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Tsuyoku vs. the Egalitarian Instinct

26 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 March 2007 05:49PM

Followup to:  Tsuyoku naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)

Hunter-gatherer tribes are usually highly egalitarian (at least if you're male)—the all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment.  Among most hunter-gatherer tribes, a hunter who brings in a spectacular kill will carefully downplay the accomplishment to avoid envy.

Maybe, if you start out below average, you can improve yourself without daring to pull ahead of the crowd.  But sooner or later, if you aim to do the best you can, you will set your aim above the average.

If you can't admit to yourself that you've done better than others—or if you're ashamed of wanting to do better than others—then the median will forever be your concrete wall, the place where you stop moving forward.  And what about people who are below average?  Do you dare say you intend to do better than them?  How prideful of you!

Maybe it's not healthy to pride yourself on doing better than someone else.  Personally I've found it to be a useful motivator, despite my principles, and I'll take all the useful motivation I can get.  Maybe that kind of competition is a zero-sum game, but then so is Go; it doesn't mean we should abolish that human activity, if people find it fun and it leads somewhere interesting.

But in any case, surely it isn't healthy to be ashamed of doing better.

And besides, life is not graded on a curve.  The will to transcendence has no point beyond which it ceases and becomes the will to do worse; and the race that has no finish line also has no gold or silver medals.  Just run as fast as you can, without worrying that you might pull ahead of other runners.  (But be warned:  If you refuse to worry about that possibility, someday you may pull ahead.  If you ignore the consequences, they may happen to you.)

Sooner or later, if your path leads true, you will set out to mitigate a flaw that most people have not mitigated.  Sooner or later, if your efforts bring forth any fruit, you will find yourself with fewer sins to confess.

Perhaps you will find it the course of wisdom to downplay the accomplishment, even if you succeed.  People may forgive a touchdown, but not dancing in the end zone.  You will certainly find it quicker, easier, more convenient, to publicly disclaim your worthiness, to pretend that you are just as much a sinner as everyone else.  Just so long, of course, as everyone knows it isn't true.  It can be fun to proudly display your modesty, so long as everyone knows how very much you have to be modest about.

But do not let that be the endpoint of your journeys.  Even if you only whisper it to yourself, whisper it still:  Tsuyoku, tsuyoku!  Stronger, stronger!

And then set yourself a higher target.  That's the true meaning of the realization that you are still flawed (though a little less so).  It means always reaching higher, without shame.

Tsuyoku naritai!  I'll always run as fast as I can, even if I pull ahead, I'll keep on running; and someone, someday, will surpass me; but even though I fall behind, I'll always run as fast as I can.

 

Part of the sequence Challenging the Difficult

Next post: "Lotteries: A Waste of Hope"

Previous post: "Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)"

Comments (28)

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Comment author: pdf23ds 28 March 2007 06:06:16PM 12 points [-]

Hmm. I've never had this problem. On the other hand, I *have* had the problem of my sense of self-worth being based in being naturally talented at things, and so when I don't pick up some new pursuit easily, I tend to get discouraged. Thus, I'm bad at math and don't read enough science papers. It's a hard cost/benefit analysis to choose whether to improve your skill at something you're naturally talented at (and already better than most people at), or some other equally valued skill that you're not very talented at (and well below average in skill). And the pressure of competition, and the psychological problems caused by perfectionism, have to be dealt with.

Comment author: quitacet 28 March 2007 06:21:59PM 0 points [-]

isn't this the very essence of upward mobility? dissatisfaction with the self, the status quo... and a desire to change everything, where the capacity to change is only limited by the will.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 28 March 2007 07:55:49PM 1 point [-]

So what exactly is the bias at issue here? There are tradeoffs in social norms that favor or discourage inequality and bragging. Is it obvious that some choice here is the wrong choice?

Comment author: TimFreeman 25 May 2011 11:13:26AM *  2 points [-]

Is it obvious that some choice here is the wrong choice?

One wrong choice is to choose mediocrity because modesty is easier when you have nothing to brag about.

Another wrong choice is to choose mediocrity because if you fully exploit your talents then you'll get success that would be inaccessible to people lacking those talents.

Comment author: HalFinney 28 March 2007 09:17:14PM 2 points [-]

This idea of always setting a higher target is not necessarily conducive to happiness and satisfaction. Consider applying it to the field of wealth. We have all heard of wealthy people who, no matter how much money they get, always want more. Such people are not generally considered good role models. Granted, this is something of a stereotype, but I imagine it is based in truth. Perhaps there are other fields where constantly setting higher goals works out better, but it's not obvious that it's a beneficial philosophy in general.

Comment author: pdf23ds 28 March 2007 09:37:13PM 0 points [-]

Hal, I wasn't under the impression that tsuyoku naritai was about the pursuit of happiness or satisfaction. On the contrary, it seems to involve some self-abnegation, in that you're sacrificing contentment for accomplishment, trading in mediocrity at the cost of self-criticism. I think this is more about honor and perfectionism than happiness. Both of the former seem to be less fashionable nowadays, but that doesn't mean some people can't put them before happiness.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 29 March 2007 12:19:05AM -1 points [-]

Hal, which goal would you choose if for some strange reason your choice of goal in life were constrained to these two: maximizing your own happiness and satisfaction or maximizing your own ability to percieve reality correctly? (I would be interested in others' answers, too.)

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 20 January 2011 01:56:46AM *  0 points [-]

EDIT: This comment is obsolete.

Well, I think I would prefer to optimize for ability to perceive reality. But I also think that would be more admirable, and I might be telling myself that's what I would do because that's the sort of person I want to be.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 14 June 2011 10:33:10PM *  2 points [-]

Seems like the only use for accurately perceiving reality is maximizing happiness, to me. See Bruce's post below:

"Anyone can easily imagine wanting to maximize perceiving reality correctly IN ORDER TO maximize one's happiness.

But one can't imagine wanting to maximize one's happiness IN ORDER TO maximize perceiving reality correctly."

Comment author: pdf23ds 29 March 2007 01:21:34AM 0 points [-]

Richard, interesting question. I'm not sure it's possible to make that choice, though. Can someone with a strong perfectionist element to their personality be happy unless they get over the perfectionism? Perfectionism involves constant self-criticism and assessment, and thus might be incompatible with happiness in the long term. So in order to choose happiness over perfectionism, they'd have to change their personality substantially. That may not be possible, or effective. Then again, mind-altering agents might help you. OCD medication might be an example of this.

As for me, I don't really have any higher criteria on which to judge between the two options. I don't have any reason to prefer one over the other. Very driven people might not be generally happy, but they do have a certain sense of pride and accomplishment that some might call happiness, and which isn't shared in that form by other people. It's similar to parents of children--they rate their lives as much less happy over the course of their children's lives, but they express more satisfaction and meaning with their life. I can't really judge between the conditions, though I have to say that people often choose child rearing explicitly because of the meaning and accomplishment they think it will bring.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 20 January 2011 01:59:55AM 0 points [-]

Can someone with a strong perfectionist element to their personality be happy unless they get over the perfectionism? Perfectionism involves constant self-criticism and assessment, and thus might be incompatible with happiness in the long term.

Speaking from personal experience, I am a perfectionist and happy. I find it easy to be happy, living in a wealthy first-world democracy with a good personal standard of living. I can be dissatisfied with myself and strive to improve while being satisfied with the rest of my life. I don't know many other perfectionists, so I can't give a broader sample.

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 21 March 2012 05:24:30PM 0 points [-]

I am also a (usually) happy perfectionist. I achieved this through a similar approach - being dissatisfied with myself but satisfied with the rest of my situation. I do require OCD medication for this to work, though.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 29 March 2007 02:15:28AM 2 points [-]

The all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment.

Sorry for the confusion, but how does this square with what you say elsewhere about the human revere-the-tribal-chief instinct?

Comment author: Jesse 29 March 2007 04:32:58AM 0 points [-]

Regarding downplaying accomplishments and such, just look at what can happen when a high school softball team completely demolishes another one:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/2003639381_ko28.html

The winning coach does nothing but talk about how terrible it is, saying, among other things, "If anything positive can come out of this, it's that we can implement some new rules so this never happens again." Sheesh.

Comment author: _Gi 29 March 2007 06:24:25PM 0 points [-]

The all-powerful tribal chieftan is a position, like an office of the President. No matter who occupies the position, it is the position that is given respect. Hunter-gatherer tribes have men of respect (tribal chiefs), and that respect is based only on personal accomplishment, persuasiveness and wisdom, because the tribes are too small for the hierarchy. So, the tribal-chief is not the all-powerful tribal chieftan. One is a man, the other is the position.

Comment author: Bruce_Britton 29 March 2007 08:19:18PM 2 points [-]

Robin, it's easy to see that of the two goals of maximizing either happiness or one's own ability to perceive reality correctly,

Anyone can easily imagine wanting to maximize perceiving reality correctly IN ORDER TO maximize one's happiness.

But one can't imagine wanting to maximize one's happiness IN ORDER TO maximize perceiving reality correctly.

The latter statement makes no sense, or if you force some sense upon it by scenario-making, it still makes a very limited kind of sense.

It seems to me that this proves that maximizing happiness is a higher goal than perceiving reality correctly.

Not one of my own, Aristotle's.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 30 March 2007 02:33:15AM 1 point [-]

Is it impossible for you to imagine a person who cares for nothing but increasing his ability to perceive reality correctly (his "awareness") and consequently whenever he is rested and alert enough to make a deliberate choice, he will choose awareness over happiness whenever forced by circumstances to choose? (I grant you that in unrehearsed situations without enough cognitive resources for deliberation, the human mind tends to choose happiness.)

Note that since a certain minimum level of happiness is a PREREQUISITE for a creative career of any kind (just as at least in capitalistic countries a certain minimum level of wealth is a prerequisite) he might regularly pick happiness as a subgoal.

For example, if he finds himself feeling sad, he might go down to the cafe and strike up a conversation with a beautiful woman. If that is not enough, he might search for a suitable beautiful woman and tell her that life seems meaningless except when he is with her and so on, which is calculated to lead to intense and absorbing experiences which leave one feeling gratified and elated. If that is not enough, he might complain to his physician that he thinks he is ill or depressed. But these are not circumstances in which he is forced to choose between happiness and awareness: these are circumstances where his choice is optimal for both happiness and awareness because sadness undermines performance in most pursuits (in the modern environment).

I will grant you that for almost all people, happiness is an end in itself. But are you sure that no person exists with a comprehensive and lifelong policy that his happiness is only a means to an end?

Comment author: Bruce_Britton 30 March 2007 03:12:59PM 0 points [-]

Richard and Robin: I wonder if it is possible to settle this disagreement between Richard and I. (I realize this is to change the subject from the disagreement itself to ways of settling it, but it does have some relevance to settling it.)

For it to be possible to settle it, we would have to both desire to settle it. Then we could take various routes.

The Scienceoid route would require us to formulate the question, definition of terms, etc, so that some set of operations could be agreed between us to settle it, and then we'd just have to do the operations.

Or we could take various routes that lead to concluding that solving it is impossible, such as referring to the fundamental privateness of mental life, such that even if I said that my policy was to make happiness be only a means to an end, and that I was successful in doing so, I might be lying or deluded or a robot, etc.

Or we could require unanimity, like the Polish Parliament at one time, with only 1 person being enough to sink the proposition.

Or we could take an 'ordinary language' philosophy route, asking 'what do we mean when we say...' etc.

I'd guess both of us know how to do each of these routes, but how do we choose which route(s) to take?

I'm now going to go into the Confessional Mode, which might be a route for this blog to take, that is, everyone focuses on their own biases, observed introspectively, instead of trying to identify other's biases.

My guess is that I would have a strong tendency to take the route that makes it most likely that I would win, just like a child, a myside bias.

My first impulse was to pick out parts of your comment that seem to favor my side, such as your 'in unrehearsed situations without enough cognitive resources for deliberation...' etc. or 'I will grant you that for almost all people, happiness is...' Then I would say that you really agree with me, and I would refer back to my caveat about 'scenario-making.'

I also considered doing my 'multiple selves' schtick, but rejected it because it didn't seem to 'fit', by which I think I meant it would sound silly.

I do think that using natural language to state and argue about this is making it less likely for us to be able to solve it, because we (I guess by 'we' I mean 'I') are likely to fiddle with the meanings of words, etc., but what is the alternative?

Out of Confessional mode, into Meta mode.

But none of these ways of resolving the dispute satisfies me. I'm wondering if disputes on this blog ever do get resolved. I do think they can sometimes get resolved in science.

But success for this blog seems dependent on being able to make progress, and this seems to require that we can settle things, so we can move on and build on the things we have settled.

Maybe the Confessional Mode is the way to go?

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 01 April 2007 04:39:34AM 1 point [-]

Robin, I know this post is too long, but it is an issue I care deeply about!

Mr Britton, many claim that there is no way to settle this particular disagreement because it is over values. In contrast -- and I realize I am in the minority on this -- I believe that there is an objectively-valid proper ultimate goal.

More precisely, I do not know if there is or not, but if there is not, then life has no meaning, so I assume there is, and do my best to discern it even though any truly satisfactory knowledge of it will probably have to wait for future generations.

Natural selection _caused_ us to feel happiness and _decided_ what types of experiences lead to happiness.

To someone who knows evolutionary psychology, there is nothing surprising about the fact that many people claim that happiness is the proper goal of life. Let's call them "hedonists and utilitarians". But the existence of a causal chain -- in this case a grand one stretching back billions of years starting with the start of life and ending with hedonists and utilitarians -- does not by itself impose on me an obligation to continue that causal chain.

For example, the increase in entropy has been going on even longer than that, yet no one would criticize me for not devoting my life to maximizing the entropy of the universe.

The fact hedonism and utilitarianism are expected consequences of natural selection greatly reduces the probability that I have neglected another, more compelling cause of hedonism or utilitarianism, namely that they are the product of keen observers of reality and keen calculators of reality's ethical implications.

The fact that I used to care about happiness as end in itself is adequately explained by the operation of my genes and by cultural transmission from hedonists and utilitarians.

Natural selection caused massive amount of pain and suffering. The suffering was "unavoidable" in the sense that even if the course of evolution leading to sentience had taken a different path, according to our models, billions or organisms with complex adaptations much like brains would experience mental states much like suffering. I.e., as soon as one has decided the laws of physics and decided that the universe will start with a sterile Big Bang and decided that the universe will be populated with sentient life via natural selection, one has decided that the universe will see massive suffering.

Finally, to enter Confessional Mode a bit, one possible reason I've come to this belief is that I've experienced more than the usual amount of suffering.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 14 June 2011 10:40:20PM *  0 points [-]

Warning! Necropost (for benefit of future readers)!

More precisely, I do not know if there is or not, but if there is not, then life has no meaning

Unless, of course, it is valid to choose your own meaning.

The fact hedonism and utilitarianism are expected consequences of natural selection greatly reduces the probability that I have neglected another, more compelling cause of hedonism or utilitarianism, namely that they are the product of keen observers of reality and keen calculators of reality's ethical implications.

Careful; easy to fall into a false dichotomy here. They can be a consequence of natural selection and a correct result for a calculation of "reality's ethical implications."

I would even go so far as to say that they are the correct ethical position because they are a result of natural selection. Or, to phrase it slightly better: because our evolution ended up this way, utilitarianism is the correct ethical approach. A species that did not evolve to experience suffering or pleasure would have quite different moral values.

We have evolved to experience suffering and happiness, which I would say are a priori bad and good, respectively; thus, this evolution has caused utilitarianism to be the correct ethical position (by creating bad and good).

Comment author: Bruce_Britton 02 April 2007 02:24:30AM 0 points [-]

Richard, you say you do not know if there is or is not a way to settle this particular disagreement. I too believe there may be a way to settle it, but only if we are explicitly specific about what we mean, and only if we agree to agree about what we mean; then there may be a way to settle it to the satisfaction of both of us. But if we can't be explicitly specific etc. then we can't settle it. My view is quite a standard one; I don't claim it's original. I agree that disagreements that involve values are difficult to settle; I think we would have to agree about values, or agree to disagree.

The arguement I gave was from Aristotle, and I have been unable to find any flaw in it. It seems to compel my assent.

However, others have denied it, most famously Augustine, who said that seeking and finding God is above happiness. That is, God is the ultimate goal, not happiness.

This makes sense to me if I could believe in the existence of God, but usually I can't, whereas I can believe in the terms of my application of Aristotle's arguement ( 'maximizing perceiving reality correctly' and 'maximizing happiness').

And it seems possible that you are seeking something that is kind of like what other people mean by God, specifically I get this from your 'if there is not an objecively valid proper ultimate goal, then life has no meaning' and your willingness to 'step outside the causal chain' and your concern with suffering; these all remind me of talk about God. The suffering of sentient beings has a Buddhist flavor.

So maybe our disagreement has to do with you being able to believe in this God-type idea, and me not. Could this be it?

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 02 April 2007 03:54:09AM 0 points [-]

If Aristole's argument exists on the net and you send me a pointer, I will read, then reply.

I was writing elliptically and did not flesh out my paragraph about suffering. The elliptical conclusion to that paragraph: most people believe it is an intrinsic good to ameliorate suffering, but my position is that amelioration of suffering is only an instrumental good. The Earth has seen 100s of millions of years of suffering. What is it about the physical structure of the Universe that makes 560,000,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a win and 560,001,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a loss? (I believe that all intrinsic goods flow from the physical structure of the Universe.) I can't see how preventing suffering is (even in part) the ultimate goal of existence.

In other words, the fact of suffering was decided long before we came into being and nothing we can do can alter that fact.

No I do not believe in God. God is silly.

Comment author: Hul-Gil 14 June 2011 10:45:37PM *  0 points [-]

Warning! Necropost (for benefit of future readers)!

What is it about the physical structure of the Universe that makes 560,000,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a win and 560,001,000 years of suffering followed by no more suffering a loss? (I believe that all intrinsic goods flow from the physical structure of the Universe.)

In my other comment, I explain I believe the physical structure of the universe - the structure of humans, in particular - has caused suffering to be an evil and happiness a good. Thus, the former minimizes the bad, which is closer to a win than any alternative.

Comment author: Paul_Ogryzek 14 November 2008 03:52:58AM 1 point [-]

This may be worth pointing out. If you know of one person who is a perfectionist and others who aren't, you may have the tendency of thinking that the perfectionistic person is unhappy due to their perfectionism. In reality the person may be unhappy for other or diverse reasons, and you're projecting the perfectionism as the reason because you perceive that you would be unhappy if you had such a level of self-analysis. You may have also been right that this person is unhappy to a significant degree from the perfectionism, but that doesn't necessarily mean that being less perfectionistic would help them. They may be equally miserable and come to find out that they needed to manage their high drives better. The conclusion to all of this is that it is irrelevent to comment upon the causal relationship between level of perfectionism and level of happiness in other people, especially since these ideas are gross oversimplifications of the concepts they represent. Having said all of that, I would like to add my two cents that I think there is a strong determinant of how satisfied we are with our existence coming from how we evaluate ourselves compared to others. Along that thinking, if a person wants to be happier, he or she should try to find ways to surpass others in all ways. The article astutely points out that there is an egalitarian bias against this desire and I would point out that this bias has been on the rise over the last ten years. Never have I seen a time that it was considered as undesirable to dominate others and have them know that you are better than them. That's what human life is really all about.

Comment author: zslastman 24 March 2013 10:58:33AM 1 point [-]

Hunter-gatherer tribes are usually highly egalitarian (at least if you're male)—the all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment. Among most hunter-gatherer tribes, a hunter who brings in a spectacular kill will carefully downplay the accomplishment to avoid envy.

This seems like a really, really important question of fact, because it bears on to what extent we can construct societies where everyone is happy. I lean towards the idea that we're wired for non egalitarianism, that we need other people below us to be happy. Not sure though. Any citations?

Comment author: apostb1 02 June 2013 10:46:33PM *  0 points [-]

If "pursuing happiness" is an incentive for modern societies, pursuing something else - improving oneself I suppose - would become an incentive when most of population have achieved "happiness" (and misery should present itself to the world with a brave new meaning?). To my perception, that is, tsuyoku implies "always pursuing" while happiness achievement implies an end of the line.

...we need other people below us to be happy

Interesting connotation. "Below us" implies we' re already there, and by some sense of altruism we desire unhappy people to be happy? Or is it a different classification?

Comment author: onigame 25 November 2014 04:56:26PM -2 points [-]

If one only sees the competitive aspect of society, then yes, there is no shame in doing better.

But society also has a cooperative aspect. There is no shame in doing better, but you should feel shame if you are doing better AND you are not helping those behind you.

Reaching the top of the mountain? No shame there. Not giving the folks behind you a hand up? Shame!

The real moral dilemma comes, though, when you have to choose between helping the people behind you, or advancing even further in the race, where maybe further on in the race you could potentially help people even more. Sure guys, I can give you a hand up, but I'm thinking that over there on the next cliff there's a rope and a bucket...

Comment author: toonalfrink 02 June 2016 11:39:07AM 0 points [-]

But what if this resolve to always be stronger gets one to be overstrained, and end up in depression? Is there not an upper limit to motivation? Or is depression just manifested by doing it the wrong way?