Your actual terminal values are your actual terminal values

One of the coolest things I’ve internalized during the past year is this: you don’t need to have a particular emotional response to the things you deem terminally valuable, and you don’t need to assign any moral relevance to the things you happen to feel, unless you endorse these feelings as part of your moral framework. You get to decide what your terminal, inherently important values are, with no particular obligation to infer them from simple unprocessed gut feelings, emotions, or other stuff outside of your direct conscious analysis and control. Sure, all sorts of affects and intuitions are going to influence your decisions and form the basis of your motivation, but still, to what extent you endorse a given potentially morally relevant feeling and how much it’s weighed if embedded into your explicit values is something you get to decide for yourself. And once you have a somewhat satisfactory set of terminal values, you don’t need to care about anything else than that (as well the identifiable instrumental goals that connect to it, which of course is a lot to care about, but like).

This dissociation between a genuinely meaningful life and a life full of conventional, individualistic, sometimes entirely superficial but emotionally salient markers of success is to me extremely liberating because of the relative fickleness of personal happiness. The causal pathways that lead to personal wellbeing are only somewhat reliable: unfortunately, it’s easy to overestimate the value of external life changes, or have a brain that just generally is never really satisfied in the stimuli it encounters. This is not to say that the actions you take to affect the rest of the world have certain effects either, of course – but you probably have more empirical information on how they transform the world, and these effects are usually large enough to make it a safer bet despite the uncertainties involved. Compared to altruism, hedonistic psychological egoism especially when tied to external factors is a treadmill that leads to distress and powerlessness: you can’t decide to be loved, wealthy, or high status in the same way you can decide to show love to someone else, help out people around the world with vastly lower incomes, or act respectfully towards others. Effort-wise, it’s cheaper to do your best to make sure other people have their basic needs fulfilled than to strive to improve your own state which probably already is subject to the principle of diminishing returns.

To not have to see myself as a morally special, intensely relevant entity just because this is how the subjective point of view I inhabit automatically feels like (and because any subjective entity as a result of evolutionary processes has a natural egoistic bias) lets me accept even severe personal emotional setbacks as the inevitable, but absolutely not catastrophic, infinitesimally small moral negatives that they are. After screwing something personal up I may be in pain I’m unable to alleviate, but there are other people in pain as well, some of which I may be able to do something about. This grants me safety, but also control and power over making the world as a whole better: maybe I can take a moderately laborious action that improves my long-term wellbeing by a puny hopeless expected 0.05%; but inherently it is exactly equally important that any other person is spared from unhappiness, so a similar amount of work will usually lead to larger expected effects by an order of magnitude or more if I simply reject my default intuitive human egoism (to the surprisingly large but of course not complete extent that such a rejection is possible). Again, this doesn’t mean you have direct control over how the actions you take will be transduced into qualia experienced by the entities whose lives you seek to improve, but e.g. making statistically sure fewer people suffer for weeks and maybe die of painful preventable diseases is very likely to be a good idea in this respect, and a benefit of a magnitude by which you will probably not be able to easily improve your own life.

At a glance, this seems somewhat like an inversion of Stoicism: instead of accepting that you have no control over external happenings and focusing on cultivating appropriate attitudes towards the world in order to reach an internal sense of peace, you accept you sometimes have very little power over your internal emotional states, and turn your attention to the outside world to at least reduce the distress of other sentient beings. This incompatibility is illusory, and I’ve found these attitudes reinforce each other quite neatly, at least if your preferred flavour of Stoicism is modern in that it’s based on empirical, statistical observations about the extent of the effects of your actions. To me, it seems the virtues of Stoic philosophy were originally designed to counter the same futile hedonistic egoism I oppose, not explicitly to advocate resignation to the world as a place full of disease, abuse, and suffering you can’t do anything to alleviate (impartial empirical altruism just sort of hadn’t been invented yet). Accepting personal emotional setbacks as something not super morally relevant reinforces a Stoic acceptance of things outside of your control, and lets you focus on achieving vastly more important things without disproportional aversion or fear of personal discomfort.

Personal wellbeing is probably going to be a part of the stuff you value, and it might not be very universalizable to assign no intrinsic value at all on one’s own happiness, but in the end, you still get to decide whether your subjective experience is restricted to a solely instrumental role, a parameter you only need to improve insofar as it helps you advance other features of the world. From this, it follows that even if you’ll never feel especially “happy”, even if you’ll never be successful or particularly high status or whatever it is that you feel you may so far have failed at, you may still be doing your best towards progressing the things that you truly value. Even persistent anhedonia doesn’t have to mean anything at all: even without the associated emotional reward, you can still succeed at the things that actually matter.

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