Self policing for self doubt

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Some­times it seems con­se­quen­tially cor­rect to do things that would also be good for you, if you were self­ish. For in­stance, to save your money in­stead of giv­ing it away this year, or to get your­self a re­ally nice house that you ex­pect will pay off prag­mat­i­cally while also be­ing delight­ful to live in.

Some peo­ple are hes­i­tant to do such things, and pre­fer for in­stance to keep a habit of donat­ing ev­ery year, or err to­ward sparse ac­com­mo­da­tion more than seems op­ti­mal on the ob­ject level. I think be­cause if their be­hav­ior is in­dis­t­in­guish­able from self­ish­ness, it is hard for them to be sure them­selves that they aren’t drift­ing into self­ish­ness. Not that self­ish­ness would be bad if the op­ti­mal be­hav­ior was in fact the self­ish one, but the worry is that if a self­ish­ness-iden­ti­cal con­clu­sion will bring them great per­sonal gains, then they will tend to­ward con­clud­ing it even if they should not have.

This all makes sense, but there is some­thing about it that I don’t like. It seems good to be able be co­her­ent and cu­ri­ous and strate­gic and to be­lieve in your­self and what you are do­ing in ways that I think this is at odds with. For in­stance, un­der this kind of ar­range­ment you don’t get to have a solid po­si­tion on ‘is this house worth hav­ing?’. You have your ob­ject level rea­son­ing, and then not even a meta-level rea­son to ad­just it, but a meta-level rea­son to dis­trust your whole think­ing pro­cess, which leaves you in the vague epistemic state of not al­lowed to have cer­tain con­clu­sions on the house at all, or al­lowed to have them but not act on them. And hav­ing views but not act­ing on them is a weird state, be­cause you are know­ingly do­ing what is worse for the broader world, out of mis­al­ign­ment with your­self. And all this is to fend off the pos­si­bil­ity that your mo­tives are ac­tu­ally bad, or will be­come bad. I kind of want to say, ‘if your mo­tives are bad, maybe you should just go and do some­thing bad in­stead of rig­ging up some com­pli­cated pro­cess to thwart your­self’, but pre­sum­ably there is some com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship be­tween bad and good parts of you that are try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate some kind of ar­range­ment here. And maybe that is the way it must be, for you to do good. But it sounds suffo­cat­ing and en­fee­bling.

On my preferred way of liv­ing, you do no­tice if you seem too ex­cited about liv­ing in a nice house. But if you think you might have ‘the wrong val­ues’ you ad­dress that prob­lem head on, by ob­ject level in­quiry into what your val­ues are and what you think they ‘should be’. If you think you might be en­gag­ing in self-de­cep­tion, you try to work out if that is true, and why, and stop it, rather than build­ing a sys­tem that lets you move money through un­der the as­sump­tion that you are self-de­ceiv­ing.

Re­lat­edly, I think peo­ple some­times donate to causes they don’t work on, though their po­si­tion is that the one they work on is bet­ter, or hes­i­tate to spend the amounts of money im­plied by their usual eval­u­a­tions on im­prov­ing some­thing in their usual line of work, out of a mod­est sense that they might be bi­ased about their choice of work, and that money could re­ally save lives for in­stance. On my preferred way of liv­ing, if you sus­pect that you are bi­ased about your choice of cause to work in such that money is bet­ter spent on a differ­ent one, you sit down and figure that out and don’t waste your ca­reer, not just send your Christ­mas dona­tion some­where else and then get back to work.

This all takes effort though, and won’t be perfect, and mileages vary, and ev­ery­one must do their best with what­ever state of psy­cholog­i­cal mess they find them­selves in. So quite pos­si­bly the ‘avoid non-sac­ri­fice’ meth­ods are bet­ter for some peo­ple.

But hav­ing to be this kind of crea­ture, that can’t treat it­self as an agent, that isn’t al­lowed cer­tain be­liefs, that sec­ond guesses it­self and fears parts of it­self and ties it­self up to thwart them, seems like quite a cost, so I don’t think such strate­gies should be taken up by de­fault or ca­su­ally.

This is all my sense, but I haven’t spent huge amounts of time think­ing about it (e.g. note my own po­si­tion is pretty vague), and may come around pretty eas­ily.