The Axiological Treadmill

The ob­vi­ous rea­son that Moloch is the en­emy is that it de­stroys ev­ery­thing we value in the name of com­pe­ti­tion and sur­vival. But this is miss­ing the big­ger pic­ture. We value what we value be­cause, in our an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment, those tended to be the things that helped us with com­pe­ti­tion and sur­vival. If the things that help us com­pete and sur­vive end up chang­ing, then evolu­tion will en­sure that the things we value change as well.

To bor­row a metaphor: Elua cheats. The he­do­nic tread­mill has noth­ing on the ax­iolog­i­cal tread­mill.

Con­sider a thought ex­per­i­ment. In Med­i­ta­tions on Moloch, Scott Alexan­der dreams up a dic­ta­tor­less dystopia:

Imag­ine a coun­try with two rules: first, ev­ery per­son must spend eight hours a day giv­ing them­selves strong elec­tric shocks. Se­cond, if any­one fails to fol­low a rule (in­clud­ing this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to en­force it, all cit­i­zens must unite to kill that per­son. Sup­pose these rules were well-enough es­tab­lished by tra­di­tion that ev­ery­one ex­pected them to be en­forced.
So you shock your­self for eight hours a day, be­cause you know if you don’t ev­ery­one else will kill you, be­cause if they don’t, ev­ery­one else will kill them, and so on. Every sin­gle cit­i­zen hates the sys­tem, but for lack of a good co­or­di­na­tion mechanism it en­dures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can op­ti­mize the sys­tem to “ev­ery­one agrees to stop do­ing this at once”, but no one within the sys­tem is able to effect the tran­si­tion with­out great risk to them­selves.

Even if this sys­tem came into be­ing ex nihilo it prob­a­bly wouldn’t be sta­ble in re­al­ity; a pop­u­la­tion that spends eight hours a day re­ceiv­ing strong shocks isn’t go­ing to be able to feed it­self, or re­pro­duce. But as­sume for a mo­ment that this sys­tem starts out eco­nom­i­cally and biolog­i­cally sta­ble (that is, peo­ple can still eat, and re­pro­duce at the rate of re­place­ment, de­spite the elec­tric shocks, and that there are no out­side coun­tries ready to in­vade). What do we ex­pect to hap­pen over the long run?

Well, ob­vi­ously there’s a strong evolu­tion­ary pres­sure to be tol­er­ant to elec­tric shocks. Peo­ple who can tol­er­ate those shocks bet­ter will do bet­ter on av­er­age than those who can’t. How­ever, there’s an­other more sub­tle pres­sure at play: the pres­sure to en­sure you shock your­self. After all, if you for­get to shock your­self, or choose not to, then you are im­me­di­ately kil­led. So the peo­ple in this coun­try will slowly evolve re­ward and mo­ti­va­tional sys­tems such that, from the in­side, it feels like they want to shock them­selves, in the same way (though maybe not to the same de­gree) that they want to eat. Shock­ing them­selves ev­ery day be­comes an in­trin­sic value to them. Even­tu­ally, it’s no longer a dystopia at all.

They would be aghast at a so­ciety like ours, where Moloch has de­stroyed the value of re­ceiv­ing elec­tri­cal shocks, all in the name of more perfect com­pe­ti­tion.

[Cross-posted from Grand, Unified, Empty.]