In Praise of Maximizing – With Some Caveats
Most of you are probably familiar with the two contrasting decision making strategies “maximizing” and “satisficing”, but a short recap won’t hurt (you can skip the first two paragraphs if you get bored): Satisficing means selecting the first option that is good enough, i.e. that meets or exceeds a certain threshold of acceptability. In contrast, maximizing means the tendency to search for so long until the best possible option is found.
Research indicates (Schwartz et al., 2002) that there are individual differences with regard to these two decision making strategies. That is, some individuals – so called ‘maximizers’ – tend to extensively search for the optimal solution. Other people – ‘satisficers’ – settle for good enough1. Satisficers, in contrast to maximizers, tend to accept the status quo and see no need to change their circumstances2.
When the subject is raised, maximizing usually gets a bad rap. For example, Schwartz et al. (2002) found “negative correlations between maximization and happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and positive correlations between maximization and depression, perfectionism, and regret.”
Maximisers miss out on the psychological benefits of commitment, leaving them less satisfied than their more contented counterparts, the satisficers. …Current research is trying to understand whether they can change. High-level maximisers certainly cause themselves a lot of grief.
I beg to differ. Satisficers may be more content with their lives, but most of us don’t live for the sake of happiness alone. Of course, satisficing makes sense when not much is at stake3. However, maximizing also can prove beneficial, for the maximizers themselves and for the people around them, especially in the realm of knowledge, ethics, relationships and when it comes to more existential issues – as I will argue below4.
Belief systems and Epistemology
Ideal rationalists could be thought of as epistemic maximizers: They try to notice slight inconsistencies in their worldview, take ideas seriously, beware wishful thinking, compartmentalization, rationalizations, motivated reasoning, cognitive biases and other epistemic sins. Driven by curiosity, they don’t try to confirm their prior beliefs, but wish to update them until they are maximally consistent and maximally correspondent with reality. To put it poetically, ideal rationalists as well as great scientists don’t content themselves to wallow in the mire of ignorance but are imbued with the Faustian yearning to ultimately understand whatever holds the world together in its inmost folds.
In contrast, consider the epistemic habits of the average Joe Christian: He will certainly profess that having true beliefs is important to him. But he doesn’t go to great lengths to actually make this happen. For example, he probably believes in an omnipotent and beneficial being that created our universe. Did he impartially weigh all available evidence to reach this conclusion? Probably not. More likely is that he merely shares the beliefs of his parents and his peers. However, isn’t he bothered by the problem of evil or Occam’s razor? And what about all those other religions whose adherents believe with the same certainty in different doctrines?
Many people don’t have good answers to these questions. Their model of how the world works is neither very coherent nor accurate but it’s comforting and good enough. They see little need to fill the epistemic gaps and inconsistencies in their worldview or to search for a better alternative. Thus, one could view them as epistemic satisficers. Of course, all of us exhibit this sort of epistemic laziness from time to time. In the words of Jonathan Haidt (2013):
We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking.
Let’s go back to average Joe: he presumably obeys the dictates of the law and his religion and occasionally donates to (ineffective) charities. Joe probably thinks that he is a “good” person and many people would likely agree. This leads us to an interesting question: how do we typically judge the morality of our own actions?
Let’s delve into the academic literature and see what it has to offer: In one exemplary study, Sachdeva et al. (2009) asked participants to write a story about themselves using either morally positive words (e.g. fair, nice) or morally negative words (e.g. selfish, mean). Afterwards, the participants were asked if and how much they would like to donate to a charity of their choice. The result: Participants who wrote a story containing the positive words donated only one fifth as much as those who wrote a story with negative words.
This effect is commonly referred to as moral licensing: People with a recently boosted moral self-concept feel like they have done enough and see no need to improve the world even further. Or, as McGonigal (2011) puts it (emphasis mine):
When it comes to right and wrong, most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough – which then gives us permission to do whatever we want.
Another well known phenomenon is scope neglect. One explanation for scope neglect is the “purchase of moral satisfaction” proposed by Kahneman and Knetsch (1992): Most people don’t try to do as much good as possible with their money, they only spend just enough cash to create a “warm-fuzzy feeling” in themselves.
Phenomenons like “moral licensing” and “purchase of moral satisfaction” indicate that it is all too human to only act as altruistic as is necessary to feel or seem good enough. This could be described as “ethical satisficing” because people just follow the course of action that meets or exceeds a certain threshold of moral goodness. They don’t try to carry out the morally optimal action or an approximation thereof (as measured by their own axiology).
I think I cited enough academic papers in the last paragraphs so let’s get more speculative: Many, if not most people5 tend to be intuitive deontologists6. Deontology basically posits that some actions are morally required, and some actions are morally forbidden. As long as you do perform the morally required ones and don’t engage in morally wrong actions you are off the hook. There is no need to do more, no need to perform supererogatory acts. Not neglecting your duties is good enough. In short, deontology could also be viewed as ethical satisficing (see footnote 7 for further elaboration).
In contrast, consider deontology’s arch-enemy: Utilitarianism. Almost all branches of utilitarianism share the same principal idea: That one should maximize something for as many entities as possible. Thus, utilitarianism could be thought of as ethical maximizing8.
Effective altruists are an even better example for ethical maximizers because they actually try to identify and implement (or at least pretend to try) the most effective approaches to improve the world. Some conduct in-depth research and compare the effectiveness of hundreds of different charities to find the ones that save the most lives with as little money as possible. And rumor has it there are people who have even weirder ideas about how to ethically optimize literally everything. But more on this below.
Crucial Considerations and the Big Picture
On to the last section of this essay. It’s even more speculative and half-baked than the previous ones, but it may be the most interesting, so bear with me.
Research suggests that many people don’t even bother to search for answers to the big questions of existence. For example, in a representative sample of 603 Germans, 35% of the participants could be classified as existentially indifferent, that is they neither think their lives are meaningful nor suffer from this lack of meaning (T. Schnell, 2008).
The existential thirst of the remaining 65% is presumably harder to satisfy, but how much harder? Many people don’t invest much time or cognitive resources in order to ascertain what they actually want in life, on reflection; which is arguably of the utmost importance. Instead they appear to follow a mental checklist containing common life goals (one could call them “cached goals”) such as a nice job, a romantic partner, a house and probably kids. I’m not saying that such goals are “bad” – I also prefer having a job to sleeping under the bridge and having a partner to being alone. But people usually acquire and pursue their (life) goals unsystematically and without much reflection which makes it unlikely that such goals exhaustively reflect their idealized preferences. Unfortunately, many humans are so occupied by the pursuit of such goals that they are forced to abandon further contemplation of the big picture.
Furthermore, many of them lack the financial, intellectual or psychological capacities to ponder complex existential questions. I’m not blaming subsistence farmers in Bangladesh for not reading more about philosophy, rationality or the far future. But there are more than enough affluent, highly intelligent and inquisitive people who certainly would be able to reflect about crucial considerations. Instead, they spend most of their waking hours maximizing nothing but the money in their bank accounts or interpreting the poems of some arabic guy from the 7th century9.
Generally, many people seem to take the current rules of our existence for granted and content themselves with the fundamental evils of the human condition such as needless suffering or death. One could call them existential satisficers.
Contrast this with the mindset of transhumanism. Generally, transhumanists are not willing to accept the horrors of nature and realize that human nature itself is deeply flawed. Thus, transhumanists desire to create a utopia for everyone. Transhumanism could be thought of as existential maximizing10.
Unfortunately, this is not very popular. Perhaps partly because it is all too human to invent rationalizations for the desirability of actually undesirable, but (seemingly) inevitable things – be it death or the human condition itself.
Still, many contemporary intellectuals argue explicitly against trying to change the human condition. Bernard Williams, for example, believed that death gives life meaning. Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism the world’s most dangerous idea. And even Richard Dawkins thinks that the fear of death is “whining” and that the desire for immortality is “presumptuous”11:
Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one.
The previous paragraphs shouldn’t fool one into believing that maximizing has no serious disadvantages. It seems that adopting the mindset of a maximizer increases the tendency to engage in upward comparisons and “what-if” rumination which contribute to depression. Constantly trying to figure out the “best” course of action can easily take a psychological toll.
Moreover, there is much to be learnt from stoicism and satisficing in general: Life isn’t perfect and there are many things one cannot change; one should accept one’s shortcomings – if they are indeed unalterable; one should make the best of one’s circumstances. In conclusion, better be a happy satisficer whose moderate productivity is sustainable than be a stressed and miserable maximizer who burns out after one year of pushing herself to the limit. The former type of person will probably do more good for the world (and be happier in the process) than the latter. See also these two essays which make similar points.
 Obviously this is not a categorical classification, but a dimensional one.
 To put it more formally: The utility function of the ultimate satisficer would assign the same (positive) number to each possible world, i.e. the ultimate satisficer would be satisfied with every possible world. The less possible worlds you are satisfied with (i.e. the higher your threshold of acceptability), the less possible worlds exist between which you are indifferent, the less of a satisficer and the more of a maximizer you are. Also note: Satisficing is not irrational in itself. Furthermore, I’m talking about the somewhat messy psychological characteristics and (revealed) preferences of human satisficers/maximizers. Read these posts if you want to know more about satisficing vs. maximizing with regard to AIs.
 Rational maximizers take the value of information and opportunity costs into account.
 Instead of “maximizer” I could also have used the term “optimizer”.
 E.g. in the “Fat Man” version of the famous trolley dilemma, something like 90% of subjects don’t push a fat man onto the track, in order to save 5 other people. Also, utilitarians like Peter Singer don’t exactly get rave reviews from most folks. Although there is some conflicting research (Johansson-Stenman, 2012). Furthermore, the deontology vs. utilitarianism distinction itself is limited. See e.g. “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt.
 Of course, most people are not strict deontologists. They are also intuitive virtue ethicists and care about the consequences of their actions.
 Admittedly, one could argue that certain versions of deontology are about maximally not violating certain rules and thus could be viewed as ethical maximizing. However, in the space of all possible moral actions there exist many actions between which a deontologist is indifferent, namely all those actions that exceed the threshold of moral acceptability (i.e. those actions that are not violating any deontological rule). To illustrate this with an example: Visiting a friend and comforting him for 4 hours or using the same time to work and subsequently donating the earned money to a charity are both morally equivalent from the perspective of (many) deontological theories – as long as one doesn’t violate any deontological rule in the process. We can see that this parallels satisficing.
Contrast this with (classical) utilitarianism: In the space of all possible moral actions there is only one optimal moral action for an utilitarian and all other actions are morally worse. An (ideal) utilitarian searches for and implements the optimal moral action (or tries to approximate it because in real life one is basically never able to identify, let alone carry out the optimal moral action). This amounts to maximizing. Interestingly, this inherent demandingness has often been put forward as a critique of utilitarianism (and other sorts of consequentialism) and satisficing consequentialism has been proposed as a solution (Slote, 1984). Further evidence for the claim that maximizing is generally viewed with suspicion.
 The obligatory word of caution here: following utilitarianism to the letter can be self-defeating if done in a naive way.
 Nick Bostrom (2014) expresses this point somewhat harshly:
A colleague of mine likes to point out that a Fields Medal (the highest honor in mathematics) indicates two things about the recipient: that he was capable of accomplishing something important, and that he didn’t.
As a general point: Too many people end up as money-, academia-, career- or status-maximizers although those things often don’t reflect their (idealized) preferences.
 Of course there are lots of utopian movements like socialism, communism or the Zeitgeist movement. But all those movements make the fundamental mistake of ignoring or at least heavily underestimating the importance of human nature. Creating utopia merely through social means is impossible because most of us are, by our very nature, too selfish, status-obsessed and hypocritical and cultural indoctrination can hardly change this. To deny this, is to simply misunderstand the process of natural selection and evolutionary psychology. Secondly, even if a socialist utopia were to come true, there still would exist unrequited love, disease, depression and of course death. To abolish those things one has to radically transform the human condition itself.
 Here is another quote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. [….] We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
― Richard Dawkins in “Unweaving the Rainbow”
 It’s probably no coincidence that Yudkowsky named his blog “Optimize Literally Everything” which adequately encapsulates the sentiment I tried to express here.
 Those interested in or skeptical of the prospect of superintelligent AI, I refer to “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies” by Nick Bostrom.
 I stole this line from Bostrom’s “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity”.
Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. Oxford University Press.
Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.
Johansson-Stenman, O. (2012). Are most people consequentialists? Economics Letters, 115 (2), 225-228.
Kahneman, D., & Knetsch, J. L. (1992). Valuing public goods: the purchase of moral satisfaction. Journal of environmental economics and management, 22(1), 57-70.
McGonigal, K. (2011). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Penguin.
Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on Happiness Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Psychological Science, 21(4), 539-541.
Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners the paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological science, 20(4), 523-528.
Schnell, T. (2010). Existential indifference: Another quality of meaning in life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50(3), 351-373.
Schwartz, B. (2000). Self determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55, 79–88.
Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(5), 1178.
Slote, M. (1984). “Satisficing Consequentialism”. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 58: 139–63.