(Partial) Summary of A Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith is best known for being the father of modern economics with the publishing of his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. Far fewer people know about his second most famous book A Theory of Moral Sentiments (which, incidentally, is where the term “invisible hand” actually comes from). While the book is nominally about moral philosophy, I think it would be more accurately described as a work of psychology: Smith is trying to explain how morality arises from the workings of our minds. Much in the same way that The Wealth of Nations still seems surprisingly insightful today, I posit that A Theory of Moral Sentiments accurately described aspects of human psychology that were not appreciated until much later. I enjoyed listening to the EconTalk book club on ToMS as well, if you want to have a lively discussion with lots of background and historical context.

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Appreciating Contempt

A couple of years ago, Will and I attended an event where someone asked us all to consider which emotion we had the hardest time owning and were most likely to resist and push away. We both gave the same answer: contempt.

At the time I remember thinking that contempt seemed mean and not that useful. I talked to some people about contempt, and don’t remember anyone at the event giving me a compelling reason to embrace it, though it’s possible I did hear good advice, but wasn’t in a place to process it.

And I’m happy to say that I’ve finally made some progress on appreciating contempt!

In particular, I noticed that a lot of my internal dialogue was actually pretty self-contemptuous. I seemed to be using self-contempt to notice when my own positions didn’t make any sense and straw man them.

Noticing when my own positions don’t make sense is awesome!

Using self-contempt to do that seems pretty efficient. If you’ve never asked yourself, “what would my enemy think about what I was doing,” I recommend trying it. It’s been eye-opening for me in the pass, and my worldview makes the claim that most people assume most people are more virtuous than is actually the case.

But then, viewing myself with contempt is also costly. It’s easy for me to miss how costly it is, because these thoughts are tinged with the cold kind of contempt contempt, and that tone can slip under my radar pretty easily. But I end up feeling small and not very confident as a result :-(.

And even though my thoughts aren’t perfect, they’re usually a better guess than than my best arguments against them.

Here’s an example of my contemptuous voice being mean:

“I think it worked out okay that I didn’t obsess about not having the dog jump on people. He’s naturally doing it less as he gets more comfortable.”

“OR you’ve created a behavior pattern that he didn’t have to have that makes everyone like him a little less and a generally pushy attitude that doesn’t serve him or anyone else very well.”

Sometimes, it says things that imply that I’m doing something more right than not.

“Meh, Argos (same dog) gets so frustrated when I try to teach him stuff. It didn’t seem as bad before, so maybe I’ve poisoned the process somehow.”

“OR you just thinking that because you’ve accidentally reinforced frustrated barking a few times in a row, that factor is very salient for you, and nothing else is all that different. You weren’t sure he’d ever learn the other stuff either, but he did.”

The self-contempt thing isn’t about me being a bad person, or about me having done the wrong thing. It’s M.O. is telling me that my thoughts, flattering or unflattering, are generally crappy and not to be trusted. 

Kinda costly, but also useful and overall truer than not. Thanks contempt!

How to Build a Tribe

It is important to preface this entire document by saying that I had very specific objectives for creating a tribe. In particular, I wanted a group that was emotionally vulnerable with each other, who are reacting in real time to each other’s responses, where we create a safe space to say and feel and process anything. If you’re looking for something else, only some of this will apply to you. If you share this vision with me, a list of concrete steps to get there from here is below the fold:

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Other People’s Emotional States

Last week I posted as my Facebook status that: “Someone else’s emotional state is almost always a terrible optimization target.” I got a couple of requests to expand the thought to the length of a blog post, so here I go!

I’ve been thinking since I posted it, and I think there are two fairly separable reasons that I think the mental representation of another person in a particular emotional state isn’t a productive thing to focus my mind on. First, how other people feel isn’t something I can control. And second, it’s a metric that is easy and harmful to game.

Let me start by saying how I think intentionality works in the human mind. (These ideas are not original to me, but I also haven’t ever heard anyone articulate them in quite the way I do.) Intentions are represented as pictures of how we want the world to be. I think they usually have more influence over our behavior when they’re represented vividly. Pictures are almost always involved, words may be involved, feelings in our body are often involved. Smells and tastes may be involved too. They have size, color, and position. They may be moving or static. 

And ultimately, we try to make these pictures come true. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated than that. And we’re certainly imperfect at fulfilling our intentions, but that’s the basic idea. I won’t link to The Secret because that seems embarrassing and I haven’t actually read it, but I think that book says the same thing in more woo-woo language.

To break it down more, I think correspondence between our mental representations and our perceptions is reinforcing, and more so for the more vivid ones that are represented in many modalities. So approaching intentions shapes our behavior.

And it’s worth saying that the intentions that have most powerfully shaped our behavior aren’t necessarily ones that are aligned with our explicit goals. As the saying goes, “we’d rather be right than happy.”

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Suffering is Created by Resistance

I got an email a few days ago about a card from one of my Anki decks that says “Suffering is created by resistance.”

I wanted to explain what that statement meant to me. To start, in my mind there is a companion phrase: “Pain is not suffering.” 

Here’s what I’ve written about that statement. I hope it makes sense.

But suffering seemingly exists, and so if pain doesn’t account for it, what does?

This post is a more complete and articulate presentation of the idea that suffering results from conflict between two subsystems. 

And sometimes I do put it that way. I think there’s another card in the same Anki deck that says something about how internal conflict results in suffering. Saying that suffering is created by resistance is a slightly different framing, and one that I think is useful.

Physical suffering is a lot about tensing up, which seems to go along with the framing of suffering being resistance. Suffering comes from wanting the world to be different, and making some mental or physical motion that sort of kind of almost works on the margin but is actually ridiculous.

A very rough idea of how I think our brain works is that we hold in our mind a mental representation of how we want things to be, and then move towards that goal state. It seem to be strongly reinforcing to have our external experience match our internal pictures. But when we resist, we’re trying to hack this system. Like closing our eyes to prevent someone from seeing us.

Or trying to ignore and silence disturbing thoughts because that better fits our mental picture of health and happiness.

Pretending not to be angry because I don’t know what to do with anger. Slumping and having bad posture to dampen my feelings.

All that stuff feels bad, and I would call it resistance.

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.

Why Don’t We Empathize First?

Last week, I advised empathizing before advising. To attempt to remedy my hypocrisy, I will now empathize with the desire not to empathize. Because there really are a bunch of good and legitimate reasons we try other tacks. I’ll say some reasons I don’t empathize, so I’m not speculating too much about general motivations, but I think my reasons are common ones.

A big reason I don’t empathize is that when I perceive what seems like an obvious gap in someone’s thinking, or thing they could do to fix their situation, I get excited! I really do want other people to be happy and like helping them, and often I feel impatient about getting right to the heart of things. Plus, people are often asking for non-empathy things, such as advice. 

A related thing is that a big part of me likes conversations to be fast-paced. This goes along with being impatient, but it’s not the same thing. I like the energy and positive affect that comes from getting ideas out there quickly. I like conversations where everyone is interrupting everyone. Not everyone does, and I try to reign in this tendency of mine depending on context.

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Where I’ve Been, and a Brief Taxonomy of Bad Patterns

I didn’t post yesterday because I was traveling all day. I got up extremely early and took Lydia on a cab to SFO for a flight to JFK, then took another flight to Portland, ME, then another cab, then a ferry. Add in time being pushed three hours ahead, and that’s the day. I also didn’t have my computer last Wednesday-Sunday because we were at Ephemerisle, which we got home from late, with just barely enough time to nap and pack. The weekend before that, we went to Napa for my cousin’s wedding, and before that we were at the EA Summit…

Never being at home is pretty bad for getting writing done. But hanging out with interesting people all the time is good for generating ideas. I’ll sketch out at least one idea today and will state that it is my vague intention to get more writing done on this trip than I do in an average week.

There are many, many ways to divide up and classify destructive emotional patterns, but I’ll share one that occurred to me.

Some bad emotional patterns are, at their heart, crappy strategies. They’re likely outdated and originally formed by a less-resourced self, but I wouldn’t say they’re a result of trauma. The other month, I noticed that I was resisting changing my emotional state in the thick of discussions with Will because I wanted him to practice the skill of being the one to change the emotional tone.

It wasn’t working. Once I put my finger on what I was doing…I just asked Will to get better at that. And that seems to have worked pretty well. Much better than the other thing, anyway. I would call that one a bad strategy. There was no huge underlying childhood emotional pain to be processed. And I knew how to do something better, once I unraveled my reasons for not doing so. I’m actually pretty good at changing my state on command when my whole brain is on board with it.

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What Is Submission?

This weekend, I had a good conversation with a good friend of mine about the meaning of submission. I ended up clarifying my thoughts on the concept quite a bit, in a way that I expect to be useful, despite being pretty abstract and meta.

As long as I can remember, I’ve had pretty negative affect around the concept of submission. In my mind, submission has traditionally been mixed up with fear and shame. I associate it with an authority figure trying to intimidate me and get me to behave a certain way even though it goes against my own intuition about what to do. To submit would be to decide that the other person is scary enough that it would be worth it on my part to lose some status and take action that may not be in my best interest.

I knew that when people would talk about submission or surrender in the context of (among other things) Buddhist philosophy, they were talking something a little different, but I’d never sat down and unpacked what exactly I thought they meant.

My new framing of submission is simply that it happens when a process decides to turn a certain part of its job over to a different process. It’s not all or nothing, and it happens all the time. By this definition, I’m submitting to the timer on my phone when I decided to stop tracking when I put the scones in the over and wait to hear the beep.

Will and I have been talking about the letting go of control. My new best understanding is that it’s nearly impossible to do voluntarily unless I truly believe that something else can handle the task to my satisfaction. Of course we’re sometimes wrong about which process is most effective at handling one job or the other. A common failure mode is to assume that only the verbal loop can be trusted with some task or the other. I’d say that I currently alieve that isn’t safe to experience anger without my verbal loop holding the reins, so to speak. On the other hand, I accept that subconscious processes do fine to figure out when to breathe or not.

Given that we’re often miscalibrated about what we need to “have control over” (which I think usually means inhibit behavior until the verbal loop gives an explicit okay), we can sometimes gain wisdom by forcing the loss of control and seeing what happens. Useful, but that approach has its limits.

For this week, I will meditate on the areas where I feel I am leaving “control” in the hands of a too-narrow mental process and what it would take to trust whatever I think should actually be running the show. And what is actually running the show now. It’s very common for this tight control to be more of an illusion than a reality. Maybe the verbal loop is preventing me from talking much when I’m angry, but the more relevant factor is that my emotions are evident in my body language.

It helps for me to remember my Hayekian heuristics about the failure modes of central planning. The more I can keep things distributed and let whatever has the most information act, the better the system will work.

Feelings and Needs

I’m a huge fan of Nonviolent Communication. I think I forget how much studying it has changed my life, because I take a lot of its lessons mostly for granted these days. I’m pretty good at empathizing, both with myself and others. I’m much better than I used to be at expressing what’s going on with me without mixing in too much narrative (something I was pretty good at even before reading that book).

But I see the NVC basics as a core practice that it serves me well to return to from time to time. A few years back, I memorized literally hundreds of flashcards about NVC. I used lots of lists and sentences from the book, and I also memorized the huge lists of feelings (which I cobbled together into categories myself) and needs from the book.

I remember thinking at the time that I had a very limited emotional vocabulary. I often thought of my emotional state as being either good or upset, though I knew intellectually that nuances existed. I usually had no idea when I was angry. So, I decided to memorize a bunch of words for how I might be feeling, so I could mentally consult an extensive list. And I think I was even less aware of the unmet needs that my feelings might be coming from.

It still kind of surprises me how dramatically I feel a release of tension once I can pinpoint what’s really been bothering me and why.

I think the memorizing worked. I can’t still recite all the feeling and needs in order, which I think I could have actually done once upon a time, but it got internalized, at least a bunch of it did. They stuck around in my brain and sunk in until I found myself using the words in my thoughts and conversations. I recommend trying it, whiling keeping in mind that actually being able to pull them up from memory isn’t quite the point.

I’ve updated my feelings and needs deck (all taken from here), and you can download the deck.

Play around with it. Try some fill in the blanks where you say “I am feeling ____ because my need for ____ is not being met.” Or, “I am feeling ____ because my need for ____ is being met.”

The topic of Anki and self-improvement has been on my mind lately, so expect more posts on the subject in the coming weeks.