When is Winning not Winning?

Lately I’d got­ten jaded enough that I sim­ply ac­cepted that differ­ent rules ap­ply to the elite class. As Han­son would say, most rules are there speci­fi­cally to cur­tail those who don’t have the abil­ity to avoid them and to be side-stepped by those who do—it’s why we evolved such big, ma­nipu­la­tive brains. So when this video re­cently made the rounds it shocked me to re­al­ize how far my val­ues had drifted over the past sev­eral years.

(the video is not about poli­tics, it is about sta­tus. My poli­tics are far from those of Penn)

It’s good we have peo­ple like Penn around to re­mind us what it was like to be teenagers and still ex­pect the world to be fair, so our brains can be used for more pro­duc­tive things.

By the mea­sure our so­ciety cur­rently uses, Obama was win­ning. Penn was not. Yet Penn’s ap­proach is the win­ning strat­egy for so­ciety. Brain power is wasted on sta­tus games and so­cial ma­nipu­la­tion when it could be used for ac­tu­ally mak­ing things bet­ter. The machi­na­tions of the elite class are a huge drain of re­sources that could be bet­ter used in al­most any other pur­suit. And yet the elites are ad­mired high-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als who are viewed as “win­ning” at life. They sit atop huge piles of util­ity. Ideal­ists like Penn are re­garded as im­ma­ture for in­sist­ing on things as low-sta­tus as “the rules should be fair and ap­ply iden­ti­cally to ev­ery one, from the in­ner-city crack-dealer to the Har­vard post-grad.”

The “Ra­tion­al­ists Should Win” meme is a good one, but it risks cor­rupt­ing our goals. If we fo­cus too much on “Ra­tion­al­ist Should Win” we risk go­ing for near-term gains that benefit us. Sta­tus, wealth, power, sex. Ba­si­cally he­do­nism – things that feel good be­cause we’ve evolved to feel good when we get them. Thus we feel we are win­ning, and we’re even told we are win­ning by our peers and by so­ciety. But these things aren’t of any use to so­ciety. A so­ciety of such “ra­tio­nal­ists” would make only fee­ble and halt­ing progress to­ward grasp­ing the dream of defeat­ing death and coloniz­ing the stars.

It is im­por­tant to not let one’s con­cept of “win­ning” be cor­rupted by Aza­thoth.

ADDED 5/​23:

It seems the ma­jor­ity of com­ments on this post are peo­ple who dis­agree on the ba­sis of ra­tio­nal­ity be­ing a tool for achiev­ing ends, but not for tel­ling you what ends are worth achiev­ing.

I dis­agree. As is writ­ten “The Choice be­tween Good and Bad is not a mat­ter of say­ing ‘Good!’ It is about de­cid­ing which is which.” And ra­tio­nal­ity can help to de­cide which is which. In fact with­out ra­tio­nal­ity you are much more likely to be par­tially or fully mis­taken when you de­cide.