Monthly Archives: June 2018

Preferences

I feel like my view on how preferences work is sort of opposite to that of mainstream philosophy. I see in philosophy a lot of talk about what we should prefer. What is the good? What goals should I pursue? What is the meaning of life? That kind of thing.

To me that’s a strange question to be asking. I view preferences as basically a starting point: we are built with a utility function shaped by whatever works best to maximize the survival of our genes. Some parts of that are pretty obvious: sex is fun, getting injured is painful, etc. Higher drives are only slightly more difficult to understand: we want power, we want to cooperate and help each other, we want to be loved… it’s all pretty explicable with some uncontroversial assumptions about the evolutionary pressures on our recent ancestors.

With the preferences question dissolved into “follow the dictates of the utility function that’s built into your mind” the meaning of life becomes “enact your preferences.” When you look at the world and see that it’s not the way you’d prefer it to be, try to push it in that direction.

In this reading altruism stops being something we are trying to justify philosophically and starts being a contingent preference that we as humans just happen to have. I’m not altruistic because there’s some objective moral argument showing that’s the correct way to be, I’m altruistic because I care what happens to other people I want them to be happy and healthy and free. It would be perfectly reasonable for some entity to have the exact opposite preference from me (preferring people be sad, sick, and enslaved) and not be any less rational. My description of such a perfectly reasonable and rational entity is “evil” or “my enemy” because its preferences strongly diverge from mine in an irreconcilable way.\

Usually having very different preferences doesn’t have to lead to conflict. If you really want to build a giant pyramid and I really want to feed the hungry there’s no reason for us to be in conflict. We can engage in mutually beneficial trade and both be better off for the other party’s existence without having any overlap in our goals. Of course it’s also possible that with no more fundamental conflict than that one of us can take an action that dramatically conflicts with other’s preferences if that’s what is the best strategy.

Ultimately then what a society should look like is a group of people with sufficiently similar / non-conflicting preferences that they can all basically get along. This isn’t really that hard with humans since our preferences are mostly pretty similar. Of course similar preferences doesn’t ensure we’ll get along – I want that piece of bread, you also want that piece of bread… Fortunately while plenty of people are willing to harm others to accomplish their goals, few have their core goal as “fuck over other people.” Building a good society implies keeping out those rare sadistic sociopaths, and designing incentives for the rest of us so we don’t step on each other’s toes while pursuing our various preferences.

The failure to do that is the big problem with capitalism. It sets things up so there’s this group of people, capitalists, who have a gigantic amount of power, and very different interests in terms of how they’d like society to be run. In certain key ways what benefits the capitalist class hurts society as a whole and vice versa. Workers may compete with each other,  The goal of a “classless society” is not for everyone to be the same, or even to have the same standard of living, but to prevent that division into conflicting classes of people with starkly different interests.

Of course all of this discussion of a “good” society is based on my preference for what society should look like – one in which everyone should be maximally able to pursue their preferences, constrained only by the degree to which those preferences conflict with other people’s preferences. If someone’s core drive is “allow the market to operate without limit” they won’t really see much value in what I’m going for. What hope there is for convincing people of anything is that core drives are usually something a bit more primal than an opinion about market economics. Someone can have the exact same preferences as I do, but a different belief about how to enact those preferences. When that’s the case we can have a nice factual discussion about what really is the best way to get those preferences enacted, and if we’re both sincere one or more of us might even be convinced by the other.

So if you wonder what the meaning of life is just think about what you want, and what strategies are available to achieve that goal. Learning a lot about the world will almost always be a good idea since otherwise there’s a good chance you’ll end up pursuing your goal in an inefficient or even counterproductive way (see everyone with sincere but idiotic plans to make the world a better place). Building up your own capacity (gaining power one might say) to act is also a good go-to in any situation, especially when the thing you want to do is a big, difficult task. And finally, find your allies. I guarantee you don’t have unique preferences. There are definitely some people out there who want the same thing as you and agree on how to make it happen.

So good luck enacting your preferences, and don’t stress about the fact that the preferences you have are based on random evolutionary contingency. There’s no better thing they could be based on that would make you feel any better, and it’ll still feel just as good to accomplish your goals.

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