2012-02-29 (Wednesday) § Leave a comment
About a month ago I came up with a plan to control how I spend my time at home. The basic scheme I came up with, as I later learned from a Freakonomics podcast (thanks to Stephen and Becca for linking me to it), is called a “commitment device”. A commitment device means you set up consequences for your future actions that your future self won’t be able to avoid. It’s a way of dealing with the fact that different functions in your brain are driving your actions at different times, and those different functions sometimes have conflicting goals.
Freakonomics recommends against
Dubner of Freakonomics concluded that “self-imposed commitment devices are rather imperfect” because in two such cases he looked at, the subjects eventually triggered their self-imposed punishment procedures, and the costs to them were pretty serious. In one case, a guy with a gambling addiction signed up for a list that would get him arrested if he set foot in a casino. Eventually he did, and he was arrested.
The other case involved a guy named Adam who wanted to get rid of some habits he thought were unhealthy. So he wrote a $750 check to Oprah, whom he dislikes intensely, and gave it to his friend to mail to her if he ever got “any credible evidence” that Adam had done any of the things he committed not to do. This last resembles my system very closely: a monetary penalty to be spent in a way that the subject despises on a gut level, and the assessing of the penalty to be done by a trusted third party. My Oprah is the Republican Party and my fine is $30. Less painful a fine than Adam’s, but significant enough to be emotionally salient to the unconscious brain functions that want to derail me from my preplanned agenda. This balance is key. I don’t want a single infraction to cause serious life problems for me, but I do want it to sting, and I want repeated infractions to start causing serious life problems for me.
Unlike Adam, I haven’t had a fine assessed yet. Today is agenda day #26.
One key advantage of my system over Adam’s is that the target behavior is defined in a way that allows pressure valves. Adam had no outlet for the drives of the parts of his brain that he was trying to get under control. He simply wasn’t allowed to do certain things that those parts of his brain really wanted him to do, and the slightest infraction incurred a penalty.
For me also, the slightest infraction incurs a penalty – but for me an infraction means not doing something. The target behavior is to spend predetermined amounts of time focused on particular activities. What my unconscious drives want me to do that interferes with the target behavior is things like browsing the web or sitting around thinking about nothing in particular. I can still do those things. I can even stop in the middle of a task to do them. I just can’t credit the time so spent against my preplanned agenda items.
It may make things clearer to give a sample of one of my daily agendas. Here’s yesterday’s.
61 minutes: Math.
31 minutes: Music textbook exercises.
10 minutes: Scales.
Shut off computer and go to bed before 9:45pm. Don’t turn computer back on. No reading after 9:45pm.
Exactly what time I do these things doesn’t matter. I just need to spend the full duration doing them before bedtime. This allows flexibility for things like groceries, washing dishes, answering phone calls. But it’s still specific enough to keep my eye on the clock.
The very writing of this blog entry is one of my agenda items for tonight. I have to spend 90 minutes on it, or less if I finish it before then. In other words, if I hit 90 minutes and I’m not done yet, I can call it a night. But the clock is only running while I’m actively working on the entry. Daydreaming and Facebook time are allowed but require the stopwatch to be paused.
The real motivator?
Recent introspection has led me to think maybe the money isn’t the biggest part of my motivation to keep my agendas. The imagined outcome that I really recoil from when I glance at the clock and realize I’m going to have to register a fail if I don’t get started right away is not the paying of $30 to the GOP (may low voter turnout be ever their lot). It’s the prospect of having to report the fail to my friend, who has agreed to referee the matter for me (and who is a loyal Republican). In other words it’s shame. For this reason, my scheme might not work so well for some people. If the money doesn’t sting at the right moment, and if shame doesn’t drive you like it drives me, you should probably rig up some other kind of motivator. Another key element, of which I bear within me a boundless source, is guilt. I never find myself contemplating the option of failing my agenda but not telling my friend about it. The guilt of that secret would torment me. And what if he found out? The shame!
Why go through all of this?
Unlike the guys discussed on Freakonomics, I’m not running this commitment device because I’m at risk of hurting others or destroying my own life. Life is pretty stable and healthy for me right now. But I’m not where I want to be yet. My job is reliable and stress-free but unfulfilling. I want to be spending most of my time doing something that I’m proud of and enjoy. That means I need to put a lot of time into developing certain skills. Throughout my whole life until recently, I’ve had serious trouble sticking to my plans for how to spend my free time. So far (26 agendas to date), this particular commitment scheme has altered the frequency with which I stick to the plan from “seldom” to “always”. That’s a tool I can turn to many important uses. I want to develop some songs into a presentable form and write more of them, so I need to spend a lot of time getting good at the keyboard, recording and editing. I want to understand economics, so I need to learn a lot of math. I can now be confident that I’ll put the necessary time in, as long as I have it to spare after work. Just put it on the agenda.
Or maybe I’ll run into new limitations. Maybe as I crank up the amount of agenda-defined time (as I have been doing, slowly), I’ll find that the motivational pressure to crap out increases beyond the capacity of the existing pressure valves. I hope not, but if so, I don’t think that will be a catastrophic outcome. The GOP will get some money from me, and I’ll grimace with chagrin and make any needed adjustments to future agendas.
Now I need to figure out what I should be focusing on most. For the next few days it’ll be music. I really want to get some songs into presentable shape.
2012-02-15 (Wednesday) § 8 Comments
At first glance I was sympathetic to the position of the Catholic Church in this recent issue about requiring Catholic employers to include contraception among the benefits covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. But on further thought it seems wrong to me that principles of religious conscience should be respected in this matter in a way that irreligious conscience wouldn’t be.
Furthermore, if there’s to be any force in the idea of government requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees, then how can exceptions be made for the employers’ conscientious principles?
It seems to me that there are only the following possible positions to take on this:
- Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. No exceptions. Catholic employers have to cover contraception if they cover anything. This forces Catholic employers to choose between offering no medical benefits or subsidizing services that they consider immoral.
- Government should not be able to place any requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Catholic employers don’t have to cover contraception. This could have a lot of dangerous consequences by allowing employers to select what benefits they cover based on interests other than the medical needs of those covered.
- Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Exceptions for benefits that violate the conscientious principles of the employers. Any employer can refuse to cover anything on this basis. So the requirements have force only insofar as a) the government can show that a given employer really doesn’t have the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the government), or b) the employer fails to show that they really have to the conscientious principles they say they have (burden of proof on the employer). It might be pretty hard to come up with any reasonable way of showing either thing.
- Government should be able to place requirements on employers to include certain benefits among those covered in health care plans that they subsidize for their employees. Exceptions for benefits that violate the religious principles of the employers, but not for principles outside of religion. This strikes me as a government endorsement of religion. It implies that religious moral principles are more important than irreligious ones. I’m definitely not okay with this on the basis of my own conception of how government should work, and I think it also violates the 1st Amendment as the Supreme Court has so far interpreted it.
Comparing the downsides of each of these, I’m inclined to go with #1. Maybe #3 if a workable test could be devised.
2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment
Okay, I was wrong. Suffering isn’t the only thing that matters to me morally. Happiness does too. But not as much as suffering. The thing that made this clear to me was the thought experiment about a button that would instantly and painlessly wipe out every suffering-capable entity (including me). I couldn’t get myself to say I would push that button. If worst individual non-consensual suffering is my only moral metric, then I should push that button even if only one entity somewhere is suffering just a tiny bit. It would guarantee a WINCS of zero henceforth and forevermore. That’s as low as it goes. Since I don’t feel like a universe with no conscious entities at all is morally better even compared to one with a really low but nonzero WINCS, it can’t be that WINCS is the only relevant moral metric for me.
Below is a representation of how much each thing matters to me, using my favorite intellectual tool, the indifference curve. The curved line here represents all the outcomes that are equally morally acceptable to me. The idea is that as the WINCS increases, it requires a higher and higher greatest individual happiness to compensate for it morally. Any point under the curve is morally acceptable to me, and any point above it is morally unacceptable.
I made this graph with an awesome open-source vector image editor.
Now one thing left to specify is how much suffering and happiness (in vague terms) is represented by a given length on each axis.
Another is whether the curve approaches a horizontal asymptote as GIH increases and continues to rise indefinitely even if at a continually decreasing rate, or it actually reaches a 0 slope (flattens out). If it does reach 0 slope, that means there’s some amount of individual suffering such that no amount of individual happiness makes it okay to me. I’m inclined to say there is.
Now about that universal euthanasia button. With the graph the way I’ve set it up, the origin point (zero WINCS, zero GIH) is morally equivalent to any point on or below the curve, but morally better than any point above it. That means if I have the button in front of me and I’m in a situation represented by any point above the curve, I should push the button, since doing so will result in a morally better situation. I think I’m okay with that. I can imagine a situation where some entity is suffering so badly that I’d rather instantly extinguish all conscious life than allow that suffering to continue.
2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 3 Comments
What laws or public policies do you want in your society even if a democratic majority opposes them? I don’t have an answer yet. Still thinking about it.
2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment
The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or be could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend. He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighboring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice.
from the introduction of The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes, describing the privileged lives of middle- and upper-class Londoners in the early 20th century.
Bold added. Most of this excerpt at a glance strikes me as true of my own people today, Americans of the early 21st century. I think, or I hope, that the bold part is untrue of at least a significant minority of us. We have a considerable awareness of the influence of politics, military conflict and trade policy on our daily lives. I’m not sure how much comfort that should be if it’s true, though. It depends on what the dangers are.
This book is Keynes’ warning that the Treaty of Versailles would bring disaster on Europe, and WWII proved him right. Maybe as I continue through the book I’ll find out that his reasons for thinking so don’t have parallels in my own country and time. I’m pretty sure that even if the unwise actions of those Europeans do have parallels today, the dangers today will be different. A global or even a continental war between great powers is hard to imagine today. There are too many interests threatened by such a prospect and too few served. Whatever dangers we face, they’re likely to be international in origin and not driven by a few specific governments.
2012-02-04 (Saturday) § 8 Comments
A useful comparison here is with the problem of describing the sense of grammaticalness that we have for the sentences of our native language. In this case the aim is to characterize the ability to recognize well-formed sentences by formulating clearly expressed principles which make the same discriminations as the native speaker. This undertaking is known to require theoretical constructions that far outrun the ad hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge. A similar situation presumably holds in moral theory. There is no reason to assume that our sense of justice can be adequately characterized by familiar common sense precepts, or derived from the more obvious learning principles. A correct account of moral capacities will certainly involve principles and theoretical constructions which go much beyond the norms and standards cited in everyday life; it may eventually require fairly sophisticated mathematics as well.
from A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (revised edition), pp 41-42.
I like this comparison, although I think familiar common-sense precepts are more useful for moral theory than the ad-hoc precepts of our explicit grammatical knowledge are for syntactic theory. Telling people not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition does nothing to explain why “the go store I need” is a sentence of English you’ll never hear from a native speaker. Telling people to do to others what they want done to them will go some distance to explain why we judge physical assault as immoral in most cases. Of course that’s just some raw material for a theory. There’s lots and lots of work to be done after that.
2012-02-04 (Saturday) § Leave a comment
Without making any commitments about the means, would you endorse the goal of bringing the correlation between personal wealth of a US citizen and that citizen’s influence on election outcomes and public policy down to a level ascribable to chance? Or to put it less mathematically, would you endorse the goal of making it so that a US citizen’s personal wealth doesn’t give her any more influence on election outcomes and public policy?
I would. I think if having a lot of material wealth gives you more influence on legislation and more say about who gets elected to public office, that’s a bad thing.
What are some non-self-serving reasons to think otherwise?
Here it is as an actual poll: