Caring is hard

My cliff notes for “On caring“:

Due to the way our brains (fail to) process large numbers, it is possible for us to theoretically care about “all people” but also for us to only be moved to act out of care for very small numbers of imperiled people. We recognize the difference between 2 and 4, but at a certain point, large numbers lose their impact on the way we compute scale. This is a problem.

Caring for the world requires acting as though we felt the suffering of the many in proportion to the suffering for the few, even though we don’t. The stakes are high: All of the future of humanity — which is a potential number of individuals far beyond our own capacity to grok — is potentially impacted by us, now, and how we act. If we save one, or save the world, it feels about the same. Bt it shouldn’t; our calibration of care is broken. This is scope insensitivity.

The amount we give to charity — a proxy for the good we try to do in the world, to avert suffering — is generally driven more by social context than anything. We might give out of pressure, out of guilt, or out of desire to win a charity competition. None of these have to do with the magnitude of suffering in the world, or the value of giving. These factors motivate us to give some of our money when we otherwise wouldn’t give any of our money. Note that the problems in the world are worth a lot more of our money to address, but no one expects anyone else to give all of their money away. Social context matters more than scope.

For a given crisis that needs support, our reaction when approached by a canvaser soliciting donations is one thing; our reaction if we were face to face (or imagined being so) with the effects of the crisis on one individual (depending on the crisis, an animal [e.g. BP oil spill] or a human [e.g. Haiti earthquake]), is another. In the latter, we would generally be moved to help an imperiled individual right in front of us, and moved to pay others some dollar amount to help, as well.

I we further imagine multiplying that dollar amount we would pay others to help a single affect individual, by all affected individuals, that adds up horrifyingly fast, to a very large amount. — And that is just for a single cause. What about all the other crises that also affect animals/humans? If we extend our dollar value for saving an individual to all of those imperiled by all crises everywhere, then we begin to glimpse how bad of a state the world is in, and how much we ought to care.

Paradoxically, you can then realize that we can’t afford to even expend that minimal dollars-per-saved-individual effort, because of the opportunity cost of not saving all the other individuals imperiled (by all crises, the world over). This is independent of the value of their lives — they are worth far more. We come to realize that we cannot possibly do enough!

Originally, we devote our lives to service because no cause seemed pressing enough. Now, we are aware of the pressing importance of acting in service, for so many causes, but we are paralyzed by our inability to make even a dent in any of these problems.

What distinguishes prominent altruists is not that they care more, but that they have learned to distrust how much they care. They have learned that their sense of care is broken, due to scope insensitivity. Our sense of care does not work for large numbers; we feel an inappropriately small amount of care in proportion to all of the world’s problems. But, they also know that feeling care (which they don’t) is not required to acting care (which they do). They’ve switched from being driven automatically to care by their feelings, caring on manual control.

How, then, should we act? Well, it is hard to say. But one answer is that it isn’t enough to think you should do something: You need desperation that comes from realizing the gap between what the world needs and what we can give.

This is NOT about guilt you into giving more money to charity. Philanthropy is harder than we tend to acknowledge: It requires you have a lot of money (hard!), and give most of it away (unnatural!). Plus, guilt isn’t a good long term motivator [hence this whole series]. Try to do good because of intrinsic motivation, instead.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

What matters

My cliff notes for “How we will be measured“:

What matters in the end, and how we will be judged, is what actually happens. Intention, intelligence, effort, and goodness don’t matter. It isn’t a social game. Others expectations for us aren’t what’s important. Others aren’t our enemies. Being rich or having status may be useful, but they aren’t ends in themselves. Pursuing retaliation, power, or other goals that are relative to others are tempting as grand objectives, but they are distractions from what really matters.

What matters is affecting the future. We define define desirable outcomes differently, and since all of our circumstances are different, this isn’t a fair game we all get to play equally. But one way or another, changes we can make in the future are what we live for.

Listless guilt comes from recoiling from thinking that nothing matters. Pointed guilt comes thinking everything matters, and falling short of fixing all the broken things. Acting to work towards our desired outcomes is the goldilocks approach. “At all times, act to ensure that our future is bright.”

Guilt has no place when this is the goal. It is backward-looking and unproductive; it does nothing to help ensure a bright future.

Thus, be liberated from guilt! — and play the game of making the future better. Whatever that means for you.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.


My cliff notes for “Defiance“:

Defiance is the third of Nate’s dubious virtues after desperation and recklessness.

Here, defiance doesn’t refer to defiant actions, but a mental state required before you can make defiant actions. It is a reflexive feeling of determination to act out of your own will, out of self-reliance, and without influence from authority, to fight against badness when you encounter it in the world. It is principled.

Defiance is characterized by a lack of hesitation. It needn’t be acted on without strategic thought — a petulant child may give in to eating the broccoli they hate, while cultivating a mental state of a child plotting to get their revenge in the end at the injustice. But, the child’s petulance was automatic, not a calculated decision. There was never a thought of whether or not to defy, whether or not to struggle against. Defiance employed this way should be reflexive.

Be intentional and principled with where to apply defiance. In many situations it can be counter-productive to your goals or an over-reaction.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest that it’s usually healthy to have a defiance reaction towards states of the world, and usually unhealthy to have a defiance reaction towards people.

Defiance as a driver of intrinsic motivation is very much at odds with Taoism or Buddhist notions of acceptance: You’re harnessing your defiant impulse against bad things to power you, instead of tempering your will to the “reality” of what you can accomplish to diminish your frustration. It is powered by channelling negative emotion, instead of transforming negative emotion.

It’s about being able to look at the terrible social equilibria we’re all trapped in and get pissed off — not because any individual is evil, but because almost nobody is evil and everything is broken anyway.

So this is how I suggest motivating yourself in place of guilt: Let the wrongness of the world trigger something deep inside of you, such that the question stops being whether you will capitulate or lose hope, and becomes how you will wrest the course of the future onto a different path. See the current state of affairs as your adversary; see the future as the prize that hangs in the balance. Shake off the illusory constraints, set your jaw, and rebel. Defy.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Do the obvious things

My cliff notes for “Obvious advice“:

Before enacting a decision or a plan, do the obvious things. Ask yourself what a reasonable person would consider obvious for the success of the action, and do those things. We often skip them, so simply minding this will get you ahead. Make this a reflex.

(Also, consider whether you’re acting hastily out of emotion and about to enact a terrible decision or plan, and if so, stop. Just don’t. Again, we often do the opposite of this advice.)

Simple, obvious advice is easy to give others — and helpful. Learn to try and give it to yourself. When stuck, step back and imagine if someone who was facing the same problem as you came to you for advice. What advice would you give? What questions would you ask to help get them unstuck? Try doing the same, yourself.

(This exact pattern is what prompted Nate to come up with many of the tools presented in this whole series on replacing guilt.)

Also, do ask for others’ advice. They will likely give you “obvious” to them advice that you wouldn’t have thought of. This is a very useful way to gain skills.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Pain into resolve

My cliff notes for “Transmute guilt into resolve“:

When we feel powerless in the face of some injustice or other peoples’ pain, we have an impulse to avoid that pain, or excuse ourselves from it somehow. [This seems a form of, or a cousin to, tolerification.] Cynicism is a form this can take.

Instead of avoiding it, try turning that pain into resolve.

Averting the eyes of a beggar is an example of a situation where we feel this impulse. We tend to feel guilt in this situation — our impulses try and save us from that — because their presence in our lives suggests that maybe we should be doing something to help them.

And, maybe you should do something! But, for others who are already are working to make the world a better place, their guilt over a single person’s pain they can’t also reach is pointless. They needn’t feel guilt.

Guilt is a tool for us; we aren’t a tool for it. It is helpful “only insofar as it helps you wrest yourself from the wrong path”. If you’re doing all you can already, the fact that you can’t do more is no cause for guilt.

Rather, it’s a reason for anger, at a world where nobody is evil but everything is broken. It’s a reason for resolve, to push yourself as hard as is healthy and sustainable but no harder.

Instead of ignoring pain you cannot address, see it, and focus on it, and turn it into resolve. When we act on that impulse to avoid pain — to look away, to rationalize, to tolerify… — we miss an opportunity to confront the pain directly, and in so doing fuel our cold resolve with it, to power our motivation.

Opportunities abound every day to confront pain directly when we see it, and use it as a powerful reminder that there is work to do.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

What you can do versus what you want to do

My cliff notes for “Choose without suffering“, which builds directly on the previous post in this series:

Tolerification explains a lot of why humans become grumpy or frustrated: Cynicism and indignance are both pressure-relieving responses to situations where all options are bad.

These kinds of responses spend energy and don’t accomplish nothing of value — now that we’ve decided to avoid tolerification entirely, it is no longer an end in itself). Since our strategy for intrinsic motivation requires we “stare at the dark world” without tolerifying, then the very act of becoming frustration, as a pattern of behavior, is something to discard.

When given a choice between bad and worse, you need to be able to choose “bad”, without qualm.

— or maybe, frustration is useful in some situations: It can create pressure for us to find a third option. It can also socially signal that we need help, drawing others to our aid.

Indeed, when you’re offered the choice between bad and worse, the first thing to do is look for a third option and the second thing to do is ask for help.

But if you have to choose the “bad” option over “very bad”, suffering over it adds nothing. Minding the distinction between “bad” and “very bad” is a useful tool to avoid this suffering. When becoming frustrated, examine your options’ merits relative to each other. Even though all of your options may be bad, one of them will have the best outcome compared to the rest. Take it. Guilt or regret over choosing the best option is useless.

Also, be mindful of comparing what you can achieve to what you want to achieve. The former is actionable; the latter is not. Yearning for the latter, and the tension between it and what’s possible, creates needless suffering. So reframe to focus on what options you can choose.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Recap: Mortals need not feel guilt

My cliff notes from “Residing in the mortal realm”:

This is a recap of last seven posts’ tools and highlights their common thread of embracing our mortality — our less-than-perfectness — and then briefly looks ahead.

Focus on how to do your best given your shortcomings, instead of feeling guilt over your shortcomings.

Guilt has no place among mortals: we already know we’re fallible. We don’t need to suffer over that fact: our failings provide only information about what to do next, if we want to steer the future.

Guilt functions for some people as a motivation system. This series has focused so far on shifting and then removing guilt, and making it seem alien. It will now turn to what to replace it with to drive you in a more healthy way. [heh — it’s repeal before replace…]

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Bad doesn’t parse

My cliff notes from “There are no ‘bad people’”:

It is possible to judge someone objectively for being bad at achieving their goals, or for being poor with some skill, or for procrastination, or for hurting others. One can judge also another for the goals they choose to pursue.

But for someone to be “a bad person” is either nonsense, or shorthand for some shortcoming like those above. An objective standard for a “bad person” is elusive. Fundamental good or badness is not a quality of a person in our deterministic reality, where our being, thoughts, and choices are implemented by the laws of physics.

[This post — as with the entire series — takes a scientific view of our reality, and doesn’t consider religious perspectives for one moment. This is self-justifying, and the statements about “good” or “badness” are self-evidently logical from this perspective.]

We aren’t here to alter the color of the fundamental “goodness” stone buried within us; we’re here to make the path through time be a good one.

Look not to whether you are good or bad. Look to where you are, and what you can do from there.

Rather than fundamental judgements of us, our mistakes and wrongdoings are lessons from the past — encapsulated information about how we work in the world, that inform how we can control ourselves to bring about more good in the future.

At times we are akratic, and these moments inform where we have power, not our goodness or badness. [Here is where I believe Danny Reeves from Beeminder has something valid to criticize about this series, about the utility of channeling our guilt with personal economic commitment devices to shape our behavior in better directions, as an alternative to assuaging guilt as Nate Soares — although I suspect that Nate would actually agree. More on this in a future post, after concluding the cliff notes.]

This is freeing: We are judged only by the path of the future [and only by ourselves].

When interrogating your motivations:

  • If you discovery you are trying to avoid being bad, press on further to a more coherent answer. Treat “bad” as shorthand for some greater unconscious value.
  • If you find you’re in conflict with another, and you’re motivated to not be “bad” (because one of you must be) — liberate yourself of that good/bad frame, and investigate further.
  • If you unpack “bad” to different values or desires in conflict, that are difficult to reconcile, that is progress — it is truer than “bad” (and devoid of guilt besides).
  • If you have a hard time seeing past “bad”, then pretend someone asks you “I don’t understand ‘bad’ — can you elaborate?” — and answer.

Sometimes the answers to these interrogations present as senseless, which disarms them. There is no shame in realizing you are irrational; you are human and humans are irrational; you’re more monkey than god. Work with, not against yourself.

Rather than aim for being “good”, aim for who you want to be, what you want to work in the world, and bending towards a future you want.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

Tools for self-compassion

My cliff notes from “Self compassion”:

Most people, when thinking back to a time they knew they had done wrong and were wracked by guilt, feel a sense of not wanting to look back. Yet when we imagine someone else, a child, in the same situation, suffering from learning  a hard lesson, we feel a sense of compassion for them, a desire to reassure and nurture.

Extending the same compassion to ourselves is difficult for many of us, but is important for your wellbeing. Here are two tools to cultivate self-compassion:

First, the truth that self-compassion is easily confused with self-pity or making excuses, but it is quite different. You can be self-critical and honest, while still practicing self-compassion.

Imagine feeling compassion for an athlete who fails despite trying their hardest. You can empathize with their struggle and sense of failure, without pity or pretending they haven’t made the grade. You can view yourself in the same way; “You don’t need to make excuses for yourself, to take the outside view and feel the same warmth for a monkey that’s trying to try”.

Recall that we are monkeys who can fail despite our best efforts, even sometimes with parts of us working against ourselves, as in depression and self-doubt.

The second tool is to see yourself for what you are:

I see bundles of proteins and lipids arranged in a giant colony of cells, their lives given over to the implementation of a wet protein computer that thinks it’s a person.

I see fractal patterns that arise on precisely the right sort of planet when you pour sunlight into it for a billion years.

I see wiggles in the Sun’s wake that struggle to understand the universe. Incomprehensibly large constructs made of atoms, which are unnoticeably small on the scale of galaxies.

Check in with that monkey. How’s it doing? Let it know you’ve got its back. Lend it your support. Reassure it you are there for it, no matter what — you are there for yourself.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

See yourself anew

My cliff notes from “Be a new homunculus”:

This introduces a new tool for addressing guilty feelings: Pretend you are a “new homunculus”.

Homunculi are tiny representations of humans. The homunculus fallacy is locating consciousness somewhere in your brain as a tiny version of yourself in control of yourself; the problem is, who then controls the homunculus?

[B]ut it can be quite fun to pretend that you are a homunculus sometimes, mostly because this allows you to occasionally pretend you’re a new homunculus, fresh off the factory lines, and newly installed into this particular person

This can allow you to take a fresh look at yourself, without the baggage of ownership over, defensiveness of, and attachment to your current state, however you got to be who you are now. The old homunculus was responsible for how you got to where you are now. Without reason to honor old obligations, you have the privilege of cleaning house! It’s a kind of fresh start.

It can also specifically apply to guilt: Taking a fresh look can help you recognize symptoms of lingering guilt such as regrets, anxieties, and dreads, interrogate them to identify guilt at the root, and make changes (i.e, reprogram your patterns), and absolve the no-longer-useful guilt.

Guilt is a kind of subset of the sunk cost fallacy, that carries with it a lesson. This tool is broadly effective for dealing with sunk cost fallacies.

To put this into practice, when experiencing guilt:

  1. Actually close your eyes
  2. Re-open them as a new homunculus
  3. Pay close attention to the guilt
  4. Actually write down its lesson
  5. Spend 5 minutes brainstorming patterns to change
  6. Commit to making changes
  7. Thank the guilt for teaching the lesson
  8. Dismiss the guilt.

This can become reflexive with practice, and is useful in other ways outside of addressing guilt for seeing yourself anew.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.