Personal musings on Individualism and Empathy

One type of the more com­mon ac­cu­sa­tions that peo­ple throw at me can be de­scribed like this: “You’re an ego­ist. You don’t think about oth­ers.” To my teenage self this sounded amus­ing, and I would re­spond with a smug “Why yes, I am an ego­ist, thank you very much!”

Here I have to make a con­fes­sion: back then I was pretty much ob­sessed with Ayn Rand’s Ob­jec­tivism. For those who don’t know much about her philos­o­phy, it’s a flawed at­tempt to cre­ate a con­sis­tent philo­soph­i­cal sys­tem that cov­ers just about ev­ery­thing, from on­tol­ogy to aes­thet­ics. It has very stark in­di­vi­d­u­al­is­tic, liber­tar­ian-ish vibes. Be­ing a naive yet cu­ri­ous kid, I was en­am­ored with what turned out to be my first ex­pose to (rel­a­tively) rigor­ous ar­gu­men­ta­tion, logic, and philos­o­phy/​crit­i­cal thought in gen­eral. I can’t thank Rand enough for that, be­cause through her I en­coun­tered the con­cepts of rea­son and ra­tio­nal­ity, which in turn led me to LW, The Se­quences and ev­ery­thing else which formed the ba­sis of my ma­ture thought.

Any­way, af­ter a while I moved away from ob­jec­tivist ideas. I clearly re­mem­ber the “fi­nal nail in the coffin” mo­ment. I was reread­ing THE SEMINAL WORK THAT SYSTEMATICALLY EXPLORES AND DEVELOPS THE IDEAS OF AYN RAND, par­tic­u­larly the part about the con­scious­ness ax­iom. I re­mem­ber think­ing: “Wait, the as­sump­tions that the ar­gu­ment lies on are com­pletely un­founded, what the hell is this episte­mol­ogy LOL”. That was it. No dra­matic cathar­sis-like mo­ment, no noth­ing, just the feel­ing of hav­ing fi­nally checked off an item from my bucket list.

De­spite my go­ing through the re­jec­tion rit­ual, a lot of moral in­tu­itions that I formed in that pe­riod car­ried over into my new, semi-adult life. I shunned so­cial norms and laughed at those who had to con­form. I prided my­self on be­ing so­cially brave, freely ask­ing peo­ple for fa­vors and be­ing able to take a re­jec­tion and re­ject my­self, giv­ing com­pli­ments left and right when­ever I felt like oth­ers de­served them, ex­press­ing my­self au­then­ti­cally, with­out fear of judge­ment or pub­lic sham­ing.

Most of this was con­nected to the clas­si­cal-liberal-ish no­tion of “any­thing’s OK as long as it’s not ini­ti­a­tion of phys­i­cal force” and its corol­laries, cou­pled with in­tu­itions like “no­body owes noth­ing to no one, thus e.g. ask­ing for fa­vors is to­tally OK and even good (cuz self-in­ter­est), but only if you’re able to take a ‘no’ for an an­swer; we all are free peo­ple af­ter all” and oth­ers from the same neg-lib-and-ego­ism cluster.

Plot twist. This Ran­dian ex­pe­rience left my em­pa­thy in a stunted, prim­i­tive state. It’s not on the lev­els of psy­chopa­thy/​ASPD, I ex­pe­rience rich emo­tions, can em­pathize with oth­ers (both af­fec­tively and cog­ni­tively), my track­ing-so­cial-cues mechanism works fine, I’m able to en­joy fic­tion, etc. But my brain doesn’t mark most sig­nifi­cant per­sonal in­for­ma­tion about oth­ers as salient, un­less I’m ex­plic­itly told to keep it in mind. This means that generic so­cial rules and ex­plicit agree­ments work fine for me, but many im­plicit ex­pec­ta­tions are bound to fall short, be­cause the nec­es­sary per­sonal in­for­ma­tion about oth­ers’ prefer­ences just doesn’t jump to my mind when­ever I’m mak­ing a de­ci­sion that can af­fect some other per­son that’s rel­a­tively im­por­tant to me. Of course it’s more com­plex than this, so please re­mem­ber that I’m paint­ing in broad strokes here.

This fuck­ing sucks. I do ac­tu­ally feel re­morse ev­ery time I un­in­ten­tion­ally hurt some­one, it’s pretty hor­rible, al­most ev­ery time I wish it didn’t hap­pen. It’s usu­ally not an is­sue with ac­quain­tances and friends, i.e. we’re not close enough, so they end up get­ting hurt by me very rarely, if ever, but at some point if you want the re­la­tion­ship to progress, you have to be able to count on the other per­son to take on some of the re­spon­si­bil­ity for your well-be­ing. That’s how you de­velop trust, which is an im­por­tant pre­req­ui­site for vuln­er­a­bil­ity and sus­te­nance of long-term co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tion­ships. To be re­spon­si­ble, you first have to be­come aware.

Which is ex­actly where my bot­tle­neck lies. I don’t model oth­ers well enough, typ­i­cal-mind­ing aside. Or rather, for some rea­son I’m dis­in­clined to do it. It feels like a bur­den. I want oth­ers to tell me what they want from me, ex­plic­itly and pre­cisely. That’s how I op­er­ate my­self. To me it feels like tak­ing per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for your needs, which is Good. Ac­tively tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for oth­ers feels Wrong, be­cause what the hell, why am I sup­posed to do some­thing for them? No one owes me any­thing, but nei­ther do I!

Now, I do ex­hibit car­ing be­hav­ior, some­times, to­wards cer­tain peo­ple. It feels good and au­then­tic. That’s be­cause when I do it, I re­ally value the per­son and want them to be well. One con­found­ing fac­tor could be that I sim­ply don’t like most peo­ple, they’re not “good enough for me” in my eyes, so I (read as “my brain”) don’t care about them enough to model them suffi­ciently. But then again, maybe the rea­son why I don’t like most peo­ple and find them shal­low is my lack of em­pa­thy, so the causes and effects might be tan­gled up here.

Sev­eral bro­ken re­la­tion­ships and lots of pain be­hind me, I’m dat­ing some­one again. I’m differ­ent now, hav­ing stud­ied a lot of psy­chol­ogy, philos­o­phy, ba­si­cally ev­ery­thing hu­man na­ture. I’m stronger. And, as it hap­pens, this re­la­tion­ship is much healthier than oth­ers, it spurs a sig­nifi­cant amount of per­sonal growth, de­spite the short time span: pat­terns be­come ob­vi­ous, small yet mean­ingful change takes place. I’m thank­ful to my SO. Even if our paths di­verge at some point, I’ve got­ten a lot of value out of our re­la­tion­ship, and I hope so did they!

And now, dear read­ers, I pre­sent you with my Lat­est, Juiciest In­sight into the psy­che of Me, a ran­dom per­son on the In­ter­net.

First off, let’s start with the be­lief/​alief di­chotomy. Here’s my dar­ing and frivolous in­ter­pre­ta­tion: Beliefs are about metic­u­lous calcu­la­tions, S2 over­ride, and so­cial in­ter­fac­ing. Aliefs are what drives your S1 by de­fault, af­fect­ing greatly your mo­ti­va­tions and be­hav­ior. It’s im­por­tant to be able to ex­pli­cate aliefs, be­cause that gives you the op­por­tu­nity to in­ten­tion­ally change them. They do change on their own, of course, but it hap­pens more or less ran­domly, sub­ject to the chance work­ings of en­vi­ron­ment, ex­pe­rience, and re­flec­tion. Lots of so-called in­ter­nal con­flicts—pro­cras­ti­na­tion, nega­tive spirals, self-loathing, etc—are the re­sult of iden­ti­fy­ing too much with S2, the mind, and not enough of “ac­cept­ing” S1, the body, as a part of your self-con­cept, or so I think any­way. Carte­sian delu­sions are crappy at mod­el­ing re­al­ity, but sadly are pretty in­tu­itive and thus quite wide­spread.
But I digress.

Stripped of all eth­i­cal chaff, I un­earthed an alief. It goes like this:

“Free­dom from so­cial con­straints is good. If I let my­self be­come suffi­ciently aware of oth­ers’ prefer­ences, this will turn me into an anx­ious self-con­scious nervewrack and I’ll lose all the benefits I’m reap­ing from my cur­rent at­ti­tude”

The con­cept of slack ties into this very well. For those who want a quick re­fresher, some­thing some­thing our be­hav­ior is partly man­aged by the ex­pec­ta­tions and im­plicit de­mands of other peo­ple. This post by Val is prob­a­bly rele­vant, too.
I have lots of slack. What’s more, I’m able to con­strain oth­ers rather heav­ily, e.g. by openly sig­nal­ing my prefer­ences. I’m al­lowed to do this pre­cisely be­cause I’m less at­tuned to what oth­ers pre­fer. It’s a strong, hon­est pre­com­mit­ment mechanism: if you’re not even con­sciously aware of the fact that you’re thwart­ing some­one else’s prefer­ences via ac­tion, you pass the in­ter­nal-S2-self-polic­ing-so­cial check; af­ter all, none of this was in­ten­tional! This lets you keep your self-es­teem safe and sound, and thus lack of ad­e­quate pun­ish­ment per­pet­u­ates this be­hav­ior fur­ther.

You could say that my S1 val­ues my slack so much that it’s afraid to even look into the minds of oth­ers, aside from barely scrap­ing the sur­face. There’s no go­ing back af­ter tast­ing the for­bid­den fruit. “Yes, you’re naked and ashamed, boo-hoo, go cry me a river, and fuck off from Heaven while you’re at it”—God, prob­a­bly.

Already no­ticed the mis­take I’m mak­ing? No?

Well here it is:

Other-aware­ness and other-mod­el­ing are two differ­ent things.

If a per­son who has no ToM gets sud­denly struck by In­sight from Above and gains the abil­ity to See the Other, they’ll ebb-and-flow be­tween very un­pleas­ant states of panic and less-but-still un­pleas­ant states of con­fu­sion and di­s­ori­en­ta­tion. They didn’t have the priv­ilege of grad­u­ally eas­ing into so­cial re­al­ity and slowly mas­ter­ing as­pects of peo­pling, and re­al­ity hit’em like a brick. Be­ing aware of the enor­mous pile of de­mands and ex­pec­ta­tions with­out know­ing ex­actly what they are must feel like, I don’t know, doom.

How­ever, it mustn’t stay so. If this newly-baked Seer sur­vives the ini­tial shock, they’ll start de­vel­op­ing bet­ter and bet­ter men­tal mod­els of other peo­ple and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing use­ful heuris­tics. The Art of Pre­dic­tion will get honed and pol­ished with a zeal­ous striv­ing for perfec­tion.
Now that the ini­tial dip in effec­tive­ness is per­se­vered through, the Seer finds that their life has be­come much bet­ter, be­ing able to sub­tly nav­i­gate be­tween the streams of so­cial in­for­ma­tion, ma­nipu­lat­ing these flows to their lik­ing, en­joy­ing the ever-in­creas­ing benefits of so­cial ap­ti­tude, the sly beast!

Any­way, here it is. Only thing left is to feed ex­pe­ri­en­tial ev­i­dence into this new re­frame, which re­quires crash­ing into re­al­ity, which can hardly be done by putting more words on the metaphor­i­cal pa­per.

So I guess I’ll go out and do just that.