On not getting a job as an option

post by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-11T02:44:39.938Z · score: 36 (39 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 190 comments

This was originally a comment to VipulNaik's recent indagations about the academic lifestyle versus the job lifestyle. Instead of calling it lifestyle he called them career options, but I'm taking a different emphasis here on purpose.

Due to information hazards risks, I recommend that Effective Altruists who are still wavering back and forth do not read this. Spoiler EA alert. 

I'd just like to provide a cultural difference information that I have consistently noted between Americans and Brazilians which seems relevant here. 

To have a job and work in the US is taken as a *de facto* biological need. It is as abnormal for an American, in my experience, to consider not working, as it is to consider not breathing, or not eating.  It just doesn't cross people's minds. 

If anyone has insight above and beyond "Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism" let me know about it, I've been waiting for the "why?" for years. 

So yeah, let me remind people that you can spend years and years not working. that not getting a job isn't going to kill you or make you less healthy, that ultravagabonding is possible and feasible and many do it for over six months a year, that I have a friend who lives as the boyfriend of his sponsor's wife in a triad and somehow never worked a day in his life (the husband of the triad pays it all, both men are straight). That I've hosted an Argentinian who left graduate economics for two years to randomly travel the world, ended up in Rome and passed by here in his way back, through couchsurfing.  That Puneet Sahani has been well over two years travelling the world with no money and an Indian passport now. I've also hosted a lovely estonian gentleman who works on computers 4 months a year in London to earn pounds, and spends eight months a year getting to know countries while learning their culture etc... Brazil was his third country. 

Oh, and never forget the Uruguay couple I just met at a dance festival who have been travelling as hippies around and around South America for 5 years now, and showed no sign of owning more than 500 dollars worth of stuff. 

Also in case you'd like to live in a paradise valley taking Santo Daime (a religious ritual with DMT) about twice a week, you can do it with a salary of aproximatelly 500 dollars per month in Vale do Gamarra, where I just spent carnival, that is what the guy who drove us back did.  Given Brazilian or Turkish returns on investment, that would cost you 50 000 bucks in case you refused to work within the land itself for the 500. 

 

Oh, I forgot to mention that though it certainly makes you unable to do expensive stuff, thus removing the paradox of choice and part of your existential angst from you (uhuu less choices!), there is nearly no detraction in status from not having a job. In fact, during these years in which I was either being an EA and directing an NGO, or studying on my own, or doing a Masters (which, let's agree is not very time consuming) my status has increased steadily, and many opportunities would have been lost if I had a job that wouldn't let me move freely. Things like being invited as Visiting Scholar to Singularity Institute, like giving a TED talk, like directing IERFH, and like spending a month working at FHI with Bostrom, Sandberg, and the classic Lesswrong poster Stuart Armstrong. 

So when thinking about what to do with you future my dear fellow Americans, please, at least consider not getting a job. At least admit what everyone knows from the bottom of their hearts, that jobs are abundant for high IQ people (specially you my programmer lurker readers.... I know you are there...and you native English speakers, I can see you there, unnecessarily worrying about your earning potential). 

A job is truly an instrumental goal, and your terminal goals certainly do have chains of causation leading to them that do not contain a job for 330 days a year.  Unless you are a workaholic who experiences flow in virtue of pursuing instrumental goals. Then please, work all day long, donate as much as you can, and may your life be awesome! 


190 comments

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comment by dhoe · 2014-03-11T08:36:09.924Z · score: 31 (34 votes) · LW · GW

As someone spending a pretty solid part of my earnings on maintaining my aging former hippie parents, I'd like to point out that it's a radically egoistic choice to make, even if it doesn't appear at the time.

They dropped off the grid and managed many years with very little money, just living and appreciating nature and stuff. Great, right? But you don't accumulate any pension benefits in those years, and even if you move back to a more conventional life later, your earning potential is severely impacted.

comment by Neotenic · 2014-03-11T11:28:26.417Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

That depends on your stance on many things: First of all having children or not. Second of all population ethics. Third of all if you think it is worth it to have a child whose life is better than neutral, or even than average, but not better than your own. Existentialism and First Mover Advantage are also related concepts.

I feel your pain though, and my life would have been much worse if my Father had not been an instrumental Flower for part of his life.

But if you consider your life worth living, there are several philosophical paths that do not consider your parent's actions to be unworthy of moral appreciation. Check Toby Ord on population ethics for deeper insight.

comment by dhoe · 2014-03-11T14:11:57.416Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sure there are moral systems where living off your children is an acceptable moral choice, but I can't say I'm very motivated to check them out.

Their actions were rational from their point of view, however. They just radically overestimated the probabilities of total societal collapse. If that's what you expect, moving out of the city and trying to live from your garden and some goats might not be the worst course of action.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-27T21:35:27.854Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And how much the state will offer to retirees...

comment by Alicorn · 2014-03-11T03:26:41.713Z · score: 29 (30 votes) · LW · GW

Not getting a job is a psychologically realistic and socially acceptable option for Americans who are female, are partnered with employed men, enjoy at least one facet of homemaking, and aren't optimizing for certain specific forms of feminist cred.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-03-11T13:45:12.923Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, you are tied to a man, and indirectly to his job, so that still rules out the globehopping, couchsurfing lifestyle.

comment by WhySpace_duplicate0.9261692129075527 · 2017-02-28T16:28:13.991Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

that still rules out the globehopping, couchsurfing lifestyle.

Not necessarily. I'd be fine with it if my girlfriend decided to hitchhike around Europe for a month or two, and I'm pretty sure she'd be fine with me doing the same. There's no reason the one with the job couldn't take a vacation in the middle, too.

If the unemployed partner did this twice a year, for 2 months at a time, that'd be 1/3 of their time spent globetrotting. If they did this 3x a year, (2 months home, then 2 months exploring, then 2 months home again) that'd be pushing it, but might be stable long term if they could find ways to make sure the working party didn't feel used or left out.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T17:39:19.652Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Well, in terms of a guess, that is what, 12% of the population?

You forgot to mention not getting a job is acceptable for children, college students and elders. Probably also the handicapped.

Even then, maybe that sums up to two thirds or something. That's still a hundred million people who could benefit from considering the option, if only to give up on it a few days later.

I find the gender asymmetry in this case to be perplexing. Just like I think polyamory should be equal for both sides. it seems to me the opportunity not to work and be fine with it should be equal for both sides. In both cases one could make arguments of tradition, or from biology (naturallistic fallacy etc...) trying to explain the asymmetry, and in both cases I think it is unjustified.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-03-13T12:21:44.682Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You can't completely exclude the biological part, at least if the couple wants to have children. There will be at least a year per every child, when the woman can't go to work, and this can't be avoided for many people (in some cases the woman can work from home, but that's not an option for everyone). So there is some real assymetry, although it may be less important than it seems.

Tradition, prejudice, etc... that's like advertising. It may be completely irrational, but it is still a force that exists and moves the market balance. You can model the past and the culture as an enormous advertising budget, and the advertisement says that men who don't have a decent income are losers, and indirectly the women with such partners are also losers (because they had to choose losers as their partners). We can disagree with this, but there is this huge advertising budget against us, and it skews the relationship market balance.

comment by RobertLumley · 2014-03-13T17:03:08.656Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There will be at least a year per every child

This seems to be wildly off based on my experiences. Women I know (with working husbands) having children are taking 2-3 months off.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-03-14T09:28:51.602Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

My first reaction: Checking whether you are from USA.

Yeah, I know this is not an argument, but the cultural difference is huge here.

I would like to know if there is a scientific research about whether separating 2 months old children from their mothers for half of day has an impact on the child, and what is the impact specifically.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-17T07:21:37.223Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Viliam, as far as I recall from memory alone, there is very little effect on what a tiny infant does for half a day in their future lives.

It matters more which of the attachment kinds the baby will acquire when the mom is present, not when she is absent.

People are 50% genes 50% question mark, if you summarize psychological science super ultra violently. Not the best strategy for science, but good enough for a cached thought.

comment by RobertLumley · 2014-03-20T01:09:36.216Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am from the US, and work in manufacturing, which is even more culturally conservative. But this isn't out of line with any other experiences I've had.

comment by Neotenic · 2014-03-11T11:57:15.127Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, that at least part of the way into freedom.

comment by quanticle · 2014-03-11T07:13:02.414Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

It depends on what you mean by "job". It seems like you're saying that not having a job is equivalent to not working. I'd argue otherwise. You still do a lot of work. It's just that the work that you're doing doesn't fit into the traditional capitalist view of working for an employer, so you don't see it as a "job".

You bring up a number of examples: the Argentinian who left graduate economics to travel the world. Puneet Sahani. The Uruguayan couple. They don't have jobs in the traditional American sense of working for an employer for money. But I'd argue that their lifestyle is no less arduous than someone who does have a job. They still have to make arrangements for food, clothing, shelter and travel, and presumably they're doing something of value to earn those resources. That's work, even if it isn't a job, as traditionally defined.

Moreover, such a lifestyle requires a certain type of personality. It requires a personality that is willing to accept extreme levels of uncertainty, in some cases to the point of not knowing where one is going to sleep the next night. For that reason, I'd argue that getting a job is the rational decision for most people. It makes sense to trade a certain amount of freedom for the certainty of knowing that when you go home, you'll have a home to go to, with food in the fridge and clothes in the closet. The fact that some people are able to be happy without having that certainty doesn't mean that everyone will be happy in such a lifestyle, or even that you will be happy in such a lifestyle.

A job is truly an instrumental goal, and your terminal goals certainly do have chains of causation leading to them that do not contain a job for 330 days a year.

This is true, but the uncertainty around those other chains of causation is considerably higher than the chains of causation that do involve having a job. Sure, I can scrape by without a job, hitchhiking my way along to where-ever I'm trying to go. Or I can travel with relative certainty in a train or a jetliner with tickets that I purchased with money from my job. Which route you choose depends on your tolerance for uncertainty and risk. I, for one, am glad for my job. It provides me the resources by which I carve out a tiny bubble of relative certainty in an uncertain world.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T07:12:22.986Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

They don't have jobs in the traditional American sense of working for an employer for money. But I'd argue that their lifestyle is no less arduous than someone who does have a job. They still have to make arrangements for food, clothing, shelter and travel, and presumably they're doing something of value to earn those resources. That's work, even if it isn't a job, as traditionally defined.

I disagree with "presumably they're doing something of value to earn those resources". All that we know is that they are acquiring the resources somehow. They could be doing so in various clearly-unethical ways, like theft, con artistry, or what have you.

Of course, the more likely scenario is that these people simply are good at convincing people to hand them things basically for free, or in any case in exchange for substantially less value than they're receiving. There are some people who have this talent.

As far as the lifestyles being arduous, well, I'll let the author of this Leftover Soup comic handle that one:

Cheryl could very well put in 110% effort and learn how to cook expertly, and very well might still be immediately fired, in much the same way that working hard in school and getting straight As does not entitle one to a six figure job. One earns paychecks in exchange for the provision of value, not the expenditure of effort.

(emphasis mine)

In other words: their lifestyle is arduous? So what? That doesn't ethically entitle them to a damn thing.

I, for one, am glad for my job. It provides me the resources by which I carve out a tiny bubble of relative certainty in an uncertain world.

Wholeheartedly agreed.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-09-21T04:50:20.091Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

One earns paychecks in exchange for the provision of value, not the expenditure of effort.

Actually, one gets paychecks for the perception of the provision of value.

The boss (whether business, government, or non-profit) may be wrong about who's providing what, even though there are some pressures on bosses to get things right.

Also, the organization may be going under even if some of the people in it are providing value.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T15:17:28.803Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

It is as abnormal for an American, in my experience, to consider not working, as it is to consider not breathing, or not eating.

Note that you seem to have a huge and invisible to you gender assumption :-)

Have you also thought about the possible connection between your observation and the fact that the US is a very wealthy country?

let me remind people that you can spend years and years not working.

You certainly can. There are a whole bunch of people in the US who do precisely that. Unfortunately for your argument they don't look to be ultrahip vagabonds who travel the world in between TED talks. On the contrary, they look to be poor, severely constrained in what they can do, unhealthy, stuck in bad neighborhoods with high crime rates, etc. etc.

Life is a series of choices. You can make a choice to drop out and I know people who've done that, both recently and back in the 70s. But there is a price, of course, and for some people the price is worth paying and for some it is not.

There are intermediate stages, too. For example I've met a guy who works for one month per year on an offshore platform and that gives him enough money to travel low-budget in Asia for the rest of the year. He doesn't have a house or an apartment, he is either on the platform or traveling. He stores his stuff at his mom's.

If I may make a generalization, dropping out works much better for people who are young, single, healthy, adaptable, and can quickly find a reasonable job if they need to (aka have sufficiently high IQ and some marketable skills). That's not an iron-clad rule, of course. One somewhat popular way of dropping out is to buy a cruising yacht and go off into the oceans of the world -- and that is occasionally done by full families with kids.

One other point is the uncertainty of the future. Because of it you want to both retain some flexibility and have resources to deal with whatever it throws at you. A vagabond style of life tends to be very flexible but very low on resources.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T07:19:45.244Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Have you also thought about the possible connection between your observation and the fact that the US is a very wealthy country?

Seconded. It's almost a cliche for Americans to visit (various parts of) Europe and Latin America, observe the less stringent work ethics, the far poorer standards of customer service, etc., and shake their heads, noting the ostensible causal link to lower levels of wealth... but that link does seem to exist.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2014-03-12T11:56:34.998Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The existing link is a correlation, not necessarily causality.

For example, imagine a country where the government can (and once in a while does) decide to take away your savings. In such country it wouldn't make sense to try getting more money than you need to survive this month, unless you are ready to use it now (e.g. you are building a house). Imagine that you are smart enough and you could make more money than you need, but the money would probably be taken away, so you don't want to do this. So instead of higher salary you will optimize e.g. for less work. If enough people do this, work ethics goes down.

Or imagine a country with such strong egalitarian ethics, than even if you do 10× more work than your colleagues, your employer just wouldn't give you even 2× higher salary, because in their opinion, no one deserves twice as much as the market rate. Again, the usual response is to slow down to the level of average (sometimes even more, because the average people usually consider themselves to be above-average, so they slow down too).

There are countries where stronger work ethics would be a lost purpose; it would not improve the life of the given individual, on average. Sure, some people are strategic enough to find a way to do it, but most people are not. (For example, if you are 8× faster than your colleagues, but your employer insists on paying you exactly the same amount of money, you could try convincing them to let you work from home, then do in 1 hour what your colleagues would do in 8 hours, and spend the rest of the time working on your own projects or just having fun.)

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T12:28:06.801Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

And of course it's equally a cliche for Europeans to observe the US's wealth, long hours, short holidays, low taxes, extreme inequality, etc., and shake their heads, noting the ostensible causal link to various forms of societal dysfunction (see, e.g., http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2005/2005-11.pdf which is ostensibly about correlations between religion and societal health, but a lot of the clearest correlations are driven by the fact that the US is both very religious and badly messed-up).

Whether the US's unusually severe work habits have anything to do with this is anyone's guess. Quite likely they don't. If they do, they might be effect rather than cause. But I don't think the connection between those work habits and the US's great wealth is at all obvious, either.

comment by Error · 2014-03-11T20:49:04.206Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

For example I've met a guy who works for one month per year on an offshore platform and that gives him enough money to travel low-budget in Asia for the rest of the year.

I am curious just what sort of job he's doing out there, and how he got it, and what kind of real money he's making. That's not a bad way to live.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T21:02:04.110Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

As far as I remember, he was an engineer, not just a grunt. He also was in his late 30s or early 40s and spent time working (normally) in the industry. I assume that allowed him to build a network of friends and acquaintances who are willing to offer him month-long jobs. It also helps that offshore platforms work on the shift method -- people are flown in for a period of time, they live on the platform for a few weeks working, basically, without weekends, and then they are flown back and have a mini-vacation until the next shift.

I agree, it's not a bad way to live. But there are downsides as well. You literally have no home, for example. Having a long-term partner is problematic, having kids is out of the question. If you are a self-sufficient loner it's a good life. If you want a community to live in, well...

comment by leplen · 2014-03-11T13:14:48.338Z · score: 15 (17 votes) · LW · GW

But a job is so easy! I'm fully aware that I don't need a job. I'm certainly capable of wandering into the woods and finding a cave and scrounging for roots and setting snares and surviving. but that's really inefficient. Apartments are cheap. Food is cheap. For someone with a high earning capacity, the benefits of modern society outweigh the costs by a factor of at least 10 to 1.

Having an income is awesome, and not hard to come by. I literally get paid to attend school. I'm given an office, a computer, access to a fast internet connection, and more than twice as much money as I need to support myself. I totally agree that employment is overrated in our society and that very few people make the history books just because they showed up for work everyday, but having a boring predictable income I don't have to think about is precisely what gives me the freedom and energy to actually think about and pursue more interesting problems.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-03-11T14:29:48.403Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I have been thinking about the following question a lot.

The western world is very productive, due to the industrial and information revolutions. But we still work a lot (a lot of it "abstract white collar work"). Now the question is, how much of this work is just "paying people to dig holes in the ground" as Keynes puts it, and how much of it is solving genuine coordination problems (which we know is hard, and hence requires manpower, and in addition it is hard to coordinate to solve coordination problems..)

Economists like Hanson would say that it would be silly for firms to pay people to dig holes in the ground, but firms are often systematically crazy in various ways.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T15:51:18.907Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

As you probably noticed, it's complicated :-)

On top of the technology layer ("the industrial and information revolutions") there is the sociopolitical layer which is rather important for determining how well and how efficiently does a society run. The Soviet communism/socialism is a good example of a society which screwed up the sociopolitical layer with well-known consequences.

This means that the question "how much of this work really needs to be done" is complicated and is not reducible to issues of technological efficiency. There are power structures. There are value distribution and redistribution arrangements. There are webs of incentives, often conflicting.

Basically, if you try to eliminate "unproductive" work on purely technological/economical grounds, the sociopolitical layer will react and compensate -- and that gets you firmly into the Land of Unintended Consequences...

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-03-11T17:49:12.505Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

To sharpen my question a bit:

Back during the heyday of the industrial revolution, people have been predicting that people will work less and less due to vastly increased productivity. This did not happen, which is interesting, because it seemed like a reasonable prediction at the time and still seems that way to me today. People are making similar predictions now. I am curious if these predictions will similarly not pan out, and if so why. Coordination being hard would be a "good reason," digging holes would be a "bad reason." If we are really digging holes, it just seems better to implement a minimum income instead.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-03-11T18:14:13.949Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

But we are working less and less due to vastly increased productivity, and it's very clear in any graph of hours worked over time. And the effect is even bigger than the statistics show, because of the big shift from non-market to market labour - don't tell me that doing the laundry by hand, or being a subsistence farmer, isn't work, just because it's hard for government statisticians to measure! People today have far more leisure than at any time since the dawn of agriculture.

What is true is that hours worked haven't fallen as much as some people predicted (e.g. Keynes in "Economic Possiblities for our Grandchildren"). The reason for that seems pretty obvious - innovation doesn't just make us better at making the same old things, it also creates new things we want, and people have a pronounced tendency to underestimate the latter.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T18:24:10.955Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

People today have far more leisure than at any time since the dawn of agriculture.

This is commonly asserted, but I have my doubts.

Consider, for example, that agriculture is a very seasonal activity (in most places). You have a few high-intensity periods during the year, but the rest of the year is low-intensity and provides enough opportunity for leisure time.

Some arguments can be found here and here.

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-03-12T01:39:13.071Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've heard that modern hunter-gatherers do about twenty hours of "work" per week...

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-03-12T13:46:42.845Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But we are working less and less due to vastly increased productivity, and it's very clear in any graph of hours worked over time.

Do you have any references for this claim? One thing I have read is this paper:

http://econweb.ucsd.edu/~vramey/research/Century_Published.pdf


To sharpen my question a bit further still: how much is the length of our workday shaped by necessity and how much by custom and culture.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-03-12T16:42:28.966Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I had not seen that paper; it is interesting and I will look over it more fully at another time. I should note that

  • They aren't measuring work, they are measuring leisure. For example, they count the big increase in time spent in education as eating into our leisure, which is true, but irrelevant to the question of whether we are working more.
  • Even those authors agree that per capita leisure increased by 4 hours per week over the past century in the USA.
  • Some of their claims are hard to believe. For example, they claim

Home-production time averaged over the population ages 14 and older decreased by only half an hour per week from 1900 to 2005.

Really? Despite the gas oven, the washing machine, the dishwasher, etc? They claim that the typical 25-54-aged woman worked 50.4 hours per week in home production in 1900, and 31.1 hours per week in 2005. This change is way too small to be plausible. I think, frankly, that all kinds of activities are now being classified as home production work that would not have been so classified in 1990, and that their broad categories ("childcare", etc) are unable to measure this.

You can see a general overview of the subject for the US here:

http://eh.net/encyclopedia/hours-of-work-in-u-s-history/

A nice blogger put together a graph over hours worked over time in US history here:

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_9kFluQyx4tM/TIcLhFVzVNI/AAAAAAAAAG8/hwfkDvU14-Y/s1600/Avg+Hours+Week.jpg

Data from various developed countries here:

http://phe.rockefeller.edu/work_less/

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-09-21T05:28:00.366Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

More Work for Mother argues that the most of the physical labor was taken out of housework, but the amount of time required stayed high because standards went up.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-09-21T05:29:32.383Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that there's a tremendous amount more fiction available in various media, and people are finding time to consume quite a lot of it.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T18:10:55.505Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

people have been predicting that people will work less and less due to vastly increased productivity. This did not happen, which is interesting, because it seemed like a reasonable prediction at the time and still seems that way to me today.

Well, let's think about it. When people work they produce value (I'll handwave the concept of "value" into existence skipping the fiddly parts like the definition, constraints, caveats, etc.). That value either gets consumed or gets added to the accumulated wealth which we can also call capital.

So what happens when productivity rises? People can work less but that means that consumption and capital accumulation remain constant. Or people can work similar amounts of time which means that the consumption and/or the capital accumulation will go up.

In other words, people can work less time at higher productivity if they are willing to accept that their consumption (=standard of living, more or less) will not rise.

Essentially you have a trade-off between leisure time and consumption (mostly of material goods, but not only). Given historical evidence, it's pretty clear that since the heyday of industrial revolution people prefer more consumption to more leisure time. Of course leisure time increased as well (e.g. we have a five-day 8-hour standard workweek now) but consumption increased MUCH more.

Now that trade-off is not constant and depends on how much leisure time and how much consumption is on offer. I think we see leisure time valued more and more as our consumption gets saturated, but that's purely a guesstimate as I haven't seen any data (I haven't looked, I'm sure it exists).

Of course there is also a lot of individual variation. Some people prefer more leisure time (part-timers & vagabonds), some people prefer more money (A-types).

As to digging holes, I don't think that in reality this is mostly a function of mistakes in planning and allocation. I think that in reality this is mostly a way of redistributing value towards entities (such as social groups and companies) which have sufficient power to make it happen. A construction company gets paid for the bridge to nowhere and from its point of view it is a highly successful thing.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-03-11T18:31:22.932Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Of course leisure time increased as well (e.g. we have a five-day 8-hour standard workweek now) but consumption increased MUCH more.

There was once a movement for a six-hour week. I haven't read the book I just linked, but clearly, the movement failed. I don't know if that was because of Evil Bosses wanting to stop the working classes from having the leisure to think (although that was explicitly said by some of them), or Greedy Kulaks grasping for as much work as they could get.

ETA: Here's a book from 1919 whose first section deals with the six hour week. Some interesting quotes:

Every year the workers become more intelligent and more acute reasoners. Think of the intelligence required in the workers to produce a modern locomotive or a greyhound of the Atlantic, or to work and operate the same, and to make and operate all the thousands of different types of machines now producing and working for the good of man. And each succeeding year demands still higher intelligence to produce still higher, better, and more complex mechanical utilities.

The requirements of our ancestors were few, but as civilization advances, not only do the wants of the body for variety in food, raiment, and shelter increase, but as the mind and soul expand, the intellectual horizon widens and the higher plane of living demands more and more leisure to feed its hunger for better conditions of life.

...

We are all agreed that the industrial situation has become the most pressing after-war problem to be solved, and that the solution will not be easy, not because there is more poverty in the United Kingdom to-day than ever -- as a matter of fact there is less poverty than ever before in our history -- but because there is a wholesome Labour unrest and national craving for vastly better conditions of life. The poor are not growing poorer, and the workman of to-day is better off than his employer was two centuries ago. But because -- and I rejoice that it is so -- the workman is each day becoming more ambitious, his mind and soul are expanding at a greater rate than, under existing conditions -- even with higher wages -- his leisure time permits him to keep pace with. Each year the workman is becoming a better educated man, with better social outlook. Whilst his social outlook is expanding, the workman in the twentieth century finds himself simply a seller of service, and that he has gradually become a cipher in a most complex industrial system, and has his life absorbed and controlled as a mere unit in a great factory or workshop that leaves him no scope for the exercise of the higher intellectual developments of modem life.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T18:56:21.110Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There was once a movement for a six-hour week.

There were lots of movements like that -- see e.g. this from 1993. France at the moment has the legal 35-hour week.

However these movements, at least historically, were mostly aimed at fighting high unemployment (and probably low demand, too). I think VW workers in Germany had effectively a four-day week during the few years of high unemployment, but when unemployment went down the four-day week ended.

comment by Metus · 2014-03-11T03:33:09.995Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

Now that would be an interesting topic: The rationalist hobo.

I am actually considering something similar. There is the extremely early retirement community where the general suggestion is to earn much money in very short amount of time, to live below means in that time, to invest as much of it as possible and to then live from the interest gathered. Driven to extremes the necessary base capital can be quite low, such as in the low hundreds of thousands.

As interest is mobile and I can relocate to a country that almost does not tax capital interest I am free to roam the world. Additional income can come from local work or donations as I intend to still work some amount of time in theoretical research which essentially is just time consuming without need for capital expenditure.

For some time at least this would be very interesting.

Edit: The availability of so much free learning material online makes this even more viable. The only issue will be maintaining a good exercise regimen and good eating habits.

Edit 2: If you can learn remotely, you can work remotely. Being on the road does not preclude doing analysis or similar stuff to stil learn an income.

comment by ESRogs · 2014-03-11T22:15:29.132Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I can relocate to a country that almost does not tax capital interest

Just wanted to note for any fellow Americans that this is unfortunately not an option for us. The US taxes even when you're living abroad.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T20:30:21.511Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Three comments.

Investments are risky. Your future "interest gathered" is uncertain and you're subject to a variety of risks including things like inflation. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that your investments will return you, say, 7% each year forever and that the amount of dollars sufficient to live on now will still be sufficient in ten years.

Time and money are fungible to a certain extent. By retiring early you're buying time with money (which you are not going to earn). Make sure the exchange rate is good and that you won't spend most of your newly acquired time trying to compensate for lack of money.

Humans, being what they are, don't do well in the absence of external pressure. To put it crudely, a life of leisure makes a man soft, dumb, and lazy. There are, of course, exceptions, but when people don't have to do much, they usually do not do much.

comment by ESRogs · 2014-03-11T22:27:29.214Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Investments are risky.

Yeah, but not that risky. If you start with a sum in the "low hundreds of thousands" like Metus describes, and are frugal, you could easily live for a decade without having to earn any positive return whatsoever. And on the scale of decades, a diversified portfolio of stock-based index funds, hedged with other asset classes, is very unlikely to do worse than inflation.

See this chart.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-12T00:48:23.429Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you start with a sum in the "low hundreds of thousands" like Metus describes, and are frugal, you could easily live for a decade without having to earn any positive return whatsoever.

That is true, of course. On the other hand after that decade you'll be without money, without a job, and probably having issues integrating back into working for a living.

And on the scale of decades, a diversified portfolio of stock-based index funds, hedged with other asset classes, is very unlikely to do worse than inflation.

I disagree. The problem is that you're looking specifically at the US stock market and there is the issue of survivorship bias.

On the scale of decades, what tended to happen to diversified portfolios of European stocks during the XX century? Or do you know when did the main Japanese stock index, the Nikkei 225 reach its top? It was in 1989 and all downhill since then.

comment by ESRogs · 2014-03-12T01:20:38.491Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand after that decade you'll be without money, without a job

Yes, true. It would probably not be a good idea to attempt to retire with only one decade's worth of funds and plan never to work again. On the other hand, you could see how things go for the first 5 years and then go back to work if needed.

The problem is that you're looking specifically at the US stock market

So would you expect a US + international market cap-weighted index fund like Vanguard's Total World Stock Index Fund (bonus: available as an ETF) to have more variance or do worse than the US stock market by itself? That would surprise me.

Or were you just saying you think the US was exceptional during the 20th century, and investors should not expect similar returns (either by diversifying across nations, or reliably picking a winning nation) in the 21st? Hmm, now I am curious what stock market returns looked like for the whole world in the 20th C.

there is the issue of survivorship bias

Unfortunately I wasn't able to determine whether that particular chart took into account survivorship bias, but I did find this blog post written by the author of the book the chart was taken from, suggesting that he's at least familiar with the issue.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-12T01:30:06.820Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Or were you just saying you think the US was exceptional during the 20th century, and investors should not expect similar returns

Yes, that is what I am saying.

whether that particular chart took into account survivorship bias

I meant survivorship bias in the country sense. What's the return of a German stock portfolio over the last century? It is zero -- the portfolio went to zero in WW2 and without additional money invested it stays at zero.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T12:54:46.764Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I meant survivorship bias in the country sense.

On the one hand, this is an important issue and shouldn't be ignored if you're planning for your retirement.

On the other hand... Let's think about a scenario where you've worked hard and saved hard until (say) the age of 40, and then 10 years later there's a national catastrophe on the level of losing a major war which wipes out all your savings. You are, indeed, going to be in trouble. But so is someone who's been working for pay all that time: they've lost all their savings too, and probably their job. Either position's going to be pretty terrible.

comment by Salemicus · 2014-03-12T17:22:38.532Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But if your retirement portfolio is internationally diversified (and it should be!) then you aren't just vulnerable to war and revolution in your home country, you are vulnerable to war and revolution in any of the countries where you are invested. Survivorship bias is definitely relevant.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T23:37:58.521Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. But now I remark that there are lots of countries and such total wipeouts are really quite rare. So, e.g., if your portfolio is something like equally divided among 10 major countries, and each of them has a total wipeout once per 30 years (of course these are both really crude approximations), then what happens is that once per 30 years you lose 10% of your investments, which is kinda like losing 0.3% per year, which is about what most index funds charge in management fees. (Of course it's worse really because it's "lumpier".)

So, again, it's an important issue but I remain to be convinced that it's that important an issue.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-13T01:37:40.470Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

if your portfolio is something like equally divided among 10 major countries, and each of them has a total wipeout once per 30 years

Why don't you look at reality instead of going for abstract approximations? You are assuming that a "major country" being wiped out by a war would not affect other countries. Really? The 2008 crisis didn't even come close to being a wipeout and how correlated were the stock markets of the major countries during the crisis? Or, if you want to go back to WW2, which stock markets remained unscathed while Germany was wiped out?

comment by gjm · 2014-03-13T09:39:17.716Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I am concerned that our argument takes the form: "I think this effect is bigger than you think it is!" "Oh, but I think it's smaller than you think it is!" repeated a few times. For all we know, we agree about the actual effect but have wrong ideas about one another's estimates of how big it is. Can we perhaps find some actual concrete proposition that we disagree on? (Or, as may well happen, find that there isn't one.)

Here's a candidate. It's a more detailed and, where possible, quantitative statement of my own opinion. It's a conjunction so there should be plenty to disagree with :-). I don't believe anything I've said in this discussion has been incompatible with any of these points.

(1) Survivor bias at the country level is an important issue and you shouldn't ignore it in estimating the prospects of an investment portfolio. (2) The possibility that your own country gets wiped out economically is real; it has probability on the order of 0.5% or so per year (let's say 0.25% to 1.0%), it affects people who are still working at least half as badly as early retirees (I suspect nearer to parity than that), and while it's worth trying to be prepared for it I don't see it as a major factor in deciding whether to retire early. (3) The possibility that another country you're heavily invested in gets wiped out is also real; if your international investments are reasonably diversified (or small, though that has its own problems) then the impact is on the order of 0.3% loss per year. More precisely, I'll say 0.2% to 1.0%. (4) The possibility that another country with impact on one you're heavily invested in gets wiped out is also real; there are more ways for it to happen but the impact is smaller per instance. However, it's somewhat "priced in" already even for someone who's ignored the issue, because such impacts already affect whatever indices they've looked at. Let's say that the size of this effect beyond what a naive prospective early retiree is already expecting is in the range 0% to 0.5% depending, e.g., on where they are. (5) The net effect of all this is that if you're considering retiring early, you should deduct 1% or so from your estimate of annual investment growth if you haven't previously contemplated this sort of risk, and when comparing the risks of early retirement with those of continuing to work you should not forget the risk of your own country getting wiped out economically by war, hyperinflation, etc.

Why don't you look at reality instead of going for abstract approximations?

Because doing the necessary research would take maybe 10x as long (quite possibly 100x as long) and I have higher-priority uses for that much time.

You are assuming that a "major country" being wiped out by a war would not affect other countries. [...]

No. I am assuming that what we're interested in here is the differential impact of this sort of disaster on an early-retired person's savings, compared with its impact on a still-working person's job, job prospects, and savings. (Because the relevant question is whether retiring early and living on savings is a worse decision than it might otherwise look like, because of this danger.)

The more countries affected by a disaster, the more likely it is that there's a big effect on the country in which you live, and hence the more likely that it hits still-working people hard too.

And yes, countries' outcomes are correlated. Also, there are considerably more than 10 countries of substantial size in the world. Using a low figure there serves as a partial correction for the correlation, as well as for the fact that most people don't have a portfolio balanced equally across all the world's countries.

The historical performance of an index like the S&P or Nikkei has the cross-country effects of disasters elsewhere already factored in. Such effects will be underestimated by someone looking at historical index performance only if the indices they look at are, for some reason, less affected by cross-country effects than others relevant to them. That certainly might be true (e.g., European countries' stock markets may be more correlated with one another than any of them is with the US, in which case looking at the DJIA or the S&P 500 would underestimate the risk of being hit by another country's disaster if you're in the US but hold substantial investments in Europe) but this feels like a second-order effect to me.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-13T15:50:04.208Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think my original point was just that the effect (survivorship bias at the country level) exists and most people happily ignore it. Looks like we agree about that.

My follow-up point was that this effect -- survivorship bias at the country level -- belongs to the class of things which makes your estimates of future returns suspect. However we've moved on to another issue -- how to account for the possibility of a major disaster (war, revolution, hyperinflation, etc.) while planning your life and what does this possibility and its consequences look like.

I think I'd like to stress the the consequences will be complicated and widespread, not reducible to lopping a percentage point off your expected returns. I also think that estimates have to be country-specific. The probabilities of the US going down are noticeably less than the probabilities of, say, Russia, going down. However a Russian implosion will be more contained (in the sense of affecting other countries) while if the US implodes it might well take the entire North America and Western Europe down with it.

One additional point is that you're not only interested in the expected return on your portfolio. You are also interested in the expected variance. The probability of disaster does not only reduce your expected return, but it also pushes up, considerably, your expected variance as well as makes your expected probability distribution asymmetric (more asymmetric, really).

By the way, I do not agree that "the historical performance of an index like the S&P or Nikkei has the cross-country effects of disasters elsewhere already factored in." The reason is that the interdependency of countries is not a constant. It grew a LOT during the XX century, especially its last few decades. For example, S&P is much more correlated with Nikkei now than it was in the 60s. Chinese economic numbers whipsaw Brazil (which exports huge amounts of iron ore to China) and significantly affect the US stock market. Or, remember what happened to the US stock markets when it turned out that Greece is bankrupt?

The world is much more interrelated now than it used to be. Historical performance does not reflect the current reality.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-12T15:28:42.749Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Let's think about a scenario where you've worked hard and saved hard until (say) the age of 40, and then 10 years later there's a national catastrophe on the level of losing a major war

These are different issues.

This subthread is basically about estimating future returns from diversified stock portfolios and whether S&P returns for the last few decades provide a good baseline for that.

You are talking about the stability of life and about whether saving money is useful if there's a chance your country will be smashed into little bits.

By the way, a much more likely scenario for a Western country is not losing a major war but having a hyperinflation episode. In this case the guy with the savings loses all, while the guy with a job is much better off.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T23:50:16.501Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

These are different issues.

You raised the issue of survivorship bias at the country level and gave the example of a country wiped out by a major war. So I explained why, if you're adjusting the expectations of a retiree to account for what that sort of event could do to their investments, you also need to adjust the expectations of a non-retiree, who will also be hit hard by it.

Hyperinflation is indeed a good example of something that could hurt the retiree a lot worse than someone still working, but it seems to me that it depends a lot on (1) what form the retiree's savings take and (2) what causes and consequences the hyperinflation has. For instance, if investments in the stock market lose a lot of their (real) value in a hyperinflationary episode, I'd expect that to be accompanied by a lot of job losses -- so the worst case for a retiree with a lot of stock-market investments is also bad for someone still working.

comment by ESRogs · 2014-03-12T01:37:46.592Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, interesting points. I had not seriously taken into account survivorship bias in this national sense before. I will have to think more about that.

comment by quanticle · 2014-03-12T08:31:54.864Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On the other hand, you could see how things go for the first 5 years and then go back to work if needed.

Will you be allowed back into the labor force? Many employers, especially in the IT industry, will almost certainly turn you away if you have an unexplained hole in your resume that's 5 years wide. Basically the only reason that can cover a 5-year gap is education of some kind (usually something like graduate education). If you say, "Oh, I just retired for 5 years, but now I'm looking for a job again," that's not going to help your chances of landing a job.

comment by Antiochus · 2014-03-12T13:33:21.176Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This might not be as much of a problem in IT as you might worry, especially if you have personal projects or open source contributions to show for it. It's difficult enough finding skilled developers that if your skill is in demand, a good recruiter will still go to bat for you. I'd say it harms your chances, but it won't kill a career.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2018-02-01T02:50:20.315Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Eric Weinstein argues strongly against returns being 20century level, and says they are now vector fields, not scalars. I concur (not that I matter)

comment by mare-of-night · 2014-03-12T08:40:46.573Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Mr. Money Moustache does/did something like this, though with a slightly different approach.

comment by ThrustVectoring · 2014-03-11T19:30:59.742Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There is a huge amount of risk involved in retiring early. You're essentially betting that you aren't going to find any fun, useful, enjoyable, or otherwise worthwhile uses of money. You're betting that whatever resources you have at retirement are going to be enough, at a ratio of whatever your current earning power is to your expected earning power after the retirement decision.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T12:58:44.379Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

You're essentially betting that you aren't going to find any fun, useful, enjoyable, or otherwise worthwhile uses of money.

No, you're betting that you aren't going to find enough such uses for enough money to outweigh the benefit of having hugely more leisure time.

I can think of pretty good uses for a near-unbounded amount of money (more than I am ever likely to have, alas). I can think of pretty good uses for a near-unbounded amount of time (more than I am ever likely to have, alas). Working full-time, working part-time, and not working at all (note: by "working" here I mean working for pay) make different trade-offs between time and money; none of them implies not having any use at all for time or not having any use at all for money.

comment by bramflakes · 2014-03-11T21:13:07.658Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

you're only encountering the people for whom vagabonding worked

the ones you don't see are dead or destitute

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T14:50:34.100Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I've sleep on the streets before during days in my travels in which it would be too complicated or expensive to get a hotel room, so I have met some people who live in the streets and made their acquantance.

Given that I think your counterfactual is witty, but wrong.

Within the reference class of Lesswrongers, veterans and lurkers alike, the failure case of ultravagabonding is to stop ultravagabonding and work (either teaching english to foreigners or in a menial job, or back to one's regular job).

So yes, I'm meeting the surivivors in the survivor bias sense. But the price is not as high as you are claiming for those who fail this mode of life.

I myself can't, for finantial reasons, personal security and emotional reasons, and specially due to visa status reasons, afford this lifesltyle anymore. So let's see in 5 months where I'll be, if I'm dead or destitute, I withdraw my contestation.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-27T20:37:51.391Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Personally, I've done a version of this. I've had jobs, but never a career, choosing to travel and have fun instead. I didn't need anyone to persuade me that this was an acceptable option, but I'm curious if anyone could persuade me that it's not. Redline mentioned giving the least possible effort and receiving maximum utility in return; this is the story of my life, only my "utility" has been fun.

First, I went to Guatemala and taught SAT prep 12 hours/week with 3 day weekends. This gave me the status of having a job, personal fulfillment of making a positive impact on students' lives, and paid far more than what I needed to cover living expenses. I spent my days reading suspense/fantasy novels, trail running, bike riding, volcano climbing, hanging out with friends, exploring, and seeking new experiences. Life was like a full time vacation!

Now, I'm here in California, "working" as a nanny (still have 3 day weekends), and my job consists of taking care of 2 fun, hilarious, well-behaved boys, playing marco polo, having nerf gun wars, buying and cooking whatever I want, reading bedtime stories, and it gives me the personal fulfillment of feeling super appreciated. In my free time, I play board games, go hiking, play ultimate frisbee, catch up with friends, and do loads of reading. Life is like a full time vacation!

I love my life, but every now and then, people will look down on me for "wasting my potential" and I'm tempted to agree with them. I'm not the best at anything (or I would probably feel more guilty about my decision), but I am very good at a lot of things (high school valedictorian, top 1% standardized test scores), and I'm genuinely curious:

Can a good argument be made in favor of ambition over hedonism, or does it all just boil down to intrinsic motivation and feelings of personal satisfaction?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-04T01:06:43.245Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

First, I went to Guatemala and taught SAT prep 12 hours/week with 3 day weekends. This gave me the status of having a job, personal fulfillment of making a positive impact on students' lives, and paid far more than what I needed to cover living expenses. I spent my days reading suspense/fantasy novels, trail running, bike riding, volcano climbing, hanging out with friends, exploring, and seeking new experiences. Life was like a full time vacation!

Now, I'm here in California, "working" as a nanny (still have 3 day weekends), and my job consists of taking care of 2 fun, hilarious, well-behaved boys, playing marco polo, having nerf gun wars, buying and cooking whatever I want, reading bedtime stories, and it gives me the personal fulfillment of feeling super appreciated. In my free time, I play board games, go hiking, play ultimate frisbee, catch up with friends, and do loads of reading. Life is like a full time vacation!

That sounds completely awesome! I've always imagined that sort of lifestyle, but it always felt too abstract. Reading your description has helped my understanding become more concrete and vivid. Thanks you.

Can a good argument be made in favor of ambition over hedonism, or does it all just boil down to intrinsic motivation and feelings of personal satisfaction?

Ok, so the following is the state of my beliefs and understanding. In a way, I feel rather confident in it, because I've done a good amount of reading into other arguments, and after doing so I still think my reasoning makes more sense. But on the other hand, I definitely notice confusion, enough such that I wouldn't describe myself as "very confident". I wrote about it a bit more in depth here and here, which you might be interested in. It's about as well as I could articulate it without spending weeks writing and researching.

Summary - Morality is sort of a question asking about what you should do. Someone might say, "you should do X" or "you shouldn't do Y". My response - "should requires an axiom". You can only say, "you should do X... in order to achieve this end". Or "you shouldn't do Y... in order to achieve this end". The way people use the word, they're usually referring to an end implicitly.

Then there's the question of "well, what should the end be?". Which is circular. Consider two things though:

1) Preferences

2) Goals

Your Preferences are what produce the most desirable "mind-states". Imagine a thought experiment where you take a person, stimulate his brain to produce a bunch of different mind-states and have him rank them according to how preferable they are. This is what I'm mean by Preferences.

Goals are what you choose to strive towards. For example, you may choose to strive towards being a good mother, even if it doesn't maximize your Preferences.

You could choose whatever Goals you want. Preferences are pretty fixed though (seemingly).

Anyway, I don't think there's really an answer to "what Goals should you choose?". You have to say, "what Goals should you choose... in order to achieve this end". Goals are arbitrary. Rationality is about doing the best job you could at achieving the Goals you choose, but it doesn't help you actually choose them (because they're completely arbitrary). I've heard attempts to side-step this, and I've never been convinced. But like I said, there might be something I'm missing (I really hope there is).

Ambition vs. hedonism

Some people frown on a lack of ambition.

  • If pleasing these people is part of your Goals, then being ambitious will help you to achieve that Goal.
  • If not being ambitious causes you some sort of guilt or other form of unhappiness, then in order to achieve the Goal of maximizing your Preferences, it'd make sense to either a) change that fact, or b) become more ambitious.

To be practical:

  • Altruistic acts tend to make people happy, and are one of the biggest correlates of overall happiness. The opportunity cost of zero ambition is that happiness you could have gotten by pursuing an attempt to help people. For most people, to maximize happiness, I think it's worth spending a good amount of time trying to do good. (Of course, then there's the question of how to do good, and what to do when you're faced with the choice between warm fuzzies and things that produce more a lot of good, but don't produce as much warm fuzzies.)
  • Humans tend to care about how others view them. How much you care seems rather unchanging to me, although I don't know what the true determinants of "the elasticity of caring" are. I think that for most people a good rule of thumb is to consider how much you currently care about how other people view you and take that into account when trying to achieve your Preferences.

Also, Ambition can be poison (one of my favorite posts). I think it's a very slippery slope. Personally, I've fell pretty far down the slope and am trying to climb back up a bit.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-08T21:44:41.496Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks so much for sharing! Sorry for the late reply, just got back from vacation.

I think my preference ratios are probably a good deal more altruistic than average. But in practice, the reason why people think I’m a good person is because I perform way more cost-benefit analyses than is typical. Ie. if someone else had the same preference ratios as me, they probably wouldn’t act as altruistically because they wouldn’t perform as many cost-benefit analyses.

I have had the exact same thought so many times! But I perform cost-benefit analyses only for small decisions, like your ticket example, with pretty clear cut preference ratios. When it comes to the option of pursuing a life goal, everything gets really fuzzy. I think it's that fuzziness that's keeping me from seriously considering giving up my fun-filled life to do something more ambitious.

I guess my life goals right now are pretty simple: maximizing happiness and avoiding feeling guilty for being so happy. I maximize happiness by having fun and doing nice things for people on the individual level, and I manage to discharge most of my guilt through effective altruism. Despite my natural resource consumption, I think I contribute enough happiness to the world for it to be better off than it would have been without me.

As for caring about what other people think, this actually doesn't come up often in real life. Almost everyone I associate with is also pretty into fun-centric activities, and think my life is cool, even if they appreciate the status and high income from more prestigious jobs. I think it's from perusing Less Wrong that I finally started to feel self-conscious about my choices. I see such a high percentage of rational people with high intelligence doing ambitious stuff, so I was curious whether there was an objective reason for it. So if being on LW is contributing to a slight increase in guilt, but not enough to make me want to become more ambitious, I should consider deleting my account and reading more fiction instead, haha. Pretty sure the cost-benefit ratio will keep me here though.

People might say that they care about other things independently of their happiness (other people, the world, science, progress). I’m not sure how to say this exactly but… they don’t.

I think I agree with you here. But if goals are arbitrary, I might as well continue delighting in my career-less life for now. Maybe when I'm older, I'll have more ambition... It seems like some people do, but my dad is very smart and perfectly content working 10 hours/week as a lawyer and spending his free time reading, disc golfing, and winning poker tournaments/fantasy sports contests.

So personally, with a title like "Morality Doesn't Exist" would you be willing to describe your views as moral relativism? That there's no compelling reason (outside of yourself, depending on your personal preferences) to put yourself behind a veil of ignorance and put societal goals above personal happiness? The title of the website, Less Wrong, almost implies an objective morality, and it seems like many LWers shy away from the term relativism. Although I don't like it either, I still don't totally understand why they do, assuming they're rational enough to have a reason other than discomfort with the idea.

Depending on how far up the slippery slope of ambition you want to climb, I just heard my old boss in Guatemala is looking for a new SAT teacher for the next year, starting this summer, if you happen to be interested. But beware, the slope is slippery in both directions!

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-09T02:08:46.094Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When it comes to the option of pursuing a life goal, everything gets really fuzzy.

Very understandable. It makes sense that things that are more clear have a bigger influence on your motivation than things that are less clear.

I think it's that fuzziness that's keeping me from seriously considering giving up my fun-filled life to do something more ambitious.

I think it's a really good sign that you a) know this and b) acknowledge it. Given that it's such an important topic, it seems worth putting proportional thought into it though. And it seems like you are trying to do that. Check out Ugh fields if you haven't already. It's been one of the most practical articles I've found here.

and think my life is cool

Count me among them! In some not so far away alternate universe, I'm doing the same things you are. Which is why your situation is interesting to me.

I think it's a pretty hard question that most people don't seem to actually take seriously. For the record, my impression is that most people here aren't really too ambitious. Two big reasons seem to be a) "it's too difficult/unlikely that I succeed" and b) akrasia. Perhaps you'd like to investigate this further and more formally. If you do, please let me know what you find. If you don't, I probably will, but it'd be at the end of my current to-do list.

But anyway, you seem to be trying to take the question pretty seriously, and seem to be a pretty self-aware and reasonable person. I shall try to say something useful.

  • Question: What are your terminal goals. The ends that you seek. Obviously an incredibly difficult question. It may be possible to proceed without a perfect answer to it though if you have a rough idea of what your preference ratios are.

  • Question: How strong an impulse do you feel to do something ambitious? How manageable is this impulse? How do you expect this impulse to change over time? Personally, I have an incredibly strong impulse to do some ambitious things, and I've taken it into account that I expect that this impulse would remain strong and would make my life unpleasant if I ignored it.

  • Question: How happy would you be if you weren't to pursue an ambitious life? Seems like you have done a pretty good job so far. It seems that you'll continue to be pretty happy, although you seem to be in your early 20s and I'm not sure how much you could extrapolate from your current experiences.

  • Question: How big a positive impact would you have on the world if you pursued a non-ambitious path?

  • Question: What is the probability that you succeed in your ambitious endeavors? My thoughts about this are unconventional. I think that a truly smart and dedicated person would have very very good chances of success. I see a lot of big problems as puzzles that can be solved.

Very very rough calculations on startup success:

Say that I get 10 tries to start a startup in the next 20 years (I know that some take longer than 2 years to fail, but 2 years is the average, and it often takes shorter than 2 years to fail). At a 50% chance of success, that's a >99.9% chance that at least one of them succeeds (1-.5^10). I know 50% might seem high, but I think that my rationality skills, domain knowledge (eventually) and experience (eventually) give me an edge. Even at a 10% chance of success, I have about a 65% (1-.9^10) chance at succeeding in one of those 10 tries, and I think that 10% chance of success is very conservative. (from here)

Some thoughts on where I see opportunity if I had the resources.

  • Question: How altruistic are you really? How much do you really care about the billions of people who you never have and probably never will meet? What about the bajillions of people who haven't been born yet? To what extent are you willing to make sacrifices for these people? (I know this is implicitly addressed in some other bullet points, but I thought it'd be worth mentioning explicitly) EDIT: See here for thoughts on EV and ambitiousness.

  • Question: What are the selfish reasons to be ambitious? How happy would you be if you succeeded in your ambitions? (note Ambition can Be Poison and it's easy to never be satisfied, so I don't think it'd be as happy as one would think) Could you possibly contribute/build a better world for yourself?

    • Some thoughts of mine. I don't think I'm nearly as well read as most people here, am lacking information and thus am of limited confidence, but I plan on reading up in due time. Anyway, it seems to be that we live in a truly special time. Kurzweil's LOAR makes sense to me (the gist of it anyway). Compared to previous generations, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do big things. AI, cryonics, anti-aging, the internet, joint-consumption economies, etc. I really do think there's a reasonable chance that you could contribute/build a better world for yourself.

    • I know that ambition can be poison. I know there's a reasonable chance I do some "slipping down the slope", but long term I think I'll be able to get over this (to a reasonable extent). Nevertheless, I take it into account in my calculations. However, I think that it'd feel really really really good to have had some big positive impact on the world. It seems like something that really would boost that happiness setpoint up a bit.

    • Finally, the money/fame/power that result from successfully achieving any ambitions definitely have their value, although I think it's nothing compared to the personal satisfaction.

  • Confessions: I think the clarity of these thoughts are about 40% more clear than the previous best analysis I had done. I personally don't think I've thought nearly hard enough about these things given there importance, although part of the reason is intentional - I have a tendency to overthink things which is stressful and I've sort of reached a point of diminishing returns... idk. And I unfortunately do fear that this analysis suffers a bit from confirmation bias (ie. biased in favor of ambition). So please take all of this into account.

So personally, with a title like "Morality Doesn't Exist" would you be willing to describe your views as moral relativism?

I'm not particularly well read in philosophy. Probably way moreso than the average person, but below average for someone here. I don't know what moral relativism is, but I'll look it up...

It seems to be saying that goals are arbitrary, and if so, then yes - I do think my views could be described that way. Thanks for introducing me to the official viewpoint. You seem to know a bit about it - do you know anything about it that seems inconsistent with what I appear to believe?

After brief reading, it seems that I may not agree with what seems to be the less strict interpretations of moral relativism. It seems that people use it as an excuse to say "don't judge others for what they believe". It seems to me that a lot of viewpoints really do have a terminal goal of something along the lines of utilitarian, but these other viewpoints try to invent rules of thumb that promote this end, but they don't admit that the end is actually what they're after.

The title of the website, Less Wrong, almost implies an objective morality

I wouldn't say so. The way I think of it is "less bad at achieving your ends". If you read HPMOR I would say "Quirrel is (at times) quite rational, even if his goals are sometimes selfish".

it seems like many LWers shy away from the term relativism. Although I don't like it either, I still don't totally understand why they do, assuming they're rational enough to have a reason other than discomfort with the idea.

My impression is that the community does have some "soft spots", and not wanting to believe in moral relativism sort of seems like it's one of them (based on what I remember when I read through the metaethics stuff. Not wanting to seem naive appears to be another "soft spot" of the community to me.

And I think that "anti-religion" is a bias here too. I had gotten slammed for asking about the possibility of an afterlife here. Regardless of whether I was right or wrong, I don't think I was uncivil or anything and I think it's a topic worth discussion, at the very least (from their perspective) to help me better understand it. But I sense that it hit a soft spot, hence the downvoting and mild incivility. And I've seen similar things happen elsewhere here also. I figure you should know this given your background. For the record, I'd probably call myself a confused agnostic. I definitely don't believe in the teachings of religion or god in the traditional sense, but I don't pretend to understand the true workings of consciousness or the universe and I remain open to possibilities that atheist wouldn't. And on some level, I think Louis CK makes a good point (plus it's funny).

Anyway, my point here is that humans are quite flawed. I love LW but people here are far from perfect. And so am I. And even EY is far from perfect (although I think he's astonishingly smart).

Depending on how far up the slippery slope of ambition you want to climb, I just heard my old boss in Guatemala is looking for a new SAT teacher for the next year, starting this summer, if you happen to be interested. But beware, the slope is slippery in both directions!

No thanks (see above). But I appreciate the thought :)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-09T20:40:48.925Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Actively look out for the flinch, preferably when you are in a motivationally "high" state. Better still, do this when you are both motivationally high, not under time pressure, and when you are undertaking an overview of your life.

Thanks for the link. You're right about this being an "ugh field" for me, something I usually flinch from even thinking about. I think my doubts about Christianity used to be an "ugh field" too, but I feel a lot better for having confronted them.

Two big reasons seem to be a) "it's too difficult/unlikely that I succeed" and b) akrasia.

Those seem to apply to me too. I'd never heard of akrasia before, what a great word. If I investigate this further among the LW community, I'll let you know.

Thanks so much for your thorough reply. I really, really appreciate it! Answers to your questions:

  • You're right. This is an incredibly difficult question. Based on the sample human terminal goals given, I think the biggest for me are health, joy, and curiosity. Can environmentalism be a terminal goal? What about efficiency in general?

  • My impulse to do ambitious things is about a 2 out of 10, so not very strong at all, and very manageable, currently. It used to be more like a 1 though, so the current trend seems to be that the older I get, the more attractive a life of accomplishment looks.

  • How happy would I be not pursuing ambition? You're right; I'm super happy right now. I have absolutely no idea if this happiness with a leisurely lifestyle is something I can maintain or not. My dad and his best friend are both super smart and not very ambitious, and seem to be quite happy even as they approach their 50's, which makes me think I could stay very happy. Then again, I might be different. Maybe my lack of ambition was just from the way I was raised (in my family, we all bragged about acing tests with no outside study, about never having homework, about never doing assigned readings, about skipping class to hang out in the rec room, etc.. kinda pathetic, in hindsight).

  • How big an impact would I have? If I knew this, things would be lots less fuzzy! One goal that I'd love to pursue would be promoting hitchhiking/slugging. This has to do with my other values of environmentalism and efficiency. I also think it would be wonderful if people were less fearful of strangers. I'm not sure how exactly I'd work toward this goal, so it's really hard to gauge potential impact. If it were successful though, traffic would be decongested, carbon emissions would be decreased, and people would save money on transportation and have more opportunities to interact with new people... so yeah, it could potentially have a significant impact.

  • Probability of success? Good question. No idea, again this is very fuzzy since I don't even know where I would start; it's just not something I've thought about much. I'd probably have to find someone to team up with who has more concrete skills. All I have is a general idea and a pretty logical mind, no relevant experience or education. I am usually pretty confident and anything I think I can do, I can do, but I normally don't set my sights too high.

  • How altruistic am I, really? I don't know. I'm still going through the repercussions of my deconversion. Right now, the amount of caring I have for people in the world is relative to the amount I used to have as a Christian. Now that eternity/an afterlife is out of the picture for me, I'm a little less frantic about saving the world and more content doing my own thing. Still, I think I care enough that if I were pursue a big goal or career, altruism would be my chief motivation.

  • The selfish reasons to be ambitious are significant too, I guess. Currently, I'm so happy with my leisurely life, it's hard to remember back to times when I had accomplishments, like academic awards and track and field records. Money I don't care about so much, but accomplishments feel really great, whether it's because of the personal satisfaction or the praise, it's hard to tell. I'm fairly confident that ambition would never be poison for me. The accomplishments I've had in life felt great, but they were really just side benefits of me pursuing other terminal goals, and as great as they were, they didn't give rise to any ambition.

    This was a good analysis; thank you! You're right that I really should put proportional thought into this.

Hmm, I'm not particularly well read in philosophy either, but I hear the term "moral relativism" thrown around a lot; mostly as a result of sharing my deconversion story actually, as a lot of people have commented that atheists almost have no choice but to be moral relativists. I think "moral relativism" is pretty simple and just means there is no "right" or "wrong" outside of an individual, and I think it's consistent with your views, but I'm not totally sure.

I wouldn't say so. The way I think of it is "less bad at achieving your ends".

Haha, okay, I hear you. Actually as soon as I typed that sentence, I realized this would be your response. It's just a different definition of "wrong" than I'm used to, but it makes sense.

My impression is that the community does have some "soft spots", and not wanting to believe in moral relativism sort of seems like it's one of them (based on what I remember when I read through the metaethics stuff.

Yeah. I think this is another topic that probably deserves more discussion among the community than it currently gets. If our society gets to be extremely rational (which I think most people here strongly desire), it will be really hard to draw the line between individual freedom and what's best for the future of humanity, and I think this is something worth serious thought.

Yeah, I get the same feeling about an anti-religion bias here. Your post about an afterlife is interesting. We really have no reason to believe in one, but without data, I definitely don't think people should assign near-certain probability to the non-existence of an afterlife, either. I guess I'm more of an agnostic, too. I don't believe in the Christian God, but like I said in my very first post, I can't be sure there isn't a good god or gods struggling against an evil god out there somewhere. It is possible, I just have no reason to believe it's true, so I don't really think about it.

Maybe there's a subconscious tendency to go along with the mainstream views on LW just because almost everyone here is so good at thinking and rational people usually tend to agree with other rational people. Personally, I discovered this site and thought, wow! So many people who think SO similarly to me, only they've been thinking much harder and for much longer... the general ideas around here must represent the most rational and least biased opinions on any topic. It's tempting to just trust that the ideas around here are all things I can agree with and understand, just because I've agreed with almost everything I've read so far.... I guess I just have to be cautious, keep putting in the effort of thinking for myself, and remember that LW is a (wonderful) resource, not a bible.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-10T00:49:09.988Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A big part of the reason why I'm ambitious is because I try really hard to not fall victim to scope insensitivity. And regarding ambition, there's some really really big magnitudes at play. Ex.

  • Even a small increase in the chance that I don't die and get to live another bajillion years has a huge expected value(EV).
  • Same with altruism - even a small chance that I help billions of people has a huge EV.
  • Regarding my happiness, I think I may be lying to myself though. I think I rationalize that the same logic applies, that if I achieve some huge ambition there'd be a proportional increase in happiness. Because my brain likes to think achieving ambition -> goodness and I care about how much goodness gets achieved. But if I'm to be honest, that probably isn't true.

Another reason why I'm ambitious is more practical - I want to retire early, really ASAP. Starting a startup, making a lot of money and being able to retire would be great.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-04-11T18:59:18.276Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Re: afterlives - we have tons of data. Brain damage can cause loss of function in a way which varies depending on what part of the brain is damaged. Everything points towards total brain damage causing total lack of function. We also have evidence that stimulating one part of the brain can turn off consciousness, and some evidence that conscious experience requires many parts of the brain working together.

I posted about the first part of that somewhere, though apparently not in response to the linked post. Probably I did not respond to that one because I'd already made this point, and it gets tiring to see people ignoring it again.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T17:29:16.554Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, interesting, thanks for sharing! Data is good; that's cool that we know that, and I think I agree that it makes any afterlife extremely improbable. Sorry, I wasn't ignoring your point, I just noticed this now as a result of having just realized I can click on the little orange envelop and see replies and private messages.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-10T00:35:59.205Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks so much for your thorough reply. I really, really appreciate it!

Glad to help (if I am actually helping)! I find this fun.

Can environmentalism be a terminal goal? What about efficiency in general?

Of course, anything can be a terminal goal :). But consider how strong a statement it is to say that something is a terminal goal. That it has intrinsic value. As for environmentalism, would the environment matter if there was no one on earth to experience it? If not, it makes me think that environmentalism matters to the extent that it makes peoples lives better, and thus would be an instrumental goal.

Some people would respond to what I just said by saying something along the lines of "Of course it wouldn't matter if no one was on earth, but don't be ridiculous - be practical." My response to that is that in discussing things like this, it's important to be very precise with what you say. Because a lot of disagreement comes from arguing over semantics, which comes from bad communication.

I have absolutely no idea if this happiness with a leisurely lifestyle is something I can maintain or not.

The good thing is that a) this is a testable question that you'll get more and more evidence for as time progresses, and b) you can easily adjust the extent to which you pursue ambitions. It's not like you have to decide once and for all now (not to imply you don't know that, just saying).

My guess is that you will be able to maintain your happiness.

a) The happiness set point theory seems rather accurate (my reason for thinking this is mostly based on anecdotal evidence, not on reading much into the research).

b) Anecdotally, it also seems to me that the "need to be ambitious" is also pretty set in stone. Ie. You know if you're one of those people, and you know somewhat early in life. I don't know of many 40 year olds who suddenly develop an irresistible urge to do something ambitious. Note: in HPMOR the distinction between having ambition and being ambitious is made.

Maybe my lack of ambition was just from the way I was raised (in my family, we all bragged about acing tests with no outside study, about never having homework, about never doing assigned readings, about skipping class to hang out in the rec room, etc.. kinda pathetic, in hindsight).

That's amazing! I hated school and did a lot of rebellious things out of spite. Back to that alternate universe again... I wish my family was like that. One of my favorite rebellious things was that I refused to do some AP Micro project at the end of the year because I was already in college, getting a zero would only bring my grade from an A to a B, and economics is all about incentives, so it just felt too right to boycott the project on those grounds.

Probability of success? Good question. No idea, again this is very fuzzy since I don't even know where I would start; it's just not something I've thought about much.

With respect, this seems like an ugh field (a more specific instance of what you said was a broader ugh field). P(success) seems like it plays a big role in whether or not you decide to be ambitious. I'm not sure though - if you thought you had a, say >50% chance of having a big impact on the world, would you then want to be ambitious?

If P(success) does indeed play a big role, I think it'd be a good idea to take an idea and give a real honest effort at seeing if you could "solve the puzzle". Try to break it down into it's components. What would have to happen in order for you to succeed? Break those components down further and ask the same question, etc. Honestly, try doing this for 5-10 ideas.

After doing this, you should have a much better sense of what P(success) is. Which has two benefits: 1) increases the chances you make the right decision as to whether or not to be ambitious, 2) will make you feel more confident in your decision, and perhaps more "at peace"/less likely to feel any sort of guilt.

How altruistic am I, really? I don't know. I'm still going through the repercussions of my deconversion. Right now, the amount of caring I have for people in the world is relative to the amount I used to have as a Christian.

Very understandable.

Now that eternity/an afterlife is out of the picture for me

WOAH!!! Slow down there :)

I really don't want to die and am really hoping that I won't have to. And I plan on doing what I can to avoid it. A lot of people here think similarly, and there seems to be reason to hope.

A lot of people are hopeful that we might not have to die. There's the possibility of cryonics working out, anti-aging research, AI (<- a very clear introduction to AI if you don't know much about it). And there's even the possibility that we have no clue how consciousness really works and that there is indeed an afterlife. Note that I used the word possible. I don't know how probable these things are. This talks a bit about it.

Maybe there's a subconscious tendency to go along with the mainstream views on LW just because almost everyone here is so good at thinking and rational people usually tend to agree with other rational people.

I think there is. But note the distinctions between types of conformity. Part of it is sensible. The fact that other smart people believe something to be true is evidence that it's true (in that it increases the likelihood that it's true). And so it makes sense to adjust your beliefs accordingly. The real question is "how much should you adjust your beliefs".

As for the bad types of conformity, I think it exists here too. My judgement is that it's moderately less than average.

It's tempting to just trust that the ideas around here are all things I can agree with and understand, just because I've agreed with almost everything I've read so far

I can definitely empathize with that. Discovering LW was one of the best things that's ever happened to me. I had that same sense of agreeing with almost everything I was reading, and it was really really nice to hear the thoughts articulated so well.

I guess I just have to be cautious, keep putting in the effort of thinking for myself, and remember that LW is a (wonderful) resource, not a bible.

Always :)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-13T19:53:21.479Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You know it's funny, I've never thought about this before, but I actually would like for the earth to stay beautiful, even if there are no humans around to enjoy it. Feeling such a strong attachment to the earth makes me think that I empathize a bit too much with Kaczynski... which got me thinking about psychopathic tendencies, and after looking them up, I realized I borderline have many of them. I'm not really too worried about myself, but this got me back to morality again. Psychopaths are probably quite rational about pursuing their own personal terminal goals. You can't say they're doing anything wrong, can you? Is there anything you can really say to convince a rational psychopath who is smart enough to get away unpunished for his actions to act in a way that is better for society?

Anyway, yeah, I think you're right that I could maintain my happiness. I'll probably continue in this "phase" of life another 2-3 years at least, enjoy my free time, do a lot of reading, and start thinking harder about what to do with the rest of my life. My back-up plan is to become a cop/detective in the Bay Area, which would be somewhat physically and mentally engaging, offer great hours and benefits, allow me to retire on pension after 25 years, and pay enough that I would probably end up donating more than 10%... a fun, comfortable, guilt-free life, but definitely not something that would change the world or leave me filling immensely fulfilled. So, I'll take your suggestion and try to work out the pieces to the puzzle for a few more ambitious ideas.

A distinction between being ambitious and having ambition? Wow, I think I'm going to love that book.

One of my favorite rebellious things was that I refused to do some AP Micro project at the end of the year because I was already in college, getting a zero would only bring my grade from an A to a B, and economics is all about incentives

Yes!! Haha I did the same thing, when it came to final exams, some people would calculate the score they needed to bump their grades up one notch, but for me, every year, every class, even in college, my question was "What's the lowest score I can get and still get an A in the class?" If I knew I would get a C without studying, or I could do a quick 15 minute review and get an A, I wouldn't even do it. The effort I put into classes also correlated with how harsh a grader the teacher was. I actually had one teacher who believed in grading students according to their effort rather than according to their ability/final product compared to the rest of the class. I hated it, but in hindsight, I would have gotten a lot more out of school if all teachers had done that.

You're right about the probability of success being an ugh field. I like your idea about solving puzzles and high probabilities of success. I'll try breaking some ideas down, someday. Obviously higher P(success) correlates with a stronger desire to do something ambitious, but even if it were >50%, I would still be selfish enough to consider doing my own thing.

2) will make you feel more confident in your decision, and perhaps more "at peace"/less likely to feel any sort of guilt.

Either that or...well, you know. Maybe this is why it's an ugh field. I'm too happy living my leisurely life and subconsciously fear that if I find a high probability of success, I won't change anything, but will feel a more substantial amount of guilt.

Anyway, I found Scott's post about comparative advantage interesting and relevant. It was the first SSC post I read, which made me read tons of the archived posts, which eventually led me here. I know my strengths and weaknesses, but I really wish I knew my comparative advantage. Even if I did know, though, what if it wasn't nearly as fun as nannying? The post ends:

If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

God is definitely convenient here.

I really don't want to die and am really hoping that I won't have to. And I plan on doing what I can to avoid it. A lot of people here think similarly, and there seems to be reason to hope.

Oh, yeah! Not dying would be cool! I haven't read much about it yet, but I'm encouraged by the fact that people here are so hopeful. Right now, when I think about people dying and turning to dust, I think it sounds great, but really that's only relative to thinking about people dying and going to hell. Edit: I read the AI article you linked, and the part 2 afterwards, and it made the whole AI idea seem a lot more concrete/probable/exciting. Thanks! It makes me wonder, though, is it selfish to work on AI? The people working on it will die if they don't succeed, so personally they have nothing to lose even if they accidentally cause an early extinction of the human race. Then again, if we assume our eventual extinction is inevitable without AI, the overall risk-reward ratio favors research. Maybe I should consider giving some/all of my donations to MIRI. Thanks for bringing this all to my attention. Figuring out what I consider to be the probability of immortality should probably be more urgent than figuring out the probability of success in pursuing ambition, and like you mention, there will probably be some relation between the two.

The fact that other smart people believe something to be true is evidence that it's true (in that it increases the likelihood that it's true)

Yeah, this is intuitive. But I think we should be careful here not to look at an idea and ask, "What % of people who believe this are smart?" because the real question is, "Out of all the smart people who have seriously considered this idea, what % believe it?" It may be that some ideas are considered mainly by smart people, which would explain why a high percentage of people believing them are smart.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-13T21:48:09.716Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Psychopaths are probably quite rational about pursuing their own personal terminal goals.

I doubt it. In my experience, the average person is quite stupid. My thought is that the fact that they're a sociopath means that they have different goals, but not necessarily that they're more instrumentally rational (better at achieving your goals, whatever they are).

You can't say they're doing anything wrong, can you?

No, but I can say that I don't like them :)

Is there anything you can really say to convince a rational psychopath who is smart enough to get away unpunished for his actions to act in a way that is better for society?

Interesting question. If they genuinely prefer to cause harm to people, and if they really are instrumentally rational enough to only do things that help them achieve their goals, then no. But altruistic acts are one of the biggest correlates of happiness in normal people, so perhaps their psychopathy isn't set in stone and they could be convinced that there's a way to achieve more happiness.

allow me to retire on pension after 25 years

You may need a lot less money to retire than you'd think. Depending on how much you spend. The author argues (throughout the site) that a lot of spending is on essentially status-related goods, and that spending money on free time (indirectly) and security is more likely to lead to happiness (if you're the right type of person, but I sense that you are).

Anyway, I found Scott's post about comparative advantage interesting and relevant.

My thoughts on this are a bit unconventional. Most people use the term intelligence to refer to things like aptitude, working memory size and ability to remember things. I think that those things are overrated and that the ability to break things down like a reductionist is underrated. I started to write about it here, but am having trouble. I welcome any feedback (if you have any thoughts, please use Medium's side comments, it's really useful)

People used to ask me for writing advice. And I, in all earnestness, would say “Just transcribe your thoughts onto paper exactly like they sound in your head.” (from article)

Yes! Well, I think it's an oversimplification, but I very much agree with the direction of the advice. I hate formality. In school they give you all of these rules about how to write, and these rules seem to take you further and further away from how you actually speak. I always thought that these rules were bad, and I rebelled and got only average grades in writing even though I think I'm an amazing writer :)

Specifically, it’s whether I can say “No, I’m really not cut out to be Elon Musk” and go do something else I’m better at without worrying that I’m killing everyone in Canada.

That seems to be the central point the article is about, and also sort of what we're talking about. I actually don't even think there's that much to say. When I dissolve the topic, all I see is:

  1. Innate ability is a determinant of the EV of you pursuing an ambition. (How much so is a different topic)
  2. Different paths have different EV's of how much good they'll do. The paths you choose reflect your preference ratios.
  3. When I dissolve things like morality, all I see are preference ratios. And so once you know what your path choice says about your preference ratios, I don't feel like there's a leftover question of "but is it moral?".

I could add a lot of qualifiers to 1, 2 and 3, but I think you get what I'm saying so I won't.

Re: comparative advantage

It seems to me that people don't apply EV when calculating comparative advantages. Ie. they think about how much output they could generate right now rather than how much output they could be expected to generate over a period of time.

I'm a big believer that the ceiling of peoples' abilities is much higher than they think, and so taking this into account, my calculations of EV tend to be higher. Like, to people who say that they can't contribute to existential risk reduction, I'd say "How much do you think you could contribute if you studied really hard for 20 years?". And in calculating EV's for things like existential risk reduction, I think people fall victim to scope insensitivity. Even if you don't have a great chance at contributing, the magnitude of impact that a contribution would have is soooo great that it probably still leads to a high overall EV. Depending on preference ratios of course.

but really that's only relative to thinking about people dying and going to hell

I'm sorry you thought that. I can't imagine how horrifying that must be.

Edit: I read the AI article you linked, and the part 2 afterwards, and it made the whole AI idea seem a lot more concrete/probable/exciting

:) It was somewhat life changing for me. I actually understood it. Before reading that I just read a few things on LW, and didn't really understand it.

It makes me wonder, though, is it selfish to work on AI?

Yes! I think that selfishness is a huge component of the benefit of working on AI. After all you are one of the people who would benefit, and you have a lot to gain/lose. People don't seem to acknowledge this. But you would also be helping billions of currently living people, and bajillions of yet-to-be-born people, so for those reasons it's an incomprehensibly altruistic thing to do.

The people working on it will die if they don't succeed, so personally they have nothing to lose even if they accidentally cause an early extinction of the human race. Then again, if we assume our eventual extinction is inevitable without AI, the overall risk-reward ratio favors research.

I'm confused. If you assume that dying is bad, you have a lot to lose (proportional to the badness of dying). Are you considering death to be a neutral event?

Maybe I should consider giving some/all of my donations to MIRI.

To me that seems like a great option. Others seem to think so as well. Personally I don't know nearly enough about AI or the other options to be able to say with even moderate confidence.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T05:14:46.477Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt it. In my experience, the average person is quite stupid.

Okay, yeah, I should have added the word some. Kaczynski is the only psychopath I've really read much about, so maybe I really did extrapolate his seeming rationality onto other psychopaths, even though we probably never hear about 99% of them. That would have to be some kind of bias; out of curiosity how would you label it? Maybe survivorship bias? Or availability heuristic? Anchoring? Or maybe even all of the above?

You may need a lot less money to retire than you'd think.

Believe me, I know. Even without trying to save money, I actually end up spending less on myself (excluding having paid for college) than on charity. Free hobbies are great. I didn't mean a pension was a reason to become a detective; it would just be a nice perk. Thanks for the link, though. Lots of good articles on that site!

Most people use the term intelligence to refer to things like aptitude, working memory size and ability to remember things. I think that those things are overrated and that the ability to break things down like a reductionist is underrated.

Well, I'm biased in favor of this idea, since I have an awful memory, but a pretty good ability (sometimes too good for my own good) to break things down like a reductionist and dissolve topics. I'll check out your post tomorrow and try to give some feedback.

even though I think I'm an amazing writer :)

I think so too!

I actually don't even think there's that much to say.

Nope, there's really not, but another thing I've realized from reading SSC is that a major component of great writing (and teaching) is the sharing of relevant, interesting, relatable examples to help an idea. If you skillfully parse through an idea, the audience will probably understand it at the time. But if you want the idea to actually sink in and stick with them, great examples are key. This is one reason I like Scott's posts so much; they actually affect my life. Personally, I was borderline cocky when I was younger (but followed social norms and concealed it). Then, I got older and started to read more and more, moved to the Bay Area, and met loads of smart people. Because of this, my self-esteem began to plummet, but I read that article just in time to stabilize it at a healthy, realistic level.

Anyway, Scott allows people to go easy on themselves for contributing less to the world than they might like, relative to their innate ability. Can we also go easy on ourselves relative to innate conscientiousness?

people fall victim to scope insensitivity

Yeah, this is sooo real. On a logical level, it's easy to recognize my scope insensitivity. On a "feeling" level, I still don't feel like I have to go out and do something about it. But I don't want to admit my preference ratios are that far out of whack; I don't want to be that selfish. Ugh. Now I feel like I should do something ambitious again, I'm so waffley about this. Thanks for all the help thinking through everything. This is BY FAR the best guidance anyone has ever given me in my life.

I'm confused. If you assume that dying is bad, you have a lot to lose (proportional to the badness of dying). Are you considering death to be a neutral event?

No... sorry, I was just working through my first thoughts about the idea, not making a meaningful point. Continuing on the selfishness idea, all I meant was that the researchers themselves would surely die eventually without AI, so even if AI made the world end a few years earlier for them, they personally have nothing to lose relative to what they could gain (dying a few years earlier vs. living forever). My first thought was "that's selfish, in a bad way, since they care less than the bajillions of still unborn people would about whether humans go extinct" but then I extrapolated the idea that the researcher would die without AI to the idea that humanity would eventually go extinct without AI and decided it was selfish in a good way.

Anyway, another question for you. You know how you said we care only about our own happiness? Have you read the part of the sequences/rationality book where Eliezer brings up someone being willing to die for someone else? If so, what did you make of it? If not, I'll go back and find exactly where it was.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-15T14:40:26.192Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Kaczynski is the only psychopath I've really read much about, so maybe I really did extrapolate his seeming rationality onto other psychopaths

I don't know too much about him other than the basics ("he argued that his bombings were extreme but necessary to attract attention to the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technologies requiring large-scale organization").

I think that his concerns are valid, but I don't see how the bombings help him achieve the goal of bumping humanity off that path. Perhaps he knew he'd get caught and his manifesto would get attention, but a) there's still a better way to achieve his goals, and b) he should have realized that people have a strong bias against serial killers.

The reason I think his concerns are valid is because capitalism tries to optimize for wanting, which is sometimes quite different from liking. And anecdotally, this seems to be a big problem.

That would have to be some kind of bias; out of curiosity how would you label it? Maybe survivorship bias? Or availability heuristic? Anchoring? Or maybe even all of the above?

I'm not sure what the bias is called :/. I know it exists and there's a formal name though. I know because I remember someone calling me out on it LWSH :)

Nope, there's really not, but another thing I've realized from reading SSC is that a major component of great writing (and teaching) is the sharing of relevant, interesting, relatable examples to help an idea.

Yes, I very much agree. At times I think the articles on LW fail to do this. Humans need to have their System 1's massaged in order to understand things intuitively.

Anyway, Scott allows people to go easy on themselves for contributing less to the world than they might like, relative to their innate ability. Can we also go easy on ourselves relative to innate conscientiousness?

Idk. This seems to be a question involving terminal goals. Ie. if you're asking whether our innate conscientiousness makes us "good" or "bad".

When I think of morality this is the/one question I think of: "What are the rules we'd ask people to follow in order to promote the happiest society possible?". I'm sure you could nitpick at that, but it should be sufficient for this conversation. Example: the law against killing is good because if we didn't have it, society would be worse off. Similarly, there are norms of certain preference ratios that lead to society being better off.

I don't think we'd be better off if the norm was to have, say equal preference ratios for everyone in the world. Doing so is very unnatural would be very difficult, if not impossible. You have to weigh the costs of going against our impulses against the benefits that marginal conscientiousness would bring.

I'm not sure where the "equilibrium" points are. Honestly, I think I'd be lying to myself if I said that a preference ratio of 1,000,000,000:1 for you over another human would be overall beneficial to society. I suspect that subsequent generations will realize this and look at us in a similar way we look at Nazis (maybe not that bad, but still pretty bad). Morality seems to "evolve" from generation to generation.

Personally, my preference ratios are pretty bad. Not as bad as the average person because I'm less scope insensitive, but still bad. Ex. I eat out once in a while. You might say "oh well that's reasonable". But I could eat brown rice and frozen vegetables for very cheap and be like 70% as satisfied, and pay for x meals for people that are quite literally starving.

But I continue to eat out once in a while, and honestly, I don't feel (that) bad about it. Because I accept that my preference ratios are where they are (pretty much), and I think it makes sense for me to pursue the goal of achieving my preferences. To be less precise and more blunt, "I accept that I'm selfish".

And so to answer your question:

Can we also go easy on ourselves relative to innate conscientiousness?

I think that the answer is yes. Main reason: because it's unreasonable to expect that you change your ratios much.

Yeah, this is sooo real. On a logical level, it's easy to recognize my scope insensitivity. On a "feeling" level, I still don't feel like I have to go out and do something about it.

It's great that you understand it on a logical level. No one has made much progress on the feeling level. As long as you're aware of the bias and make an effort to massage your "feeling level" towards being more accurate, you should be fine.

But I don't want to admit my preference ratios are that far out of whack; I don't want to be that selfish.

Why?

I think that answering that exploring and answering that question will be helpful.

Try thinking about it in two ways:

1) A rational analysis of what you genuinely think makes sense. Note that rational does not mean completely logically.

2) An emotional analysis of what you feel, why you feel it, and in the event that your feelings aren't accurate, how can you nudge them to be more accurate.

This is BY FAR the best guidance anyone has ever given me in my life.

Wow! Thanks for letting me know. I'm really happy to help. I've been really impressed with your ability to pursue things, even when it's uncomfortable. It's a really important ability and most people don't have it.

I think that not having that ability is often a bottleneck that prevents progress. Ex. an average person with that ability can probably make much more progress than a high IQ person without it (in some ways). It's nice to have a conversation that actually progresses along nicely.

Anyway, another question for you. You know how you said we care only about our own happiness? Have you read the part of the sequences/rationality book where Eliezer brings up someone being willing to die for someone else? If so, what did you make of it? If not, I'll go back and find exactly where it was.

I think I have. I remember it being one of the few instances where it seemed to me that Eliezer was misguided. Although:

1) I remember going through it quickly and not giving it nearly as much thought as I would like. I'm content enough with my current understanding, and busy enough with other stuff that I chose to put it off until later. Although I do notice confusion - I very well may just be procrastinating.

2) I have tremendous respect for Eliezer. And so I definitely take note of his conclusions. The following thoughts are a bit dark and I hesitate to mention them... but:

a) Consider the possibility that he does actually agree with me, but he thinks that what he wrote will have a more positive impact on humanity (by influencing readers)

b) In the case that he really does believe what he writes, consider that it may not be best to convince him otherwise. Ie. he seems to be a very influential person in the field of FAI, and it's very much in humanities interest for that person to be unselfish.

I haven't thought this through enough to make these points public, so please take note of that. Also, if you wouldn't mind summarizing/linking to where and why he disagrees with me, I'd very much appreciate it.

Edit: Relevant excerpt from HPMOR

They both laughed, then Harry turned serious again. "The Sorting Hat did seem to think I was going to end up as a Dark Lord unless I went to Hufflepuff," Harry said. "But I don't want to be one."

"Mr. Potter..." said Professor Quirrell. "Don't take this the wrong way. I promise you will not be graded on the answer. I only want to know your own, honest reply. Why not?"

Harry had that helpless feeling again. Thou shalt not become a Dark Lord was such an obvious theorem in his moral system that it was hard to describe the actual proof steps. "Um, people would get hurt?"

"Surely you've wanted to hurt people," said Professor Quirrell. "You wanted to hurt those bullies today. Being a Dark Lord means that people you want to hurt get hurt."

Sorry, I feel like I'm linking to too many things which probably feels overwhelming. Don't feel like you have to read anything. Just thought I'd give you the option.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-15T21:06:52.372Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

b) he should have realized that people have a strong bias against serial killers.

Yeah, this was irrational. He should have remembered his terminal value of creating change instead of focusing on his instrumental value of getting as many people as possible to read his manifesto. -gives self a little pat on back for using new terminology-

The reason I think his concerns are valid is because capitalism tries to optimize for wanting

Could you please elaborate on this idea a little? Anyway, thanks for the link (don't apologize for linking so much, I love the links and read through and try to digest about 80% of them...). The liking/wanting difference is intuitive, but actually putting it into words is really helpful. I'm interested in exactly how you tie it in with Kaczynski, and I also think it's relevant to my current dilemma.

Anyway, Scott's example about smoking makes it seem as if people want to smoke but don't like it. I think it's the opposite; they like smoking, but don't want to smoke. Do I really have these two words backwards? We need definitions. I think "liking" has more to do with your preferences, while "wanting" has to do with your goals. I recognize in myself, that if I like something, it's very hard for me not to want it, and personally I find matrix-type philosophy questions to actually be difficult. That's why I've never tried smoking; I was scared I might like it and start to want it. Without having tried it, it's easy to say that it's not what I want for myself. Is this only because I think it would bring me less happiness in the long run? I don't think so. Even if you told me with certainty that smoking (or drugs) feels so incredibly good and is so incredibly fun that it could bring me happiness that outweighs the unhappiness caused by the bad stuff, I still wouldn't want it! And I have no idea why. Which makes me wonder... what if I had never experienced how wonderful a fun-filled mostly-hedonic lifestyle is? Would I truly want it? Or am I just addicted?

You might say "oh well that's reasonable". But I could eat brown rice and frozen vegetables for very cheap and be like 70% as satisfied, and pay for x meals for people that are quite literally starving.

Funny that you mention this example; I wouldn't say it's reasonable. Let me share a little story. When I was way younger, maybe 10 years ago, I went through a brief phase where I tried to convince my friends and family that eating at restaurants was wrong, saying "What if there were children in pain from starvation right outside the restaurant, and you knew the money you would spend in the restaurant could buy them rice and beans for two weeks... you would feel guilty about eating at the restaurant instead of helping, right? ("yes") This is your conscience, right? ("yes") Your conscience is from God, right? ("yes") People in Africa are just as important as people in the US, right? ("yes") Therefore, isn't wrong to eat at a restaurant instead of donating the money to help starving kids in Africa? ("no") Why? ("it just isn't!")... at which point they would insist that if I truly believed this was wrong, I should act accordingly, and I just told them "No, I can't, I'm too selfish... and besides, saving eternal souls is more important than feeding starving children." Then I looked at all the smart, unselfish adults I knew who still ate at restaurants, told myself I must be wrong somehow, and avoided thinking about the issue until we read Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality in college (In my final semester, this was the class where it first occurred to me that there was nothing wrong with putting effort into school beyond what was necessary for perfect grades). I was really excited when we read it and was eagerly anticipating discussing it the next class to finally hear if someone could give a solid refutation of my old idea. My professor cancelled class that day, and we never went back to the topic. I cared, but unfortunately not quite enough to go talk to my professor outside of class. That was for nerds. So I went on believing it was "wrong" to eat in restaurants, but to protect my sanity, didn't think about it or do anything about it, even after de-converting from Christianity... until I came across Scott's post Nobody Is Perfect, Everything is Commensurable which seems incredibly obvious in hindsight, yet was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.

I don't think we'd be better off if the norm was to have, say equal preference ratios for everyone in the world.

I disagree. I think we would be better off if society could somehow advance to a stage where such unselfishness was the norm. Whether this is possible is another question entirely, but I keep trying to rid myself of the habit of thinking natural = better (personally, I see this habit as another effect of Christianity; I'm continually amazed to find just how much of my worldview it shaped).

I think that answering that exploring and answering [Why don't I want selfish preference ratios?] will be helpful.

I want to answer this question with "because emotion!" Is this allowed? Or is it akin to "explaining" something by calling it an emergent phenomenon?

1) Rationally, I can't trace this back any farther than calling it a feeling. Was I born with this feeling? Is it the result of society? I don't know. I don't honestly think unselfish preference ratios would lead to a personal increase in my overall happiness, that's for sure. Take effective altruism, for example. When I donate money, I don't feel warm and fuzzy. I get a very small amount of personal satisfaction, societal respect, and a tiny reduction in the (already very small) guilt I feel for having such a good life. But honestly I rarely think about it, and I'm 99.99% sure the overall impact on my happiness is much smaller than if I were to use the money to fly to Guatemala and take a few weeks' vacation to visit old friends. Yet, even as I acknowledge this, I still want to donate. I don't know why. So I think that based solely on my intuition here, I might disagree with you and find personal happiness and altruism to be two separate terminal goals, often harmonious but sometimes conflicting.

2) Analyze emotion?? Can you do that?! As an istp, just identifying emotion is difficult enough.

As for your points about Eliezer...

a) Yeah, I have considered this too. But I think most of his audience is rational enough that if he said something that wasn't rational, his credibility could take a hit. Whether this would stop him and how much of a consequentialist he really is, I have no idea.

b) Yeah, this is an interesting microcosm of the issue of whether we want to believe what is true vs. what is best for society. That said, I'm not saying Eliezer is wrong. My intuition does take his side now, but I usually don't trust my intuitions very much.

Anyway, I went back through the book and found the title of the post. It's Terminal Values and Instrumental Values. You can jump to "Consider the philosopher."

Harry had that helpless feeling again. Thou shalt not become a Dark Lord was such an obvious theorem in his moral system that it was hard to describe the actual proof steps. "Um, people would get hurt?"

"Surely you've wanted to hurt people," said Professor Quirrell. "You wanted to hurt those bullies today. Being a Dark Lord means that people you want to hurt get hurt."

Good quote! Right now, I interpret this as showing how personal happiness and "altruism/not becoming a Dark Lord" are both inexplicable, perhaps sometimes competing terminal values... how do you interpret it?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-16T01:32:08.787Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you please elaborate on this idea a little? ... I'm interested in exactly how you tie it in with Kaczynski, and I also think it's relevant to my current dilemma.

Sure!

In brief: Kaczynski seems to have realized that economies are driven by wanting, not liking, and that this will lead to unhappiness. I think that that conclusion is too strong though - I'd just say that it'll lead to inefficiency.

Longer explanation: ok, so the economy is pretty much driven by what people choose to buy, and where people choose to work. People aren't always so good at making these choices. One reason is because they don't actually know what will make them happy.

  • Example: job satisfaction is important. There are lots of subtle things that influence job satisfaction. For example, there's something about things like farming that produces satisfaction and contentment. People don't value these things enough -> these jobs disappear -> people miss out on the opportunity to be satisfied and content.

Another reason why people aren't good at making choices is because they don't always have the willpower to do what they know they should.

  • Example: if people were smart, McDonalds wouldn't be the huge empire that it is. People choose to eat at McDonalds because they don't weigh the consequences it has on their future selves enough. The reason why McDonalds is huge is because tons of people make these mistakes. If people were smart, MealSquares and McDonalds would be flip-flopped.

Kaczynski seems to focus more on the first example, but I think they're both important. Economies are driven by the decisions we make. Given the predictable mistakes people make, society will suffer in predictable ways. Kaczynski seems to have realized this.

I avoided using the terms "wanting" and "liking" on purpose. I'll just say quickly words are just symbols that refer to things and as long as the two people are using the same symbol-thing mappings, it doesn't matter. What's important is that you seem to understand the distinction between the two things as far as wanting/liking goes. I do see what you mean about the term "wanting", and now that I think about it I agree with you.

(I've avoided elaboration and qualifiers in favor of conciseness and clarity. Let me know if you want me to say more.)

Edit: I'm about 95% sure that there's actual neuroscience research behind the wanting vs. liking thing. Ie. they've found distinct a brain area that corresponds to wanting, and they've found a different distinct brain area that corresponds to liking.

Note: I studied neuroscience in college. I did research in a lab where we studied vision in monkeys, and part of this involved stimulating the monkeys brain. There was a point where we were able to get the monkey to basically make any eye movement we want (based on where and how much we stimulated). It didn't provide me with any new information as far as free will goes, but literally seeing it in person with my own eyes influenced me on an emotional level.

That's why I've never tried smoking; I was scared I might like it and start to want it.

Interesting, I've never smoked, drank or done any drugs at all for similar reasons. Well, that's part of the story.

Would I truly want it? Or am I just addicted?

I'm going to guess that the reason why you wouldn't want to do drugs even if you knew they'd make you happy is because a) it'd sort of numb you away from thinking critically and making decisions, and b) you wouldn't get to do good for the world. Your current lifestyle doesn't seem to be preventing you from doing either of those.

"What if there were children in pain from starvation right outside the restaurant, and you knew the money you would spend in the restaurant could buy them rice and beans for two weeks... you would feel guilty about eating at the restaurant instead of helping, right?

:) I've proposed the same thought experiment except with buying diamonds. Eg. "Imagine that you go to the diamond store to buy a diamond, and there were x thousand starving kids in the parking lot who you could save if you spent the money on them instead. Would you still buy the diamond?"

And in the case of diamonds, it's not only a) the opportunity cost of doing good with the money - it's that b) you're supporting an inhumane organization and c) you're being victim to a ridiculous marketing scheme that gets you to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a shiny rock. The post Diamonds are Bullshit on Priceonomics is great.

Furthermore, people do a, b and c in the name of love. To me, that seems about as anti-love as it gets. Sorry, this is a pet peeve of mine. It's amazing how far you could push a human away from what's sensible. If I had an online dating profile, I think it'd be, "If you still think you'd want a diamond after reading this, then I hate you. If not, let's talk."

I know I haven't acknowledged the main counterargument, which is that the sacrifice is a demonstration of commitment, but there are ways of doing that without doing a, b and c.

Why? ("it just isn't!")

That sort of thinking baffles me as well. I've tried to explain to my parents what a cost-benefit analysis is... and they just don't get it. This post has been of moderate help to me because I understood what virtue ethics are after reading it (and I never understood what it is before reading it)

People who say "it just isn't" don't think in terms of cost-benefit analyses. They just have ideas about what is and isn't virtuous. As people like us have figured out, if you follow these virtues blindly, you'll run into ridiculousness and/or inconsistency.

However, this isn't to say that virtue-driven thinking doesn't have it's uses. Like all heuristics, they trade accuracy for speed, which sometimes is a worthy trade-off.

I disagree. I think we would be better off if society could somehow advance to a stage where such unselfishness was the norm.

I'm glad to hear you disagree :) But I sense that I may not have explained what I think and why I think it. If you could just flip a switch and make everyone have equal preference ratios, I think that'd probably be a good thing.

What I'm trying to say is that there is no switch, and that making our preference ratios more equal would be very difficult. Ex. try to make yourself care as much about a random accountant in China as much as you do about, say your Aunt. As far as cost-benefit analysis goes, the effort and unease of doing this would be a cost. I sense that the costs aren't always worth the benefits, and that given this, it's socially optimal for us to accept our uneven preference ratios to some extent. Thoughts?

Good quote! Right now, I interpret this as showing how personal happiness and "altruism/not becoming a Dark Lord" are both inexplicable, perhaps sometimes competing terminal values... how do you interpret it?

I interpret it as "Harry seems to think there are good reasons for choosing certain terminal values. Terminal values seem arbitrary to me."

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-17T06:08:28.369Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

(I've avoided elaboration and qualifiers in favor of conciseness and clarity. Let me know if you want me to say more.)

Nope, your longer explanation was perfect, and now I understand, thanks. I'm just a little curious why you would say those things lead to inefficiency instead of unhappiness, but you don't have to elaborate any more here unless you feel like it.

Well, that's part of the story.

Again, now I'm slightly curious about the rest of it...

I'm going to guess that the reason why you wouldn't want to do drugs even if you knew they'd make you happy is because a) it'd sort of numb you away from thinking critically and making decisions, and b) you wouldn't get to do good for the world. Your current lifestyle doesn't seem to be preventing you from doing either of those.

Good guess. You're right. But (I initially thought) smoking would hardly prevent those things, and I still don't want to smoke. Then again, addiction could interfere with a), and the opportunity cost of buying cigarettes could interfere with b).

I've proposed the same thought experiment except with buying diamonds.

No way! A while back, I facebook-shared a very similar link about the ridiculousness of the diamond marketing scheme and proposed various alternatives to spending money on a diamond ring. I wasn't even aware that the organization was inhumane.. yikes, information like that should be common knowledge. Also, probably at least some people don't really want to get a diamond ring... but by the time the relationship gets serious, they can't get themselves to bring it up (girls don't want to be presumptuous, guys don't want to risk a conflict?) so yeah, definitely a good kind of thing to get out of the way in a dating profile, haha.

This post has been of moderate help to me because I understood what virtue ethics are after reading it.

Wow, that's so interesting, I'd never heard of virtue ethics before. I have many thoughts/questions about this, but let's save that conversation for another day so my brain doesn't suffer an overuse injury. My inner virtue-ethicist wants to become a more thoughtful person, but I know myself well enough to know that if I dive into all this stuff head first, it will just end up to be "a weird thinking phase I went through once" and instrumentally, I want to be thoughtful because of my terminal value of caring about the world. (My gut reaction: Virtues are really just instrumental values that make life convenient for people whose terminal values are unclear/intimidating. (Like how the author of the link chose loyalty as a virtue. I bet we could find a situation in which she would abandon that loyalty.) But I also think that there's a place for cost-benefit analysis even within virtue ethics, and that virtue ethicists with thoughtfully-chosen virtues can be more efficient consequentialists, which probably doesn't make much sense, but I'd like to be both, please!)

If you could just flip a switch and make everyone have equal preference ratios, I think that'd probably be a good thing...it's socially optimal for us to accept our uneven preference ratios to some extent. Thoughts?

Oh, yeah, that makes sense to me. Kind of like capitalism, it seems to work better in practice if we just acknowledge human nature. But gradually, as a society, we can shift the preference ratios a bit, and I think we maybe are. :) We can point to a decrease in imperialism, the budding effective altruism movement, or even veganism's growing popularity as examples of this shifting preference ratio.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-17T22:51:46.522Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Nope, your longer explanation was perfect, and now I understand, thanks. I'm just a little curious why you would say those things lead to inefficiency instead of unhappiness, but you don't have to elaborate any more here unless you feel like it.

I didn't mean anything deep by that. Inefficiency just means "less than optimal" (or at least that's what I mean by it). For him to say that it will lead to actual unhappiness would mean that the costs are so great that they overcome any associated benefits and push whatever our default state is down until it reaches actual unhappiness. I suspect that the forces aren't strong enough to push us too far off our happiness "set points".

Again, now I'm slightly curious about the rest of it...

Just did a write up here. How convenient.

I wasn't even aware that the organization was inhumane.. yikes

Yeah, it is. Check out the movie Blood Diamond and the song Conflict Diamonds. Not the most formal sources, but at least it'll be entertaining :)

Re: virtue ethics

It seems that you don't want to think about this now. If you end up thinking about it in the future, let me know - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T01:15:29.674Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just did a write up here. How convenient.

I like your point about being afraid/ashamed to do something and the two cases in general and with regard to drinking as a social lubricant.

I'll post my drinking experience over there too, though I don't have too much to say.

Not the most formal sources, but at least it'll be entertaining :)

Haha, ok

It seems that you don't want to think about this now. If you end up thinking about it in the future, let me know - I'd love to hear your thoughts!

How convenient. I thought about it a bit more after all. I actually still like my initial idea of virtues being instrumental values. I commented on the link you sent me, but a lot of my comment is similar to what I commented here yesterday...

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T02:42:03.122Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I actually still like my initial idea of virtues being instrumental values.

As a consequentialist, that's how I'm inclined to think of it too. But I think it's important to remember that non-consequentialists actually think of virtues as having intrinsic value. Of being virtuous.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-16T01:22:27.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

For reference:

But I don't want to admit my preference ratios are that far out of whack; I don't want to be that selfish.

Why?

I think that exploring and answering that question will be helpful.

Try thinking about it in two ways:

1) A rational analysis of what you genuinely think makes sense. Note that rational does not mean completely logically.

2) An emotional analysis of what you feel, why you feel it, and in the event that your feelings aren't accurate, how can you nudge them to be more accurate.

You:

I want to answer this question with "because emotion!" Is this allowed?

Also:

Analyze emotion?? Can you do that?! As an istp, just identifying emotion is difficult enough.

Absolutely! That's how I'd start off. But the question I was getting at is "why does your brain produce those emotions". What is the evolutionary psychology behind it? What events in your life have conditioned you to produce this emotion?

By default, I think it's natural to give a lot of weight to your emotions and be driven by them. But once you really understand where they come from, I think it's easier to give them a more appropriate weight, and consequently, to better achieve your goals. (1,2,3)

And you could manipulate your emotions too. Examples: You'll be less motivated to go to the gym if you lay down on the couch. You'll be more motivated to go to the gym if you tell your friends that you plan on going to the gym every day for a month.

So I think that based solely on my intuition here, I might disagree with you and find personal happiness and altruism to be two separate terminal goals, often harmonious but sometimes conflicting.

So you don't think terminal goals are arbitrary? Or are you just proclaiming what yours are?

Edit:

But honestly I rarely think about it, and I'm 99.99% sure the overall impact on my happiness is much smaller than if I were to use the money to fly to Guatemala and take a few weeks' vacation to visit old friends. Yet, even as I acknowledge this, I still want to donate. I don't know why.

Are you sure that this has nothing to do with maximizing happiness? Perhaps the reason why you still want to donate is to preserve an image you have of yourself, which presumably is ultimately about maximizing your happiness.

(Below is a thought that ended up being a dead end. I was going to delete it, but then I figured you might still be interested in reading it.)

Also, an interesting thought occurred to me related to wanting vs. liking. Take a person who starts off with only the terminal goal of maximizing his happiness. Imagine that the person then develops an addiction, say to smoking. And imagine that the person doesn't actually like smoking, but still wants to smoke. Ie. smoking does not maximize his happiness, but he still wants to do it. Should he then decide that smoking is a terminal goal of his?

I'm not trying to say that smoking is a bad terminal goal, because I think terminal goals are arbitrary. What I am trying to say is that... he seems to be actually trying to maximize his happiness, but just failing at it.

DEAD END. That's not true. Maybe he is actually trying to maximize his happiness, maybe he isn't. You can't say whether he is or he isn't. If he is, then it leads you to say "Well if your terminal goal is ultimately to maximize your happiness... then you should try to maximize your happiness (if you want to achieve your terminal goals)." But if he isn't (just) trying to maximize happiness, he could add in whatever other terminal goals he wants. Deep down I still notice a bit of confusion regarding my conclusion that goals are arbitrary, and so I find myself trying to argue against it. But every time I do I end up reaching a dead end :/

Anyway, I went back through the book and found the title of the post. It's Terminal Values and Instrumental Values. You can jump to "Consider the philosopher."

Thank you! That does seem to be a/the key point in his article. Although "I value the choice" seems like a weird argument to me. I never thought of it as a potential counter argument. From what I can gather from Eliezer's cryptic rebuttal, I agree with him.

I still don't understand what Eliezer would say to someone that said, "Preferences are selfish and Goals are arbitrary".


1- Which isn't to imply that I'm good at this. Just that I sense that it's true and I've had isolated instances of success with it.

2 - And again, this isn't to imply that you shouldn't give emotions any weight and be a robot. I used to be uncomfortable with just an "intuitive sense" and not really understanding the reasoning behind it. Reading How We Decide changed that for me. 1) It really hit me that there is "reasoning" behind the intuitions and emotions you feel. Ie. your brain does some unconscious processing. 2) It hit me that I need to treat these feelings as Bayesian evidence and consider how likely it is that I have that intuition when the intuition is wrong vs. how likely it is that I have the intuition when the intuition is right.

3 - This all feels very "trying-to-be-wise-sounding", which I hate. But I don't know how else to say it.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-17T06:10:29.320Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oops, just when I thought I had the terminology down. :( Yeah, I still think terminal values are arbitrary, in the sense that we choose what we want to live for.

So you think our preference is, by default, the happiness mind-state, and our terminal values may or may not be the most efficient personal happiness-increasers. Don't you wonder why a rational human being would choose terminal goals that aren't? But we sometimes do. Remember your honesty in saying:

Regarding my happiness, I think I may be lying to myself though. I think I rationalize that the same logic applies, that if I achieve some huge ambition there'd be a proportional increase in happiness. Because my brain likes to think achieving ambition -> goodness and I care about how much goodness gets achieved. But if I'm to be honest, that probably isn't true.

I have an idea. So based on biology and evolution, it seems like a fair assumption that humans naturally put ourselves first, all the time. But is it at all possible for humans to have evolved some small, pure, genuine concern for others (call it altruism/morality/love) that coexists with our innate selfishness? Like one human was born with an "altruism mutation" and other humans realized he was nice to have around, so he survived, and the gene is still working its way through society, shifting our preference ratios? It's a pleasant thought, anyway.

But honestly, I literally didn't even know what evolution was until several weeks ago though, so I don't really belong bringing up any science at all yet; let me switch back to personal experience and thought experiments.

For example, let's say my preferences are 98% affected by selfishness and maybe 2% by altruism, since I'm very stingy with my time but less so with my money. (Someone who would die for someone else would have different numbers.) Anyway, on the surface I might look more altruistic because there is a LOT of overlap between decisions that are good for others and decisions that make me feel good. Or, you could see the giant overlap and assume I'm 100% selfish. When I donate to effective charities, I do receive benefits like liking myself a bit more, real or perceived respect from the world, a small burst of fuzzy feelings, and a decrease in the (admittedly small) amount of personal guilt I feel about the world's unfairness. But if I had to put a monetary value on the happiness return from a $1000 donation, it would be less than $1000. When I use a preference ratio and prefer other people's happiness, their happiness does make me happy, but there isn't a direct correlation between how happy it makes me and the extent to which I prefer it. So maybe preference ratios can be based mostly on happiness, but are sometimes tainted with a hint of genuine altruism?

Also, what about diminishing marginal returns with donating? Will someone even feel a noticable increase in good feelings/happiness/satisfaction giving 18% rather than 17%? Or could someone who earns 100k purchase equal happiness with just 17k and be free to spend the extra 1k on extra happiness in the form of ski trips or berries or something (unless he was the type to never eat in restaurants)? Edit: nevermind this paragraph, even if it's realistic, it's just scope insensitivity, right?

But similarly, let's say someone gives 12% of her income. Her personal happiness would probably be higher giving 10% to AMF and distributing 2% in person via random acts of kindness than it would giving all 12% to AMF. Maybe, you're thinking that this difference would affect her mind-state, that she wouldn't be able to think of himself as such a rational person if she did that. But who really values their self-image of being a rational opportunity-cost analyzer that highly? I sure don't (well, 99.99% sure anyway).

Sooo could real altruism exist in some people and affect their preference ratios just like personal happiness does, but to a much smaller extent? Look at (1) your quote about your ambition (2) my desire to donate despite my firm belief that the happiness opportunity cost outweighs the happiness benefits (3) people who are willing to die for others and terminate their own happiness (4) people who choose to donate via effective altruism rather than random acts of kindness

Anyway, if there was an altruism mutation somewhere along the way, and altruism could shape our preferences like happiness, it would be a bit easier to understand the seeming discrepancy between preferences and terminal goals, between likes and wants. Here I will throw out a fancy new rationalist term I learned, and you can tell me if I misunderstand it or am wrong to think it might apply here... occam's razor?

Anyway, in case this idea is all silly and confused, and altruism is a socially conditioned emotion, I'll attempt to find its origin. Not from giving to church (it was only fair that the pastors/teachers/missionaries get their salaries and the members help pay for building costs, electricity, etc). I guess there was the whole "we love because He first loved us" idea, which I knew well and regurgitated often, but don't think I ever truly internalized. I consciously knew I'd still care about others just as much without my faith. Growing up, I knew no one who donated to secular charity, or at least no one who talked about it. The only thing I knew that came close to resembling large-scale altruism was when people chose to be pastors and teachers instead of pursuing high-income careers, but if they did it simply to "follow God's will" I'm not sure it still counts as genuinely caring about others more than yourself. On a small-scale, my mom was really altruistic, like willing to give us her entire portion of an especially tasty food, offer us her jacket when she was cold too, etc... and I know she wasn't calculating cost-benefit ratios, haha. So I guess she could have instilled it in me? Or maybe I read some novels with altruistic values? Idk, any other ideas?

I still don't understand what Eliezer would say to someone that said, "Preferences are selfish and Goals are arbitrary".

I'm no Eliezer, but here's what I would say: Preferences are mostly selfish but can be affected by altruism, and goals are somehow based on these preferences. Whether or not you call them arbitrary probably depends on how you feel about free will. We make decisions. Do our internal mental states drive these decisions? Put in the same position 100 times, with the same internal mental state, would someone make the same decision every time, or would it be 50-50? We don't know, but either way, we still feel like we make decisions (well, except when it comes to belief, in my experience anyway) so it doesn't really matter too much.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T02:08:05.710Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The way I'm (operationally) defining Preferences and words like happy/utility, Preferences are by definition what provides us what the most happiness/utility. Consider this thought experiment:

You start off as a blank slate and your memory is wiped. You then are experience some emotion, and you experience this emotion to a certain magnitude. Let's call this "emotion-magnitude A".

You then experience a second emotion-magnitude - emotion-magnitude B. Now that you have experienced two emotion-magnitudes, you could compare them and say which one was more preferable.

You then experience a third emotion magnitude, and insert it into the list [A, B] according to how preferable it was. And you do this for a fourth emotion-magnitude. And a fifth. Until eventually you do it for every possible emotion-magnitude (aka conscious state aka mind-state). You then end up with a list of every possible emotion-magnitude ranked according to desirability. [1...n]. These, are your Preferences.

So the way I'm defining Preferences, it refers to how desirable a certain mind-state is relative to other possible mind-states.

Now think about consequentialism and how stuff leads to certain consequences. Part of the consequences is the mind-state it produces for you.

Say that:

  • Action 1 -> mind-state A
  • Aciton 2 -> mind-state B

Now remember mind-states could be ranked according to how preferable they are, like in the thought experiment. Suppose that mind-state A is preferable to mind-state B.

From this, it seems to me that the following conclusion is unavoidable:

Action 1 is preferable to Action 2.

In other words, Action 1 leads you to a state of mind that you prefer over the state of mind that Action 2 leads you to. I don't see any ways around saying that.

To make it more concrete, let's say that Action 1 is "going on vacation" and Action 2 is "giving to charity".

  • IF going on vacation produces mind-state A.
  • IF giving to charity produces mind-state B.
  • IF mind-state A is preferable to mind-state B.
  • THEN going on vacation leads you to a mind-state that is preferable to the one that giving to charity leads you to.

I call this "preferable", but in this case words and semantics might just be distracting. As long as you agree that "going on vacation leads you to a mind-state that is preferable to the one that giving to charity leads you to" when the first three bullet points are true, I don't think we disagree about anything real, and that we might just be using different words for stuff.

Thoughts?


Don't you wonder why a rational human being would choose terminal goals that aren't?.

I do, but mainly from a standpoint in being interested in human psychology. I also wonder from a standpoint of hoping that terminal goals aren't arbitrary and that they have an actual reason for choosing what they choose, but I've never found their reasoning to be convincing, and I've never found their informational social influence to be strong enough evidence for me to think that terminal goals aren't arbitrary.

So based on biology and evolution, it seems like a fair assumption that humans naturally put ourselves first, all the time. But is it at all possible for humans to have evolved some small, pure, genuine concern for others (call it altruism/morality/love) that coexists with our innate selfishness? Like one human was born with an "altruism mutation" and other humans realized he was nice to have around, so he survived, and the gene is still working its way through society, shifting our preference ratios? It's a pleasant thought, anyway.

:))) [big smile] (Because I hope what I'm about to tell you might address a lot of your concerns and make you really happy.)

I'm pleased to tell you that we all have "that altruism mutation". Because of the way evolution works, we evolve to maximize the spread of our genes.

So imagine that there's two Mom's. They each have 5 kids, and they each enter an unfortunate situation where they have to choose between themselves and their kids.

  • Mom 1 is selfish and chooses to save herself. Her kids then die. She goes on to not have any more kids. Therefore, her genes don't get spread at all.
  • Mom 2 is unselfish and chooses to save her kids. She dies, but her genes live on through her kids.

The outcome of this situation is that there are 0 organisms with selfish genes, and 5 with unselfish genes.

And so humans (and all other animals, from what I know) have evolved a very strong instinct to protect their kin. But as we know, preference ratios diminish rapidly from there. We might care about our friends and extended family, and a little less about our extended social group, and not so much about the rest of people (which is why we go out to eat instead of paying for meals for 100s of starving kids).

As far as evolution goes, this also makes sense. A mom that acts altruistically towards her social circle would gain respect, and the tribes respect may lead to them protecting that mom's children, thus increasing the chances they survive and produces offspring themselves. Of course, that altruistic act by the mom may decrease her chances of surviving to produce more offspring and to take care of her current offspring, but it's a trade-off.* On the other hand, acting altruistically towards a random tribe across the world is unlikely to improve her children's chances of surviving and producing offspring, so the mom's that did this have historically been less successful at spreading genes than the mom's that didn't.

*Note: using mathematical models to simulate and test these trade-offs is the hard part of studying evolution. The basic ideas are actually quite simple.

But honestly, I literally didn't even know what evolution was until several weeks ago though

I'm really sorry to hear that. I hope my being sorry isn't offensive in any way. If it is, could you please tell me? I'd like to avoid offending people in the future.

so I don't really belong bringing up any science at all yet;

Not so! Science is all about using what you do know to make hypothesis about the world and to look for observable evidence to test them. And that seems to be exactly what you were doing :)

Your hypotheses and thought experiments are really impressive. I'm beginning to suspect that you do indeed have training and are denying this in order to make a status play. [joking]

Like one human was born with an "altruism mutation" and other humans realized he was nice to have around, so he survived, and the gene is still working its way through society, shifting our preference ratios?

I'd just like to offer a correction here for your knowledge. Mutations spread almost entirely because they a) increase the chances that you produce offspring or b) increase the chances that the offspring survive (and presumably produce offspring themselves).

You seem to be saying that the mutation would spread because the organism remains alive. Think about it - if an organism has a mutation that increases the chances that it remain alive but that doesn't increase the chances of having viable offspring, then that mutation would only remain in the gene pool until he died. And so of all the bajillions of our ancestors, only the ones still alive are candidates for the type of evolution you describe (mutations that only increase your chance of survival). Note that evolution is just the process of how genes spread.

Note: I've since realized that you may know this already, but figured I'd keep it anyway.


I got a "comment too long error" haha

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T05:03:52.217Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, I guess I should have known some terminology correction was coming. If you want to define "happiness" as the preferred mind-state, no worries. I'll just say the preferred mind-state of happiness is the harmony of our innate desire for pleasure and our innate desire for altruism, two desires that often overlap but occasionally compete. Do you agree that altruism deserves exactly the same sort of special recognition as an ultimate motivator that pleasure does? If so, your guess that we might not have disagreed about anything real was right.

IF going on vacation produces mind-state A. IF giving to charity produces mind-state B. IF mind-state A is preferable to mind-state B. THEN going on vacation leads you to a mind-state that is preferable to the one that giving to charity leads you to.

Okay...most people want some vacation, but not full-time vacation, even though full-time vacation would bring us a LOT of pleasure. Doing good for the world is not as efficient at maximizing personal pleasure as going on vacation is. An individual must strike a balance between his desire for pleasure and his desire to be altruistic to achieve Harmonious Happiness (Look, I made up a term with capital letters! LW is rubbing off on me!)

I'm pleased to tell you that we all have "that altruism mutation". Because of the way evolution works, we evolve to maximize the spread of our genes.

Yay!!! I didn't think of a mother sacrificing herself for her kids like that, but I did think the most selfish, pleasure-driven individuals would quite probably be the most likely to end up in prison so their genes die out and less probably, but still possibly, they could also be the least likely to find spouses and have kids.

I'm really sorry to hear that. I hope my being sorry isn't offensive in any way. If it is, could you please tell me? I'd like to avoid offending people in the future.

I almost never get offended, much less about this. I appreciate the sympathy! But others could find it offensive in that they'd find it arrogant. My thoughts on arrogance are a little unconventional. Most people think it's arrogant to consider one person more gifted than others or one idea better than others. Some people really are more gifted and have far more positive qualities than others. Some ideas really are better. If you happen to be one of the more gifted people or understand one of the better ideas (evolution, in this case), and you recognize yourself as more gifted or recognize an idea as better, that's not arrogance. Not yet. That's just an honest perspective on value. Once you start to look down on people for being less gifted than you are or having worse ideas, that's when you cross the line and become arrogant. If you are more gifted, or have more accurate ideas, you can happily thank the universe you weren't born in someone else's shoes, while doing your best to imagine what life would have been like if you were. You can try to help others use their own gifts to the best of their potential. You can try to share your ideas in a way that others will understand. Just don't look down on people for not having certain abilities or believing the correct ideas because you really can't understand what it's like to be them :) But yeah, if you don't want to offend people, it's dangerous to express pity. Some people will look at your "feeling sorry" for those who don't share your intelligence/life opportunities/correct ideas and call you arrogant for it, but I think they're wrong to do so. There's a difference between feeling sorry for people and looking down on them. For example, I am a little offended when one Christian friend and her dad who was my high school Calculus teacher look down on me. Most of my other friends just feel sorry for me, and I would be more offended if they didn't, because feeling sorry at least shows they care.

Your hypotheses and thought experiments are really impressive. I'm beginning to suspect that you do indeed have training and are denying this in order to make a status play.

I'm flattered!! But I must confess the one thought experiment that was actually super good, the one at the end about free will, wasn't my idea. It was a paraphrase of this guy's idea and I had used it in the past to explain my deconversion to my friends. The other ideas were truly original, though :) (Not to say no one else has ever had them! Sometimes I feel like my life is a series of being very pleasantly surprised to find that other people beat me to all my ideas, like how I felt when I first read Famine, Affluence and Morality ten years after trying to convince my family it was wrong to eat in restaurants)

I'd just like to offer a correction here for your knowledge. Mutations spread almost entirely because they a) increase the chances that you produce offspring or b) increase the chances that the offspring survive (and presumably produce offspring themselves).

Hey, this sounds like what I was just reading this week in the rationality book about Adaptation-Executers, not Fitness-Maximizers! I think I get this, and maybe I didn't write very clearly (or enough) here, but maybe I still don't fully understand. But if someone is nice to have around, wouldn't he have fewer enemies and be less likely to die than the selfish guys? So he lives to have kids, and the same goes for them? Idk.

Note: I just read your note and now have accordingly decreased the probability that I had said something way off-base :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T17:07:54.193Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'll just say the preferred mind-state of happiness is the harmony of our innate desire for pleasure and our innate desire for altruism, two desires that often overlap but occasionally compete. Do you agree that altruism deserves exactly the same sort of special recognition as an ultimate motivator that pleasure does? If so, your guess that we might not have disagreed about anything real was right.

I agree that in most cases (sociopaths are an exception) pleasure and doing good for others are both things that determine how happy something makes you. And so in that sense, it doesn't seem that we disagree about anything real.

But you use romantic sounding wording. Ex. "special recognition as an ultimate motivator".

"ultimate motivator"

So they way motivation works is that it's "originally determined" by our genes, and "adjusted/added to" by our experiences. So I agree that altruism is one of our "original/natural motivators". But I wouldn't say that it's an ultimate motivator, because to me that sounds like it implies that there's something final and/or superseding about altruism as a motivator, and I don't think that's true.

"special recognition"

I'm going to say my original thought, and then I'm going to say how I have since decided that it's partially wrong of me.

My original thought is that "there's no such thing as a special motivator". We could be conditioned to want anything. Ie. to be motivated to do anything. The way I see it, the inputs are our genes and our experiences, and the output is the resulting motivation, and I don't see how one output could be more special than another.

But that's just me failing to use the word special as is customary by a good amount of people. One use of the word special would mean that there's something inherently different about it, and it's that use that I argue against above. But another way people use it is just to mean that it's beautiful or something. Ie. even though altruism is an output like any other motivation, humans find that to be beautiful, and I think it's sensible to use the word special to describe that.

This all may sound a lot like nitpicking, and it sort of is, but not really. I actually think there's a decent chance that clarifying what I mean by these words will bring us a lot closer to agreement.

Okay...most people want some vacation, but not full-time vacation, even though full-time vacation would bring us a LOT of pleasure. Doing good for the world is not as efficient at maximizing personal pleasure as going on vacation is.

True, but that wasn't the point I was making. I was just using that as an example. Admittedly, one that isn't always true.

Yay!!!

I'm curious - was this earth shattering or just pretty cool? I got the impression that you thought that humans are completely selfish by nature.

So based on biology and evolution, it seems like a fair assumption that humans naturally put ourselves first, all the time. But is it at all possible for humans to have evolved some small, pure, genuine concern for others (call it altruism/morality/love) that coexists with our innate selfishness?

And that this makes you sad and that you'd be happier if people did indeed have some sort of altruism "built in".

I didn't think of a mother sacrificing herself for her kids like that, but I did think the most selfish, pleasure-driven individuals would quite probably be the most likely to end up in prison so their genes die out and less probably, but still possibly, they could also be the least likely to find spouses and have kids.

I think you may be misunderstanding something about how evolution works. I see that you now understand that we evolve to be "altruistic to our genes", but it's a common and understandable error to instinctively think about society as we know it. In actuality, we've been evolving very slowly over millions of years. Prisons have only existed for, idk, a couple hundred? (I realize you might understand this, but I'm commenting just in case you didn't)

My thoughts on arrogance are a little unconventional.

Not here they're not :) And I think that description was quite eloquent.

I used to be bullied and would be sad/embarrassed if people made fun of me. But at some point I got into a fight, ended it, and had a complete 180 shift of how I think about this. Since then, I've sort of decided that it doesn't make sense at all to be "offended" by anything anyone says about you. What does that even mean? That your feelings are hurt? The way I see it:

a) Someone points out something that is both fixable and wrong with you, in which case you should thank them and change it. And if your feelings get hurt along the way, that's just a cost you have to incur along the path of seeking a more important end (self improvement).

b) Someone points out something about you that is not fixable, or not wrong with you. In that case they're just stupid (or maybe just wrong).

In reality, I'm exaggerating a bit because I understand that it's not reasonable to expect humans to react like this all the time.

It was a paraphrase of this guy's idea and I had used it in the past to explain my deconversion to my friends.

Haha, I see. Well now I'm less impressed by your intellect but more impressed with your honesty!

Sometimes I feel like my life is a series of being very pleasantly surprised to find that other people beat me to all my ideas

Yea, me too. But isn't it really great at the same time though! Like when I first read the Sequences, it just articulated so many things that I thought that I couldn't express. And it also introduced so many new things that I swear I would have arrived at. (And also introduced a bunch of new things that I don't think I would have arrived at)

But if someone is nice to have around, wouldn't he have fewer enemies and be less likely to die than the selfish guys? So he lives to have kids, and the same goes for them? Idk.

Yeah, definitely!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T17:49:18.058Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But I wouldn't say that it's an ultimate motivator, because to me that sounds like it implies that there's something final and/or superseding about altruism as a motivator, and I don't think that's true.

Yes, that's exactly what I meant to imply! Finally, I used the right words. Why don't you think it's true?

I don't see how one output could be more special than another.

I did just mean "inherently different" so we're clear here. I think what makes selfishness and goodness/altruism inherently different is that other psychological motivators, if you follow them back far enough, will lead people to act in a way that they either think will make them happy or that they think will make the world a happier place.

I'm curious - was this earth shattering or just pretty cool? I got the impression that you thought that humans are completely selfish by nature.

Well, the idea of being completely selfish by nature goes so completely against my intuition, I didn't really suspect it (but I wouldn't have ruled it out entirely). The "Yay!!" was about there being evidence/logic to support my intuition being true.

I think you may be misunderstanding something about how evolution works. I see that you now understand that we evolve to be "altruistic to our genes", but it's a common and understandable error to instinctively think about society as we know it. In actuality, we've been evolving very slowly over millions of years. Prisons have only existed for, idk, a couple hundred? (I realize you might understand this, but I'm commenting just in case you didn't)

Prisons didn't exist, but enemies did, and totally selfish people probably have more enemies... so yeah, I understand :)

I've sort of decided that it doesn't make sense at all to be "offended" by anything anyone says about you.

No, you're right! Whenever someone says something and adds "no offense" I remark that there must be something wrong with me, because I never take offense at anything. I've used your exact explanation to talk about criticism. I would rather hear it than not, because there's a chance someone recognizes a bad tendency/belief that I haven't already recognized in myself. I always ask for negative feedback from people, there's no downside to it (unless you already suffer from depression, or something).

In real life, the only time I feel offended/mildly annoyed by what someone flat-out claims I'm lying, like when my old teacher said he didn't believe me that I spent years earnestly praying for a stronger faith. But even as I was mildly annoyed, I understood his perspective completely because he either had to disbelieve me or disbelieve his entire understanding of the Bible and a God who answers prayer.

Yea, me too. But isn't it really great at the same time though! Like when I first read the Sequences, it just articulated so many things that I thought that I couldn't express. And it also introduced so many new things that I swear I would have arrived at. (And also introduced a bunch of new things that I don't think I would have arrived at)

Yeah, ditto all the way! It's entirely great :) I feel off the hook to go freely enjoy my life knowing it's extremely probable that somewhere else, people like you, people who are smarter than I am, will have the ambition to think through all the good ideas and bring them to fruition.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T18:02:12.987Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think what makes selfishness and goodness/altruism inherently different is that other psychological motivators, if you follow them back far enough, will lead people to act in a way that they either think will make them happy or that they think will make the world a happier place.

I think we've arrived at a core point here.

See my other comment:

I guess my whole idea is that goodness is kind of special. Most people seem born with it, to one extent or another. I think happiness and goodness are the two ultimate motivators. I even think they're the only two ultimate motivators. Or at least I can't think of any other supposed motivation that couldn't be traced back to one or both of these.

In a way, I think this is true. Actually, I should give more credit to this idea - yeah, it's true in an important way.

My quibble is that motivation is usually not rational. If it was, then I think you'd be right. But the way our brains produce motivation isn't rational. Sometimes we are motivated to do something... "just because". Ie. even if our brain knows that it won't lead to happiness or goodness, it could still produce motivation.

And so in a very real sense, motivation itself is often something that can't really be traced back. But I try really hard to respond to what people's core points are, and what they probably meant. I'm not precisely sure what your core point is, but I sense that I agree with it. That's the strongest statement I could make.

Unfortunately, I think my scientific background is actually harming me right now. We're talking about a lot of things that have very precise scientific meanings, and in some cases I think you're deviating from them a bit. Which really isn't too big a deal because I should be able to infer what you mean and progress the conversation, but I think I'm doing a pretty mediocre job of that. When I reflect, it difficult to deviate from the definitions I'm familiar with, which is sort of bad "conversational manners", because the only point of words in a conversation is to communicate ideas, and it'd probably be more efficient if I were better able to use other definitions.

Back to you:

Well, the idea of being completely selfish by nature goes so completely against my intuition, I didn't really suspect it (but I wouldn't have ruled it out entirely). The "Yay!!" was about there being evidence/logic to support my intuition being true.

Oh, I see.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T02:06:27.397Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So maybe preference ratios can be based mostly on happiness, but are sometimes tainted with a hint of genuine altruism?

The way I'm defining preference ratios:

Preference ratio for person X = how much you care about yourself / how much you care about person X

Or, more formally, how many units of utility person X would have to get before you'd be willing to sacrificing one unit of your own utility for him/her.

So what does altruism mean? Does it mean "I don't need to gain any happiness in order for me to want to help you, but I don't know if I'd help you if it caused me unhappiness."? Or does it mean "I want to help you regardless of how it impacts my happiness. I'd go to hell if it meant you got one extra dollar."

[When I was studying for some vocab test in middle school my cards were in alphabetical order at one point and I remember repeating a thousand times - "altruism: selfless concern for others. altruism: selfless concern for others. altruism: selfless concern for others...". That definition would imply the latter.]

Let's take the former definition. In that case, you'd want person X to get one unit of utility even if you get nothing in return, so your preference ratio would be 0. But this doesn't necessarily work in reverse. Ie. in order to save person X from losing one unit of utility, you probably wouldn't sacrifice a bajillion units of your own utility. I very well might be confusing myself with the math here.

Note: I've been trying to think about this but my approach is too simplistic and I've been countering it, but I'm having trouble articulating it. If you really want me to I could try, otherwise I don't think it's worth it. Sometimes I find math to be really obvious and useful, and sometimes I find it to be the exact opposite.

Also, what about diminishing marginal returns with donating?

This depends on the person, but I think that everyone experiences it to some extent.

Will someone even feel a noticable increase in good feelings/happiness/satisfaction giving 18% rather than 17%? Or could someone who earns 100k purchase equal happiness with just 17k and be free to spend the extra 1k on extra happiness in the form of ski trips or berries or something (unless he was the type to never eat in restaurants)? Edit: nevermind this paragraph, even if it's realistic, it's just scope insensitivity, right?

If the person is trying to maximize happiness, the question is just "how much happiness would a marginal 1k donation bring" vs. "how much happiness would a 1k vacation bring". The answers to these questions depend on the person.

Sorry, I'm not sure what you're getting at here. The person might be scope insensitive to how much impact the 1k could have if he donated it.

But similarly, let's say someone gives 12% of her income. Her personal happiness would probably be higher giving 10% to AMF and distributing 2% in person via random acts of kindness than it would giving all 12% to AMF.

Yes, the optimal donation strategy for maximizing your own happiness is different from the one that maximizes impact :)

Sooo could real altruism exist in some people and affect their preference ratios just like personal happiness does, but to a much smaller extent? Look at (1) your quote about your ambition (2) my desire to donate despite my firm belief that the happiness opportunity cost outweighs the happiness benefits (3) people who are willing to die for others and terminate their own happiness (4) people who choose to donate via effective altruism rather than random acts of kindness

2, 3 and 4 are examples of people not trying to maximize their happiness.

1 is me sometimes knowingly following an impulse my brain produces even when I know it doesn't maximize my happiness. Sadly, this happens all the time. For example, I ate Chinese food today, and I don't think that doing so would maximize my long-term happiness.

In the case of my ambitions, my brain produces impulses/motivations stemming from things including:

  • Wanting to do good.
  • Wanting to prove to myself I could do it.
  • Wanting to prove to others I could do it.
  • Social status.

Brains don't produce impulses in perfect, or even good alignment with what it expects will maximize utility. I find the decision to eat fast food as an intuitive example of this. But I don't see how this changes anything about Preferences or Goals.

Anyway, if there was an altruism mutation somewhere along the way, and altruism could shape our preferences like happiness, it would be a bit easier to understand the seeming discrepancy between preferences and terminal goals, between likes and wants. Here I will throw out a fancy new rationalist term I learned, and you can tell me if I misunderstand it or am wrong to think it might apply here... occam's razor?

I'm sorry, I'm trying to understand what you're saying but I think I'm failing. I think the problem is that I'm defining words differently than you. I'm trying to figure out how you're defining them, but I'm not sure. Anyway, I think that if we clarify our definitions, we'd be able to make some good progress.

altruism could shape our preferences like happiness

The way I'm thinking about it... think back to my operational definition of preferences in the first comment where I talk about how an action leads to a mind-state. What action leads to what mind-state depends on the person. An altruistic action for you might lead to a happy mind-state, and that same action might lead me to a neutral mind-state. So in that sense altruism definitely shapes our preferences.

I'm not sure if you're implying this, but I don't see how this changes the fact that you could choose to strive for any goal you want. That you could only say that a means is good at leading to an end. That you can't say that and end is good.

Ie. I could chose the goal of killing people, and you can't say that it's a bad goal. You could only say that it's bad at leading to a happy society. Or that it's bad at making me happy.

Here I will throw out a fancy new rationalist term I learned, and you can tell me if I misunderstand it or am wrong to think it might apply here... occam's razor?

That's a term that I don't think I have a proper understanding of. There was a point when I realized that it just means that A & B is always less likely than A, unless B = 1. Like let's say that the probability of A is .75. Even if B is .999999, P(A & B) < P(A). And so in that sense, simpler = better.

But people use it in ways that I don't really understand. Ie. sometimes I don't get what they mean by simpler. I don't see that the term applies here though.

Anyway, in case this idea is all silly and confused, and altruism is a socially conditioned emotion

I think it'd be helpful if you defined specifically what you mean by altruism. I mean, you don't have to be all formal or anything, but more specific would be useful.

As far as socially conditioned emotions goes, our emotions are socially conditioned to be happy in response to altruistic things and sad in response to anti-altruistic things. I wouldn't say that that makes altruism itself a socially conditioned emotion.

Do our internal mental states drive these decisions? Put in the same position 100 times, with the same internal mental state, would someone make the same decision every time, or would it be 50-50?

Wow, that's a great way to put it! You definitely have the head of a scientist :)

We don't know, but either way, we still feel like we make decisions (well, except when it comes to belief, in my experience anyway) so it doesn't really matter too much.

Yeah, I pretty much feel that way too.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T15:48:23.895Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, this has gotten a little too tangled up in definitions. Let's try again, but from the same starting point.

Happiness=preferred mind-state (similar, potentially interchangeable terms: satisfaction, pleasure) Goodness=what leads to a happier outcome for others (similar, potentially interchangeable terms: morality, altruism)

I guess my whole idea is that goodness is kind of special. Most people seem born with it, to one extent or another. I think happiness and goodness are the two ultimate motivators. I even think they're the only two ultimate motivators. Or at least I can't think of any other supposed motivation that couldn't be traced back to one or both of these.

Pursuing a virtue like loyalty will usually lead to happiness and goodness. But is it really the ultimate motivator, or was there another reason behind this choice, i.e. it makes the virtue ethicist happy and she believes it benefits society? I'm guessing that in certain situations, the author might even abandon the loyalty virtue if it conflicted with the underlying motivations of happiness and goodness. Thoughts?

Edit: I guess I'm realizing the way you defined preference doesn't work for me either, and I should have said so in my other comment. I would say prefer simply means "tend to choose." You can prefer something that doesn't lead to the happiest mind-state, like a sacrificial death, or here's an imaginary example:

You have to choose: Either you catch a minor cold, or a mother and child you will never meet will get into a car accident. The mother will have serious injuries, and her child will die. Your memory of having chosen will be erased immediately after you choose regardless of your choice, so neither guilt nor happiness will result. You'll either suddenly catch a cold, or not.

Not only is choosing to catch a cold an inefficient happiness-maximizer like donating to effective charities, this time it will actually have a negative effect on your happiness mind-state. Can you still prefer that you catch a cold? According to what seems to me like common real-world usage of "prefer" you can. You are not acting in some arbitrary, irrational, inexplicable way in doing so. You can acknowledge you're motivated by goodness here, rather than happiness.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T17:45:37.709Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I guess my whole idea is that goodness is kind of special. Most people seem born with it, to one extent or another. I think happiness and goodness are the two ultimate motivators. I even think they're the only two ultimate motivators. Or at least I can't think of any other supposed motivation that couldn't be traced back to one or both of these.

In a way, I think this is true. Actually, I should give more credit to this idea - yeah, it's true in an important way.

My quibble is that motivation is usually not rational. If it was, then I think you'd be right. But the way our brains produce motivation isn't rational. Sometimes we are motivated to do something... "just because". Ie. even if our brain knows that it won't lead to happiness or goodness, it could still produce motivation.

And so in a very real sense, motivation itself is often something that can't really be traced back. But I try really hard to respond to what people's core points are, and what they probably meant. I'm not precisely sure what your core point is, but I sense that I agree with it. That's the strongest statement I could make.

Unfortunately, I think my scientific background is actually harming me right now. We're talking about a lot of things that have very precise scientific meanings, and in some cases I think you're deviating from them a bit. Which really isn't too big a deal because I should be able to infer what you mean and progress the conversation, but I think I'm doing a pretty mediocre job of that. When I reflect, I find it difficult to deviate from the definitions I'm familiar with, which is sort of bad "conversational manners", because the only point of words in a conversation is to communicate ideas, and it'd probably be more efficient if I were better able to use other definitions.

Pursuing a virtue like loyalty will usually lead to happiness and goodness. But is it really the ultimate motivator, or was there another reason behind this choice

Haha, you seem to be confused about virtue ethics in a good way :)

A true virtue ethicist would completely and fully believe that their virtue is inherently desirable, independent of anything and everything else. So a true virtue ethicist who values the virtue of loyalty wouldn't care whether the loyalty lead to happiness or goodness.

Now, I think that consequentialism is a more sensible position, and I think you do too. And in the real world, virtue ethicists often have virtues that include happiness and goodness. And if they run into a conflict between say the virtue of goodness and the one of loyalty, well I don't know how they'd resolve it, but I think they'd give some weight to each, and so in practice I don't think virtue ethicists end up acting too crazy, because they're stabilized by their virtues of goodness and happiness. On the other hand, a virtue ethicist without the virtue of goodness... that could get scary.

I guess I'm realizing the way you defined preference doesn't work for me either

I hadn't thought about it before, but now that I do I think you're right. I'm not using the word "prefer" to mean what it really means. In my thought experiment I started off using it properly in saying that one mind-state is preferable to another.

But the error I made is in defining ACTIONS to be preferable because the resulting MIND-STATES are preferable. THAT is completely inconsistent with the way it's commonly used. In the way it's commonly used, an action is preferable... if you prefer it.

I'm feeling embarrassed that I didn't realize this immediately, but am glad to have realized it now because it allows me to make progress. Progress feels so good! So...

THANK YOU FOR POINTING THIS OUT!

According to what seems to me like common real-world usage of "prefer" you can.

Absolutely. But I think that I was wrong in an even more general sense than that.

So I think you understood what I was getting at with the thought experiment though - do you have any ideas about what words I should substitute in that would make more sense?

(I think that the fact that this is the slightest bit difficult is a huge failure of the english language. Language is meant to allow us to communicate. These are important concepts, and our language isn't giving us a very good way to communicate them. I actually think this is a really big problem. The linguistic-relativity hypothesis basically says that our language restricts our ability to think about the world, and I think (and it's pretty widely believed) that it's true to some extent (the extent itself is what's debated).)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T18:40:59.593Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In a way, I think this is true. Actually, I should give more credit to this idea - yeah, it's true in an important way.

Yay, agreement :)

My quibble is that motivation is usually not rational. If it was, then I think you'd be right. But the way our brains produce motivation isn't rational. Sometimes we are motivated to do something... "just because". Ie. even if our brain knows that it won't lead to happiness or goodness, it could still produce motivation.

Great point. I actually had a similar thought and added the qualifier "psychological" in my previous comment. Maybe "rational" would be better. Maybe there are still physical motivators (addiction, inertia, etc?) but this describes the mental motivators? Does this align any better with your scientific understanding of terminology? And don't feel bad about it, I'm sure the benefits of studying science outweigh the cost of the occasional decrease in conversation efficiency :)

A true virtue ethicist would completely and fully believe that their virtue is inherently desirably, independent of anything and everything else. So a true virtue ethicist who values the virtue of loyalty wouldn't care whether the loyalty lead to happiness or goodness.

Then I think very, very few virtue ethicists actually exist, and virtue ethicism is so abnormal it could almost qualify as a psychological disorder. Like the common ethics dilemma of exposing hidden Jews. If someone's virtue was "honesty" they would have to. (In the philosophy class I took, we resolved this dilemma by redefining "truth" and capitalizing; e.g. Timmy's father is a drunk. Someone asks Timmy if his father is a drunk. Timmy says no. Timmy told the Truth.) We whizzed through that boring old "correspondence theory" in ten seconds flat. I will accept any further sympathy you wish to express. Anyway, I think that any virtue besides happiness and goodness will have some loophole where 99% of people will abandon it if they run into a conflict between their chosen virtue and the deeper psychological motivations of happiness and goodness.

Edit: A person with extremely low concern for goodness is a sociopath. The amount of concern someone has for goodness as a virtue vs. amount of concern for personal happiness determines how altruistic she is, and I will tentatively call this a psychological motivation ratio, kind of like a preference ratio. And some canceling occurs in this ratio because of overlap.

But the error I made is in defining ACTIONS to be preferable because the resulting MIND-STATES are preferable. THAT is completely inconsistent with the way it's commonly used. In the way it's commonly used, an action is preferable... if you prefer it.

Yes! I wish I could have articulated it that clearly for you myself.

Instead of saying we "prefer" an optimal mind-state... you could say we "like" it the most, but that might conflict with your scientific definitions for likes and wants. But here's an idea, feel free to critique it...

"Likes" are things that actually produce the happiest, optimal mind-states within us

"Wants" are things we prefer, things we tend to choose when influenced by psychological motivators (what we think will make us happy, what we think will make the world happy)

Some things, like smoking, we neither like (or maybe some people do, idk) nor want, but we still do because the physical motivators overpower the psychological motivators (i.e. we have low willpower)

I think that the fact that this is the slightest bit difficult is a huge failure of the english language.

Absolutely!! I'll check out that link.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T20:00:53.127Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Great point. I actually had a similar thought and added the qualifier "psychological" in my previous comment. Maybe "rational" would be better. Maybe there are still physical motivators (addiction, inertia, etc?) but this describes the mental motivators? Does this align any better with your scientific understanding of terminology?

Hmmm, so the question I'm thinking about is, "what does it mean to say that a motivation is traced back to something". It seems to me that the answer to that involves terminal and instrumental values. Like if a person is motivated to do something, but is only motivated to do it to the extent that it leads to the persons terminal value, then it seems that you could say that this motivation can be traced back to that terminal value.

And so now I'm trying to evaluate the claim that "motivations can always be traced back to happiness and goodness". This seems to be conditional on happiness and goodness being terminal goals for that person. But people could, and often do choose whatever terminal goals they want. For example, people have terminal goals like "self improvement" and "truth" and "be man" and "success". And so, I think that for a person with a terminal goal other than happiness and goodness, they will have motivations that can't be traced back to happiness or goodness.

But I think that it's often the case that motivations can be traced back to happiness and goodness. Hopefully that means something.

(In the philosophy class I took, we resolved this dilemma by redefining "truth" and capitalizing; e.g. Timmy's father is a drunk. Someone asks Timmy if his father is a drunk. Timmy says no. Timmy told the Truth.) We whizzed through that boring old "correspondence theory" in ten seconds flat.

Wait... so the Timmy example was used to argue against correspondence theory? Ouch.

Anyway, I think that any virtue besides happiness and goodness will have some loophole where 99% of people will abandon it if they run into a conflict between their chosen virtue and the deeper psychological motivations of happiness and goodness.

Perhaps. Truth might be an exception for some people. Ex. some people may choose to pursue the truth even if it's guaranteed to lead to decreases in happiness and goodness. And success might also be an exception for some people. They also may choose to pursue success even if it's guaranteed to lead to decreases in happiness and goodness. But this becomes a question of some sort of social science rather than of philosophy.

The amount of concern someone has for goodness as a virtue vs. amount of concern for personal happiness determines how altruistic she is, and I will tentatively call this a psychological motivation ratio, kind of like a preference ratio.

I like the concept! I propose that you call it an altruism ratio as opposed to a psychological motivation ratio because I think the former is less likely to confuse people.

Instead of saying we "prefer" an optimal mind-state... you could say we "like" it the most, but that might conflict with your scientific definitions for likes and wants.

Eh, I think that this would conflict with the way people use the word "like" in a similar way to the problems I ran into with "preference". For example, it makes sense to say that you like mind-state A more than mind-state B. But I'm not sure that it makes sense to say that you necessarily like action A more than action B, given the way people use the term "like". Damn language! :)

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T20:32:40.662Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And so now I'm trying to evaluate the claim that "motivations can always be traced back to happiness and goodness". This seems to be conditional on happiness and goodness being terminal goals for that person.

I had just reached the same conclusion myself! So I think that yeah, happiness and goodness are the only terminal values, for the vast majority of the thinking population :)

Note: I really don't like the term "happiness" to describe the optimal mind-state since I connect it too strongly with "pleasure" so maybe "satisfaction" would be better. I think of satisfaction as including both feelings of pleasure and feelings of fulfillment. What do you think?

For example, people have terminal goals like "self improvement" and "truth" and "be man" and "success"

I think that all these are really just instrumental goals that people subconsciously, and perhaps mistakenly, believe will lead them to their real terminal goals of greater personal satisfaction and/or an increase in the world's satisfaction.

Wait... so the Timmy example was used to argue against correspondence theory? Ouch.

It was an example of whatever convoluted theory my professor invented as a replacement for correspondence theory.

But this becomes a question of some sort of social science rather than of philosophy.

Exactly. I think people like the ones you mention are quite rare.

I like the concept! I propose that you call it an altruism ratio as opposed to a psychological motivation ratio because I think the former is less likely to confuse people.

Ok, thanks :)

Eh, I think that this would conflict with the way people use the word "like" in a similar way to the problems I ran into with "preference". For example, it makes sense to say that you like mind-state A more than mind-state B. But I'm not sure that it makes sense to say that you necessarily like action A more than action B, given the way people use the term "like". Damn language! :)

What if language isn't the problem? Maybe the connection between mind-states and actions isn't so clear-cut after all. If you like mind-state A more than mind-state B, then action A is mind-state-optimizing, but I'm not sure you can go much farther than that... because goodness.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T22:54:18.390Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I had just reached the same conclusion myself! So I think that yeah, happiness and goodness are the only terminal values, for the vast majority of the thinking population :)

:)

Note: I really don't like the term "happiness" to describe the optimal mind-state since I connect it too strongly with "pleasure" so maybe "satisfaction" would be better. I think of satisfaction as including both feelings of pleasure and feelings of fulfillment. What do you think?

I haven't found a term that I really like. Utility is my favorite though.

I think that all these are really just instrumental goals that people subconsciously, and perhaps mistakenly, believe will lead them to their real terminal goals of greater personal satisfaction and/or an increase in the world's satisfaction.

Idk, I want to agree with you but I sense that it's more like 95% of the population. I know just the 2 people to ask though. My two friends are huge proponents of things like "give it your all" and "be a man".

Also, what about religious people? Aren't there things they value independent of happiness and goodness? And if so wouldn't their motivations reflect that?

Edit:

Friend 1 says it's ultimately about avoiding feeling bad about himself, which I classify as him wanting to optimize his mind-state.

Friend 2 couldn't answer my questions and said his decisions aren't that calculated.

Not too useful after all. I was hoping that they'd be more insightful.

mind-state-optimizing

Oooooo I like that term!

Maybe the connection between mind-states and actions isn't so clear-cut after all.

It seems clear-cut to me. An action leads to one state of the world, and in that state of the world you have one mind-state. Can you elaborate?

but I'm not sure you can go much farther than that... because goodness.

Not sure what you mean by that either.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T18:55:21.986Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Idk, I want to agree with you but I sense that it's more like 95% of the population. I know just the 2 people to ask though. My two friends are huge proponents of things like "give it your all" and "be a man"

Yeah, ask those friends if in a situation where "giving it their all" and "being men" made them less happy and made the world a worse place, whether they would still stick with their philosophies. And if they genuinely can't imagine a situation where they would feel less satisfied after "giving it their all," then I would postulate that as they're consciously pursuing these virtues, they're subconsciously pursuing personal satisfaction. (Edit: Just read a little further, that you already have their responses. Yeah, not too insightful, maybe I'll develop this idea a bit more and ask the rest of the LW community what they think.) (Edit #2: Thought about this a little more, and I have a question you might be able to answer. Is the subconscious considered psychological or physical?)

As for religious people...well, in the case of Christianity, people would probably just want to "become Christ-like" which, for them, overlaps really well with personal satisfaction and helping others. But in extreme cases, someone might truly aspire to "become obedient to X" in which case obedience could be the terminal value, even if the person doesn't think obedience will make them happy or make the world a better place. But I think that such ultra-religiosity is rare, and that most people are still ultimately psychologically motivated to either do what they think will make them happy, or what they think will make the world a better place. I feel like this is related to Belief in Belief but I can't quite articulate the connection. Maybe you'll understand, if not, I'll try harder to verbalize it.

It seems clear-cut to me. An action leads to one state of the world, and in that state of the world you have one mind-state.

No, if that's all you're saying, that "If you like mind-state A more than mind-state B, then action A is mind-state-optimizing" then I completely agree! For some reason, I read your sentence ("But I'm not sure that it makes sense to say that you necessarily like action A more than action B, given the way people use the term "like") and thought you were trying to say they necessarily like action A more..haha, oops

comment by Jiro · 2015-04-19T21:39:55.723Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, ask those friends if in a situation where "giving it their all" and "being men" made them less happy and made the world a worse place, whether they would still stick with their philosophies.

How about this answer: "If that makes me less happy and makes the world a worse place, the world would be decidedly weird in a lot of fundamental and ubiquitous ways. I am unable to comprehend what such a weird world would be like in enough detail to make meaningful statements about what I would do in it."

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T21:56:48.636Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Let's just focus on "giving it your all." What is "it"?? You surely can't give everything your all. How do you choose which goals to pursue? "Giving it your all" is a bit abstract.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T20:37:43.688Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, ask those friends if in a situation where "giving it their all" and "being men" made them less happy and made the world a worse place, whether they would still stick with their philosophies.

That's exactly what I asked them.

The first one took a little prodding but eventually gave a somewhat passable answer. And he's one of the smartest people I've ever met. The second one just refused to address the question. He said he wouldn't approach it that way and that his decisions aren't that calculated. I don't know how you want to explain it, but for pretty much every person I've ever met or read, sooner or later they seem to just flinch away from the truth. You seem to be particularly good at not doing that - I don't think you've demonstrated any flinching yet.

And see what I mean about how the ability to not flinch is often the limiting factor? In this case, the question wasn't really difficult in an intellectual way at all. It just requires you to make a legitimate effort to accept the truth. The truth is often uncomfortable to people, and thus they flinch away, don't accept it, and fail to make progress.

Thought about this a little more, and I have a question you might be able to answer. Is the subconscious considered psychological or physical?

I could definitely answer that! This really gets at the core of the map vs. the territory (maybe my favorite topic :) ). The physical/psychological distinction are just two maps we use to describe reality. In reality itself, the territory, there's no such thing as physical/psychological. If you look at the properties of individual atoms, they don't have any sort of property that says "I'm a physical atom" or "I'm a psychological atom". They only have properties like mass and electric charge (as far as we know).

I'm not sure how much you know about science, but I find the physics-chemistry-biology spectrum to be a good demonstration of the different levels of maps. Physics tries to model reality as precisely as possible (well, some types of physics that is; others aim to make approximations). Chemistry approximates reality using the equations of physics. Biology approximates reality using the equations of chemistry. And you could even add psychology in there and say that it approximates reality using the ideas (not even equations) of biology.

As far as psychology goes, a little history might be helpful. It's been a few years since I studied this, but here we go. In the early 1900s, behaviorism was the popular approach to psychology. They just tried to look at what inputs lead to what outputs. Ie. they'd say "if we expose people to situation X, how do they respond". The input is the situation, and the output is how they respond.

Now, obviously there's something going on that translates the input to the output. They had the sense that the translation happens in the brain, but it was a black box to them and they had no clue how it works. Furthermore, they sort of saw it as so confusing that there's no way they could know how it works. And so behaviorists were content to just study what inputs lead to what outputs, and to leave the black box as a mystery.

Then in the 1950s there was the cognitive revolution where they manned up and ventured into the black box. They thought that you could figure out what's going on in there and how the inputs get translated to outputs.

Now we're almost ready to go back to your question - I haven't forgotten about it. So cognitive psychology is sort of about what's going on in our head and how we process stuff. Regarding the subconscious, even though we're not conscious of it, there's still processing going on in that black box, and so the study of that processing still falls under the category of cognitive psychology. But again, cognitive psychology is a high-level map. We're not there yet, but we'd be better able to understand that black box with a lower level map like neuroscience. And we'd be able to learn even more about the black box using an even lower level map like physics.

If you have any other questions or even just want to chat informally about this stuff please let me know. I love thinking about this stuff and I love trying to explain things (and I like to think I'm pretty good at it) and you're really good at understanding things and asking good questions which often leads me to think about things differently and learn new things.

But I think that such ultra-religiosity is rare, and that most people are still ultimately psychologically motivated to either do what they think will make them happy, or what they think will make the world a better place.

Interesting. I had the impression that religious people had lots of other terminal values. So things like "obeying God" aren't terminal values? I had the impression that most religions teach that you should obey no matter what. That you should obey even if you think it'll lead to decreases in goodness and happiness. Could you clarify?

Edit: I just realized something that might be important. You emphasize the point that there's a lot of overlap between happiness/goodness and other potentially terminal values. I haven't been emphasizing it. I think we both agree that there is the big overlap. And I think we agree that "actions can either be mind-state optimizing, or not mind-state optimizing" and "terminal values are arbitrary".

I think you're right to put the emphasis on this and to keep bringing it up as an important reminder. Being important, I should have given it the attention it deserves. Thanks for persisting!

I feel like this is related to Belief in Belief but I can't quite articulate the connection. Maybe you'll understand, if not, I'll try harder to verbalize it.

It took me a while to understand belief in belief. I read the sequences about 2 years ago and didn't understand it until a few weeks ago as I was reading HPMOR. There was a point when one of the characters said he believed something but acted as if he didn't. Like if believed what he said he believed, he definitely would have done X because X is clearly in his interest. I just reread belief in belief, and now I feel like it makes almost complete sense to me.

From what I understand, the idea with belief in belief is that:

a) There's your model of how you think the world will look.

b) And then there's what you say you believe.

To someone who values consistency, a) and b) should be the same thing. But humans are weird, and sometimes a) and b) are different.

In the scenario you describe, there's a religious person who ultimately wants goodness and would choose goodness over his virtues if he had to pick, but he nevertheless claims that his virtues are terminal goals to him. And so as far as a) goes, you both agree that he would choose goodness over his virtues. But as far as b) goes, you claim to believe different things. What he claims to believe is inconsistent with his model of the world, and so I think you're right - this would be an example of belief in belief.

If you like mind-state A more than mind-state B, then action A is mind-state-optimizing

Yup, that's all I'm trying to say. No worries if you misunderstood :). I hadn't realized that this was ultimately all I was trying to say before talking to you and now I have, so thank you!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T23:11:06.394Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know how you want to explain it, but for pretty much every person I've ever met or read, sooner or later they seem to just flinch away from the truth. You seem to be particularly good at not doing that - I don't think you've demonstrated any flinching yet.

Well, thanks! How does that saying go? What is true is already so? Although in the context of this conversation, I can't say there's anything inherently wrong with flinching; it could help fulfill someone's terminal value of happiness. It someone doesn't feel dissatisfied with himself and his lack of progress, what rational reason is there for him to pursue the truth? Obviously, I would prefer to live in a world where relentlessly pursuing the truth led everyone to their optimal mind-states, but in reality this probably isn't the case. I think "truth" is just another instrumental goal (it's definitely one of mine) that leads to both happiness and goodness.

In reality itself, the territory, there's no such thing as physical/psychological.

Yeah! I think I first typed the question as "is it physical or psychological?" and then caught myself and rephrased, adding the word "considered" :) I just wanted to make sure I'm not using scientific terms with accepted definitions that I'm unaware of. Thanks for your answer!! You are really good at explaining stuff. I think the "cognitive psychology" is related to what I just read about last week in the ebook too, about neural networks, the two different brain map models, and the bleggs and rubes.

I just reread belief in belief, and now I feel like it makes almost complete sense to me.

I don't know your religious background, but if you don't have one, that's really impressive, given that you haven't actually experienced much belief-in-belief since Santa (if you ever did). But yeah, basically, this sentences summarizes perfectly:

But it is realistic to say the dragon-claimant anticipates as if there is no dragon in his garage, and makes excuses as if he believed in the belief.

Any time a Christian does anything but pray for others, do faith-strengthening activities, spread the gospel, or earn money to donate to missionaries, he is anticipating as if God/hell doesn't exist. I realized this, and sometimes tried to convince myself and others that we were acting wrongly by not being more devout. I couldn't shake the notion that spending time having fun instead of praying or sharing the gospel was somehow wrong because it went against God's will of wanting all men being saved, and I believed God's will, by definition, was right. But I still acted in accordance with my personal happiness some of the time. I said God's will was the only an end-in-itself, but I didn't act like it. So like you said, inconsistency. Thanks for helping me with the connection there.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T23:45:10.861Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How does that saying go?

http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Litany_of_Gendlin

Although in the context of this conversation, I can't say there's anything inherently wrong with flinching

I agree with you that there's nothing inherently wrong with it, but I don't think this is a case of someone making a conscious decision to pursue their terminal goals. I think it's a case of "I'm just going to follow my impulse without thinking".

I don't know your religious background, but if you don't have one, that's really impressive, given that you haven't actually experienced much belief-in-belief since Santa (if you ever did).

Haha thanks. I can't remember ever believing in belief, but studying this rationality stuff actually teaches you a lot about how other people think.

I was raised Jewish, but people around me were about as not religious as it gets. I think it's called Reform Judiasm. In practice it just means, "go to Hebrew school, have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, celebrate like 3-4 holidays a year and believe whatever you want without being a blatant atheist".

I'm 22 years old and I genuinely can't remember the last time I believed in any of it through. I had my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13 and I remember not wanting to do it and thinking that it's all BS. Actually I think I remember being in Hebrew school one time when we were being taught about God and I at the time believed in God, and I was curious how they knew that God existed and I asked, and they basically just said, "we just know", and I remember being annoyed by that answer. And now I'm remembering being confused because I wanted to know what God really was, and some people told me he was human-like and had form, and some people just told me he was invisible.

I will say that I thoroughly enjoy Jewish humor though, and I thank the Jews very much for that :). Jews love making fun of their Jewish mannerisms, and it's all in good fun. Even things that might seem mean are taken in good spirit.

Any time a Christian does anything but pray for others, do faith-strengthening activities, spread the gospel, or earn money to donate to missionaries, he is anticipating as if God/hell doesn't exist.

Hey, um... I have a question. I'm not sure if you're comfortable talking about it though. Please feel free to not answer.

It sounds really stressful believing that stuff. Like it seems that even people with the strongest faith spend some time deviating from those instructions and do things like have fun or pursue their personal interests. And then you'd feel guilty about that. Come to think of it, it sounds similar to my guilt for ever spending time not pursuing ambitions.

And what about believing in Hell? From what I understand, Christians believe that there's a very non-negligible chance that you end up in Hell, suffering unimaginably for eternity. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that if I believed that, I would be in a mental hospital crying hysterically and trying my absolute hardest to be a good person and avoid ending up in Hell. Death is one of my biggest fears, and I also fear the possibility of something similar to Hell, even though I think it's a small possibility. Anyway, I never understood how people could legitimately believe in Hell and just go about their lives like everything is normal.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-20T00:49:59.423Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

but I don't think this is a case of someone making a conscious decision to pursue their terminal goals.

Few people make that many conscious decisions! But it could be a subconscious decision that still fulfills the goal. For my little sister, this kind of thing actually is a conscious decision. Last Christmas break when I first realized that unlike almost all of my close friends and family in Wisconsin, I didn't like our governor all that much, she eventually cut me off, saying, "Dad and I aren't like you, Ellen. We don't like thinking about difficult issues." Honesty, self-awareness, and consciously-selected ugh fields run in the family, I guess.

I was raised Jewish, but people around me were about as not religious as it gets.

That's funny. I just met someone like you, probably also a Reform Jew, who told me some jokes and about all these Jewish stereotypes that I had never even heard of, and they seem to fit pretty well.

Hey, um... I have a question. I'm not sure if you're comfortable talking about it though. Please feel free to not answer.

It sounds really stressful believing that stuff. Like it seems that even people with the strongest faith spend some time deviating from those instructions and do things like have fun or pursue their personal interests. And then you'd feel guilty about that. Come to think of it, it sounds similar to my guilt for ever spending time not pursuing ambitions.

It's exactly like that, just multiplied times infinity (adjusted for scope insensitivity) because hell is eternal.

And what about believing in Hell? From what I understand, Christians believe that there's a very non-negligible chance that you end up in Hell, suffering unimaginably for eternity. I'm not exaggerating at all when I say that if I believed that, I would be in a mental hospital crying hysterically and trying my absolute hardest to be a good person and avoid ending up in Hell.

Yeah, hell is basically what led me away from Christianity. If you're really curious, how convenient, I wrote about it here to explain myself to my Christian friends. You'll probably find it interesting. You can see how recent this is for me and imagine what a perfect resource the rationality book has been. I just wish I had discovered it just a few weeks earlier, when I was in the middle of dozens of religious discussions with people, but I think I did an okay job explaining myself and talking about biases I had recognized in myself but didn't even know were considered "biases" like not giving much weight to evidence that opposes your preferred belief (label: confirmation bias) and the tendency to believe what people around you believe (label: I forget, but at least I now know it has one) and many more.

But how did I survive, believing in hell? Well, there's this wonderful book of the Bible called Ecclesiastes that seems to mostly contradict the rest of Christian teachings. Most people find it depressing. Personally, I loved it and read it every week to comfort myself. I still like it, actually. It's short, you could read it in no time, but here's a sample from chapter 3: 18-22:

18 I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath[c]; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” 22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-20T03:04:03.460Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Few people make that many conscious decisions!

Indeed.

But it could be a subconscious decision that still fulfills the goal.

True. In the case of my friend, I don't think it was, but in cases where it is, then I think that it could be a perfectly sensible approach (depending on the situation).

This was the relevant part of the conversation:

So what if it were the situation was: tell the truth and make you less happy, your family less happy, and the rest of the world unaffected, or lie.

i would never approach it that way. my decisions aren't that calculated (at least not consciously).

It's possible that he had legitimately decided earlier to not put that much calculation into these sorts of decisions, because he thinks that this strategy will best lead to his terminal goals of happiness or goodness or whatever. But this situation actually didn't involve any calculation at all. The calculations were done for him already - he just had to choose between the results.

To me it seems more likely that he a) is not at all used to making cost-benefit analyses and makes his decisions by listening to his impressions of how virtuous things seem. And b) in situations of choosing between options that both produce unpleasant feelings of unvirtuousness, he flinches away from the reality of the (hypothetical) situation.

I should mention that I think that >99% of people are quite quite stupid. Most people don't seem very agenty to me, given the way I define it. Most people seem to not put much thought behind the overwhelming majority of what they do and think and instead just respond to their immediate feelings and rationalize it afterwards. Most people don't seem to have the open-mindedness to give consideration to ideas that go against their impulses (this isn't to say that these impulses are useless), nor the strength to admit hard truths and choose an option in a lose-lose scenario.

Really, I don't know how to word my thoughts very well on this topic. Eliezer addresses a lot of the mistakes people make in his articles. It'd take some time for me to really write up my thoughts on this. And I know that it makes me sound like a Bad Person for thinking that >99% people are really stupid, but unfortunate truths have to be dealt with. The following isn't a particularly good argument, but perhaps it's an intuitive one: consider how we think people 200 years ago were stupid, and people 200 years ago think people 400 years ago were stupid etc. (I don't think this means that everyone will always be stupid. Ie. I think that not being stupid means something in an absolute sense, not just a relative one).

It's exactly like that, just multiplied times infinity (adjusted for scope insensitivity) because hell is eternal.

I'm truly truly sorry that you had experienced this. No one should ever have to feel that. If there's anything I could do or say to help, please let me know.

If you're really curious, how convenient, I wrote about it here to explain myself to my Christian friends.

I had actually seen the link when I looked back at your first post in the welcome thread at some point. I confess that I just skimmed it briefly and didn't pick up on the core idea. However, I've just read it more carefully.

I love your literary device. The Banana Tree thought experiment and analogy that is (I don't actually know what I literary device is). And the fact that people believe that - a) God is caring, AND b) God created Hell and set the circumstances up where millions/billions of people will end up there - is... let's just say inconsistent by any reasonable definition of the words consistent, caring and suffering.

In the same way that you talk about how God is bad for creating Hell, I actually think something similar about life itself. I'm a bit pessimistic. The happiness set point theory says that we have happiness set points and that we may temporarily deviate above or below them, but that we end up hovering back to our set points.

Furthermore, this set point seems to be quite neutral and quite consistent amongst humans. What I mean by neutral is that minute-to-minute, most people seem to be in a "chill" state of mind, not really happy or sad. And we don't spend too much time deviating from that. And there's also the reality that we're all destined to die. Why does life have to be mediocre? Why can't it be great? Why do we all have to get sick and die? I don't know how or if reality was "created", but to anthropomorphize, why did the creator make it like this? From the perspective of pre-origin-of-reality (if that's even a thing), I feel the same feelings about neutralness that you expressed about the badness of Hell (but obviously Hell is far worse than neutralness). From a pre-origin perspective, reality could just as easily have been amazing and wonderful, so the fact that it's neutral and fleeting seems... disappointing?

But how did I survive, believing in hell? Well, there's this wonderful book of the Bible called Ecclesiastes that seems to mostly contradict the rest of Christian teachings. Most people find depressing. Personally, I loved it and read it every week to comfort myself. I still like it, actually. It's short, you could read it in no time, but here's a sample from chapter 3: 18-22:

If it got you through believing in hell, I will most certainly read it.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-20T17:54:33.873Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To me it seems more likely that he a) is not at all used to making cost-benefit analyses and makes his decisions by listening to his impressions of how virtuous things seem. And b) in situations of choosing between options that both produce unpleasant feelings of unvirtuousness, he flinches away from the reality of the (hypothetical) situation.

So a possible distinction between virtue ethicists and consequentialists: virtue ethicists pursue their terminal values of happiness and goodness subconsciously, while consequentialists pursue the same terminal values consciously... as a general rule? And so the consequentialists seem more agenty because they put more thought into their decisions?

I think that not being stupid means something in an absolute sense, not just a relative one) I might agree with you about >99% of people being stupid. What exactly do you mean by it though? That they don't naturally break things down like a reductionist? That they rarely seem to take control of their own lives, just letting life happen to them? Or are you talking about knowledge? We've definitely increased our knowledge over the past 400 years, but I don't think we've really increased our intelligence.

And the fact that people believe that - a) God is caring, AND b) God created Hell and set the circumstances up where millions/billions of people will end up there - is... let's just say inconsistent by any reasonable definition of the words consistent, caring and suffering.

Yeah, that's what I was trying to get across, and it's why I titled the post "Do You Feel Selfish for Liking What You Believe"! I hesitated to include the analogy since it was the only part with the potential to offend people (two people accused me of mocking God) and taint their thoughts about the rest of the post, but in the end I left it, partly as a hopefully thought-provoking interlude between the more theological sections and mostly so I could give my page a more fun title than Deconversion Story Blog #59845374987.

The happiness set point theory makes sense! Actually, it makes a lot of sense, and I think it's connected to the idea that most people do not act in agenty ways! If they did, I think they could increase their happiness. Personally, I don't find that it applies to me much at all. My happiness has steadily risen throughout my life. I am happier now than ever before. I am now dubbing myself a super-agent. I think the key to happiness is to weed not only the bad stuff out of your life, but the neutral stuff as well. Let me share some examples:

  1. I got a huge scholarship after high school to pursue a career in the medicine field (I never expected to love my career, but that wasn't the goal; I wanted to fund lots of missionaries). I was good at my science classes, and I didn't dislike them, but I didn't like them either. I realized this after my first year of college. I acknowledged the sunk cost fallacy, cut my losses, wrote a long, friendly letter to the benefactor to assuage my guilt, and decided to pursue another easy high-income career instead, law, which would allow me to major in anything I wanted. So I sat down for a few hours, considered like 6 different majors, evaluated the advantages and disadvantages, and came up with a tie between Economics and Spanish. I liked Econ for many reasons, but mainly because the subject matter itself was truly fascinating to me; I liked Spanish not so much for the language itself but because the professor was hilarious, fun, casual, and flexible about test/paper deadlines, I could save money by graduating in only 3 years, and I would get the chance to travel abroad. I flipped a coin between the two, and majored in Spanish. Result: a lasting increase in happiness.

  2. My last summer after college, I was a cook at a boy scout camp. It was my third summer there. I worked about 80 hours a week, and the first two years I loved it because my co-workers were awesome. We would have giant (dumping 5 gallon igloos on each other in the middle of the kitchen, standing on the roof and dropping regular balloons filled with water on each other, etc) water fights in the kitchen, we would play cribbage in between meals, hang out together, etc. I also had two good friends among the counselors. Anyway, that third year, my friends had left and it was still a pretty good job in a pretty and foresty area, but it wasn't super fun like it had been. So after the first half of the summer, once I had earned enough to pay the last of my college debt, I found someone to replace me at my job and wrote out pages of really detailed instructions for everything (to assuage my guilt), and quit, to go spend a month "on vacation" at home with my family before leaving for Guatemala. Result: a lasting increase in happiness.

  3. I dropped down to work part-time in Guatemala to pursue competitive running more. I left as soon as I got a stress fracture. I chose a family to nanny for based on the family itself, knowing that would affect my day-to-day happiness more than the location (which also turned out to be great).

  4. My belief in God was about to cause not only logical discontent in my mind, but also a suboptimal level of real life contentment that I could not simply turn into an "ugh field" as I almost set off to pursue a career I didn't love to donate to missionaries. Whatever real-life security benefits it brought me were about to become negligible, so I finally spent a few very long and thoughtful days confronting my doubts and freed myself from that belief.

  5. Every day examples of inertia-breaking happiness-inducing activities: I'm going for a run and run past a lilac bush. It smells really good, so I stop my watch and go stand by it for a while. I'm driving in the car, and there's a pretty lookout spot, so I actually stop for a while. I do my favorite activities like board games, pickup sports, and nature stuff like hiking and camping every weekend, not just once in a while. I don't watch TV because there's always something I'd rather be doing. If I randomly wake up early, I consciously think about whether I would get more satisfaction out of lazing around in bed, or getting up to make a special breakfast for the kids I nanny for.

What's my point? I have very noticeably different happiness levels based on the actions I take. If I'm just going with the flow, taking life as it comes, I have an average amount of happiness compared to those around me; I occasionally do let myself slip into neutral situations. If I put myself in a super fun and amazing situation, I have way more happiness than those around me (which is a good thing, since happiness is contagious). Sometimes I just look at my life and can't help but laugh with delight at how wonderful it is. If I ever get a sense that my happiness is starting to neutralize/stabilize, I make a big change and get it back on the right track. For instance, I think that thanks to you, I have just realized that my happiness is not composed of pleasure alone, but also personal fulfillment. I always knew that "personal fulfillment" influenced other people, but I'm either just realizing/admitting this to myself, or my preferences are changing a bit as I get older, but I think it influences me too. So, I'm spending some time reading and thinking and writing, instead of only playing games and reading fiction and cooking and hiking. Result: I am even happier than I knew possible :)

Maybe I don't fully understand that happiness set point theory, but I don't think it is true for everyone, just 99% of people or so. I don't think it is true for me. That said, I will acknowledge that an individual's range of potential happiness levels is fixed. Some happy-born people, no matter how bad their lives get, will never become as unhappy as naturally unhappy people with seemingly good lives are.

tl;dr Being an agent is awesome!

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-20T23:27:10.657Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1,2,3,4,5...

[mind officially blown]

Ok, could we like Skype or something and you tell me everything you know about being happy and all of your experiences? I have a lot to learn and I enjoy hearing your stories!

Also, idk if you've come across this yet but what you're doing is something that us lesswrongers like to call WINNING. Which is something that lesswrongers actually seem to struggle with quite a bit. There's a handful of posts on it if you google. Anyway, not only are you killing it, but you seem to be doing it on purpose rather than just getting lucky. This amount of success with this amount of intentionality just must be analyzed.

You sound like you are somewhat intimidated by the people here and that they all seem super smart and everything. Don't be. Your ability to legitimately analyze things and steer your life in the direction you want it is way more rare than you'd guess. You should seriously write about your ideas and experiences here for everyone to benefit from.

Or maybe you shouldn't. Idk. You probably already know this, but never just listen to me or what someone else tells you (obviously). My point really is that I sense that others could legitimately benefit from your stories - idk if you judge that writing about it is the best thing for you to be doing though.

Sorry if I'm being weird. Idk. Anyway, here are the beginnings of a lot of questions I have:

  • Your idea to avoid not only negative things but also neutral things sounded pretty good at first, and then made a lot more sense when I heard your examples. I started thinking about my own life and the choices I've made and am starting to see that your approach probably would have made me better off. But... I can't help but point out that it can't always be true. Sometimes the upfront costs of mediocrity must be worth the longer term benefits right? But it seems like a great rule-of-thumb. Why? What makes a good rule-of-thumb? Well, my impression is that aside from being mostly right, it's about being mostly right in a way that people normally don't get right. Ie. being useful. And settling for neutralness instead of awesomeness seems to be a mistake that people make a lot. My friends give me shit for being close-minded (which I just laugh at). They point out how I almost never get convinced and change my mind (which is because normal people almost never think of things that I haven't taken into consideration myself already). Anyway, I think that this may actually change my outlook on life and lead to a change in behavior. Congratulations. ...so my question here was "do you just consider this a rule of thumb, and to what extent?"
  • This question is more just about you as a case study rather than your philosophy (I hope that doesn't make me sound too much like a robot) - how often do you find yourself sacrificing the short term for the long term? And what is your thinking in these scenarios? And in the scenarios when you choose not to? Stories are probably useful.
  • You say you did competitive running. Forgive me, but I've never understood competitive running. It's so painful! I get that lighter runs can be pleasant, but competitive running seems like prolonged pain to me. And so I'm surprised to hear that you did that. But I anticipate that you had good reason for doing so. Because 1) it seems to go against your natural philosophy, and you wouldn't deviate from your natural philosophy randomly (a Bayesian would say that the prior probability of this is low) and 2) you've demonstrated to be someone who reasons well and is a PC (~an agent).
  • There's an interesting conversation to be had about video games/TV and happiness vs. "physical motivators". I'm a huge anti-fan of videogames/TV too. I have a feeling you have some good thoughts on this.
  • Your thoughts on the extent to which strategic thinking is worth it. I see a cost-benefit of stress vs. increased likelihood of good decision. Also, related topic - I notice that you said you spent a big chunk of time making that major decision. One of my recent theories as to how I could be happier and more productive is to allocate these big chunks of time, and then not stress over optimizing the remaining small chunks of time, due to what I judge are the cost-benefit analyses. But historically, I tend to overthink things and suffer from the stress of doing so. A big part of this is because I see the opportunity to analyze things strategically everywhere, and every time I notice myself forgoing an opportunity, I kick myself. I know its not rational to pursue every analysis, but... my thoughts are a bit jumbled.
  • Just a note - I hope rationality doesn't taint you in any way. I sense that you should err on the site of maintaining your approach. Incremental increases in rationality usually don't lead to incremental increases in winning, so be careful. There's a post on that somewhere I could look up for you if you want. Have you thought about this? If so, what have your thoughts been?
  • Do find mocking reality to be fun? I do sometimes. That didn't make sense - let me explain. At some point in my junior year of college I decided to stop looking at my grades. I never took school seriously at all (since middle school at least). I enjoyed messing around. On the surface this may seem like I'm risking not achieving the outcomes I want, and that's true, but it has the benefit of being fun, and I think that people really underestimate this. It was easy for me to not take school seriously, but I should probably apply this in life more. Idk. I'm also sort of good at taking materialistic things really not seriously. I ripped up $60 once to prove to myself that it really doesn't matter :0. And it made me wayyy too happy, which is why I haven't done it since (idk if that's really really weird of me or not). I would joke around with my friends and say, "Yo, you wanna rip?". And I really was offering them my own money up to say $100 to rip up so they could experience it for themselves. (And I fully admit that this was selfish because that money could have gone to starving kids, but so could a lot of the money I and everyone else spends. It was simply a trade of money for happiness, and it was one of the more successful ones I've made.) Anyway, I noticed that you flipped a coin to decide your major and got some sort of impression that something like this is your reasoning. But I only estimate a 20-30% probability of that.
  • I'm curious how much your happiness actually increased throughout your life. You seem to be evidence against the set point theory, which is huge. Or rather, that the set point theory in its most basic form is missing some things.
  • Actually, I should say that I'm probably getting a little carried away with my impressions and praise. I have to remember to take biases into account and acknowledge and communicate the truth. I have a tendency to get carried away when I come across certain ideas (don't we all?). But I genuinely don't think I'm getting that carried away.
  • Thoughts on long term planning.
  • Um, I'll stop for now.

Time to go question every life decision I've ever made.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-21T04:00:02.147Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Also, idk if you've come across this yet but what you're doing is something that us lesswrongers like to call WINNING. Which is something that lesswrongers actually seem to struggle with quite a bit. There's a handful of posts on it if you google. Anyway, not only are you killing it, but you seem to be doing it on purpose rather than just getting lucky. This amount of success with this amount of intentionality just must be analyzed.

Hahaha, reading such fanmail just increased my happiness even more :) Sure, we can skype sometime. I'm going to wrap up my thoughts on terminal values first and then I'll respond more thoroughly to all this, and maybe you can help me articulate some ideas that would be useful to share!

In the meantime, this reminded me of another little happiness tip I could share. So I don't know if you've heard of the five "love languages" but they are words of affirmation, acts of service, quality time, gifts, and physical touch. Everyone gives and receives in different ways. For example, I like receiving words of affirmation, and I like giving quality time. My mom likes receiving in physical touch, and giving in acts of service. The family I nanny for (in general) likes receiving in quality time and giving in gifts (like my new kindle which they gave me just in time to get the rationality ebook!) For people that you spend a lot of time with-family, partner, best friends, boss, co-workers-this can be worthwhile to casually bring up in conversation. Now when people know words of affirmation make me happy, they'll be more likely to let me know when they think of something good about me or appreciate something I do. If I know the family I nanny for values quality time, I might sit around the table and chat with them an extra hour even though I'm itching to go read more of the rationality book. I know my mom values physical touch, so I hug her a lot and stuff even though I'm not generally super touchy. Happiness all around, although these decisions do get to be habits pretty quickly and don't require much conscious effort :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-21T15:35:10.925Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to wrap up my thoughts on terminal values first and then I'll respond more thoroughly to all this

Ok, take your time. And sorry for continuing to bombard you.

and maybe you can help me articulate some ideas that would be useful to share!

Happily!

In the meantime, this reminded me of another little happiness tip I could share.

Interesting. I'll ask more about this in the future when you're ready.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-21T16:44:49.734Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/m3b/do_terminal_virtues_exist/

Just submitted my first article! I really should have asked you to edit it... if you have any suggestions of stuff/wording to change, let me know, quick!

Anyway, I'll go reply to your happiness questions now :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-21T17:06:12.104Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Just submitted my first article! I really should have asked you to edit it... if you have any suggestions of stuff/wording to change, let me know, quick!

First very quick glance, there's some things I would change. I'll try to offer my thoughts quickly.

Edit: LW really need a better way of collaboration. Ex. https://medium.com/about/dont-write-alone-8304190661d4. One of the things I want to do is revamp this website. Helping rational people interact and pursue things seems to be relatively high impact.

Anyway, I'll go reply to your happiness questions now :)

Hey, no rush. It's a big topic and I don't want to overwhelm you (or me!) by jumping around so much. Was there anything else you wanted to finish up first? Do you want to take a break from this intense conversation? I really don't want to put any pressure on you.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-21T17:10:59.071Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks so much!!

Ok, yeah, let's take a little break! I'm actually about to go on a road trip to the Grand Canyon, and should really start thinking about the trip and get together some good playlists/podcasts to listen to on the drive. I'll be back on Tuesday though and will be ready jump back into the conversation :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-21T17:13:27.650Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Awesome! Ok, whatever works for you.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-28T20:30:24.223Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also:

I learned something new and seemingly relevant to this discussion listening to a podcast on the way home from the Grand Canyon: Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which as knowledgeable as you seem, you're probably already familiar with. Anyway, I think I've been doing just fine on the bottom four my whole life. But here's the fifth one:

Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

So it seems like I'm working backwards on this self-actualization list now. I've had tons of super cool peak experiences already. Now, for the first time, I'm kind of interested in personal growth, too. On the page I linked, it talked about characteristics of self-actualizers and behavior of self-actualizers... I think it all describes me already, except for "taking responsibility and working hard" and maybe I should just trust this psychology research and assume that if I become ambitious about something, it will actually make me even happier. What do you think? Have you learned much psychology? How relevant is this to rationality and intentionally making "winning" choices?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-29T00:38:14.262Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

:) I remember reading about it for the first time in the parking lot when I was waiting for my Mom to finish up at the butcher. (I remember the place I was at when I learned a lot of things)

Psychology is very interesting to me and I know a pretty good amount about it. As far as things I'm knowledgeable about, I know a decent amount about: rationality, web development, startups, neuroscience and psychology (and basketball!). And I know a little bit about economics, science in general, philosophy, and maybe business.

Anyway, I think I've been doing just fine on the bottom four my whole life. But here's the fifth one:

Interesting. I actually figured that you were good with the top one too. For now, I'll just say that I see it as more of a multiplier than a hole to be filled up. Ie. someone with neutral self-actualization would mostly be fine - you multiply zero (neutral) by BigNumber. Contrast this with a hole-to-be-filled-up view, where you're as fulfilled as the hole is full. (Note that I just made this up; these aren't actual models, as far as I know). Anyway, in the multiplier view, neutral is much much better than negative, because the negative is multiplied by BigNumber. So please be careful!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-28T20:23:10.099Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hi again :) I'm back from vacation and ready to continue our happiness discussion! I'm not sure how useful this will be since happiness is so subjective, but I'm more than willing to be analyzed as a case study, it sounds fun!

You sound like you are somewhat intimidated by the people here and that they all seem super smart and everything. Don't be. Your ability to legitimately analyze things and steer your life in the direction you want it is way more rare than you'd guess.

Oh, I still am! I wouldn't trade my ability to make happiness-boosting choices for all their scientific and historical knowledge, but that doesn't mean I'm not humbled and impressed by it. Now for your bullet points...

  • Avoiding neutralness isn't actually a rule of thumb I've consciously followed or anything. It just seemed like a good way to summarize the examples I thought of of acting to increase my happiness. It does seem like a useful rule of thumb though, and I'm psyched that you think it could help you/others to be happier :) I might even consciously follow it myself from now on. But you ask whether the upfront costs of avoiding mediocrity are sometimes worth the long term benefits... you may well be right, but I can't come up with any examples off the top of my head. Can you?
  • I don't have any clear strategies for choosing between short-term vs. long-term happiness. I think my general tendency is to favor short-term happiness, kind of a "live in the moment" approach to life. Obviously, this can't be taken too far, or we'll just sit around eating ice cream all day. Maybe a good rule of thumb - increase your short-term happiness as much as possible without doing anything that would have clear negative affects on your long-term happiness? Do things that make you happy in the short-term iff you think there's a very low probability you'll regret them? I think in general people place too much emphasis on the long-term. Like me choosing to change my major. If I ultimately were going to end up in a career I didn't love, and I had already accepted that, what difference did it make what I majored in? In the long term, no predictable difference. But in the short-term, those last 2 years would quite possibly account for over 2% of my life. Which is more than enough to matter, more than enough to justify a day or two in deep contemplation. I think that if I consistently act in accordance with my short-term happiness, (and avoiding long-term unhappiness like spending all my money and having nothing left for retirement or eating junk food and getting fat) I'll consistently be pretty happy. Could I achieve greater total happiness if I focused only on the long-term? Maybe! But I seem so happy right now, the potential reward doesn't seem worth the risk.
  • I love that you asked about my competitive running. I do enjoy running, but I rarely push myself hard when I'm running on my own. The truth is, I wouldn't have done it on my own. Running was a social thing for me. My best friend there was a Guatemalan "elite" (much lower standard in for this there than in the US, of course), and I was just a bit faster than she was. So we trained together, and almost every single practice was a little bit easier for me than it was for her. Gradually, we both improved a ton and ran faster and faster times, but I was always training one small notch below what I could have been doing, so it didn't get too painful. In the races, my strategy was always negative splits - start out slowly, then pass people at the end. This was less painful and more fun. Of course, there was some pain involved, but I could short-term sacrifice a few minutes of pain in a race for long-term benefits of prize money and feeling good about the race the whole next week. But again, it was the social aspect that got me into competitive running. I never would have pursued it all on my own; it was just a great chance to hang out with friends, practice my Spanish, stay fit, and get some fresh air.
  • Is strategic thinking worth it? I have no idea! I don't think strategically on purpose; I just can't help it. As far as I know, I was born thinking this way. We took a "strengths quest" personality test in college and "Strategic" was my number one strength. (My other four were relator, ideation, competitive, and analytical). I'm just wired to do cost-benefit analyses, I guess. Come to think of it, those strengths probably play a big role in my happiness and rationality. But for someone who isn't instinctively strategic, how important are cost-benefit analyses? I like your idea of allocating large chunks of time, but not worrying too much in the day-to-day stuff. This kind of goes back to consequentialism vs. virtue ethics. Ask yourself what genuinely makes you happy. If it's satisfying curiosity, just aim to 'become more curious' as an instrumental goal. Maybe you'll spend time learning something new when you actually would have been happier spending that time chatting with friends, but instrumental goals are convenient and if they're chosen well, I don't think they'll steer you wrong very often. Then, if you need to, maybe set aside some time every so often and analyze how much time you spend each day doing which activities. Maybe rank them according to how much happiness they give you (both long and short term, no easy task) and see if you spend time doing something that makes you a little happy, but may not be the most efficient way to maximize your happiness. Look for things that make you really happy that you don't do often enough. Don't let inertia control you too much, either. There's an old saying among runners that the hardest step is the first step out the door, and it's true. I know I'll almost always be glad once I'm running, and feel good afterward. If I ever run for like 5 minutes and still don't feel like running, I'll just turn around and go home. This has happened maybe 5 times, so overall, forcing myself to run even when I don't think I feel like it has been a good strategy.
  • Thanks! I don't think it will taint me too much. Honestly, I think I had exceptionally strong rationality skills even before I started reading the ebook. Some people have lots of knowledge, great communication skills, are very responsible, etc...and they're rational. I haven't developed those other skills so well (yet), but at least I'm pretty good at thinking. So yeah, honestly I don't think that reading it is going to make me happy in that it's going to lead me to make many superior decisions (I think we agree I've been doing alright for myself) but it is going to make me happy in other ways. Mostly identity-seeking ways, probably.
  • I got a kick out of your money ripping story. I can definitely see how that could make you way more happy than spending it on a few restaurant meals, or a new pair of shoes, or some other materialistic thing :) I wouldn't do it myself, but I think it's cool! As for not taking school seriously for the sake of fun, I can relate... I took pride in strategically avoiding homework, studying for tests and writing outlines for papers during other classes, basically putting in as little effort as I could get away with and still get good grades (which I wanted 90% because big scholarship money was worth the small trade-off and 10% simply because my competitive nature would be annoyed if someone else did better than I did). In hindsight, I think it would have been cool to pay more attention in school and come out with some actual knowledge, but would I trade that knowledge for the hours of fun hanging out with my neighbors and talking and playing board games with my family after school? Probably not, so I can't even say I regret my decision. As for me flipping a coin... I think that goes with your question about how much cost-benefit analysis it's actually worthwhile to do. I seriously considered like 6 majors, narrowed it down to 2, and both seemed like great choices. I think I (subconsciously) thought of diminishing marginal returns and risk-reward here. I had already put a lot of thought into this, and there was no clear winner. What was the chance I would suddenly have a new insight and a clear winner would emerge if I just invested a few more hours of analysis, even with no new information? Not very high, so I quit while I was ahead and flipped a coin.
  • How much has my happiness actually increased? Some (probably due to an increase in autonomy when I left home) but not a ton, really... because I believe in a large, set happiness range, and the decisions I make keep me at the high end of it. But like I said, sometimes it will decrease to a "normal" level, and it's soo easy to imagine just letting it stay there and not taking action.
  • I don't think you're getting carried away, either, but maybe we just think really alike :) but happiness is important to everyone, so if there's any way it could be analyzed to help people, it seems worth a try
  • Long-term planning depends on an individual's values. Personally I think most people overrate it a bit, but it all depends on what actually makes a person happy.
comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-20T19:23:06.116Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So a possible distinction between virtue ethicists and consequentialists: virtue ethicists pursue their terminal values of happiness and goodness subconsciously, while consequentialists pursue the same terminal values consciously... as a general rule?

I think that's "true" in practice, but not in theory. An important distinction to make.

And so the consequentialists seem more agenty because they put more thought into their decisions?

Definitely.

What exactly do you mean by it though?

The problem is that I'm not completely sure :/. I think a lot of it falls under the category of being attached to their beliefs though. Here's an example: I was just at lunch with a fellow programmer. He said that "the more programmers you put on a project the better", and he meant it as an absolute rule. I pointed out the incredibly obvious point that it depends on the trade off between how much they cost and how much profit they bring in. He didn't want to believe that he was wrong, and so he didn't actually give consideration to what I was saying, and he continues to believe that "the more programmers you put on a project the better".

This is an extreme case, but I think that analogous things happen all the time. The way I think about it, knowledge and aptitude don't even really come in to play, because close-mindedness limits you so much earlier on than knowledge and aptitude do. "Not stupid" is probably a better term than "smart". To me, in order to be "not stupid", you just have to be open-minded enough to give things an honest consideration and not stubbornly stick to what you originally believe no matter what.

In short, I think I'd say that, to me, it's mostly about just giving an honest effort (which is a lot harder than it sounds).

I hesitated to include the analogy since it was the only part with the potential to offend people (two people accused me of mocking God) and taint their thoughts about the rest of the post,

What are your objectives with this blog? To convince people? Because you like writing?

Edit: idea - maybe your way of having an impact on the world is to just keep living your awesome and happy life and lead by example. Maybe you could blog about it too. Idk. But I think that just seeing examples of people like you is inspiring, and could really have a pretty big impact. It's inspired me.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-20T20:21:53.316Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think that's "true" in practice, but not in theory. An important distinction to make.

Haha, what?? Interesting.

To me, in order to be "not stupid", you just have to be open-minded enough to give things an honest consideration and not stubbornly stick to what you originally believe no matter what.

Aha, so basically, to you, stupidity involves a lot of flinching away from ideas or evidence that contradict someone's preconceived notions about the world. And lack of effort at overcoming bias. Yeah, most people are like that, even lots of people with high IQ's and phd's. I think you're defining "stupid" as "irrational thinking + ugh fields" which was what I originally thought you meant until I read your example about past vs. present. Why do you think we'll be less stupid in the future then? Just optimism, or is this connected to your thoughts on AI?

What are your objectives with this blog? To convince people? Because you like writing?....Maybe your way of having an impact on the world is to just keep living your awesome and happy life and lead by example. Maybe you could blog about it too.

In the case of the only three posts I've done, they were just to defend myself, encourage anyone else who was going through similar doubts, and stir up some cognitive dissonance. I do like writing though (not so much writing itself, I have a hard time choosing the right words... but I love sharing ideas) and maybe I will soon blog about how rationality can improve happiness :) :) I actually am just about to write a "Terminal Virtues" post and share my first idea on LW. And then I want to write something with far more practical value, a guide to communicating effectively and getting along well with less rational people :)

But I'll say quickly that you seem like the most awesome person I've ever "met". And I'm going to have to get some advice from you about being happy

Aw, well thanks! I am enjoying this conversation immensely, partly because I've never talked to someone else who was so strategic, analytic, and open-minded before, and knowledgeable, and I really appreciate those qualities. And partly because I feel like even the occasional people who think I'm awesome don't appreciate me for quite the same reason I've always "appreciated" myself, which I always thought was "because I'm pretty good at thinking" which I can now call "rationality" :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-21T04:21:57.050Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Haha, what?? Interesting

In practice, it seems to me that a lot of virtue ethicists value happiness and goodness a lot. But in theory, there's nothing about being a virtue ethicist that says anything about what the virtues themselves are.

But I'm realizing that my incredibly literal way of thinking about this may not be that useful and that the things you're paying attention to may be more useful. But at the same time, being literal and precise is often really important. I think that in this case both we could do both, and as a team we have :)

Yeah, most people are like that, even lots of people with high IQ's and phd's.

Exactly. Another possibly good way to put it. People who are smart in the traditional way (high IQ, PhD...) have their smartness limited very much to certain domains. Ie. there might be a brilliant mathematician who has proved incredibly difficult theorems, but just doesn't have the strength to admit that certain basic things are true. I see a lot of traditionally smart people act very stupidly in certain domains. To me, I judge people at their worst when it comes to "not stupidness", which is why I have perhaps extreme views. Idk, it makes sense to me. There's something to be said for the ability to not stoop to a really low level. Maybe that's a good way to put it - I judge people based on the lowness they're capable of stooping to. (Man, I'm loosing track of how many important things I've come across in talking to you.)

And similarly with morality - I very much judge people by how they act when it's difficult to be nice. I hate when people meet someone new and conclude that they're "so nice" just because they acted socially appropriate by making small talk and being polite. Try seeing how that person acts when they're frustrated and are protected by the anonymity of being in a car. The difference between people at their best and their worst is huge. This clip explains exactly what I mean better than I could. (I love some of the IMO great comedians like Louis CK, Larry David and Seinfeld. I think they make a handful of legitimately insightful points about society, and they articulate and explain things in ways that make so much sense. In an intellectual sense, I understand how difficult it is to communicate things in such an intuitive way. Every little subtlety is important, and you really have to break things down to their essence. So I'm impressed by a lot of comedians in an intellectual sense, and I don't know many others who think like that.).

And I take pride in never/very rarely stooping to these low levels. I love basketball and play pick up a lot and it's amazing how horrible people are and how low they stoop. Cheating, bullying, fighting, selfishness, pathetic and embarrassing ego dances etc. I never cheat, ever (and needless to say I would never do any of the other pathetic stuff). And people know this and never argue with me (well, not everyone).

not so much writing itself, I have a hard time choosing the right words... but I love sharing ideas

Oh. I love trying to find the right words. Well, sometimes it could be difficult, but I find it to be a "good difficult". One of my favorite things to do, and one of the two or three things I think I'm most skilled at, is breaking things down to their essence. And that's often what I think choosing the right words is about. (Although these comments aren't exactly works of art :) )

maybe I will soon blog about how rationality can improve happiness

To the extent that your goal here is to influence people, I think it's worth being strategic about. I could offer some thoughts if you'd like. For example, that blogger site you're using doesn't seem to get much audience - a site like https://medium.com/ might allow you to reach more people (and has a much nicer UI).

This is a really small point though, and there are a lot of other things to consider if you want to influence people. http://www.2uo.de/influence/ is a great book on how to influence people. It's one of the Dark Arts of rationality. If you're interested, I'd recommend putting it on your reading list. If you're a little interested, I'd just recommend taking 5-10 minutes to read that post. If you're not very interested, which something tells me is somewhat likely to be true, just forget it :)

One reason why I like writing is so I could refer people to my writing instead of having to explain it 100 times. Not that I ever mind explaining things, but at the same time it is convenient to just link to an article.

But a lot of people "write for themselves". Ie. they like to get their ideas down in words or whatever, but they make it available in case people want to read it.

I am enjoying this conversation immensely, partly because I've never talked to someone else who was so strategic, analytic, and open-minded before, and knowledgeable, and I really appreciate those qualities.

I try :)

even the occasional people who think I'm awesome

Are you trying to be modest? I can't imagine anyone not thinking that you're awesome.

don't appreciate me for quite the same reason I've always "appreciated" myself, which I always thought was "because I'm pretty good at thinking" which I can now call "rationality" :)

Yea, I feel the same way, although it doesn't bother me. It takes a rational person to appreciate another rational person ("real recognize real"), and I don't have very high expectations of normal people.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-18T21:08:33.689Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I've tried to clarify my thoughts a bit:

Terminal values are ends-in-themselves. They are psychological motivators, reasons that explain decisions. (Physical motivators like addiction and inertia can also explain our decisions, but a rational person might wish to overcome them.) For most people, the only true terminal values are happiness and goodness. There is almost always significant overlap between the two. Someone who truly has a terminal value that can't be traced back to happiness or goodness in some way is either (a) ultra-religious or (b) a special case for the social sciences.

Happiness ("likes") refers to the optimalness of your mind-state. Hedonistic pleasure and personal fulfillment are examples of things that contribute to happiness.

Goodness refers to what leads to a happier outcome for others.

Preferences ("wants") are what we tend to choose. These can be based on psychological or physical motivators.

Instrumental values are goals or virtues that we think will best satisfy the terminal values of happiness and goodness.

We are not always aware of what actually leads to optimal mind-states in ourselves and others.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T22:56:58.170Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sounds good to me! Given the way you've defined things.

Edit: So what do you conclude about morality from this?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T20:22:13.353Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Good question. I conclude that morality (which, as far as I can tell, seems like the same thing as goodness and altruism) does exist, that our desire to be moral is the result of evolution (thanks for your scientific backup) just as much as our selfish desires are results of evolution. Whatever you call happiness, goodness falls into the same category. I think that some people are mystified when they make decisions that inefficiently optimize their happiness (like all those examples we talked about), but they shouldn't be. Goodness is a terminal value too.

Also, morality is relative. How moral you are can be measured by some kind of altruism ratio that compares your terminal values of happiness and goodness. Someone can be "more moral" than others in the sense that he would be motivated more by goodness/altruism than he is by his own personal satisfaction, relative to them.

Is there any value in this idea? No practical value, except whatever personal satisfaction value an individual assigns to clarity. I wouldn't even call the idea a conclusion as much as a way to describe the things I understand in a slightly more clear way. I still don't particularly like ends-in-themselves.

Reduction time:

Why should I pursue clarity or donate to effective charities that are sub-optimal happiness-maximizers?

Because those are instrumental values.

Why should I pursue these instrumental values?

Because they lead to happiness and goodness.

Why should I pursue happiness and goodness?

Because they're terminal values.

Why should I pursue these terminal values?

Wrong question. Terminal values, by definition, are ends-in-themselves. So here the real question is not why should I, but rather, why do I pursue them? It's because the alien-god of evolution gave us emotions that make us want to be happy and good...

Why did the alien-god give us emotions?

The alien-god does not act rationally. There is no "why." The origin of emotion is the result of random chance. We can explain only its propogation.

Why should we be controlled by emotions that originated through random chance?

Wrong question. It's not a matter of whether they should control us. It's a fact that they do.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T21:03:49.730Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I conclude that morality...

I pretty much agree. But I have one quibble that I think is worth mentioning. Someone else could just say, "No, that's not what morality is. True morality is...".

Actually, let me give you a chance to respond to that before elaborating. How would you respond to someone who says this?

Reduction time:

Very very well put. Much respect and applause.

One very small comment though:

The origin of emotion is the result of random chance.

I see where you're coming from with this. If someone else heard this out of context they'd think, "No... emotion originates from evolutionary pressure". But then you'd say, "Yeah, but where do the evolutionary pressures come from". The other person would say, "Uh, ultimately the big bang I guess." And you seem to be saying, "exactly, and that's the result of random chance".

Some math-y/physicist-y person might argue with you here about the big bang being random. I think you could provide a very valid bayesian counter argument saying that probability is in the mind, and that no one has a clue how the big bang/origin came to be, and so to anyone and everyone in this world, it is random.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T21:45:22.002Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks :)

Yeah, I have no clue what evolutionary pressure means, or what the big-bang is, or any of that science stuff yet. sigh I really don't enjoy reading hard science all that much, but I enjoy ignorance even less, so I'll probably try to educate myself more about that stuff soon after I finish the rationality book.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T22:00:57.236Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Ok, that's perfectly fair. My honest opinion is that it really isn't very practical and if it doesn't interest you, it probably isn't worth it. The value of it is really just if you're curious about the nature of reality on a fundamental level. But as far as what's practical, I think it's skills like breaking things down like a reductionist, open mindedness, knowledge of what biases we're prone to etc.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T22:03:42.210Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I guess one person has only so much time... at least for now... I am curious, but maybe not quite enough to justify the immense amount of time and effort it would take me to thoroughly understand.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T21:33:52.505Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I pretty much agree. But I have one quibble that I think is worth mentioning. Someone else could just say, "No, that's not what morality is. True morality is...".

Example case:

True morality is following God's will? Basically everyone who says this believes "God wants what's best for us, even when we don't understand it." Their understanding of God's will and their intuitive idea of what's best for people rarely conflict though. But here's an extreme example of when it could: Let's say someone strongly believes (even in belief) in God, and for some reason thinks that God wants him to sacrifice his child. This action would go against his (unrecognized) terminal value of goodness, but he could still do it, subconsciously satisfying his (unrecognized) terminal value of personal happiness. He takes comfort in his belief in God and heaven. He takes comfort in his community. To not sacrifice the child would be to deny God and lose that comfort. These thoughts obviously don't happen on a conscious level, but they could be intuitions?

Idk, feel free to throw more "true morality is..." scenarios at me...

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T22:24:06.107Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Their understanding of God's will and their intuitive idea of what's best for people rarely conflict though.

What if it does conflict? Does that then change what morality is?

And to play devils advocate, suppose the person says, "I don't care what you say, true morality is following God's will no matter what the effect is on goodness or happiness." Hint: they're not wrong.

I hope I'm not being annoying. I could just make my point if you want.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T22:44:07.952Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But it seems like morality is just a word people use to describe how they think they should act! People think they should act in all sorts of ways, but it seems to me like they're subconsciously acting to achieve happiness and/or goodness.

As for your quote... such a person would be very rare, because almost anyone who defines morality as God's will believes that God's will is good for humanity, even if she doesn't understand why. This belief, and acting in accordance with it, brings her happiness in the form of security. I don't think anyone says to herself "God has an evil will, but I will serve him anyway." Do you?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-19T22:56:44.540Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But it seems like morality is just a word people use to describe how they think they should act!

It often is. My point is that morality is just a word, and that it unfortunately doesn't have a well agreed upon meaning. And so someone could always just say "but I define it this way".

And so to ask what morality is is really just asking how you define it. On the other hand, asking what someone's altruism or preference ratios are is a concrete question.

You seem to be making the point that in practice, peoples definitions of morality usually can be traced back to happiness or goodness, even if they don't know or admit it. I sense that you're right.

Do you?

I doubt that there are many people who think that God has an evil will. But I could imagine that there are people who think that "even if I knew that God's will was evil, following it would still be the right thing to do."

comment by dxu · 2015-04-20T00:09:11.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I doubt that there are many people who think that God has an evil will. But I could imagine that there are people who think that "even if I knew that God's will was evil, following it would still be the right thing to do."

Sure. But any definition of "right" that gives that result is more or less baked into in the definition of "God's will" (e.g. "God's will is, by definition, right!"), and it's not the sort of "right" I care about.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-20T00:21:43.938Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

and it's not the sort of "right" I care about

I think that's what it often comes down to.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-19T23:48:53.833Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And so to ask what morality is is really just asking how you define it.

Yay, I got your point. Morality is definitely a more ambiguous term. You've helped me realize I shouldn't use it synonymously with goodness.

You seem to be making the point that in practice, peoples definitions of morality usually can be traced back to happiness or goodness, even if they don't know or admit it.

Yes, my point exactly.

But I could imagine that there are people who think that "even if I knew that God's will was evil, following it would still be the right thing to do."

I am trying really hard to imagine these people, and I can't do it. Even if God's will includes "justice" and killing anyone who doesn't believe, even if it's a baby whose only defect is "original sin," people will still say that this "just" will of God's is moral and right.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-20T00:26:12.303Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I am trying really hard to imagine these people, and I can't do it.

Hmm. Well you know a ton more about this than me so I believe you.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-18T02:06:19.438Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The way I'm (operationally) defining Preferences and words like happy/utility, Preferences are by definition what provides us what the most happiness/utility. Consider this thought experiment:

You start off as a blank slate and your memory is wiped. You then are experience some emotion, and you experience this emotion to a certain magnitude. Let's call this "emotion-magnitude A".

You then experience a second emotion-magnitude - emotion-magnitude B. Now that you have experienced two emotion-magnitudes, you could compare them and say which one was more preferable.

You then experience a third emotion magnitude, and insert it into the list [A, B] according to how preferable it was. And you do this for a fourth emotion-magnitude. And a fifth. Until eventually you do it for every possible emotion-magnitude (aka conscious state aka mind-state). You then end up with a list of every possible emotion-magnitude ranked according to desirability. [1...n]. These, are your Preferences.

So the way I'm defining Preferences, it refers to how desirable a certain mind-state is relative to other possible mind-states.

Now think about consequentialism and how stuff leads to certain consequences. Part of the consequences is the mind-state it produces for you.

Say that:

  • Action 1 -> mind-state A
  • Aciton 2 -> mind-state B

Now remember mind-states could be ranked according to how preferable they are, like in the thought experiment. Suppose that mind-state A is preferable to mind-state B.

From this, it seems to me that the following conclusion is unavoidable:

Action 1 is preferable to action 2.

In other words, Action 1 leads you to a state of mind that you prefer over the state of mind that Action 2 leads you to. I don't see any ways around saying that.

To make it more concrete, let's say that Action 1 is "going on vacation" and Action 2 is "giving to charity".

  • IF going on vacation produces mind-state A.
  • IF giving to charity produces mind-state B.
  • IF mind-state A is preferable to mind-state B.
  • THEN going on vacation leads you to a mind-state that is preferable to the one that giving to charity leads you to.

I call this "preferable", but in this case words and semantics might just be distracting. As long as you agree that "going on vacation leads you to a mind-state that is preferable to the one that giving to charity leads you to" when the first three bullet points are true, I don't think we disagree about anything real, and that we might just be using different words for stuff.

Thoughts?


Don't you wonder why a rational human being would choose terminal goals that aren't?.

I do, but mainly from a standpoint in being interested in human psychology. I also wonder from a standpoint of hoping that terminal goals aren't arbitrary and that they have an actual reason for choosing what they choose, but I've never found their reasoning to be convincing, and I've never found their informational social influence to be strong enough evidence for me to think that terminal goals aren't arbitrary.

So based on biology and evolution, it seems like a fair assumption that humans naturally put ourselves first, all the time. But is it at all possible for humans to have evolved some small, pure, genuine concern for others (call it altruism/morality/love) that coexists with our innate selfishness? Like one human was born with an "altruism mutation" and other humans realized he was nice to have around, so he survived, and the gene is still working its way through society, shifting our preference ratios? It's a pleasant thought, anyway.

:))) [big smile] (Because I hope what I'm about to tell you might address a lot of your concerns and make you really happy.)

I'm pleased to tell you that we all have "that altruism mutation". Because of the way evolution works, we evolve to maximize the spread of our genes.

So imagine that there's two Mom's. They each have 5 kids, and they each enter an unfortunate situation where they have to choose between themselves an their kids.

  • Mom 1 is selfish and chooses to save herself. Her kids then die. She goes on to not have any more kids. Therefore, her genes don't get spread at all.
  • Mom 2 is unselfish and chooses to save her kids. She dies, but her genes live on through her kids.

The outcome of this situation is that there are 0 organisms with selfish genes, and 5 with unselfish genes.

And so humans (and all other animals, from what I know) have evolved a very strong instinct to protect their kin. But as we know, preference ratios diminish rapidly from there. we might care about our friends and extended family, and a little less about our extended social group, and not so much about the rest of people (which is why we go out to eat instead of paying for meals for 100s of starving kids).

As far as evolution goes, this also makes sense. A mom that acts altruistically towards her social circle would gain respect, and the tribes respect may lead to them protecting that mom's children, thus increasing the chances they survive and produces offspring themselves. Of course, that altruistic act by the mom may decrease her chances of surviving to produce more offspring and to take her of her current offspring, but it's a trade-off.* On the other hand, acting altruistically towards a random tribe across the world is unlikely to improve her children's chances of surviving and producing offspring, so the mom's that did this have historically been less successful at spreading genes than the mom's that didn't.

*Note: using mathematical models to simulate and test these trade-offs is the hard part of studying evolution. The basic ideas are actually quite simple.

But honestly, I literally didn't even know what evolution was until several weeks ago though

I'm really sorry to hear that. I hope my being sorry isn't offensive in any way.

so I don't really belong bringing up any science at all yet;

Not so! Science is all about using what you do know to make hypothesis about the world and to look for observable evidence to test them. And that seems to be exactly what you were doing :)

Your hypotheses and thought experiments are really impressive. I'm beginning to suspect that you do indeed have training and are denying this in order to make a status play. [joking]

Like one human was born with an "altruism mutation" and other humans realized he was nice to have around, so he survived, and the gene is still working its way through society, shifting our preference ratios?

I'd just like to offer a correction here for your knowledge. Mutations spread almost entirely because they a) increase the chances that you produce offspring or b) increase the chances that the offspring survive (and presumably produce offspring themselves).

You seem to be saying that the mutation would spread because the organism remains alive. Think about it - if an organism has a mutation that increases the chances that it remain alive but that doesn't increase the chances of having viable offspring, then that mutation would only remain in the gene pool until he died. And so of all the bajillions of our ancestors, only the ones still alive are candidates for the type of evolution you describe (mutations that only increase your chance of survival).

Note: I've since realized that you may know this already, but figured I'd keep it anyway.


I got a "comment too long error" haha

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-08T22:16:00.691Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Also, I thought your posts were well-written, so if you recommend any others, I will read them :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-04-08T22:46:02.962Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting, thanks for the feedback. I hope you're being honest. I have a bit of a hard time judging the quality of my own writing.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T07:24:57.502Z · score: 6 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Some of your examples seem to boil down to "it's possible to convince other people to support you, while providing nothing much in return". If rejecting such lifestyle options is a "Protestant ethic", then color me Protestant.

Other examples you provide are more like "if you aren't picky about the lifestyle you want, or where to live, then you can support yourself on less". Fair enough. Most people are more picky than that. For example, I like indoor plumbing, and can think of very little that I would be interesting in spending much time seeing in other countries. (Note: I have been to a total of 10 countries in my life.)

The reason Americans consider working a de facto biological need is that things people want and need cost money, and jobs are how you get money. There are exceptions to both of those rules, but to imply that the rules are thereby false in the general case is quite silly.

not getting a job isn't going to kill you or make you less healthy

This, especially the latter part, is ridiculous.

This is also a repost of my response to diegocaleiro in another thread.

comment by CAE_Jones · 2014-03-11T06:32:36.080Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Every time the topic of blind people seeking employment comes up in relevant fora, the Brits express similar sentiments to diegocaleiro: "soul-sucking work for money/status you won't ever have time to spend? Why?"

In the US, SSI for a disabled individual living alone is a little over $700, but one is not allowed to possess more than $2000 in resources at any given time (residence and a single vehicle for transportation are not counted as resources). All of that is the best case, of course; fail to properly report anything, wind up with $2k in your bank account(s) at any point (this even happened once when my SSI had stopped for a couple months, then they tried to backpay it all at once when it restarted), or try to cheat the system (and fail), and the social security administration will require you pay for it (they can withhold up to 10% of SSI to pay on these bills).

For me, I went to an expensive college before shattering my naive idealistic overly optimistic worldview, and the only real way to defer my loan payments to the point where SSI is anything but a parachute into oblivion is to go back to school, or wind up with a job that pays at least $15k/year (one or two loans can be reduced based on income (or lack there of), but it takes either continuing education or a job to get out of the negative in my case).

comment by moridinamael · 2014-03-11T19:09:05.792Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The most basic rudiments of childcare cost two orders of magnitude more than the amounts that you're talking about living on, and having a stable family life that the children will actually enjoy is going to cost another order of magnitude.

But, if you don't plan on having kids, knock yourself out.

comment by jkadlubo · 2014-03-11T18:05:18.335Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I was raised to have a job and a career. It was not a matter of religion or capitalism, it was just "all people work" and "you'll go to the best high school, best university and then have a career". My parents worked. My grandparents worked. I was raised more by nurseries, kindergartens and schools than by my family, so "everybody earns money at a job" is the default for me.

Yet, partly by chance, partly by laziness, partly through feeling of insecurity I never got a job. I studied, got married, had a kid, studied some more, had another kid. More or less then I decided to create a real family, one I never had as a child. I decided to consciously raise the children, and realized that this requires more time and effort than I could afford if I had any kind of steady job. So, even though I was getting "unemployable" by approaching 30 and never working a single day in my life, I ditched the one offer I had.

It's relatively easy to be a homemaker with a husband who earns more money, but for me it's difficult psychologically. After all, my childhood and adolescence were about learning enough to get a great job and not about housekeeping (when I moved out at 20 I couldn't turn the washing machine on). I get that, in a way, I am doing the most stereotypical thing a woman can do, but for me it's the other way round.

So maybe this is one more reason why people think they have to have a job - they were raised to think so.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-04-16T08:56:23.024Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I studied, got married, had a kid, studied some more, had another kid.

That is about what my wife did. The difference being that we planned it that way from the beginning. Esp. if you have more than two children, a large extended family and a house one being the 'family manager' and one the high income provider is much more efficient than two work half and half due to the concave income per effort curves (same as with physics: a mix of air of two different temperatures cannot hold the same amount of water as the air prior to mixing: mist/fog). I don't know why people don't get this. Must be some misunderstanding of the principle of equality. Sure it is important to make sure that no dependency arrises from the power of income. But with children the primary child care giver at least has a legal or moral lever - but see http://marriedmansexlife.com/2012/01/sahms-and-moral-hazard/

comment by jkadlubo · 2014-04-16T16:45:21.436Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My experience was two parents as high income providers and state facilities as children carers. The same plan was my default. This made me easily realize the lack of parents-related memories and how I did not want the same for my kids. If I was faced with a default "both parents are healf-heartedly working and raising children", full time homemaking would have been a much more difficult choice.

From a more philosophical point of view, I blame second wave of feminism for this situation and hope the third one will help women sort carrier and family balance out. FYI: grossly simplyfying things, the second wave of feminism, in the '60s and '70s, promoted the image of women being able to do (and work) the same things as men did, depreciating in fact stereotypical (natural?) female roles. The third wave (since the '90s) is supposed to bring the message that women can do whatever they choose - be it manly work or womanly homemaking and caring for their appearance - unlike tomboyish stereotypical feminists.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-04-16T18:40:12.823Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The third wave (since the '90s) is supposed to bring the message that women can do whatever they choose - be it manly work or womanly homemaking and caring for their appearance - unlike tomboyish stereotypical feminists.

This third wave (which I don't see be really there at least here in Germany) will not be complete before the tasks associated with traditional females roles will be valued as highly as they should. Raising, parenting and educating children for modern society is demanding. Only some countries honor the traditional occupations of child care worker, nursery-school teacher and elementary school teacher as high as they should (Japan for example). Same for the caregiver occupations.

I once proposed a quota of the number of men in these occupations. To reach these quotas the salary might be raised to incentivise more men to enter into these professions (which in many cases benefits the cared for people by providing more social variaty). Once the quota is reached these jobs should be valued sufficiently highly to drop the quota.

comment by jkadlubo · 2014-04-16T20:04:08.570Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This quota idea is a really interesting one. I like how it uses side effects (more men lured by higher pay) to get to the real goal (higher status of job). This should be done more often!

Right now know only 2 men working as kindergarten teachers (or, more specifially, one of them is working and I lost contact with the other one when he entered the job market), and it makes even me uneasy to see the first one at my son's kindergarten. On one hand I feel "yay for equality" but on the other hand I can't stop thinking "what's wrong with this guy?"

comment by CronoDAS · 2014-03-12T01:44:41.754Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've lived off my parents ever since I graduated from college back in 2006...

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T15:16:10.969Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This is mostly common in european countries and in the rich parts of poor countries, since the earning potential of people younger than 30 is usually way below the cost of rent and living, and the awesome, fantastic, brilliant tradition of moving away from your city to go to college, like americans do, is much less present.

comment by notsonewuser · 2014-03-11T18:49:26.963Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I want to have a job because I want to know that I'll have access to (healthy) food and (pleasant) shelter, and I don't want to live with my parents for the rest of their life.

How can I be reasonably confident that I'll have those two things without having a job?

Edit: To the person who downvoted this comment, why? It was a completely serious comment, which responded to a question Diego asked in the post.

comment by Ixiel · 2014-03-11T22:12:30.045Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I surprised (pleasantly) nobody has raised ethical concerns, debt to the world or what not. I worked a nothing bank job for five years despite being very financially secure (which I did nothing to earn) and am quitting in a month or so. (32yo) I was almost completely motivated to work out of guilt, and am just now over it. Thanks for the post; I wish I read it four years ago.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T12:18:18.777Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In fairness, that's a pretty unusual situation to be in. For most people, much the most reliable route to becoming "very financially secure" involves working, for someone else, for money. (How reliable a route that is to becoming VFS is, of course, very variable.)

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-03-11T19:58:57.755Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This has been one of my dreams for forever. I remember playing Okami and encountering a "wandering artist " character who travels the world and interprets what he sees in the form of art, and thinking to myself "wow, that is exactly what I want to do".

But it seems like more of a thing to do for a few years and then go back into the workforce than something to do for the rest of your life. For starters, it would probably get tiring. Secondly, it would be a lot easier and less terrifying if you saved up a bunch of money in preparation for this adventure, to use when absolutely necessary, rather than literally have no means of income and be surviving on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder what the impractical or risky aspects of this are. It seems like if you have living relatives available to bail you out if you get in too deep then there aren't too much, but there are probably some that I am forgetting. Healthcare? Do employers care if you have a five-year gap in your resume? What else? Is there a reason why I shouldn't do this a few years after I graduate college?

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T14:42:50.036Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

My main idea was to show this can be done for years. I don't consider it to be a good option for life. Generally, I don't consider the universe is predictable enough at this point for any decision for life to be taken. Thus I'm against christian forever marriage and having children as rational ideas for instance, since there is no turning back (also commiting murder and some other things. Even learning musical theory at this point sounds risky to me, since some claim there is no turning back)

Back to work. So I commented on my lastest few years in which I was not working (or getting a masters). Now I do want to work in the East SF bay area, either an academic job, or helping Leverage or MIRI or CFAR would be the best options. Then some teaching related non academic job. Then writing long-footage movies (which I did back in 2005). and finally, you know, just getting a job, like some people do. Just merely finding a place that says, yes, we are in Berkeley, yes we will get your visa approved for working status, thus you'll be able to live here. Welcome, here is your normal vanilla job and your regular low paying salary, we don't care you wrote a book, speak five languages or gave a TED talk, just arrange these books there, serve coffe from 4 to 8 and check the cashier at the end of the day.

I've got some difficulty making my skills sellable, even though I have the two hardest to fake properties that people claim make a difference in the workforce: Social skills and high IQ.

On your wandering artist dream though, there are several ways to turn your wanderer-ness into some (small) money. Writing books or blogs on travelling like the very author of ultravagabonding. Giving lectures like Puneet Sahani. Proving theorems like Paul Erdos. I'd say more, but you get the gist.

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2014-03-11T18:58:36.666Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Reminds me of this (Is Kiryas Joel an Unhappy Place? ).

comment by JTHM · 2014-03-11T05:13:26.617Z · score: 1 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Do you consider food, shelter, and clothing to be optional? You know those things cost money, right?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-11T11:37:56.765Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Money is a resource to get those things but not the only one.

If you have good social skills and a reputation as someone who's company is highly valuable you can get shelter by staying at friends places.

A modern city provides plenty of pigeons to eat. Dumpster diving is another way used by many people to get food.

Clothing still costs a bit of money but a lot less if you buy second hand stuff.

comment by roland · 2014-03-12T17:29:21.262Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If you have good social skills and a reputation as someone who's company is highly valuable you can get shelter by staying at friends places.

Yes, you can. But guess what, someone is still paying for it, even if it is your "friend".

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-14T13:17:30.488Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It also possible that the friend owns his place and is not paying rent for it.

At the moment I'm living in a one room 25 m^2 meter flat and I don't have good space to host people. A while ago I was living in an arrangement where I had enough space to comfortable host guests but a renting contract didn't really allow for renting out a room for money.

Having cool friends stay over wasn't costing me anything.

There are plenty of rich people with who own flats in multiple cities and don't have any problem with having a trustworthy stay some time in one of their flats while they aren't using the flat.

People go on vacation and profit from someone being in the flat who feeds the cat and waters plants while they are away.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-03-15T07:28:33.369Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even if they own place, someone still needs to pay for the maintenance, electricity, etc.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-17T16:31:12.231Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are a bunch of home maintenance tasks where you care hire someone to do it but you can also just do it yourself or get help from friends to do it. Thinking of money as the only way to get things done is limiting.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-03-18T15:14:57.235Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, are there parts of the world where this is commonly an option? In Finland, "owning an apartment" generally means "owning a share of a housing cooperative", and shareholders are required to pay their share of the cost of maintaining the building.

I guess that it would be possible for someone to avoid paying anything if they contributed their work instead, and managed to persuade the rest of the co-op to permit it, but I've never heard of anyone doing that.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-18T22:45:44.558Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In Finland, "owning an apartment" generally means "owning a share of a housing cooperative", and shareholders are required to pay their share of the cost of maintaining the building.

It might come to a surprise but there are people who live in standalone buildings that don't contain multiple apartments.

A task like watering plants is home maintenance. Clearing someone's computer from viruses is also more or less home maintenance. Building an IKEA cupboard is home maintenance.

I would guess most people on Lesswrong have fixed the computer of a friend without getting payed for it. We engage in a lot of activities that produce value for someone but which aren't payed for with money.

I once read in a role playing handbook that while bribing a diplomat with money might produce heavy resistance, giving the diplomat a good contact that's useful for the diplomat might make him owe you a valuable favor.

If you are a nerd who's too shy to approach woman and you go to a bar with a friend who has very high social skills and that friend does the opening of conversations and tells a girl what a great guy you are and you end up in a relationship with the girl, that's a favor that very valuable but not easy to buy with money.

I'm no communist who opposes money in principle, but want to stress the point that money is not the only way to exchange value. Simply being aware of your environment and creating value for other people can often create relationships where they are also happy to do something for you but no money exchanges hands.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-03-19T03:39:28.073Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It might come to a surprise but there are people who live in standalone buildings that don't contain multiple apartments.

No need to get snarky. I'm obviously aware of that, but I was commenting in the context of your earlier comment, which talked specifically about "flats". So a more exact phrasing of my comment would have been "Are there parts of the world where this is commonly an option [for flat-owners]".

And I never made the claim that money is the only way to exchange value. I just got curious about how flat-ownership works in other countries, that's all.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T09:06:50.548Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you have good social skills and a reputation as someone who's company is highly valuable you can get shelter by staying at friends places.

Do you advocate doing this? Or are you just making the point that it's possible?

a reputation as someone who's company is highly valuable

If you're not doing any of the things that are traditionally held to be worthwhile (working, teaching, studying, creating art, etc.)... then you are legitimately unlikely to be an interesting person, someone whose company is valuable.

A modern city provides plenty of pigeons to eat.

Are you serious with this?

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-12T10:30:54.777Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you advocate doing this? Or are you just making the point that it's possible?

I know people who more or less do this. Do I advocate it as the solution for everyone or even for myself? No. On the other hand it's a valid choice for some people.

More importantly it's limiting to think of money as the only way to acquire stuff.

I personally can't work as effectively on a notebook as I can when I work at my own setup with a monitor, a separate keyboard and a mouse. I have no problem being 12 hours per day in front of my computer setup but if I spent 2 hours in front of a notebook my back gets tense.

If you're not doing any of the things that are traditionally held to be worthwhile (working, teaching, studying, creating art, etc.)... then you are legitimately unlikely to be an interesting person, someone whose company is valuable.

Looking for a way to get payed can constrain the work that you are doing. Einstein did most of his important work in 1905 in his free time and not at his formal job as a patent clerk.

Julian Assange would be someone who did very important work at Wikileaks which didn't pay and who never had a formal residence but just went from sleeping at one person place to sleeping at the place of the next.

As far as education goes Steve Jobs is a good example. After he dropped out of school he crashed at friends places to have shelter and he went to those lectures that interested him.

In my experience autodidacts are often more interesting people than people who are formally educated.

Are you serious with this [eating pigeons]?

Tim Ferriss wrote a guide on how to catch pigeons for eating. I think it's somewhere in the 4 hour Chef. I see no real reason against the practice. Being the kind of person who can cook a good self caught pigeon meal also helps with being an interesting person.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T14:57:39.129Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What city do you live in? If I'm ever around, we are throwing the biggest and best Less Wrong Pigeon Barbeque party in the World's history. We are doing this.

(We can totally donate some 30 dollars to vegan outreach on the side, or [edit< sarcasm sign] ]spread the vegetarian allergenic mexican beetles in some urban area later to make up for the poor birds)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-12T15:29:15.450Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What city do you live in? If I'm ever around, we are throwing the biggest and best Less Wrong Pigeon Barbeque party in the World's history. We are doing this.

Berlin. Hosting a Pigeon Barbeque party sounds like a great idea.

I think as far as the legalities go you have to have a hunting permit to do it, but I have a survivalist friend who has it and probably if he oversees it.

spread the vegetarian allergenic mexican beetles

That phrase doesn't show up on google, what do you mean with it?

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T15:42:49.056Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

http://lesswrong.com/lw/h7m/pay_other_species_to_pandemize_vegetarianism_for/

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-12T15:57:07.725Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Okay. On that point I have to say bioterrorism isn't cool.

Last week I read a bit about Osho and my first reaction would be: "What are those people thinking?" But I do understand the kind of thinking that lead to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_Rajneeshee_bioterror_attack .

It's wrong, don't do it, it isn't cool.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T16:34:32.905Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, that is why my post begins with the sarcasm sign. I don't really want people to spread those insects around either.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-03-12T17:07:54.916Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The post you link does, but your in this thread doesn't.

Do to information hazards and schelling fences you just don't joke about commiting bioterrorism on a public forum where you don't know whether someone is reading who won't get the joke.

Especially when shut up and calculate utilitarians are around.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T17:21:27.095Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Point well taken.

comment by CAE_Jones · 2014-03-11T06:24:47.804Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Unemployment/disability benefits can help pay for these, provided one isn't trying to live alone in a high-end neighborhood, but a social safety net and a lack of debt are pretty much requirements.

comment by CellBioGuy · 2014-03-11T14:12:38.404Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Money can be used to get them and thats the most common way in the developed world these days. But money is a system of tokens that people use to keep track of transactions. Other tokens can be used. Like trust or social status. Or one could bypass a token economy all together.

comment by redline · 2014-03-21T00:37:04.912Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Utility : Expression of subjective preference between two or more ways to acquire well-being.

Money : Measure of utility. Exchange means with the highest probability of acceptance.

Wage labor : contractual exchange of a portion of one's freedom to use a part of his life time against money. Each party seeks to secure its supply over time of convenience being exchanged . (subordination vs money) .

We learned early on that we could do more and better bearing our needs and desires by using mutual and exchange . By specializing in specific tasks and allocating tasks across multiple individuals, we make better performance. The value created is then redistributed between individuals via exchange.

Tasks and utility distribution result from negotiations between individuals in which each asserts his skills but also his power.

Generally rational individuals seeking to maximize their individual well-being would :

  • give the least possible effort

  • give the least possible of the non renewable, non extensible (yet) life time ressource

  • receive the maximum utiliy in return.

Economic actors develop strategies more or less sophisticated to achieve their goals.

The more an individual has power the more he will attempt to set rules for sharing tasks with minimal negotiation, while maintaining others in terms of motivation that maximizes his utility . He will also seek a redistribution of utility produced that maximizes his individual utility . Again maintaining a certain level of motivation in others is sought.

The supply security of utility is itself a utility (or meta-utility if you wish) commonly sought.

One way to acquire this security is to compel a supplier either by violence or by obtaining commitment. A contract of paid employment is a way for two players to get a utility supply security by binding to a contractual commitment. The employer seeks to secure its supply of subordinate labor and the employee to secure its supply of money. In return each make commitments that limit their freedom. This is a tradeoff between two opposing utilities: freedom vis a vis others against security and support provided by others.

For many people security of supply is an important meta-utility that allows better enjoy multiple sources of value and achieve well-being . The absence of this security greatly reduces their welfare even in the presence of multiple sources of utility.

Individuals with greater power are aware of that and put this information to good use when sharing negotiations . Individuals with lesser power often accept unfavorable bargains. For example an employer has less strain on his freedom of movement . He smoothes his commitment to provide a steady income using his right to cancel his involvement in certain economic conditions ( market losses ... ) . By contrast, an employee has a more limited freedom of movement. The security of a fixed income over time deprives him of all or part of the increased wealth produced due to the reinvestment of a portion of the profits .

In addition to securing his supply of subordinate employment by contractual agreement , an employer multiplies his utility by making several simultaneous exchanges . He sells the work of many people, then distributes them some of the harvested utility. His own utility is a direct function of the number of employees.

The simultaneous exchange with several people is a convenient way to get great utility against a minimum life time spent and, often, effort .

A musician can perform at a concert a simultaneous exchange with dozens of people at once . Spectators are very happy to have spent $ 25 each and feel they have made a good deal . The musician is happy to have won $ 200 in two hours. It is a mutually beneficial exchange that poses few ethical problems , while wage labor is accepted mainly because of the imbalance of power and offers little real income security, even though many people make rationalizations about it.

From a "utility versus time & effort" yield point of view giving piano concerts is a lucrative business . Activities may have a high yield without necessarily require simultaneous exchanges . A rare and sought after talent can be redeemed against a lot of utility with little expense in time and effort. Executive coaching for example . If simultaneity is possible, this will further increase performance.

Beyond a certain return , an individual can consider that the expected income offsets the insecurity generated by the renunciation of paid employment . He became an entrepreneur.

For some people with a certain type of personality , the threshold is lower than for others. They are more likely to be entrepreneurs ( by choice) .

Some other people find that freedom by its own brings them enough welfare to offset much of the loss of security due to the renunciation of wage labor . If they had some way to meet their basic subsistence needs they would make the leap.

If these individuals are talented , it will be even easier to acquire high utility without the inconvenience of wage labor .

There are however more flexible work organizations where greater freedom is left to the workers in the management of their time and how to achieve the objectives without sacrificing the (seeming) stability of income contractually guaranteed . For some people this would be a good compromise.

Translated from french mainly by Google Translate (narraow) AI and some modifications of mine. This is still poor english. Sorry for that.

comment by [deleted] · 2014-03-12T11:27:22.222Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have yet to see a plan, that would actually work for me. I would really love to quit my job, unfortunately I don't see a course of action that would give me enough confidence about my future to actually do it.

Also in case you'd like to live in a paradise valley taking Santo Daime (a religious ritual with DMT) about twice a week, you can do it with a salary of aproximatelly 500 dollars per month in Vale do Gamarra, where I just spent carnival, that is what the guy who drove us back did. Given Brazilian or Turkish returns on investment, that would cost you 50 000 bucks in case you refused to work within the land itself for the 500.

Can you elaborate on this? How would I actually do this and what would my future life be like?

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T15:11:54.165Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Look, there are plenty of good looking places where you need little money to live.

The best practice would be to earn or inherit some money before you go. like the 50000 I suggested. You know, for cancer safety and similar risks.

Vale do gamarra is a territory where religious christian communities that take DMT while saying new age jesus stuff exist, and some people live there, in the middle of nowhere but well connected with nature, since there are small huts which are part of a kind of hotel, you get normal urban people visiting every now and then. You can work for whoever owns the land doing things like taking people places, lighting the fire which makes the sustainable hot tub work, helping with events etc.... maybe you can grow some crops. I don't think it is the only one, there are more in the amazon forest and north of brazil. I'll bet also in Peru there are similar things. You can also go to buddhist temples and monasteries, specially in the phillipines and southeast asia, and live for a few months there.

Again, none of those options sound to me like a "for the rest of your life" kind of option. Basically because nothing sounds like that to me. I look around and I see no reason to believe people do the same thing their entire lives. I know almost none who kept only one profession, lived in only one city, or one romantic partner for life. Even fewer kept the same job. Same job in the sabe company. Wow, we are getting to the low millionths here. etc.... Why would I be different? I don't want the half EA, quarter ultravagabond, quarter Academic lifestyle I've had for 6 years any longer. I want a job, and that, as Americans have known for centuries. Is totally Ok as well. The hard part is that I want it to lead to saving the world in the long run and not through earning to give, given relative advantages and disadvantages of being me. But anyway, I wrote on not getting job. I want a job, and I'm completely fine with that.

comment by Brillyant · 2014-03-11T20:41:52.843Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's a bit overrated, in my estimation. I left to live in tropical destination. I rented a car a spent a week scoping the place out. I slept in a youth hostel but basically lived out of my rented car. I brought only a backpack with me.

I was back home in less than two weeks. I saw some of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen (beaches, etc.) and it was quite literally like a dream come true. But it got boring quick.

I missed being close to my family and I was dating someone at the time who I also missed a great deal—both played a big part in my discontentment. Ultimately however, I think the novelty of vagabonding wears off very quick for certain types of people, like me.

Plus, as some have pointed out, "working a job" is kind of a loose notion. Figure out a balance where you can find time to engage in things you enjoy and meet your needs for resources. Everyone "works".

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-12T15:18:57.299Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe you didn't go through the tourist traveller transistion, which precedes the travelller nomad transition.

The transition is made when the setting matters much less than the people and personalities you meet, and you start travelling to meet people, and arranging your travel plans according to the types of people, and activities you intend to do, not the places you want to go.

The nomad transition I never experienced myself, there was always a place to call "home".

comment by Brillyant · 2014-03-12T15:38:41.069Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think you are right about my failure to truly become nomadic. I therefore likely never found out if I could be happier as a roaming adventurer.

Though, to the point of your post, I'd argue a non-nomadic existent with consistent work seems to be the happy equilibrium for most personality types.

I think novelty wears off quick when I travel. And adding additional novelty only serves to remind me of the fact that while every new experience is novel, it also similar to other novel experiences, and therefore not that novel at all.

My current conclusion is, for my personality type, travel ends up to be a grass-is-greener sort of exercise where I am itching to go somewhere new, only to miss home—and all that home offers—soon after I leave. I'd posit most people are like this. That is why people have "jobs" and travel on 3-15 day vacations.

comment by pianoforte611 · 2014-03-11T13:52:47.490Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It's not so much protestant work ethic as the market revolution work ethic. Going to a building for a specified number of hours per week then getting a fixed salary is a fairly modern invention, and it has become normalized as the proper way to live in the US (unless you are exceptional).

Directing an NGO, giving free talks as an intellectual and couch surfing the world (which requires a fair bit of effort to do cheaply - the average person would rack up a huge bill) are not what I think about when I think about being "unemployed". Of course I would love to high status enough enough to do those things, and have something to fall back on when I'm done but I can't. Maybe when I'm done with my education and have been working for a few years I'll consider this.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-03-11T15:55:20.232Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Going to a building for a specified number of hours per week then getting a fixed salary is a fairly modern invention

Eighteenth century, more or less? Plus, the dominant alternative is being a peasant or a small craftsman which is even further away from living as a member of couch-surfing intelligentsia :-)

comment by pewpewlasergun · 2014-03-11T07:05:02.440Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Its expensive to get health insurance when you aren't buying with a group.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-03-11T10:46:32.447Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In the US, yes. Part of the poster's point is that you don't need to stay in the US.

I won't make his choice, mostly because I like being around employed people more than I like being around unemployed people, but international mobility is clearly a point in favour of the lifestyle he's suggesting.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2014-03-11T11:52:47.749Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How hard is it to become a benefits-receiving citizen of another country?

comment by chaosmage · 2014-03-11T12:03:37.904Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Depends on the country, obviously. I do not know of any country where you don't have to go through a complex administrative procedure that takes months or years. In places where social services are very good (say Switzerland) it is much harder to get citizenship than where they aren't. If you're planning to receive benefits for the rest of your life, researching the prerequisites for various countries should be well worth your time.

The easiest way is always the same, however: Convince a citizen of that country to marry you. Many countries have discrimination policies where it is harder to acquire citizenship by marriage if you're from, say, Nigeria, but coming from the US it'll be easy in most places.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T07:28:35.887Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I like being around employed people more than I like being around unemployed people

Indeed. Is there such a thing as an unemployed person, providing little of value but receiving enough support (in whatever form) to live on, who is nonetheless working with passion, skill, and knowledge in some interesting domain? Is there, in other words, such a thing as a person who does not support himself by providing value... yet is interesting?

I have not met anyone like that.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-03-12T10:15:28.378Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I have. One of them is composing classical music, another is writing a PhD on medieval history, a third is an occasional guest lecturer at university (for a symbolic fee). All use their relatively abundant time to achieve excellence in what they do.

Of course they are all over age 65 and have worked all their life, so that's the demographic where to look for such people.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T10:20:48.693Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, fair enough. It's a good point, and one I should've thought of; a lifetime of doing interesting and useful things plausibly entitles one to freedom from continued active provision of value.

However, I don't actually think that "living in retirement, benefiting from the fruits of one's past labors" counts as "unemployed"; the literal meaning may be there, but the connotation definitely doesn't match. In any case, I hope the thrust of my comment is now clarified.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T12:48:28.283Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that there's an intermediate path between conventional retirement and outright vagabondage, which is probably more common than the latter: if you live frugally, save wisely, and happen to have sufficiently marketable skills, you have a good chance of being able to retire much earlier than is usual and live modestly off your savings. SaidAchmiz, do you (1) think people who do this are failing to do their social duty, and (2) have any opinion on whether they are likely to be interesting?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-12T19:41:16.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think "social duty" is a real thing, beyond being shorthand for the sum total of various ethical duties to various individuals, so my answer to (1) is no.

As for (2), well, to be honest, I don't think I've met any such people. I haven't even heard of any of my friends ever meeting such people. So can I have no opinion on the matter that's based on any kind of experience.

I think I'd have to, at very least, hear about some actual cases of what you describe, before I could even speculate. Questions abound: what did the person do when they did work? What are they doing now that they've retired? Just engaging in passive leisure activities? Or working on some nontrivial personal projects? Do they have family? Do they engage in volunteering or charity? etc.

So yeah, if you know such a person, I'd love to hear a description of an actual case.

comment by gjm · 2014-03-12T23:29:40.651Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think "social duty" is a real thing, beyond [...]

Please take it as a shorthand for 'whatever "plausibly entitles one to freedom from continued active provision of value"', as you put it.

I don't think I personally know any such people. There are a few internet-famous examples (who claim that Anyone Can Do It, rather optimistically if you ask me because the basis of their argument is that "all you need to do is save half your income for N years" and saving half your income is much easier for well-paid people); maybe the best known is the one who calls himself Mr Money Mustache. A more extreme example is Early Retirement Extreme. Both these people show every sign of being actual real people who actually believe what they say (which is not always true for personal-finance gurus).

Of course famous examples are generally atypical, but to answer your questions: I think MMM was a software engineer or something of the kind, and ERE was [EDITED: used to say "in finance" but I checked and that was completely wrong] a physicist in academia. I haven't read enough of ERE's stuff to know how he spends his life now. MMM writes a blog promoting frugal early retirement (I think his real interest is more in "sustainability" than in personal finance as such), works intermittently as a builder -- both of these bring in money, so you can debate whether he should really be called "retired"; I think he would answer that he is retired because he now only works on things he wants to work on for reasons other than getting paid -- and doubtless does other things but I don't know what. I don't know anything much about what either does for charity.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2014-03-13T02:09:04.724Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The reason I asked about people you personally know is that anyone can write a blog claiming any old thing. With these sorts of claims in particular, it's hard to know how much of what's claimed is just bullshit. Some of it could be outright lies, some of it could be selective reporting, some of it could be certain unemphasized atypical aspects of their personality / mental make-up / life situation / who the hell knows what. On the other end of the issue, how am I to judge whether these people are interesting?

As far as social duty (suitably expanded from the shorthand) goes... I think that what "entitles" you to freedom from provision of value (to the extent that the notion of entitlement is even ethically meaningful, which is an extent of which I am unsure) is, very roughly, not having to sponge off other people.

You see, it's not that I think expending effort is inherently morally praiseworthy. I don't think "working" is a virtue in itself. I think it may well be wonderful (modulo various fun-theoretic considerations) if people didn't have to work for a living and also didn't have to depend on other people to provide for them. When we come to live in a world where such universal leisure is possible, we can revisit that conversation.

But we don't live in that world now. When you live in your friend's apartment, sleeping on their couch, using their facilities, and so forth, your lack of having to work for a living is dependent entirely on your friend's income and wealth. You are not entitled to that freedom from provision of value; you happen to have it, by the leave and the grace of your friend; but if your friend tires of your leeching one day and kicks you out onto the street, you have, it seems to me, no moral case against them.

If you work, save up, and retire, it's different. You are dependent on no one but your past self. (Well, no more than the average citizen is dependent on, collectively, his fellow citizens, for taxes and all the rest of it.)

So to sum up, I don't think "not working" is an ethically valid choice (generally) if it means that you'll be living off the work of other people, receiving benefits but providing nothing. If all "not working" means is that you've found some mechanism of converting provision of value into resources to live on, that is to some degree different from the usual mechanisms of such, then I see nothing wrong with that. I am a graduate student myself, after all. (I also work, though only for relatively small amounts of supplemental income.)

comment by gjm · 2014-03-13T09:40:10.211Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That all sounds very reasonable. Thanks.