Sunday, January 27, 2013

Don't Renounce Instincts

 In this Bloggingheads video between Robert Wright and Buddhist Gary Weber, Weber notes that he has achieved such a state of bliss that he no longer feels that he care more about his daughters than other children.  This he finds transcendent and logical.  I think it's sad. As a child, I really liked the thought that my mom liked me more than others, and so unlike others really cared about my little travails. As a parent, I feel I need to protect and nurture my children because others won't be nearly as attentive.  It's simply an evolutionary advantage to care more about one's kids than others.  It's hard wired, and so I don't feel one should be proud of losing this like losing one's more irrational prejudices.  It's good that we aren't simply optimizing 'the collective', but instead our kin, because remember: ants are not merely selfless, but genocidal and unempathetic.

W. Somerset Maugham's book The Razor's Edge (1944) tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune. When it ends all the characters are suffering for their foolish objectives in various ways whereas the protagonist achieves the total consciousness alluded to by Bill Murray's character in Caddyshack. The book ends noting that the lead character Larry achieves "happiness" as an itinerant worker, as if that is all one should want.

 Maugham anticipated the beat culture, the glorification of finding one's 'authentic self' via a renunciation of material rewards, and rather, an inner happiness one gets from getting high and listening to music.  He was born of the British gentry and so could take status for granted because back then one's class, especially in Britain, was not merely a function of one's wealth. I watched the 1984 version of The Razor's Edge recently and was rather taken by the glib supposition that a man without means or connections in America could simply enjoy his transcendent being without material success. To think that you can achieve bliss by being a monk doing manual labor your whole life is just as dumb as thinking that you can achieve greater glory just getting high everyday and listening to music.

A desire for status and achievement is a deep part of our needs.  It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because that way people are incented to interact and try to be helpful to others, create things others want, and receive material rewards for doing so.  Surely, a desire for status can go too far like any desire, but to presume you could be a content toll-booth operator  is naive.

The desire for status is hard-wired and like all instincts good in moderate doses.  Such a desire leads one towards benchmarking against others, and this leads to a zero risk premium.  That's in my book.  Like anyone with a Big Idea, I see it everywhere, and here I think it's absurd to think the good objective in life is losing one's attachment to things like popularity and success. This was really brought back to me reading the existentialists and noting how profoundly sad they all were (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche  Kierkegaard), because they were really lonely, they didn't have wives or children.  I remember reading Henry James telling his brother that his most singular attribute was his pronounced loneliness, which as a homosexual in that day must have been really tough. We have hard wiring that may not make sense from a logical perspective, but we shouldn't dismiss these desires simply because they aren't rational in a utilitarian perspective. 


Anonymous said...


Who decides contentedness? Methinks that is left to the individual.

Too, how many people can be content in their / with their work? There is a need for toll booth operators, fast food workers, bank tellers, accounts payable clerks, dog walkers etc.

Is it possible that the two positions are the same side of the coin.

The well worn penny submerged in hot sauce usually comes out with a clear picture.

Anonymous said...

Complex issue, hard to discuss it objectively without the ideological baggage we all carry.

(And dont get me started on the issue of humans not being genocidal and unempathetic... as if there werent enough controlled lab studies of this inclination, and countless historical&contemporary records to fully confirm it. I can bring references, but am confident that it's nothing really new.)

Achievement is not so easy to define. Contributing to a better social order can definitely be counted as such, and happyness measurements seem to confirm it. On the other hand some countries who blindly followed the competition mantra (where achievement is hard to distinguish from exploitation) are now starting to pay the heavy bill. But surely tentatives to go the so called "other" way of subjecting the individual to a supposed collective utility have failed equally miserably. This only shows that it's not just about finding the right balance, but that such categories are too primitive to be pragmatic. We're "social animals", so the very separation of individual and collective calls for the solution of a bad posed problem.

You're right in that our instincts towards personal differentiation have a sound biological rationality that shoundnt get easily dismissed, however they were also crafted in an environment totally different than the current one, and thus are now sometimes dangerously missing the point. So I'm with you in that hippies bring no real pragmatic solutions, but beware that this does not mean that anti-hippianism is necessarily any better. If you're open enough to read some zen or taoist literature, you'll see how that (fake) duality has been mocked for centuries, yet it is still far from being left behind. Luckily the world is more complex and interesting than what politicians pretend to teach us.
The challenge is using our instincts in a constructive way, and correct their blindness to recover applicability and factual rationality. Said otherwise, our instincts are certainly well intentioned, but by definition they're rough heuristics that can fail in practice more often than not. And life is intelligent management of that moving and complex boundary. Or atleast that's what I call "achievement".

As for the incipit, "mathematically" the point is not how much more one cares for his own childs than for others, it's wether each individual contribution is part of a positive, zero or negative sum game. I dont care if Weber treats his childs better than other ones, as long as the net contribution is positive! That is, he could still care more for his son than others, yet still make his life miserable, while satisfying that "good" instinct. If this sounds academic, please think twice; it really isnt.

PS: "As a child, I really liked the thought that my mom liked me more than others, and so unlike others really cared about my little travails."
As a child, I really disliked how my father concentrated on making my life especially painful. I wished he could treat me atleast with the indifference other kids enjoyed. I longed for that, and keep the scars to date. So please dont exhaggerate with extrapolation.

sykes.1 said...

I have seen both film versions of the Razor's Edge, and in both Durrell comes across as arrogant, selfish and uncaring. A very unpleasant fellow.

Eric Falkenstein said...

It sounds like your biggest annoyance was a parent that was overbearing or contemptuous. A problem with government is that it too can be overbearing, and then we are all stuck with it.

Mercury said...

Weber is probably quite lucky his parents didn’t feel the same way. But if I had to choose I’m pretty sure I could live a more fulfilling life in the shoes of Carl the assistant greens keeper than in the open-toed footwear of this fluffhead.

So I got that going for me, which is nice…

big al said...

watching the whole's a very intellectualized and kind of dry discussion...whatever...for some reason i am moved to comment: there is a in interesting model of life that comes out of south asia, that bears on EF's reaction to Weber's comments. in this model life falls into phases. in the first phase, one is a dependent child who takes from the environment in order to grow. in phase two, one is a student and learns cultural/techne information so that one can be a useful citizen and support oneself independently. phase three is the householder, who creates a family and gets the kids through the first two phases. and then the final phase is spiritual, when the one who has accomplished the material objectives and fulfilled the biological instincts, then lets go of things in order to gain deeper insight into the fundamental nature of reality. setting the question of the nature of reality aside, the interesting thing about the model is that it accepts the biological imperatives, the need to surrender to the forces that got us here in the first place. only after that surrender and fulfillment is one then older/wiser/free enough to indulge in the letting go required to see deeper. which letting go is also a preparation for death, the final and complete letting go.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know governments, or corporations (is there really such a big difference?), are made of the same kind of people that they "serve", they are not created in a vacuum.
I have lived under one of those overbearing governments, but the common people weren't much better at all. Now I moved to a country with a government that takes care of its people, and folks around are much more pleasant. What a coincidence!

Eric Falkenstein said...

I should add, to the commentor who mentioned his oppressive parents, that I'm really sympathetic to your concerns. I know that parents can cause a great deal of grief. But this is the case with anything good, it can be bad if done imprudently. I don't think the solution is to forgo the parental instinct, rather, to apply it prudently with empathy.

The sad thing is, one can't choose one's parents, and you only get one childhood.