re hoping to integrate things into a theory and then it all fits within that theory and then you can continue to build upon it until more people integrate new things into that theory, and man, this is an inefficient process, isn’t it, but I’m tangenting, back to the point.

And that realization is: there is one very, very strong piece of evidence that professors, even insanely successful professors, do not work all the time towards the greater good. That they commit huge portions of their lives to not pursuing science, that they pursue personal happiness, that it is all right and good to have personal happiness maximization orthogonal to work, that it is all right to have personal happiness and greater good separate and that one does not need to devote one’s life to maximally achieving greater good. Because a lot of really insanely professors don’t do that. I mean, some do, but a lot don’t, and that’s all I needed, really: an example that even for the people who are doing their work really, really well, the ones that humanity likes and go in history books, the ones who people say lived well, did life well—those people do something almost entirely aimed at personal happiness, and not at greater good.

They have children.

Children can be useful towards the greater good, yes. But I would not believe you if you told me that they are the maximally efficient way to achieving some effect on humanity. When people say why they have children, it’s not “to advance world knowledge and truth”. It’s not. And you’re not going to have enough of them, save few exceptions, for them to justify the amount of time spent on them in purely greater-good terms.

Which means—

I’m allowed to do things for personal happiness reasons.

I now have this gigantic margin with which to work with, this huge expanse of my time and mental space in which I am justifiably, by evidence of successful people who humanity has said lived good useful lives, allowed to allocate to mental happiness. In fact, now that I know that successful people devote a good portion of their lives to orthogonal personal happiness, I now feel perfectly justified in motivating my combined personal happiness / greater good job goals with personal happiness reasons. I believe I can do so because I think my actions won’t change TOO much, it’ll bring me much more happiness to not feel guilty, and hey, if they’re allowed to use personal happiness reasons for orthogonal things, I’m definitely allowed to use personal happiness reasons on things that also happen to be advancing my greater-good goals.

And—hey, if I’m not morally obligated to constantly work towards greater good things—in that I know that people definitely do not, even if they consider their work to be a greater-good thing—then maximal greater good isn’t a problem. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s finally a subjective moral problem, which I hadn’t really accepted before, but now that I’m released from maximal efficiency assumptions, I can do what I like. In fact, if the actions are the same, and since I’m now done all the work of integrating my purpose thing and personal happiness into the same function, I could even do greater good things that also bring me happiness.

…Which, damn. Means that since doing greater-good things does bring me happiness, all I need to do is keep myself happy, which includes doing greater-good things, and I’m morally golden in my own head.

So I’m donating through GiveWell.org, which is this awesome website that finds the charities that are maximally effective, and all you need to do is click “Donate”, and I have it set up so that it donates to the top charities once a month and I don’t need to do anything. And I’m donating to ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) because everyone recommended them as being a very effective organization. And these are the most effective ways I believe I can effect change, because money through people who are doing this full-time produces the most benefits based on what I’ve read and watched, and these are organization that do this very effectively. So I’ve got that fulfilled, and I’m happy with that, and I’m being consistent with my values, which I’ve discovered is an excellent motivating factor that has neatly replaced the guilt.

What still mystifies me a little with the greater-good thing is people like Harriet Tubman, and people who hid Jewish people during Hitler’s reign, and people who went through a lot of suffering with not a lot of personal happiness. I mean, I can see personal fulfillment, but I think the weights are very different in that situation, where there’s much more greater-good going on than personal happiness. And what I’ve come up with, with regards to this sort of thing, is that it’s important to be aware of the issues, and then act in accordance with my values when the situation arises. For example, I like my outreach website for undergrads / women in science (http://womenincocosci.com) and think I can do more to promote that and make it better, and that’s something I can do right now, but I think that as long as I’m aware of the issues I’ll be able to make various small changes in the future. (My supervisor, for example, has a half male / half female lab. Do you know how rare that is in a computational field, especially with a male advisor? Very rare. He does it on purpose. I was just talking to a professor who said that reading all of the personal statements in applying to grad school is pretty depressing, because anyone who is a woman in STEM has a story about discrimination.)

It has been a huge relief, and really wonderful, and so far my actions haven’t changed too much but life has gotten more fun, just as anticipated. I would like to mention that I had a lot of these thoughts already worked out by the time I started this post (it’s what I’ve been thinking about for a lot of this week) but there were some new wait-cognitive-error moments that I had to work through, and it’s much more difficult to logic myself through things rather than just start out with the intuition. Like, once I had the “oh my god, CHILDREN” thought, everything internally fell into place, but when writing this, I had to work through all of the build-up and implications of that, logically, and I still don’t think I quite managed it. I imagine that if you really motivated people to logically work through all of their intuitions—with a motivation like: you know you can’t post any of this until you at least try to resolve the error, and you KNOW people are going to call you out on it, and you’ve got so many words already that you have to post SOMETHING—(okay, it’ll probably have to be a little different than that motivation for most people) then I think that’d be really, really hard. I don’t want to have to work through all of my intuitions. Much easier just to have opinions that everyone else agrees with and don’t have to justify, gosh. (…so many problems with that thought, but true, man, true.)

Ah. Finally finished that section. Thank goodness. Looking forward to issues people have with the logic so I can continue working through it.

And now to finish up, one other thought left that has made this week so amazing.

So. I’m not sure how widely applicable this is, but I’ve never had too strong of a sense of who “Monica” is. Like, I know I’m characterized by my behavior, and you know who I am if you can predict what I’m going to do. I’ve discussed previously that one of the ways we can characterize people is how we react to new information, and that’s based on how we think and all of the biases and experiences that went into that. But I consider myself changeable and my thoughts are certainly moving around a lot of the time, so I have a hard time nailing myself down.

But—even before I get started into my stuff I’d originally planned to say—there are some things which are so consistent.

Take this whole gigantic post. This whole argument would have been so much easier if I didn’t have a “maximal efficiency” core tenet. It motivates so much of what I do. Likewise, if I didn’t have the “help others on a large scale” idea it would have made the argument easier, but “ambition”, which is the more common name for this trait, is evident so very, very early on. I was just reading one of my college essays—not one that I actually submitted, one of the ones I liked—and I kind of wanted to bang my head against a wall. I write almost the same. (In fact, in some ways I wrote better. I certainly employed a wide vocabulary.) The emotions were still the same. It was a letter on figuring out social situations, and it ended with “and when I figure it out, the world will fall at my feet.” …I mean, yes, but also … yes. Just, I’m more polished, but there’s a good part of me that thought: yep, that’s a stupid thing to say, but yes, identify with that.

And recently an event (plus earlier context) that occurred threw this into high relief. I’d been sitting with some friends, and I didn’t know the answer to something, and I kind of ducked my head and looked away. Then I promptly just went for it and began speaking and did badly but corrected it with help, but that first moment, when I was ducking my head away, I went: WAIT WTF WHAT MONICA!?

Because I don’t do that. I don’t do head-ducking submissive things. I mean, it does occur—when I’m feeling unsure sometimes I’ll do it, and when I’m uncomfortable I’ll sometimes look away and down—but what was so interesting this time was the way I felt about it. It was just the wrong context for me to be doing it in; the emotions weren’t right—I was very comfortable with the situation.

And that initial response, that HOLD UP, WHAT JUST HAPPENED response—that was kind of amazing. When I described the incident to some people later, they said: yeah, it’s just not who you are. And apparently, there is a who-I-am. And who-I-am doesn’t like the feelings associated with that sort of behavior, independent of “you shouldn’t do that because you’re an independent Wellesley woman” and whatever principles that I follow as “shoulds”. Who-I-am just plain doesn’t like the feelings generated without any higher-level justifications, period.

And so I’ve been pushing forwards with this “just be yourself, Monica” (which has never really meant anything before), which apparently is most happy when confident, and it’s produced some pretty fun behavior. It makes me bolder, more likely to speak up. It makes talking easier, it makes me less nervous. It also makes me stupider, which I found out today when just going forward with a response instead of thinking it through. I think the reason I’m not like this all the time is because the stupider negative feedback kicks in and keeps the confidence in balance. But previously at Berkeley I’d been doing much more of the feeling-insecure stuff than usual, just because it’s a new place and I’m putting myself in new situations and getting used to it all, but now it’s been really nice to be comfortable enough that I can push forward this mysterious “who-I-am” and it’ll do what I normally do plus a little bit extra. The personal-happiness thing is adding to this, I think, in that this is how I tend to act when I’m confident with where I stand and happy with life, and the unsure behavior usually comes about to reflect whatever I happen to be feeling at the time.

A small change, but something to fall back on—the idea that I’m not just a collection of higher cognitive ideals about how I should act, but that I have some intuitive responses that are going to activate whenever I observe things in myself, without any higher-order reflection. Of course, I think these responses likely benefitted from years of higher-level cognitive training, but it’s really excellent to have some responses that I can observe in myself, point to, and say: ah, that’s who you are.

Hm :). Final point, because it relates to the above-above, and it’s slightly relevant to my later self point as well.

Some people are really self-consistent. The friend I was mentioning before is very self-consistent in the individual personal happiness thing, and lives with that belief and an organized set of morals in mind. One of my other friends is also very self-consistent, in the sense of believing in universal principles, not giving up despite it not working, and pursuing a career that they believe maximizes their values. I’ve noticed recently that self-consistency (not wanting to be inconsistent with past behavior, it’s a cognitive bias and is the reason things like foot-in-the-door favors work) can actually act as a very good motivator for taking actions that align with values, and changing values in the first place. I feel like I’m not terribly consistent right now—I still run a lot of decisions off intuitions without really thinking through why I do them—but it was so interesting to me to see two people being self-consistent with different sets of beliefs. I asked them how deliberate it was, and both thought it was pretty deliberate. I wonder, though, how many people are self-consistent and how hard they have to work at it? Can one hold any beliefs and be self-consistent? I think there’s probably a certain class of beliefs that one can act consistently with, and there’s some range within that. Very curious if anyone has any thoughts on this.

All right, I’ll head to bed now :). I have so many more thoughts—it was a fun week, but I’m going to go teach kindergartners about Science tomorrow (heh heh) so I must be up BEFORE 8AM, THE HORROR. One of the best parts about grad school is the schedule—there are so many great things about grad school. But I said I’m going to bed—down, Monica.

Thank you all so much for reading, especially for something as… (not sure what adjective to use here) this, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Best wishes always,

Monica

 

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