Instrumentally Caring Intrinsically

A way of thinking that I’ve been using for a few years now, but I don’t think I’ve ever written up, is the idea of instrumentally caring about things intrinsically.  

Caring about something intrinsically is often very useful for coordinating with others.

When you care about something for its own sake:

  • It’s easy to strongly and coherently signal that you care about it.
  • People (rightly) expect that your caring will be fairly stable.
  • Your intuitions, aesthetics, and gut feelings will be aligned in such a way that you can act on your caring in realtime.
I remember being an overly analytical kid who wondered whether there was something fundamentally incoherent about caring about things other than my own sensory inputs. I’ve now come around to the opposite idea. Intrinsically caring about only my sensory inputs is incoherent–there’s a lot of utility that caches out in the form of cool sensory inputs that you can only unlock by intrinsically caring about things other than sensory inputs.

I see a lot of conversations break down when people can’t, or won’t, justify why they care about something. And I think there is something that can be a little “off” about trying to come up with justifications for intrinsic values, and in my experience it can actually mess up people’s epistemic to try. Then again, if the things you care the most about become semantic stop signs, I believe you’re leaving a lot of value on the table.

Instead, when these types of conversational roadblocks come up, I recommend people shift to discussing what’s good about caring about something intrinsically. 

A while back, someone on my facebook feed stirred the pot by doing a cost benefit analysis (IMO reminiscent of David Friedman’s stuff) of whether to call the cops on a bike thief. He got some pretty strong pushback from people who implicitly rejected his frame and said stuff like “fuck bike thieves”. 

According to me, the right way to continue the conversation at that point is to ask how the world looks when we do cost benefit analyses of reporting bike thieves vs. how it looks when we become morally outraged when we see bike thieves. This way, neither party is required to directly invalidate their sacred values by the things they protect at the object level, and the people can actually exchange information about their worldviews and whether they disagree with each other’s.