Friday, December 2, 2022

Stomp Out Guilt (and a purpose of the blog)

Song: "Matches" by Sifu Hotman. One of those songs you have to listen to the lyrics.

<unnecessary>One thing I learned when writing Losing My Religions is that I'm not a very original thinker. For example, Yuval Noah Harari wrote about the Simulation Hypothesis a few months before I published the precursor to "Worst Than Hitler." The only unique idea (as far as I've been able to find) I have in the book is "Biting the Philosophical Bullet" (and the related "My Expected Value Is Bigger Than Yours"). ("The End of Veganism" is certainly not a common idea, although The Animalist has covered it too.)</ego>

There are a lot of interesting and insightful ideas out there on the intertubes. Trying to find them and bring them to you is one of the reasons I write this blog. This is important, IMO, because many of the good ideas are buried in an ocean of verbiage and highfalutin language. Someone who investigated Effective Altruism noted that it would take 80,000 hours to read what EAs have already written (let alone what is still to come). This is even worse if you add in EA-adjacent thinkers.

To be generous, they are in a doom loop, where longer pieces are valued more than concision and communication, leading to ever-longer pieces to impress the EA community.

<actual point>I came across this interesting series of posts about Replacing Guilt. (I've only scratched the surface of the entire discussion.) If guilt is an issue for you (e.g., if you've been raised Catholic, have perfectionist tendencies, etc.) it might be worth a skim.

In short:
  1. Guilt is bad*. It is negative and makes life worse than it need be, and it doesn't create any useful action that couldn't be motivated by a positive emotion.
  2. Guilt is often a symptom of an illogical approach to life. In addition to recognizing #1, we can change our view of decisions to minimize a reaction of guilt. 
Now, as per "Biting the Philosophical Bullet," my underlying philosophy, and thus goals, are different than the "Replacing Guilt" author. But I think his points are useful regardless of anything else. A few quotes:

Once we have learned our lessons from the past, there is no reason to wrack ourselves with guilt. All we need to do, in any given moment, is look upon the actions available to us, consider, and take whichever one seems most likely to lead to a future full of light. 
I hang out around a lot of effective altruists. Many of them are motivated primarily by something like guilt (for having great resource and opportunity while others suffer) or shame (for not helping enough). Hell, many of my non-EA friends are primarily motivated by guilt or shame. 
I worry that guilt and shame are unhealthy long-term motivators. In many of my friends, guilt and shame tend to induce akrasia, reduce productivity, and drain motivation. 

[Goes on to say we should work so that the outcome is good enough - to the point of decreasing utility: "Half-ass everything, with everything you've got."]
Over and over, I see people set themselves a target, miss it by a little, and then throw all restraint to the wind. "Well," they seem to think, "willpower has failed me; I might as well over-indulge." I call this pattern "failing with abandon." [Many former vegans.]
But you don't have to fail with abandon. When you miss your targets, you're allowed to say "dang!" and then continue trying to get as close to your target as you can.
...Or imagine someone who thinks they should be smarter, and that their homework shouldn't be taking them this long, and who feels worse and worse as they work. In each case, the pattern is the same: the subject thinks there's something they should be doing (or some way they should be), and they're not doing it (or aren't being it), and so they feel really guilty. 

I claim that the word "should" is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word "should," most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.
It's ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It's ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a "should."

If you often suffer from guilt, then I strongly suggest cashing out your shoulds. Get a tally counter and start training yourself to notice when you say the word "should," and then once you're noticing it, start training yourself to unpack the sentence. "I should call my father this week" might cash out to "if I don't call my father this week, he'll feel disappointed and lonely."

[N]ever let a "should" feel like a reason to do something. Only do things because they seem like the best thing to do after you've thought about it; never do things just because you "should."

even among people who claim to be moral relativists: they protest that if they weigh their wants and their shoulds on the same scales, then they might make the wrong choice.

But this notion of "right" vs "wrong" cannot come from outside. There is no stone tablet among the stars that mandates what is right. Moral relativists usually have no trouble remembering that their narrow, short-term desires (for comfort, pleasure, etc.) are internal, but many seem to forget that their wide, long-term desires (flourishing, less suffering, etc.) are also part of them.

My advice is simple: notice when you're expected to try, and consider reframing. It's much harder to solve a problem when you're Expected To Do Your Best than it is to solve a problem when you're immersed in various subtasks, with the assumption that you're going to solve the problem buried implicitly and unconsciously in the context.

For example, consider exercise. Many people find it much easier to exercise in a context where the exercise is in the background rather than the foreground. Imagine someone who plays recreational soccer, sprinting up and down the soccer field up till the brink of exhaustion. Now imagine them not playing soccer, but just trying to sprint up and down the field up to the brink of exhaustion. They probably push themselves a lot less in the latter case. If "sprint up and down the field a lot" is the main goal, then at each possible stopping point, part of them starts trying to convince the rest that they've exercised enough for the day, and they must spend willpower to continue. In a soccer match, by contrast, the focus is elsewhere. They aren't constantly pinging themselves with explanations of how they've done enough sprinting for today. They aren't generating reasons why it's OK to stop here. They're trying to score a goal. Getting exercise is a background assumption, not a conscious choice.

Note: I still struggle with guilt in one area of my life. So I'm not some mindful, logical master.

*You should definitely feel guilty if you haven't read and reviewed Losing!

Yes, I know I used this pic a month ago!

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