Feeling Better than Other People

This post will just be a quick note based on a conversation I had with someone recently on the subject of feeling superior to other people. I’ve been there before, as I suspect many people have. If you find yourself simultaneously thinking you’re somehow better than other people and thinking it’s wrong to think that way, here are some distinctions that may make the issue less loaded.

  • The question of how much net value you are providing for the world is a legitimate one, in my opinion. And the answer may be that you’re providing more than most, especially if you’re optimizing for it. 
  • If you’re feeling a sense of entitlement that seems less than pro-social, remember that most things aren’t zero sum. If you want more attention from others, influence in the world, money, etc., that’s legitimate! But these things don’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • People are pretty different from each other. You may be more intelligent, powerful, aware, etc. than many people. And you are almost certainly less of all the above characteristics than others. It can be polite to ignore differences in ability between people, but there comes a time when you may also want an accurate assessment of where you are. Make it okay to think about these things as objectively as possible when you choose to focus on them. It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.. Sometimes these differences have far-reaching implications, and often not. 
  • The capacity to feel respect and compassion for all people is a really important one. Some thinkers say that we get our gut-level feeling of self-worth primarily from recognizing this particular capacity, and this seems plausible to me. Whatever causes you to lose track of this ability is worth reconsidering.

I think I had more thoughts there, but that’s a brief partial brain dump.

  • Romeo Stevens

    This is something I’ve also struggled to communicate to people. Many seem to have a bunch of needless stress about equality as some sort of terminal value. But this usually seems to be taught, not an actual moral intuition. You don’t help the neediest because that will make overall inequality less, you help them because your marginal unit of time/resources/effort/money gets us the most bang for your buck in reducing suffering there.

    I think it’s also an issue of sacred words/concepts. Assigning “less moral worth” has a lot of negative connotations. “I think badly of those who don’t share my moral reasoning” feels self serving. We draw a magic circle around some of our preferences and call them moral. Likely because guilt was a useful precommitment strategy when you couldn’t be sure everyone would keep an eye on everyone at all times.

    This is more specifically related to this issue arising in the effective altruism community.

    • Have you read Julian Jaynes? I ask because his model of things relates to what you’re saying about guilt.

      • Romeo Stevens

        Yes I’m a fan of his theory on the sheer audacity of proposing it alone.

  • Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg

    “It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.”
    My brain definitely goes funny when I’m trying to think about my intelligence relative to other people. (Also for other qualities, like attractiveness, but mainly for intelligence). My parents would always criticize us for talking about grades with friends, or talking about anything that might imply we were smarter, really. This was a good lesson for social skills development, but my younger self wasn’t very good at compartmentalizing, so I ended up believing that I was of exactly average intelligence, and not being able to think properly about questions of human intelligence in general. If I’d actually been making policy decisions, say about education, this could have been a serious problem.

    • Yeah, mine used to go funny when thinking about these things too.

      If you want to be able to think more clearly about your intelligence, I recommend having a couple of frank conversations with people who won’t be offended by the subject. I think that could defuse the funniness pretty quickly.