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Selfishness - Omnia mutantur, nihil interit.
October 11th, 2004
05:54 pm
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Selfishness

I used to do favors for people pretty much immediately when asked, as long as they wouldn't represent a major inconvenience to me. I have two theories as to why. The first is that I felt like I existed in the context of a social group which did favors for one another, and that I expected that if I abided by the rules of that social group, I could be a part of a mutually reinforcing structure. The second, more cynical theory is that I did favors for those I perceived as eligible females because I was desperate for sex, and did favors for others out of symmetry. Both probably played a part, but I like to think that at least the symmetry argument is less plausible than the mutual-reinforcement one.

Lately, though, I've become more and more “selfish” in the sense in which I think most people use the term. That is, my concern for myself has become more narrow. When asked to do a favor, I usually reply right off with “What's in it for me?” and generally end up refusing. This is (I theorize) because I've come to see other people as aiming to suck me dry, to take my resources and leave me out to dry rather than help me develop as a positive participant.

Friday evening I went over to Henry's place to watch Citizen Ruth (a very funny movie regarding abortion). After that we went over to the Embassy to watch the debates from TiVo. We waited for KT and John-Eric to get back, and in the meantime all the role-players—everyone there except me—talked about that and computer games (which I also don't play) while I sat there staring. Eventually KT got back and we talked about philosophy, which was much better. John-Eric didn't seem like he was getting back, so around 23 we gave up and watched the debates.

I had a couple of beers while the debates went on. I thought Bush was a lot stronger this time than the first; in my opinion he actually won the debate, though I don't think the polls agreed with me. Afterwards most people quickly dispersed, but I stayed around and talked for a while. (Sorry, I'm about to get to the point…)

KT asked if I could drop her off at a bar where John-Eric was, in Oakland. Now, I don't really consider dropping someone off on the way to somewhere I'm going anyway to be a favor at all, just part of being a decent citizen. But Oakland wasn't on the way back. It was a small cost I was being asked to bear, but it was a situation in which if asked “What's in it for you?” I would have no concrete answer to give—exactly the kind of request that I've been refusing lately. So I was a little surprised at my immediate emotional reaction—“Yes”—although I had no compunctions about acting on it.

Now that I sit here analyzing this, I realize that there is a fundamental value divide for me between people who I believe want me to grow as a person and those who just want to take what they can from me. I realize that there are people who fall into the former category, contrary to any exaggerated cynical attitudes I might have—my parents, my good friends, certain trusted mentors. And I realize that people in the latter category strike me as fundamentally worthless and without value as human beings. That sounds strong, but the truth is that at most I feel a negative obligation to leave such people alone, and sometimes a desire to simply take what they have, whether out of payback or greed, but no positive reason to care about their well-being at all.

I guess this is long enough I should probably post it as its own entry, although I have some more interesting (and significant) stuff I still need to write about.

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From:katieboyd
Date:October 11th, 2004 04:32 pm (UTC)
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By the way, I do really appreciate the ride. I owe you one. And you shouldn't hesitate to ask me to reciprocate the favor.
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From:kenoubi
Date:October 11th, 2004 08:58 pm (UTC)
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Ssh, you're hurting my point. :-) (That being that certain generous actions might be rational even if they aren't motivated by the expectation of some particular reciprocation.)

Hey, I drank a couple of your beers within the 2 hours before that, right? Don't worry about it. I do think ledgers have their place, but sometimes I prefer not having to keep score.
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From:katieboyd
Date:October 11th, 2004 11:10 pm (UTC)
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Oops. Sorry. Nope. No score. You're right. I just like to make sure I show appreciation to those who do me favors.
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From:papertygre
Date:October 12th, 2004 05:36 am (UTC)

Showin' off my philosophy chops

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So, Hume's rebuttal of Hobbes's idea of human nature is that people obviously don't act in ways that are motivated by material self-interest. (Hume argues that there is a kind of "natural benevolence," whereas Hobbes thinks that left to their own devices, humans would devolve into a nasty and brutish existence.) But, don't humans have needs and kinds of self-interest that aren't only material - that are, say, psychological?

Is that the kind of point you are trying to make here?
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From:kenoubi
Date:October 12th, 2004 06:00 am (UTC)

Re: Showin' off my philosophy chops

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No, that's true, but orthogonal to what I was trying to say, which is more like the distinction between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Now, strictly speaking I think that you can either treat act-utilitarianism as a special case of rule-utilitarianism (with the only rule being “Do what produces the most benefit”) or rule-utilitarianism as a special case of act-utilitarianism (in which one of the actions is the formation of a rule). However, in pragmatic terms, it makes a difference which schema one uses to describe his values.

The specific desire to have a relationship in which one doesn't keep a ledger of who owes whom interacts with this in an interesting way—it actively interferes with the implementation of what most would think of as act-utilitarianism. (How can one assess whether a particular act benefits one if one isn't keeping score?)

(Also, as is probably obvious, I'm talking about egocentric utilitarianism here. Altruistic utilitarianism is more common in the literature, but I don't find it very interesting. The calculi are pretty much the same other than the whole “intersubjective incomparability of values” issue with altruistic utilitarianism.)
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From:damion
Date:October 11th, 2004 05:02 pm (UTC)
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The only odd thing I see in the approach is that I don't see why you need to ask. In most cases it's pretty clear what's in it for me when people ask me to do something, and if the costs outweigh the apparent benefits, there's no problem with refusing. It's then their job to justify to me why I should go out of my way, rather than creating a situation where I'm essentially demanding something. I've found that people often have a very negative emotional reaction to that sort of thing, which is hardly ever something I want to invoke.
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From:kenoubi
Date:October 11th, 2004 09:05 pm (UTC)
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Well, I tend to assume that if someone is asking me to do something, presumably they place a certain value on having me do that thing. Sometimes the value calculus is already clear to me (whether it weighs towards or against doing the favor), but when it isn't, it seems only fair to offer them the option to sweeten the deal as much as they're willing to bear and see if that makes it worth doing to me. I realize that this is based on an unrealistic assumption that people are rational and won't take offense to my selfishness, but I guess I rebel against this when I perceive them as being selfish too, or at least as not having any interest in my well-being.

Also, I've often been kind of a pushover (or at least, that's how I now view it) and the factors that made me act that way haven't all changed, so asking “What's in it for me?” gives me a way to bow out that feels more elegant to me (although again, other people don't see it this way) than just flat-out saying “no”. Having a better way to bow out means I'm more likely to actually use it instead of get flustered and end up giving away more than I should.
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From:papertygre
Date:October 11th, 2004 08:44 pm (UTC)

Not antagonistically motivated, just curious

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I have a bit of a hard time understanding your stark division. Is it not possible for some people to exist in a gray area of indifference, not wanting to do you harm even if they don't specifically wish you well? Also, how does someone demonstrate to you that they value you as a person whom they want to grow - how long does it take, when do you become convinced?

It seems to me like a danger that you might alienate someone who would have potentially been a member of the first category, by assuming the worst of them before they get a chance to learn that you're someone they want to get to know.
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From:kenoubi
Date:October 11th, 2004 08:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Not antagonistically motivated, just curious

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Is it not possible for some people to exist in a gray area of indifference, not wanting to do you harm even if they don't specifically wish you well?

Most people exist in a grey area of indifference. There are times when I actively want someone else to suffer, but they're rare and usually even when they do occur only last for a few hours, or a few days at most.

Also, how does someone demonstrate to you that they value you as a person whom they want to grow - how long does it take, when do you become convinced?

It seems to happen quite quickly (within the first 10 times I interact with someone, and often the first 2 or 3) when it happens at all, and the judgment is close to irrevocable.

It seems to me like a danger that you might alienate someone who would have potentially been a member of the first category, by assuming the worst of them before they get a chance to learn that you're someone they want to get to know.

I think you misunderstood me. I wasn't saying that I think this is a good strategy, just that this is the way it seems to be. I don't have control over my emotional reactions (and mistakenly thinking I do has caused huge problems for me).

From:ixiel
Date:October 12th, 2004 01:08 pm (UTC)

Perfectionism

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Of course he will. I'd wager almost everybody "alienate[s] someone who would have potentially [want[ed one] to grow as a person]" all the time, and that the only way to not do this would also admit many malevolent people in the process of setting so low a standard. The closest analog I see to this argument is what I hear from pro-lifers all the time, that when any given fetus becomes a person, it could be the next (figure of worship here). Where one draws the line between how much one wants the good and how much one wants to avoid the evil is just a matter of taste. Just my $.02.
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From:papertygre
Date:October 12th, 2004 02:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Perfectionism

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FYI, I only found out about this answer because Kenn forwarded me his email notification. The way LJ notifies posters, you get an email about ANY comment on a post if you are the author of the post, but if you are commenting in someone else's journal, you ONLY get email when someone else replies directly to your comment (so only Kenn got notification about your comment above)

Enough meta; response: You're right. And arguably, defending oneself against the malicious is a more important goal than catching every last potentially valuable person who brushes up against your sphere. It all depends on how malicious you perceive people as likely to be. :)

I agree that the pro-lifer argument is without substance. The main problem I see with it, though, is that it's universal - people using that argument claim that it's a justification for controlling others' behavior - whereas I'm thinking more of an individual's assignment of value. The value Kenn derives out of knowing and exchanging with other people may not be the same amount of value that I get out of it. Or, more to the point, he may not value variety of such experience as much as someone like I would.

Hence, it seems to me, the two together => different standards.
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From:kenoubi
Date:October 12th, 2004 05:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Perfectionism

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It all depends on how malicious you perceive people as likely to be.

I think actual malice is quite rare, restricted to psychopaths, cases where someone has the impression he has been deliberately harmed by another and seeks revenge, and a few other limited cases. Apathy combined with selfishness (thus, the desire to suck one dry), on the other hand, I find very common.

The value Kenn derives out of knowing and exchanging with other people may not be the same amount of value that I get out of it. Or, more to the point, he may not value variety of such experience as much as someone like I would.

It's amusing to me that I still can't take statements of this form without feeling slightly insulted. :-)

Seriously, though, I'm not sure that's it either. I do value variety of experience with people, but I don't see any need to value as people all those with whom I interact. In fact, I don't really see all that much cognitive dissonance in interacting with the same person day after day while knowing that if they died I wouldn't care emotionally at all. From statements you've made in the past, it seems like you'd probably find that view crazy, but that's how it seems to me.

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From:papertygre
Date:October 12th, 2004 07:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Perfectionism

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Sorry, didn't mean to make you feel insulted...

although, I just realized something, and I don't know how you're going to take this. But I thought the "sucking one dry" thing was odd, and I thought the only reason it seemed odd was because I don't remember your talking about it when we were dating even though we discussed social insecurities, but actually, I think now the reason it struck me as odd was because "sucking me dry" was exactly how I described the way you made me feel. And now to hear you talk about it as one of your issues seems exactly backwards. What if through some bizare psychological twist, what we fear from others is exactly what we tend to do to them ourselves?
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